Sunday, January 28, 2007

British Conservatives go nuts too

They have become the "me too" party

Food and drink manufacturers could be given strict quotas for producing fatty and sugary foods and alcohol under plans to tackle obesity and excessive drinking being considered by the Conservative Party. Under the plan drawn up by the Working Group on Responsible Business, set up by David Cameron last July, producers would be allocated production limits allowing them to produce a certain quantity of fatty food or alcoholic drink. Manufacturers wanting to produce more would have to buy credits from companies prepared to produce less. The regime would give a financial incentive for producers to make products containing less fat, sugar, salt and alcohol.

The consultative paper, aimed at making business more responsible, described obesity and excessive drinking as "social pollutants" that might be tackled in the same way that carbon emissions trading schemes reduced environmental damage. The proposal surprised food and drink makers, who said that the idea was not wanted and would not work.

In the foreword to the paper, Mr Cameron said that he wanted the Conservatives to reclaim responsible business from the Left. While paying tribute to the benefits of capitalism, he said: "I've never believed that we can leave everything to market forces. I'm not prepared to turn a blind eye if the system sometimes leaves casualties in its wake."

Emissions trading had been an invaluable tool in addressing environmental pollution, the paper said. "If . . . social and environmental pollution may be seen as in some ways analagous, might not a process of social emissions trading be a way of addressing some aspects of social pollution?" The amount of fat, sugar and salt in processed foods was easily quantifiable, which would make setting quotas straightforward, the report said. Similarly alcoholic consumption across the country was easily quantified, which would simplify setting quotas for companies. "In this case, companies who lowered the alcohol content of their products would have a significant incentive, as well as selling off alcohol quotas they did not need."

Manufacturers questioned whether the system could work in practice. It would have to be applied to imports to work, and could have the opposite of the desired effect by pushing up the prices of targeted products and so widening profit margins.

Graeme Leach, the policy director of the Institute of Directors said: "This sounds pretty radical. For this to get off the ground a lot of detailed work would have to be done and a very large number of problems would have to be overcome. I don't think it's going to happen."

The Food and Drink Federation was surprised, saying that it was already making progress in reducing fat, salt and sugar levels in processed foods. Spokeswoman Christine Welberry said: "No form of quota system would be wanted by the industry." She said that the FDF had asked to see Mr Cameron but had been rebuffed. "So far he's refused to meet us." The group has also proposed that responsible corporate behaviour be rewarded by lighter regulation. Companies could be awarded bronze, silver and gold standards, according to their behaviour.



A young Indian MP told me a story about the Communist chief minister of the state of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu. Basu’s policies weren’t always popular, and there would often be large demonstrations and sit-down protests outside his office by the disaffected. Basu’s way of dealing with these outcries was to join them. He would slip unobtrusively into the crowd and eventually be found sitting among the protesters, holding a placard or chanting a slogan denouncing his own follies.

Perhaps Mr Basu’s disconcerting tactics have had a wider press than I realised, because in the past few weeks his approach seems to have caught on among British ministers. The Labour Party chair, Hazel Blears, has joined protests in her constituency aimed at saving the local maternity unit from merger. The Chief Whip, Jacqui Smith, has been trying to defend the status quo at the Alexandra Hospital in Redditch, and — perhaps most bizarrely — the junior health minister, Ivan Lewis, has been doing the same with regard to facilities at the Fairfield Hospital in Bury.

The national policy, of course, is to move some facilities to centres of excellence, which would provide a higher standard of medical care. Inevitably, because this involves shutting down smaller local units, the policy becomes the focus of local campaigning which — in Britain — is usually devoted to stopping something from happening, and exercises our native ingenuity at full stretch in discovering reasons as to why it shouldn’t.

Naysaying can sometimes be costly. A recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research argued that successful resistance to the closure of some local A&E departments might well compromise patient care and lead to preventable deaths. “If heart attack victims are taken by ambulance past their local hospital to a specialist centre, they will be more likely to survive,” said the IPPR.

Which is why the Government, of which these three are members, supported the policy. Mr Lewis still does, but not in Bury. Ms Blears does, but not in Salford. Ms Smith does, but not in Redditch. Unsurprisingly the public has noticed that the policy seems to be right in general but wrong in all its specific applications. A BBC poll last weekend registered 72 per cent believing that it was hypocritical for ministers to campaign against the local consequences of their own national policies.

So we are at a strange moment in the recent history of the NHS, its strangeness emphasised because just when there ought to be a sharp political debate about its future, the Conservative Party has decided that it too will join the movement against change, and sit Basu-like on the steps.

By 2008 the Government will have raised the proportion of GDP spent on health in this country from 6.5 per cent to more than 9 per cent, and doubled expenditure in real terms. For that money it has managed a significant reduction in waiting times, an improvement in some key health indicators, a huge increase in numbers of NHS employees and a whacking great pay rise for doctors. Such a government funding bonanza couldn’t last, and the rate of growth will now slow substantially.

Last week we were told by Sir Michael Rawlins, head of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), that healthcare spending would have to rise above 9.3 per cent of GDP in the future to deal with medical inflation and the ageing population. “It is the elephant in the room, really,” he said. PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that there is a tax or an expenditure-cutting crunch coming some time soon if we are to keep up with the desire to maintain or improve health outcomes.

The obvious answer, to judge by yesterday’s news story, is for everyone to get a dog. The even more obvious answer is for everyone to eat properly and take exercise. So we won’t do that. Sections of the Labour Party, looking to its next leader, have begun agitating for a substantial rise in taxes, while simultaneously wanting an end to targets and a reduced reliance on involving the private sector in health. Which will leave us with the GPs’ contract story in spades, whereby we spend lots more money and don’t get much more work.

This should be the cue for the entrance, like a fragrant wind over a stagnant pool, of Mr David Cameron. Yesterday the Conservatives unveiled some of their new thinking on the radical policies needed to deal with the funding gap and get us all looking at health in a different way. Mr Cameron might well have noted that many of Labour’s early failures in health were as a consequence of suggesting, before 1997, that just by changing a policy (in Mr Blair’s case, the internal market), and spending a bit, lots of resource would be made available for patient care. Labour is still paying for that approach.

Mr Cameron must admire the early Blair because he seems hell-bent on repeating the error. First with his absurd Stop the NHS Cuts campaign, in which petitioners can “call on Gordon Brown to stop his mismanagement of the NHS”, and not — note — to provide any extra money, as if this absence of “mismanagement” will magically stop trusts running deficits. And, secondly, with the notion, promulgated yesterday, that all will be well if you just get rid of Labour’s “national top-down” waiting-list and other targets and replace them with Tory health outcome targets, to be called “objectives”, and somehow to be local and bottom-up. The difference is, of course, that everyone in the public sector knows that targets must be hit, while an objective is something you make progress towards. If you can. And if you can’t . . .

As to money: “Tony Blair’s great pledge,” said Mr Cameron, “was to raise health spending in Britain to the European average. Our aim is different — we won’t just concentrate on the money going in, but on what comes out as well.” So nothing about raising money from individuals by extending the scope of charging, which will shift some of the burden away from tax, and which is done in many European countries. Nothing about funding following the patient. Nothing at all, really.

Mr Cameron may well believe that his best chance of power comes from neutralising the fears of a Conservative government, only to be radical once in power. But history suggests that you can only do that if your radicalism goes with the grain of your assault on power. For their own long-term good, and ours, the Tories should be offering what Labour may be too conservative, too hidebound to suggest. They aren’t; and — for all the Basu-like nonsense from his leading colleagues — there still seems to be more chance of radical policies from Gordon Brown than from the Opposition.



BBC comment below:

When the Stern Review into the Economics of Climate Change came out last year, it was showered with praise. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair called it, "the most important report on the future ever published by this government". But expert critics of the review now claim that it overestimates the risk of severe global warming, and underestimates the cost of acting to stop it.

The message from the report's chief author, the economist Sir Nicholas Stern, was simple: if we did nothing about climate change, it would cost us the equivalent of at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. But if we acted today, we could prevent a catastrophe. This point was emphasised at the report's launch by Mr Blair who warned we would see the disastrous consequences of climate change - not in some science fiction future, but in our lifetimes.

These figures sounded scary and imminent. But if you read the report in detail, that is not what it actually says. The 5% damage to global GDP figure will not happen for well over one hundred years, according to Stern's predictions. And the review certainly does not forecast disastrous consequences in our lifetimes.

The report may have been loved by the politicians and headline writers but when climate scientists and environmental economists read the 670-page review, many said there were serious flaws. These critics are not climate change sceptics, but researchers with years of experience who believe that human-induced climate change is real and that we need to act now.

Richard Tol is a professor at both Hamburg and Carnegie Mellon Universities, and is one of the world's leading environmental economists. The Stern Review cites his work 63 times; but that does not mean he agrees with it. "If a student of mine were to hand in this report as a Masters thesis, perhaps if I were in a good mood I would give him a 'D' for diligence; but more likely I would give him an 'F' for fail. "There is a whole range of very basic economics mistakes that somebody who claims to be a Professor of Economics simply should not make," he told The Investigation on BBC Radio 4.

At the core of the Stern Review is an economic comparison between the damage caused by climate change with the costs of cutting our greenhouse gases. Professor Tol believes the figures for damage are exaggerated. "Stern consistently picks the most pessimistic for every choice that one can make. He overestimates through cherry-picking, he double counts particularly the risks and he underestimates what development and adaptation will do to impacts," he said.

Many economists are also sceptical about the figures Stern uses to estimate the costs of reducing are greenhouse gas emissions. The review suggests this will cost only 1% of GDP but according to Yale University Economist Robert Mendelsohn, this is far too optimistic and the figure could easily be much higher. "One of the depressing things about the greenhouse gas problem is that the cost of eliminating [it] is quite high. We will actually have to sacrifice a great deal to cut emissions dramatically," he said.

But it is not just economists who have found fault with the Stern Review; climate scientists have also been critical. Next week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its fourth report. It is designed to be the authoritative statement on the state of global warming science. Anyone expecting to see the scary figures of the Stern report repeated is going to be disappointed. The predictions in the IPCC report will be significantly lower. For instance, the Stern review comes up with a figure for temperature increase by 2050 of 2-3 degrees, whereas the IPCC says this will probably not happen until the end of the century.

Professor Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, believes that when the IPCC report comes out next week, there will be a big difference between the science it contains and the climate debate in the UK. "The IPCC is not going to talk about tipping points; it's not going to talk about 5m rises in sea level; it's not going to talk about the next ice age because the Gulf Stream collapses; and it's going to have none of the economics of the Stern Review," he said. "It's almost as if a credibility gap has emerged between what the British public thinks and what the international science community think."

When we put this comment to Sir Nicholas Stern, he replied: "The IPCC is a good process but it does depend on consensus and it means that they have to be quite cautious in what they say. "We were able to look to the evidence and use it in a very particular way, to look at the economics of risk." Sir Nicholas is aware of the increasing number of academic critiques of his review, but remains certain about his conclusions. "It is very important that the report is discussed; a number of people have raised interesting points and we will be discussing them all. "There are no certainties; but the broad conclusion that the costs of action are a good deal less than the damages they save, I think is pretty robust."

None of Stern's critics are advocating doing nothing about climate change. What they disagree about is how much it is worth sacrificing now to try to prevent a worst-case scenario in a hundred years' time.

BBC News, 25 January 2007. You can listen to the full BBC Investigation of the Stern Review here.

Britain: Libertarian traffic management coming?

Traffic lights, road signs and white lines would be removed from many high streets across the country under Conservative proposals to improve safety and reduce congestion by giving drivers and pedestrians equal status. Road humps, chicanes and other physical measures designed to reduce the speed of vehicles would be removed and the question of who had priority would be left open deliberately, making drivers more cautious.

The Conservatives are planning to publish a "green paper" on roads this year which will borrow heavily from so-called shared-space schemes in the Netherlands, where pedestrians, cyclists and cars are encouraged to mingle. Kerbs in several Dutch towns have been removed and the boundaries between the pavement and road blurred deliberately to prevent people from assuming they have right of way. Traffic lights have been uprooted and drivers must negotiate their way across junctions, forcing them to slow down and establish eye contact with pedestrians.

In the town of Drachten, the removal of traffic lights at one major junction has resulted in accidents falling from thirty-six in the four years before the scheme was introduced to two in the next two years. The average time for each vehicle to cross the junction fell from 50 seconds to 30 seconds, despite a rise in the volume of traffic.

Owen Paterson, the Shadow Transport Minister, visited Drachten and other Dutch towns. He told The Times: "There are some great ideas here which I would like to see in Britain. It's the opposite of the 1960s ethos of separating cars and pedestrians. By removing road signs and traffic lights and changing the appearance of the road, you avoid the impression that areas are designated just for cars. "The idea is to create space where there is mild anxiety among everyone so they all behave cautiously. No one thunders along at 30mph on a high street thinking that they have priority." Mr Paterson said that putting up more speed limit signs and painting more lines on the road had failed to make streets safer. "Instead of the State laying down the rules, we need to give responsibility back to road users. It's about creating an environment where it just doesn't feel right to drive faster than 20mph."

Some aspects of the shared space approach have already been adopted on London streets that have high numbers of pedestrians. At Seven Dials in Covent Garden, the road surface has been altered to give it the appearance of a pedestrian area and kerbs have been lowered to encourage people to wander across the street. In Kensington High Street, almost 600 metres of railings have been removed to allow pedestrians to cross where they want. The results have discredited the belief that railings prevent accidents: in the two years after they were removed, pedestrian casualties declined three times faster than the London average. Traffic engineers believe that drivers are now keeping a sharper eye out for pedestrians because they know that they may cross at any point.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is planning to introduce shared space ideas to Sloane Square next year. The aim is to encourage pedestrians to make greater use of the square, which is currently marooned by busy roads. A similar scheme is being planned for Exhibition Road.The idea of removing traffic lights was supported in a report published last month by the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Martin Cassini, the report's author, said: "Removing lights removes barriers to traffic flow and improves behaviour. If you observe a junction where the lights are out of action, there is rarely congestion. People approach slowly, wave each other on and filter in turn. Lights and other controls hamper instead of harness human nature, causing untold delay and harm."


That Pesky Woodpile Inhabitant Again

We read:

"A chief executive at one of the UK's largest financial services companies has apologised for using the phrase "n*gger in the woodpile".

Trevor Matthews, head of Standard Life's life and pensions business, made the comment at a staff presentation at its Edinburgh headquarters on Monday.

Matthews has posted an apology on the company's internal website and said the comment was "a terrible mistake".


To the best of my recollection, the expression comes from an old story in which a black thief hid in a woodpile -- a story from those dim faroff days when you were allowed to criticize anyone you wanted to.

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