NHS pays £20 for a loaf that costs £2 in a supermarket
THE NHS is spending more than £20 for a loaf of gluten-free bread, 10 times more than the £2 charged for a standard small (400g) gluten-free loaf in Sainsbury’s.
Gluten provokes painful inflammation of the bowel in people who have an immune-response allergy to the protein, found in wheat, rye and barley products. The condition is known as coeliac disease.
In the past, gluten-free products were difficult and costly to get hold of, and many people obtained them via prescription. They are now commonly found on supermarket shelves and their cost has come down.
While they cost more than standard versions, typically up to twice as much, the NHS appears to be paying well over the odds.
Darren Millar, the Conservative shadow minister for health in the Welsh Assembly, found out that the NHS in Wales paid £984,185 for 47,684 gluten-free loaves last year — or £20.64 a loaf. In an answer to a question he put to the assembly, he was also told that packets of gluten-free pasta were costing the NHS £11.54 per bag. Similar packs cost £2 in supermarkets.
Ginger snap biscuits cost £10.07, compared with £2.35 in the shops, and wheat-free gravy mix £15.21, rather than £2.59.
Mr Millar said: “It’s currently costing the NHS 10 times more for this bread than the price in a supermarket. “Many taxpayers will question why they are also footing the bill for hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of snacks such as biscuits and cakes. “Foods of this type have become much more widely available and yet the number of prescriptions has risen.”
A spokesman for the TaxPayers’ Alliance said: “It smacks of incompetence that the Welsh NHS is paying so much more than they are available for in the shops. “This doesn’t look like taxpayers are getting value for money.”
Dr David Bailey, chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP committee in Wales, added: “It makes little sense for gluten-free foods to be prescribed.”
In 2010, the NHS in Wales, which serves a population of three million, spent just over £2 million on gluten-free products. Given that the population of Britain is some 20 times that, it is likely that the overall NHS bill stands at £40 million, although in England some patients pay prescription charges.
Mr Millar commented: “That’s a heck of a sum of money.” “When cash is short, should we really be spending public money on such things? I think not.”
Sarah Sleet, chief executive of the charity Coeliac UK, said the high costs resulted from bureaucratic supply chains in the NHS. She called for greater efficiency but said such items should still be available on prescription for sufferers. “It’s in the interest of the NHS to keep people with coeliac healthy, and prescriptions play an important role in this,” she said.
A spokesman for Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh health minister, said: “Work is now under way to identify savings that can be made in reducing the number of gluten-free products prescribed by the NHS.”
Top British students concentrated in just 12 elite universities
An English “Ivy League” consisting of just a handful of leading universities could develop as a result of Government plans to shake-up higher education, figures suggest.
Data published for the first time shows that more than half of students with the best A-level grades are currently concentrated in just 12 elite institutions.
Some 26,121 out of 50,712 students who gained at least two As and a B took up places at a dozen of the country’s top universities, including Manchester, Durham, Oxford, Cambridge and Nottingham.
The remainder of bright students living in the UK are shared between some 145 other universities, further education colleges and specialist art and music institutions, according to data published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The disclosure underlines the extent to which a small number of elite institutions dominate higher education in England.
It also suggests these universities will be best placed to expand even further as part of Government plans to allow institutions to admit unlimited numbers of the brightest undergraduates. Under the current system, universities have their total numbers of students capped by Government.
But proposals set out in last month’s Higher Education White Paper will allow universities to recruit as many AAB students as they wish from 2012. The move comes as part of a plan to generate more competition between universities and give students a greater choice over where to study.
The reforms are expected to starve mid-ranking competitors of many top recruits – possibly forcing them to lower their fees from the maximum £9,000.
Today, a leading academic warned that the move also risked discriminating against students from deprived backgrounds who are considerably less likely to gain good grades.
Sir Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, said these institutions should be allowed to make use of “contextual admissions” – a system in which pupils from poor-performing schools are admitted with lower A-level grades to recognise the extra effort they make to get good results. “Proposals to create more places for students with at least AAB A-level grades must explicitly allow universities to use contextual data in the admissions process,” he said.
“In terms of the most selective courses, it remains the case that some under-represented students often do not have the grades required. It’s critical therefore that the sector continues its outreach work.”
Data from Hefce shows the number and proportion of top students admitted to each university in 2009/10. It shows that the highest number of AAB students attend Manchester, Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, Nottingham, Leeds, Exeter, Bristol, Warwick, Birmingham, Sheffield and Southampton. Figures also show 99 per cent of Oxford and Cambridge’s UK students in 2009/10 achieved at least AAB – the highest rate in the country.
Imperial College in London admitted 944 students with AAB, equating to 96 per cent of their intake, while 93 per cent of students at the London School of Economics – 617 in total – had these grades.
Institutions with high proportions of AAB students are the most likely to benefit from the Coalition’s higher education reforms, although some may not take advantage of it.
British jobs gone with the wind
Crippling new taxes proposed by Chris Huhne to subsidise green energy could force key employers out of business.
In the film Billy Elliot, a boy strives to be a dancer against the backdrop of the miners’ strike. Now, the place where they filmed it is the focus of another defining industrial struggle, with hundreds of thousands of jobs at stake.
It’s not workers versus management this time: they’re on the same side. It is workers versus wind farms. The enemy is no longer hard, Thatcherite Right-wingers. It is well-intentioned, impeccably progressive environmentalists: the very people, no doubt, shaking “Coal not Dole” collection tins in north London, circa 1984. The battleground now is not coal. It is electricity.
In the Billy Elliot village of Lynemouth, on the North East coast, all the pits have closed. But it is still home to the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminium plant.
In the last few years, the price of aluminium has more than doubled, and there are plenty of customers. Your mountain bike, your drinks can and parts of your Nissan car could well have started out here.
The Lynemouth plant is profitable. It is fairly modern, only 35 years old. It is almost at full production. It is the biggest private employer left in the entire county of Northumberland, contributing £100 million to the local economy.
Yet it is now at serious risk of closure, the first of dozens of potential victims of what one business spokesman calls Britain’s industrial “suicide”.
Last week, the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, announced further massive subsidies for wind farms, nuclear and other forms of low-carbon electricity – all part of Chancellor George Osborne’s ambition to make this the “greenest” country in Europe.
There was already going to be a “carbon floor price”, effectively a tax on CO2 emissions, to subsidise wind and other renewables. Now Mr Huhne’s further subsidies will be funded by consumers, through much higher electricity bills.
Lynemouth’s problem is that it is probably the UK’s single largest user of electricity. Producing just one ton of aluminium uses more power than the average family does in 15 years.
The new wind farm taxes will cost Lynemouth £40 million a year, a third of its entire operating costs, effectively wiping out its annual profits. Last month, John McCabe, a spokesman for the company, said it was examining “how we cope with the huge cost implications of incoming legislation. A number of options are being discussed, one of which is the closure of the plant.”
Lynemouth’s 650 workers, and the hundreds of others it supports indirectly, are only the most exposed of the vast number at risk. Britain is still home to huge amounts of energy-intensive heavy industry, employing millions.
But Stan Higgins, chief executive of the North East Process Industry Cluster, which represents the region’s chemical and pharmaceutical companies, says current government energy policies are “suicidal” and could end up destroying entire sectors of manufacturing.
“Four or five years ago [in pharmaceuticals], energy was the twelfth most expensive element of manufacturing a tablet,” he says. “Now it is second or third. “We are trying to be the first country in Europe to introduce [a carbon floor price], but it’s crazy to do this independently. Our energy costs are six to seven per cent higher than the European average and that’s not sustainable.
Most of our big companies are not UK-owned – they have no allegiance to the UK whatever. They will go where they get the best deal. We can compete with the world, but we just need a level playing field.”
Aluminium isn’t even the most energy-intensive manufacture. For the chlorine industry, electricity is up to 70 per cent of its costs. And if British chlorine-making collapses, it takes with it thousands of jobs in other sectors that are wholly dependent on chlorine production. Some people have started talking of a “domino effect”.
Jeremy Nicholson, of the Energy Intensive Users Group, says: “Employment in the sectors that are most directly affected by rising green taxes is 225,000. “And if you look at the Government’s projections, their CO2 proposals will hit even firms that are less electro-intensive – paper, glass, ceramics – with a further 600,000 jobs. Factories may not close immediately, but investment won’t come here.
“The issue for us is the cost of electricity here compared with the rest of the world. Britain has the most ambitious targets for renewable energy growth in Europe and is introducing several measures which will only affect UK users.”
The new green taxes will fund several forms of low-carbon electricity, including nuclear. But it is ministers’ attachment to wind farms, increasingly offshore, that is causing industry the greatest pain.
“We don’t take issue with the need to decarbonise energy,” says Mr Nicholson. “But, for goodness’ sake, let’s do it cost-effectively. Offshore wind is one of the most expensive ways of reducing our carbon emissions, and one of the least cost-effective ways of generating electricity.”
Last week, Mr Huhne scoffed at such claims. But, as is now widely known, wind farms’ biggest problem is that for about three-quarters of the time, the wind does not blow at the right speed to turn the turbines.
Electricity cannot be stored – you have to generate it at the moment you need it – and the wind might not oblige when 10 million viewers want to switch the kettle on at the end of Coronation Street. So, at the same time as building new wind farms, you must build new conventional power stations as backup.
The Government does not include the costs of building these backup stations in its figures for wind. Nor does it include the cost of the thousands of miles of extra powerlines needed to collect electricity from wind farms, much more widely scattered than conventional power plants.
The Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) and The Sunday Telegraph asked Colin Gibson, former power network director at the National Grid, for an estimate that takes into account these production costs.
His figures suggest that across its whole life, onshore wind will cost as much as £178 per megawatt hour of electricity generated, three times nuclear (£60). Offshore wind, with its much higher construction cost, is more than four times dearer, at £254 per megawatt hour.
Mr Gibson stresses that, though most of his calculations are based on official data, some have to be based on his best judgment, and aren’t definitive. But the broad picture is clear. “If you take the costs of a mixture of on and offshore wind, it is very roughly £140 per megawatt hour higher than a mixture of nuclear and gas turbines,” he says.
“Multiply that by the number of megawatt hours we use, and you get a figure in the order of maybe £11 billion a year, which is about £550 per customer per annum [extra] for wind power. That is quite frightening.”
Until now, the main controversy about electricity prices has been to do with consumers. Last week, new figures showed that rising bills have driven another 700,000 people into “fuel poverty”. But the impact on manufacturing could deliver a double whammy: not only costing you money, but also costing you your job.
John Constable, director of the REF, says: “The emphasis on expensive and uncontrollable renewables such as wind, when there are better and cheaper alternatives that could do the same job, is discrediting the green agenda. We are loading very heavy burdens onto viable industries in order to subsidise immature and costly energy technologies.”
“This is a major threat to the UK,” warns Nicholson. “I sometimes think that the Department for Climate Change doesn’t care if we de-industrialise Britain, so long as we meet our climate targets.”
Garbage bin correctness in Britain
Householders have been threatened with £1,000 fines if they leave their wheelie bins out for too long. The penalty would be the largest ever imposed on those who fail to remove their empty bins from the pavement after they have been emptied.
Letters warning of the £1,000 fine have been sent out in Bedford, where council chiefs say bins on the pavement are a hazard to blind people. (!)
The local authority has issued its threat just a month after the Government condemned such draconian punishments as ‘clearly disproportionate’. Ministers have promised a new law to strip councils of the right to levy large fines. The Bedford fines are more than 12 times greater than the on-the-spot penalties routinely handed out to shoplifters.
The letters distributed among the 65,000 homes in the borough say that anyone who fails to take their bin back in within 24 hours of their rubbish collection will be liable for the fine. The threat provoked a furious response in the town.
Matthew Hipkin, 37, said: ‘It’s an absolute waste of council money and time to have people walking the streets checking if someone has put their bin away. ‘I understand the principle of keeping the streets clean but the council has put across its point in the wrong way. It is being way too heavy-handed.’
A father of two who did not want to be named added: ‘I’ve had these threatening letters when I left my bin out on the pavement because the binmen hadn’t turned up.
‘Other times I’ve had to walk ten doors away to pick up my bin because they’ve been left scattered in the road after collection. It’s a ridiculous waste of our council tax. Why don’t they just make sure the bins are collected on time?’
Bedford is run by elected Liberal Democrat Mayor Dave Hodgson, and the three major parties each have 12 elected councillors.
A spokesman for the authority said: ‘We’ve been working with Sight Concern Bedford and the Royal National Institute of Blind People to encourage households to put their wheelie bins away, to help make pavements safer for blind and partially sighted people.
‘Where we receive reports of households repeatedly leaving out bins which can cause problems to such people, the council will write to the households concerned and advise that this is an offence for which they may ultimately be fined.’
Some councils have threatened £1,000 fines as their ultimate sanction for people who fail to follow recycling rules and put the wrong material in the wrong bins. A £1,000 fine is the largest possible under the 1990 Environmental Protection Act.
In the Government’s Waste Review last month – which failed to bring back weekly bin collections – ministers said punishments for erring householders should not be higher than fines for criminals. The review said of £1,000 fines: ‘It cannot be right for this kind of threat to be hanging over householders.’