Sunday, June 01, 2008


The Government was struggling to maintain its green taxation agenda on transport this week amid truckers' fuel protests, a media onslaught and a revolt by its own backbenchers.

The unrest continues a miserable few weeks for green transport policy advocates, following on from the election defeat of Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral elections and of Roger Jones, the public face of Greater Manchester's congestion charging plans in the local elections (LTT?16 May).

Ministers, already alarmed at Labour's plummeting poll ratings and stung by this month's byelection defeat in Crewe and Nantwich, this week insisted that they were in listening mode to the protestors, which suggests they may be prepared to abandon policies that are central to their attempts to reduce transport's carbon dioxide emissions.

Truckers took to the streets of London and Cardiff this week to protest at the rocketing price of diesel. The Freight Transport Association says the cost of diesel has risen 34% in the last year and by 15% (14 pence per litre) since the beginning of the year.

As a minimum, the haulage sector wants the Government to commit to abandon the 2p per litre rise in fuel duty planned for the autumn. But the sector also wants a duty cut. "There is nothing to stop the Government, other than political will, reducing the duty on diesel down to EU average levels of 25p per litre from its current level of 50.35p per litre," said Simon Chapman, the FTA's chief economist.

As LTT closed for press, 42 MPs, many of them Labour, had signed an Early Day Motion calling for the Government to reconsider the proposed restructuring of vehicle excise duty from April next year. This will see the owners of vehicles with high carbon dioxide emissions pay considerably more and MPs are particularly unhappy that the new levels of VED?will apply retrospectively to vehicles registered since 2001.

The VED?issue was one of the components of the Tories' Crewe and Nantwich byelection, victory with the party distributing hundreds of campaign leaflets titled 'Grant theft auto' - a play on words from the popular computer game of the same name.

Newspapers have joined in the protests with the Telegraph, Express and Mirror among those running campaigns in support of motorists. The Guardian and Independent were this week urging ministers to stand up to the protestors and keep environmental policies on track.

Opinion polling, however, indicates that a large proportion of the public believes that the environment is being used by the Government as an excuse to raise taxation.

More here

Skipping Science Class, Continued

Three years ago, I posted about some disturbing trends in UK science education:
Instead of learning science, pupils will "learn about the way science and scientists work within society". They will "develop their ability to relate their understanding of science to their own and others' decisions about lifestyles", the QCA said. They will be taught to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the "social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions".

They will learn to "question scientific information or ideas" and be taught that "uncertainties in scientific knowledge and ideas change over time", and "there are some questions that science cannot answer, and some that science cannot address". Science content of the curriculum will be kept "lite". Under "energy and electricity", pupils will be taught that "energy transfers can be measured and their efficiency calculated, which is important in considering the economic costs and environmental effects of energy use".

A couple of days ago, the Telegraph had an article about the Government's new national science test and the unbelievably simplistic questions it contains. For example:
In a multiple choice question, teenagers were asked why electric wires are made from copper. The four possible answers were that copper was brown, was not magnetic, conducted electricity, or that it conducted heat.

This question can of course be answered without knowing anything at all about either electricity or copper. Demonstration:
Why is unobtanium used to summon the Gostak?

1)Unobtainum is purple

2)Unobtanium is not magnetic

3)The Gostak has a strong affinity for unobtainum

4)Unobtanium is attractive to gnomes

It's pretty clear that the desired answer is (3), even if you don't know what unobtainium is or what (who?) the Gostak might be. The question on the U.K. "science test" might be a test of the ability to read and perform very simple logic; it has nothing to do with the measurement of scientific knowledge or the understanding of scientific methods. In my 2005 post, I wrote:
At least in the U.S., the vastly-increased spending on education over recent decades has been driven in large part by the conviction that we are living in a more scientific and technological society, and that schools must provide students with appropriate knowledge in order for them to be able to succeed in the job market and to fulfill their roles as citizens. I feel fairly sure that the same kind of reasoning has been used to justify educational expenditures in the U.K. So, the schools have taken the money on pretext, and are now failing to perform the duty that should go with it.

Melanie Phillips, in her post criticizing the new U.K science program, said "The reason given for the change to the science curriculum is to make science `relevant to the 21st century'. This is in accordance with the government's doctrine of `personalised learning', which means that everything that is taught must be `relevant' to the individual child." To which I responded in my post:
"There are so many things wrong (with the U.K.'s new approach to science education) that it's difficult to know where to start. First of all: it's a natural human characteristic to be curious about the universe you live in. Schools should encourage this curiosity, not smother it in the name of a fake "relevance."

In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C S Lewis contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed in Milton's work:
Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve.Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace `all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.' Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan. And that "one thing" is, of course, Satan himself.his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him. Satan's monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament.

One need not believe in a literal Satan, or for that matter be religious at all, to see the force of this. There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves. And by insisting that everything be "relevant" and discouraging the development of broader interests, the educational authorities in Britain are doing great harm to the children put in their charge.


Earl of Devon bans homosexual marriages at his castle

The Earl of Devon, whose castle was a Royalist garrison in the English Civil War, is under siege from gay rights campaigners after banning same sex civil partnerships at his stately home. The 18th Earl, the master of Powderham Castle which is one of the oldest family houses in England, refused a request from two men to conduct their marriage ceremony behind his battlements. Lord Devon, whose family motto is Floret Virtus Vulnerata which translates roughly as "Virtue Flourishes (although) Wounded", said: "I am a Christian and therefore it [homosexuality] is objectionable to my Christian religion."

To avoid breaching the 2007 Sexual Orientation Regulations he has banned all civil marriage ceremonies whether they are gay or straight. "In order to stay on the right side of the law we have decided to do away with hosting civil ceremonies altogether at Powderham Castle. We are not the only place that has come across this issue," he said. The decision will cost the castle, on the banks of the Exe, up to 200,000 pounds a year in lost revenue. It was one of the most popular venues for civil marriages in Devon where the Earl, as a Vice-Lord Lieutenant of the county, represents the Queen at official engagements.

But Lord Devon now faces an investigation by the Treasury, which has granted Powderham Castle "conditional" exemption from inheritance tax because it is open to the public. Its regulations say that to obtain exemption the new owner must agree to look after the property and allow public access to it and that if the owner fails to fulfil their side of the bargain "the exemption is withdrawn".

Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of the gay rights organisation Stonewall, said: "We shall certainly be asking the Treasury about Lord Devon's inheritance tax exemption. "The inheritance tax regulations appear to suggest clearly that it should be withdrawn if his premises are not accessible to all members of the public without exception."

The house, built by Sir Philip Courtenay in 1390, has had a colourful history with one Earl executed for treason. The ninth Earl - who was responsible for the addition of a music room with the largest carpet in the world - fled to France in 1811 after being accused of sodomy. The Powderham website says in spite of being hounded into exile in France and America on account of his homosexuality, he was "dearly loved" by his tenants.

The castle was also home to Timothy the Tortoise, who died in 2004 aged 160 after earning the official title of Britain's oldest pet. The venerable creature, who served at sea during the Crimean War and was present at the Siege of Sebastopol as a ship's mascot, was found to be a girl in 1926. Mr Summerskill added: "We do think the Earl's approach is rather sad given the family history.

We hope at some point he will enter the 21st century, even if only at the speed of Timothy the Tortoise." Lord Devon, however, insists that the complaint to the Treasury is unfounded as he is not banning gays from visiting the house or its grounds but only from celebrating their civil partnerships under his roof.

Until last December, the country's 1,700 registrars of births, marriages and deaths were permitted to opt out of civil partnership ceremonies on religious grounds. However, their employment status changed with the introduction of the Statistics and Registration Act. Now designated as local government workers, they must carry out town hall orders.


NHS computer project troubled by more delays

The multibillion-pound national programme to overhaul the NHS's computer systems is likely to suffer further delays and turmoil after a contract with a key supplier was terminated. The National Programme for IT, parts of which are running four years late, aims to create a single electronic records system for 50 million patients in England, as well as to enable electronic prescriptions and other electronic services. But negotiations have broken down with Fujitsu, which had been due to implement the plan in the South of England from Kent to Cornwall.

The company, one of three regional contractors in control of the project, is the second big "local service provider" to withdraw from the project in three years, after the departure of the consultancy firm Accenture in 2006.

Negotiations to "reset" the company's œ896 million, ten-year contract have been under way since last July, and although the cost of the contract had escalated to more than œ1 billion, a deal had seemed likely as recently as last week. But NHS officials believe that the Japanese board of Fujitsu intervened, fearing that its potential losses could be much greater than its directors had forecast.

Connecting for Health, the agency that oversees the programme, said that it would issue a termination notice to Fujitsu, a move that could cost the Japanese-owned services company an estimated 340 million pounds.

The project, now in its sixth year, has come in for repeated criticism over delays and fears for the security of patient information. But tough contracts have so far kept it broadly within its estimated budget of œ12.7 billion. However, contractors will be paid only when services are delivered and working.

Fujitsu earned 256 million pounds in 2006-07 for its work on the project, but it was the provider with the most outstanding payments due to it, and in some cases had not been paid more than 12 months after systems had been delivered.

The company is understood to have wanted either more money to provide additional local services or a return to the original, more limited, contract obligations. The Department of Health said yesterday that it terminated Fujitsu's involvement "with regret" because it had not been possible to reach an agreement over this.

In a statement, Fujitsu said that it had withdrawn from negotiations as it did not feel that there was any prospect of an acceptable conclusion.

Stephen O'Brien, the Conservative health spokesman, said that the Government's attempts to "ram through a top-down, centralised, one-size-fits-all NHS computer system" had come "crashing down around its ears".


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