Osborne's anti-green crusade is self-defeating

The Chancellor appears intent on strangling one sector of the economy that is growing.

On the very same day it emerged that our economy has worsened and shrunk in the worst double-dip recession for fifty years, one sector of the British economy that is bucking the trend, providing new growth and jobs, is now under siege from the Chancellor.

According to the CBI this month, green business accounted for more than a third of all UK growth last year. In a keynote speech a couple of weeks ago CBI chief John Cridland said:

The choice between going green and going for growth is a false choice. Green and growth do go together...  The UK’s low-carbon and environmental goods and services market is worth more than £120bn a year. That’s equivalent to more than eight per cent of GDP… It’s made up of some 50,000 firms, between them employing 940,000 people - two-thirds outside London and the South East – across many different sectors.

You would think the Treasury would be delighted by this story of green jobs and British business success. Certainly William Hague recognised the political and economic attractiveness of this sector. A few months ago he wrote privately to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues, “The low carbon economy is at the leading edge of a structural shift now taking place globally … we need to stay abreast of this, given our need for an export-led recovery and for inward investment in modern infrastructure and advanced manufacturing.” Hague continued, “I believe we should reframe our response to climate change as an imperative for growth.”

But instead of heeding this advice and welcoming new clean tech investment in the UK, the FT’s Jim Pickard revealed on Monday how George Osborne has been secretly demanding Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey ditch renewable energy programmes as well as essential 2030 goals aimed at driving investment into advanced energy technologies and reducing carbon emissions from electricity generation. The leaked letter exposed how in an attempt to woo a narrow minority of frustrated Tea Party Tory backbenchers, the Chancellor has been seeking to pull the rug from under Britain’s clean energy industries for petty party politicking.  

The chairman of the energy and climate change select committee, Conservative Tim Yeo told the BBC: “The Treasury has clearly intervened in the draft (energy) bill in a way that will put up bills to consumers and put off investors by increasing their risks.” He added, “Under the guise of reducing bills for consumers, the chancellor will actually be increasing consumers' bills…I don't know if the back-benchers realise this but surely the Treasury does - yet it keeps pressing on with an action that's clearly political to assuage MPs who don't like turbines in the countryside.” It may also have a lot to do with his cosy relationship with the gas lobby.

The same Osborne who in opposition pledged, “I see in this green recovery not just the fight against climate change, but the fight for jobs, the fight for new industry,” has instead been fighting to abandon the framework his own advisers says is required to make carbon emission reductions set out in the Climate Change Act, and axe the schemes designed to boost the wind industry.

He’s turned the green economy and almost a million jobs into a political football, but the Chancellor’s anti-green crusade extends beyond interfering with just the energy brief. His efforts to appease his more swivel-eyed backbenchers means Osborne has even had his people briefing against the Transport Secretary Justine Greening for her principled refusal to U-turn on the expansion of Heathrow airport.

After the failed woodland sell off, the furore over planning reforms that looked like a developers’ charter, the plans to shoot badgers and capture buzzards, the Green Bank that isn’t actually a Bank at all, the taxpayer hand-outs to the oil and gas industry – and now most important of all, the Chancellor’s attacks on our national climate change commitments, David Cameron’s huskies are long slayed. But when will Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats stand up and say enough?

George Osborne has a "cosy relationship with the gas lobby". Photograph: Getty Images.

Joss Garman is associate fellow on climate change and energy at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

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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.