Everyday it seems we are being told what to do more and more. In the latest attempt to tackle climate change the EU are going to change the way we drive. That is to say, they are going to force us to drive exactly as they want us to. All new cars will be fitted with devices that tell drivers when to change gear, what speeds to drive at and even when to pump up their tyres. You could not make this up – even if your name was George Orwell. I don’t know how this is going to work, but I can imagine the car relentlessly nagging me like the worst back seat driver in a dalek like drone. Of course, it goes without saying that we will have to stump up an extra £2000 (on a typical family car) for the privilege.
Congratulations to the Gordon Brown who has claimed to have made a whopping £13.3bn a year efficiency savings across Whitehall. Fantastic headlines for our PM in waiting. Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Timms, has described the savings as “robust”… Cue alarm bells...
According to the National Audit Office, and I hate to break the news to you, but not all is what it seems at the Treasury. Auditors have claimed that nearly £10bn of these savings is open to question either because they could not be properly measured or because they are plain and simply wrong. No wonder tax payers' money is being wasted everyday - our chancellor can not even do his sums properly. Either that or someone is doing some very creative accounting…
- The government must rely less on Muslim leadership organisations, Ruth Kelly said as she launched a £5m fund to help councils tackle extremism. Around 50 local authorities are seeking cash to support their work with Muslim communities, under an initiative which Tony Blair this week promised would "confront [extremism] in a more radical and head-on way". Specific local programmes could include working with those excluded from schools, colleges and mosques, who may be vulnerable to extremist messages and promoting greater interfaith understanding, for example through twinning schools. http://www.guardian.co.uk/religion/Story/0,,2008096,00.html
- Gordon Brown's claim to have made £13.3bn a year efficiency savings across Whitehall as part of a drive to cut waste is called into doubt today in a detailed investigation by the National Audit Office. The auditors found that nearly £10bn claimed to have been saved by the Treasury was open to question because it could not be properly measured or was substantially incorrect. Only £3.1bn of the £13.3bn gets a green light. http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardianpolitics/story/0,,2007924,00.html
- Thousands of patients are likely to be refused dental treatment until the start of the new financial year in April due to a cash crisis in the health service. Dentists in England were given new contracts last year which mean they are paid an annual income for an agreed number of check-ups and treatments. Those who were heading to complete their quota ahead of schedule expected to be able to negotiate payment for extra work, but they are now being told that there is no more money in the budget. If they treat any more NHS patients before the end of March, they will not be paid, which means thousands might be turned away. http://www.guardian.co.uk/medicine/story/0,,2008099,00.html
- The Competition Commission is to launch a full-blown investigation into payment protection insurance, a £5.5bn a year industry dominated by the big banks and insurance companies. The investigation follows an analysis of the business by the Office of Fair Trading which had already concluded that consumers could save £1bn a year if there were more competition. The OFT signalled in October 2006 that it was considering such a referral. The Competition Commission could take up to two years to review PPI, which is often sold with loans and other financial products to enable customers to repay their debts if they fall ill, have an accident or become unemployed. http://business.guardian.co.uk/story/0,,2008066,00.html
- One in three homes built in recent years should not have received planning permission, according to a damning indictment of the industry by the government's architecture watchdog.Only 18 per cent of new homes measure up to design standards, according to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, in its first national survey of the industry.Inspectors from Cabe, who visited more than 300 sites, found 53 per cent of new homes were "mediocre" while another 29 per cent should never have been allowed. The hard-hitting report comes after the government encouraged local authorities to wave through tens of thousands of new homes to meet the country's perceived housing shortage. But ministers' concerns have been growing over the quality of some of these new properties. Ruth Kelly, communities secretary, said recently that many new houses were "just not up to scratch". http://www.ft.com/cms/s/d463c090-b719-11db-8bc2-0000779e2340.html
- Secondary schools are testing 11-year-old students themselves because they lack confidence in national curriculum test results. Headteachers believe too many pupils are being coached for maths and English tests throughout their last year at primary school to improve the school's league table position. They may reach the required standard in the national curriculum tests but lack the necessary comprehension to improve their standards - and are forced to sit new tests three months later. http://education.independent.co.uk/news/article2248790.ece
- Plans for road pricing throughout Britain could be blocked by the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly. A senior official at the Department for Transport has admitted that Scottish MPs would have to debate any proposals to operate the scheme there. Devolution has put the Welsh in a similar position to make their own decisions on how to tackle congestion. The ability of the Scots to stop road pricing is particularly embarrassing for Douglas Alexander, the Transport Secretary, who is also Secretary of State for Scotland. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/02/08/nroads08.xml
- The technology industry yesterday lashed out at the Conservatives for pledging to scrap a multi-billion pound identity card scheme, saying the move would undermine business confidence in a Tory government and deter companies from working for the public sector. In a furious response to a Conservative letter to suppliers vowing to cancel the project, the trade body for technology companies said it "was wholly inappropriate for the industry to be used as a mechanism for scoring political points". http://www.ft.com/cms/s/9ed7f9ce-b718-11db-8bc2-0000779e2340.html
- Manchester’s hopes of opening Britain’s first supercasino were dealt a blow last night after the Conservatives threatened to block the latest phase of the Government’s gambling revolution, The Times has learnt. Amid signs of growing parliamentary revolt, the Tories have written to Tessa Jowell to express deep concern over the emergence of a potential legal loophole that could allow 14,000 high-value slot machines to be installed in casinos across the country. Companies such as Rank, which operate existing casinos, are angry that the 17 new-style casinos will be able to open with ten times more slot machines than current premises, offering significantly higher jackpots. They believe that the new casinos could be in breach of competition rules, and the courts could force the Government to allow the existing industry to install unlimited prize slot machines. Casino companies are desperate for high-value machines because they generate the most money, but experts caution that they are also the most likely to lead to problem gambling. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article1350488.ece
- Jack Straw, the leader of the Commons, outlined details of the White Paper which proposes a house where some peers are elected and some still appointed, as they all are now. Mr Straw, who wants 50% of peers to be elected, said MPs would be given the final say on what proportion of peers should be elected in a reformed Lords. He said reform would increase Lords' legitimacy and "strengthen democracy". The plans, an attempt to end long-term deadlock, also propose cutting the number of peers from 746 to 540.
- For the first time courts will be able to jail people who trade in - or deliberately misuse - the personal data of others, in a move to crack down on the illegal trade in personal information announced by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The decision follows a public consultation on increasing penalties for deliberate and wilful misuse of personal data and is part of the Government's strategy on data sharing to deliver better public services to individuals.
- Schools Minister Jim Knight announced seven new Trust School partners. The latest Trust partners announced - representing voluntary sector, business and higher education - are Barnardo's, Dyslexia Action, New College Durham, Northumbria University, the University of Sunderland, City College Plymouth and Tribal Group.
- Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly today unveiled details of a new international challenge for housebuilders to design and build flagship zero-carbon and low carbon communities. The Carbon Challenge, which will be run by English Partnerships, calls on developers to raise standards of design, construction, energy and water use and waste disposal so that these techniques can be used in the future as a benchmark for mainstream development. It also seeks to meet rising expectations from the public for more sustainable communities which offer them reduced bills and a higher quality of housing design.
The Department of Trade & Industry seems to be in a bitter and very personal battle with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to see who can fritter away the most public money. It seems the DTI have struck the latest blow with their low carbon buildings programme, designed to boost the installation of solar panels and wind turbines on houses.
Yet another token effort by the government to make it sound like they are doing something, when they are actually just paying lip service to popular issue of the day – achieving absolutely nothing and throwing away our money in the process. Do they really think £3.5m worth of solar panels and wind turbines protruding from a few roofs is going to stop anything (apart from the neighbours view)? They have managed to burn their way through their annual budget in just six months! That’s £3.5m spent on achieving absolutely nothing and it was all done twice as fast as they had planned to do it. Brilliant. Miliband has his work cut out.
Tory MP Philip Hammond, shadow work and pension’s secretary, hit out yesterday at the Government's failure to help people who lost their life savings when company schemes went bust. Mr Hammond said the Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) set up by the Government 18 months ago has made partial payments to only 871 people out of 125,000 whose company pensions collapsed.
Since when was it the Government’s job to bail out people who have invested in to private pension funds? If I invest in a private company and it goes bust I don’t expect the government to hand back my cash and say better luck next time. So, why should individuals be guaranteed their money back when the company scheme they chose to invest in goes bust?
- MPs are pressing for a special exemption from new powers that they brought in seven years ago in a popular attempt to open up government to public scrutiny. A private members' Bill introduced by a former Tory whip and considered by a Commons committee today will stop the public from using the Freedom of Information Act to find out how their MPs run their private offices.
- Microchips in the new electronic passports only carry a 2 year warranty even though they are ment to be valid for 10 years. The Home Office's Identity and Passport Service has issued 4m of the ePassports which store the holder's photo and details that can be then read by a scanner at border control.
Who is Mr Blair trying to kid? Yesterday he unveiled a swath of policy initiatives covering compulsory uniforms for punishment in the community, greater private sector delivery of welfare, personal carbon budgets and a switch in funding from national Muslim groups to smaller local groups.
Just stop it! Your time is up; no-one is listening. Stop wasting time and money unveiling so called initiatives when all that is going to happen is Gordon Brown is going to succeed you, completely ignore what you have said and pursue other ways to spend our money. You may think that you are going out with all guns blazing and laying down your legacy, but the truth is you are smouldering out and you blew any chance of a decent legacy many years ago. If you must hang on to power and really want to make a difference in your dying months – do nothing. Absolutely nothing. It would be the most productive few months of your premiership and set a real legacy that Mr Brown would be wise to follow.
- Home Secretary John Reid proposed strengthening the sex offenders register to better protect children using the internet. As part of his Child Sex Offender Review, John Reid is considering extending the notification requirements for offenders on the register to include their on-line identities such as e-mail addresses and names used in chatrooms.
- Minister for Disabled People, Anne McGuire, announced the launch of a five point guide that will help public sector organisations to improve the way that they provide information to disabled people.
The Heritage Foundation has recently brought out the 2007 version of their annual Index of Economic Freedom. This assesses and scores countries according to their performance on a range of factors, and then combines them to provide an overall score for each country's degree of economic freedom. Full details can be found at the excellent website - www.heritage.org/index/ - that now accompanies the book.
A couple of things leapt out from an initial scan of the analysis:
- The top seven countries (Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, USA, New Zealand, UK and Ireland) were all Anglophone.
- The way in which the Freedom from Government category was calculated - primarily based on tax revenues as a proportion of GDP, but also taking account of the scale of nationalised industries - yielded improbable results, such as the suggestion that countries such as Zimbabwe, Burma, Venezuela and China are relatively free from government, which would be news to the inhabitants of those countries.
With regard to the latter point, the authors do not claim that this category is anything other than it is. The title is perhaps a misnomer, probably better replaced with "Size of Government". Even that alternative title would not reflect the possibility that a government (for instance, the pre-war National Socialist government of Germany) could dominate, through direction and enforcement, all activities within its borders without having to own much or tax much. One should bear in mind, when considering the numbers, that there are many incalculable factors such as this that simply cannot be taken into account, but the method of calculating that which is calculable is set out clearly, and the reader is free to use the numbers so derived to whatever ends they see fit. The conclusions of the authors of the Index might need putting into context, but they are not invalidated.
With regard to the former point, the dominance of those countries whose political and economic systems derive from the Anglo-American model does not necessarily indicate the superiority of the model. Prima facie, it proves only that those economies value the same things that the authors of the Index value, to a greater extent than other cultures. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note the greater correspondence amongst this group than amongst other groups, such as members of the European Union, who are supposed to share cultures and economic models. In fact, the wide gap between the scores of liberal countries such as Britain and Ireland, and those of illiberal countries such as France and Italy (respectively in 45th and 60th place, with such economic giants as El Salvador, Armenia, Uruguay, Georgia, Botswana and Bahrain above them) probably does illustrate a real gulf in the philosophies of members of a club aiming for ever closer integration on the spurious grounds that there is an homogenised European social and economic model to which we all aspire. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the different philosophies, it is clear that culture, language and historical friendship are stronger ties than geographical proximity, and that the Anglophone countries could more easily work together on a shared philosophy than they could with their geographical neighbours.
Have the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) completely missed the point? They have recently criticised the Dept. of Health’s deal with Dr Foster, who provide the Good Hospital Guide. They have helpfully (and rightly) pointed out that the contract represents poor value for money due to a less than competitive tendering procedure.
One of the highest priorities, and also the few areas, the Government should be focusing on is law and order and the police force. Policemen and women should all be paid the salary they deserve and not a penny less. However, it seems whatever area of life that falls in to the public sector, you are guaranteed to see money thrown away – and the police force appears to be no different.
More than 8,000 police officers are being paid full salaries to work limited hours with limited duties. It is estimated that it costs £250 million a year. This is a luxury the public sector seems to be able to afford. They just pay out more and more without anyone keeping an eye on whether it is well spent and how it is spent. No one takes an interest to deal with the problem and it will always be someone else's duty to "fix" it.
What do you do if you are refused a loan for your struggling small business from the bank? Ask Gordon, of course. And why not – what do the banks know anyway? They only have decade upon decade’s worth of experience and expertise on who is sensible to loan to and who isn’t. Besides, as we all know, Mr Brown seems to have more money than he knows what to do with at the moment and what better way to
waste invest it than through the state funded small firms’ loan guarantee scheme? The figures speak for themselves - almost 35% of Government loans end in default compared to 4% of commercial loans to small businesses.
All sorts of environmental issues are now presented not just as practical but as moral issues - if you don't recycle, you aren't just a wasteful person, you are a bad person. In Radio 4's Start the Week today, Andrew Marr's guests included Mark Dowd, a former Dominican friar turned journalist, who has put together a programme for Channel 4 called God is Green, arguing that environmentalism is a religious issue. So now it's not just practical and moral, but religious.
Another of Marr's guests, Michael Portillo, was an honourable dissenter from this view, but Dowd's view was supported by the other guests - Wangari Maathai (Kenyan environmental and human rights campaigner) and Christine Riding (curator of Tate Britain). Majority support in the studio for a moralistic approach to environmental issues may well reflect the tendency in the country at large.
Let us assume, for the sake of simplicity, that it is a religious question to the extent that it is a moral question. Dowd tries to make the case that it is more than that - it is embedded in the religious texts. But his example - the fact that there are 261 references to the creation in the Quran - does not seem like strong evidence that environmental care is mandated by God's instructions. So let's stick to the question of morality.
Some projected consequences of global warming, if accurate and allowed to proceed unchecked, are clearly immoral. If global warming caused the destruction of home and habitat through flooding and drought, and my actions contributed knowingly to global warming, those actions would be immoral in so far as they were reasonably avoidable, where I had done nothing to mitigate their effect.
The latter provisos are important. To some extent, my very existence is contributing to global warming. I emit carbon dioxide when I breathe, methane when I fart, and rely on production and transport of goods to satisfy my wants. I might be able to minimise my dependence on produced goods, but it is unrealistic, in a world dependent on division of labour to maximise efficiency, to imagine that I will eliminate entirely my dependence on others' produce. Were we to set that as the moral "gold standard", we would have to acknowledge that a necessary corollary of complete self-sufficiency is the abandonment of mechanisation (which requires factories for production of the machines) and chemical fertilisation, both of which have substantially increased agricultural yields. In such a world, the population that could be supported without further encroachment into uncultivated land would be very much lower than it is today. Moralists would have to explain how this dramatic reduction of world population is to be achieved (and for those religions opposed to birth control, how the lower level is to be maintained).
Any realistic moral philosopher would have to recognise that some continuation of division of labour, mechanisation and transport is necessary to the welfare of mankind. Happily, the Earth has the ability to absorb a certain amount of carbon annually. Upto a point, carbon emissions can be not only necessary to human welfare, but also beneficial to our environment. The trouble comes (in theory) when we emit more than the Earth can absorb. But as every inhabitant of the Earth is contributing to carbon emissions to some extent, it can be difficult to identify which emissions are responsible for which effects. How are we to distinguish by ethical assessment which activities are moral or immoral?
One approach is simply to dictate that certain acts are "good" and other acts are "bad" - simplistic, rules-based morality. We are told that recycling is good. The trip to the bottlebank fills the recycler with a sense of wellbeing that they have done a good deed. But what if the contents of those bottlebanks cannot be sold for a price that justifies the transport to the factory, and are instead tipped in a landfill? That is not an uncommon result. Or what if the carbon released in the travel to the bottlebank, in the transport of the broken glass to a reprocessing factory, and in the conversion of the broken glass into useful product exceeds the carbon that would have been released if those products had been produced from raw materials? Was the act of recycling moral in those circumstances? A rules-based approach to environmental morality is insufficiently flexible to be realistic. Policy to deal with global warming requires consideration of real impacts in real and variable circumstances, not one-size-fits-all dirigisme.
Another approach is to apportion equally to every member of the human population rights to emit their share of a "sustainable" level of greenhouse gases, and condemn as immoral any activities that cause a person to exceed their allocated emissions rights. But why would equal allocation be fundamentally moral? Communist economies (in China or the Soviet Union), by ensuring all had very little, were not inherently more moral than capitalist economies, where even the poorest are better off than were the majority under communism, but where allocation is inherently unequal.
Almost no one now pretends that Labour has achieved its ambitions for education. Government ministers continue to trot out their stale statistics about how much they have spent and how much the average grades have improved, but very few are fooled into thinking that this statistical trickery equates to a real improvement in educational standards. We are all aware that the huge increase in funding (52%) has largely been wasted, with grade improvements being achieved largely by submitting children into easier subjects, and coaching them to pass their tests rather than giving them a broad education. Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth have administered the last rites to any remaining delusions of political adequacy amongst education ministers, in an excellent article in this week's Spectator.
Their claimed success does not prevent ministers from searching for solutions to their failure. There is no shortage of voices offering to help. Today's Times gives prominence to two suggestions:
- Mick Waters, Director of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), wants a complete overhaul of how schools structure their lessons, with some being combined (e.g. science and PE, languages and music, or history and geography), some being narrowed to short, repetitive sessions (say ten minutes of a language three times a day, five days a week), and some being broadened into a fully immersive week of tuition (e.g. a week of ICT).
- Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust ("the country's largest independent funder of biomedical research"), advises that teaching techniques need to be tested by controlled experiment before being rolled out.
Though both are well-motivated suggestions, they conceal the assumption that is at the real heart of our problems - the idea that someone in a central position of authority has a solution that fits all. This was undoubtedly not the intention of Mr Waters, but the fact that the Director of the CQA saw fit to pronounce on scheduling in its generality revealed the subconscious reluctance to allow headteachers to determine the curriculum and schedule for their school. The implication of central control was less concealed in Mr Walport's suggestion - controlled experiments to establish best techniques imply standardisation once the results are known.
I missed the story two weeks ago on Cheryl Gillan's proposal to voucherise charity funding. If I'd been in the country (I was skiing), I'd have laid into it at the time, but for such an idiotic proposal, late is better than never.
The comments on Tim Montgomerie's reporting of the suggestion on ConservativeHome were generally supportive. It shows how drippingly wet the modern Tories are getting. I propose a new term, of which this is a classic example: Camoronism. A Camoronism is an idea that looks superficially cuddly and attractive at first sight, but which on closer inspection turns out to be ugly and dumb - in fact downright moronic.
The idea is that the Tories want to encourage charities to do more of the work currently carried out by government, but don't want to fund it directly because government is not good at deciding how to allocate funds. So far, so good. As so often, the diagnosis is sound, but the prescription is more dangerous than the disease. Cheryl's prescription is to provide vouchers to volunteers, entitling the organisation for which they volunteer to a share of state funding.
Charities need both labour and money. They do not necessarily need them proportionately. Nor is it the case that those who cannot commit labour (for instance, if they are working hard to support a family) have neither the desire to give nor the judgment to choose which charity to support. Why would those who volunteer for charities have a better idea of how to spend my money than I would?
How is volunteering to be measured? Will an hour a year count? Or will the value of the vouchers be proportionate to the time contributed? Will all volunteers have to keep timesheets to "prove" their contribution? How will their claims be audited? Who in the process would have an incentive not to exaggerate?
There has been condemnation today of the stale news (perhaps pumped up to make the new IPCC report more interesting) that the ExxonMobil-funded American Enterprise Institute (AEI) have been offering to fund research questioning the orthodoxy of climate-change science. The Guardian, which "broke" the story, did not see fit to provide the full text of any of the letters sent by the AEI, so we are left to imagine how bad they must have been from the few excerpts provided. These consisted of:
- a claim that the IPCC are "resistant to reasonable criticism and dissent and prone to summary conclusions that are poorly supported by the analytical work";
- a request for essays that "thoughtfully explore the limitations of climate model outputs";
- a figure ($10,000) that would be paid to scientists and economists who provided such essays;
- a quote from Kenneth Green, the author of the AEI letters offering such funding, defending the offer on the basis that "right now, the whole debate is polarised. One group says that anyone with doubts whatsoever are deniers and the other group is saying that anyone who wants to take action is alarmist. We don't think that approach has a lot of utility for intelligent policy."
Shocking stuff. If these are the highlights, one can only imagine how much more damning would have been the complete letter. How dare anyone in the energy industry fund research that dared thoughtfully to question the intellectual orthodoxy? What right have we to expect the IPCC to pay attention to "reasonable criticism" or to provide thorough analytical support for their conclusions?
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted that two of the government's three targets for reducing billions of pounds of fraud and error in the benefits system have been missed. For example, the housing benefit's rate of overpayment is up 13 per cent since 2002 with customer and official error accounting for the great bulk of the losses.
The huge number of fraud and error is caused by the complex benefit system which Gordon has created over the years.
Gordon Brown revealed in a speech at the Government Leaders' Forum yesterday (31 January) that "one of the priorities of his premiership would be legislation to compel all youngsters to remain in full-time education (The Times)."
This is one of the first clear indications what Brown would be like in No10 and it does not make one leap with joy. More and more rules and regulations will pour out of his office and all just to ensure that his abiding citizens will get the same "opportunities he had."
The Lib Dem dominated Richmond Council has decided to charge higher parking fees for high polluting vehicles. This means a family with two such cars could pay up to £750 a year - three times the normal parking fees.
The council says it is not about raising tax and their aim is revenue neutral. But the decision will hit hard large families who need such cars to go about their daily business. High parking fees will inevitably force not only 4*4s but larger people carriers out of the borough but less "gas-guzzlers" should not come as a result of extortionate parking fees. A large family doesn't fit into a smaller car and that will lead them to buy more than one car which will cause as much CO2 emissions as a bigger car. Also, a full "gas-guzzler" is better than any other vehicles occupied by one person.