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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Border Agency slammed over criminals

Sky News 
A UK Border Agency worker (library photo)
The UK Border Agency has been criticised by MPs over its failure to deport foreign criminals.
A report from the Home Affairs Select Committee found that 520 foreign prisoners, released between 2010 and 2011, have been allowed to remain in the country.
It also found that six years after 1,013 foreign nationals were released from prison without being considered for deportation, only 397 have been removed or deported.
"Six years is far too long for this situation to be resolved and these cases should have been concluded long ago," the committee said.
Almost 20,000 asylum cases also remain unresolved and some 120,000 immigration cases are being written off because the applicant can no longer be found, it added.
The committee also questioned why some 700,000 migrants were applying for multiple visas every year.
MPs asked whether an applicant could have "legitimate reasons for applying for three or more visas" and called for the agency to look into imposing a limit.
The agency's refusal to recognise the term "bogus college" and the fact it gives advance warning of half of its college inspections was also criticised.
All inspections of colleges sponsoring foreign students under tier four of the visa system should be unannounced in future, the committee said.
It also stressed that the mothballing of £9.1m Iris scanners at airports after just five years "should not be repeated".
Any data collected on e-Gates trials should be published to ensure it does not "suffer the same costly investment in equipment which will not last", the report said.
Keith Vaz, the committee's chairman, said: "The reputation of the Home Office, and by extension, the UK Government, is being tarnished by the inability of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to fulfil its basic functions.
"The foreign national prisoner issue and the asylum backlog were scandals which first broke in 2006, six years ago.
"UKBA appears unable to focus on its key task of tracking and removing illegal immigrants, overstayers or bogus students from the country."
Immigration Minister Damian Green, speaking to Sky News, admitted the UKBA was "far from perfect".
"We have been making it better in the two years since we have been in government. Some parts are getting better faster than others," he said.
"We inherited a chaotic legacy and inevitably it is going to take a few years for the worst parts of it to get up to speed."
He insisted it would not take four years to clear the backlog but refused to put a deadline on when it would be dealt with.
"I absolutely share the frustration of it taking so long. We now start deportation proceedings 18 months before the end of the prison sentence and that is starting to improve the situation," he said.
"We are blasting away on all these fronts and in the next few weeks we will be announcing changes in immigration laws to make it much more difficult for people to abuse the human rights act to ensure that they can stay in this country when frankly we all want to seem them deported."

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

10 best cinemas in Britain

We all love a good film, even more so when the cinema itself is state of the art comfort. From waiter service, to large leather sofas, eating cupcakes, raisins, and drinking beer or wine. Everyone likes to experience something different - a cinema that feels like home.
I have travelled through Britain and have stopped at some of the best cinema's to enjoy a truly memorable experience. Follow me on my journey and experience a cinematic adventure to remember.

1. The Tyneside, 10 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, NE1 6QG
Scour the modern streets of Newcastle Upon Tyne, united by seven bridges across a spectacular river-scape, Newcastle forms a single, diverse and extremely vibrant visitor destination. Here I came across The Tyneside Cinema. Before hand I heard people talk about how it's a surreal feeling, almost feels like you're in the comfort of your front room, so I thought why not check it out. Tyneside has four large rooms: The Classic, The Electra, The Roxy and The Digital Lounge. Classic room is where I watched Love Actually, still a favourite of mine. The screen was of a large size, not like something you'd find at a Vue Cinema, it was much more swanky, I felt I was at a film premier. Exclusive handmade seats, provided with nibbles and a glass of wine for each paid guest. For food and drink, there is one bar and two cafes to choose from. I liked Tyneside because of the large seats, the selection of food and drink and the staff were really friendly, and upbeat.
2. The Electric Cinema, 47-49 Station Street, Birmingham B5 4DY 0121 643 7879
One of the oldest working cinemas in the UK: The Electric Cinema, Birmingham. It used to be a sound recording facility, and also home for film buffs. It opened in 1909 and the first movie to be shown was a silent film on 27 December with piano backings, they were mostly American and mostly short, just one or two reels in length. It had a transformation and now like any state of the art cinema, it is equipped with sofas, a bar and waiter service. The Electric sells pretty much all types of food and drink, but popcorn, they said 'it makes the cinema smell of 'burnt vegetable oil' I was lucky enough to sit on the big sofa, I watched Insidious, it was so good to be able to relax, put my feet up and enjoy. If at any point I ran out of food or drink, I could easily text the bar my order, how cool is that! No need to run over and queue up to get a drink in a plastic cup. With a fully licensed bar the choices were at my fingertips. Also on offer is the beautifully hand-made ice cream by Just Rachel, I opted for Strawberry Champagne, the burst of flavour exploded into my mouth, imagine you are drinking champers with strawberry, but licking the back of a spoon instead - that's how good it is. The staff were really helpful when it came to choosing a film, and oh nachos are no longer, its tortilla - a much posher, nicer take on the average cinema snack.
3. Ritzy Picturehouse, Brixton Oval, Coldharbour Lane, London, SW2 1JG 0871 902 5739

Ritzy glitzy?... The Ritzy Picturehous (Credit: PA)
Situated smack bang in the centre of South London, Brixton has become a go-to haunt for foodies, clubbers, artists and rockers alike. This cultural mecca is filled with a sense of community, which is evident for anyone who has shopped in Brixton Village or enjoyed a drink with local residents outside the Ritzy cinema. The Ritzy is an independent venue owned by Picturehouse Cinemas. The building was designed as the Electric Pavilion in 1910 by E.C Homer and Lucas, one of England's first purpose-built cinemas. The cinema is contemporary with a Grade II listing just like The Electric on Portobello Road. It has four screens, a bar and a cafe. Making it the largest independent specialist cinema in the country. It's not just a cinema, upstairs there is a lovely bar, open 7 days a week, playing host to some of the well-known and well-loved cultural music hub of Brixton. Did I mention they serve the best Ice Cream, take your pick from orange and mascapone, two refreshing sorbets of lemon and mango made by London's own Marine Ices, based in Chalk Farm. Currently showing the latest releases and independent films, why don't you pop down and live a new experience. 
4. Cornerhouse Manchester, 70 Oxford Street, Manchester, M1 5NH 0161 200 1500
For a quarter of a century, Cornerhouse has championed independent art and film in the city, with a cinema and festivals programme that is arguably the best in town. As a result, its slightly cramped galleries, art-house cinemas, bookshop and chichi café-bars are regularly packed out, particularly in the evenings and at weekends - a situation that should be alleviated by its move, in 2014, to a purpose-built new home just up the road. Located on Oxford Road, Cornerhouse houses three floors of contemporary art galleries, three screens showing the best independent films, a bar, cafe and bookshop, what more could you ask for! I visited last year, initially I just wanted to eat somewhere but then once I explored the art galleries, I was impressed. I've not seen a connection between art and films like I experienced at Cornerhouse, the film which was showing, also had artwork related to it. The food alone is mouth-watering, why not go early and have a bite to eat, the menu is so vast you will be spoilt for choice. I went straight for the mains of Lamb Burger with tomato and chilli jam and a bowl of chips, lined my stomach quite perfectly. [Manchester to Heathrow taxi Transport]
5. Somerset House, Strand London, WC2R 1LA 0207 845 4600

Sunny-set House... Somerset House (Credit: PA)
Watching a film in spring or summer is always a pleasure, especially when its an open outdoor theatre. What a better way to spend the evenings, meeting new like minded people who share the same love for film as you do. Every year Somerset House: The Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court pays homage to a twelve day series to brilliant films, shown on their big screen with complete surround sound, sponsored by Film4 and American Express. All genres from cult action thrillers, to romantic comedies and film classics are on top of the list. Look out for the listings this year on their website. A mesmerising experience you will never forget, and you will keep going back every year.
6. Everyman Cinema, 5 Holly Bush Vale, Hampstead, London, NW3 6TX
The first time I came across Everyman Theatre was in Hampstead. My friend kept telling me about this place but I never seemed to listen, till last year I actually went to see what the fuss was all about. Am I glad I did? Hell yeah! To some it may be the same ole cinema, although it is similar to The Electric in Birmingham, but hey Everyman is in London itself. There are 4 venues available, but Belsize Park and Hampstead are my favourite. These two venues offer the best cinema food, choose from a range of quiches, or indulge in some fancy Mediterranean finger foods like sundried tomatoes, or mild chilli peppers stuffed with feta cheese. If you have a sweet tooth why not order a tub of chocolate-covered orange peel, white chocolate raspberries and if you are a fan of Edamame, why not try their latest invention: chocolate covered Edamame. Fine dining in a cinema, who would've thought of it? A good day to go is a Sunday, instead of lazing at home, laze-in at the Everyman.
7. BFI IMAX, 1 Charlie Chaplin Walk, South Bank, Waterloo, London, SE1 8XR

Towering... BFI Waterloo (Credit: REX)
Are you a fan of 3D films? Do you like the surreal reality jumping right in front of your eyes, creating your own fantasy. I first went to the BFI IMAX to watch Avatar. London's biggest screen mixes made for IMAX fare and scenery-heavy documentaries with mainstream blockbusters. Avatar was presented on a 75-ft screen, I could literally touch the flying objects, made me jump a bit. The thrill and excitement was beyond what I had felt before. 3D films are superb specially when the graphics are equally super-bad. If you are looking for the ultimate 3D experience, the IMAX is the only cinema that will provide it. Yes tickets are slightly expensive, but its worth paying that extra pound to live a special experience, the highest quality of picture and sound.
8. Apollo Cinemas, 19 Lower Regent Street, London, SW1Y 4LR
Situated in the hustle & bustle of Piccadilly Circus, Apollo West End is a five-screen venue which is big on comfort and style and has plenty of indie cred. The Apollo is built on the site of the old Plaza Cinema, which opened in 1926. The Apollo has big, cushy reclining armchairs, as well as the important in house bar. Hollywood blockbusters are shown here alongside independent films, and the cinema hosts festivals throughout the year. I came to watch Pirates of the Caribbean, I was amazed to see the reclining armchairs, and in red too, my favourite colour. The fully stocked bar is at your fingertips, buzz the waiter to your seat and he will happily take your order. Not your conventional take on food, no popcorn but olives instead, foreign beer and your favourite wine. Take a sip, sit back, relax and enjoy the film.
9. Phoenix Cinema, 52 High Road, East Finchely, London N2 9PJ

Special... Phoenix Cinema (Credit: REX)
In East Finchely lays the oldest purpose-built, continuously working cinema, Phoenix. The history of film has been shared with millions of audience members, from silent films with live music and the digital projection of today. Phoenix has undergone many changes and refurbishments to bring it up-to-date for today's audience. The cinema is run by the local community as its part of a charitable trust. The cinema has a cafe serving home cooked meals, snacks and cakes, and a pre-film menu, a nice stop to enjoy a glass of wine with friends or eat something before the film. Free Wi-Fi is available for all paying customers. Currently showing: In Darkness, The Maid (La Nana) and The Kid With a Bike.
10. The Lexi Cinema, 194b Chamberlayne Road, Kensal Rise, London, NW10 3JU 0871 704 2069
I really love this little place, its a cinema where all profits are donated to charity and the staff are local passionate volunteers. Situated in a little corner of North West London, The Lexi Cinema is making a difference to the quality of life for a very different community on the other side of the world. What a better way to see your money making a difference to the families at Lynedoch Village in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Current films showing: A Separation, The Woman in the Fifth, The Artist, and Rampart. Get yourselves down there and make a difference.

Monday, 2 April 2012

8 new apps for finding the perfect hotel

 By Sean O'Neill
 If you book hotels online, it's time to face facts: Your favorite travel website probably isn't cutting it. In the past decade, some of the best-known travel sites have lost their fastball. They're not as smart and nimble as the new kids on the Web that now have tools for smarter comparison shopping, searches for smaller B&Bs and niche neighborhoods, and access to blocks of rooms reserved for its members.

Before you try these, one word of caution: No single site is the be-all-and-end-of-all of hotel booking. We recommend using at least two search tools, such as your current favorite online travel agency and one of the hotel shopping engines we've named here, to max out your chances of nabbing the perfect room or upgrade. Happy shopping!
Best for: Travelers who like the idea of hotel owners competing for their business.
What it does: Hoteliers often hold back a handful of rooms to sell to last-minute guests, but they don't always fill them. You can book one of these rooms as they're released by logging on to BackBid, which enables hotels to sell rooms to travelers who already have confirmed bookings at rival properties.
How it works: Book a refundable reservation at a hotel through your favorite website, and then create a free account at BackBid. Forward the email with your confirmed hotel reservation to the site, and it will shoot your reservation details — minus your credit card information — to dozens of hotels at your destination. BackBid will then share with you any counter-offers rival hotels may make, such as a comparable room at a lower rate.
Recent steal: In a test, an editor forwarded to BackBid a confirmation email for his $199 a night reservation at the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Seattle. A day later, bids poured in from 17 Seattle hotels, which included a pitch from the Hilton Seattle, only 1.5 miles away and with better amenities, for a comparable room with a king size bed for $179 a night rate. All things considered, it's a reasonable inconvenience for a 10 percent or better savings.
Snags: Launched in November 2011, the site remains limited to a few hundred properties in 20 major U.S. cities.
Best for: Travelers who want an independent source to vouch for the honesty of vacation package prices.
What it does: Many hotels tout packages that include perks, such as valet parking and a spa treatment, claiming that the package prices represent deep discounts over buying the components separately. DealBase vets each package for its true value.
How it works: Use DealBase to pick a hotel package at your destination, then click on the listing for a breakdown of the estimated costs of the package's components. (The site even publishes a list of the "worst" hotel deals.)
Recent steal: In California, the Ventura Beach Marriott recently showcased a "Ventura Shopping Package" that came with a $50 Visa gift card, breakfast for two at the property's restaurant, valet parking and a welcome gift, bookable any day of the week through 2012. DealBase highlighted the package, which it discovered on the hotel's site, and calculated that travelers could save a third off by booking the package instead of its parts one by one. DealBase showed how it did its math, noting the costs of the valet parking ($15), the breakfast ($60), and the welcome gift (containing a city map, some gourmet candy, and bottles of water) at $30. The site said the overall package represented a 36 percent discount off it's à la carte value.
Snags: DealBase includes sponsored listings and identifies them as such. Readers have to take on faith that the site reviews all packages impartially, including ones it has been paid to mention.
Best for: Travelers who prefer staying at independently owned properties.
What it does: Founded this year, HotelSweep lists more than 50,000 U.S. hotels, motels, B&Bs and guesthouses, scraping listings off countless websites. (A British version, hotelsweep.co.uk, does the same thing for lodging in the United Kingdom.) One of the perks of the site is that it lists mom-and-pop properties — places that generally aim to attract budget-conscious travelers, but are too small to afford the costs of being listed with multinational travel agencies.
How it works: Punch your destination into HotelSweep's "direct hotel search" tool, and the site will fetch a quick list of properties, which you can sort by nightly rate or distance from a particular location. A Google Street View image of the property is provided, but it's up to you to take the next step and contact the managers and book a room. If that is too much work, HotelSweep also has a "live price comparison" tool, which is a standard booking engine powered by HotelsCombined, an Australian rival to Kayak, though it doesn't include all of the mom-and-pop listings that turn up in the "direct hotel search" tool.
Recent steal: In a hunt for New York City lodging, HotelSweep's "direct hotel search" tool dug up more than a thousand properties. The cheapest listing was Hostelling International, a property with rates from $29 a night per person. Surprisingly, the hostel has earned decent user ratings and reviews with TripAdvisor and a review from Lonely Planet, even though Expedia hadn't heard of it.
Snags: HotelSweep isn't vetting properties. It simply lists any place that has a Web presence. So, it puts you in hardcore "buyer beware" territory. Also, the live comparison tool doesn't include all the properties in the hotel search tool, so you might have to work harder to make a booking.
Best for: Culture vultures and nightlife fans who want to stay in the buzziest neighborhoods.
What it does: Previously a metasearch site for airfare, Hipmunk last year added hotels to its repertoire. One of its signature tricks is to allow a traveler to name his or her favorite interest, such as nightlife, shopping and museum-hopping, and the site will filter its listings to only display hotels in neighborhoods with an especially high number of relevant venues, such as bars, boutiques and museums.
How it works: Run a search for a hotel like you would on any travel site, and Hipmunk retrieves real-time rates from booking sites, such as Orbitz, Getaroom, Hotels.com, HotelsCombined and vacationrental platform Airbnb. Hipmunk also assigns an "ecstasy" rating to each hotel, based on an evaluation of the property's rates, amenities and user reviews on TripAdvisor.
Recent steal: A recent search for hotels in L.A. turned up dozens of hotels that Hipmunk gave high "ecstasy" scores. A click on a button labeled "nightlife" revealed a map with a downtown district near Pershing Square that has a dense concentration of clubs and bars. Clicking on the neighborhood on the map revealed a few properties with a high "ecstasy" rating, including the Miyako Hotel for $116 a night.
Snags: The site is primarily map-driven, and people who find maps confusing might find Hipmunk equally off-putting.
Best for: Travelers booking hotels overseas who have been disappointed by the selection on U.S.-based travel agencies.
What it does: In 2010, Momondo, moved beyond being a flight metasearch engine and now lists hotels from major overseas hotel booking sites, such as Escapio and Hotelopia, which tend to be overlooked by U.S.-based travel sites like Expedia. It also includes an option to search for hostels.
How it works: Like Kayak, you enter your search query, and the site draws up a list of rates from various online travel agencies and hotel sites.
Recent steal: In a search this winter for hotels in Zurich, Momondo uncovered 185 hotels (and about 330 other types of lodging, such as hostels), compared with 133 hotels on Booking.com and 125 on Orbitz. Momondo put at the top of its search results properties with the most central locations, highest star ratings, lowest prices and best user reviews. Its top pick: Hotel Rothaus, on Langstrasse in the city's entertainment district, with room rates from $104. Booking.com had the hotel buried in its search results for $140 a night on the same dates, and Orbitz had it for $139.
Snags: Compared with American giants, such as Hotels.com and Priceline.com, Momondo wasn't great at finding hotels in the United States.
Best for: Travelers whose priority is a room with the most amenities.
What it does: Room 77 is unique in researching room-by-room amenities and floor plans for hundreds of three- to five-star hotels in about 30 North American, European and Asian cities. It then facilitates booking a particular type of room.
How it works: Room 77 works like a typical hotel search engine, only it goes into much greater detail about the amenities available in individual rooms at hotels, such as what the view might be from any given window. Guests who book directly through Room 77 can take advantage of its free "room concierge" feature, in which it contacts hotel managers on a guest's behalf to request a room matching his or her preferences, such as "connecting rooms" and "distance from elevators." There are no guarantees, but the site claims that its customers have a high satisfaction rate with its concierge service.
Recent steal: A recent search on Room 77 for a hotel stay in Seattle turned up a list of properties, matched with their rates. One listing was for Courtyard Seattle Downtown Pioneer Square, and Room 77 included specific booking tips, such as the fact that rooms with numbers ending in 3 (i.e., 1003) above the tenth floor are among the most spacious and have some of the prettiest views. Room 77 also reveals blueprints of rooms, overlaid on a Google map. Clicking on the silhouette of room 1105 at the Courtyard Seattle Downtown Pioneer Square, for instance, reveals that it is 28 feet from the elevator, has 300 square feet of space and a view of Puget Sound. Room 77 lists current rates through multiple websites, such as Expedia and Booking.com, including taxes and fees.
Snags: The site only lists specific details for about 5,000 properties, most of which are from major U.S. chains. Room 77's room descriptions are also fairly generic and positive. For truly warts-and-all insights like "room smells of blow dryer and dead mouse," turn to TripAdvisor user-reviews.
Best for: Travelers who prefer the consistency and quality control of U.S.-owned chain hotels, and don't want to be distracted with information about other places.
What it does: Seven hotel chains — Best Western, Choice Hotels (Comfort Inn, Quality Inn), Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental (Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo), Marriott and Wyndham (Howard Johnson, Ramada, Days Inn, Super 8) — are listing their rooms together in a new search engine. Unlike major online travel agencies like Expedia and Priceline, Room Key limits its selection to chains, eliminating most of the uncertainty about what kind of hotel you might end up with.
How it works: Punch in your destination and travel dates and the site brings up a list of relevant hotels, which you can winnow using the standard tools, such as distance, price and star rating. When you decide to book, you're sent directly to a hotel-owned website, where you'll need to enter your credit card number to book the room. Booking directly with the hotel cuts out the middleman and earns you customer loyalty points.
Recent steal: In a recent search, the Hilton Atlanta turned up for $179 a night on Room Key, compared with $219 on Expedia, for the same dates and type of room.
Snags: Only about 27,000 hotels — with limited international choices — are currently listed, compared with the more than 100,000 posted on the major online travel agencies.
Best for: Travelers looking mostly for American business-type hotels.
What it does: Finds the cheapest rooms at major-brand hotels located at America's largest airports and financial districts — and nearly nowhere else.
How it works: This consolidator has access to rooms at a volume discount with major brands like Hyatt and Marriott at most major U.S. airports (especially Chicago, Denver, L.A., Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.). By only allowing members to see deals, the site is able to offer rates much lower than major chains and websites with lowest-price guarantees offered to the general public.
Recent steal: A recent search on YourRoomKey for a room near Chicago's O'Hare Airport on less than a week's notice turned up a room at the Holiday Inn with a queen-size bed, free Internet and a free airport shuttle ride, for $52 a night. A comparable room at the same hotel on the same date went for $97 on Kayak and $109 on Travelocity.
Snags: You have to create an account with the site to be able to see any of its listings. Membership is free, but it can take a day or so to activate.