Wednesday, 17 December 2014

A foot in the door

From the politicians who said this...


"The era of big, bossy, state interference, top-down lever pulling is coming to an end."


David Cameron, Prime Minister, 2008


"We’ll get rid of the unnecessary laws – and once they’re gone, they won’t come back."

Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, 2010


Comes this...

Smoking in cars carrying children set to become illegal in England next year

Anyone who is familiar with the pathology of these ghastly little fascists knows that this is not the end, nor is it even the beginning of the end. What the British Medical Association really wants is a ban on smoking in all cars regardless of whether children are present or not. We know this because they demanded exactly that in 2011 and they used their usual lies and quackery about secondhand smoke to back it up.

Cowardly little Gollums that they are, they retreated in the face of public opposition and came back with a temporary compromise, but you can be sure that they will return in short order demanding that (a) all smoking in cars be banned, and (b) vaping be banned as well. Their justification for this will be that a total ban will (a) make enforcement easier, and (b) create a 'level playing field'.

It is only a matter of time. Just watch.

100 years of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act

There are a few important 100th anniversaries in the world of drug and alcohol prohibition coming up over the next few years. I've written about one today in City AM:

One hundred years ago today, President Woodrow Wilson approved the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, the US’s first national legislation designed to control the manufacture, import and supply of opium and cocaine. Francis Burton Harrison, a Democrat representative, did little more than give his name to the law. The heavy lifting was done by Dr Hamilton Wright, a zealous public health specialist who believed that opium was “the greatest curse which humanity has ever known”. After wildly exaggerating the scale of drug addiction in the US, with particular reference to alleged drug-induced depravity among certain ethnic groups, Wright drew up a Bill that effectively banned the sale of narcotics for recreational use. It sowed the seeds for the war on drugs as we know it today.

History almost demands that a law as portentous as the Harrison Act should have been the subject of anguished discussion and national controversy. In fact, the Congressional debate lasted only a few minutes and was not even mentioned in that day’s New York Times. The American public was more interested in arguing about the other great Progressive cause of the era - alcohol prohibition - than defending non-medical drug use, which almost everybody agreed was immoral.

The Harrison Act gave the medical establishment a monopoly over the supply of drugs. For a few years under the new regime, physicians made handsome profits selling opiates to addicts until the Supreme Court ruled, in March 1919, that addiction was not a legitimate medical problem. Almost overnight, 200,000 opiate habitués were deprived of a legal source of supply and, by 1930, a third of America’s prison population had been incarcerated for drug violations.

Do read the rest.

Cochrane review confirms that e-cigarettes help smokers quit

The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews brings bad tidings for the anti-vaping clowns of the public health racket:

New Cochrane review finds emerging evidence that smokers who use electronic cigarettes can stop or reduce their smoking.

The first Cochrane review on this subject published today in the Cochrane Library gives some early insights in to electronic cigarettes as an aid to stopping smoking and reducing consumption... The team of researchers from the UK and New Zealand found two randomised trials that had analysed data from 662 current smokers. The researchers looked at the effects of electronic cigarettes on quit rates and the number of people who were able to reduce the number of cigarettes they smoked by at least 50%. They also looked at any adverse effects reported by electronic cigarette users. The team also considered evidence from 11 observational studies.

The results show beneficial effects of electronic cigarettes, but are limited by the small number of trials and limited sample of people who were analysed in the studies. About 9% of smokers who used electronic cigarettes were able to stop smoking at up to one year. This compared with around 4% of smokers who used the nicotine-free electronic cigarettes.

... Author, Jamie Hartmann-Boyce said, “electronic cigarettes have become popular with smokers who want to reduce the risk of smoking. None of the studies in this review found that smokers who used electronic cigarettes short-term (2 years or less) had an increased health risk compared to smokers who did not use electronic cigarettes. We did not find any evidence from observational studies that people who used electronic cigarettes at the same time as using regular cigarettes were less likely to quit smoking. Findings suggest electronic cigarettes with nicotine help people stop or reduce smoking when compared to electronic cigarettes without nicotine, but more studies are needed.”

This being a review of the evidence, all the studies in it have been published before and anyone who claims to be an authority on the subject should be aware of them. The endlessly repeated claim that "we just don't know" whether e-cigarettes help people quit is a delaying tactic. We are about to head into 2015 and plenty of research has been done. If you still "just don't know" then you are a liar or a knave. Either way, you're not qualified to talk about the subject.

See the BBC and Guardian.



Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Soft drink tax won't save £39 million, it will cost £2,561 million

The Children's Food Campaign has relaunched its campaign for a 20 per cent sin tax on sugary drinks. The pressure group, which is part of Sustain, claims that the tax will save the NHS in London £39 million.

This figure comes from some research that has not been published and is based on a theoretical model which cannot be checked. Regardless of the reliability of the source, £39 million a year isn't very much. The NHS budget is over £100 billion a year.

But it's not £39 million a year, it's £39 million over the course of twenty years! This is less than £2 million a year in a city of over 8 million people—a saving of less than 25p per resident.

It gets worse. The Children's Food Campaign/Sustain have not offset the alleged saving to the taxpayer with the very real cost of the tax. Fortunately, we know that they have previously estimated that a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks will take an extra £1 billion a year from UK taxpayers. As London is home to 13% of the British population, this means a cost to Londoners of around £130 million a year, or £2.6 billion over twenty years.

The net cost to London taxpayers would therefore be £2,561,000,000 over twenty years, or £128 million a year. To put it another way, taxpayers would have to spend £67 to save £1.

It is easy to make back-of-an-envelope calculations about how much money will be saved by a particular policy, but it is meaningless unless you look also at the cost. You don’t reduce the burden on taxpayers by raising taxes and you can’t make policy by looking at putative benefits while ignoring real costs.

If the aim is to save taxpayers money, the government should stop using our taxes to fund private pressure groups. Sustain's latest accounts show that it received £755,428 from the UK and EU governments in 2012/13, in addition to £400,984 from the lottery. As with so many illiberal, tax-raising campaign groups, these sources accounted for the majority of the charity's income.




Saturday, 13 December 2014

Friday, 12 December 2014

Rowan Atkinson on the creeping culture of censoriousness



At this year's Battle of Ideas, WorldBytes held a six hour free-speech-athon in which speakers were asked to read something about free speech for ten minutes. I recited Rowan Atkinson's glorious address at the launch of the Reform Section 5 campaign. As I transcribed it I thought I might as well put in online, so here it is...

"My starting point when it comes to the consideration of any issue relating to free speech is my passionate belief that the second most precious thing in life is the right to express yourself freely. The most precious thing in life, I think, is food in your mouth and the third most precious is a roof over your head. But a fixture for me in the number two slot is free expression, just below the need to sustain life itself.

That is because I have enjoyed free expression in this country all my professional life and fully expect to continue to do so. Personally I suspect I am highly unlikely to be arrested for whatever laws exist to contain free expression because of the undoubtedly privileged position that is afforded to those of a high public profile.

So my concerns are less for myself and more for those more vulnerable because of their lower profile - like the man arrested in Oxford for calling a police horse ‘gay’. Or the teenager arrested for calling the Church of Scientology a ‘cult’. Or the cafe owner arrested for displaying passages from the Bible on a TV screen.

When I heard of some of these more ludicrous offences and charges I remembered that I had been here before in a fictional context. I once did a show called Not the Nine O’Clock News some years ago and we did a sketch where Griff Rhys Jones played Constable Savage, a manifestly racist police officer to whom I, as his station commander, is giving a dressing down for arresting a black man on a whole string of ridiculous, trumped up and ludicrous charges. The charges for which Constable Savage arrested Mr Winston Kdogo of 55 Mercer Road were these:

Walking on the cracks in the pavement
Walking in a built up in a loud shirt in the hours of darkness
And, one of my favourites, walking around all over the place.

He was also arrested for urinating in a public convenience and looking at me in a funny way.

Who would have thought that we would end up with a law that would allow life to imitate art so exactly? I read somewhere a defender of the status quo claiming that the fact that the gay horse case was dropped after the arrested man refused to pay the fine and that the scientology case was also dropped at some point during the court process was proof that the law was working well, ignoring the fact that the only reason these cases were dropped was because of the publicity they had attracted. The police sensed that ridicule was just around the corner and withdrew their actions.

But what about the thousands of other cases that did not enjoy the oxygen of publicity? That weren’t quite ludicrous enough to attract media attention. Even for those actions that were withdrawn, people were arrested, questioned, taken to court and then released. That is not a law working properly. That is a censoriousness of the most intimidating kind, guaranteed to have - as Lord Deere says - a chilling effect on free expression and free protest. Parliament’s joint committee on human rights summarised this whole issue very well by saying:

‘While arresting a protester for using threatening or abusive speech may, depending on the circumstances, be a proportionate response, we do not think that language of behaviour  that is merely insulting should ever be criminalised in this way.’

The clear problem with the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism is easily construed as insult by certain parties. Ridicule easily construed as insult. Sarcasm, unfavourable comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult. And because so many things can be interpreted as insult it is hardly surprising that so many things have been, as the examples I talked about earlier show.

Although the law under discussion has been on the statute book for over 25 years, it is indicative of a culture that has taken hold of the programmes of successive governments that, with a reasonable and well intentioned ambition to contain obnoxious elements in society, has created a society of an extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling nature. It is what you might call, ‘the new intolerance’ - a new but intense desire to gag uncomfortable voices of dissent.

“I am not intolerant” say many people - say many softly spoken highly educated liberal minded people - “I am only intolerant of intolerance.”

And people tend to nod sagely and say “oh yes wise words, wise words” and yet if you think about this supposedly inarguable statement for longer than five seconds you realize that all it is advocating is a replacement of one kind of intolerance with another. Which to me doesn’t represent any kind of progress at all. Underlying prejudices, injustices or resentments are not addressed by arresting people. They are addressed by the issues being aired, argued and dealt with, preferably outside the legal process.

For me, the best way to increase society’s resistance to insulting or offensive speech, is to allow a lot more of it. As with childhood diseases you can better resist those germs to which you have been exposed. We need to build our immunity to taking offence, so that we can deal with the issues that perfectly justified criticism can raise. Our priorities should be to be to deal with the message, not the messenger. As President Obama said, in an address to the UN only a month or so ago: “Laudable efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities.”

The strongest weapon against hateful speech, is not repression, it is more speech. And that’s the essence of my thesis, more speech. If we want a robust society we need more robust dialogue and that must include the right to insult or to offend. And as, even if, as Lord Deere says, “you know the freedom to be inoffensive is no freedom at all”

The repeal of this word in this clause will be only a small step but it will, I hope, be a critical one in what should be a longer term project to pause and slowly rewind the creeping culture of censoriousness. It is a small skirmish in the battle, in my opinion, to deal with what Sir Salman Rushdie refers to as, ‘The outrage industry’. Self-appointed arbiters of the public good encouraging media-stoked outrage to which the police feel under terrible pressure to react. A newspaper rings up Scotland Yard: “Someone has said something slightly insulting on Twitter about someone who we think, a national treasure. What are you going to do about it?”

The police panic and and they scramble around and then grasp the most inappropriate lifeline of all: Section 5 of the Public Order Act, that thing were you can arrest anybody for saying anything that might be construed by anyone else as insulting.

They don’t seem to need a real victim; they need only to make the judgment that somebody could have been offended if they had heard or read what has been said - the most ludicrous degree of latitude.

The storms that surround Twitter and Facebook comment have raised some fascinating issues about free speech which we haven’t really yet come to terms with: firstly, that we all have to take responsibility for what we say. Which is quite a good lesson to learn, but secondly we have learned how appallingly prickly and intolerant society has become of even the mildest adverse comment. The law should not be aiding and abetting this new intolerance. Free speech can only suffer if the law prevents us from dealing with its consequences. I offer my whole-hearted support to the Reform Section 5 Campaign”.

[And the campaign succeeded this year - CJS]


Thursday, 11 December 2014

PubCos and pub closures

Most people seemed to like my report on pub closures, but CAMRA's mob in parliament didn't. I've written a blog post for the IEA in response.

How not to lie with pub closure statistics