Thursday, January 25, 2007

British bureaucracy either mad or negligent

and this is just today.
Reported in The Times today...
#1 According to The Times, Ofcom, the regulator of telecommunications and broadcasting (think of the Broadcasting Standards Authority, Telecommunications Commissioner, NZ On Air, Ministry of Culture and the Arts all rolled into one) has called for UK taxpayers to compulsorily fund a rival to Youtube to “make up for a shortfall in quality television”. It is calling for £100 million to be spent annually, presumably making web videos to rival the BBC. Hello??? (whacks heads of Ofcom with cricket back) anybody home? You already make the public pay for the BBC’s seven TV channels, you already give Channel 4 a free ride with broadcasting frequencies, you already regulate free to air commercial broadcasting heavily. Maybe the formula of compulsory pay TV and bureaucrat driven commercial TV has failed and that bureaucrat driven Internet content will too? Maybe given that the Internet, including Youtube, is a roaring success is because people put the content on it that others like and if they don’t like it it fails?
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So here is a formula. The UK has one of the most competitive Pay TV markets in the world, with up to five options available (Sky, cable, Homechoice, Topup TV and BT Vision), let that be free, people pay for what they want, and set commercial free to air TV free as well to compete. That means privatising Channel 4 (yes I know I repeat this) and then focus your activities on the BBC – alone. A nice pathway for the BBC would be to make the digital channels a subscription based service, so when analogue BBC gets switched off people can choose whether they want it. Then the test of quality will be in the hands of consumers, not bureaucrats and politicians.
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(I wonder if Sue Kedgley thinks this is a fine idea – compulsory funded internet content)
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2# The time to commit relatively minor criminal offences in Britain is now. Why? Because there is a prison shortage, a chronic one. For those on the left, and this starts with the Tories, this is a scandalous failure to deliver on one of the state’s core functions – law and order. The prison population in the UK is 80,070, and some are now being kept in police cells to cope with the overcrowding. Prisons previously condemned as unacceptable are now being recommissioned. There are a couple of prisons under construction, but they still have some time to go, so what options are being considered? You guessed it, judges and magistrates are being urged to jail FEWER people, to make greater use of bail, more use of open jails (which begs the question as to what the hell is a jail – for many people work is an open jail!) greater use of home detention (essentially being a slob) and releasing low risk prisoners. In other words, making it all easier. While bureaucrats are wasting money on nonsense like whether 4 competing supermarkets are a monopoly (!) or whether there should be a state funded Youtube, the core business of protecting the public from criminals and punishing criminals for doing harm to others slips. There are some useful suggestions, like buying prison ships (which sound like the stuff movies are made of, you don’t want mutiny!), releasing immigration detainees (how about processes them more efficiently to deport or let them in), release the 1000 foreign nationals who are still in jail despite having served their sentences (!), start converting disused army barracks and hospitals. I have more, how about paying to deport foreign nationals to serve their sentences in the prisons of their countries (assuming they are countries that can be trusted for this), how about planning the release of those convicted of victimless crimes, starting with those near the end of their sentences. A victimless crime is a crime when you cannot identify a victim or a likely direct victim of the criminal’s actions. However, it is far easier to let thieves roam the streets and publish to the citizens of the 26 EU member states that Britain is soft on crime – Bulgarian and Romanian criminal gangs especially (now both countries are members) will be thrilled.
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3# Fat kids. The British government has long been concerned with the growing problem of obese children, a situation caused mainly by the standard British diet of loving anything in fried or pastry form, adding cheese to most things (broccoli and cheese soup on Virgin Trains!), loving soft drinks, beer, sweets and snacks (I’ve lost count of the number of corporate lunches where bowls of “potato crisps” are considered a legitimate lunch food). The fatty UK diet has been exacerbated by laziness (as ready meals are often laden with oils, fats and sugars), the evaporation of many physically oriented jobs and the proliferation of sedentary leisure activities. Add to that a propensity to not walk or cycle to schools (unless they are VERY close, which many are), cities that are pedestrian unfriendly (plenty of intersections without pedestrian cross phases in London alone), bus stops that seem to be far closer together than in Aus or NZ, ridiculous transport policies such as Ken Livingstone’s “free buses” for under 16yos (which simply means they don’t walk) and, let’s face it, crap weather for around a third of the year – then you can see the problem. What is amusing is the bureaucratic and political response.
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The fundamental concern is the cost of health care. Given the NHS is free at most points of use, and never reflects peoples’ risk factors then you can see that the problem is being attacked in the wrong direction. Imagine if National Insurance contributions included a factor for smoking, weight (both obese and well underweight), cholesterol and easy to identify lifestyle factors. Of course I’d rather privatise the damned lot and have people get health insurance, but if the Tories even started to suggest that taxpayer funded healthcare would cost more or less based on your risk there would be outcries galore from those who want to regulate food advertising, food kids can take to school or buy at school and those who want to embark on more intrusive schemes.
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So what do the bureaucrats suggest?
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One idea has been to weigh all kids at school. However, this would be voluntary and parents wouldn’t be told of the results if the kids are overweight because it would upset them. When this idea was trialled, less than half of the kids turned up and it was almost always those who were not overweight, so the idea proved as pointless in practice as it is in theory. There are also proposals on advertising that, while pushing leftwing buttons to blame the food industry, will also do little. In fact, surely the biggest incentive to lose weight is social – fat kids get harassed because they are fat. Girls find it particularly hard, although ironically this can simply exacerbate the problem. Another exacerbating factor is overweight parents, not just because of the genes but given the kids are hardly likely to eat well if dad likes his fish and chips with a fried egg on the side.
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New Labour is sensitive to being called “Nanny State” (just) so it doesn’t want to actually tell overweight kids that they are overweight and they should take responsibility for eating better and exercising more. However, it doesn’t want to make people take responsibility for their healthcare either, and doesn’t understand that it being concerned about obese children in itself, IS being nanny state. Meanwhile it gets upset because large supermarket chains put pressure on farmers (often supplying fruit and vegetables) to sell at low prices (which they pass on to consumers) even though this must surely be a positive in this area?
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So here’s my four point plan:
1. Make people more responsible for their healthcare costs;
2. End interference in the food industry, both through regulating retailers, subsidising producers and restricting imports from outside the EU;
3. Give schools autonomy to develop their own plans to improve the health of children. They are likely to be far more effective than London based bureaucrats;
4. End all centrally driven measures to deal with obesity and promote an ethic of personal responsibility and self esteem, that praises those who succeed and achieve and work hard, and which emphasises the importance of being yourself, being true to yourself and respecting the right of others to do the same.
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4# The UK government is to require adoption agencies to not discriminate against gay couples seeking to adopt children. This is because of anti-discrimination legislation. Part of the problem is that many agencies are state funded as well. This has outraged Catholic adoption agencies which, understandably given the religion, don’t want to comply. The solution is simple. Let any privately provided agency offer adoption on its terms, without state funding. As long as there is state funding then let it be on a contractual basis, and if the state wants to fund gay adoptions then fair enough. For my part I think the matter should be between the birth parents and the adoptive parents, with prohibitions on serious criminals (anyone convicted of a serious violent or sexual offence) adopting. I don’t have a problem with birth parents refusing to adopt to gay couples or individuals, after all it is their choice and there are good reasons why people may prefer a male-female couple as first preference (role models for each sex are generally a good idea regardless of the child’s sex). It goes without saying that there are many many gay couples or individuals much more competent than many straight couples or individuals to raise children, but this fundamentally should be the decision of the birth parents who can weigh up all of the factors. Gay lobbyists need to acknowledge that people cannot and should not be forced to choose gay people if they don’t want to. Similarly, if a lesbian mother wanted to give up her child for adoption, there is no reason why she cannot specify a gay couple as the adoptive parents. By the way I know a fair bit about adoption, but that’s for another time.

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