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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Britain's broken education system

Written by Harriet Blackburn | Saturday 11 December 2010

roofJust a week after the release of the White Paper on education, new data has been released showing that educational standards in the UK are stagnating compared to the other developed nations. The PISA survey, carried out by the OECD, examines the reading, maths and science ability of a sample of 15 year olds from 65 developed countries. The findings of the tests carried out last year indicate that students in England have dropped from 17th to 25th in reading; 24th to 28th in maths; and 14th to 16th in science compared the previous survey conducted in 2006.

The findings show that, despite the huge rise in spending on education over the past decade, the impact has been limited. In fact, in countries like Germany and Hungary that had similar rankings as England in the survey, the spending per student was just £40,000 and £28,000 respectively while England spent £54,000. It also emerged that only seven other OECD countries spend more per student than the UK. It is not so much the high spending that is the concern here; it is its ineffectiveness. The government have thrown money at education and these results show that it is not the solution.

What is required is the overhaul of the education system. While the white paper released last week is a start, if the government want to see true improvement in educational standards then Gove has to allow Free Schools to be profit-making institutions. Only by doing this can the UK hope to move beyond average and retake its place as one of the best providers of quality education in the world. For-profit Free Schools will create diversity in the system and create an environment where excellence and innovation are at the heart of teaching and education. By changing the way our schools are run the benefits will pass on to the pupil and the education they receive will improve, and as a result the UK’s ranking.

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Taxing your sorrows away

Written by Harriet Blackburn | Monday 06 December 2010

beersThe government wants to increase tax on beers with more than 7.5% ABV (alcohol by volume). Despite the fact that this will affect only 0.5% of total alcohol sales, the measures are somehow supposed to discourage the supposed anti-social behaviour and alcohol abuse associated with strong lagers. Yet again, higher taxes seem to be the government’s answer to every question.

The measures are being introduced after health and homelessness groups raised their concerns over how accessible strong lagers were becoming. It may be right that these beers do create problems for a small number of people but does that mean the government should intervene and protect all consumers? No. Even if you concede that the government has a role to play in shaping people’s drinking habits, raising tax on these products will do little to affect the problem of binge drinking or alcohol abuse amongst the homeless. People who choose to drink purely to get drunk will simply switch to spirits or ciders, which are already popular amongst the groups that the tax is supposed to target.

What the government hasn’t considered is that those who choose to drink these beverages are not always guilty of such stereotypes. There are some who enjoy Imperial stouts and Belgian beer who will be penalised by this new duty purely because of the choice of drink they prefer. Fans of Belgian trappist beers don’t strike me as the problem demographic in binge drinking. Those who prefer wine or spirits the duty rates will have no problem.

Despite the fact that this tax will aim to influence people's behaviour, it will have limited impact. With hardly any pubs or clubs selling beers over 7.5% ABV, it won’t do anything to binge drinking on our streets. For those who the government are trying to protect from themselves, it will simply result in them switching to other forms of alcohol, spirits or cider, to satisfy their wants.

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Virtual authoritarianism

Written by Harriet Blackburn | Thursday 02 December 2010

computerThe increasingly virtual world in which we live is creating a domain where the boundaries of law are unclear. There is currently a consultation going on to see whether granting the serious and organised crime agency (SOCA) the power to close domains which they consider to have criminal links. Once again, it seems that the police are taking the heavy-handed approach without any consideration for people’s right to free speech and private property.

Under the current proposals, there is no requirement for judicial services to be consulted before the sites are shut down. It is clear that the issue surrounding the legality of certain Internet sites is complicated, but that is no excuse for bulldozing the rights of those who legitimately use them. The maxim that people are innocent until proven guilty should have no less relevance when it comes to people’s digital property than their tangible property. By granting power to the police to violate digital property rights, we are moving towards a more controlling state.

Several lawyers specializing in information technology have stated that such a move is “deeply concerning”. Without a judicial review, the police hold all the power to decide which sites are legal and which are not. Simply looking at the police’s targeting of photographers with anti-terror legislation shows that they cannot be trusted to operate in good faith – the watchers need to be watched. In the free society in which we are supposed to live, police cannot be given control over which websites are and are not allowed to exist. Complicated though this issue may be, criminality on the Internet cannot be solved by giving the police the power to request that websites be shut down without judicial oversight. 

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In immigration, one size rarely fits all

Written by Harriet Blackburn | Tuesday 30 November 2010

onesizeLast week saw the long-awaited unveiling of the Coalition’s immigration policy. It has been hailed a victory for the business lobby, but there are still clear losers. The government has tried to find a compromise between the Conservatives’ and the Liberal Democrats’ manifestos, and in the process have simply created a complex regulatory response to the unworkable target created by the Home Secretary.

One area that seems set to suffer as a result of this policy is scientific research. The UK has long been a hub of ideas and innovations, often fuelled by foreign scientists. However, the new "one size fits all" policy threatens the future of UK research. The academic salaries and the qualifications of these individuals are expected to earn fewer visa points than, say, someone in business.

Despite provisions put in place for the “exceptionally talented” there are still limited visas available to these individuals, creating more issues than they solve. As there are fewer available places in the UK for these exceptional scientists, it is impossible for institutions to predict how intense the competition will be. Some fear that the new regulations will discourage talented individuals from choosing the UK as a base for their research. It is not only the limited number of visas available, there is also the problem of how long these visa last. An average post-doctorate that these scientists undertake will last four-to-five years, yet visas awarded to scientists are only valid for three years. This means that one scientist often requires two consecutive visas, or faces the problem of not being able to complete their research.

All of these problems clearly indicate that this immigration policy does not consider the knock-on effect on services and institutions that operate outside the influential business lobby that helped shape this latest policy. The fairest and most sensible approach to immigration, which would ensure that talented individuals regardless of profession are attracted to Britain, is to simply allow the free movement of labour. This new complicated policy is one that simply cannot be achieved without huge sacrifices from some area of the economy, whether it is scientific institutions, the business world or universities.

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Mapping the future of British healthcare

Written by Harriet Blackburn | Saturday 27 November 2010

nhsAs part of its push for transparency in public services, the government has released a “UK health atlas”. Its aim is to show the variations in health spending and outcomes in primary care trusts around the country. The findings show huge disparities in provision. The idea behind this release of information was to encourage patients to put pressure on the lowest performing primary care trusts. It has, however once again highlighted that the NHS suffers from serious disparities in the quality of care provided. This suggests that the system of healthcare provision in this country has to be radically overhauled.

There are huge discrepancies in spending between primary care authorities – for example, there is a fourteen-fold difference between the highest and lowest expenditures on hip replacement surgeries in different authorities. Some health authorities spent two and half times as much on mental health care compared to others. These variations clearly indicate that the postcode lottery of healthcare is still a major problem. The atlas was standardised to take account of various social and patient factors, so variations in spending cannot fully be explained by these elements.

The lack of a price system means that it is impossible to know which trusts are at fault – are some spending too much, or are others spending too little? What is the optimum amount of money to allocate to hip replacements? Giving power over health spending to a bureaucrat means that spending decisions will be made without the necessary information that a price system would convey.

The most important step to improve the NHS is to break its monopoly on the healthcare market. There should be a move towards the state becoming the regulator rather than the manager of these hospitals, and the provider of funds to support patients rather than of services. Because there is no price mechanism, there is currently an enormous amount of bureaucracy in the system, which all too often results in bad performance of services. The lack of competition means that hospitals can underperform without any incentive to improve. Breaking up the NHS would be a big task, but by doing so the government and the charities would see better care for patients.

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Food for thought on Chinese price controls

Written by Harriet Blackburn | Sunday 21 November 2010

chinaIn recent decades China has experienced unprecedented economic growth as the result of opening up their economy to free market forces. Recently, though, the inconsistencies in their domestic and economic policies have begun to show through, as inflation becomes a real issue.

The Chinese government’s response to the current food price crisis is most telling. It was announced this week that the government is to introduce food subsidies and may introduce price controls if the problem becomes worse. This is an indication that China’s economic policy is becoming as interventionist as its currency system and free speech stance.

China is currently experiencing double-digit food price inflation of around 10%. Though the general level of inflation is also rising, reaching 4.4% in October, it’s thought that this jump in food prices is the result of summer storms that damaged crops, reducing supply and causing food prices to rise. The problem of food inflation seems to have spiked in recent weeks, with the average wholesale price rising by nearly two thirds in the first 10 days of November. With poor families spending around half of their income on food, such a huge rise in prices has the potential to cause great unrest. The government has come to the conclusion that the only way to prevent this is to intervene in the market.

The problem for the Chinese government is that this approach will probably make things worse. Food price subsidies drive down prices by creating an oversupply and can create downward pressure on wages, which in the long run counters the original point of the subsidy. If the government goes further and introduces price controls, as it is predicted they will, the problem could get even worse. By keeping prices artificially low, demand increases to the point where supply cannot keep up, leading to – you guessed it – shortages of food. To make things worse, the price ceiling means that people who do have access to food don’t ration their consumption carefully. Though the Chinese government may see these policies as a short-term fix to a politically volatile situation, it will probably exacerbate things. That’s the thing about the free market – you can’t have your cake and control its price too.

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Bringing the BBC Downton earth

Written by Harriet Blackburn | Friday 12 November 2010

The BBC has long justified its existence by pointing to the fact that it airs programmes that appeal to a range of audiences – providing “public value” with didactic, highbrow broadcasting that would not arise naturally on the market. Once again, this claim can be shown to be unsubstantiated by the facts. This autumn, TV critics and audiences alike have focused around ITV, with the channel moving away from its traditional image of gritty soap operas and cheap entertainment.

Many people’s weekends now revolve around the X-Factor on Saturday and Sunday night, followed by the highly-praised period drama Downton Abbey. Though the X-Factor may not be to everyone taste, it is a huge success drawing in the audiences for the seventh year running – whatever its artistic merit, people enjoy it. However, it is the airing of Downton Abbey that underline’s the potential for ITV’s output. The Edwardian costume drama has truly challenged the BBC’s supposed monopoly on this genre. It has shown the depth and diversity that private broadcasters can achieve and makes one wonder why we need a public broadcaster.

The unique thing about the revival of ITV is that they operate on a much tighter programme budget compared to the government-funded BBC. With only £1 billion a year, which has remained static for several years, ITV have shown that well-invested and well-written dramas can compete with the BBC and all other channels out there. On the other hand, the BBC, which receives around £3.6 billion of taxpayers money through the tax known as the ‘licence fee’, has brought little new to the schedule that has truly captured the viewing public.

This highlights the question of whether public funding is justifiable at all. If private television companies are producing some of the best and most-watched television whilst competing with a government-protected monopoly, how much more could be produced in a genuinely free market without government anti-competition subsidies?

It is time the BBC was disbanded or privatized so it has to compete on a level playing field, not only with ITV but with all the other corporate channels that are now made available to us following the digital switchover. No longer crowded out by the BBC, private channels would soon produce higher rated and higher quality programmes: Downton Abbey is only the tip of the iceberg. 

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For whom the road tolls

Written by Harriet Blackburn | Monday 08 November 2010

roadsOne result of the Comprehensive Spending Review is that there are more opportunities for private investment to provide what the government can no longer afford. One project to be cut is a proposed relief road in the Midlands, which was meant to ease pressure on a key artery linking the region with Felixtowe. However, the Department of Transport describes the scheme as unaffordable. Cue a sensible alternative – a private toll road.

It seems the government is slowly recognising the benefits of private involvement in the running of the roads. They are considering new congestion-busting schemes that involve the building of toll roads alongside existing bottlenecks. Local councils, meanwhile, have apparently seen the possibility of private companies creating new by-pass roads – sparing them the long (potentially endless) wait for Whitehall cash.

There is already a private road operating in the UK – the M6 toll road. This is the template under which new roads should be built. Currently the road network is open access and funded by general taxation, meaning that both drivers and non-drivers bear the cost of its upkeep. But the highway system is currently hugely overstretched, with congestion and road maintenance becoming a real problem for the government.

The solution is to franchise the roads to private contractors, as suggested by Nigel Hawkins in Privatization Revisited. Part of the levy raised by these companies on the motorists would then be put towards the maintenance and general upkeep of the road, ensuring that those who use the road are the ones to pay for it. This is the system used in many other European countries, so why should it be any different in the UK?

More broadly, these stories illustrate one of the benefits of public spending cuts. The private sector, which has previously been crowded out of many parts of the economy by big government, suddenly has more opportunities to provide the things that people need.

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Private league tables would bring public benefits

Written by Harriet Blackburn | Wednesday 03 November 2010

schoolkidsYesterday researchers at Bristol University released a report claiming to prove that league tables create better results in schools. The report’s authors have shown that schools in Wales, where league tables were abolished in 2001, are achieving worse results than those in England. In principle, it makes sense that the existence of information for the consumer would increase competition and therefore the quality of the school. But, as I have argued before, in their current form league tables are broken and inhibit educational success.

Setting aside the other factors that may have affected this result, it still seems that Wales made the right decision to abandon league tables defined by government targets. The report’s release coincides with the Chief Executive of Ofqual calling for the abolition of the very targets that make up these tables, arguing that the current system of tables is an inadequate provision of information. “Simplistic” league tables, which only consider whether a child has achieved five GCSE of C or higher, narrow children’s learning and create a tendency to “teach to the test”. There are many other factors other than simple results that create a good school.

Obviously it is good for pupils to gain as high a grade as possible. However, this is not parents’ only priority when it comes to their children’s education. It seems that rather than Wales being wrong to abandon league tables, it was the inability of the government to create a more effective way of providing information to the parents. This meant that there was no way to compare schools and thus competition was not fostered.

Privatizing league tables would make them accountable to the consumer rather than the government, and would provide a broader ranking of schools. If the government stopped crowding out private companies’ league tables, competition would allow private tables to use wider criteria than government targets, and in turn spark greater competition between schools. 

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Restoring lost liberties

Written by Harriet Blackburn | Tuesday 02 November 2010

policeThe foiling of a terrorist plot on Friday has once more pushed the issue of national security into the headlines. Apart from the direct security risks, a worrying consequence of this is the impact it will have on counterterrorism laws that are currently being reviewed.

There has recently been cause to question the Coalition’s commitment to civil liberties, particularly in regards to the existence of control orders. When the government appointed Lord Macdonald to carry out the internal Home Office review of counter-terrorism measures, it seemed that that it was showing a commitment to civil liberties – MacDonald’s liberal views on this subject are well known in Westminster.

However, recent statements from the Home Secretary suggest that the government is only listening to the concerns of the security services instead of those of the country and Parliament. The attempted terrorist attacks may have been given control orders a stay of execution.

Since the introduction of control orders in 2005 there has been much debate about their legitimacy. Their stated purpose was to restrict the movement of any kind of suspects, including British nationals, targeted by the Home Secretary – a huge infringement on our civil liberties. This raised serious concern about the growing power of the government at the expense of our freedom.

When the Coalition was formed back in May, one of the key policy areas that united the two parties was a commitment to civil liberties and to revoke some of the authoritarian policies put in place by the Labour government, including control orders.

Unfortunately, it seems that what was said in opposition seems to count for little in power. We can only hope that the cries for the abolition of control orders from prominent MPs on both side of the Coalition – notably David Davis, who has pledged to vote against their continuation – will help to restore some of our lost civil liberties.

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