Friday, 3 July 2015

Starving Africans show that the Common Agricultural Policy is a lousy justification for EU membership.


Second fundamental: the Common Agricultural Policy is a sophisticated mechanism for making sure we don’t starve. Scarcity causes disputes and without food security, peace would be impossible: people do nearly anything if they are hungry enough. Europe’s complex network of subsidies means that when a harvest fails at one end of the continent no one starves because we have slack in the system and the only ‘crisis’ to speak of involves pricing. Europe subsidises its food production, which makes it more expensive than food in most of the rest of the world, but – guess what? – we can afford our expensive food due to the prosperity that our long-term political stability has given us. Moreover the percentage of our income spent on food is diminishing.

People don't buy this crap do they? The CAP makes food more expensive and, to cap it all, means that we make a major contribution to killing folk in Africa who might want to compete with our expensive and inefficient farmers. Using the CAP as a justification for EU membership is an exercise in masochism - all the CAP means is higher food prices and more poverty in developing countries.


Thursday, 2 July 2015

Schools should stop policing the diets of children - it's none of their business

Soon to be banned from your local primary school

You know when you buy the sarnie in the plastic packaging at the fast counter in the supermarket? And, rushing to your car ripping the packaging open, you grab the sarnie and bite into it expecting a tang, a flavour? Nothing, nothing at all. You remind yourself again to get a salt pot and keep it in the glove compartment for those moments when the bizarre salt-free world of mass-market sarnies hits your mouth.

Salt was the first triumph of the nannying fussbuckets. They persuaded us (and more importantly the manufacturers of the foods we buy not to mention caterers in hotels, works canteens and schools) that salt is "bad for you". Just yesterday at a dinner the request to pass the salt pot (thank heavens that pot was provided - some places have removed such evil in case it tempts us to try and improve the flavourless pap they produce) was greeted with 'ooh, salt - that's bad' and variants on this mantra. There really isn't a great deal of evidence to support this assertion but we have come to believe that it is true.

The easiest target for all this fussbucketry is children. After all we all care for the children and want them to grow up into happy and healthy adults armed with the knowledge that means they'll live to a ripe old age. And parents - or a lot of them - are perennially guilty about how they're bringing up their youngsters. Are they getting the right exercise? Is their diet balanced? Do fizzy drinks make them hyper? Are we too strict? Too lenient? Will they turn into little sugar-crazed monsters if we don't let them have the occasional sweetie? The industry that this worry generates is enormous and exploitative - selling fads and fancies to mums and dads, promoting crazy ideas, and flip-flopping from one extreme to another on every subject from discipline to diet.

Along comes the state - urged by the net mums and lifestyle columnists to set the ideal, to provide directions on how best to raise children. Parents are frightened by scaremongering articles about childhood obesity (despite the evidence of their own eyes when it comes to their own children), misinformation about sugar and a whole bunch of pseudo-scientific wibble promoted by profit-mongers like Jamie Oliver. In the USA even the president's wife got in on the act (fulfilling the traditional role of that wife as nannying worrywart to the nation) by promoting legislation that cuts out the sugar, salt and other designated 'bad food' in school dinners.

And the result of all this fussbucketry? Our children become spivs, smugglers and dodgy dealers:

During a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, chaired by Rep. Todd Rokita (R., Ind.), a school administrator told Congress of the “unintended consequences” of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

“Perhaps the most colorful example in my district is that students have been caught bringing–and even selling–salt, pepper, and sugar in school to add taste to perceived bland and tasteless cafeteria food,” said John S. Payne, the president of Blackford County School Board of Trustees in Hartford City, Indiana.

You prohibit stuff that people like and, as sure as night follows day, you get a black market in those goodies. What on earth makes people - teachers, governors, legislators - think that somehow children will behave differently. In the UK schools are now routinely implementing oppressive, insistent anti-taste campaigns wrapped up as 'healthy food policies'. A government minister, Lord Nash - caught up in this incipient food fascism - has told us that all this poking around and policing the lunchboxes of children is absolutely fine:

“There is nothing to prevent schools from having a policy of inspecting lunch boxes for food items that are prohibited under their school food policies.

“A member of staff may confiscate, keep or destroy such items found as a result of the search if it is reasonable to do so in the circumstances.

“It would be good practice for the pupil to be present during an inspection and for a second member of staff to be present if any items are to be confiscated.

“If authorities and schools are concerned about their legal position, they should seek their own legal advice.”

And we know the result of policies banning chocolate, fizzy drinks, pastries and cakes:

A young entrepreneur has been suspended from his healthy eating school for repeatedly selling sweets there.

Tommie Rose, 12, said he made up to £200 a day selling chocolate and fizzy drinks to fellow pupils at Salford's Oasis Academy.

He was warned he was breaking a healthy eating policy, but continued to trade.

Following his week's suspension, the schoolboy said he would give the rest of his stock to the army "to bring to the homeless".

He said that he got the idea from the BBC series The Apprentice, particularly the episode "where they buy stuff from shops and sell them".

Tommie said he bought the sweets and drinks in bulk from discount stores and then sold them on for a marked-up price.

In the end it is not the job of schools to police the diets of the children they teach. The secret is in that last word - teach. That is what schools are for - to provide children with the essential skills and knowledge to succeed in the modern world. This includes information about food and diet so those children can make informed choices but it isn't a justification for introducing policies that allow teachers to steal food from the lunch boxes of their pupils because in their (unqualified) opinion that food is 'unhealthy'.

Most children - 90% or more of them - are not unhealthily fat, levels of childhood obesity are not rising and may even be falling.

The data shows there was a significant increase in child and adolescent overweight and obesity rates every year during the first decade from 1994 to 2003. Overall, annual rates did not increase significantly during the second decade, 2004 to 2013.

Yet schools have taken it upon themselves to take food from perfectly healthy children who are most likely eating a balanced diet simply to comply with a policy that does precisely zero to promote the educational purpose of the school.

It really is time schools focused on their job and stopped policing the diets of children.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

"The days of the traditional cigarette are numbered" - but only if we let vaping succeed


The e-cig - vaping - is a game changer. Here's the the senior tobacco analyst at Euromonitor:

“Up until now there has been no direct competition for cigarettes in a meaningful sense, and nicotine replacement therapies were certainly not providing that,” said Mr MacGuill. “The days of the traditional cigarette are numbered – the only question is how long that process will take – and e-cigarettes have the potential to drastically shorten the shelf life of traditional tobacco products.”

See that statement - the end of the cigarette is coming and not because of traditional tobacco control and prohibition tactics but because someone's created an effective, safe and pleasant way to get a hit of nicotine.

And it's no surprise that those whose livelihoods depend on the cigarette - the public health industry, academics in assorted centres for tobacco research as such like, plus Big Tobacco itself - are bothered. Vaping has pushed aside the ineffective (and unpleasant - I speak from experience here) nicotine replacement products like gum, spray and patches.

Let's hope that those dumb politicians don't let the pharmaceutical industry and its lackeys - keen to protect their lucrative market - don't prevent vaping achieving what it promises: the death of the cigarette.

At what point does smuggling negate the health gain from tobacco duty rises?

Until just a few years ago the words 'illegal tobacco' seldom, if ever appeared in the press and media. It's not that the smuggling of tobacco didn't take place (how many folk brought home from overseas a couple of hundred fags for Uncle George or Grandma) or even that there weren't sufficient examples to make police, trading standards and customs keen on sending out press releases when arrests were made.

Now is different. The 'illegal cigarettes' story is a mainstay of the local press (maybe only topped by cannabis factories and 'nuisance' motorcycles) and a regular item on the agenda of local councils:

During the past month, officers from trading standards gathered almost 100,000 cigarettes and 37kg of hand-rolling tobacco, worth more than £40,000, from retailers in operations that also targeted premises in Leeds, Kirklees and Wakefield.

The seizures included counterfeit, non-duty paid and incorrectly-labelled cigarettes and tobacco. Since April 2014, West Yorkshire Trading Standards has seized almost 700,000 cigarettes and 300kg of hand-rolling tobacco.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council officers have seized 14,000 counterfeit cigarettes and 5kg of hand-rolling tobacco in a joint operation with Staffordshire Police.

The operation focused on the sale of illicit tobacco at nine premises in Hanley, Tunstall and Cobridge.

A BRADFORD shopkeeper has been prosecuted for a second time for selling illegal cigarettes and counterfeit tobacco.

Hemen Ahmed Hussain, of Chislehurst Place, Little Horton, was given a 150-hour community order by magistrates for possessing 2,500 cigarettes and 3.2kg of hand-rolling tobacco with an intent to supply.

The goods were seized by officers from West Yorkshire Trading Standards (WYTS) following a visit to Baz's off-licence in Southfield Lane, Little Horton, in September last year.

A Salford couple have been jailed after smuggling 25 tonnes of fake tobacco in a fraud costing the taxpayer almost £4m.

Feng Gao and his partner Mingshu Yang shipped boxloads of illicit hand rolling tobacco into the country.

The criminal duo, of St Heliers Drive, Salford, concealed the illegal tobacco in false soles and shelves as they shipped shoes and furniture to the North West.

The reason for this explosion in illicit tobacco sales is pretty simple - in the UK up to 88% of the recommended retail price for cigarettes is tax. And this means that avoiding paying this duty is a very profitable business. A year or so ago the Daily Mirror published a list of Britain's top twenty tax dodgers - nine of this were wanted for smuggling cigarettes, a fact that tells us just how profitable the dodging of cigarette duty is these days. And with each price escalation the more attractive smuggling gets as a business proposition for the unscrupulous, corrupt and criminal.

As it stands (and it rather depends where you look for data - the tobacco companies have higher estimates than HMRC which has higher guesses than the tobacco control industry) smuggled tobacco represents somewhere between 10% and 20% of total UK consumption. I'm going to plump for the figures used by LACORS (Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services) who put the figure at 17%. And local government recognises that the smuggling problem is significant:

Increased smuggling leads to the wide availability of cheap cigarettes to the poorest people thereby maintaining high smoking rates among disadvantaged groups; and contributing significantly to widening health inequalities

The question here is whether the regulatory and enforcement agencies - police, trading standards, customs - are able to keep on top of a growing problem. And whether the duty escalator, for all its good intentions, is now having the unintended outcome of promoting criminality while, in effect, reducing the price of tobacco in our poorest communities. Moreover, the unregulated distribution of tobacco means that it sits in the same car boot or dingy flat as illegal drugs and counterfeit booze.

There has to come a point at which the gain from increasing the price is lost - it becomes so prohibitive that most people turn to illegal and smuggled product. And if this happens then the use of price as a tobacco control tool is broken. Indeed for deprived communities this is perhaps already the case meaning that, for the poorest smokers the high price is de facto a ban so they turn to illegal supply. And if the supply of illegal drugs is any sort of guide then the steady trickle of press releases from local agencies about illegal tobacco stands to become a flood as those agencies replace shouting about small victories while knowing that they are losing the battle against the smuggler and street distributor.


Saturday, 27 June 2015

Roads are much more important than railways - public investment should reflect this fact. It doesn't.

A bit of Britain's most important transport network
No matter how desperate the banana republic, the international airport is always a shimmering palace of perfume and croissants. It is only when you get out onto the dirt roads that you realise where you are.

The government seems determined to take the same approach to our own transport system: all the money gets sucked into vanity projects while transport used by the rest of us remains creaking.

And the biggest vanity project of all is Britain's rail network. The truth of the matter is that most of the public seldom if ever use a train - they are expensive compared to buses, inconvenient and crowded. But more to the point we prefer - and will continue preferring - to use the car. Just 2.4 million people - overwhelmingly in London - commute to work by train or tram. This is just over 9% of commuter journeys and compares to the two-thirds of journeys to work on the roads (by car, bus or motor cycle - adding in walking and cycling gets us to eight out of ten commuter journeys on the roads). Nearly half the population (45% in 2009/10) simply didn't use a train at all for any reason.

Yet whenever we talk about transport investment, we talk about trains. Billions is promised for new railways like HS2, for ever shinier stations, and for the polishing of existing (and admittedly creaky) networks. The need for rail investment is always hogging the headlines while the scandal that is our underinvestment in looking after the network of roads and pavements that carries 90% of journeys barely gets a mention. In 2012 the government invested £7.5 billion in the road network split roughly 50/50 between the strategic network and local roads. This compares to around £13 billion spent on railways (split between subsidising fares to the tune of £3.8 billion and the rail investment programme).

So Ross Clark is right, government in the UK is starving the everyday transport network - our roads - of funding while promising ever shinier new rail infrastructure (best part of £20 million on a new entrance into Leeds station being a fine example). Here in Bradford we need around £11 million a year to sustain our road network but are only spending about £6 million each year. With the result that the standard of the roads deteriorates year on year - the government responds by bunging one off funding for fixing potholes at councils when what is really needed is an adequate capital budget that would allow the proper maintenance of the road over a 25 year cycle.

The problem is that building grand railway schemes is popular with rail users. And rail users are mostly in London where the decision-making is done:

In 2009/10, 59 per cent of all rail journeys started or finished in London. The South East and the East of England were the regions with the next highest number of journeys but 65 per cent of journeys in the South East and 75 per cent in the East of England were to or from London.

And those train users - even in London - are more likely to be in their twenties or thirties and more likely to be in well-paid professional employment. The profile of rail users doesn't reflect the national demographic profile but the very different profile of London commuters (and higher income London commuters at that).

So we have a transport system that provides just 2% of journeys, costs the taxpayer over £13 billion a year, has incredibly low levels of customer satisfaction, is unreliable and still requires some other form of transport for people to complete their journey. How exactly is this the transport system of the 21st century? And why does it suck up so much of the attention (and investment) while the much more important road system isn't provided with the cash to even maintain it to a safe standard let alone improve it?

People working in the voluntary sector still don't get 'Big Society'


I’ve lost count of the number of government initiatives and funding regimes that I’ve seen during my time in the voluntary sector.

And that's it really. The reason why the idea of a 'Big Society' isn't understood by those who earn their living working in the voluntary sector. For them - and this is borne out by any conversation with any of them - it's all about 'government initiatives and funding regimes'. I know they'll talk the talk about citizen engagement and 'helping people to help themselves' but their daily effort is more often directed to those 'funding regimes' and 'government initiatives' (and to moaning about how they aren't big enough or specific enough or properly targeted).

'Big Society' isn't about those funding regimes. It's about real voluntary action, about people doing things because they love the place they live and want to make it a better place. Or people helping poor people because they think those people merit help. And the involvement ranges from baking a cake for a fundraisers right through to running - entirely voluntarily - big organisations. At no point is it about getting a wage, recovering expenses, let alone having a career. The voluntary sector professional simply cannot get his or her head around the idea that someone might just do it because they want to do it - without payment, without needing their 'professional' input.

Now these voluntary sector professionals (metaphorically sucking their teeth) will then - in that uniquely patronising manner of such folk - explain that all this is fine in a place like Cullingworth, filled as it is with all that lovely social capital. But out there in those deprived areas (so often celebrated by people - I still inwardly cringe remembering the former leader of Bradford Council who wallowed in "I represent one of the 100 most deprived wards in the country" as if this was a good thing) there isn't any of this social capital so those voluntary sector professionals have to go in there and help. Give the community a great big cuddly hug and tell them it will all be alright once the right 'funding regimes' and 'government initiatives' are identified.

'Big Society' isn't about programmes or grand schemes, it's not about offices filled with paid workers (although all of these can and do play their part). It's about the bloke who, instead of moaning to all and sundry about the trough that isn't planted up, blags some compost and a few bedding plants and does it himself. Or the woman who pops in to see if the old lady next door wants a lift into town to do some shopping. A thousand different, small and simple acts of caring make up the big society. Some of them end up growing into fantastic nationally-significant voluntary efforts but most remain as simple and easy acts of kindness done just because it's the right thing to do.

It's this initiative - the real voluntary sector - that makes up the 'Big Society' which is why those making a career out of those 'funding regimes' and 'government initiatives' are blind to the idea. If people did those simple things - had permission to care - then a lot of the stuff the 'voluntary sector' employs people to do wouldn't be needed. And, rather than paid professionals using volunteers we'd have volunteers making use of paid professionals.


Thursday, 25 June 2015

Quote of the day - from ASH on vaping and renormalising smoking


This just about sums up the evidence on vaping and renormalising smoking - the biggest stick used to beat up on vapers:

"There are people in the public health community who are obsessed by e-cigarettes. This idea that it renormalizes smoking is absolute bullshit. There is no evidence so far that it is a gateway into smoking for young people."

And this quote isn't from a pro-vaping lobby group but from Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of Action on Smoking and Health - ASH - the granddaddy of anti-smoking groups.

This fact hasn't stopped councils, hospitals, universities, pub chains and a host of other places from banning the use of e-cigs:

While the university recognizes that these may be useful aids to those wishing to give up smoking, it has taken the view that e-cigarettes could undermine the policy of banning smoking in the work place as it gives the impression of normalising smoking in the work place. (Head of health and safety in the human resources division at Manchester Metropolitan University, Chris Bolam)

The Trust has taken the decision to not include e-cigarettes as part of our approach to support abstaining. The decision has been taken as there is currently insufficient evidence about their impact on health or risks associated with their usage. (Guys & St Thomas Hospital)

We do not allow the use of electronic cigarettes either. They are difficult for you the Managers to police and it would be the Managers as well as the Brewery who would be fined if persons were caught smoking the real thing (Humprey Smith, Director, Sam Smiths Brewery)

I could continue with hundreds of other pathetic, mealy-mouthed excuses for banning e-cigs - organisations from Alton Towers and Weatherspoons through to the Association of Conservative Clubs and Starbucks have all taken the decision to stop you vaping on their premises. Mostly the excuses given are one (or more than one of the following):

1. The WHO (or BMA or some other bunch of fussbuckets) has said we 'don't know enough about the health risks'

2. It looks like smoking and someone might light up a real cigarette meaning we get fined for breaking the smoking ban

3. It looks like smoking which makes smoking look normal and we have children as customers

The comment from ASH's boss should give the lie to all of these excuses. What would be good would be for some of these public health sorts to start telling premises that they should allow vaping inside rather than hiding behind the supposedly blazing row in their profession.