DOMINIC LAWSON: When even the Swedes are turning down their saunas, our Government SHOULD be telling us how to use less energy
Though Jacob Rees- Mogg still has Nanny — the woman who looked after him as a child remains part of his household — the new Secretary of State for Business and Energy has long been a critic of the ‘nanny state’. Yet less so, it now seems, than his boss, Liz Truss.
Rees-Mogg had signed off on a £15 million public information campaign to inform us how to save energy as we head into a winter which, in one scenario published last week by the National Grid, could see blackouts and energy rationing, caused by a critical shortage of gas.
But Truss blocked the scheme, according to the Minister for Climate, Graham Stuart, ‘because we are not a nanny state government’.
Rees-Mogg had signed off on a £15 million public information campaign to inform us how to save energy as we head into a winter which, in one scenario published last week by the National Grid, could see blackouts and energy rationing, caused by a critical shortage of gas
This rather misses the point. Nannying is telling an individual not to do something, for his or her own good. A public information programme of the sort proposed is an attempt to give people ideas of how to do something for the good of the nation as a whole.
Blackouts are a collective danger, quite distinct from whatever people are prepared to pay for their own use of gas, which is indeed a matter of individual choice.Yet the massive subsidy Truss has given all gas users, by capping the price at about £2 per therm (when the wholesale price, at the time, was £4.64 per therm) also shields consumers from reality.
The reality is that the more gas we use, the higher will rise the already vast public debt. The Government has given no idea, other than more borrowing, of how it will finance the cost of its giant handout to energy users. And, therefore, the more gas and electricity we use now, the more our tax bills will have to go up in future.
Truss did not aid the public’s understanding of this point by telling three of her questioners, when she did that awkward round of BBC regional radio interviews, that the annual cost of energy bills would be ‘capped at £2,500’. No! That was the figure expected to be paid by a so-called ‘average’ household. It is a unit charge cap, not an overall one: the more energy you use, the more you will pay, without limit.
But Truss blocked the scheme, according to the Minister for Climate, Graham Stuart, ‘because we are not a nanny state government’
If the PM herself appeared confused about the policy she had introduced, it does suggest that the wider public could benefit from some accurate and helpful information. It is true that newspapers have been assiduous in explaining these matters, and suggesting ways of saving energy. But, unpleasant as it is to acknowledge, not everyone reads newspapers.
The anti-growth mob are a growing menace
Have you heard of Kate Raworth? I hadn’t until she rolled up on the BBC’s Today programme, as a critic of the PM’s ‘growth’ agenda.
Turns out that Raworth is the founder of something called Doughnut Economics, which regards the very pursuit of growth as catastrophic, on environmental grounds.
Interviewed with polite scepticism by Justin Webb, she went on to say it was only the richest who benefited from growth, and that ‘we have not taxed the richest in society’. What? Not at all? Reality check for Kate’s benefit: the highest-earning one per cent (those earning at least £160,000) pay around 30 per cent of all income tax. It is the poorest who, quite rightly, do not pay income tax (you need to be earning £12,570 before doing so).
Raworth also declared: ‘All the evidence shows that when economies aim to grow, it’s the richest, the already rich, who are enriched.’ But the most important point is that it is economic growth which has done more than anything else to lift the world’s least well-off out of poverty. We are principally talking about China, but not only China.
The non-partisan Centre for Economic Policy Research set this out in a paper by three of its researchers, entitled ‘Growth still is good for the poor’. Analysing figures from 118 countries, they concluded: ‘Our results underscore the importance of overall growth for improvements in living standards among the poorest in society. The good news is that policies that promote economic growth will, on average, also raise incomes of the poor, thereby promoting shared prosperity.’ We might also quote the writer Tom Chivers, winner of an award from the Royal Statistical Society: ‘Economic growth saves children’s lives. That is one of the most basic, starkest facts about the modern world. There is a thing called the “degrowth movement” which wants to stop economic growth. And yes, this would lead almost inevitably to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of children a day.’
And here’s another fact: Kate Raworth sits on a World Health Organisation advisory council. What a joke.
It may be that the Prime Minister simply doesn’t believe there is much chance of any blackouts and doesn’t want to spend the money on a programme predicated on that possibility.
During the Tory leadership election, when asked if she ruled out energy rationing, she instantly responded: ‘I do rule that out, yes.’
Well, first of all, that would not be her decision, but the National Grid’s. And second, if the Grid were to be ordered not to ration under any circumstances, that would make blackouts almost inevitable, rather than merely possible.
In other countries, notably Germany, the public have been inundated with public information of the sort that Truss has scorned; and there have also been measures not taken here, such as reducing the heating in municipal swimming baths, and dialling down the thermostat in public offices. In Finland, Sweden and Norway, the saunas are doing the same.
That goes well beyond mere advice. But the Conservative MP Maria Caulfield argues that, still, the PM is ‘right to question’ if the £15 million cost of such a programme would be ‘the best use of taxpayers’ money’. Given the likely cost of the Government’s subsidy to consumers in keeping down bills was estimated at around £100 billion at the time it was announced, this is laughable.
What would the information campaign have told the public? It seems that it was not going to be as stentorian as that in 1973, when the country was afflicted by a coalmining strike. That ‘Switch Off’ campaign told TV viewers how, in order to protect ‘essential services’: ‘At home you can get by with less. So switch off some power, now!’
But we can certainly turn down, rather than off. One study has shown that two-thirds of British households heat their homes to more than 20 degrees, with one in ten going above 25 degrees.
As the energy columnist known as Giga Watt observed on the Reaction website, a ‘20 is plenty’ campaign ‘could make a serious dent in the demand for gas and electricity and reduce that enormous bailout substantially.’
The energy-saving campaign of the 1970s employed Delia Smith for a TV public information film showing how to use less energy ‘while cooking your family Sunday lunch’. I imagine Delia is still available, should the call come — although it doesn’t take a celebrated cook to tell us that it is considerably cheaper to use a microwave rather than a conventional oven.
Unfortunately, these and other simple tips are not necessarily part of the knowledge of millions of British households, and it would hardly be pointless ‘nannying’ for them to be given such information in an authoritative way.
Besides, even Truss’s heroine, Margaret Thatcher, was not averse to something of this sort: in 1986 her administration used TV public information films under the ‘Energy Efficiency’ tag, urging households to improve their home insulation.
That wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
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