Last night's Question Time: Mehdi Hasan on the facts

The facts and figures of last night's debate.

Last night I was a panellist on BBC1's Question Time, in Stoke-on-Trent. You can watch it, via the iPlayer, here.

It was my fourth appearance on the BBC's flagship news-and-current-affairs debate show and it is always an amusing experience to be one of the five panellists. I must say that I was quite impressed with the Tory peer and Next boss, Simon Wolfson, who wasn't the swivel-eyed, bash-the-poor, corporate fatcat some on the left might have assumed him to be. However, right-wing recorder and barrister Constance Briscoe - who seemed to think I was a politician! - had firm views on most issues but few facts.

My own approach is to try and always inject facts and figures into these debates, which tend to be distorted by misinformation, ignorance and prejudice. ("How do you know all this?" a bemused David Dimbleby asked me towards the end of the show, in only a semi-serious tone!)

But television isn't the best medium for reeling off lists of statistics or data (which is one of the reasons I left TV to become a print journalist in 2009).

That's why I thought I'd briefly outline some of the facts and figures I didn't have time to provide, or elaborate on, last night.

On the financial transaction tax:

Wolfson claimed that the a financial transactiont tax (FTT), or "Robin Hood tax", would end up funding Brussels and not the UK. Nonsense.

The International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the Gates Foundation have all released studies showing that unilateral transaction taxes are feasible and raise funds for individual countries (the Robin Hood Tax campaign says a 0.05 per cent tax on transactions could raise £20bn for just the UK alone!).

Here in Britain, we already levy unilateral taxes of this sort: for example, the Treasury imposes a stamp duty of 0.5 per cent on all transactions involving UK shares. This raises £3bn per year.

On Tory funding and the City:

David Cameron has repeatedly accused Labour leader Ed Miliband of being in "the pocket of the unions". Why? Because the trade union movement is the biggest donor to the Labour Party.

Yet, as I pointed out last night, using Cameron's own logic, he and his party are in the pocket of the bankers and financiers. Why? Because the Conservative Party relies on the bankers and financiers for more than half of its funds.

According to research conducted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Since Mr Cameron assumed the leadership, the Conservative Party has become twice as dependent on City funding: from 25 per cent of its total donations to nearly 51 per cent in 2010.

Guess what? Wolfson and Tory MP Claire Perry had little to say on this subject. Surprise, surprise!

On unemployment benefit:

One audience member raised the issue of compassion towards the unemployed (in reference to the British Social Attitudes survey this week which revealed that more than half of Britons believe unemployment benefits are too high and that they discourage those out of work from finding new jobs). Briscoe employed all sorts of dubious metaphors ("sponge"?) in order to make her point that "we spend far too much time subsidising people who don't want to work" (she couldn't, however, tell me how many people on unemployment benefit "don't want to work").

Yet unemployment is worth less than ever. As my colleague George Eaton has noted (using ONS figures), Jobseeker's Allowance (currently £65.45 a week for a single person aged 25 or over) is is worth just 10.9 per cent of average weekly earnings (£600.90) - compared to 12.2 per cent in 2000, 16.6 per cent in 1985 and 19.2 per cent in 1970.

Then there is the issue of jobs - there aren't many to find! As I said, there are now 5.7 unemployed people for every job vacancy, which is the highest figure on record since October 2009. How do you squeeze five people into one job? And how does slashing JSA create jobs?

On housing benefit:

One audience member raised the issue of unemployed people and housing benefit. But as Shelter's chief executive Campbell Robb has pointed out:

The vast majority of housing benefit claimants are either pensioners, disabled people, those caring for a relative or hardworking people on low incomes, and only 1 in 8 people who receive housing benefit is unemployed.

Those of us on the left, who call ourselves progressives, need to ensure that these points are raised, discussed and circulated, online, on air and in print. The spread of conservatism, and conservative economics, relies on ignorance, not evidence.

Yet, as the most famous conservative of all, Ronald Reagan, once remarked:

Facts are stubborn things.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.