Monday, December 11, 2006


The chairman of the Labour party, Hazel Blears, has warned that immigration is set to explode as an issue before the next general election in a way "unseen before in UK politics". Blears suggests the government's argument that the current policy benefits the economy holds little sway with voters, and says Labour risks appearing "unconcerned and out of touch".

In an intervention which will surprise cabinet colleagues, she told The Sunday Times: "Labour must address people's concerns about immigration head on. "Simply making the `liberal' argument that immigration is good for the economy, or starting from the viewpoint of `human rights' does not give people the reassurance that politicians understand people's genuine concerns."

Blears has been alarmed by an internal analysis of campaigns by the Labour party in Keighley, West Yorkshire, where the British National party (BNP) is particularly active. The document, which has been seen by The Sunday Times, is being studied closely at Labour headquarters. It says the party's failure to address public concern about immigration is playing into the hands of both the Tories and the BNP and warns that Labour "will not be forgiven by the electorate" if it does not address the problem.

In a further warning to Labour, the report says the Asian community in Keighley is becoming "disengaged". The threat is being taken seriously by Blears, who believes there is a risk that support for Labour from Asians is diminishing elsewhere in the country. The document also questions the quality and performance of some Labour councillors in the area, describing some as "woefully inadequate". It says potential Labour voters are defecting to the BNP, not because they are racist, but because they believe their "genuine grievances" are being ignored by mainstream parties...

Blears's warning comes after Tony Blair, the prime minister, declared that immigrants who do not like British values should leave the country...

More here

UK: School or training plan for all under-18s

Imprisoning kids in useless schools for even longer -- what a lovely authoritarian dream

Moves to compel teenagers to stay on in school or training until 18 have been set in train by the government, the Guardian has learned. Alan Johnson, the education and skills secretary, a strong supporter of raising the minimum school leaving age from 16, is understood to have asked officials to begin work on a green paper examining ways to implement the change, for publication next year. The paper will not propose forcing pupils to stay in the classroom behind a desk after 16, but is likely to seek to ensure that if they leave school they move into training, study for a new diploma or take a job with training and a qualification attached.

Mr Johnson has been inspired by reforms in Ontario, Canada, where children now face a legal requirement to stay on full-time at school or college or enter formal training until 18. Introducing a similar law here could help tackle Britain's woeful record on dealing with the significant and persistent proportion of teenagers who slip through the net of work and study. Government figures released last week show 13% of 18-year-olds in England and Wales are in the so-called NEET category - not in education, employment or training. The proportion has remained fixed throughout Labour's nine years in office, and a report this week for the Rowntree Foundation said failure to deal with this group had damaged the government's drive to tackle poverty.

Moves by Mr Johnson to use legal change to try to crack the NEET problem comes as research shows that obliging teenagers to stay on even a short time longer at school boosts their chances of continuing in education or moving into employment, as well as increasing their earning power. A study for the institute for social and economic research at Essex University investigated the progress of individuals reaching school leaving age between 1962 and 1997. During this period, leaving-age pupils whose birthdays fell in the first half of the school year were allowed by law to leave school at the beginning of the Easter holiday (a right Tony Blair's government swiftly abolished), while their younger classmates had to stay on until the end of May.

Researchers compared the progress of students in both groups and found that forcing teenagers to stay on in school until the summer increased the likelihood they would stay on in full-time education by 12 percentage points. It also raised the probability that they would gain a qualification at age 16 by between 2.5% and 3.5%. In addition, there were workplace benefits, with those who had to stay in school showing about 1% higher employment rates and earning 2% more. But researchers Emilia Del Bono and Fernando Galindo-Rueda also found that this boost at work occurred only once the school leaving age was raised from 15 to 16 in 1974, so that the extra term in school meant students took more O levels, CSEs or GCSEs. The lesson for the government, they conclude, is that spending more time at school only has a long-term effect if students use the time to gain a qualification that employers then reward. "In short, exam dates matter," the study says.



Sufferers from some conditions (such as histadelia) are told to avoid folic acid. Looks like no convenient bread purchases for them in future!

Britain will take the first step towards mass medication of the population this week with the publication of proposals to add the vitamin folic acid to bread. A report commissioned by ministers will recommend the compulsory fortification of flour and bread with folic acid to help prevent babies being born with birth defects. It will say the benefits seen in the United States and Canada, where the strategy has helped reduce birth defects such as spina bifida by as much as 50%, justify such state intervention.

It will, however, be controversial: critics claim it takes away individual choice and could have other health risks, including contributing to neurological damage in the elderly. In Australia, where a similar proposal is being advocated, there has been vocal opposition from the food industry, which claims it is backed by up to 90% of the public in polls.

In Britain, the move is being proposed by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, which was commissioned by ministers to examine the case for adding folic acid to bread. Scientists believe compulsorily adding folic acid to flour could prevent more than 150 cases a year in which babies develop neural tube defects. Some of these are aborted. Babies can develop such defects - abnormalities of the brain and spine - if the mother is deficient in folic acid when she conceives. Women are encouraged to take folic acid supplements when they are planning to have a child but because almost half of all births in Britain are unplanned, many women are not taking the tablets when they become pregnant.

Andrew Russell, chief executive of the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, said: "Hundreds of abortions are carried out every year in the UK for spina bifida, and a lot of severely disabled babies are still being born. "It is the poorest and most educationally underprivileged who are most at risk of a spina bifida pregnancy. Unfortunately, relying on women to plan pregnancy and take a folic acid supplement in advance is unrealistic in many cases."

While most doctors agree that adding folic acid to bread could benefit pregnant women, some medical professionals say the proposal could be to the detriment of the elderly. Evidence has shown that folic acid can mask the deficiency of another vitamin, B12, a common medical complaint in the over-65s. This week the Food Standards Agency will launch a three-month-long public consultation on the proposal before ministers make a final decision on its introduction.

Meanwhile, parents are expected to be told by the government's health regulator this week to eat meals with their children, ration how much television they watch and replace the school run with a walk or cycle. In one of the biggest attempts to influence the way people live their daily lives, the watchdog responsible for the way the National Health Service spends its money will announce guidelines to help tackle the obesity epidemic. The advice from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) is expected to tell families to start their day by eating breakfast together, preferably including one of the five recommended daily portions of fruit and vegetables. The family should then embark on a more active journey to work or school, possibly cycling or walking part of the way. This could even involve some obese adults being given "personalised travel plans".

Despite growing concern over the sedentary and unhealthy lifestyles of many children, critics are likely to see the guidance as a further move towards an overbearing nanny state. For those who do need to slim down the guidance will set out the type of diets they should follow. Crash diets resulting in weight loss of more than 2lb a week will be ruled out, as will regimes based on restricted foods such as the so-called cabbage soup diet. As reported in The Sunday Times earlier this year, Nice will recommend stomach-stapling surgery for obese children on the NHS at an estimated cost of 10,000 pounds per operation. [So: Plenty of money for an essentially cosmetic procedure while everyone else waits!]



One month after Sir Nicholas Stern published his review of the economics of climate change, his peers have had time to say what they think of his work. And the answer, it seems, is: not a lot. Sir Nicholas, the head of the British government's economic service, concluded that the potential costs of climate change were so large, and the costs of shifting away from fossil fuels so relatively modest, that the world should take urgent action. Those who disagree with that analysis and prescription fall into three main camps.

The first group says that he lacks political realism?a charge made by Robert Samuelson, in the Washington Post, when he called the report "a masterpiece of misleading public relations." Policies that might curb greenhouse gases, Mr Samuelson said, would "require politicians and the public to act in exceptionally `enlightened' (read: `unrealistic') ways." They would have to impose and bear costs that would not deliver returns until after they were dead. This may be true, but it is unfair as a criticism of the Stern review, which took this problem as a starting point.

A second camp has accused the report of selection bias. One eminent climate-change economist, Richard Tol, complains that, "For water, agriculture, health and insurance, the Stern review consistently selects the most pessimistic study in the literature." There is something in this, though Sir Nicholas would claim that he chose his studies according to the robustness of their methodology.

A third line of criticism, made by William Nordhaus, a father of climate-change economics, has emerged as the most forceful. It turns on fairness, and how we place a value today on benefits in the future. When economists do a cost-benefit analysis, they try to place a present-day value on benefits assumed to be enjoyed in the future. To do this they discount the future value by an annual percentage rate, a discount rate, which is typically set at around 3-5%. But such calculations are typically done for benefits expected to come in 20, 30 or, at most, 50 years' time. Climate-change economics requires a time horizon of centuries. A typical discount rate would assign almost no current value to benefits accruing in, say, the 23rd century. So why spend money today on something with no apparent value today?

Sir Nicholas argues that, in this case, we are wrong to use a typical discount rate. How can we say that our great-great-great-grandchildren are worth less than we are worth ourselves? He argues for a discount rate of 0.1%. That places a much higher present-day value on benefits accruing centuries into the future, and thus makes a stronger case for spending money now.

Mr Nordhaus retorts that there are other ways to look at the ethics of inter-generational investment. One option would be to take into account the expected wealth of future generations. Global per capita consumption is increasing by 1.3% a year in real terms. At that rate today's average income per head, of $7,600, would rise to $94,000 by 2200. If climate change were to reduce global income by 13.8% over the same period (a figure derived from Stern), the average income per head would rise to $81,000 rather than $94,000. On that basis, says Mr Nordhaus, it would be fairer to constrain the income of future and richer generations, than to impose additional costs on a poorer generation today.

Mr Nordhaus does not contend that the world should do nothing about greenhouse-gas emissions. But he questions the confidence with which the Stern report concludes that lots of things should be done, and fast. The "central questions" about any policy response to global warming, says Mr Nordhaus, "how much, how fast, and how costly?remain open". As far as he and like-minded critics are concerned, the Stern report has informed the debate about climate change, but has not come anywhere near resolving it.


British Conservatives back return to Victorian values: "The Conservatives are to launch a crusade for personal morality to try to halt what they say is a breakdown in traditional family values. It comes in the wake of a Tory report that says unmarried parents are driving a generation of children into crime and drug dependency. Dominic Grieve, the shadow attorney-general, said last night that people who tackle teenage yobs should not be prosecuted for assault. He added that strict Victorian values on family life had in some ways been successful. The Tories claim the rise in cohabitation and single parenthood is unleashing a social and economic crisis. In an appeal to grassroots supporters, the party will this week put the promotion of marriage back at the heart of its agenda, warning of dire consequences if more couples are not encouraged to wed. A report commissioned by David Cameron, the Tory leader, claims the breakdown of the family is driving boys into the arms of street gangs at an annual cost to the country of more than £20 billion... It is the first heavyweight submission by the panels Cameron set up when he became leader to thrash out party policy. The interim report of the Social Justice Policy Group, headed by Iain Duncan Smith, gives an insight into the possible elements of the party’s next election manifesto. It warns that family breakdown, drug and alcohol addiction, welfare dependency and educational failure have created an underclass mired in misery and “cut off from much of mainstream society”. The burgeoning underclass also “threatens the wellbeing of middle-class people living in once tranquil neighbourhoods”. The report suggests that without a radical reappraisal of government policy towards marriage and the family, social tensions will grow, fuelling violent crime.

Britain. Islamic martyrdom redefined: "A government-backed Islamic organisation is teaching young Muslims that dying while fighting for the British armed forces is an act of martyrdom. The British Muslim Forum (BMF) explains to young people that even if a Muslim soldier dies in combat while fighting in an Islamic country such as Afghanistan, he will still be regarded as a martyr and a hero for this country. The BMF is holding talks across Britain to persuade young people not to follow the teachings of Muslim extremists who instruct their followers that joining the British military is a "traitorous act". Its aim is to counter radicals' misuse of the term "martyr", which has become associated with terrorist suicide operations."

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