Thursday, August 13, 2009


Conservatives can be economic dolts too

Adam Buckley, Ben Caldecott and Gavin Dick from The Conservative Environment Network (CEN) have written a short piece on ConservativeHome on the benefits of decarbonization.

CEN's argument is entirely objectionable: "CEN believes that we should consider climate change a significant risk and decarbonise accordingly. But even without the very real and obvious risks associated with climate change, decarbonisation has other profound benefits. In a world without climate change it would still make sense, if done in a cost-effective way, for Britain to save energy, use less foreign fossil fuels, and develop indigenous sources of low carbon energy."

Ignoring the well-trodden territory of their position on climate change, much of the argument from CEN is based upon the failed economics of protectionist policies and state dirrection and control of industries.

In arguing that we should use less energy, CEN suggest that we need to tackle "market failures that prevent people and organisations from improving their energy efficiency". These failures are they believe down to access to capital and the "hassle" factor. However, in the real world individuals and organisations do not improve energy efficiency when it will not save them money and given the failure of the climate change predictions to come to fruition, people see no practical and moral reason to waste their money. How is that a market failure?

If - and it is a very big 'if' - CEN are right about the bleak future for hydrocarbon fuels, then the market mechanism will ensure that alternative energy production will be put into effect. And with an unmolested market, some entrepreneurs will take risks at the right moment and cash in on this shift. For the government to do so now is bad economic policy.

The last and most surprising argument that CEN put forward in favour of decarbonization is as follows: "Additionally, we can send less money abroad. The issue of balance of trade has become unfashionable, but is another important reason why decarbonisation should be desirable regardless of the risks associated with climate change."

CEN tie this in with arguments to invest (read tax and spend) and protect UK energy production. As an antidote to all this nonsense, I suggest the authors start by reading this from Milton and Rose D. Friedman: "Protection" really means exploiting the consumer. A "favorable balance of trade" really means exporting more than we import, sending abroad goods of greater total value than the goods we get from abroad. In your private household, you would surely prefer to pay less for more rather than the other way around, yet that would be termed an "unfavorable balance of payments" in foreign trade.



There is no doubt that The Royal Society has a position on climate change, but to what extent is this venerable and distinguished organisation able to express a truly independent and objective opinion on a matter of current public policy? Here is what the Society say at the head of the main page on their web site dealing with climate: "International scientific consensus agrees that increasing levels of man-made greenhouse gases are leading to global climate change. Possible consequences of climate change include rising temperatures, changing sea levels, and impacts on global weather. These changes could have serious impacts on the world's organisms and on the lives of millions of people, especially those living in areas vulnerable to extreme natural conditions such as flooding and drought"

At a glance, this appears to be a reiteration of the current orthodoxy, but a more careful reading reveals it is remarkably cautious. There is no reference to conclusive, or even compelling, scientific evidence but only to 'international scientific consensus', it speaks of 'possible consequences' rather inevitable consequences, and suggests that these 'could' be serious rather than predicting certain disaster. There is plenty of wriggle-room here should opinion change.

This statement is at variance with the certainties expressed by government ministers, climate activists and many high profile scientists. It is also very different from what the last president of the Society, Lord May of Oxford, was wont to tell the media. His claims that the science of anthropogenic climate change is as clear as that relating to gravity or evolution made one wonder why a distinguished and clearly very well informed scientist should be saying such things. It is unlikely that many of the 1400 fellows of The Royal Society would heartily endorse such a ludicrous claim.

In the United States, both the American Physical Society and the American Chemical Society have come under pressure from members to review their alarmist and dogmatic public utterances on climate change (See post at WattsUpWithThat ). It would seem possible that the somewhat ambiguous statement on The Royal Society's website is an attempt to forestall a similar revolt among its own membership.

I don't suppose there are many fellows of The Royal Society who would be prepared to openly express sceptical views on global warming. Mavericks are unlikely to find themselves welcomed into that particularly august fold. On the other hand there may well be those among them who would object to the website making claims in their name that they feel to be without scientific justification.

If, for a moment, one sets aside the hallowed reputation and unique place in the history of science that is accorded to The Royal Society, and look at it is as just another organisation, what do we find? Here are a couple of notes from Wikipedia: "Although a charitable body, it [The Royal Society] serves as the Academy of Sciences of the United Kingdom (in which role it receives funding from HM Government)". So we have a body that is registered as a charity, which is a prominent national institution, and also receives government funding. Under the heading 'Current Activities and Significance' the Wikipedia entry says: "Funding scientific research. This is the largest area of expenditure for the Society, costing around £30 m each year."

Now that is quite a substantial amount of money, and this made me curious enough to look at their accounts. Here is what I found.

Government funding comes in the form of Parliamentary Grants-in-aid which, over the last four years (most recent accounts 31st March 2008), has amounted to: £31.7m, £32.9m, £36.6m and £44.9m respectively. So from 2005 to 2008 the government's contributions have increased by about 42%. ....

Returning to the question at the top of this post, 'Who owns The Royal Society?', it may be fair to pose this question: if The Royal Society depends on government funding, to what extent is this highly respected institution, which is a charity and our national academy of science, bound to promote government policy and assist in the political process of making it seem credible? Or in other words, has the government bought The Royal Society?


Botched NHS surgery in Scotland

It is a macabre and not particularly amusing joke shared by doctors that the absolutely worst time to have a baby, undergo surgery or be involved in a road traffic accident is around now. Early August and February are traditionally when new medical rotations for junior doctors begin and hospital corridors are filled with panicky people in white coats and surgical scrubs who look as if they should be advertising Clearasil, not assisting with aortic valve replacements.

I know of two consultants who on their very first day as junior doctors in different Accident & Emergency wards were faced with multiple victims of serious road accidents, people whose lives depended on the first doctor they met being confident, knowledgeable and very fast. Instead of ER they got “er . . .”.

The only thing worse than being a new junior doctor expected to perform potentially life-saving interventions beyond your capabilities and experience is being the patient. Yet, that sense of being out of your depth is an accepted rite of passage for young medics, something to be joked about over a pint in the pub.

The news that 5,500 operations were botched or bungled in Scottish hospitals over the past five years will come as no surprise, then, to the medical profession. In 3,000 cases, organs were accidentally punctured or damaged but there were also incidents of the wrong operation being performed, surgical instruments being left inside patients’ bodies and sterilisation of instruments not being carried out beforehand.

The response of the government and the medical authorities to the news is revealing. Dr Charles Swainson, medical director at NHS Lothian, the health authority with the highest number of “incidents” said that because of the way the data are recorded, the statistics are unreliable. A spokeswoman for the Scottish government described the figures as regrettable but insisted they must be seen in the context of the vast majority of procedures being carried out safely.

Both responses are axiomatic of what is wrong with the NHS today. It is unlikely to be of much comfort to the former Scotland football captain Colin Hendry that in the vast majority of cases of liposuction there are no complications. All that matters to him is that his wife Denise died last month at the age of 42 following 20 operations to try and rectify plastic surgery that went horrifically wrong.

You don’t tend to hear car manufacturers or airlines stating that a faulty car or a crashed plane should be seen in the context of all the thousands of planes which take off and land safely or all the cars which don’t develop potentially lethal faults. If there is an incident with a plane — however minor — air accident investigators are all over it, usually producing an initial report within 48 hours. If a new car develops an unexplained fault, every car in that range is recalled and checked. Passengers and drivers will simply take their business elsewhere if an airline or a manufacturer behaves irresponsibly or doesn’t make safety its priority. The NHS can afford a scandalous degree of complacency because, despite successive government mantras of “patient’s choice” most patients have about as much choice as Hobson.

There is a consensus among the medical profession that because all medical procedures carry a degree of risk, a certain level of risk is acceptable. But is an average of three botched operations a day in Scotland really tolerable? Were our airlines to maim three passengers a day, there would be outrage. Last year the National Audit Office said that there may be up to 34,000 deaths annually in Britain as a result of what it coyly calls “patient safety incidents”. The NHS’s attitude to safety is frankly appalling and would not be accepted in any other industry. Forgetting to sterilise equipment or leaving foreign matter inside a patient after an operation is never an acceptable risk. It is carelessness bordering on malpractice.

Then there is Swainson’s argument that the statistics are irrelevant because of the way they are collated. The 5,500 botched operations cover everything from removing the wrong kidney to a tiny nick with a scalpel. It is certainly true that, for the statistics to be meaningful, we need to know how many of the botched operations were fatal, life-threatening or serious enough to affect quality of life. They also need to be broken down on a surgeon-by-surgeon basis to see if patterns emerge.

As a result of devolution, Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales have been following significantly different health policies. We are involved in a huge medical experiment in which we are all guinea pigs by default. The one upside would be the ability to analyse which of the four models has proved the most successful. However, the idiosyncratic way in which the different countries collate statistics has meant that in many key areas, comparisons are simply impossible. It is outrageous that there isn’t a universal system for collating health statistics that would allow direct comparisons not only throughout the UK but across Europe.

While the NHS insists on treating patients as statistics and statistics as propaganda tools, the safety and efficiency of the health service will never improve.


Britain: It’s not hard to spot the children really at risk

Concentrate on the ferals and stop harassing resprectable families over minor infractions

We know the factors common to most cases of abuse. Let’s cut through the complexity that stops them being identified. As the gruesome details of Baby Peter’s short life return to the headlines, most readers find it hard to comprehend that social workers visiting his home in Haringey were willing to accept his mother’s explanations of his injuries. Why did they not notice the 15st live-in boyfriend, whose hobbies included skinning small animals alive? Or that of his brother? Surely there was enough evidence of chaos and neglect to set alarm bells ringing?

According to Wes Cuell, of the NSPCC, there may be grounds for excusing this oversight because there are “thousands of similar situations” in Britain today. Simon Barnes, of the British Association of Social Workers, defended his members with the more surprising assertion that dealing with child cruelty is “not about common sense”, pleading the complexity of the situations in which they find themselves working.

So how prevalent are households like Baby Peter’s? Across England and Wales, we know that there are nearly 30,000 children — out of a child population of around 11 million — whose circumstances generate sufficient concern for them to be placed on the child protection register that requires regular monitoring by local social services.

Insofar as the circumstances of Baby Peter’s home can be captured by raw data, they were typical of the average “at risk” child. It is clear that his home set-up is repeated across thousands of households in the UK, and will be most concentrated in areas of material deprivation. There are background factors common to children on the register: having a mother who was a teenage lone parent, the presence of an unrelated male in the household, a history of domestic violence, a parent with a criminal record or a history of mental illness and substance abuse.

But how many more children not yet registered as at risk are likely to fall into these categories. In 2007 nearly 45,000 children were born to teenage mothers. More than 3 million children live in lone parent households; 1.2 million of these live in homes with no adult in work. One tenth of children live at present in step-parent households.

The majority of lone-parent and step-parent households quite clearly do not fall into the category of potential child abusers, but where these factors combine with, for example, drug or alcohol abuse, the risks to children rise sharply. Home Office estimates suggest that there are at least 300,000 children of drug addicts in the UK at present. It is hard to see why children of addicts are not automatically referred for child protection, since the ability of their parents to reconcile their addiction with their duty of care towards their children must be severely in doubt.

There is other evidence to suggest that the child protection register should be expanded. A recent Channel 4 documentary on child homicide revealed that more than 90 per cent of children who died in the past five years at the hands of a parent or parent-substitute were not on the register. Yet many of the common factors described above were present in those cases.

It is not therefore surprising that social workers complain of heavy caseloads. They are also increasingly burdened by bureaucracy, with 80-90 per cent of their working day spent at their desks rather than visiting families. But this burden is exacerbated by a wilfully complex approach by government to the problem of child protection.

Since the first Laming report, after the death of Victoria ClimbiĆ©, the emphasis on integrating children’s services within every local authority has created a complex web of reporting structures. At the top of those structures, as in Haringey, where Baby P lived, will be a director of children’s services whose background is nearly always in education, not child protection. Protecting children at risk has become part of a continuum of services to children and families, the assumption being that every child will have some needs that must be met by the State, and that distinctions between categories of children are potentially stigmatising.

Hence the introduction of Contactpoint, the universal database that carries information about all children in England and Wales. Indeed, the concept of the child protection register was officially abolished last year when the children on that register were transferred to the “integrated children’s system”.

The danger in this approach is that resources are drawn away from children most in need. Last autumn the Audit Commission reviewed the work of local authority children’s trusts and found that the lack of clear direction and accountability of these bodies, and the confusion about their role, meant that they were hampered in their ability to protect children. By insisting on a non-stigmatising approach, the Government has, in effect, institutionalised the complexity of which Mr Barnes complains.

Common sense tells us that the majority of the 11 million children growing up in this country will not experience neglect or abuse and are therefore not in need of safeguarding. But where welfare dependency combines with young lone motherhood, transient relationships and a history of domestic violence or addiction, social services must be much more ready to intervene — and less inclined to give parents the benefit of the doubt. Here, the application of common sense can easily be reconciled with what the data tells us about family dysfunction.

There are certainly more than 30,000 children in this country at risk of neglect, and the figure is probably closer to half a million. Attending to the needs of those children is a big task — but it will not be helped by attempting to pretend they are no different from the other 10.5 million.


British Conservative education policy - a brave new world of great schools, no national curriculum and real choice for parents?

It sounds great, doesn't it? But is it really going to happen? According to the Conservative party, the answer is very much "yes."

"I don't think", one Tory adviser said to me today, "that people realise how radically education is going to be changed under a Conservative government." It's a very interesting point. While there is much talk of "the Swedish model" (which can conjure up thoughts of something quite different to newly built schools), Tory plans for education go much further than the specifics which they have taken from Sweden.

Today George Osborne will make a speech claiming that the Tories are now the "progressive party", and promising a "revolutionary" delivery of front line services such as health and education. Education is definitely one area where the Conservatives have a wealth of ideas; whether they will now have the money to put them into practice is a moot point.

The most well-known Conservative education policy is probably the concept of independent providers setting up their own state (i.e. non-fee paying) schools, as has happened in Sweden. But England is a quite different country from its Scandinavian counterpart - it's far less homogeneous, both financially and multiculturally - and that's why the Tories are keen to point out that their plans contain much more than new schools. And of course, the Swedish model of education also has far more to it than the introduction of these new schools.

As visitors to School Gate will know, I am often disheartened by education in this country. So surely these plans should appeal to me. For one thing, I'm unhappy that parents often can't get their children into the school of their choice. Do the Tory plans - which also include an extension of academies - address this? I'm not sure. They're certainly meant to, but they also rely hugely on parent power, giving parents the chance to move their children to a new school, set up by concerned mothers and fathers, organisations or charities. What of the children with less pushy parents or the parents who care about their children's education, but wouldn't want to set up their own school to sort it out?

There's also a lot of concern that these policies benefit only the middle class. Interestingly Michael Gove addressed this point in a recent interview with former adviser to David Blunkett, Conor Ryan. "Critics say that these opportunities will be taken up most by the articulate middle classes,’ he said. "But I find that those who are most unhappy with the existing choices are articulate working-class parents."

In any case, if you were worried (as I am) about less privileged children with less pushy parents, the argument is that charities will fill the gap. Disadvantaged pupils will also receive more funding, via the pupil premium. This should guard against any damage to "social cohesion" - a concern of Christine Blower from the NUT.

The plans for new schools apply to both primary and secondaries, with primaries probably first to get the go-ahead. Having cleverly moved Key Stage 2 SATS to secondary school, schools will, apparently, be allowed so much more freedom - to be creative and flexible, something which teachers and parents have been demanding for a long, long time. There will also be no requirement that the national curriculum be followed.

It all sounds exciting, if a little scary. After all, these schools can teach what they want - who will be responsible for them? But if we do want change, perhaps it's time to go for something genuinely different.


Expert forges “unforgeable” British ID card in 12 minutes: “Adam Laurie is no ordinary hacker. In the world of computing, he is considered a genius — a man whose talents are used by government departments and blue-chip companies to guard against terrorists and cyber-criminals. … Embedded inside the card for foreigners is a microchip …. the vital security measure that, so the Government believes, will make identity cards ‘unforgeable.’ But as I watch, Laurie picks up a mobile phone and, using just the handset and a laptop computer, electronically copies the ID card microchip and all its information in a matter of minutes. He then creates a cloned card, and with a little help from another technology expert, he changes all the information the card contains — the physical details of the bearer, name, fingerprints and so on. And he doesn’t stop there.”

Britain: Are you being watched?: "The latest report by the Interception of Communications Commissioner reveals that government authorities monitored citizens’ telephone calls and emails more than 500,000 times last year. This ‘Use of Communications Data’ is permitted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which has introduced a system of governmental surveillance on a scale unprecedented in Britain, and internationally unrivalled. Of course, the police and the security services need the means to investigate serious crimes and prevent acts of terrorism, but these demands must always be balanced against the protection of privacy; both because our privacy is inherently valuable, and because a system of surveillance inevitably risks abuse by rogue employees or government itself.”

A maximum wage for Britain?: “In Friday’s Guardian, Andrew Simms resurrects the idea of a maximum wage to ‘tackle inequality.’ The actual consequence: employers would no longer be able to attract the best workers by offering them higher salaries, so would instead offer them more perks and less hours. That is, the most productive workers (not just bankers, but doctors, business owners, and Guardian editors) would work less. Many others would move abroad. All it would achieve is a fall in the level of economic activity, and a corresponding fall in tax revenue and trickle-down spending. This is the nonsense of equality by levelling down: dragging down the rich, out of sheer envy, to the detriment of everyone.”

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