Big State, Small State, Right State

Polly Toynbee speaks at the October 2005 Labou...
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Polly Toynbee – People Don’t Want Her Kind of State – but They Don’t Want No State Either

Via Tim Worstall, I read an article by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian about the causes of the riots. The contents of the article were pretty standard stuff from Ms Toynbee, including this:

But just a week since rioting kicked off, the political significance has yet to dawn. So far, the small-staters are losing. A small state means – and Cameron has not budged – a smaller police force and shrunken social programmes, with more potential for anarchy.

My immediate reaction was that she was (as usual) talking nonsense. From what I could see, the Right was making all the running in the debate on the riots.

David Cameron posing as the strong guy who would clean up the streets; the Broom Army; ordinary communities uniting against the “rioting scum”…

But wait a minute. David Cameron’s strong-arm promises were not for small State. They were for big State – promising that under him, the State would be more aggressive in countering rioters.

So is Ms Toynbee right? Are the “small-staters” really losing? Surely not. There is, as far as I can see, little stomach for a bleeding heart liberal response to the riots, a la Toynbee. People like Ken Livingstone, who have tried to blame the riots on “the cuts” or tried to sympathise with the poor misunderstood downtrodden looters have been met with a big raspberry from the public.

Can you really bracket “a smaller police force and shrunken social programmes” together, as she did?

It is true that people are responding to the riots by demanding that the State starts doing its job of protecting them against criminals. The Metropolitan Police are having to defend themselves against accusations of being over-timid in their response. And in turn they are criticising the politicians for being inconsistent – demanding a softer response one minute, and a harder one the next.

But it is also true that the traditional big-Staters, like Ms Toynbee, are losing big time on this. I have never seen the political class scrambling so hard to keep up with public opinion. There seems to be universal agreement that the riots were not caused by deprivation, that any lack of social programmes had no part in causing them. I was struck by that survey that said a third of those questioned wanted live ammunition used against the rioters. Not much sympathy there for Ms Toynbee.

Overall, it seems that people are talking in terms of rather old fashioned ideas like morals, the family and punishing crime.

The simple view of politics as a left-right spectrum doesn’t seem to be working here.

It is much more complicated than that. People are not demanding either big State or small State. They are demanding a different kind of State.

People want a State that fulfils its traditional responsibilities – law and order, security and education for example – but a State that stops spending time and money on social engineering, welfare handouts to people that have no intention of ever working and bureaucratic form-ticking.

People want more police on the streets, and fewer five-a-day co-ordinators.

I have always thought of myself as a small State kind of person. But now I think that may be because, throughout the whole of my life, the State has increasingly represented things I despise. It has steadily done less and less of what I think it should.

Perhaps most people in our country are of that view too.

No more political correctness. No more of the Toynbee-style idiocy of the “left”. But not a small State exactly either – rather a State that goes back to doing what it ought to do, and minds its own business otherwise.

Will David Cameron understand all that? I sincerely doubt it – in the past, he has been all too willing to pander to the Toynbees of this world. It is interesting to note which politicians have responded in a “traditional role of the State” kind of way to the riots. They range from Diane Abbott to Boris Johnson.

We do not need either a Small State or a Big State, but a Right State. One that understands it is there to serve the people, to provide the basic things like law and order and security, but absolutely not there to save people from the consequences of their own choices.

If the State pulled right back from welfarism, nannying and pointless bureaucracy, there would certainly be money for many more police on the streets, many more soldiers in our armed forces and big tax cuts as well. And that in turn could mean jobs for all in a thriving economy, even for the “rioting scum” – provided, of course, that they wanted to work. If not, there would be nothing for them at all.

The transition to that kind of Britain will not be easy. But surely the only alternative is continued decline and either eventual collapse, or descent into tyranny.

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Does Your Body Really Belong to the State?

The British Medical Association is debating whether to continue campaigning for “presumed consent” for organ donation.

Currently, there is an organ donor register, which people can sign up for. Even if people are not on the register, their relatives can still provide consent for donation of their organs after their death.

Under “presumed consent” there would be an “opt-out” system. Doctors could assume your consent to donate your organs, unless you were on the opt-out register.

Some doctors are arguing that presumed consent would damage trust between relatives, patients and their doctors. A motion calling for the BMA to end its support for presumed consent is to be debated at their annual conference. The BBC quotes Dr Sharon Blackford, for example:

[Donation] rates are going up and I and my colleagues are concerned that if we move to presumed consent it could damage trust in doctors. If someone is in intensive care, families may feel doctors just want to harvest the organs.

The BMA leadership, though, are backing presumed consent. Prof Vivienne Nathanson, the head of science and ethics at the BMA, said:

I don’t think it goes against patient choice. They can still opt out. One of the problems now is that people who want to donate sometimes don’t tell their families. But with presumed consent you would have a public campaign and it would get people discussing the issue.

How would an opt out work then? What if you changed your address and omitted to tell the opt-out register? How long before somebody who is on the opt-out register has their organs harvested, and it is only subsequently discovered that they had opted out?

Come to think of it, how long would it be before the State decided that having an opt-out register was a waste of time and money, and it would be easier to simply abolish the need for consent entirely?

And what about this “people who want to donate sometimes don’t tell their families”? Why is that a problem? We have a register after all of people who want to donate their organs after their death. So why is it a problem if they don’t tell their families? And why would it be less of a problem if there was on opt-out register instead?

And anyway, why are the issues of having a public campaign and of getting people discussing this subject in any way related to whether we move from opt-in to opt-out?

To help justify their calls for presumed consent, the BMA and the NHS like to pretend that only a small proportion of people are on the current donor register. The NHS Organ Donor website, for example, says on the front page that only 29% of us have joined the organ donor register.

Deeper in the website, though, they give a figure of 17,400,213 for September 2010. That figure is still rising, and has now passed 18 million.

True, 18 million is 29% of the entire population. But only if you include children, people with medical conditions that prevent them donating, and so on. So that 29% figure is tendentious. The real figure is much higher. (Children can indeed join the register, but it is effectively pointless since their parents need to provide their consent anyway, before their organs can be donated after their death.)

There are some people who simply don’t want to donate their organs after their death. There are others who don’t trust the medical profession to act ethically on it. Yet others have religious reasons for not wanting to donate. The BMA argues that such people could join the opt-out register (assuming the opt-out actually worked properly).

The key point is this, though. The State has no right to take possession of your body, even after your death, without your consent.

Imagine the National Health Service were a private company. Would people be happy for that private company to take their organs after their death without explicit consent? I think not. So why is it different when it is the State?

In this country, doctors, when they work for the NHS, are agents of the State. And the State has no right to grab people’s body parts without their consent.

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The Real Reasons for Smart Meters


The government has plans to install so-called “smart meters” in every household by 2020. They will apparently release details of the scheme on Wednesday.

The smart meters will replace the current tried and tested gas and electricity meters. Basic smart meters would be able to send meter readings back to the fuel companies, via a government-controlled central hub. So they would replace meter readers as well as meters. The benefit to the fuel companies is clear. But the government is going further.

The meters will incorporate a screen that will show consumers how much energy they are using, and allow gas and electricity companies to send them messages about their bills, or special offers, or “warnings” about when their electricity usage is unusually high.

The government have claimed that each household could save £100 a year because of the meters – because the meters will “allow them to cut down on their energy usage”. And Which?, the self-described “consumer watchdog” (but actually magazine publisher) has “warned” that without the screens, householders could save as little as £1 a year off their bills. Presumably that is the saving in meter readers’ wages.

The government expects the total cost of installing the meters to be between £7 billion and £9 billion. And this is, according to the Telegraph, “one of the biggest IT projects the country has ever seen”. Considering the government’s record on botching big IT projects, I think we can safely double that.

With say 20 million households in the country, that makes £400 per household even on the government’s figure. And households will be expected to pay for that, through their fuel bills.

And all to save £1 a year per household. Which is less than you would earn putting the £400 in a savings account.

So the whole case for this stunningly stupid scheme is based on that £100 saving that the government claims people will make because these new meters “allow them to cut down on their energy usage”.

Unfortunately, the meters won’t really allow anything of the kind. Knowing how much fuel you are using doesn’t actually help you much in cutting down your usage. In order to cut down, you have to turn things off, or turn them down. Not exactly rocket science. But the government expects us to believe that consumers will save say 10% of their entire bills just because a gadget tells them when the central heating boiler is running.

It could be that the civil servants who are driving this scheme really do believe all this nonsense. However, there is another potential explanation. There have been suggestions that these meters could be used to send other information back to the central hub. Like how much fuel people use, and when they use it. This in turn would allow the State to start giving people “advice” about saving energy – just like some local councils have started “helping” people recycle by monitoring their recycling via chips embedded in their bins.

Make no mistake. These smart meters are not to help the public. They are for the benefit of the State. Assuming the Conservatives win the election next year, they should scrap the scheme immediately. The omens on that are not good – the shadow energy and climate change secretary, Greg Clark, has been quoted as saying 2020 is not fast enough to roll out the new meters.

I guess there is one cheering thought, though. The State is so incompetent at running huge projects like this that they are unlikely ever to finish this one anyway – which means the impact on us all would “only” be that we were £400 poorer.

Another Quango is Born

The latest episode in the saga of State attempts to ensure that nasty things never happen is upon us.

The new Independent Safeguarding Authority is about to begin its work. Its aim, according to its website, is to “help prevent unsuitable people from working with children and vulnerable adults”. What could be less controversial than that?

And yet, its Chairman, Roger Singleton, has already found it necessary to defend its very existence, even before it has started operations!

The criticism started with a group of children’s authors, led by Philip Pullman, who complained about the need for them to register in order to visit schools, saying that the requirement to register is insulting. Other criticism followed. In an indication of the precarious nature of the ISA’s position, the children’s services director of the NSPCC has now weighed in with his own criticism. He said the scheme could “stop people doing things that are perfectly safe and normal”.

The ISA database is expected to hold the details of 11.3 million people. Anyone who comes into contact with children in the course of their employment, or in the course of volunteer work, will be obliged to register (at a cost of £64, waived for volunteers). Employers (or organisers of volunteers) who employ someone to do such work will be legally obliged to check with the ISA first.

Previously the Criminal Records Bureau carried out checks for criminal convictions, and employers were obliged to do CRB checks on people who worked with children. So the ISA is replacing the CRB, right?

Wrong. The ISA will “work with the CRB”. The CRB will continue to be responsible for carrying out criminal record checks. The CRB information will therefore be copied onto the ISA database.

So what will the ISA do in addition? The answer is that they will be able to take account of information other than a criminal record. For example, if someone reports a suspicion about somebody, that may be recorded on their database. If someone is arrested for a suspected offence, but never charged, that may go on the database.

The ISA will be allowed to bar someone from working with children. It will “continuously monitor” those on the database, and inform their employer if a person becomes barred.

The rules about who must register or what checks need to be made are extremely vague. For example, there is no duty on people to check with the ISA when they employ someone in “a domestic employment setting”.

According to the ISA website, one of the advantages of the new system is that the agency is “independent” and will make decisions that were previously made in the name of the Secretary of State. The agency is a “non-departmental public body”. It proudly says on its website that this means it is independent of any one particular government department.

You will probably not be reassured to know that its “performance, efficiency and effectiveness will be scrutinised closely by both government and stakeholders”. Who are they trying to kid?

I can certainly see the advantages to government ministers of being able to disclaim any responsibility for the agency, but I cannot for the life of me see any adavantage to the public in that. Our State agencies should be accountable to the politicans we elect to represent us, not “independent”.

And I wonder which stakeholders will be allowed to scrutinise them. With a quarter of the adult population on the database and therefore clearly stakeholders, that too is nonsense.

This whole apparatus was set up in the wake of the public hysteria over the Ian Huntley case. Obviously that was a distressing, revolting and tragic case. But will this new layer of bureaucracy really prevent any such cases in the future?

Will the ISA “working with” the CRB really be more effective than a single agency carrying out these duties? Is it reasonable to think that an agency with 11.3 million people on its register can seriously monitor those people?

And what about the inevitable errors? With an error rate of say 1 in 1000 (optimistic I suspect), we could expect wrong decisions to be made about 11,300 people.

And will the database be secure? We are promised that prospective employers will be able to carry out checks on the database online, so the chances of the information remaining secure are not great!

Is it really right that the current employer of every one of 11.3 million people should be recorded on a government database? (This will be required so that in the rare cases when the ISA changes somebody’s status to “barred”, their current employer can be informed.) And how will the agency know who their current employer is, anyway? There is no responsibility on those on the database to inform the agency when they change employer!

And most serious of all, how will this piece of bureaucracy keep track of criminals, who, by their nature, are on the edge of society? As with the National Identity Database also proposed by the government, the information on the database will only be as good as what has been fed into it.

The truth is, I suspect, that not a single child will be protected by this new agency, that many people will find themselves wrongly accused, and that in a few years time, when the next Ian Huntley case occurs, yet another enquiry will find that the ISA did not communicate properly with “other agencies involved” and that “the system needs to be overhauled” in order to make sure that “it can never be allowed to happen again”.

Wouldn’t a better way to attack child abuse be to try and repair our broken communities, and to restore respect for stay-at-home mothers? But obviously that’s a lot harder than introducing bureaucratic processes.

Stop press: the Children’s Secretary Ed Balls has now asked the ISA to define more clearly who needs to register with the scheme. And it is now one month from starting to operate. Apparently he has asked them to report by December. You couldn’t make it up.