Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Scam, scam, scam and scam

Post lifted from Number Watch

Scam is a word that comes up with increasing frequently when the actions of (or promoted by) the UK Government are discussed. The headline in the print version of the Mail on Sunday was Great Speed Cam Scam (different in the online version). Regular number watchers will be familiar with this outrageous piece of covert taxation that subverts the system of justice to turn it into a collection service for the Treasury, covering up gross sources of inaccuracy in the process.

Christopher Booker’s main piece is headlined The BBC falls for the asbestos scam.

The crucial point about all of these scams is that they are a damaging drain on the economy. They absorb capital, labour and revenue. Thousands of businesses and ordinary householders are charged million of pounds for the removal of a harmless substance because it happens to share a common name with a quite different known carcinogen.

Here is a quote from Sorry, wrong number!

"Of the many gifts bestowed by the French on the Anglo-Saxons, bureaucracy must be the most potent. In Saxon times the learned and beneficent Alfred the Great could decree that half the revenues would go to education, and it was done. When the first English Kings reigned, the Treasury was just another department of the royal household, like the Wardrobe. Subsequent centuries would see a growth in the power and influence of the Treasury that is still continuing today."

That was six years ago. Thanks to the incompetence and insouciance of the Prime Minister in delegating domestic policy to his Chancellor, the Treasury has since made a great leap forward. Its tax and waste policies now dominate British Life. The biggest scam of all was one of Gordon Brown’s first moves, the raid on the private pensions system. It broke one of the golden rules of pensions policy by introducing double taxation. You get taxed when you put it in and taxed again when you take it out. So we have the front page headline in the Telegraph: Brown's raid on pensions costs Britain 100 billion pounds

This was more than just another of Brown’s money-making schemes. It was inspired by malice. There is a type of middle class socialist motivated by hatred of their own origins. They are developmentally retarded, still engaged in their teenage rebellion against their own fathers. Brown has cold bloodedly condemned millions of elderly people, who had the temerity to plan for their declining years, to end their lives in penury and despair, forced to sign up for his humiliating means testing. He has simply stolen their savings.

It is not just the money. He sent out a signal that the Government did not care about private sector pensions, so the whole industry virtually collapsed. Furthermore he singled out that sector of the population for swingeing taxation from local council and other imposts. Meanwhile public sector employees were guaranteed inflation proofed packages paid for out of the taxation of the rest.

Uniquely among chancellors he has left his successors with enormous, impossible burdens, such as the Private Finance Initiative, a form of hire purchase that will hog tie future finance minister for generations. He loves complexity and will only be satisfied when he has most of the population (though not, of course, New Labour supporting millionaires) entangled in the coils of his bureaucratic schemes.

Time was when finance ministers were just incompetent. This one is evil and he is the Prime Minister in waiting. Worst of all, if he gets to be Prime Minister he will have made himself the highest paid leader in the quasi-democratic world and a
multimillionaire by dint of his pension alone. It’s a sick, sick, sick world.


A British government minister joined an increasingly bitter debate about the rights of Muslim women to veil their faces, saying a teaching assistant should be fired for insisting on wearing one in school. Phil Woolas, the government's Race and Faith minister, was quoted by the Sunday Mirror newspaper as demanding that Aishah Azmi, a Muslim teaching assistant, be fired for refusing to remove her veil at work. She should be sacked. She has put herself in a position where she can't do her job," Woolas said.

Azmi has refused to remove her black veil, which leaves only her eyes visible, in front of male colleagues. She was suspended from her job, but has taken her case to an industrial tribunal, a court that handles cases on employment law, which will make a decision in the next few weeks.

Azmi, who is 24 and has two children, has insisted that she had been willing to remove her veil in class, as long as there were no adult males present. "She is denying the right of children to a full education by insisting that she wears the veil. If she is saying that she won't work with men, she is taking away the right of men to work in school," Woolas said.

The debate on the veils began earlier this month, when Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary who now serves as leader of the House of Commons, said Muslim women visiting his office should remove their veils. The opposition Conservatives also weighed in on the contentious issue, with one of the party's top officials accusing Muslim leaders of encouraging a "voluntary apartheid" that could help spawn homegrown terrorism.

David Davis, a top Conservative Party official, supported Straw for starting the debate. "What Jack touched on was the fundamental issue of whether in Britain we are developing a divided society," Davis told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. "Whether we are inadvertently encouraging a kind of voluntary apartheid."

Prime Minister Tony Blair has praised Straw for raising the issue "in a measured and considered way," and urged Britons to engage in such discussions without "becoming hysterical."

Salman Rushdie, whose book "The Satanic Verses" once led to death threats against him by Islamic clerics, said last week that Straw "was expressing an important opinion, which is that veils suck, which they do. I think the veil is a way of taking power away from women."

Nazir Ahmed, the House of Lords' first Muslim legislator, today joined the fray by criticizing British politicians and the media for "demonizing" the country's Muslim community. In an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio, Ahmed, a moderate lawmaker of the governing Labour Party, said: "Let's be honest, there are people in our community who call themselves Muslims who have been threatening our national security. It is very unfortunate. "But the problem is that the politicians and some people in the media have used this for demonization of entire communities, which has become a very fashionable thing today."


Islamic militants face purge in British schools and universities

Minister will order police and councils to identify hotspots of extremism

Hotspots of Islamic extremism will be identified in schools, colleges and universities under government plans to be announced today. Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, will defy growing anger from Islamic leaders by ordering police and local authorities to root out Muslim extremists.

The announcement comes after the revelation yesterday that new faith schools could be forced to offer at least a quarter of their places to pupils of other religions and non-believers.

Ms Kelly will urge representatives from 20 “key” local councils to consider if they are doing enough to tackle extremism in schools, colleges and universities, and if they have identified “hot-spot” neighbourhoods and sections of the community that could be breeding grounds for such activity.

“In major parts of Britain the new extremism we’re facing is the single biggest security issue for local communities,” she will stay. “This is not just a problem for Muslim communities. The far Right is still with us, still poisonous, still trying to create and exploit divisions.”

The Department for Education has also prepared plans to ask university staff and lecturers to inform police of Muslim and “Asian-looking” students they suspect of involvement in supporting terrorists. An 18-page document due to be sent to universities and colleges by the end of the year expresses concern over Islamic societies and students from “segregated backgrounds”.

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, is expected to suggest that opening up admissions to faith schools would help to ease racial tensions and give parents more choice. The move comes after a proposal this month by the Church of England to open up voluntarily 25 per cent of places in all its new schools to children irrespective of their religious beliefs.

The changes are likely to prove more controversial with Roman Catholics and Muslims. Critics of faith schools have long complained that they are exclusive and divide society, rather than promote cohesion. About a third, or 7,000, of all state schools in England have a religious ethos, mostly Christian. Four fifths of the top 200 secondaries are faith schools.

Mr Johnson will table an amendment to the Education and Inspections Bill when it returns to the Lords this week requiring new faith schools to reserve a quarter of their places for non-believers or children of other faiths. The change would place the initial decision about a school’s intake in the hands of the local education authority (LEA), enabling it to demand that up to a quarter of its places are open to families of different or no faiths.

“It is not a quota, per se, only obviously if there is a demand for places,” a source close to Mr Johnson said. “But if there is demand they [LEAs] will have the power to insist on up to 25 per cent of places being given up to non-faith pupils.”

Where there is opposition to the policy within the school, the Church or community, an appeal could be made to the Secretary of State who could allow the LEA to approve a faith school with fewer than 25 per cent non-faith pupils.

Shahid Malik, the Muslim Labour MP for Dewsbury, said of the move: “This is part of a strategy which says we can’t ignore segregation any longer. We have to start working to make people have a greater understanding of one another.”

Last week Lord Bruce- Lockhart, the head of the Local Government Association, suggested in The Times that state schools should introduce ethnic quotas into admissions criteria to break down the extreme segregation of pupils along cultural and religious lines.

A Tory spokesman gave Mr Johnson’s plan a guarded welcome, saying that David Cameron had made clear that he supported such initiatives, but that it should not be a matter of uniform national rules. Idris Mears, of the Association of Muslim Schools, said that imposing the proposals on minority faiths seemed to be socially unjust. “Most Muslim schools already have this provision in their regulations, but to impose it on us without increasing our numbers substantially doesn’t seem fair,” he said.

There are seven Muslim state schools in England, and five more are recommended for public funding. Tony Blair hopes to bring more of the 150 private Muslim schools into the state sector. There are two Sikh schools, 37 Jewish schools, 2,041 Catholic schools and 4,646 Church of England schools.



Part of a review of Monbiot's "Heat":

Given its near-universal acceptance how is it that the belief that over-consumption threatens life itself has failed to impact on behaviour? It is not that people have failed to curb their consumption sufficiently. On the contrary, consumption, and specifically energy consumption continues to rise year on year, individually and collectively. If the leaders of Friends of the Earth and Stop the Climate Chaos are frequent fliers, so are the rest of us: frequent drivers, who leave our televisions on standby and our houses un-insulated.

To George Monbiot, this sounds like hypocrisy, and he is right. But he misunderstands the relationship between ecological thought and consumption. That climate change threatens the planet is not a belief that leads to a restriction in consumption. On the contrary, one could state as a law of politics that the relationship between green thinking and increasing consumption is not contradictory, but complementary. The greater role that consumption plays in our lives, the more we are predisposed to worrying about the planet. Ecology is to the twenty-first century what Christianity was to the Victorians. The harder those patricians blessed the meek on a Sunday, the more viciously they exploited them from Monday to Saturday. Green thinking is the religion of the consumer age. As sure as night follows day, the very people that are most preoccupied with the environment will increase their consumption from one year to the next.

We know this because environmental activism and beliefs are also stronger among the better paid and educated - the very people who command more of life's resources. The stream of advice on ethical consumerism does not result in restricted consumption, but more complex, which is to say more costly consumption, like the ethical tourism that Monbiot denounces.

The environmental belief pattern fulfils all the demands of a secular religion, elevating the elect few above the common herd of vulgar, unthinking consumers; creating secular rituals, like fastidious eating, and garbage-sorting, as well as a full calendar of public worship, or protest. And like all religions, ecology has its eschatology, its end-time, the belief in the coming apocalypse, or to give it its modern name, climate change.

The motivation for the book is the proposition that if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises above the current level of 380 parts per million by 2030, combining with other `greenhouse gases', it will trap the sun's rays in the atmosphere raising temperatures by two and six degrees Celsius - causing irreversible and catastrophic climate change. Melting polar ice caps will raise sea levels flooding coastal cities and towns; Africa, Australia and the Mediterranean will suffer frequent droughts; grain yields will collapse leading to famine; malaria will increase; species will become extinct.

But Monbiot says he is trying to avoid despair. The world can avoid the disaster if we reduce the carbon given off in energy production and other industrial processes, by 60 per cent, so that each of us produces no more than 0.33 tonnes of carbon by 2030 (with an intermediate target of 0.8 tonnes by 2012). But with energy use highest in the developed world, our target here is a 90 per cent reduction. The book sets out, in broad outline, how the saving can be made, supported with case studies on domestic energy use, the energy industry itself, transport, retail and concrete production.

It is the attempt to realise the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, or to achieve a balance with nature, that is Monbiot's error. Like religious belief, environmental thinking is not supposed to be resolved. Rather, the belief persists precisely because it is the mirror image of consumerism. Without consumerism, environmentalism would cease to exist. Some Victorian religious sects made a similar mistake, trying to create religious communes in the New World, or sometimes retreating into the forests to escape worldly sin. Generally they ended up quarrelling and destitute. Once realised, all the absurdities of the belief system become writ large.

So it is with George Monbiot's blueprint. In attempting to show that the necessary reduction in carbon emissions can be achieved Monbiot is forced again and again towards the one likely source of resource efficiency, greater technological development. Hence he is forced reluctantly to concede that nuclear power is a more plausible source of clean energy than biomass; that supermarkets' internet delivery services, an example of the advantage of industrial concentration, could reduce energy use. Monbiot explains very well that rules on energy efficient house-building would have little impact because the rate at which Britain's housing stock is replaced is glacially slow - but fails to understand that the low level of new building that leaves us all in energy-inefficient Victorian houses is a direct consequence of environmental constraints on housing developments.

In every instance, however, the ethical meaning of ecology, its romantic protest against modernity, reasserts itself. This is clearest in Monbiot's predictable hostility to the car, which he associates with a vicious libertarianism, in which motorists perceive society, pedestrians, cyclists, road-humps, as a barrier. But this only illustrates Monbiot's prejudices. Society is represented by pedestrians and cyclists. But drivers are society, too. Indeed, with car journeys making up 85 per cent of all distance travelled, they are a much greater share of society than cyclists, making up 0.5 per cent. Heat follows the conventional calculation of the costs of motoring unrepresented in the price of petrol, like health care and traffic policing. But it is wholly ignorant of the un-reckoned advantages of motoring, like greater mobility, and sociability.

Though wreathed in statistics, Heat fails to reckon the basic contribution to human existence of consumerism and motorisation, as if these could be tossed away without severely limiting its quality and duration. Take a look inside your fridge: more than nine-tenths of what you see there was delivered to the shop or supermarket by road, as indeed were the goods in your home. The organic vegetables and the spare parts that keep your bicycle moving were not delivered by bicycle, but by a man in a white van. Monbiot worries about declining agricultural yields and pressure on farmland, but fails to acknowledge that motorisation and fertilisers have massively increased output, bringing down prices, and releasing more land every year from cultivation.

Monbiot opens Heat with a quote from environmental activist Mayer Hillman on what a society that cut greenhouse gases by 80 per cent would look like: `a very poor third world country'. Monbiot aims to disprove this argument, by showing that reduction could be achieved without reducing us to penury, but he fails because he does not understand the extent to which our quality of life is dependent upon the very technologies that he considers destructive. Monbiot protests at `skeptical environmentalist' Bjorn Lomborg's economic calculation of how money could be better spent solving world problems than wasted imposing restrictions on manufacturing output. This calculation he thinks is immoral. What price can you put on the subsequent deaths from malnutrition in Ethiopia caused by global warming? But Monbiot singularly fails to recognise that his restrictions would also have a human cost.

Those countries with low carbon dioxide emissions, like Ethiopia and Bangladesh, are also those with high infant mortality, low life expectancy and poor quality of life. To recreate their levels of energy consumption in the developed world would be to recreate their social conditions also. What is more, no across-the-board reduction in living standards has ever been achieved without social conflict and violent repression. Alongside the depressions of the 1930s and 1970s came police brutality. Monbiot's ideal, wartime rationing, was achieved by terrifying the population with the threat of foreign invasion and militarising society. But Monbiot would reply that all of this is immaterial, because it is not possible to reproduce western standards of living in the developing world, because of the absolute limit of catastrophic climate change.

But even here, despite its welter of statistics, Heat is unconvincing. Monbiot calls his critics climate change deniers, not balking at the comparison with Holocaust denial. Anyone who does not support his linear connection of industrial carbon emissions, to the greenhouse effect, to climate change, ending in environmental catastrophe is deluded. But this is not the language of science, whose findings are always provisional. More to the point, though, even where it can be shown that industrial output has had an effect on the earth's temperature, the extrapolation from that to necessary ecological disaster is all entirely speculative. All the changes modelled are projected into the future, failing Karl Popper's test of falsifiability. And while there is a small industry dedicated to modelling the negative effects of climate change, any positive effects are excluded out of hand.

Monbiot accuses air-travellers of killing future generations of Africans, through the Malaria and famine that he says will increase because of climate change. But he ignores the Africans dying of malaria today because environmentalists persuaded the World Health Organisation to ban DDT there or the Africans suffering food shortages already because environmentalists got the United Nations not to fund the use of chemical fertilisers in aid programmes.

The gloomy warnings say more about their authors than they do about the future. We have been warned by environmentalists that by 1997 one-third of the population will be stricken with `human-BSE', that genetically modified organisms will enter the food-chain altering our DNA, even that, as Nature reported in the 1970s we are on the brink of a new Ice Age. The belief in impending disaster arises out of the psychological need for an eschatology, a secular version of Kingdom Come, that will under-gird the grandstanding of moralists like George Monbiot. Like the Dostoevsky character who worries that `if there is no God, how can I be captain', Monbiot has to believe in impending catastrophe so that he can denounce the unbelievers and weak of conviction. But there is a less painful way to overcome the clash between modern lifestyles and environmental thinking, and that is to abandon the latter, not the former.



So we are the fattipuffs of Europe. Somebody had to be. The British, among their many other hobbies and extraordinary attributes, obviously enjoy overeating. And it appears that nothing - no television diet guru examining our excretions, no Messiah-like chef tossing buckets of undigested fat in front of us, no bossy government leaflets imploring us to eat more vegetables - is going to change that. Does it matter? Not to the fattipuffs, clearly, or they would do something about it. Not to the rest of the British public either. Or if it does, it really shouldn't. It is none of our business. I just wish someone could persuade this irritating government that it's none of its business either.

Fat fascists and government spokespeople, when voicing their peculiar disapproval of other people's body mass index (BMI), often come up with spurious figures regarding the cost of obesity to the National Health Service. Apparently if you include the wear and tear on hospital lavatory seats, the stress on nurses at having to deal with such irresponsible patients and so on, this extra cost can spiral into billions. Fat people get ill more, so the argument goes, and since we taxpayers have to pay for the consequences, we have every right to bully fat people into getting thin again.

It is a loathsome argument: the same one that is used when trying to control smokers and drinkers. No doubt it will be used against people who slouch too much in front of their computers, or who take exercise without stretching first or who choose, against all advice, to look directly at the sun. Extend the argument still further and there is no reason why it couldn't be used to enforce the screening of unborn children: hell, we could get shot of the duffers before they were even fully formed. Why not? Imagine all the taxpayers' money that could be saved.

The NHS, it should never be forgotten, is a service run by the government but paid for by the people. It is not, and was never intended to be, a tool with which to control us. Also (although I'm loath to indulge this line of argument), it's clearly a nonsense to pretend that fat people, in the long run, cost the public purse any more than the rest of the population. If fat people get ill more, the chances are they are going to die earlier, too.

So while the rest of us health freaks mince around on Zimmer frames, demanding expensive drugs for the other debilitating diseases waiting to take us out, the fat people will already be dead. No requests from them for geriatric medical care, free bus passes and measly pensions. With obesity rates rising at the rate that we're told they are, the public purse ought soon to be positively bulging.

But never mind all that, never mind the logic of it: that was never the point. This government simply can't resist an opportunity to nag. If it's not about fatness, it's about thinness; it's about our liquid intake during heatwaves, our alcohol intake over Christmas, the temperature of our baths, the frequency of our lavatory flushing, the hoods on our sweatshirts, the veils on our faces. It will come up with a guideline for anything to keep its stultifying presence on the front pages. Anything to show us it cares.

This week, in response to the wretched fatness survey, it has truly excelled itself. Healthy diet has been the subject to worry about, and even the chancellor of the exchequer has felt inspired to contribute to the debate. He has let it be known (in case we were wondering) that he "always" has two portions of vegetables at lunch and that he can often be seen "munching an apple or an orange" around the office. A spokesman for Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary (who, it is claimed, eats "infinitely more" than the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day), has released the news that she enjoys "very, very regular bowel movements". Which is marvellous, but perhaps a case of too much information.

If we are to believe their spokespeople, government ministers are an example to us all, only ever enjoying the occasional glass of wine, always eating up their greens and often having rowing machines in their offices. If only we could be more like them. Thankfully Caroline Flint, our new minister for fitness, has announced a new initiative to help us to catch up. She wants to impel supermarkets to offer lessons in how to eat fruit and vegetables because, she says, there are people out there who find fresh fruit and vegetables "scary". Ho hum. An example of a new victim group cleverly unearthed by sensitive ministers or just one more case of an exhausted government dribbling into its geriatric bib? I almost feel sorry for them.

Then there are the thinnifers. Another problem, another call for a ban. Why do so many people think banning things is the only answer? I refer to the banning of very thin people from the catwalk, a place which we know to be their historical home. A collection of doctors and other eating disorder experts have joined together to make a formal request to the fashion industry not to employ models below a certain weight. It has been mooted that London Fashion Week should have its subsidies suspended (all in favour of that) if it refuses to comply.

Having struggled for years with the problem in my teens and early twenties, I have some inkling of the madness which settles in an anorexic's head. Of course I can't speak for them all, but I can speak from experience. And to suggest that the banning of models with the wrong BMI might in some way alter an anorexic's approach to her own body, or to flesh in general, seems pretty facile to me. Young women starve themselves for all sorts of reasons but mostly, I think, as a muddle-headed response to their own internal chaos: body weight is one of the few aspects of life which feels controllable. The truth is that you could put anyone you wanted on the catwalk - put Dawn French up there - but I don't believe it would change a thing. Anorexics see the world through different eyes.

I used to look in near revulsion at supermodel Cindy Crawford, a woman who, at the peak of my madness, was lauded as one of the most desirable women on earth. I couldn't comprehend it. I used to be disgusted by the gargantuan size of her thighs. When people said she looked wonderful, I thought they were the mad ones; either that or they were lying. The fashion industry is being asked to present a more realistic image of women to the world. But fashion isn't about realistic images, it's about fantasy - and art. There's something pretty wrong with a society that wants to ban that


NHS to punish conservatives

Community hospitals that lie in Conservative or Liberal Democrat constituencies will bear the brunt of the Government's closure programme, re-igniting accusations of political interference in the NHS. The Times has learnt that seven times as many community hospitals have closed or are under threat in constituencies held by opposition MPs. There are 62 closed or at-risk hospitals in Conservative constituencies and 8 in Liberal Democrats seats, with 11 in Labour areas. This has prompted opposition MPs to accuse the Government of "playing politics" and undermining the hospital closure programme.

The revelation comes a month after The Times disclosed that ministers and Labour Party officials held meetings to work out ways of closing hospitals without jeopardising key marginal seats. Leaked e-mails showed that Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, called for those at the meeting to be provided with "heat maps", showing marginal Labour seats where closures or reconfigurations of health services could cost votes. The Department of Health has consistently denied that political considerations reflect policy-making.

But research carried out by the Community Hospitals Association reveals that of the ten community hospitals that have already closed this year five fall in Conservative-held seats while four are in Liberal Democrat areas. The Department for Health said that it was committed to community hospitals, which are often found in more rural areas. Ms Hewitt recently promised a 750 million pound cash injection to community health services declaring: "Community hospitals have for too long been viewed as the poor relation of larger hospitals. This stops today."

Lord Warner, the Health Minister, has said that the Government is committed to spending 100 million on building or refurbishing at least 50 community hospitals which provide diagnostics, day surgery and outpatient facilities closer to where people live and work. However, a spokesman for the department said that some community hospitals could not cope with the challenge of the modern NHS and would close. The spokesman insisted that ministers had no ability to chose directly which hospitals closed and which stayed open. A statement from the department in February said that "hit squads" of inspectors would be dispatched to meet the heads of strategic health authorities, and reject any plans for community hospital closures from primary care trusts if they could not show that they had considered all other options, including other companies taking over the hospitals.

However, opposition MPs are suspicious of the move. Andrew Lansley, the Conservative health spokesman, said: "Last month we discovered that ministers are more concerned with saving the political skins of Labour MPs than they are with pursuing the long-term interests of the health service." Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "There are too many times for coincidence that the process is favouring Labour seats and Labour MPs. That undermines the whole process. If you go through consultations with a sneaking suspicion that the Labour seat is going to get the hospital anyway, it destroys your faith in these consultations. "Nobody would argue that a particular set of buildings should be set in stone for ever. Health needs change, population change, so buildings and services should change. The key is that the decision should be clinically based; what delivers the best care."

Sources close to Ms Hewitt said: "The reality is that a lot of these hospitals are not particularly strong on state-of-the-art healthcare. "We want the best healthcare, which is not the same as wanting to maintain the same buildings."


No comments: