Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Britain's secretive Leftist government

I smile when I hear this Government insisting that it is committed to openness about its own behaviour (MPs’ expenses, Iraq inquiry passim).

This is partly because I was a member of the senior Civil Service when the Freedom of Information Act was formulated in 1999 and I remember all the whispered discussions about how to circumvent it (never write anything down, don’t keep minutes of sensitive meetings), and partly because I have just emerged from a gruelling battle to make use of Britain’s information laws and have found the odds stacked firmly against me.

My Whitehall stint ended seven years ago after Downing Street tried to blame me for the misbehaviour of Stephen Byers, the Transport and Local Government Secretary at the time, and his spin doctor, Jo Moore.

The Government eventually made a public apology to me and paid substantial compensation, but I was curious to find out who had picked me as a scapegoat, and who had led the smear campaign against me when I refused to go quietly.

So in April 2006 I filed a subject access request for all the information the Government held on me and expected to get it within the 40-day deadline specified by the Freedom of Information Act. Some hope. The Government didn’t even reply within 40 days let alone provide the data.

When I asked why it was not sending me the information, I triggered a mildly surreal sequence of excuses that went on for two years: we have faulty IT equipment; manpower shortages; new priorities; “I am on holiday in France, R. Smith, Data Controller”; pressure of other business; change in IT supplier; the need to consult widely; Christmas leave commitments; third-party interests; concerns over data security . . .

I was patient and polite, but I was being fobbed off. I complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which enforces the information laws, and it replied that the Government “is likely to have contravened the Act”. Months went by and I heard nothing more.

When I rang, the ICO said that it had mislaid the case file. I asked for a meeting. At ICO headquarters in Wilmslow, Cheshire, I found an understaffed, cowed and demoralised organisation with nothing like the clout and resources the job demands. Staff members told me that they were stressed, overworked and scared of challenging the Government (which pays their wages).

Around this time, a friend in the Civil Service informed me that ministers were holding discussions about destroying the information I had asked for, potentially a criminal offence. When I asked about this, the Government’s departmental knowledge officer, Richard Smith, wrote: “No information is held relating to discussions or correspondence regarding the provision or non-provision of the information you requested.”

But I later discovered that he wrote on the same day to another official: “We have needed to consult widely on this request because of the nature of the data we hold . . . Please regard this as confidential and not for passing on to Martin Sixsmith.”

I urged the ICO to demand that the Government hand over the data. The ICO threatened enforcement action, but the Government did not reply. So the ICO set another deadline, which the Government also ignored. When the Government failed to meet a third deadline, the ICO moved it back again.

It was clear that the Government was accustomed to bullying and ignoring a toothless ICO, and that the ICO had no stomach to take it on. It was not until September 2008, after some vigorous lobbying from me, that the ICO finally agreed to issue an enforcement notice. Surprise, surprise, the Government still refused to comply and the case was sent on appeal to the Information Tribunal, the FoI equivalent of the High Court.

I thought that I was getting somewhere now, but if the ICO was bad, the tribunal officials were worse: communications from its proper officers were shambolic, contradictory and semi-literate.

When the case opened at Crown Chambers in the Temple, the Government was calling the shots. I requested that proceedings be held in public, as permitted by the act, but the Government’s QCs harangued the chairman into closing the doors, and the public (including me) were locked out.

I asked how much taxpayers’ money had been spent contesting the case — the Government was represented by two QCs, the ICO by one, and the panel of judges included a further two QCs — but I was told that it was not in the public interest for me to know this. One of the lawyers told me later that the figure was in the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The information I was seeking had no bearing on national security but, because it was politically embarrassing, the Government was prepared to spend three years and substantial public funds to keep it secret. If I weren’t so bloody-minded, the ICO would have caved in and the Government would have got away with it.

But last month, three years after it all began, a heap of documents landed on my doormat. They are heavily redacted, but they show that senior civil servants backed up the view that Stephen Byers misled Parliament and that it was Alastair Campbell who circulated false information about me.

Campbell’s language is delightfully choice: it might turn up in the rantings of Malcolm Tucker in the next series of The Thick of It.

I am still trawling through the contents of the documents — they will provide a story for another day — but for now the lesson is clear: there is no truth in the rumour that the Government has embraced openness and honesty.


A British Leftist advocating vouchers? Sort of

By Alan Milburn (Alan Milburn, MP, is chairman of the British Government’s panel on social mobility)

The motor force of an open society, in which social mobility is extensive, is education. A good school opens the door to a good career. Today I launch the final report of the panel that I have been chairing on how professional careers can be open to people of talent, regardless of background. A huge expansion in professional jobs in the next decade will bring the potential for a new wave of social mobility. But, as our report makes clear, generations of low and middle-income young people will miss out unless we do more to close the educational attainment gap in schools.

In the past decade the Government has done much to improve results, refurbish schools and raise standards. The number of failing schools is falling. City academies, located in the poorest areas, are helping to improve the GCSE results of children who receive free school meals at a faster rate than those who do not.

Despite this progress, the attainment gap by social position is still substantial. The chance of children eligible for free school meals — roughly the poorest 15 per cent by family income — getting good qualifications by the age of 16 is still less than a third that of their better-off classmates. Poor areas are still far too likely to have poor schools. But, as the large number of appeals over school places demonstrates, it is not just the most disadvantaged who can be caught in the gap between the demand for good schools and their supply. It is also many middle-income families.

Better-off parents can sidestep these problems. They can take their children out of state schools and send them to private schools. They can buy extra tuition or move near a good school to guarantee a place.

When affluence buys attainment it restricts mobility. Some believe the answer lies in academic selection — and a return to grammar schools. But there is precious little evidence that schools selecting pupils does anything to close the attainment gap. The evidence from countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the US is that it is not schools selecting pupils, but parents being able to choose schools that raises standards generally and helps the disadvantaged particularly.

There is a lot of good thinking out there, if it can be brought together. The Conservatives say that city academies should be extended in both primary and secondary schools. They also say, rightly, that the supply of education places could be opened up to greater competition, particularly in areas of underperformance. The seeds of this have been sown: under Labour’s existing legislation 19 new schools have been opened and 37 more are due over the next four years. Undoubtedly, however, new impetus could be injected by new partners, such as chains of state schools or schools sponsored by groups of parents, being invited to take over or work with underperforming schools.

The Liberal Democrats have argued that, in poor areas, schools could receive additional funding or each pupil from a disadvantaged background could attract a premium payment to recognise particular needs. They have a good point, but there are already higher levels of funding for deprivation. The problem is that money allocated nationally is not always handed on to schools by local authorities. The Government’s recent White Paper argued that additional funding for each pupil from a disadvantaged background should be passed on. That is why the Government should aim for 100 per cent of deprivation-funding being passed to schools.

Other reforms could close the attainment gap and benefit pupils from middle as well as lower-income families. Schools could be asked to report on pupils’ outcomes as well as examination results. They could assess the progress made between pupils starting school, leaving school and their destination after school. The Government could then consider how schools could be paid according to the progress their pupils make. That could provide a powerful incentive to drive up standards and improve pupils’ outcomes.

And we could give parents who do not at present have access to a good school the power to get it. I have proposed that parents be given a new right of redress to choose a better school for their child if they live in an area where the schools are consistently performing badly. Parents could be given an education credit worth 150 per cent of the cost of the child’s schooling for a state school of their choice. The extra funding would give good schools an incentive to expand pupil numbers and broaden their social intake.

Each of these ideas is controversial and contested. But my panel believes that the Government should examine these and other reforms as part of a sustained drive to close the educational attainment gap.

It is no longer sustainable for our education system to produce a cohort of youngsters who lack the skills to compete in the modern labour market. For reasons of economic progress, we need a second wave of social mobility. But, more than that, this is a question of basic justice. A talent unfulfilled is not just an opportunity cost. It is an opportunity lost.


Mother banned from British school for confronting bully who used son as 'human punch bag'

School hates to have its failures noted

A mother has been banned from a primary school after confronting a bully who used her five-year- old son as a 'human punch bag'. Christine Hart, 38, calmly asked the pupil to 'please stop hitting' her son Arthur after he endured months of bullying despite several complaints to teachers. But a teaching assistant saw and hauled her off to the headmistress, who told her not to cross the school gates and to attend a hearing with the governors to discuss her conduct.

Miss Hart spoke to the pupil last week when she dropped Arthur off at his classroom at Orleans Infants School, which serves a well-to-do catchment area in Twickenham, South-West London.

She has been warned she could face a further six-month ban for 'verbally abusing' the pupil and interrupting a class. She was also told that causing a 'nuisance' at school could constitute a criminal offence and that any further incidents will be reported to police. 'I am being punished because I stood up for my son when the school appeared to be doing nothing about my complaints,' she said. 'What message does this send to the boy? I don't know if he's ever been told off. Instead, I'm the one who is made to feel in the wrong. 'The message is hit Arthur whenever you like as you cannot be touched. If anyone challenges you, they will be cast out of school and threatened with the police.'

The school issued a statement saying that pupil safety was paramount and all bullying procedures had been followed.

Miss Hart, a journalist, said the bullying began when Arthur started at the school last September. 'He used to come home in tears and say that he didn't want to go back and could I teach him at home,' she added.

Two months ago Miss Hart saw Arthur being set upon by a classmate at a party in the school hall. 'Art was standing alone when one boy ran up to him and started using him as a punch bag, literally hitting him several times on the chest,' she said. 'Other boys then ran up to him grabbed him round the neck and arms and he was being hit. I was rooted to the spot.'

On another occasion Arthur, who suffers from asthma, was jumped on by a group of boys in the playground. 'He was squashed under a pile of them and said he couldn't breathe,' she said.

In an attempt to build bridges, Miss Hart laid on a picnic for her son and one of his tormentors, and they played together. But the bullying began again almost straight away. The night before his mother spoke to the boy in class, Arthur cried and said going to school made him feel scared

Miss Hart said: 'I saw the boy sitting in the classroom so I approached him, knelt by his side, made eye contact and said "please stop hitting Art". 'The boy thought for a moment and said he would stop. I was not in any way aggressive and he seemed to respond positively. 'The next thing I knew was a teacher's assistant came rushing up saying I couldn't do that, and she marched me off to the head teacher's office.'

Miss Hart said that headmistress Pip Utting initially seemed sympathetic. But later she received a phone call saying she was banned from taking Arthur to his classroom, before a letter from the school arrived warning that she could face police action in future.

'I feel I've no choice but to move my child or take him to private martial arts classes himself to fight off this boy and his entourage,' she said.

In a statement, Mrs Utting said: 'We cannot discuss individual cases especially when investigations may be in progress.'



The system of trading carbon emissions at the heart of the ambitious low-carbon plan announced by the government last week is seriously flawed and close to becoming irrelevant, according to researchers behind a new analysis.

So-called "hot air" carbon credits – those which do not result in any actual emissions cuts – could be so numerous that companies covered by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme would not have to make any cuts to their own emissions until 2015, says the report from climate campaign group, Sandbag. The hot air permits result from the over-allocation of emissions allowances and from those going unused as the recession cuts economic activity.

The ETS covers 50% of the UK and EU's carbon emissions, mainly in the energy, cement, steel, glass and manufacturing sectors. Companies in these sectors are allocated allowances for the carbon they emit, with the total number shrinking over time, theoretically forcing companies to buy additional permits to pollute if they do not cut their emissions.

A large proportion of the UK's promised cut of 34% by 2020 will come via British companies in the ETS. Globally, the carbon trading market was worth €92bn (£79bn) in 2008, trading 5bn tonnes. However, the large number of carbon permits that have been allocated and a fall in emissions due to the recession, have made the trading system less effective.



You may recall the Beyond the Fringe sketch in which Squadron Leader Peter Cook tells Jonathan Miller, the doleful pilot, that he must set out on a doomed mission because “we need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war”.

I was irresistibly reminded of this by Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, in his launch of plans to cut carbon emissions by switching to “renewables” for more than 30% of our energy use. This, he claimed, would “rise to the moral challenge of climate change”.

Miliband is of the generation of politicians struggling to find a great moral cause. Earlier in the Labour administration Tony Blair thought he had found it with wars of choice far from home, but that has, to put it mildly, lost its lustre. Now it is the “war against climate change”, given additional moral potency by the notion that the greatest concentration of sufferers from global rising temperatures would be among the world’s poorest.

Miliband’s citing of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in support of his policy of subsidising the construction of many thousands of otherwise uneconomic wind turbines might appear grotesque, even comical; but not if you genuinely believe that Britain’s switching from coal to wind power for its electricity generation will save the lives of countless Africans.

I have no idea whether Miliband truly believes that it will - but if he does, he is deluded. The UK is responsible for less than 2% of global carbon emissions - a figure set to fall sharply, regardless of what we do, as a result of the startlingly rapid industrial-isation of countries such as China and India: each year the increase in Chinese CO2 emissions alone is greater than those produced by the entire British economy. On the fashionable assumption that climate change is entirely driven by CO2 emissions, the effect on global temperatures of Britain closing every fossil fuel power station would be much smaller than the statistical margin of error: in effect, zero.

The scientists at the energy and climate change department know this, but their political masters see things differently. Gordon Brown claims: “Britain is leading the world in the battle against climate change.” Such remarks are regarded as absurd in the chancelleries of Europe: if you do take as a measure of such commitment the proportion of domestic energy already supplied by renewables, the UK occupies 25th place in the European Union league table, above only Malta and Luxembourg.

Nevertheless, there is one great merit in being a follower rather than a leader in renewable energy: we can see how other European countries have fared in the experiment. Germany has long been subsidising wind power to the extent of almost €5 billion a year. Yet recent German Green party internal e-mails leaked to Der Spiegel magazine show this has not led to a reduction of a single gram of CO2 emitted on the continent of Europe. The much-vaunted emissions trading system is one reason: Germany’s unused certificates were snapped up at negligible cost by coal producers in countries such as Poland and Slovakia, which were thus able to increase their output of greenhouse gases.

There is a second reason, which would remain even if the European emissions trading system were to be scrapped. Because the wind blows intermittently, and may be at its calmest at times of freezing weather, Germany has not been able to close a single one of its conventional power stations, despite its vast investment in wind power.

Indeed, Paul Golby, who runs the British operations of E.ON, Europe’s biggest wind-power producer, has told the government that a 90% fossil fuel or nuclear back-up will be needed for any of the National Grid’s future wind-power capacity. As Martin Fuchs, his German boss, pointed out: “The wind, sadly, does not blow where large quantities of power are required . . . on September 12 last year wind power contributed 38% of our grid power requirements at all times, but on September 30 the figure went down to 0.2%.”

The powerful wind-turbine lobby in Germany constantly harps on about the number of jobs “created” by its subsidised investment, quite ignoring the number of jobs destroyed by high-cost energy, or indeed the greater number of jobs that could be created if the same amounts were invested in more profitable activities. This is why the Bremen Energy Institute argues that “wind energy macro-economically has a negative employment impact”.

Given the run-down state of our conventional generating capacity, it is easy to see that the government’s suspiciously round number of a “£100 billion” expenditure on installing 7,000 offshore steel structures, each the height of Blackpool Tower, at a projected rate of more than two every working day over the next decade, does not begin to cover the real cost. This is why the overall price of wind energy is a multiple of that incurred by nuclear power, which is equally carbon-free but does not appeal to the moral vanity of politicians.

Admittedly, the Labour government has made a belated commitment to replacing our ageing nuclear reactors – far too late to fill the yawning energy gap that Britain faces in the coming decade. As Professor Ian Fells points out in the new Civitas pamphlet Nations Choose Prosperity: “The energy agenda is focused on carbon emissions rather than security of supply and potential costs. What is rarely considered is the consequential costs when power cuts are inflicted.” These costs are not just measured in the collapse of business, but also in human lives, especially of the elderly and infirm.

Miliband claimed last week that the result of his proposals would be an increase in costs to energy users of about 17%. However, the business and enterprise department admitted last year that Britain’s existing “climate policies” - even before Miliband’s latest Big New Idea - would add an extra 55% to energy bills. It’s obvious where this will lead: to the exit from Britain (and, indeed, Europe) of much of what remains of energy-intensive manufacturing industry - the euphemistic jargon term is “carbon leakage”.

Jeremy Nicholson, the director of the Energy Intensive Users Group, which represents such industries as steel and aluminium, is exasperated beyond measure: “A future administration will have to say in public what ministers and their officials already admit in private, that the renewables target is neither practical nor affordable. Outsourcing our emissions is not a solution to a global problem. Politicians need to understand that unilateral action will come at a terrible cost in terms of UK manufacturing jobs, investment and export revenue, for no discernible environmental gain - is that really what they want?”

On the day Nicholson said this to me, last Thursday, Anglesey Aluminium, the biggest consumer of electricity in Wales, announced that it would cease production, precisely because it could see no prospect of signing up to a long-term supply of electricity at a rate at which it could make a profit. And on the day of Miliband’s announcement, a group of Labour MPs presented a “Save Our Steel” petition, saying: “We need to make sure we act before the light goes out.”

It may well be that the English steel mills will become unable to compete globally, even at current domestic energy prices; but deliberately to make them uncompetitive is industrial vandalism - and even madness when the consequence of Miliband’s Martin Luther King moment may be the lights going out not just for producers but for all of us in our homes. This is worse than a futile gesture: it is immoral.


Gun and car crash victims face long ambulance ride to new British trauma units

British ambulance response times are already erratic .... And time is of the essence in many cases of serious injury

FOUR "super" accident and emergency units designed to treat gun crime and car crash victims in London are to be given the green light today. The most seriously ill patients will be fast-tracked to the major trauma centres for life-saving emergency care. But campaigners said lives will be put at risk as the centres are not spread evenly across London, meaning those on the outskirts face long journeys.

A joint committee of all London's primary care trusts is set to approve the hospital centres which will be set up at the Royal London in Whitechapel, King's College in Denmark Hill, St George's in Tooting and St Mary's in Paddington. The units will be open by the end of next year. NHS body Healthcare for London, which is developing plans for the trauma centres, insisted every Londoner will be a maximum of 45 minutes by ambulance away from one. [That eats up a lot of the "golden hour" (first hour after injury) during which some seriously injured persons can be saved]

But Geoff Martin, chairman of London Health Emergency, said: "Millions of Londoners on the outskirts will now face a dangerously long journey to the centre to access emergency trauma care. We think the 45-minute maximum journey time is optimistic and with only one air ambulance this whole scheme represents a massive gamble with life or death services."

There are also concerns that none of the centres is near Heathrow. Mr Martin added: "It defies belief. That leaves the UK's major airport dangerously exposed and we are demanding an urgent rethink before these plans are cast in stone."

But a spokeswoman for Healthcare for London said most major trauma incidents, such as stabbings, shootings and car accidents, happen in central London. She added: "The important thing is to get the right treatment, even if it means spending an extra 10 minutes in an ambulance."

The trauma centres will be staffed by a consultant at all times and specialists in every discipline, including trauma, orthopaedic and neuro-surgeons. The units will cost £14million a year to run, and the money will come from PCT budgets. Matt Thompson, clinical director for trauma services in London, said: "These patients are some of the most seriously injured patients that any hospital will ever see. It is vitally important that they have access to the right expertise and services if their lives are to be saved and disabilities reduced. "The proposed new trauma system - made up of major trauma centres linked to local trauma centres - would rival the best in the world. It is a fantastic opportunity for London to improve the care of these patients."

The PCT committee is also expected to approve plans to create eight specialist centres for stroke victims at Charing Cross, King's College, Northwick Park, Queen's, St George's, the Princess Royal, the Royal London and University College hospitals. These will provide specialist care for the first 72 hours after a stroke or until a patient is stabilised. They will open by summer 2011 and cost around £23million a year. Patients will be taken to the units within 30 minutes. But acute services in other hospitals are expected to be closed as part of the process. Campaigners fear the Royal Free in Belsize Park will lose its emergency stroke unit.

Dr Nick Losseff, interim clinical director for stroke services in London, said: "Patients and their families can be assured these will save lives and prevent disability."


Google cleared of responsibility for indexing defamatory comments

An out-of-character ruling by Mr Justice Eady. He normally finds defamation at the drop of a hat. He has almost singlehandedly made Britain the libel capital of the world. But apparently even he has his limits.
"A landmark ruling in the [British] High Court has cleared Google of all responsibility for indexing defamatory comments that appear in blogs, news articles and forums.

The search engine giant was brought to court by Metropolitan International Schools, a company which operates learning courses in the development of games under the name Train2Game. It was attempting to sue Google after comments it claimed were defamatory, written in a forum of a website, appeared on Google’s search results page.

However, Mr Justice Eady, a High Court judge who specialises in defamation cases such as the recent Max Mosley trial, ruled on Friday, July 17, that Google was not a publisher of the comments, only a facilitator through automated results and therefore could not be held responsible for them. "When a snippet is thrown up on the user's screen in response to his search, it points him in the direction of an entry somewhere on the web that corresponds, to a greater or lesser extent, to the search terms he has typed in. “It is for him to access or not, as he chooses. [Google] has merely, by the provision of its search service, played the role of a facilitator.”

A Google spokesperson said: “We are pleased with this result, which reinforces the principle that search engines aren't responsible for content that is published on third party websites. Mr Justice Eady made clear if someone feels they have been defamed by material on a website then they should address their complaint to the person who actually wrote and published the material, and not a search engine, which simply provides a searchable index of content on the internet.”

The ruling will bring the UK more in line with the US legislation on this issue. Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act makes it clear that intermediaries are not liable for defamation online. However, until now no such ruling existed in the UK, nor has Google ever had to defend itself against this claim before.


No comments: