Sunday, November 05, 2006

NHS staff give the lie to official waffle

It was a little like a parallel universe. While government officials have spent the day churning out ever more glorious statistics about the NHS, the staff who run the service have taken to the streets. From the bowels of the Department of Health's HQ, the familiar tales of falling waiting lists and increased staff numbers have been recounted. But outside on the streets of Westminster, doctors, nurses, cleaners and other support staff have been protesting at what they see as disastrous policies. Pensioners and health staff marched round Parliament Square waving placards saying "Save the NHS", while a double-decker bus circled the House of Commons drumming up support for the cause. A stone's throw away, at a packed Methodist Central Hall, a rally heard from union leaders and frontline staff about how Labour's policies were destroying the health service.

The buzz words became "creeping privatisation" and "fragmentation" as campaigners rallied against deficits, PFI hospital build schemes and privately-run NHS treatment centres. The day's protest has been organised by NHS Together, an alliance of 16 health unions which have come together to oppose the direction the NHS is heading in. Such unity among the health service's union movement is unheralded and begs the question: how can the views of government and health staff be so polarised?

Dr Jacky Davis, a consultant radiologist and member of the British Medical Association, said: "The problem is that the policies are being driven by ideological dogma. "There is no evidence that increasing the use of the private sector and scaling back on staff and hospitals will be beneficial. "No-one outside Number 10 believes it will, and so far they have refused to properly consult with us, so it is not surprising the government have not got staff on board." Listening to the campaigners, the problem seems to be that in many cases workers have had negative experiences of the government's policies.

Andrea Shields, a London paramedic, told the rally about a case recently involving a woman who went into labour prematurely at 29 weeks. Unable to locate a free neonatal bed in the London area after what she says have been cuts, her colleague was forced to drive to Portsmouth three hours away to get the care needed. "Not only did it put the mother and baby at risk, it took an ambulance out of the London service for six hours." And in a direct plea to ministers, she added: "All we want to do is to be able to do our jobs. Listen to us, the front-line staff, not the fancy management consultants."

But will the day of protest make any difference? Union officials and health workers also spent the day lobbying MPs - by mid-afternoon the queue outside the House of Commons was snaking down Millbank. Ruth Levin, a London regional officer for Unison, met with her local Labour MP. She said: "He did seem sympathetic to our concerns, particularly over the private sector, but it really requires a whole sea-change in the way politicians are handling the NHS." However, she acknowledged campaigners were facing a challenge as many MPs speak out sympathetically when their local hospital feels the pinch, only to continue voting for the government's policies inside the Palace of Westminster.

As for the government, it seems there will be no slow-down. As protesters took to the streets, ministers were touring the television and radio studios saying there was no turning back. As Health Minister Andy Burnham put it: "Actually, rather than putting the NHS under any threat, this is the NHS poised to make one of its biggest leaps forward in its history."


Britain's Bonfire night: an annual display of pyrotechnical correctness

Fireworks! How about watching virtual pyrotechnics on a laptop in your bedroom with the curtains drawn, listening to recorded bangs on your iPod with the volume down and enjoying an organic hot dog labelled "This Dog May Be Hot"?

Far-fetched, perhaps. But so are reports that a Devon rugby club is showing a video projection of a bonfire at its fireworks party to avoid the costs of meeting health and safety regulations. Our local school has cancelled its display, because of a shortage of "trained firework lighters" (how long is that course?) and new guidelines on how far fireworks should be from people. We are a long way from the common sense advice on the old family fireworks box to "Light the blue touchpaper and retire immediately".

The annual explosion of pyrotechnical correctness about safety and "noise pollution" around firework night follows on from the Hallowe'en panic. There have been calls to ban children trick-or-treating as begging with menaces. Our local police sent out extra patrols on Hallowe'en, a spokesman explained, "because it is dark". Church figures gave warning about children falling prey to Darkness of another sort. Our young daughters dressed up as witches, went out with the neighbours and had a great time in the dark. Pity that so few would open their door.

What many people seem most anxious about today is not loud bangs, but noisy young people who they fear might explode at the drop of a witch's hat or a sparkler. Kids have always let off steam around Guy Fawkes night. I grew up with boys who enjoyed such traditional pastimes as throwing bangers (now banned) at cats, and firing rockets at bedroom windows. In those pre-trick-or-treat days, we sat in the street with a raggedy Guy asking strangers for money (which some gave us) without getting arrested.

Now youthful fooling around is equated with crime. One police spokesman told the BBC that his force would be "cracking down hard" on Hallowe'en antisocial behaviour, such as "knocking and running away from doors". In my day that was called Knock Down Ginger. The cowardly version was Knock Down Rosebud, in which you threw something at the door. The worst you would get was a rocket from the neighbours, or a "banger" round the ear from your dad. Today Ginger and Rosebud might expect ASBOs.

One MP told a youth justice conference this week: "The police are being called too often to tackle behaviour that only a few years ago would have been handled by teachers and parents." It would have been a good point had it not been made by Tony Blair, whose Government has encouraged us all to send up distress signals to the ASBO-happy authorities.

We also used to sing a song about building a bonfire, with "The teachers on the top/Put the prefects in the middle and burn the bloody lot." I hope that has been banned as incendiary hate-speech, if not for failing to comply with health and safety guidelines.


The incorrectness of travel in wacky Britain

New Labour’s deep-seated hostility to popular mobility is holding back advances on roads, railways and in the air

Is the New Labour government concreting over the countryside, as greens suggest, so as to appease the all-powerful road lobby? Does it also pander to what one green columnist has referred to as `anti-social bastards who believe they should be allowed to do what they want, whenever they want, regardless of the consequences', to the `extreme libertarianism now beginning to take hold here', to an individualism that `begins on the road'?

Well: between 1997, when New Labour came to power, and 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, Britain opened 284 miles of new major roads and motorways. That's a grand total of 40 miles a year. Not too impressive, for the world's fifth largest economy.

Don't expect chancellor Gordon Brown's November pre-Budget report, or Sir Rod Eddington's late-running transport review, to bring about the swift, massive, nationwide renovation of short- and long-distance transport infrastructure most people want. Brown has already hinted that Eddington, ex-CEO of British Airways, will favour new transport within cities more than between them. That would anyway fit with general government policy, which is to confine new housing, and the working class, within cities, on brownfield sites.

In practice, the Eddington report will probably boil down to more bus lanes in cities and more cycleways, too; as well as more road tolls, pay-as-you-drive road pricing, urban congestion charges, urban parking charges, and general gas-guzzler charges. Already environment secretary David Miliband has sent Gordon Brown a letter recommending higher vehicle excise duty for fuel-inefficient cars - along with a rise in air passenger duty and the extension of VAT to flights.

Don't expect Department for Transport (DfT) secretary Douglas Alexander to dissent from this mania for new pricing schemes in road transport, rather than capacity expansion or technological progress. On 26 May, Alexander told Tony Blair he would be `seeking innovation and opportunities across all transport modes'. But by 27 June, he announced that only a tiny part, if any, of his Transport Innovation Fund would even improve major roads, let alone build new ones.

TIF money will rise slowly, from about 275 million pounds in 2008-9 to 2.75 billion by 2015. Initially, at least, most of it will go not on new roads, but on tinkering with traffic management, road pricing schemes, and the enhancement of gauges on those railway lines that carry freight. And like Crossrail, the `schemes' that Alexander says will now be `taken forward' will be taken forward for.`business case development and appraisal'. In the same spirit, Gordon Brown says that the Eddington report will `feed into' his own spending review `from 2008-11'

Well, let's not be too hasty! For the Department Against Transport (DAT), innovation means cutting car journeys, taxing them, and subjecting them to state surveillance through IT. Road congestion and the pollution that attends it are to be solved not through building more roads, for it is thought that selfish motorists will want to drive on them. Instead, New Labour innovation in road transport is now about cramming motorway drivers on to the hard shoulder.

The government has a deep-seated hostility to popular mobility. Of course, it justifies its coercive campaign to change motorists' behaviour in terms of the CO2 issuing from use of conventional petrol. But what does it propose to do about petrol use in terms of new technologies? In March, Brown's Budget ordered transport fuel suppliers to make five per cent of their product available as carbon-friendly biofuels by 2010/11. But the Department Against Transport has since found a new, more important worry. It frets about the `serious risk' that biofuels could themselves be developed `from highly unsustainable sources'. Yes, though biofuels take just 0.25 per cent of the UK transport fuels market at present, the government sees their further development as dangerous. And genetically-modified super-cellulose as the best possible substrate for biofuels? New Labour will never support it.

Government shows a similar disdain for innovation in Britain's major rail links. Germany can hope to put its recent accident with magnetic-levitation trains behind it. China can hope to spread its own version of maglev westwards, to Tibet. But Britain is different. As the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the country's only new major rail line for many years, finally nears completion, the government has allowed Eurostar to strip Ashford, near the Thames Gateway mass housing development, of high-speed trains to Brussels - the political capital of Europe.

Still, in London, there appears to be a positive development. The government has decided to grant legal powers and planning consents to Network Rail in respect of its `Thameslink 2000 rail enhancement scheme' - better north-south railways for the nation's capital. But take a closer look. As DAT minister Stephen Ladyman stressed to parliament, `It is important to note that these decisions do not amount to a final go-ahead for the projects'.

If it is ever finished properly, Thameslink will be improved less around innovation, and more around tunnels that were built back in 1866. The whole atmosphere surrounding rail is steeped in lethargy. For proof, take Transport for London (TfL), the Ken Livingstone bauble that has just found 363million for Balfour Beatty and Carillion to extend the East London line by.2.25 miles. by 2010. Never bashful, TfL continues to protest that `concerns' about Thameslink raised by London Transport back in June 2000 `are still valid': the link's `strong emphasis on outer suburban services' means that it has few benefits for Londoners. For broadminded TfL, Thameslink is therefore of little value.

With air travel, too, New Labour runs a campaign to denigrate technological innovation. Earlier this month, Douglas Alexander told flying enthusiasts in Washington, DC: `We need to develop a coherent strategy encouraging and promoting technical improvements and operational gains - not just in aircraft design and fuel technologies, but also in areas such as air traffic control, which can have a significant impact on emissions.'

With its 787 Dreamliner, a long-haul, mid-sized plane to be flown for the first time next year, Boeing is struggling with composites and engines that, it hopes, will make a machine 20 per cent more fuel-efficient, per passenger, than previous models. Virgin's Sir Richard Branson has said he will invest 1.6 billion to try to put biofuel, not kerosene, into his jets. Some complain that these technological developments are all too little, too late. But what did Douglas Alexander add in the next sentence of his speech? `Relying on technology alone is not enough.'

Maybe so. But relying on new technologies would make a refreshing change from New Labour's ceaseless, tech-lite, authoritarian attempts to wean us stupid, selfish babies from our alleged `addiction' to the car and plane. It would make a change from promises of innovation in rail that amount only to recycling the underground tunnels of properly ambitious but physically diminutive Victorians. It would mean funding more and better international research into higher fuel efficiencies on the road and in the air, not hating motorists and plane users enough to want to tax - or ration - their every movement. Technology alone is not enough. But state controls on personal transport behaviour are always too much. To make people feel guilty every time they drive or fly will be the final triumph for British parochialism.



The British government has vastly underestimated the costs of its green agenda, which could turn out to be up to five times more expensive than ministers are predicting, according to a leaked United Nations (UN) report obtained by The Business. The action recommended by the British Stern Review - keeping greenhouse gas levels at 550 parts per million - would cost up to 5% of global gross domestic product (GDP), according to the UN. This is in stark contrast with the Stern review, which says it will probably cost only 1%. This much lower number is used by Stern to make the case for immediate action and steep taxes to cut back on the emission of greenhouse gases. But the UN estimate undermine Stern's economic rationale.

Stern also said the cost of not acting could be 5% to 20% of global GDP. If the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change figures are right, they open up the possibility that the British proposals would cost as much as they save, making them redundant. The new UN figures, exclusive to The Business, come from a draft copy of the 2007 review of the IPCC, which is the acknowledged global authority on climate change science. The Stern review itself was explicitly based on the IPCC's last report, which didn't calculate the cost of stabilising emissions.

Embarrassingly for the British government, the IPCC has done its own sums on restricting greenhouse gas emission to various levels and has found each of the targets far more expensive than the Stern review claimed.

The debate on what to do about global warming has focused on what target to set for greenhouse gas concentrations, now at 430 parts per million (ppm). On current economic trajectory, it is feared they could reach 700ppm by the end of the century.The Stern review directly links global warming scenarios to greenhouse gas concentration levels. At 550ppm, the studies quoted in the review claim the planet is likely to warm by 3øC. Stern considers this to be dangerous, but not catastrophic. The European Union has set a target of 450ppm but the Stern review said this is unlikely to be achieved because developing economies are growing so quickly. However, the 650ppm limit was shown by Stern as inviting catastrophic climate change.

So the review looks closely at the case for keeping emissions to 550ppm, which it underplays. Stern's executive summary states: "An upper bound for the expected annual cost of emissions consistent with a trajectory leading to stabilisation at 550ppm is likely to be 1% of GDP by 2050."

But the draft copy of the IPCC's Fourth Annual Review, due for publication next year, finds the cost of achieving the same goal to be between "1% and 5% loss of global GDP". The less-ambitious target of stabilising emissions at 650ppm would cost less than 2% of GDP.

The Stern review team would not comment on the draft report as it has not been published. But The Business understands that the leaks were made available to its scientists at the time of compilation.

Sir Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank economist now working for the British Treasury, has admitted from the offset that his report could only work if it was agreed on a global basis. Ministers are to travel to India and America to promote his findings.But being contradicted by IPCC research hardly helps Britain's case, since the IPCC figures are the only ones used to frame the global debate. The leaked UN draft is circulating on the internet and will serve to undermine Stern's authority.

Though the Stern review was received to universal acclaim in London, it has been attacked in other parts of the world for being alarmist and, in some cases, incompetent. His nightmare scenario - global warming costing between 5% to 20% of GDP - was achieved by using an unusually low discount rate in his calculations. This is a standard device to justify investments with a long-term payoff.

The 11-member Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) has already given the Stern Review a cold reception. Mohammed Barkindo, Secretary-General of Opec, attacked the report at an energy conference in Moscow."We find some of the so-called initiatives of the rich industrialised countries, who are supposed to take the lead in combating climate change, rather alarming," he said. Adaptation to climate change, he added, cannot be conducted by "scenarios that have no foundations in either science or economics (referring to the Stern report's publication)".

In Washington, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) said the Stern review would have no traction internationally as its economic mistakes would be instantly recognised by experts in the field. "Stern's costs are actually more expensive than doing nothing about climate change itself," said Iain Murray, senior fellow at CEI specialising in climate change. "This is 'Chicken Little' stuff," said Murray, "except Chicken Little wasn't trying to scare the public in order to create Enron-style con games and line the pockets of Wall Street bankers at the expense of consumers."

This opprobrium sharply contrasts with the Stern review's reception in London, where his conclusions were welcomed by business and accepted by all mainstream British political parties.


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