Friday, 30 September 2011

80mph? Oh no, the planet is at risk.

The government has suggested that the national maximum speed limit might be increased from 70 mph to 80 mph in two years' time, in the interim they propose a consultation exercise. Whether the outcome will be a change in the maximum permissible speed of motorcars on our roads is pretty much irrelevant to me. I have held an unblemished driving licence for decades and will not knowingly exceed a speed limit because I want it to remain unblemished. Consider me a boring prig if you will, but I prefer to live within the law whether or not I agree with it.

Today on my way back from a hack around the golf course I heard an item on this issue on BBC Radio 5 (actually not so much of a hack, I went round in 78 gross on a par 72 course, something went wrong with my usual ineffectual sporting technique - I only throw this in because I'm very proud of it and will almost certainly never do it again).

A number of statements issued by people and organisations involved in the motoring business were read and a few people were interviewed, including a former racing driver and the current Secretary of State for Transport. Some supported the proposal, some opposed it and some said it was necessary to investigate the likely consequences before changing the law. Fair enough.

What was not fair enough was that almost all contributors, including the Secretary of State, said a relevant consideration was the effect of an increase in the maximum lawful speed of motor cars on British roads on the amount of carbon dioxide exuded into the atmosphere.

It really is quite flabbergasting that the anti-carbon dioxide religion has taken hold to such an extent that a minor change in the law of England, Wales and (I believe) Northern Ireland should be thought to have a potential impact on emissions of CO2 that can be of relevance to the well-being of our planet and/or human life on our planet.

The UK (including Scotland which is in charge of speed limits through its own so-called Parliament and is unaffected by the proposed change) produces less than 2% of all carbon dioxide spewed forth by human activity. Traffic on roads carrying a speed limit lower than 70 mph will not be affected by the proposal and not all those travelling on roads to which the national speed limit applies will drive faster and spew more CO2 as a result of the maximum permissible speed being 80 rather than 70.

Against that background it is obvious beyond doubt that any additional CO2 coming from those cars that will be driven at higher speeds because of the proposed change will be such a small amount that it can make no difference to anything. It will be a small percentage (if, indeed it even reaches 1%) of the less than 2% of world emissions coming from the UK.

You can close down all human activity in the UK and the result will not have any measurable effect on the climate. Even if we accept the very direst predictions of those who claim additional human-produced carbon dioxide will cause great changes to the climate and that those changes will be detrimental to human existence, the removal of the 2% currently produced by the UK cannot affect matters to a measurable degree because other countries (especially China and India) are increasing their emissions by far more every year.

To take a proposal that might increase the UK's emissions by a tiny amount and seek to include that effect as a consideration that should affect the decision to accept or reject the proposal is, frankly, moronic.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

An Immigration Fraud

Immigration is a curious issue in British politics. Twenty and more years ago it was a core issue about which senior politicians would debate vigorously on national television and gain headlines in newspapers. Today there is the occasional soundbite but nothing more than that. All parties say they will be strict on abuses of the system but put forward nothing other than generalisations about how they will do it. When the party in power changes, nothing of any real substance ever seems to change.

In one important respect there is nothing any UK government can do because citizens of member States of the European Union have an almost unfettered right to come to this country. In another important respect there is nothing they should do because genuine refugees from the grimmer areas of human habitation must always be given a safe haven.

The point of today's waffle is something called the Ankara Agreement (for a summary of the parts that matter for present purposes, see here). One provision of the agreement allows Turks to apply for permission to enter and work in the UK if they intend to establish a business and show they have the financial means to do so. It is important to understand that an applicant who meets the criteria will be given the right to come and work here, there is no residual discretion to refuse an application that ticks all the boxes. What is required of an applicant is the intention to set-up a business and the money necessary to do so. The whole thing is about allowing in entrepreneurs, joining an existing business or working for a new business set-up by someone else is outside the Agreement. One might think very few people would qualify.

A whole industry has grown up around this aspect of the Ankara Agreement. There are firms of so-called immigration consultants who formulate applications for anyone who will pay them a fee.

These firms have template business plans they print-out with little or no amendment for scores of applicants. It goes without saying that the applicants are almost exclusively young men. One business plan that has been doing the rounds is the establishment of a bicycle taxi service in the West End of London. This was devised by one of the consultancy firms and has formed the basis of applications for permission to stay in the UK by dozens of men who came initially on student visas. It should be no surprise to anyone with a smidgen of common sense that most of them were not genuine students at all, they were the nephews (or sons of friends) of Turkish people already settled here and came to be part of their established businesses. They signed on as students at a language college of greater or lesser repute and worked in the uncle's (or father's friend's) restaurant or shop and then wanted to find a way to stay here when the period of their student visa was due to expire. From the beginning they came here to work and establish a life rather than to study, the student visa was simply a means to an end.

The Ankara Agreement is also treated as a means to an end. Recently I met a friend of a friend who used the bogus bicycle taxi business plan and was refused permission to stay because the judge saw through the scam. The applicant himself was disappointed but not surprised, he knew his intention was to continue working in his uncle's restaurant in the midlands and that he would rather smear his scrotum with toothpaste than operate a bicycle taxi. He knew the application was a scam, took his chance and lost.

I know others who have been given leave to live and work here under the Ankara Agreement despite having no intention at all to set-up their own business. Some just want to live a western life rather than a repressive Islamic life, others simply want to avoid national service in the Turkish army, most want both.

When discussing this topic with local Turks it is obvious that there is no desire to harm the UK behind the fraudulent applications that are made. There is no intention to scrounge benefits or to engage in criminal activity, the intention is simply to come here, work hard and make a life in the UK rather than in Turkey. A few days ago the excellent Mr Raedwald wrote about the Turks (here), his piece encouraged me to write on the subject because his positive view of Turks is the same as mine.

In the normal run of things I would be inclined to denounce systematic fraud of the type behind the hundreds of bogus applications made under the Ankara Agreement each year. I find it hard to denounce people who come here under student visas to see whether life here will suit them and, when they decide it will, want to find a way to remain so that they can earn an honest living. Of course there is a conflict between the honest lives they want to lead and the dishonest means they use to secure a right to remain here. It could be said that they do not want to lead honest lives at all because the lies told in their applications show them to be seriously dishonest. I understand that argument entirely and part of me agrees with it, the other part of me asks why people who want to work for a living should not be allowed to do so. Although their applications are fundamentally fraudulent they are not intended to harm anyone and, as far as I can tell, they do not harm anyone.

Until a few weeks ago I had never heard of the Ankara Agreement. Since then I have been talking to a number of local Turks I have known for years, what they told me about the way the Ankara Agreement has been used for decades accorded exactly with the way it was used by people whose applications were recently allowed or refused and who allowed me to look at the paperwork. Some of it was quite astonishing, particularly the successful application of one man who applied on the basis he was planning to start a website design business when he has worked as a waiter in a Turkish restaurant since he came here two years ago and still does the same job today. He just wanted to stay here and continue his life here, the alternative was at least a year in the army followed by starting from scratch. He was lucky, his bogus application succeeded. Frankly, this country is better for having him here because he is good at what he does and benefits the business that pays him. It sould surprise no one that a Turkish restaurant keeps its customers happier by having good Turkish waiters rather than employing Wayne or Jermaine, why should there be any obstruction to a good Turkish waiter living here so that he can provide that service?

The Ankara Agreement induces fraudulent applications because it establishes an avenue for people from one culture to live a new life in a more appealing culture. Indeed, so appealing is the new culture that a whole business has developed around finding ways to use the opportunity provided by the Agreement. It is a massive fraud.

A better course would be to allow everyone in provided they pay their way - no benefits, no right to housing, no hand-outs. Earn your way or go home. The young Turks wouldn't be going home in a hurry.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Tobacco companies and open goals

Eid Mubarak.

That is the traditional greeting given at the end of Ramadan, despite having lived in an area with a substantial Turkish population for more years than I have lived anywhere else I only learned that this week. Saying it elicits the same smiley response as Merry Christmas in the middle weeks of December. Now that Ramadan is over I no longer have to abide by the dietary strictures I imposed upon myself a month ago, so tofu and cauliflower need be avoided only on the ground of their venal characteristics and not for any other reason.

Talking of venal characteristics, on Thursday I made the mistake of turning on the radio on my way to golf and was assaulted by an absurd anti-smoking zealot spouting forth on the Victoria Darbyshire show on BBC Radio 5. His name was Professor Gerard Hastings. The good Mr Puddlecote knows more about him than I do and has posted (here) on the very subject that lies behind today's missive.

I can summarise the background quickly. Professor Hastings leads a department at the University of Sterling (an establishment with a fine reputation he is doing his best to destroy). That department is funded by taxpayers and has the remit to identify every possible fact or inference that can possibly be used to argue against the consumption of tobacco products. One of his latest wheezes was a survey of teenagers with the view to ascertaining their opinions of smoking tobacco and the factors that influenced them or might influence them into taking up that particular hobby. The survey, as I understand it, comprised asking a series of questions and recording the answers.

If that is all that had been done, one might ask why it was done, but of course it is not all that was done. Once the answers were received they were "interpreted" by Professor Hastings and his merry men and conclusions were drawn. Conclusions which he is proud to contribute to public debate on the issue of what, if anything, government should add to its current panoply of anti-smoking legislation and regulation. I put it in those terms very deliberately because there is no possibility at all of Professor Hastings reaching any conclusion suggesting that anti-smoking laws or regulations should be relaxed in any way. He is paid specifically to find fault, something he is very happy to do and is perfectly entitled to do provided he does so honestly and is prepared to justify his position. His interview on the radio suggested that one result of his so-called research supported the argument for plain packaging for cigarettes - I know not what other contentions it contained but this is the one he pressed to Miss Darbyshire.

A tobacco company, which uses the trading name Philip Morris, asked for details of the facts behind the conclusions/inferences drawn by Professor Hastings and his team. The request was, of course, made to the University not to the Professor himself so I cannot ascribe the patently unlawful refusal to give any information to him, nonetheless he was keen to associate himself with it on national radio.

On this occasion the BBC also allowed time for Philip Morris to give its side of the story, and it is this that is the substance of my ramblings. A woman, whose name I cannot recall, answered the more absurd points put forward by the Professor. For example, he said the survey was conducted on the basis that the answers would be strictly confidential and that this means the answers could not be disclosed. Being a man with a fine title but no common sense, he failed to realise just how stupid a point he was making. If the answers could not be disclosed he could not publish any conclusions drawn from them because, by doing so, he was disclosing the answers. That might not be quite as stupid as his argument that his University should not have to disclose the findings of fact on which his "research" was based because it is just a university yet Philip Morris employs tens of thousands of people around the globe. Quite what that has to do with the Freedom of Information Act is beyond me. Were I a professor maybe I would understand, as things are it sounds like illogical nonsense.

Now, back to the Philip Morris woman. When asked to justify her company's request for the data behind Professor Hastings' tendentious conclusions she warbled on about a need to know "the basis of the research". This was Radio 5 in the morning. The audience could not reasonably be expected to know ins-and-outs of the way anti-tobacco "research" operates or, indeed, of how proper scientific research operates, still less can they be expected to know the heavily-nuanced phrase "the basis of the research". The good Professor provided her with the killer point but she did not grasp it and undermine his credibility as she should.

Professor Hastings wants all employees of Philip Morris to lose their jobs, he wants the company closed, he wants its business to cease to exist. He said as much when Miss Darbyshire prompted him to do so.

The Philip Morris lady's best point was to assert that her company's business is lawful, employs tens of thousands of people (some thing the Professor seems to consider an evil), contributes vast quantities of tax to the Treasury and is entitled to protect its business against unfounded attacks. So, if it is attacked, it is entitled to ask whether the attack is well-founded or not. The purpose of the request for disclosure of the data behind Professor Hastings' conclusions can only be to see whether it supports the conclusions he asserts. If it does, it does; if it doesn't it doesn't. No one can know unless they are able to see the data and analyse it for themselves. She didn't get within spitting distance of making this obvious and decisive point. It is a point that knocks all of Professor Hastings' smug self-justification into a cocked-hat.

Professor Hastings "research" led to the assertion of conclusions designed to damage Philip Morris's lawful business and put all its employees out of work. Given that this might be the result of his conclusions being adopted in legislation, Philip Morris is entitled to ask whether his conclusions are sound. That can only be known by seeing the factual evidence from which he drew inferences. He can assert until the trump of doom that his conclusions are well-founded but no sensible person should be expected to accept that merely on the basis of his assertion. Unless the raw material from which he draws inferences is disclosed, he is asking for Philip Morris's business to be damaged purely because of his subjective interpretation of material no one else can examine.

Were we lucky enough to have independent-minded people of substance in Parliament, his conclusions could be challenged there. Instead we have far too many MPs who are constantly asking whether what they do will damage their hopes of re-election or advancement within their party. Going against current accepted wisdom can damage both, so they chicken out regardless of their personal views.

I do not know whether the Freedom of Information Act allows Philip Morris access to the anonymised answers given to Professor Hastings and his team (and Mr Puddlecote is wrong in suggesting that the Scottish Information Commissioner ruled that it has such a right, he ruled that the University must either disclose the information or give a good reason under the Act why it should not do so). Whether the Act does or does not allow access to the information deflects attention from the real issue. The real issue is whether a lawful business should be damaged because someone - in this case Professor Hastings - asserts that information he refuses to disclose supports the doing of harm to that business.

In the real world occupied by fair-minded people, substantiated reasons are required before government harms a lawful business. Fairness requires businesses to be able to ask why government proposes to do them harm. To rely on nothing more than the word of a fanatical academic whose salary and department are dependent on him giving the answers government wants to hear is to replace fairness with random bigotry.

It really is time the tobacco companies fought back and pointed out that a lot of people, something over one-fifth of the adult population of this country, choose to consume tobacco products and pay blistering amounts of tax for the privilege. Narrow-minded, bullying bigots might try to stop them by producing skewed analyses of data that is statistically insignificant in any event. Professor Hastings could fall into this category, he certainly doesn't approach the subject with an open mind as he admitted freely to the dozens of people listening to his irrational rantings on Thursday morning.

People like him are an open goal for any tobacco company with guts. Maybe the prevailing narrative is that smoking is an unmitigated evil with nothing in its favour, it certainly seems to be so from my perspective here at FatBigot Towers. When a prevailing narrative is based on a fundamental flaw, it takes someone with guts to stand up and say "hold on a minute, is that right?". It is an Emperor's new clothes scenario. Tobacco companies can afford guts and they can afford to face-down those who seek to attack their lawful business by publishing conclusions that are unsound. I know not whether Professor Hastings' conclusions are unsound, what I do know is that he cannot be trusted to be objective.

We cannot expect poor quality MPs to investigate whether his conclusions are correct, and nor should we. He is attacking lawful businesses who should fight their own corner. The first step in doing so is to put forward spokespeople on national broadcasts who avoid quasi-scientific jargon and get to the point.

This is an issue on which there is a chance of common sense replacing bigoted dogma. If the tobacco companies cannot grasp the lifeline provided by the truth we might well be destined to a future of having to accept falsehoods because they are "officially" decreed to be the truth.