Sunday, May 25, 2008


The British Government has two policies on oil prices. The first is that the price we pay for oil is too high, and must be brought down. The second is that the price we pay for oil is too low, and must be increased. The second policy rests its case on the Stern Review's assertion that the price consumers are charged for fossil fuels is "the biggest market failure in history" - because it doesn't take account of the "climate costs" they allegedly impose on future generations.

Gordon Brown gave the now-celebrated economist Nicholas Stern a personal standing ovation when he delivered his report on the economics of climate change; the fuel price escalator - abandoned at the time of the road hauliers' protests and blockades in 2000 - is set to resume. Even without that, taxes on petrol and diesel are dramatically higher in the UK than in any other European country - we lead the world in fuel duties. So you might think that Gordon Brown would be delighted that crude oil prices have soared recently - isn't the market doing what Lord Stern of Brentford and the Government ordered as environmentally essential: to make us use less of the stuff? Apparently not.

This week the Prime Minister told the Google Zeitgeist conference: "It is, as people recognise, a scandal that 40 per cent of the [world's] oil is controlled by Opec, that their decisions can restrict the supply of oil to the rest of the world, and that a time when oil is desperately needed, and supply needs to expand, that Opec can withhold supply from the market."

This is not the first time that Mr Brown has attacked Opec in such terms. He did so - not coincidentally - when there was a sharp upward turn in petrol prices in 2005: it was the then Chancellor Brown who told the Confederation of British Industry that it was all Opec's fault for not producing more oil.

This produced a withering retort from the then Opec president, Sheikh Ahmad Fahd al-Sabah. He pointed out that the British Exchequer was taxing fuel at a rate of 75 per cent and asked who would buy the extra millions of barrels a day of oil that Mr Brown was calling for: "If he would like to have it I would be happy to sell it to him."

What Sheikh Ahmad observed then remains true today. There is not a shortage of crude oil - inventories are at normal levels, worldwide. Have you seen any queues at petrol stations? Do you know of any? Are there any queues at gas filling stations in the United States? Nope.

Far from operating as a restrictive cartel - whatever their aspirations - 12 of the 13 members of Opec are pumping out oil at maximum capacity. Saudi Arabia alone has the flexibility to produce more than their current output, but they are already producing well in excess of their official Opec quota.

Last week, in response to a personal plea from President George Bush, the Saudis agreed to increase their output by a further 300,000 barrels of oil a day. The announcement had no effect in halting the upward rush of the market price.

That is because most of the recent surge has been driven by oil "futures": the financial houses which dominate this market are convinced that oil production in the years ahead will not be able to meet demand - and so they believe that they will be able to sell "future" barrels of oil for more than they are now paying for them.

At the moment, however, there is enough oil in the market to meet immediate demand - and the Saudis argue that if there is a supply crunch coming in the years ahead, isn't that when they should be producing more, rather than now?

To the extent that there are already bottlenecks in the system, this is principally due to shortfalls in refining capacity. You can't put crude oil into a motor car - at least not if you want it to move. Yet for other environmental reasons - called "not in my back yard" - over the past 30 years there have been no new refineries built in the US or Europe. Is that another "scandal" that can be blamed on Opec?

On the same day that Mr Brown fulminated against Opec, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation enabling the Justice Department to sue Opec members under anti-trust laws for "limiting oil supplies". President Bush has said that he will veto any such bill. He probably remembers how in 1986 his father - then the Vice-President - pleaded with the Saudis to cut back their production when the oil price had collapsed below $10 a barrel. They did so - thus saving the oil-producing states of Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma from economic meltdown.

This underlined the paradox at the heart of the West's attitude to Opec: it is rightly suspicious of the operations of a cartel, but at the same time wants the price stability that Opec itself claims as its principal objective.

In this context, the dispute between Gordon Brown and Opec is not about production at all: it is a squabble over who collects the rent. The Prime Minister wants the British consumer to pay a very high price for petrol and diesel, but for the British Government (as tax-collector and distributor of benefits) to be the principal beneficiary rather than the countries which actually produce the black stuff.

This racket worked well when crude oil prices were at historically low levels. It enabled Chancellor Brown - even with the fuel price revolt in 2000 - to siphon off vast revenues in indirect taxes without facing insuperable public dissatisfaction.

The other truth which Gordon Brown evades is that Britain is also a significant oil producer: the soaring price of crude is producing a windfall from taxes on companies operating in the North Sea. If current prices hold, they will generate extra above-Budget Petroleum Revenue taxes this year sufficient on their own to fund the 2.7bn pound cost of the desperate Crewe by-election hand-out announced last week by Chancellor Darling.

Although this is not the purpose of Gordon Brown's oil taxation policies, if he does want to help to destroy Opec, he is going about it the right way. The more expensive it becomes to buy gasoline, the more people will find ways of not using so much of it. Much of the current hysteria seems based on the idea that demand for oil can not be reduced. Of course it can, and will: last year the supposedly incorrigible US reduced its oil consumption by 5 per cent.

It could just be that the speculators who have driven up the price of crude oil futures to such a giddy height might discover that they have dramatically misread the market: if the sub-prime crisis has taught us anything, it should be that a speculative bubble has the capacity to burst -indeed, that is what bubbles do.

Meanwhile, however much the Prime Minister is worried about the public's rage at high fuel prices, he really shouldn't try to persuade us that it's entirely the fault of grasping Arabs.

The level of fuel duty and VAT is clearly stated on every gas station forecourt in the land - and we all know who is responsible for that.


Two million Britons emigrate in 10 years

Two million British citizens have left the UK in a decade, the greatest exodus from this country in almost a century, new figures will show. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) will release figures showing that more than 200,000 Britons emigrated during 2006. That will take the total number who left the country between 1997 and 2006 to 1.97 million. Another 1.58 million foreign nationals resident in Britain left during the same period. However, 3.9 million foreigners arrived over the decade, including more than 500,000 in 2006.

The body will publish the raft of immigration figures on Tuesday, as MPs prepare to dismiss the national statisticians' data as "not fit for purpose" and demand an overhaul of the way population movements are measured. On Thursday, the Treasury sub-committee of the House of Commons will conclude that the lack of reliable and up-to-date figures for immigrant populations is hampering Government policy both nationally and locally.

ONS figures only go back to 1991, but some historians say the departure of two million Britons in a decade is almost unparalleled in the country's history. According to figures compiled by Jay Winter, of Yale University, the last comparable exodus came between 1911 and 1914, when 2.4 million people left Britain. The other significant spike in emigration came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when thousands of Britons left to start new lives in Australia, Canada and the United States.

The Institute for Public Policy Research, a think-tank, has estimated that there are more than 5.5 million British citizens living abroad. Jill Rutter, a senior migration researcher at the IPPR, said the recent exodus marked "probably the greatest period of emigration we've ever seen". She said: "A lot of this is people retiring abroad, which is a relatively new phenomenon and is only possible because we are all better off . "There is also a much more internationalised labour market and workforce - it is now quite commonplace for people to go abroad to work for a year or more." Immigrants who come to this country, gain citizenship and then leave also add to the total of British emigrants.

Opposition parties say that some emigrants have been driven out of Britain by its high levels of crime and taxation. "This explosion in emigration is inevitably a reflection of the state of the country under a Labour government," said David Davis, the shadow home secretary.


Disruptive pupils to be privatized

Private companies are to be given the go-ahead to take over the running of specialist units for teaching the country's most disruptive state school pupils. Ministers are considering allowing them to profit from the provision under a shake-up of the way specialist pupil referral units are run, outlined in a White Paper yesterday. The move is expected to pave the way for firms such as Group 4 Securicor and Serco, which are already highly involved in the public sector, to take over units. A spokesman for Group 4 Securicor said the firm would study the proposals and "assess whether there are opportunities to provide additional public services".

The proposal to allow the involvement of commercial companies alarmed Britain's biggest teachers' union, the National Union of Teachers, which said it was "a deeply worrying rubicon" for the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, to cross. In the past, firms running local authority services have been allowed to make profits, but not mainstream schools.

Christine Blower, the acting general secretary of the NUT, said it would lead to companies "making economies in provision for the most vulnerable people". She added: "The last thing pupil referral units need is to be outsourced to private companies. Such a move would only increase their sense of isolation from other local authority provision."

The White Paper published research that showed that 99 per cent of pupils taught in the units failed to reach the Government's benchmark of five top-grade GCSE passes. Nearly nine out of 10 of the 135,000 children taught in the units every year also fail to obtain five GCSE passes at any grade.

Under the proposals, ministers plan to invite competition for running pupil referral units, nicknamed "sin bins". They are anxious to encourage private companies and voluntary groups or charities - such as the Prince's Trust and Barnardo's to run the units. Independent schools with a record of offering boarding places for deprived children in danger of being taken into care - such as Rugby - would also be invited to apply as would sponsors of the Government's flagship academies.

Sir Alan Steer, the headteacher appointed by the Government to head an inquiry into school discipline, warned that the pupil referral units had become "the forgotten service". "Vulnerable children can be placed with others who are displaying serious criminal tendencies," he said in a letter to Mr Balls. Mr Balls said he wanted the units to offer more places to pupils at risk of expulsion - rather than those already excluded from school. "We can then help them to access the right support before the behaviour spirals out of control and reaches the point of exclusion," he said.


NHS Hospitals still not getting clean bill of health from patients

Patients experience wide variations in cleanliness and "striking" differences in some areas of patient care while in hospital, a national survey by the country's health watchdog shows. The Healthcare Commission found that patients treated in NHS hospitals are generally satisfied with their care, and a growing proportion rate it as excellent. But there are increasing concerns about cleanliness, and fewer patients than in previous surveys believed that doctors and nurses always washed their hands between patients.

The biggest variations came in how long patients were kept waiting for admission to hospital, their experience of mixed-sex wards, the quality of food and the help they were given in eating it. The survey, which has been carried out annually since 2002, questioned 75,000 adult patients at 165 trusts. In general, the results show that patient satisfaction is inching up.

Those rating their overall care as "excellent", for example, went up from 41 per cent in 2006 to 42 per cent in 2007. In 2002, the first year of the survey, it was 38 per cent. The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic and District Hospital NHS Trust in Shropshire ranked top last year with 77 per cent reporting excellent care, and Ealing Hospital NHS Trust in London bottom, with 24 per cent.

Patients also reported slight improvements in how long they waited in accident and emergency before being admitted to a ward. In 2007 73 per cent said that they waited up to four hours, compared with 72 per cent in 2006 and 67 per cent in 2002. The number of patients reporting that their hospital was "very clean" fell from 56 per cent in 2002 to 53 per cent in 2006, and the same figure in 2007. Among the best performing trusts, around 80 per cent said their room or ward was "very clean". But fewer than half of patients reported that lavatories and bathrooms were very clean. In the best trusts this figure was as high as 81 per cent but in the worst was as low as 22 per cent.

The survey found that 68 per cent of patients said that, as far as they knew, doctors "always" washed their hands between patients, down 1 per cent on last year. At the worst-performing trust, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, only 45 per cent said yes. At the best, Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in East Grinstead, 88 per cent said yes.

About a quarter of people reported being in a mixed-sex ward when first admitted to hospital, and a fifth when they moved wards, both figures showing slight improvements compared with last year. More than a fifth of patients (22 per cent) complained that nurses "often or sometimes" talked over their heads as if they weren'tthere, and that a similar proportion of doctors did the same.

Food was rated as good or very good by 55 per cent of respondents, up 1 per cent since 2006. In the highest-scoring trust for food, Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic and District Hospital, 62 per cent of patients rated it "very good" while in the worst, Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust, only 8 per cent said it was very good.

Ann Keen, the Health Minister, said: "This survey gives a real insight into what patients think about their care, with many reporting high levels of trust in NHS staff, high standards of care and high rates of cleanliness during their stay in hospital. "But we are not complacent. We will continue to listen to patients and work on those areas where improvements need to continue."

Anna Walker, chief executive of the Healthcare Commission, said: "This survey gives the most comprehensive picture available of how patients feel about NHS hospitals. And, importantly, it allows comparisons between trusts across the country. "Overall, it's encouraging that a steadily increasing percentage of patients say care is `excellent'. But the survey also shows that in some hospitals the NHS is struggling to deliver on some of the basics of hospital care. There are striking variations in performance in key areas such as providing single-sex accommodation and giving people help when they need it. Those performing poorly must learn from those who perform well. "It's crucial that trusts take this information on board. The patient voice must be heard loudly on the boards of trusts across the country."


The frustrations of life in overcrowded and over-governed socialist Britain

Stuck in a jam as I was approaching a roundabout, I gazed idly out of the window. A car beeped behind. In my daze I'd not noticed that the line of traffic had advanced. I caught up with the queue and as I reached the junction the beeper pulled level, his face gargoyled with rage. "You stupid c***!" he screamed in my face. As he careered off, adrenaline kicked in. For a second I considered pursuit, barging his Audi estate into the kerbside, leaping out Grand Theft Auto-style and then I'd . . . what? Kill him with a single deft blow? Rub him out with my Walther PPK? Instead I continued on a mission to the charity shop with my bin-bags of old tat.

But the incident left me oddly shaken. His obscene fury was so disproportionate to my offence. I hadn't rashly pulled out, frightened or endangered him. I had merely delayed his progress by nanoseconds. Not even that, since I was still locked in a queue.

Sometimes London life seems built upon a thin and fragile crust through which a bubbling magma of anger could, at any moment, blow. Which is what happened in a baker's shop a few miles from here last week when Jimmy Mizen, out buying sausage rolls with his brother, refused a challenge to a fight and instead had his throat cut with a shard of glass. And then in McDonald's on Oxford Street on Monday when a row over a thrown drink ended with a man bleeding to death on the pavement, a knife in his heart.

When yet another young man dies, I scan the reports for words that will afford me some solace: gang slaying, feud, grudge, crack house, sink estate, 2am, drug-related, excessive alcohol . . . These words make me feel a little safer. They largely have nothing to do with my life. I can, I tell myself, protect my sons from these words. But when Jimmy's mother, Margaret Mizen, said "it was anger that killed my son", I know I am powerless. Because anger is unconfined: it lurks in the middle of the day, in public places; it erupts between total strangers. Anger turns a random encounter into deadly violence.

"There is too much anger in the world," said Mrs Mizen. There is certainly too much in London. A friend, trying to cross a road, was hit on the shoulder by the wing mirror of a passing van: it deliberately swerved to wallop her. A guy at my gym says that out cycling he slapped the face of a delivery driver who'd honked at him. Aghast, I say he could have been stabbed, but he just makes a defiant, macho bring-it-on gesture, then admits he sped off when the driver began reaching inside his glove compartment.

A study by the Mental Health Foundation found that a quarter of us worry about how angry we feel. And yet just what are we angry about, with lives of unprecedented safety, surplus and comfort? I have always marvelled at the grumpiness of guests in luxury resorts: after a short time being waited upon in paradise, having flunkies pick up damp towels, one's mood can be ruined by a deckchair being positioned at the wrong angle to the sun, a drink's insufficient chill. Similiarly with our basic needs more than satisfied and our homes piled with consumer goodies, like brattish heiresses we rail against the slightest irritation.

I spend a ludicrous amount of my life angry about nothing much. Usually casual public thoughtlessness: mothers blocking small shops with their humungous o500 prams, nurses addressing dignified elderly ladies by their first names or, in my eco-wrath, anyone buying cases of bottled still water. Or brand new arbitrary regulations imposed seemingly to irritate and confound: such as Tesco's policy of banning parents buying booze if accompanied by children.

Why do these things rile me? Because the world seems beyond control, the old certainties gone. Or am I just getting old? The anger management industry would, of course, have it that we are in need of their expensive ministrations. But are we really more angry or do we just express it more?

To lose one's temper is no longer to be diminished or shamed; it is a sign of emotional health rather than a dearth of reason. All anger is righteous now. It is conflated with drive, passion, energy, a means to affect progress. Gordon Ramsay - whose confected ire is almost unwatchable - every week says goodbye to his F-Word celebrity guest with the catchphrase "Now f*** off out of my kitchen!" and we're supposed to be endeared by his rough-diamond charm.

Anger becomes such a reflexive response that you do not realise how much it has penetrated your soul until you travel. Even New York seems less brimming with outrage, a collision in a crowd more likely to spark a "pardon me" than a glower. Visiting Australia, I heard a news item in which an educational survey had found modern Oz children the most illiterate and stupid ever. In Britain such a report would have provoked weeks of self-flagellating fury: Australia shrugged and headed for the beach.

Last summer in Slovenia, Europe's most easy-going state, I was walking with my son past a line of cars when one started to reverse right at us. My London self banged hard on the back of the vehicle and made a furious hand gesture. The passengers in the car slowly turned, their eyes wide, their mouths agape at the crazy lady. "Mum," said my son. "That was way too angry."

Yes, I was London angry: the sense that everyone is out to shaft you, nip into your parking place, rip you off, frustrate your efforts to get home, grind you into the tarmac. Anger is the sound of entitlement, the urge to have your existence acknowledged. And for the young and poor and reckless, anger voices their lack of power, control, self-esteem. And, since it will swiftly meet the anger of others, it must be armed with fists and knives, guns and hard dogs.

Anger is a buzz, an addiction. Clearly we were designed for more than our modern functions. We are healthier, stronger, better fed and educated than any humans yet born. And yet we are the most underchallenged. Here we are, creatures capable of building cathedrals, surviving trench warfare or traversing oceans, wandering dead-eyed around B&Q. "People need to find peace, not anger," said Mrs Mizen.

But alas "going off on one"- about Iraq, Cherie Blair, the tall, sweet boy in the bakery or the dozy woman driver in front - is the only time some people feel briefly and iridescently alive.


Muslim English teacher admits to plot to blow up mall : "A Muslim English teacher yesterday today pleaded guilty to threatening to blow up the giant Bluewater shopping centre. Saeed Ghafoor said he was going to bomb Europe's largest shopping complex using three limousines with gas canister explosives. But when questioned further, the former English teacher said Bluewater was in Exeter, the Old Bailey heard. When told it was near the Dartford tunnel in Kent, Ghafoor said he had not 'finalised' his plans, the Old Bailey was told. Ghafoor, 33, of Southampton, pleaded guilty to threatening to cause criminal damage".

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