I have always been a sceptic as far as conspiracy theories go. Mostly things go wrong because of cock ups and much of the damage in various scandals comes not from the original sin, but from the pathetic attempts to cover up.
However, sometimes I wonder. Take the revelation in The Times on February 21 that public transport schemes designed to get people out of their cars and reduce congestion ‘are being blocked because the government is reluctant to lose income from road taxes’.
The paper’s transport correspondent, Ben Webster, explains that the lost tax revenue from people transferring from their cars to public transport has to be taken account in assessing whether schemes are value for money and worth proceeding with.
You could not make that story up as no one would believe it. Rather than taking into account the benefits on global warming, reducing congestion and improving the environment the Department for Transport is forced to consider the savings in fuel as a negative factor in its calculations. As David Begg, the head of the Commission for Integrated Transport put it, ‘ the danger is that too much emphasis is placed on the impact on the Treasury coffers and not enough on the wider economic and social benefits of improving public transport’.
Because of this crazy calculation, many schemes that were marginal in terms of the cost benefit analysis – itself a flawed notion, see my article in Rail 508 – were not carried out and projects to improve public transport were therefore left on the shelf.
This got me thinking about wider aspects of government policy relating to the taxation of things that are ‘bad’, such as smoking and drinking. Are government policies on these matters taken without any consideration that any successful attempt to restrict them would severely reduce the amount of money going into the Treasury’s coffers. Sure, there are benefits too in terms of saving money for the NHS, but that only comes in much later years and therefore of less interest to the mandarins.
The story in The Times has therefore made me suspicious about, for example, of the motives behind the recently enacted legislation to allow pubs to remain open all day, a concept which as a libertarian I instinctively support. And it makes me ask why more is not done to stop people smoking when it is the biggest self inflicted health disaster and a phenomenon that clearly can be affected by governmental policies.
I always thought that the biggest scandal of the New Labour years, until the war in Iraq that is, was the Bernie Ecclestone affair when the Formula One magnate persuaded Tony Blair to delay the implementation of the ban on advertising cigarettes on the cars for a couple of years, shortly after he had donated £1m to the party. If that happened now it would kill of Blair for good, but he managed to ride the storm through a canny TV appearance apologising to the people and because he was still in his honeymoon period. Now one wonders if the reluctance to ban smoking had other, baser, motives for a government that in its early years was short of the old readies.
Therefore from now on I will view any policies on smoking and drinking, and indeed public transport, with more scepticism than hitherto.