Lord Adonis: Three reasons why he is wrong

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altTransport minister Lord Adonis tells us that the government’s intends to replace domestic and short-haul flights with a new high-speed rail network. There are three good reasons to think that this is a terrible idea.

First is the government’s record with large-scale infrastructure projects. The last major project on the railways was the upgrade to the West Coast Main Line, which was initially planned to be finished by 2005, estimated to cost £2bn, and designed to allow trains to travel up to 140mph. It was eventually completed in 2008, at a cost of at least £9bn, and permitting speeds up to 125mph. The government’s estimates for a single 250mph line linking London to the North stand at £20bn, and a decade’s work. Believe them if you wish.

Second is that the railways are not economically viable. Despite the government bearing a large part of the maintenance and capital costs of the rail network, most operators only survive with massive subsidies: Virgin West Coast franchise received £312m last year. Many airlines, despite brutal levels of taxation, still make a profit. It’s nonsense to spend a fortune replacing a mode of transport that is profitable, that generates wealth, with one that destroys it.

Third is that the government’s environmental arguments are ridiculous. Even if we accept their assertion that the construction of new rail networks will make substantial difference to carbon emissions (which many contest), it’s a horrendously expensive way of doing so. Even if the railways replaced every one of the nine billion kilometers flown by domestic passengers last year, the trains omitted no carbon dioxide whatsoever, and the project came in at the lowest possible cost of £20bn, and assuming that airlines currently use the most polluting planes available (165gCO2/km), the cost would be £13,468 per tonne of yearly CO2 emissions avoided. For comparison, CO2 reduction at coal-fired power stations costs in the region of £20 per tonne.

If it ever gets built, this railway will be little more than a monument to ministerial ego, financial insanity and environmental hysteria.

The oil price – Whither next?

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As a basic commodity, oil price movements are curious. After all, just over a year ago, the oil price peaked on the spot market at $147 per barrel. Yet, by the end of last year, the oil price had fallen below $40 per barrel, thereby - in theory at least – making a lot of world production uneconomic.

Clearly, the onset of the recession depressed oil prices as industrial demand plummeted worldwide. More recently, though, the oil price has rallied as the recession appears to have stabilized. 

Whilst leading oil producers operate on the basis of long-term contracts – with more stable prices than the volatile spot prices - there are ongoing concerns about the sustainability of the oil price.

For the international majors, such as ExxonMobil, BP and Shell, the recent plunge in the oil price has had a massive impact on their profitability. When oil prices were peaking, these companies were generating vast sums of cash: their latest results were far less buoyant.

Fluctuating oil prices also create real uncertainty for investment decisions. The Athabasca Tar Sands projects in Canada, in which Shell is a heavy investor, are a case in point; it is estimated that a price of at least $80 per barrel is needed to make these operations profitable.

Of course, OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) is key to future oil prices. This cartel currently embraces around 40% of world production, with its leading member, Saudi Arabia, being central to any decision to cut back output. Significantly, too, OPEC members account for c70% of total world reserves.

Looking forward, oil prices may settle within the range of $60-$80 per barrel – a level that is widely seen as being appropriate for both producers and consumers. Currently, the price per barrel – at c$70 – is at the centre of this range.

Lessons in morality

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A leader in the Daily Telegraph yesterday exposed one of the deep seated flaws of our parliamentary system. It called for MPs to be allowed to decide laws on moral issues, in this instance whether people should be allowed to aid those ending their life. This is in light of the Law Lords asking the Director of Public Prosecutions to clarify the existing legislation on assisted suicide and the Telegraph fearing that the drawn up guidelines would in fact create new law.

The Telegraph recognises the fact that Parliament has spoken on this issue, with the rejection three years ago of Lord Joffe's Euthanasia Bill and just recently Lord Falconer's amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill. Calls for an adjournment debate following the summer recess, despite Parliament's continual ignoring of the public, are naive. The public's feelings towards assisted suicide/euthanasia have remained constantly in favour of it over the past few years.  With over 65% of people in a variety of  surveys wanting to see non-prosecution of those that assist others; as well as being legally able to undertake medicinal euthanasia should they so choose. Demanding MPs act and decide what the law should be exposes the democratic deficit in relation to morality: namely that MPs would mostly likely vote based on their own morality/values. Thus negating their constituents views and exhibiting a truly Platonic approach to governing, as can be seen by Nadine Dorries upcoming campaign, ensuring that a mature approach to euthanasia isn't taken.

An MP is not instantly elevated to the Heavens and instilled with divine wisdom upon election. And they are unlikely to pack the chamber out during the debate (at most you would probably see around 75-100 discussing this issue). MPs are human like the rest of us, and while they should discuss this issue the outcome should represent the will of the people. It should not be the view of the narrow out-of-touch minority that sit on the green benches in the Commons. Asking MPs to make value based morality judgements is akin to asking a professional car thief to valet park your car.

Where next for the BBC?

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An article in Monday's Guardian and a subsequent column by Geoffrey Wheatcroft on Tuesday revealed that the BBC " has been using a distant sun-kissed villa as a base for entertaining.....at a cost to date of £90,530". Now to be fair, apparently it has been used to entertain television executives to persuade them to invest in future projects, reducing the net cost to us license-payers of programmes: reportedly £80m a year in investment is secured through such activities.

Whatever the truth behind this specific example though, and regardless of whether the entertaining was justified and represented good value for money, it raises further questions about the role and strategy of the BBC in an increasingly segmented and non-linear media marketplace. The problem is that if it makes popular (and generally populist!) programmes, it is quite rightly argued that these are produced effectively by the commercial sector. If it focuses more on traditional public service broadcasting, with an emphasis on factual, cultural and news programming, then it loses audience share and is attacked for failing to provide the service that most license-fee payers want.

Over the weekend, Ed Vaizey suggested that BBC's youth orientated Radio 1 should be sold off, claiming that it was failing to reach its target 15-24 demographic. This channel's output arguably encapsulates the modern BBC: the daytime programming is fairly mainstream, and is very similar to the output of a multitude of national and local commercial stations, whilst the nighttime shows promote new music and more diverse genres, something generally not offered by most other stations.

What I suggest then is that the mainstream populist output of the BBC (with which I have no problem and often enjoy) should be spun out into a commercial entity, funded by adverts. In the absence of the BBC, I believe that factual, cultural and niche programming would continue to exist on commercial channels, and in fact increase to fill the gap left. Already, broadcasters including ITV and Channel Four provide some excellent factual content. In the unlikely event that there was strong demand for a type of programming that the mainstream media (including an independent commercial BBC) was not providing, then people who wished to have such content would be served by niche channels, made possible by the increasing channel capacity of home TV services and the proliferation of web-based media. The fact is that the dramatic development of technology in the decades since the formation of the Beeb have rendered it an outmoded institution with an uncertain role, bloated by the regressive license fee.

Why there is no “Right to work”

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Monday’s repossession order, handed down by the Newport County Court in the Isle of Wight should signal the end of a two week sit-in by redundant workers at the Vestas wind turbine factory.

However, the socialist politician and (therefore presumably part-time) union leader Bob Crow has said that his RMT union “will continue with our campaign and the right to work on green energy jobs." There is an obvious mistake in this sentence (other than the structure) that is nonetheless all too common. It is the assumption, and then misunderstanding, of a “Right to work".

At the core is a more fundamental problem with the concepts of “rights" and “freedoms": what might also be called “positive rights" and “negative rights", though the latter terms can be taken to imply a value judgement and so will be generally avoided from here on in.

If by a “right to work on green energy jobs" Mr. Crow is suggesting that individuals (such as the redundant Vestas workers) should be free to work in companies that trade on their environmental benefits, he is of course correct. Indeed, whether it is the “right to work" in any particular sector, or the “right to work" in general (a more traditional cry of Union collectivists), in the sense that nobody should be able to prevent a person from pursuing employment (in that sector) it is something for which we should all strive. Indeed, the right to work is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

However, Mr. Crow and like-minded people are rarely talking about freedom when they are talking about rights. Rather, they are talking about entitlements. The “Right to work" is, in their view, the right to have the job of their choice, presumably in perpetuity.

This type of “right" differs fundamentally from a freedom. Freedom is individual; it requires only that others do not prevent the worker from working. Entitlements are inherently communal; if one person is entitled, another must be obliged. Mr. Crow is suggesting that some person or persons should be obliged to offer people jobs - in the case of the redundant Vestas workers, in industries that claim environmental benefits.

A very easy case can be made for leaving people alone to find their own employment without hindrance. In passing, it is worth noting that the greatest hindrances to employees finding (better) jobs are labour unions themselves – which operate on the basis of restrictive practices, without which they would have no power – and the laws for which they agitate. It is far harder to justify compelling a person to offer another a job. As compulsion is only necessary when a person does not want to do something, and as the only reason that a person would decline to offer another a job is that the would-be employer believes that they will lose out because of it, compelling them to offer a job reduces their welfare.

The likes of Mr. Crow are not, therefore, upholding a universal right. Instead, they are forcing one group of people, with whom they do not sympathise, to provide for another group, with whom they do. This could be viewed as transferring wealth from one group to another; it could be viewed as making one group the slaves of another (though the latter risks sounding like hyperbole and so should be used with caution).

It makes no difference, in this respect, whether it is the owners of Vestas specifically, or taxpayers more generally, who are subjected to this obligation. It remains an unjustifiable attack on their freedom, saddling them with an intolerable moral and financial burden that – in the long run and across the whole of society – will also impoverish all of us.

Extradition: the other side of the argument

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Yesterday, David Rawcliffe wrote that, based on the law as it currently stands, Gary McKinnon should be extradited. Today, Tim Worstall makes the case against McKinnon's extradition...

Here's a very gloomy thought for a Wednesday morning. It took our forefathers rather a long time to come up with the various measures that protect us as individuals from the abritrary exercise of State power. There were more than a few revolts and uprisings, at least one civil war and a revolution. We ended up with a system that was by no means perfect but was considered sufficiently robust in protecting the individual that when there was a rebellion against us and our restrictions, the newly formed US codified our mish mash of Habeas Corpus, the presumption of innocence, the right to speedy trial and so on.

Clearly such a system would be no use in protecting those rights of the individual if it stopped at the borders of the Kingdom: thus the imposition of rules upon extradition to other jurisdictions. Whatever was being alleged had to be a crime here as well as wherever they wished to try someone plus at least a modicum of evidence had to be offered that there was indeed a case to answer. It was not possible for a foreign power to simply demand one of us so that they could do as they wished.

This has all now rather changed. The Home Secretary thinks that sending Gary McKinnon off to the US for trial is just fine: despite the fact that as a forigner in the US it is almost certain he will not get bail. This despite the fact that under the higly unequal treaty with that country, no American would be extradited to here on the evidence so far presented. The US Supreme Court would not allow such a breach of a citizen's constitutional rights. (Worth perhaps noting this thought: "British version of the Act is written throughout with American spellings of English: in other words it was produced by US bureaucrats and pushed under the nose of Blunkett for his signature.")

Under the European Arrest Warrant Andrew Symeou is being held in a Greek prison. At no point has a case had to be made against, not to the standards that we would traditionally have demanded. Indeed, under that EAW we are all at the mercy of a number of jurisdictions that routinely bang people up without anything even vaguely resembling what we woudl call a fair trial.

And that is, in the end, my gloomy thought. It opens the way for Government to void all of our protections against arbitrary action. We might still be protected here, even if there are those in the Home Office who would wish that these pesky fair trial things were not so onerous, but we are no longer protected from being banged up in some foreign gaol. So, some assumed to be bad 'un might indeed be protected here, but there is no protection from a manufactured case from abroad.

Of course, I am being paranoid here: no British Government would ever collude with a foreign one to get one of us locked up without a fair trial, would it? By pointing out that this difficult character, while we can't try him in England, if you were to ask for extradition of course we'd have to had him over to rot in your prisons for a while? No, no, no government ever would act against the freedoms of a citizen in such a manner.

Of course, if we trusted governments that much we'd not insist on having protections here, would we? All of which rather leads to the conclusion that if extradition no longer requires the proofs and evidence of old then we are no longer free of arbitray imprisonment. Which isn't, when you come down to it, a great advance in civil liberties.

Stop lobbying yourself

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A new report by the TaxPayers’ Alliance reveals the cost of taxpayer-funded lobbying and campaigning, which it conservatively estimates at £38m last year. Public bodies are spending taxpayers’ money, through consultants, trade associations, policy campaigns and think tanks, to promote themselves and influence the policy process.

That government is spending money lobbying government is as outrageous as it is bizarre. Public bodies, set up to fulfil specified policy objectives, should not be spending our money to compete for government funding, support particular parties and push their own agenda.

However, that money is being spent in this way is not the most worrying thing about this report – the total is relatively small, and the Conservatives promise to ban such spending if they come to power. The greatest concern is what this behaviour reveals: that these bodies have a culture and an organisational structure that permit shameless promotion of particular agendas and a total disregard for the taxpayer.

This is not at all surprising: civil servants have simply responded to the incentives they face. Mandarins have been rewarded for furthering the agendas of their political masters, increasing the size and responsibilities of their departments, and appearing to deliver on specific policy targets; they have naturally adopted the means most conducive to these ends. The public sector, spending money that isn’t its own, remains unrestrained by the financial considerations that necessarily dictate the activities of private firms.

So what should a new governing party do about it? Well first of all, they must limit the size of the public sector – they must abolish scores of useless quangos, privatize suitable functions, and restructure services to reduce spending. But equally importantly, they must restore a culture of impartiality and financial discipline to public service.  They must explicitly include financial targets in the appraisals of civil servants, and base their pay on these results, and they must publish all government spending for public scrutiny, so that wastage can be identified and criticised by those who fund it.

Silliness from the Lib Dems

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As Labour’s popularity is at an all-time-low, the next general election could prove a real opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to make an impact on the two major parties. So, it’s good to see they’re focusing on the major issues affecting Britain today.

The idea that advertisements should be banned from showing airbrushed models is laughable, and yet this appears to be a serious proposal. Their argument is simple: teenage girls see airbrushed women on TV and strive to reach similar levels of unnatural perfection, damaging their health on the way. Therefore, we must ban advert actresses from being airbrushed. This is illiberal nonsense. I used to buy shaving gel advertised by David Beckham; it never tempted me to to cover myself in tattoos or grow a Mohawk!

Long before TV adverts came around, people would go to any lengths to look attractive and acquire what they saw as the perfect body shape, even if it damaged their health. In 1903, for example, Gladys Deacon had hot wax injected into her face to reshape her nose. It destroyed her face, but nobody considered banning candles. There is clearly a human desire to look good. Banning certain TV adverts is not going stop this.

If they are going to take advantage of the massive political opportunity the polls are currently giving them, the Lib Dems are going to have to up their game and tackle the serious problems facing Britain, rather than raising gimmicky minor issues worthy of a fringe party. It will be interesting to see whether Nick Clegg can take them to the next level.