A goal that can't be missed


The G8 meeting in Italy is reported to have agreed yet more goals. An 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 (from a baseline yet to be agreed) is more of the usual aspiration target-setting, with no agreement on hard shorter-term goals. The chances of India and China signing up to something similar are zero. The likelihood is that there will some form of agreement cobbled together in Copenhagen in December which will in practice be meaningless and will achieve nothing.

However, one further goal has been agreed which will be easy to reach. That is to keep average temperatures from rising by more than 2°C, which has now been taken as some line in the sand beyond which we cannot go without disastrous and irreversible consequences. In practice, we are extremely unlikely to get close to this goal whether or not anything is done about emissions control. So that's one goal they'll meet.

Elsewhere, Prince Charles, in his Richard Dimbleby lecture, has calculated that we have just 96 months to save the world, in what the Independent reported as a searing indictment of capitalist society. So, I assume he is going to take a lead by shutting down Duchy Originals. In the meantime, we can be comforted that the heir to the throne has such a sound grasp of maths.

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Darling fluffs regulatory reform


HM Treasury released yesterday 176 pages setting out the government’s regulatory response to the financial crisis. Quite how the global (as Darling still claims it is) crisis will be solved by a few pettifogging UK changes is unclear. More transparency for hedge funds, higher fines and capital ratios, and keeping an eye on bankers’ bonuses (presumably like Lord Myners and UKFI have kept an eye on those at RBS) are marginally useful. But the root causes of the crisis – notably, the failure of supervisors to supervise – are ignored.

The FSA is not penalised but rewarded. The Bank of England is given the responsibility for financial stability it always had.

The report includes a summary of the Impact Assessment but the Assessment itself is still (some hours after the report it is supposed to justify) unavailable. With the announcement being delayed a week they should have had plenty of time to issue the Assessment. It should show us the alternative means of meeting policy objectives and the comparative analysis of their advantages and disadvantages. For now, though, we are in the dark.

The summary shows the the five policy objectives, the third being to boost “boost consumer trust and confidence in financial markets". Most of us reckon that trust, misplaced as it was, to have been part of the problem. In financial terms, this policy objective is far the biggest and will save around £25 billion over 52 years. The other figures and proposals are no less fanciful. None of the other policy objectives seem to match up with the regulatory changes proposed. The White Paper is designed merely to get Darling to the next election.

(Un)common sense on climate change policy


When so much which is said, written and done in the name of climate change mitigation is tinged with a zealotry which insists that drastic action must be taken, despite the improbability of it happening, it is particularly refreshing to see a remarkably sensible new report from the University of Oxford and LSE.

How to Get Climate Change Back on Course clearly and concisely demolishes the myth that the Kyoto protocol and any successor which might possibly emerge from the Copenhagen conference later this year will have the claimed effect on emissions. It also highlights the ludicrously ambitious targets of the UK Climate Change Act, which would require a sustained rate of decarbonisation over twice that ever seen. That Kyoto places binding obligations on Annex 1 countries and the Climate Change Act targets are legally enforceable is meaningless: no sactions can force compliance.

The authors of the report all subscribe to the view that carbon dioxide is the primary driver of climate change. These are not sceptics. However, they are realists, capable of independent thought and recognising that the current hypothesis may turn out to be false. They propose a policy which is lower cost, efficient and - most importantly - directly addresses the key issue of carbon intensity: a low, ring-fenced carbon tax to fund innovation policies. This is based on the simple truth that clean energy will only begin to dominate when it is cheaper to supply at the point of use than conventional sources. Such a carbon tax may turn out to be unnecessary, but it certainly beats the unholy mess of emissions control. This report should be required reading for all politicians.

For more detail, see the latest Scientific Alliance newsletter.

Prohibited from leaving the waiting room...


..,especially if you need some assistance in making it through those heavy double doors underneath the exit sign. Lord McColl writing in The Daily Telegraph sets out arguments against Lord Falconer's proposal for people's non-prosecution of those who assist others seeking to be euthanised. Dying in Dignity have found that two-thirds of people actually think that Falconer's proposal is acceptable and wish to see the change in the law.

Lord McColl's arguments are admirable, but they fail to take into account one very important factor: that people have the rights over their own lives. While there may be a majority of doctors who do not wish to be involved in making a decision with regard to someone's life, there will be others willing to help. After all patients wishes should be respected. For years Jehovah Witnesses have refused blood transfusions, much to the detriment of their own health; those wishes remain respected though. How is it that those with a god have power on their side yet the rest of us meek mortals are subservient to the politician's and medical profession's whims.

At a previous point a person has made a rational choice that they are, or will no longer be, happy with the level of life they will find themselves in. Therefore they wish to end it all. It's time that we grew up in this country and respected individual choices over our lives. We have advanced little in the intervening years since the Suicide Act was passed in 1961 when the state finally relinquished its totalitarian grasp on people's lives. Those who assist in purveying a person to carry out their wishes should not be punished unless there is a highly suspicious reason to. Obviously it would be far easier if euthanasia was available here and we had a system organized that protected the vulnerable from abuse. It will be a while longer before the state cedes total control to us to hold open the doors, as the House of Lords voted against the amendment on Tuesday.

Freezing public sector pay


It’s unusual for me to be in support a policy of Alistair Darling’s; in fact I can’t remember when I last agreed with him, but if he carried through his signalled intentions to freeze public sector pay, this would be an uncharacteristically prudent move.

It is estimated that a freeze in public sector pay could save £5billion for the public coffers – every little saving counts at the moment and any politician signalling cuts in public expenditure is a step in the right direction. But this would not be the sole benefit of the pay freeze. It could signal the beginnings of a culture of change in the public sector towards efficiency mirroring the private sector.

Currently, and for the past decade, civil servants have enjoyed the best of both worlds. They have received good pay, comfortable working conditions, bonuses, unparalleled job security and huge pensions with very little downside. This has resulted in a stagnation of public services with no incentive to cut costs or boost productivity with no external and very little internal competition. Long-gone are the days when a public sector job was done in the vein of public-interest. A freeze in pay would send out messages that the public sector needs to really earn our money rather than automatically receiving it.

The chances are Alistair Darling won’t carry out his threat of freezing public sector pay. If David Cameron comes into power, he has already stated that he won’t be cracking down on public sector pay as ‘that is not the way we do pay in this country’ (whatever that means…). Even if this warning gives some departments a nudge in the right direction, I fear it will be a long time before we see a much-needed large-scale review of efficiency, waste and spending in the public sector.

How to undermine volunteering


Volunteering is an activity that the government does not understand. For politicians, the populace is seen in crude terms, often through the lens of focus groups.

A report from CFE entitiled Cultural Volunteering in the East Midlands, paid for by a collection of publicly funded bodies, apparently demonstrates the “value of volunteering both to the individual and the organisations they volunteer for". This is not exactly a revelation.

The policy recommendations make depressing reading. It argues for the development of a regional policy and strategy on volunteering. While local government “is expected to facilitate an environment in which volunteering is increased and ensure local people can identify opportunities to volunteer and thus fulfil an active role within their communities".

Included in the recommendations is the suggestion that “Local authorities could maximise the engagement of cultural organisations and volunteers by providing volunteer managers in cultural organisations with appropriate information about services, polices and decisions". In essence this is a blueprint for undermining volunteering in the East Midlands.

By its very nature volunteering is set apart from the coercive state. Although usually well intentioned, politicians are taking away the autonomy of charities and with it the values that make them distinct from politics. It is a pity that many charities are happy to lap up public funds not realising that they are drinking poisoned water. Further, they are undermining those charities that know better.

The rise of the surveillance society


Following the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks, there has been an exponential increase in Britain’s surveillance: currently, Britain has a quarter of the world’s security surveillance cameras with around four million cameras in use and we are currently the world’s most watched nation – something which is very unnerving and reflective of the surveillance dystopia envisaged by George Orwell in his fictional work “Nineteen Eighty Four".

The steady expansion and the overuse of the surveillance in Britain risks undermining the right to privacy; it poses a huge risk to individual liberty; and one more step towards a police state in the United Kingdom. Currently, there are few laws in place to limit the use of CCTV, brought about to “protect national security": this has lead to a “mission creep" in the use and abuse of surveillance. Local councils have been accused of severely abusing the surveillance in the United Kingdom by using CCTV to prevent fly tipping, dog fouling and, recently, CCTV was used by Poole Borough Council to monitor the actions and whereabouts of a family who were wrongly accused of lying about where they live on a school application form.

Britain’s surveillance society can be closely linked to the works of Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. In 1785, Jeremy Bentham proposed the idea of the Panopticon: the Panopticon is a conceptual prison design that allows the prison guard to watch the prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell when they are being watched, in order to gain significant psychological control. Bentham described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example". The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, took up this theme in his 1975 work “Discipline and Punish", where he pursued the link between surveillance and social control. Thus, comparing the effects of surveillance to the effects of the Panopticon.

Although the use of surveillance clearly has its advantages in terms of fighting crime, its overuse can prove counter-productive and can ultimately be viewed as a challenge to Britain’s liberal democratic status.

The rise of the surveillance society is written by Daniel Button, 3rd prize in The Young Writer on Liberty 2009.

Cut public spending by a third


Sir John Major, former Chancellor (and ex-PM) said at the weekend that public spending should be reduced by a third, including cutting the number of civil servants and ministers.

That would mean reducing government spending from nearly £700 billion to around £450 billion. Since the Treasury expects to collect just under £500 billion of tax this year, it would turn the monstrous £175 billion borrowing into a surplus of about £45 billion.

I’ll let you play fantasy Budgets, but that surplus would be more than enough to abolish council tax, fuel duty, or corporation tax, or increase the tax-free personal allowance to £15,000.

So Major’s proposed cut would mean significant tax cuts as well as a balanced Budget instead of record debt.

That sounds like an incredibly radical measure, even though a necessary and desirable one. But is it really (as I am sure the public sector unions will scream) a savage cut that would cripple public services, or is it a feasible, moderate policy?

Let’s look back a few years, to before the recent government profligacy.

In 2000, three years into the Labour government and with “Prudence" Brown as Chancellor, total government spending was just under £350 billion. Increase that by inflation, and it would be about £450 billion next year.

So the radical-sounding cut of one third of public spending just means that the government does what it did in 2000, with its costs increased by inflation. Is that really so difficult?

Just think of all the wonderful things that the government does now, that it didn’t do in 2000 (go on, try). Are they worth beggaring the country for?

As Tom blogged here last week, “all that extra cash has achieved more or less nothing." Well – except for a crippling public debt!