Picking Losers

Review of the Papers, Wednesday 7 February

  • 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 do you think you are kidding, Mr Blair?

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.

Policy Announcements, Tuesday 6 February


  • 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.

Index of Economic Freedom

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:

  1. The top seven countries (Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, USA, New Zealand, UK and Ireland) were all Anglophone.
  2. 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.

PAC miss the point. Completely.

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. 

Doing less pays... if you're a policeman

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.

Refused a loan? Ask Gordon

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.

Is God Green?

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.

Standardised failure

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.

Voucherisation of charity

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?

Paying for controversy

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?

Benefit chaos

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.

Fulfilling Gordon's dreams

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."

Richmond parking fees

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.

DH superhospital fiasco

The implementation of a plan to merge and renew three out of date hospitals into a superhospital in London has been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee. The original plan estmated the total cost to be £300m and the project to be completed by 2006. But my May 2005 costs had risen to £894m and the hospital was expected to be finished only by 2013. The superhospital plans were cancelled in June 2006 after 5 years of struggle to get the project on course.

The Department of Health left the planning and managing of such a huge project to local staff who were not capable of overseeing the work carried out by DH's chosen PFI partners. The department did not set out sound plans from the outset and it was made worse by the fact that the creation of the superhotel was left in the hands of amateur and incompetent civil servants.  

Over budget IT projects

According to the official figures obtained by the Lib Dems, many information technology projects across government have overrun their initial budgets by more than £260 million over the last five years. The Department of the Environment Food and Rural (Defra) was the worst offender with the highest proportional overruns. Defra managed to run over budget by an average of 46 per cent with one scheme costing the department 72 per cent more than anticipated.The Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Education had such poor management systems in place that they could not provide sufficient data. The Treasury itself overran by 7.3 per cent on its own projects.

Troubled Home Office

Tony Blair said on the BBC's Politics Show yesterday that Britain's prisons are "full to bursting point" but suggested that the public should be relieved that dangerous prisoners are being locked up for longer. The PM also said that the Home Office is facing some big problems.

Indeed, the Home Office and its problems have dominated the headlines for weeks now. And it does seem to be getting worse by the day with new revelations of its undone work and nonfulfillment of its responsibilities appearing daily.

Not so HIP

The government is determined to force home owners to pay more than £200 for a green energy certificate when they put their house on the market. HIPs (Home Information Packs) which will be obligatory from June this year, will rate houses' energy efficiency and must be available even before potential buyers view a property.

The initiative might encourage some people to make their homes more energy efficient but more likely it will reduce the housing stock and force prices even higher. Older houses are obviously less energy efficient and the new complication arising from the certificates might deter people from selling their properties.

Olympic budget

The celebrations of 2012 days left to the London Olympic Games a few days ago were overshadowed by the publication of a critical Commons Committee report. MPs (mainly Labour) criticised the planners for poor management of the games' finances.

The cost of the delivery has increased from £2.4bn to 3.3bn. This is a result of the planners not thoroughly thinking through the budget before they submitted their bid. Now the government wants taxpayers to foot the bill.

Red tape website

Pat McFadden, the Cabinet Office Minister, is set to announce today (23 January) at IPPR the relaunch of a website for complaints on red tape. The site will allow business and lobby groups to complain about specific regulations. The government will then review the proposals, repealing some laws but if it will reject a suggestion it will explain why it is necessary.

Sounds like a good idea.... but it was tried before and failed due to the lack of interest from businesses. So why bother again? Companies have heard it many times before that the government will listen to them and will ease their red tape burden. But the opposite has happened - rules and regulations have increased significantly since 1997.