Danny Alexander picks an important fight with Osborne

Scrap over climate change policy.

In tabling a motion for the Liberal Democrats autumn conference on low carbon policy, Danny Alexander MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has picked an important fight with his boss, the Chancellor George Osborne. Alexander’s feet must be kept to the fire on this if Britain is to have any chance of achieving its legal obligations to decarbonise the power sector.

Alexander’s motion roundly criticizes "the refusal of the Conservatives to acknowledge that investing in carbon reducing technologies has the potential to make an important contribution to long-term growth".

There is no one this accusation can be more squarely aimed at than Alexander’s boss in the Treasury, the Chancellor George Osborne.

Since his autumn 2011 conference speech, Osborne has been almost wholly negative on the low carbon agenda. "We are not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business", he said putting himself squarely at odds with business groups like the CBI and EEF who see the green economy as a key driver of growth. Indeed, the green economy grew by 2.3 per cent in real terms in 2010/11, and made up a third of what little growth Britain managed in 2011/12.

Most recently Osborne was heavily rebuked by the Energy and Climate Change Committee for undermining the development of the government’s flagship Energy Bill, which is intended to bring forward vast amounts of investment in low carbon energy sources. Osborne seems far more interested in making the UK a fossil fuel hub and frightening the wind industry than going low carbon.

The Chancellor is likely to be particularly angered by Alexander’s proposal for the Government to establish a 2030 decarbonisation target for the power sector, in the range of 50 to 100 grams of CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour of energy produced. 2030 is a crucial staging post towards the UK reducing its emissions by 80 per cent 2050, and, while the independent Committee on Climate Change and the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee have recommended that a target of 50g by 2030 for the power sector is adopted, it is something to which Osborne appears firmly opposed. The mismatch between Alexander’s proposed target range of 50g to 100g, instead of the stricter 50g recommended by the Committee on Climate Change, is something that requires an explanation.

It is our view, set out in our submission to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, that adoption of a 2030 power sector target is the single most important step the Government can take to provide certainty to industry about the direction of travel for the energy industry. Providing this certainty, we believe, will ensure that energy bills are kept as low as possible and the UK reaps the maximum benefits from growth in low carbon sectors, while at the same time emissions are reduced.

Danny Alexander is right to challenge the Chancellor on climate change policy because going low carbon is the only credible economic policy. It is now time for others to come out in support of the 2030 target and ensure it is adopted by government in the Energy Bill. This includes the Labour party; prominent green-minded Conservative MPs like Zac Goldsmith, Oliver Letwin and William Hague who are witnessing the rapid deterioration of their party’s reputation on climate change; and industry pressure groups like the CBI that are supportive of ambitious emission reduction policies.

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets at @regplatt

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.