Trading favours

David Miliband has prepared (with the help of Alistair Darling and some big businesses) a manifesto for the development of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) after 2012 (Phase 3). He has circulated it to trade associations and big business (or "British industry", as he likes to call it, forgetting as usual about the majority of smaller businesses), asking them to endorse it. The manifesto and its covering letter are attached.

His attitude to "UK business" is summed up in the following sentence from his covering letter:

"Our initial impression of the level of consensus on EU ETS was confirmed when we met some key industry figures to discuss the manifesto in November."

How can you test a level of consensus by meeting some key industry figures? Isn't the definition of consensus that it includes the many, not just the few? If the few tell you that there is consensus amongst the unconsulted many, are you a wise politician to believe them? Even if it were the view of many, should you do what is wanted by the majority (or even the consensus) amongst a particular interest-group, or what is right without reference to interests? Most of us want taxes to be lower, but his Government seems to care less about the consensus on that subject. How do they decide which consensus to listen to and which to ignore?

It used to be said that "UK business" wanted us to go in to the Euro. Now it is said that "UK business" does not want us to go in to the Euro. What is meant is that the majority of bosses of big City institutions and major corporations used to think that the Euro would be good for their businesses, and now the majority think it would be bad. That is not the same thing as the opinion of UK business (even if the Confederation of Big Industry says it is). The Government's reliance on the self-interested, vacillating, superficial assessments of this "elite" is what makes policy so inconsistent and unprincipled. The attitude to EU-ETS and their alliance to produce this manifesto is just another example.

Policy Announcements, Monday 26 February


  • Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Alistair Darling, has today asked Ofcom to conduct an initial investigation into British Sky Broadcasting Group's acquisition of a 17.9% stake in ITV plc. This means Ofcom must provide advice to him by 27 April on whether the case raises public interest concerns about the number of different owners of media enterprises.  
  • A fundamental overhaul of driver training and testing was confirmed by Road Safety Minister Dr Stephen Ladyman at the RoSPA Road Safety Congress this afternoon. For the first time, new parameters for educating young people about safe driving skills were set out, with a consultation expected later in the year.  
  • The Liberal Democrats raised almost as much cash as Labour in the final three months of last year, according to the latest figures. As Labour struggles to bring its borrowing under control, the party received donations worth £2.6m in the fourth quarter of 2006. That was down on both the £3.2m raised in the previous quarter of 2006 and the £3m raised in the final quarter of 2005. The figures suggest the ongoing cash-for-honours investigation has hit Labour's fundraising efforts, particularly among private donors. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, raised £2.3m, while both parties lagged behind the Conservative Party, which raised almost £5.3m.  
  • Supporters of a fully elected House of Lords have been stepping up their campaign ahead of next week's Commons vote on reform of the second chamber. Those championing the cause were holding a 'rally for a democratic House of Lords' in Parliament. The event was being chaired by Labour MP Chris Bryant with cross-party speakers including former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, Conservative MP John Bercow and Labour's Angela Eagle. MPs will vote next Wednesday on a series of options ranging from abolition of the Lords, retaining the status quo and a 100 per cent elected upper house. They will also get the chance to choose from a variety of hybrid options under which elected members mix with life peers.  

Liberal Democrats  

Understanding the law

Ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law. Enforcement of the law (and therefore social order) breaks down if this simple rule is not upheld. Is there not, then, a moral obligation on our legislators, enforcement-agencies, and judiciary to ensure that the law, its interpretation and its application, is reasonably comprehensible, memorable, consistent and capable of compliance by those to whom it applies? In other words, it is only reasonable to expect people to inform themselves of state-sanctioned standards of behaviour and to behave accordingly, if it is reasonably practical for them to do so.

More rising council taxes (though not if Labour need your vote)

The average council tax bill is set to rise another 3.8% this year - an incredible 90% increase since Labour came to power! And surprise, surprise - the lowest rises are in the 238 districts that face elections in May, weeks before Gordon Brown is expected to take over as Prime Minister. The government is doing its usual trick of going easier on the key voters in the run up to an important election; however it will probably deal them the sucker punch next year to make up for the short fall. It stinks.

The hardest hit are the pensioners, who will face massive increases which will come straight out of their pensions - Gordon's other favourite trick: to give with one hand and then take it all back with the other. And what are we getting for this 90% increase? Considering we will probably be charged extra to have our rubbish removed in the coming months (another example of raising money with the old environment debate as a smoke screen) not a lot. We do have to pay £9bn for that £3bn Olympics we "won", I suppose. Expect to see many pensioners stand up to this in the coming months and be criminalised by the government - there are 90 in Devon alone, apparently, who are willing to go to prison over this. I guess that will mean our council taxes will have to rise further to pay the police and courts then... not that there are any spaces left in our prisons to put them.

Give us all your money and we'll save the planet by chauffeur driven car

If ever proof were needed that this government is using the environment debate as a smoke screen to stealth taxes and pushing through their agenda, then just look at how they are acting in their everyday lives. You would think a government overly concerned with the changing climate would be going out of their way to get the public to buy in to the green debate by acting responsibly themselves. But no. The number of miles Ministers are driving each year has risen sharply. And even more worrying, they are making us pay for their luxury travel.

Review of the Papers, Monday 26 February


  • A leading architect of Tony Blair's health reforms warns in the Guardian today that the NHS will not survive as a universal tax-funded service without a change of policy. Chris Ham, professor of health policy at Birmingham University, said a "fundamental weakness in the design of the reforms" made it impossible for the NHS to deliver the improvements in efficiency that will be needed when growth in its budget slows next year.,,2021407,00.html
  • Hundreds of thousands of people working with children in schools are still not being put through criminal record checks promised by the government in the wake of the Soham murders, the Guardian has learned. Guidance sent to schools and colleges last month explains that existing teachers and other members of staff who work closely with children do not have to be fully vetted, despite claims by ministers that the procedures would be tightened. The government promised to close the loophole last year when Ruth Kelly, then education secretary, told parliament she was ordering schools carry out criminal record checks on all new appointments.,,2021400,00.html 
  • The government was yesterday accused by its own advisers of putting the housing market at risk by"gold plating" regulations designed to cut carbon emissions associated with climate change. The Better Regulation Commission, which advises the government on action to reduce unnecessary regulation, called on Ruth Kelly, the community secretary, to postpone requirements that all houses sold after June 1 have an "energy performance certificate".  
  • Households are facing another inflation-busting rise in council tax this April for the tenth successive year since Labour took office. A Times survey of more than 200 authorities shows that the average bill is set to rise by at least 3.8 per cent to £1,315, up £47 from last year. The figures mean that council tax will have risen by more than 90 per cent since Tony Blair came to power in 1997, with annual bills jumping from £688 to £1,315. The lowest rises are in the 238 districts that face elections in May, weeks before Gordon Brown is expected to take over as Prime Minister.  
  • Plans to bring in road pricing have suffered a triple blow with only a tiny number of voters in favour, a growing Labour revolt against the idea and serious doubts about the technology to be used. Back-bench fears that road pricing could be Labour's poll tax were underlined in the YouGov survey, commissioned by The Daily Telegraph, which showed only nine per cent of voters backing the idea. At the same time it has emerged that the satellite technology needed to track motorists in a pay-as-you-drive scheme can "lose" cars in the middle of cities. The principle of road pricing was regarded as a bad idea by 48 per cent of voters in the poll. Another 40 per cent were undecided. The remainder expressed no view at all.;jsessionid=QDBR4ZX4BAXMBQFIQMFCFFWAVCBQYIV0?xml=/news/2007/02/26/nroads26.xml  
  • The number of miles driven by ministerial drivers has increased sharply, calling into question the government's commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Figures released to the Liberal Democrats also show the number of chauffeurs paid to ferry ministers around has risen sharply over the last five years. According to a Commons written reply the Government Car and Despatch Agency drove 2,394,200 miles in 2004-5 and 2,834,000 in 2005-6. Their wage bill has increased from £5.5 million to £7.3 million over the same period. The total cost of the agency which runs the services was £17.8 million.
  • England's road safety record is one of the best in Europe, but the 3,000 deaths every year cost the economy nearly £8bn, according to a report published today by the Audit Commission. Only the Netherlands and Sweden have a better safety record, with the worst being the Czech Republic, Greece and Poland. But the number of child pedestrian deaths shows England has a poor record. Ten countries have fewer child deaths, and among the worst are Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.,,2021461,00.html  
  • Arts Council England has drawn up secret plans for sharp cuts in funding to theatres, galleries and music venues. If, as expected, the Government this year cuts funding for the arts in real terms, senior Arts Council figures intend to avoid "equality of misery for all" by maintaining the existing level of support for those seen as the most deserving - a policy that can only be sustained through severe cuts elsewhere. National institutions are understood to be as much at risk as smaller bodies. English National Opera, which has announced that it is reducing its workforce by a tenth, is believed to be particularly vulnerable.  


Policy Announcements, Friday 23 February


  • The UK and US have held high level talks on the possibility of putting a "Son of Star Wars" anti-ballistic missile defence system on British soil. An article in The Economist claims Prime Minister Tony Blair has lobbied President George Bush for the system. But government sources have told the BBC that talks are "to keep Britain's options open", not a lobbying effort. The US said it is still more likely to site a missile defence system in eastern Europe than in the UK.
  • The Government announced £54.3m in capital funding to improve in-patient and residential drug and alcohol facilities and access to those services.

What's a Zebra crossing?

Is there anything more insignificant than a local non government department? Of course - it's the nonsense these jobsworths come out with. And the Kent Highway Services are no exception! If you've ever wondered what those black and white stripes that are painted across the road that pedestrians keep walking all over, making cars stop in their tracks are*, just consult the leaflet by Kent Highway Services explaining how light traffic works. It gives the reader knowledge nuggets such as inside information on why the grass is cut by the side of the road. This has costs £15,600 to the taxpayer. Have the Department for Transport and the Highway's Agency really got so much money that it feels that it can waste it on this sort of distribution of pointless information?

None for the price of two

We appear to have a Government in paralysis, two leaders - neither of whom are in control - a lame duck and an impending coronation of a new PM after an election pledge by Blair to serve a full term. The latest piece of ego building by Gordon Brown is his army of 11 special advisers and personal aides (despite the ministerial code explicitly saying "Cabinet Ministers may each appoint up to two special advisers."). Apparently they are there to help him formulate policy. All at the bargain price of £1m per year.

Review of the Papers, Friday 23 February


  • Standards are improving in Tony Blair's controversial city academies, but pupils are still not grasping the three Rs, Whitehall's spending watchdog warns. A National Audit Office report says the £5 billion programme is on track to deliver "good value for money" by transforming education in deprived inner-city areas. Results are improving at around four times the national average but remain persistently low in English and maths. In a blow to the Prime Minister, the report also criticises the programme for going millions of pounds over budget.

Policy Announcements, Thursday 22 February


  • The Treasury has announced that the Budget will be delivered on Wednesday March 21.
  • The Home Secretary announced a three-point plan following a gun crime summit at 10 Downing Street, chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by senior police officers, representatives from community groups and voluntary organisations.Tough punishments for those who use other people to look after weapons, improved technology for linking weapons to incidents and increased funding for community groups are key measures emerging from the three-point plan to tackle gun crime.

How to choose the right course of action

Anyone (other than the specialists who get paid to produce them, or pressure groups and politicians who use them to justify intervention in favour of their special interests) who has looked with a critical eye at the Cost-Benefit Analyses, Regulatory Impact Assessments, Environmental Impact Assessments, etc. that accompany voluminously any piece of consultation, legislation or regulation nowadays will know that they are incomprehensible, pseudo-scientific claptrap claiming to predict the unpredictable and usually in practice justifying the unjustifiable.

But surely, the counter-argument goes, it would be irresponsible of the government to proceed without trying its best to assess what might be the results of the policy it is considering. However inaccurate such assessments might be, they are better than no assessment.

I am currently reading The Foundations of Morality by Henry Hazlitt, author of the seminal Economics in One Lesson and, though not widely acknowledged by academia, one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century. I, like Hazlitt and his great mentor Ludwig von Mises, subscribe to the rule-utilitarian approach to moral philosophy. Whilst reading Hazlitt's book, it is becoming more apparent to me what a close connection exists between the alternative moral philosophies and the alternative methods (such as the above bureaucratic approach) by which legislation can be shaped and justified. In Jeremy Bentham's words (that strongly influenced Hazlitt's book), "Legislation is a circle with the same center as moral philosophy, but its circumference is smaller."

For those who believe in a god or gods, the question of morality is an easy one - right and wrong is simply what is specified in the texts. But with the weakening of the moral authority of the church that accompanied the Enlightenment, there was a need for an alternative basis for morality - a method for determining what is right and wrong without dependence on the word of a higher being. The solution developed by a series of great philosophers (most famously David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill) became known by Mill's term: Utilitarianism. In the words of Bentham (with whom the concept is most closely associated): "Morality is the art of maximizing happiness: it gives the code of laws by which that conduct is suggested whose result will, the whole of human existence being taken into account, leave the greatest quantity of felicity."

The above quote, from the posthumous compilation Deontology, expresses a view that is characterised nowadays as rule-utilitarianism. In his earlier works, Bentham had appeared to promote an alternative form, known as act-utilitarianism: "that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question....I say of every action whatsoever; and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government" (from his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation). The difference is that act-utilitarianism attempts to judge the impact on total happiness of every action, whereas rule-utilitarianism specifies that the morality of actions should be judged by their conformance with general rules, whose merits have been calculated to promote the maximum happiness if followed by everyone.

Our politicians and civil servants certainly seem, in recent years, to have taken seriously Bentham's instructions to consider, for "every measure of government" the utility of the measures under consideration to "the party whose interest is in question", i.e. "if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community". And very worthy it sounds too. But there are problems with this approach, sufficiently intractable that few people would now promote pure act-utilitarianism as a sensible basis for action.

1. What is the measure of the happiness of the community? Happiness is experienced only by individuals, so the happiness of the community must be the sum of happiness of the members of the community. To calculate that sum requires an effective method of hedonistic (or felicific) calculus, which has escaped Bentham and his successors. If an action makes me happier and you less happy, how are we to decide whether the total change in happiness is positive or negative? We cannot even say that the change is positive if it increases the happiness of more people than it decreases. Murray Rothbard (emphatically not a utilitarian) gives the example of 99% of the population deciding to enslave the other 1%. This is the illusion underlying the King of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness index, and David Cameron's replacement of GDP with GWB (General Well-Being) as the guide to public policy. It tends towards governance in the interests of the majority, which can be a very dangerous thing.

2. Even if it were possible to calculate the impact of each action on the combined happiness of all those affected, one cannot live life this way. I should not decide whether to stop at a red light by trying to weigh the time-saving benefit of proceeding against the possible impacts of doing so. We have neither the time nor the ability to weigh all the impacts on all the people who may be affected by all the decisions we take. In most cases, we have to act according to general rules that, if followed, should lead to a good outcome in most instances. In other words, we are all rule-utilitarians, if only by force of necessity.

We know the importance of general rules for our own actions. But modern government, full of the arrogance of power, believes itself not to be subject to these limitations. No longer do we draw up legislation according to the good judgment of intelligent people, following general rules that can be shown to maximise the welfare of society.

Modern government forgets about general principles and instead tries to weigh the consequences of every piece of legislation and regulation for every party affected by the measure under consideration. That is what CBAs, RIAs and EIAs (not to mention focus groups and polls) are for. It is an impossible task. But while they continue to try, our legislation becomes ever more complex, contradictory, unprincipled and counterproductive.

The first step in improving the quality of our legislation (not to mention saving money on the legions of consultants who prepare these useless pieces of paper) must be to scrap the CBAs and go back to governing and legislating according to principle. This will not only improve the legislation, but also restore the battle of ideas to the centre of political discussion. The debates can return to the question of which principles are best to maximise the welfare of society, not who can best micro-manage the economy. That cannot but help alleviate the public disengagement with the political process.

Incompetence, ineptitude and screwing the taxpayer

Gordon Brown has bailed out Mr Money-waster himself, David Miliband. More than £300m worth of taxpayers’ money has been used to compensate for another Government IT cock up – this time a computer system that failed to pay thousands of farmers subsidies that had been paid to the government by the European Community. The Government sat on this money for six months before finally paying it out, but in classically incompetent style missed the deadline for claiming the money back from the EU.

But don’t worry; the Treasury has said that “the money allocated was an estimate of the cash the ministry might have to pay if it is "fined" by the EU for not making the payments on time”. So what? It’s still £300m worth of taxpayers’ money that wouldn’t have been spent if you had your house in order. Richard Bacon MP sums it up rather well - "The sheer incompetence and ineptitude of this government in handling [the matter] has now been compounded by them screwing the taxpayer as well."

You don't want to do it like that, you want to do it like this.

David “Dave” Cameron (the most socially responsible man in the UK) has just dipped his hand back in to his policy lucky dip tombola and come out with a real cracker. Today he is expected to outline (does he ever do more than outline?) policy designed to ‘encourage’ more couples to get married and stay together. This will include premarital counselling and relationship classes.

Review of the Papers, Thursday 22 February


  • Britain's scientific research budget is to be cut by almost £100 million to pay for overspending by the Department of Trade and Industry. Despite repeated claims by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that science is the key to the country's economic future, ministers have diverted £98 million from planned spending to cover the collapse of Rover and other unexpected costs at the DTI. The cuts will affect medical research, which must find £10.7 million in savings, as well as the funding body that supports global warming research, which will be £9.7 million poorer.

Policy Announcements, Wednesday 21 February

  • The Chief Pharmaceutical Officers from England, Scotland and Wales came together today to reveal plans for historic changes to the regulation of the pharmacy profession. The measures, which form part of the Government White Paper on professional regulation, will see the formation of two separate bodies to oversee pharmacy. One organisation would act as a regulator and a second would be responsible for leading the profession. It is envisaged that the two new bodies will take the form of a General Pharmaceutical Council (GPC) to regulate the profession and a Royal College to provide leadership.
  • The Government today published landmark proposals on how to regulate health professionals and ensure patient safety in the UK. As part of this, all health professionals will be required to prove their fitness to practice every 5 years and there are plans for a radical overhaul of the processes for death certification.  
  • Gordon Brown has been urged to put the voluntary sector "at the heart of his new agenda" if he becomes Labour leader. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations said the chancellor should make charities a top priority for his first 100 days in power. The organisation said that priorities should be securing sustainable funding and ensuring government accountability to the sector through parliament.


An interesting fact

Well, to me anyway....

In 2004, Ukraine was the fifth-largest importer of natural gas in the world. Belarus was the tenth-largest. In 2005, Belarus had dropped out of the top-10, not because it had reduced its consumption (net imports had increased), but because some countries, like the Netherlands, had increased their import requirements more dramatically. Ukraine remained fifth, and had increased its imports of gas by nearly 15%. Together, they absorbed nearly 40% of Russia's exports, and nearly 10% of all the exports of gas in the world.

Ukraine has the 25th largest population in the world. Belarus has the 81st.

Ukraine's economy is the 53rd largest in the world, Belarus's is the 69th (according to the IMF).

In terms of GDP per capita (a reasonable measure of relative prosperity), Belarus ranks 110, Ukraine 120.

How do these countries afford to import so much gas? Are they using it productively?

We should be concerned about Russia using its energy resources to apply political leverage. But with regard to the former Soviet Bloc, is it possible that President Putin has a point when he claims that gas to his neighbours is underpriced?

Another £21.4bn to waste

To coincide with Gordon Brown’s birthday last month, the prudent, iron chancellor made a surplus of £21.4bn thanks in part to a surge in income tax from record City bonuses.  I can only imagine what he is planning to spend it on, but I’m sure he knows full well.  With the incredible amount of money we are paying in taxes each month at the moment along with the seemingly endless list of stealth taxes we have to put up with, coupled with the waste this government is synonymous with how can he have a surplus of £21.4bn in one month.  Surely he does not need to be collecting so many taxes? 

Review of the Papers, Wednesday 21 February


  • The government agency created to seize the assets of criminals is condemned today as a mess, having spent £65 million on collecting only £23 million. The Assets Recovery Agency has received 700 files linked to £274 million. But it has seized money from only 52 of these cases, according to a report by the spending watchdog. Millions of pounds paid in fees to receivers to manage criminal assets are expected in 12 cases to be more than the cash and assets being looked after. The National Audit Office report also found that the agency, which is to be merged with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, has no effective case-management system and had experienced high turnover of staff. A third of the financial investigators trained by the agency either retired or left soon after qualifying.
  • All British troops will be pulled out of Iraq by the end of 2008, starting with the withdrawal of 1,000 in the early summer. Tony Blair is to announce the moves - the result of months of intense debate in Whitehall - within 24 hours, possibly later today, according to officials. The prime minister is expected to say that Britain intends to gradually reduce the number of troops in southern Iraq over the next 22 months as Iraqi forces take on more responsibility for the security of Basra and the surrounding areas.,,2017824,00.html
  • The Home Office has started to pay out compensation - some £55,000 in nine cases so far - to foreign national prisoners who have been held beyond the end of their sentence while deportation was considered, it was disclosed yesterday. The director-general of the immigration and nationality directorate, Lin Homer, told MPs that nine months after the foreign national prisoner crisis cost Charles Clarke his job only 163 of the 1,013 inmates freed without being considered for deportation had left the UK.,,2017692,00.html
  • Gordon Brown enjoyed a record cash surplus on the public finances last month as surging income tax receipts outweighed a fall in corporation tax revenues, official statistics show. The last public finance data before the budget next month show there was a net cash surplus of £21.4bn last month after a surge in income tax from record City bonuses.,,2017635,00.html
  • The future of Britain's biggest charities is being put at risk by their growing dependence on poorly-funded contracts to deliver public services, the chair of the Charity Commission will warn today. Dame Suzi Leather's stark assessment comes after a survey revealed that fewer than one in eight charities running services was confident it was being paid enough to cover its costs. An "all-party love-in" between the voluntary sector and politicians who see the sector as offering a more effective and user-friendly way of delivering public services is also threatening charities' independence, she will say.,,2017834,00.html
  • A winter squeeze on NHS services across England will be enough to pull the health service out of financial deficit by the end of March, forecasts from the Department of Health indicated yesterday. They showed 132 NHS trusts are heading to overspend by £1,318m in 2006-07 - slightly more than the overspend that played havoc with NHS finances last year. But this time the deficits of the overspenders will be cancelled out by underspending in other parts of the NHS.,,2017698,00.html
  • Half-price bus and tram passes for Londoners on income support are to be financed by an oil deal with a Latin American socialist state. Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, signed a deal with a Venezuelan oil company yesterday for cheap fuel for the capital’s 8,000 buses. In return, his officials will advise on street cleaning and other services. Mr Livingstone said that he would use the discount, worth £16 million a year, to give 250,000 people Oyster smart-cards allowing half-price journeys from July.
  • Higher earners should live alongside poorer households to achieve a better mix in housing, a Government-commissioned report said yesterday. Prof John Hills said housing policy should be changed to avoid having "rich people on one side and poorer people on the other side of the tracks". In a report to Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, he suggested that the complete redevelopment of estates might sometimes be "the only alternative".He also called for social landlords to buy housing in other areas and for vacant land on traditional council estates to be used to build private homes.
  • Rogue agencies that prey on would-be models are facing a crackdown under new rules to prevent them from making millions of pounds from empty promises of celebrity. Enticed by the Big Brother culture of instant fame, thousands of women every year are falling victim to a burgeoning industry in hotel-based casting sessions and websites offering photo shoots for aspiring models.