David Miliband’s plea that both sides should stop the violence in Gaza is like treating executioner and victim as equally responsible. More than 400 Palestinians have now been killed, in retaliation for 1 Israeli killed by rockets fired from Gaza over the last 6 months (plus 1 more since the Israeli airstrikes started). Once again, as the junior partner of the Bush Administration, British Mijnisters will not, as before with the 2006 war in Labanon, allow the words to pass through their lips that Israeli action is utterly disproportionate.
The Hooper Report has focused attention on three key issues for Royal Mail – a pension fund deficit rising to some £7bn, the performance of its specific regulator Postcomm, and a part-sale of the service to a private sector operator. The direction of Mandelson’s response is clearly towards bringing in a foreign company such as the Dutch TNT or the German DHL arm of Deutsche Post to provide a ‘strategic partner’ to inject private capital and private management expertise. But that is not necessarily the logic towards which Hooper’s analysis leads at all. If the State is used to lift the main financial burden on Royal Mail, the huge pension fund deficit, as the Government clearly seems to intend, there are several steps which can and should be taken which would almost certainly make a public sector reform more beneficial, economically as well as socially, as any privatisation.
Nobody will condone the methods used by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) activists convicted on Christmas Eve for their attacks on the animal research laboratory Huntingdon Life Sciences and associated companies and individuals. But that should not blind us to the fact that they have a point which deserves much more public attention than it has received so far. We treat animals badly and inflict unnecessary cruelty on them. We may be the dominant species on this planet, but that doesn’t mean we are entitled to brutalise and subject to our pleasure other animal species which also have neural systems, cranial capacity and a desire for life. Yet we do, constantly. We should change our ways in several important respects.
The fiscal stimulus is certainly necessary since monetary policy, even with interest rates cut to 1% or even lower as is likely, is clearly inadequate by itself alone to get the economy kick-started again. But in the PBR it was badly mishandled on at least three major counts. There is a much better way, and one that is wholly affordable, contrary to Tory claims.
The refusal of No.10 to countenance an inquiry into the origins, handling and aftermath of the Iraq War even after announcing the withdrawal of virtually all of the 4,100 British troops currently there, and even perhaps after they have returned home by July 2019, shows how unaccountable Governments can become after major disaster that have become deeply embarrassing. But there are still ways in which it can be made to happen.
One of the most unpleasant aspects of New Labour is their antipathy to civil liberties. It arises naturally from the determination of its founders (essentially Brown, Mandelson, Blair) to turn Labour into a dogmatically pro-business party where the values of business, and in particular Big Business, are made to prevail at every level of the economy and society. Those values centre round not only deregulation, privatisation, globalisation, and a business-friendly tax regime, but also the protection of business property and support wherever feasible to promote business profits. Values that may sometimes stand in the way – democracy, dissent, equal opportunity, personal freedom, tolerance of minority opinion, to name a few – are downplayed or ignored. A regular victim of this pro-corporate authoritarian civic order has been civil liberties. With the assault now being threatened against climate change protesters, it is now under attack again, this time even more extreme than before.
The central issue in British politics today is the fiscal stimulus. New Labour contends that it is vital even if it means extending Government borrowing to unprecedented levels. The Tories claim that Britain cannot afford it and that the Treasury should retrench and cut public spending even if it means giving no additional help to people to help them through the recession. Both misrepresent the situation. There is a far better alternative which neither will contemplate.
After last week’s EU Council deal on climate change President Sarkozy trumpeted that “this Council will go down in the history of Europe”. Perhaps it will, but for the opposite reasons to those he has in mind. This Council marks yet another milestone where industrial lobbying has triumphed over any serious anti-climate change action, where big new loopholes have been created in an increasingly complex network, and where exemptions have been permitted which are now large enough to drive a coach and horses through them. As Pyrrhus said two thousands years ago, if we have any more victories like this, we’ll all be done for.
What is really disturbing about today’s revelation that a so-called Department of Transport efficiency drive designed to save £50m ended up costing the taxpayer over £80m is that despite what the PAC castigated as “stupendou incompetence”, no heads have rolled and nobody has even been properly held to account. What is worse is that this culture of irresponsibility, so far from being a few isolated examples, is now becoming a regular pattern.
The so-called welfare reforms could potentially offer a better future for thousands currently abandoned to poverty on benefits, though it all depends how Purnell’s conditionality is exercised. But the real problem is that these measures are being introduced at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and without adequate support facilities to make them work properly. And the punitive language of both Purnell and Cameron isn’t helping.
So it’s not only the bankers who through greed and recklessness cock-up the financial markets and wreck the real economy and then expect to be generously treated with colossal bail-outs and even retention of their bonuses. It’s the lawyers too and other professionals. The latest PAC report yesterday have just uncovered that 36 barristers have been forced to return £605,000 to the tax authorities. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have also been recovered from other white collar tax evaders – surgeons, medical consultants and landlords. Already 57 barristers have been caught evading tax. Yet none of them has been prosecuted. Instead private deals are reached with the Inland Revenue. HMRC estimates that as much as £2bn a year may be lost to the Exchequer as a result of the cash-in-hand culture, yet only about 2 in a 1,000 get prosecuted. In the case of benefit fraud cases, the DWP says it’s 60 prosecutions per 1,000. Could class bias in the operation of the criminal law be more flagrant?
The Food Standards Agency yet again complacently plays down the serious risks from chemicals contaminating our food supply. Behind the Irish pork fiasco there’s a whole history of serious food concerns where the FSA has turned a blind eye to consumer safety, but protected the food industry.
The Government’s gross under-funding of local authorities to manage and maintain their Council homes is leading many, including now Oldham, to propose shifting them from an ALMO, externally managed but still owned by the Council, to a Housing Association which is a private company in law. This means the loss of secure tenancies, higher rents and charges, less democratic control of the housing service, and increased risks for tenants.
CLIMATE CHANGE COMMITTEE REPORT INDICATES NEED FOR GOVERNMENT POLICY CHANGES
The Turner Committee on Climate Change report today is very thorough and demonstrates in detail the practicality of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 34% compared to the 1990 baseline, and by 42% relative to 1990 if a global deal is reached at Copenhagen next year. But it also points up significant areas where current policies have to be changed.
1. Turner says that emissions from international aviation and shipping should be included in future GHG budgets, but at present they are not. This is a major omission when a PQ Answer I obtained on 25 November shows that emissions from international aviation more than doubled from 15.7 million tonnes of CO2 in 1990 to 35.6 million tonnes in 2006. Even though it is excluded from their 3 carbon budgets 2008-2022, Turner still says that “there need to be clear strategies to achieve emission reductions” in this area. At present there are not.
2. Turner proposes that no new coal-fired power station should be licensed which cannot be retro-fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS) equipment by 2020. The reply to my PQ to DECC on 17 November shows that the Department will not commit “to require new coal plants to be fitted with CCS or to set a date by which this should be required”. In the face of this dithering (and withdrawal from the Peterhead CCS project), Turner is right to set down a clear rule. It means that new coal-fired power stations like Kingsnorth in Kent, Blyth in Northumberland and others currently planned should not proceed without a clear, dated CCS commitment.
3. Turner says the Government should not plan to purchase offset credits abroad to meet the proposed interim 2008-12 budget, and that certainly less than 10% of required emission reductions should come from this source. At present the Government is planning carbon offsets purchased abroad of 30% or more.
4. Turner says power sector emissions of 40% below 1990 levels are realistically achievable if generation from renewable sources of energy can be increased to 30% of the total. This is broadly the increased rate of take-up of renewables already achieved by Germany over the last 10 years, and on this scenario Turner indicates there would then be no need for nuclear new build. However, Government has so far showing more interest in evading EU targets to increase renewables sourcing than in planning the big expansion of renewables needed. This is perhaps the single biggest failure of current policy that needs now comprehensively to change.
5. Turner is right that new policies are also urgently needed in several other areas, notably:
* to deploy renewable heat,
* to reduce vehicle emissions (a new EU binding target for new cars is needed of no more than 100gCO2/km in 2020, compared with some 140 today)
* to apply plug-in hybrid technologies to vans,
* to support widespread solid wall insulation,
* to incentivise big energy efficiency improvements and lifestyle changes in homes which can cut emissions by as much as 40 million tonnes of CO2, though at nil or even negative cost.
Turner is a wake-up call. So far, there has been too much rhetoric and too little action. Carbon emissions have hardly been cut at all in the last decade, and much more robust policies and much sharper action will now be necessary to meet the steadily reducing carbon budgets set out by Turner. In particular, the 5 major areas of policy change outlined above must now be put in hand as a matter of priority.