Why shouldn’t Tories use Parler?

18 Jan

Yesterday The Observer ran a piece titled “Revealed: Tory MPs and commentators who joined banned app Parler”. Presumably anyone reading was meant to be incredibly shocked that at least 14 Conservatives had been on the app including Michael Gove, Steve Baker and Ben Bradley.

If you haven’t used Parler before – and it’s since been removed from Google, Amazon and Apple platforms, so there’s not much chance of that now – its users consider it a free speech site. Others, particularly left-wing publications, have mischaracterised it as “synonymous with the alt-right”. Those associated with it have been demonised.

I happen to be a commentator who joined Parler, and I have no guilt about my actions. I started an account last year after having concerns about Twitter’s increasing use of labels for “disputed or misleading information”, as I tend to the view that people can think for themselves and regard such signposting as tech overreach, paving the way to increased, ideologically-driven censorship. In general, I regarded Parler as a “back-up” option in case I ever left Twitter, for whatever reason.

Many others seemed to have this idea and created Parler accounts. On the occasions I logged onto Parler – which were few and far between as I found it clunky – the posts seemed friendly enough and I never saw anything untoward. However, it is clear from recent news that a cohort of extremists did use Parler to post horrible content, perhaps viewing “free speech” as an invitation to be as offensive as possible.

Here’s where Parler got into difficulties, the ultimate irony being that it’s never actually promoted absolute free speech. Parler, in fact, had its own moderators to go through posts, but there weren’t enough of them to deal with problematic content, something that became more noticeable when the Capitol was under attack. While Twitter banned Trump, Parler’s inertia in dealing with posts that incited violence against elected officials led Google and Apple to pull the plug, removing it from their app stores, thus rendering it non-existent (albeit its founder has said it will be back by the end of the month).

Whether deleting the whole app was justified is another debate. But the point of this piece is to address the smearing of Tory MPs, Conservatives and others who signed up to this site, all for the crime of exploring alternatives to Twitter. There’s something deeply sinister about the manner in which people have noted their names, viewing them as “guilty by association” because others misused the system (a rule that would mean everyone on Twitter was “guilty”, incidentally).

It’s clear that Parler will simply become a word used to damage people’s reputation. “But you were on Parler!” You can imagine an opposition MP one day charging at Nadine Dorries. These attacks are not only poor form but actually counter-productive; as Andrew Doyle carefully put it on Twitter – they can increase online echo chambers, as more moderate voices shun alternative apps, like Parler, lest they be smeared for merely logging on.

The even greater shame is that we’re not discussing the most important aspects of the Parler story. Some of these stood out to me the other day while listening to John Matze, one of Parler’s founders, on the Megyn Kelly podcast. I discovered that he graduated in 2014, so perhaps it’s no wonder his management of free speech has been lacklustre compared to more experienced tech giants. Mild-mannered and trained as an engineer, he struck me as a geek who wanted to do good in the world, promoting healthy debate. In fact, the point of Parler is its name – “parler”; to speak – as it was designed to foster exchange between different political groups.

Instead of searching for MPs who used the app, the media should be talking about one of the most pressing issues of our time, tech censorship. There are big questions about Amazon and other corporate giants completely removed Parler (is it to gain complete control of the marketplace?). The app’s fate is arguably much more important than why Twitter deleted Trump’s account. A little more discussion on this issue wouldn’t go amiss.

Daniel Hamilton: So we have a new CDU Chairman. Will a CDU-Green coalition follow after Germany’s federal election?

18 Jan

Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.

In September, Angela Merkel will step down as German Chancellor after sixteen years in office. Regardless of how one may judge her record, Merkel’s influence over the substance of European governance has been immense; from stamping her mark on EU fiscal rules to her open-doors policy during the migrant crisis to her final ascent for the UK’s post-Brexit deal.

The cast of names that have come and gone during her term in office – Tony Blair, David Cameron, Theresa May, Jacques Chirac, Francois Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, George W.Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump– is without modern compare.

Partly because of constitutional constraints and partly due to post-war caution and conservatism, stability is a feature of German politics.  Since 1982, Germany has had only three Chancellors.  In the same period, the UK has had seven Prime Ministers.  Italy has had twenty-two.

The Große Koalition between the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) has now largely served in office since 2005.  This has effectively resulted in the two main parties adopting a similar, centrist persona, with disagreements tending to focus on tweaks and cadences of policies rather than fundamentals.

This has arguably hurt the SPD most, whose traditional platform, once grounded in patriotic labour unions and cosy accommodations with big businesses, has fractured as Germany has become more ethnically diverse, more start-up friendly and more ecologist in its views.  The party won 41 per cent of the vote in 1998, yet polls around 15 per cent today.

The CDU has its own problems.  Distinct from what “voting Merkel” meant – centrism, no surprises and the social market, with a strong nod to environmentalism – the CDU’s platform has a rather hollow feel.  It is accepted, for sure, that the party stands for the defence of Germany’s social market economy and a punchy approach to German influence at an EU level, yet its pro-immigration stances and seeming intransigence on tax cuts and deregulation have separately irked working class voters and entrepreneurs.

With the CDU and SPD unable to define their appeal effectively, an opportunity exists for other parties to gain ground.

While the hard-left Die Linke and market-liberal Free Democrats (FDP) are polling well enough to have a respectable presence in the next convocation of the Budestag, it would be wise to follow the public remarks of Die Grünen, Germany’s Green Party.

Overseas perceptions of the Greens are somewhat outdated and tend to revolve around images of the “68ers” – a radical student movement founded on ending the military draft, opposition to the Vietnam war and the modernisation of a stodgy political system still inhabited by the wartime generation.

Their march to the mainstream has, though, been a long one.

The decision in 1998 of Joschka Fischer, a veteran 68er and the country’s Foreign Minister during the Green coalition with the SPD, to advocate NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia over the Kosovo crisis upended the party’s pacifism-at-all-costs agenda, and led Germany into an overseas conflict for the first time since World War Two.  A Green Minister-President, Winfried Kretschmann, has governed the manufacturing-dominated state of Baden-Württemberg in coalition with the CDU for more than a decade; implementing a pro-business, R&D-friendly agenda that feels more modern than the SPD’s staider rhetoric.

The issue of immigration is as polarising or more so an issue in Germany as in other European countries, yet polling suggests that recent-naturalised Germans and the descendents of the Gastarbeiter generation which moved to the country from Turkey and Yugoslavia in the 60s and 70s lean strongly towards the Greens.  This offers the party another electoral advantage over the SPD.

There is much to dislike – or even, given the party’s more extreme factions, fear – in the Green Party’s platform, but the fact remains that the party appears to be on the verge of stitching together arguably the most electorally-appealing platform in German politics today.

With the CDU on course to win roughly a third of the vote when September’s elections come, the Greens on upward or around 20 per cent of the vote and all other blocks trailing far behind, the prospect of a CDU-Green, Schwarz-Grüne coalition is a distinct possibility.

The election of Armin Laschet as the new Chairman of the CDU on Saturday morning would, on the face of it, appear to represent a “safe” choice for the party.  Coverage of his victory has focussed on his jolly nature, centrist political brand and stewardship of North Rhine-Westphalia, one of Germany’s most important manufacturing hubs.

A debate will take place in Germany during the coming months as to whether Laschet will be the party candidate for Chancellor (he faces a potential contest including the guttural Bavarian Governor, Markus Söder, and the liberal Health Minister, Jens Spahn), yet this is a battle he is likely to win.  The fact he was able to see off the socially-conservative, immigration-sceptic Friedrich Merz and media-friendly Norbert Röttgen to win the top job suggests the party is looking for stability, not revolution.

There is little debate about whether the CDU and its Bavarian affiliate, the Christian Social Union, will win the plurality of votes in September.  With Laschet as their candidate, a Große Koalition with either the rump remainder of the SPD or resurgent Greens would appear to be both mathematically and politically possible.

CDU/CSU voters have proven to be a loyal block, yet their combined 45 per cent vote share in 2013 is a distant memory.  They now poll 35 per cent.  The price of such a fall in support is that no clear path exists for Laschet to pursue a coalition with the CDU’s traditional partners, the liberal FDP.  His only options are on the left.

Given the recent momentum of the Greens, it is not beyond the realms of possibility they could further erode support from the SPD and Die Linke, leading to an electoral percentage showing in the high twenties.  In this scenario, the pressure from both Green insiders and those on the left, battered by sixteen years of losses, for a leftist GroKo may be insatiable.  The price of such a coalition, particularly for Die Linke, would likely be the shelving of Green moderation in favour of a distinctively leftist agenda.

The implications of such a centre-left coalition would be profound – for both the UK and EU.

Notwithstanding recent Coronavirus-related speeding, a coalition of this kind would see the abandonment of the ‘Schwarze Null’ fiscal policy that mandates a balanced budget domestically and higher taxes on personal incomes and business.

For a post-Brexit UK, seeking to steer a path as a low-tax, regulation-light economy, a malcontent leftist coalition in Germany would likely serve as a Trojan Horse in the European Council for policies designed to disadvantage and undermine UK interests.

For all the criticisms of Laschet’s unambitious centrism and the gap that exists between British conservatism and the CDU’s social market economy orthodoxies, the preferred outcome for the UK is clear.

Robert Largan: Cutting Council Tax would do more to level up than cutting Corporation Tax

18 Jan

Robert Largan is MP for High Peak and a Member of the Levelling Up Taskforce Committee. Onward’s report, Levelling Up the Tax System, is available at this link.

At the last election, in northern constituencies like mine, many people voted Conservative for the first time. They did so for three main reasons: to “get Brexit done”; to stop Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister; and because they wanted to see their area “levelled up”.

We’ve left the EU with a deal and Corbyn has been consigned to the dustbin of history. In 2024, voters will judge this Government on its successes and failures in levelling up.

So far, the debate on levelling up has focused on spending, particularly on infrastructure and understandably so. There is a desperate need to invest in infrastructure in places like the High Peak, whether that be our roads and railways or our schools and hospitals or even our digital infrastructure. But this spending is only part of the levelling up equation. We also need to look seriously at how our tax system works and whether the burden is spread fairly across the whole country.

That is why the Levelling Up Taskforce along with the think tank Onward have published a new report on Levelling up the tax system.

The report takes a new approach, analysing the impact of different taxes on different parts of the country. For example, taxes such as council tax and VAT fall the hardest on the most deprived regions, while average council tax per head in London is lower than anywhere else in England, despite house prices being much higher.

We often hear about how London generates £1 in every £5 of tax receipts. But this ignores the fact that London generates less tax than any other region as a share of their GDP, partly because it benefits from much higher levels of commuters than other places. If we’re serious about levelling up, we need to reassess this situation.

The report considers which tax changes might have the biggest impact on helping people in the most deprived parts of the country as we recover from a global pandemic.

Because there are lots more Band A properties in poorer regions, cutting Band A council tax by a ninth would save 54 per cent of households in the North East an average of £147 a year, 43 per cent of households in Yorkshire an average of 146 per year, and 41 per cent of households in the North West an average of 148 per year. This would put more money in people’s pockets quickly.

While another reduction in corporation tax would benefit London most, an increase to capital allowances for plant and machinery or industrial buildings would be of far greater benefit to the North, Midlands and Wales where there are far more manufacturing businesses. Such a change would lead to large savings for businesses in places like Cheshire, Derbyshire, the West Midlands, Teesside, East Yorkshire, Northern Lincolnshire and Cumbria where capital spending is highest.

I’m not seeking to write the Chancellor’s budget for him but I hope that this report can open up a new dimension in the levelling up debate and help inform how we make tax and spending decisions in future. At the very least, the regional impact of different tax measures should be a standard part of Treasury analysis.

We won’t be able to level up the whole country if the Government has one of its hands tied behind its back. The full fiscal firepower of the Treasury is needed if we are going to give real change for parts of the country that have been neglected by Westminster for far too long.

Paul Mercer: Covid tests, airport checks – and how to avoid British citizens from being stranded abroad

18 Jan

Paul Mercer is the director of an international consultancy firm, and is a Charnwood Borough councillor.

The move to insist that returning travellers take a negative Covid-19 test makes sense, because it reduces the chance of new infections being brought into the UK, and means that passengers are less likely to infect each other.

Tests in Canada revealed that 1.5 per cent of non-symptomatic travellers were positive. Although this number seems low, it suggests that every international flight is importing potentially three or four infected people. Other research has suggested a minimal chance of catching Covid-19 from another passenger on a plane. But even if only 95 per cent of passengers succeed in getting the test, that would reduce the number coming into the UK with it to less than one in 1,300.

Governments rightly recognise that some foreign travel is necessary for international business to continue, but placing impenetrable barriers in their way ultimately means that contracts don’t get signed and the economy suffers.

On January 11, Robert Courts announced that “passengers arriving by ship, plane or train will have to take a test up to three days before departure and provide evidence of a negative result before they travel”. This was defined in a subsequent statutory instrument published on January 16 – the day before the changes were implemented.

The rules largely rely upon threatening to fine airlines who fail to check rather than doing so when one arrives in the UK, although immigration officers can still impose fixed penalty fines, starting at £500 for failure to produce a certificate.

The Government recognises that in some cases obtaining a test within three days may be difficult, but the problem is that airlines, faced with the threat of a £2,000 fine, are unlikely to allow any UK-bound passengers to board without a certificate.

A significant problem is that although many countries are offering ‘48 hour checks’ the reality is that these take longer, because the certificates can only be picked up later on the third day.

Typically, they recommend that you turn up for the check at 8.00am and collect the result two days later at 3.00pm – a 54-hour turnaround. If you assume one hour to get to the airport, it follows that you can only depart between 7.00pm and 9.00am to meet the 72-hour rule. The rules are quite specific that it is the time from when the sample was taken rather than when the certificate was produced that counts.

A third difficulty is that the negative test result must include one’s date of birth and when the sample was taken. I have had two Covid PCR tests outside the UK in the past two months, and neither of them met these requirements, although both included my passport number – which, curiously, has been omitted from these requirements. If airlines follow these rules strictly, then many people will be unable to return to the UK. The new policies stipulate that certificates must be in English, Spanish or French, and this seems likely to exclude even more people.

A final problem is that there is no way for travellers to get clarity about these regulations. Courts stated that British nationals who were having problems meeting this requirement “should contact the nearest consulate, embassy or high commission”.

When I followed his advice last week, I was informed by ‘David F’ at the ‘Consular Contact Centre’ that “the Home Office owns information regarding entry to the UK, including testing requirements, quarantine and exemptions”, and that he could therefore not help. Instead I should “contact the Home Office”.

He added that “for information about Covid-19 testing requirements abroad”, the Foreign Office recommended “an Internet search of the words ‘Covid testing near me’.” This produced helpful links to Chicago, Mumbai, Cheltenham and San Francisco.

The new regulations have also quietly taken away some of the exemptions from quarantining introduced for business travellers, those involved in advertising productions, the arts, television production, the National Lottery and journalists.

If these rules are to be effective with impending legitimate travel, more than reliance upon airlines and the occasional random check by an immigration officer is required. The current online Public Health Passenger Locator Form’ (PLF) works seamlessly, because it is linked to passports which are checked at eGates on returning to the UK. Passengers without the form are not allowed through.

It would make more sense to add a requirement to attach the Covid Test Certificate to the PLF and enter its details at the same time. This would offer several advantages. It would deter the temptation to submit a fraudulent certificate; it would make it considerably easier for airlines to carry out the necessary check; and the UK authorities would have a record that the appropriate certificate had been obtained.

Over the next few days, it will become apparent whether the Government, in reducing the risk of transmission, has stranded many British citizens abroad who have legitimately travelled for business purposes.

Frank Young: Today’s Commons debates, why measuring relative poverty doesn’t work – and what Ministers should do instead

18 Jan

Frank Young is political director at the Centre for Social Justice

Today’s Opposition Day debates in the Commons on Universal Credit and free school meals would commit the Government to spending an additional £9 billion a year on Universal Credit: whatever the welfare plan, its costs are always huge.

The Government should be given credit for stepping in quickly at a time of crisis. It acted fast to provide an uplift for recipients of Universal Credit. Nonetheless, the debates will bring into painful focus the lack of a coherent approach to tackling poverty.

The absence of such a strategy has left ministers haplessly exposed, and gifted their opponents a moral high ground. A government in want of a thought-through approach to poverty is also a government that will find itself constantly accused of being uncaring – and vulnerable to excitable campaigns to expose this supposed malice.

It is always tempting to try and answer the question ‘how many people are poor’ by drawing a line in the sand. Some sophisticated attempts have been made to identify much deeper poverty, isolating groups of people from the ebbs and flows of average wealth. This absolutist approach takes us much closer to what most people would recognise as ‘poverty’.

At any rate, the David Cameron-era 2016 Work and Welfare Act is the closest the Government comes to having an official poverty measure. This Act compels the Government to publish a set of child poverty statistics based on a relative measure of 60 per cent of median incomes, and a more severe absolute measure of poverty based on the same measure from 2011 and adjusted for inflation. That 60 per cent figure is close to a religious creed among poverty campaigners. In consequence, they are able to say that each year roughly one in five of us are living in poverty.

There a plenty of voices from poverty charities and experts encouraging a different approach, arguing for a different poverty measure – or measuring relative poverty in a more detailed way.

Some charities call for the introduction of a minimum income measure, whereby an income of almost £37,000 for a family of four would be needed to avoid being considered poor. Others attempt to find a more sophisticated way of measuring the number of people who fall below a line – and those who persistently fall a long way below it.

Increasingly, poverty campaigners are calling absolute poverty “destitution”, as the word “poverty” itself becomes devalued. The Government itself seems as perplexed as everyone else, having published “experimental” poverty statistics a little more than a year ago, which are still based on a measure of poverty relative to average incomes.

But the reduction of poverty to a single, relative number distracts attention from a serious long-term approach by reducing the misery of poverty to a simple transactional approach to calm Twitter for a day. This is the realpolitik of poverty measurement. And at its worst, this “line-ist” approach leads to ministers focusing their efforts on moving people above an imagined line so they are no longer ‘poor’ – which does nothing to solve persistent problems.

Though low income is a useful proxy measure, it does not tell the full story of an individual’s situation. Often, living on a very low income is a symptom of deeper difficulties. There are five million illiterate adults in the UK, so the long-term answer to poverty for them is help to read and write. This kind of approach tackles the root causes of poverty, not just the symptoms.

It is more than four years since David Cameron came within a matter of days of announcing a Life Chances Strategy based on the lived reality of poverty and a route map out of it. Mandarins might want to go further back to find answers in a framework of social justice measures pioneered in the early days of the Coalition Government. These focused the government on outcomes that reduced family breakdown and dysfunction, improved recovery from addiction, provided help into work, and ensured that our education system helps children growing up in poor households.

There is plenty of support on the backbenches for an ambitious approach – such as the MPs who attend the Social Justice Caucus of Conservative MPs each week. The Social Justice Outcomes Framework was put together to give governments the right targets to tackle poverty. They are still available through a simple Google search, and should be updated and re-instated as the focus of a long-term government poverty strategy. If the Prime Minster is looking for such a plan, he could do worse than dust off some of the old hits and set to work with a grand plan to tackle the root causes of poverty.

Hunger Free Future: the campaign so far

18 Jan

In November 2020, we launched an ambitious campaign to create change – to build a movement of people who will work alongside the Trussell Trust to create a hunger free future.

In the first six months of the pandemic, food banks in the Trussell Trust network gave out a staggering 1.2 million emergency food parcels. That’s one food parcel every 13 seconds, and 2,600 of these went to children every day on average.

Over the past year, we’ve all made incredible changes to the ways we live, work, and look after each other. And in the past few months, we’ve seen amazing compassion and concern for families, children, and people in crisis – with food banks, community groups, and others stepping up to help.

But this kind of help shouldn’t be needed. This isn’t right and as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to unfold, we need change now more than ever. That’s why we’re calling for a hunger free future, and asking people just like you to stand with us and create a different future.

Since Hunger Free Future began, more than 80,000 of you have pledged your voice – thank you! And we’ve raised a fantastic £4 million from our generous supporters, which will help us and our Foodbank Network work towards a future where food banks are no longer needed.

Communities like these in Nottinghamshire have shown us the amazing things we can achieve together. And while food banks work hard to cope with increased need in their areas, they’re also working to create long-term change.

Thanks to supporters like you, we’re making a real difference as we move towards a hunger free future. We know it isn’t right that anyone should need to use a food bank, and we know that tens of thousands of you agree. Looking at what we’ve achieved in just a few months, with so many of you raising your hands to demand fundamental change, both locally and nationally, we know that this year change is possible.

The post Hunger Free Future: the campaign so far appeared first on The Trussell Trust.

Newslinks for Monday 18th January 2021

18 Jan

Coronavirus 1) Full speed ahead with vaccination of over-70s

“More than 5.5 million people who are over 70 or clinically extremely vulnerable will begin receiving letters today for coronavirus jab appointments in a “significant milestone” for the government’s vaccination programme. The number of people who have already been vaccinated, including the over-80s, care home residents and health service and social care staff, is expected to exceed four million today as the NHS carries out 140 inoculations every minute. With more than half the over-80s now protected, the government can begin offering appointments to the next two priority groups as the prime minister tries to hit his target of vaccinating all 14.6 million vulnerable people in England by February 15.” – The Times

  • Mass testing of entire regions considered as ministers signal return to tiers in March – Daily Telegraph
  • Scotland factory to produce Valneva Covid vaccine – The Times
  • Second vaccine doses in doubt amid call for study into single jab – The Times
  • Mutation could undo Covid vaccination progress if lockdown is ended, expert warns – The Times
  • Release the vaccinated, urges German minister – The Times

Coronavirus 2) Virus causes a hospital admission every 30 seconds, says NHS chief

“The NHS is at its most precarious period ever as a coronavirus patient is admitted to hospital every 30 seconds, the head of the health service has said. Sir Simon Stevens, NHS England’s chief executive, said that hospitals and their staff were under extreme pressure and would be for some time, despite the number of cases levelling off in some regions. He said that since Christmas Day, 15,000 Covid-19 patients had been admitted, enough to fill 30 hospitals. He hailed the early success of the vaccination programme, however, saying that 140 people every minute were receiving the jab. Sir Simon said people were being vaccinated four times faster than the virus was spreading.” – The Times

  • All supermarkets face inspections in next fortnight to ensure they are Covid compliant – Daily Telegraph
  • More than 9,000 infected with Covid as a result of students returning home for Christmas – Daily Telegraph
  • Missing loved ones having greater impact on mental health than worrying about coronavirus – Daily Telegraph

Coronavirus 3) China kept quiet about lab workers with Covid, says US

“Workers at a laboratory in Wuhan fell ill with symptoms similar to coronavirus months before China admitted to the outbreak, the US government says. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, released a “fact sheet” questioning whether the pandemic might have originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology rather than from human contact with infected animals. Mr Pompeo, who steps down this week, said that since at least 2016 its scientists had been conducting experiments on a bat coronavirus similar to the one that causes Covid-19. He said that the institute, ostensibly civilian, had done work for the military, including animal tests, since at least 2017.” – The Times

  • Raab takes aim at ‘mercenary’ barrister over Hong Kong case – The Times

> Yesterday:

Johnson lets Tories abstain on Labour’s universal credit vote

“Boris Johnson has tried to stave off a revolt by Conservative MPs by allowing them to abstain on a vote on extending universal credit as he accused Labour of trying to incite hatred and bullying. Labour is expected today to use an opposition day debate to force a symbolic vote on extending the £20-a-week uplift in universal credit, which is due to come to an end in April. Mr Johnson previously whipped MPs to vote against a similar motion on the provision of free school meals during school holidays, which led to them being inundated with complaints from constituents. In a Whatsapp message sent to Tory MPs, Mr Johnson said: “Folks, I know that many of you are thirsting to give battle and vote against all Labour motions. But after the shameful way in which they used their army of Momentum trolls last time to misrepresent the outcome and to lie about its meaning and frankly to intimidate and threaten colleagues — especially female colleagues — I have decided not to give them that opportunity.”” – The Times

… as he consults businesses on plan to become Europe’s Singapore

“Boris Johnson will hold talks with business leaders today about cutting red tape as ministers draw up plans to turn Britain into the “Singapore of Europe” now that it has left the European Union. The prime minister will speak to 30 senior leaders about topics such as “regulatory freedoms” and reforming EU rules. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has been charged by Mr Johnson with leading a cross-Whitehall committee which will require departments to closely examine which regulations can be reformed. The plans attracted controversy this month when it emerged that workers’ protections enshrined in EU law, including the 48-hour working week, were among regulations being considered for reform. According to the Financial Times options under consideration include changing the rules about rest breaks at work and including overtime pay when calculating holiday pay entitlements.” – The Times

Sunak is warned not to hit Tory shires with a new property levy as critics blast plan for raid on homes as ‘wealth tax in all but name’

“Rishi Sunak was urged yesterday to resist calls to introduce a property tax amid fears it would be a wealth tax in all but name. Treasury officials have modelled a plan to scrap council tax and stamp duty and replace them with a property tax based on a percentage of a home’s value. The scheme would be revenue-neutral, meaning it would not bring in any more money for the Treasury. One economist said there was a danger that it could become a ‘creeping wealth tax’, while another said it could be devastating for cash-poor pensioners who live in valuable homes. Professor Philip Booth, from the University of Buckingham, said: ‘Property taxes in the UK are high by international standards. They are also appallingly designed. It is important that property taxes overall do not rise.'” – Daily Mail

Ruth Sunderland: Divisive, vindictive… let’s give this idea for tax grabs on property short shrift

“The pandemic has left a chasm in the national finances, and it rests on the slender shoulders of Rishi Sunak to ensure our Covid debts are not insupportable. But he should resist siren calls to attempt this through tax grabs on property and other wealth. If the Chancellor is as astute as I believe him to be, he will treat the notion of a property tax that has been aired this weekend with the contempt it deserves. The idea is to scrap council tax and stamp duty and instead impose a charge based on current property value. But any such levy on family homes would be deeply unfair and would alienate the Tories from some of their most loyal supporters. It would be divisive, vindictive and ultimately, ineffective. No 11 rejected proposals last week for an emergency wealth tax of 5 per cent on assets, including homes, of more than £500,000 per person.” – Daily Mail

> Today:

Policing 1) Patel defends bolstering of stop-and-search powers

“Priti Patel has doubled down on the use of stop and search to combat Britain’s knife crime crisis and denied that the tactic is racist. The home secretary defended planned legislation giving courts the power to issue orders under which police can search anyone with a previous conviction for using or carrying a knife without grounds to suspect a new offence. Ms Patel said that a minority of people would see the move as controversial “or claim that this is racism” but said that the serious violence reduction orders (SVROs) would help to reduce knife violence. Knife crime in England and Wales is at its highest rate in a decade despite massive increases in the use of stop-and-search tactics nationally.” – The Times

Policing 2) Home Office warned of ‘creaking’ police database

“The Home Office was warned 18 months ago that a lack of investment in “creaking” police databases put the public at “significant risk”, The Times has learnt. Critical infrastructure, including the police national database (PND), are being managed on “end of life, unsupported hardware and software”, documents reveal. Senior police said that the government had refused to invest in the PND or the police national computer (PNC), which holds data on arrests and convictions, because they are to be replaced by a system that is significantly delayed and over budget. The disclosure came after The Times revealed that a blunder may have wiped more than 400,000 fingerprint, DNA, arrest and offence records from the PNC. The records were accidentally deleted in a weekly “weeding” session from the database, owned and operated by the Home Office.” – The Times

Policing 3) Jenrick proposes new law to make it harder for left-wing councils to topple statues

“Minister Robert Jenrick has slammed a school’s decision to remove William Gladstone from its name because of the Victorian politician’s links to slavery. The William Gladstone Church Of England Academy, in Jenrick’s Constituency of Newark, Nottinghamshire, is now known as The King’s Church of England Primary Academy. Gladstone was MP for Newark in the 1830s before becoming prime minister and the school had been named in his honour. But in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, the school’s decided to axe the name after recognising that Gladstone’s family were prominent slave owners, even though he himself did not own slaves. Housing Secretary Jenrick has now accused the school of ‘cancelling our culture’ and said it should focus on raising standards rather than rebranding after it was classed as requiring improvement by Ofsted.” – Daily Mail

> Yesterday:

Army faces loss of 10,000 soldiers in shift towards drones

“The size of the army could be reduced by 10,000 under plans being considered as part of a strategic review. Government ministers have repeatedly pledged to keep a permanent force of 82,000 soldiers but are considering reducing it to 72,000. Plans included in drafts of the integrated review, which is due to be published next month but is likely to be delayed, suggest that the size of the army should be cut. It forms part of an increased focus on unmanned drones and vehicles along with enhanced technological capabilities. The integrated review is a blueprint for Britain’s global role over the coming decade and how armed forces should adapt to meet changes. Infantry commanders are said to face an anxious wait for its publication amid concerns that their regiments could be reduced in size or redeployed after a change in priorities.” – The Times

Summer holidays? Too soon to book, Raab warns Britain

“Dominic Raab has warned that it is too early for people to book summer holidays abroad, as the government considers plans to quarantine new arrivals in hotels and track them using GPS technology to ensure that they remain in isolation. The foreign secretary said it was “very difficult to plan” for trips abroad as the government closed all remaining quarantine-free “travel corridors” in the early hours of today in an attempt to stop the spread of variant strains of coronavirus. All those arriving in the UK will be required to have had a coronavirus test within the previous 72 hours and to go into quarantine for ten days, or five days under the government’s test-and- release programme.” – The Times

Biden preparing blizzard of executive orders for first days in office

“Joe Biden aims to hit the ground running with a blizzard of executive orders on his first day in office. Mr Biden plans to rejoin the Paris climate accord, end Donald Trump’s travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries and order masks to be worn in federal buildings. The orders will represent the opening salvo of a flurry of activity over the first 10 days of the Biden administration, aimed at rolling back many of the policies introduced by Donald Trump. Mr Biden intends to introduce legislation for a $1.9 trillion relief package and immigration reform. His ambitious programme was outlined in a memorandum circulated on Saturday by Ron Klain, the incoming White House chief of staff.” – Daily Telegraph

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News in brief:

The China genocide amendment. Our politicians should decide our trade policy – not our judges.

18 Jan

There is no trade deal negotiation between the UK and China.  And the way the world is changing, there isn’t going to be one.

That being so, why has an amendment been tabled to the Trade Bill, which will be considered in the Commons tomorrow, that would empower our courts to consider claims of genocide and revoke trade deals with countries found guilty of it?  The amendment is aimed fairly and squarely at China over its treatment of the Uighurs.

The answer is that campaigners against genocide, or the Chinese Communist regime (or both) are frustrated twice over.

First, there is no way that a case against China would be heard by an international court.  It can block hearings both by the International Court of Justice, since these need the consent of the parties concerned, and to the International Criminal Court, as a member of the UN Security Council.  And it would smother any special tribunal plan at birth.

The second is that, when campaigners seek to evade that obstacle by finding ways of taking cases to domestic courts, the Government replies that these shouldn’t rule on them…adding that they must therefore be considered by international courts, such as the International Criminal Court of the International Court of Justice.

This circular logic infuriates campaigners, and their anger, as expressed by David Alton recently during the Lords’ consideration of the Bill, is understandable.  However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Government’s position is wrong.  What are its main arguments?  Essentially, there are three.

First, that our own courts are unwilling to hear genocide cases, being nervous of rushing in where international ones are wary of treading.  (Only some of the Rwandan and Bosnian killings during the 1990s have been so designated.)  But it may well be that our judges have a duty to consider such cases whether they want to or not.

Second, that UK courts are not in a position to act as international ones would: in other words, gather and consider evidence. Perhaps – though there is video evidence; there are witness statements.  Furthermore, if the co-operation of China’s regime with genocide claims against it is considered indispensable, there will never be any trials at all.

Third, that it is for the Executive and the Legislature, not the Judiciary, to determine the conditions for trade deals: that these are a matter for politics – not the courts. This is a more powerful point.  Furthermore, as Ministers point out, if judges were to be empowered to rule on such deals, why set a bar for investigation as high as genocide?

Why not also allow our courts to rule on claims involving war crimes, torture, slavery, imprisonment without trial – and other offences that, while heinous, nonetheless fall short of attempts to elimate a national, ethnic, racial or religious group?  And what of positive as well as negative rights?

What about countries that allow the segregation of students based on disability, or discrimination against gay people at work, or suppress information about abortion?  Ministers worry that this amendment suggests a further extension of judical power, as dramatically highlighted last year by the Supreme Court’s ruling on prorogation.

When the Trade Bill was considered in the Lords, anti-genocide campaigners made it clear that they aren’t opposed to our courts ruling, if necessary, on those other major human rights abuses: as good and humane people, why would they be?  And amendments had indeed been tabled which sought to allow our judges to hear such cases.

Mull the implications for a moment.  No country in the world is incapable of being dragged before the bar of a human rights claim – including, by the way, the UK itself: for example, Human Rights Watch says that “the government refused in 2019 to order a fresh public inquiry into alleged UK complicity in rendition and torture”.

If you think that example is what a lawyer would call argumentative, return to the matter at hand: trade deals.  Liz Truss has rolled over more than 60 of these (it is hard to keep up).  More or less off the top of our heads, we zoom in on three of the trading partners involved: Egypt, Peru and Vietnam.

“Security officers routinely commit serious human rights violations, including torture, disappearances and extra-judicial executions, in near-absolute impunity,” Human Rights Watch says of Egypt.  “Under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government…it has been experiencing its worst human rights crisis in many decades”.

Of Peru, it writes that “threats to freedom of expression, violence against women, and abuses by security forces are …major concerns”.  “Vietnam’s human rights record remains dire in all areas,” it says. “The Communist Party maintains a monopoly on political power and allows no challenge to its leadership.”

It isn’t hard to see grounds on which a British court might wish to strike down all three of these deals, were it empowered to do so.  Would the UK be a hero or a mug to put itself in such a position?  A hero, blazing a trail for justice worldwide?  Or a mug, handing over jobs to less sentimental competitors at the bang of a judge’s gavel?

The more one thinks about it, the more one sees that anti-genocide campaigners, in search of a vehicle to take them to their destination, have boarded the only one available, suitable or not – the Trade Bill.  But empowering our courts to make a determination of genocide is one thing; giving them the right to rule on trade deals in so doing is another.

For once that say is granted in principle, why deny it in practice? If China really is inflicting genocide on the Uighars – and so it seems to be – why not let our courts rule on whether UK firms should be trading with it at all?  Do our present exports to China really come with cleaner hands than the future ones that would follow a putative trade deal?

MPs’ assessments of how to vote on China, genocide and the courts will be influenced as much by Parliamentary tactics as by political principle.  Would opposing the amendment send a signal of weakness to China?  Maybe.  But what will happen next if enough MPs make that calculation, back the amendment, and it passes?

A Government concession could be on the cards.  In the Lords debates on the Bill, Ministers argued that they agree with action on trade deals over human rights, and that they are already acting anyway – “we seek to ensure that human rights are recognised and protected in all our free trade agreements,” as Lord Grimstone, the Minister, put it.

With the China Research Group on the case – plus the Board of Deputies of British Jews, ever-active when genocide claims are concerned – the scene may be set for Ministers tightening up their human rights’ tests for trade deals.

If so, they will try to balance justice concerns, British business interests and Parliamentary accountability in such a way as to persuade Tory supporters of the amendment to abstain, and those MPs who are preparing to abstain to go through the Government lobby instead.

Looking wider than the context of a trade deal that won’t happen anyway, Dominic Raab says that China’s treatment of the Uighars amounts to torture, and that companies profiting from it should be barred from business in the UK.

Ministers also have the option of discouraging investment in China, cracking down on its subversion, influence-peddling and espionage here – and even imposing sanctions, if that’s a route voters and MPs are willing to pursue. Unlikely?  Perhaps.  But less problematic than extending judicial power to trade policy.

Richard Holden: Biden’s inauguration this week boosts Britain’s new opportunity to pivot to the world

18 Jan

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Office of Richard Holden, Medomsley Rd, Consett.

Some readers will have seen and many more heard of the hit American musical, Hamilton. I saw it and loved so much that I went back again a few months later to see it a second time.

One of the songs that stuck with me, even though it isn’t one of the top tunes from the show, is called “One Last Time”. It’s about George Washington’s decision to step aside rather than continue to fight for further terms as President. Washington tells Hamilton that he’s doing so to teach the fledgeling republic “how to say goodbye.”

Sadly, the turmoil in the United States that has gripped the world in the last few weeks stands in stark contrast to Washington’s idealism. The vanity of a soon-to-be former President and the violent protests he caused are appalling.

And most shamefully, what could have been a moment of unity for the United States and a marker to the world about democracy and the peaceful transition of power has distracted from a real totalitarian government elsewhere: the moves by the Chinese Communist Party to end the democratic rights of the people of Hong Kong, plus its continued oppression of the Uighur people.

Amidst this melee, a new US President will be inaugurated. He has already signalled his intent to re-establish the role of the United States on the world stage. The United Kingdom is busily involved with this change, too, following Brexit and is rightly pursuing it – especially in relation to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP for short).

The global ‘pivot to the Indo-Pacific’ has been going on for some time, and CPTPP provides two things. Most importantly, reduced tariff barriers to a new free trade zone with the established (Australia, Canada, Japan etc) and emerging and growing (Vietnam, Mexico, Chile, etc) economies of the Pacific rim. Second, with 13 per cent of global GDP (16 per cent if the UK joins) working together, this provides a strong counter-weight that, if the UK joins, will be as large as China economically.

To take advantage of this emerging space of global power, the UK needs to demonstrate that we’re up for being a long-term partner to the region via the CPTPP. Importantly, such a move would ensure that we can retain our place, with our new-found status as a newly independent trading nation, as the pre-eminent global hub for business – especially legal and financial services and high specification manufacturing exports.

Critically, as the global coronavirus pandemic has shown too, we’ve got to both look at better domestic supply chains, but also at more diverse international supply chains. That means looking further than just China to broader partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. That’s especially critical as we push to be global champions of free trade and fighting protectionism – while also tied to a rules-based international system of countries that respect the rule of law,

Following Brexit, Liz Truss and her team at the Department of International Trade have been busily signing trade deals around the world – the ones that some people said we couldn’t do or would be wouldn’t be as good for Britain, but have proved quite the opposite. The UK already has or is in the late stages of, bilateral trade agreements with nine out of the 11 existing CPTPP member countries.

With UK investments in CPTPP countries at £98 billion, these countries accounting for £111 billion worth of UK trade in 2019  and trade growing at eight per cent a year, joining now opens the way to putting nitrous oxide into our tank for increase trade with the Indo-Pacific region.

With the CPTPP removing tariffs on 95 per cent of goods traded between members and cutting other barriers to trade, there would be boosts to such sectors such as the automotive one, which exported £3 billion in cars to the CPTPP countries last year. This is massively important to help level up our regions with good, private sector jobs, which are the basis for funding our public services.

With the United Kingdom having just taken up the presidency of the G7, a new US president in place imminently, and increasing revulsion around the world at the way China is treating both the Uighur people and the people of Hong Kong, there is a new opportunity. For a new internationalism with the twin aims of rules based international security and rules based international trade in which Global Britain can play a crucial role. Accessing the CPTPP and building those bridges worldwide is a natural next step that Britain should now take with confidence.

Brandon Lewis: I am not neutral on Northern Ireland. I am unapologetically pro-Union.

18 Jan

Brandon Lewis is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and is MP for Great Yarmouth.

It is understandable that, during the last few months, moments of profound national significance have not had the same attention as they may have done previously. But our way out of the pandemic is in sight. The UK is leading the way in the roll-out of Coronavirus vaccines as we undertake the largest vaccination programme in our history – an achievement of which we should all be proud.

For many, it will have gone unnoticed that this year marks 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland, paving the way for the formation of the United Kingdom as we know it today. And with elections in Scotland and Wales in May, it is right that we are focused on fighting those.

In concentrating our efforts on them, though, I am determined that we do not lose sight of the fact that this year is also a hugely important one for Northern Ireland and for the United Kingdom as a whole.

For more than a century, the Union has been at the heart of our Conservative politics – but rarely has it had such prominence. The Government has been accused of paying lip service to the cause, but that could not be further from the truth.

As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I have a particular obligation to remain impartial when balancing cross-community interests, but that does not mean I am neutral. As a former Chairman of our Party, the Conservative and Unionist Party, I am unapologetically pro-Union.

At times, Unionists in Northern Ireland could rightly feel demoralised at the idea that people in Great Britain do not reciprocate their feeling of attachment to the mainland. This often results in a self-fulfilling prophecy, which manifests in the continuation of narratives about a distrust of those in Westminster. We must be fearless in challenging those narratives both in our words and in our actions.

This instinctive pessimism is not helped by the overwhelming emphasis that is placed on the contribution – financial, social and cultural – that Great Britain makes to Northern Ireland when little attention is paid to the huge advantages Northern Ireland brings to the rest of the United Kingdom.

That is why we will be using this national anniversary as an opportunity to promote Northern Ireland and recognise its contribution to the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland has distinct strengths in its digital economy – artificial intelligence, fintech, cyber security, advanced engineering and manufacturing. A great example of this is seen in the fact that Queen’s University in Belfast recently overtook Cambridge as the university ranked most highly for ‘entrepreneurial impact’ in the UK.

I am acutely aware that Northern Ireland is often overlooked as ‘too complex’, its history ‘too problematic’, and its politics ‘too divisive’. There is a tendency to shy away from engaging in meaningful discussion about its past, present or future, for fear of putting a foot wrong. This is counterproductive to our cause. We must allow room for all of Northern Ireland’s communities to celebrate their identities, while respecting alternative points of view. We should challenge those who present simplistic, or inaccurate, historical narratives, without indulging in any of our own.

The Conservative Party has a long- radition of being pro-Union. That does not deny or invalidate the relationship that Northern Ireland and its people also share with Ireland. These two relationships are not mutually exclusive, and the UK Government’s commitment to promoting the positives of the Union for Northern Ireland does not negate the benefits of improved North-South collaboration. A positive and inclusive vision for Northern Ireland must be welcoming of those who identify as Irish within the United Kingdom.

We will all pursue the path that we feel will give Northern Ireland the best chance to look forward as one, rather than continually looking backwards at a divisive history. It is absolutely possible, and indeed necessary, to afford respect to all the traditions of Northern Ireland without the need to always set them in direct opposition to one another. It is not a betrayal of our Unionism to acknowledge that those who believe in a ‘united Ireland’ are also free to present their case peacefully.

A brighter future for Northern Ireland will rely on promoting it as an attractive place to do business, maximising the chances for greater inward investment and jobs growth. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom; and it is now uniquely placed to benefit from dual-access to the EU and whole of the UK market. This results in a globally exclusive opportunity.

This year, I particularly want to focus on the social inequalities that persist, such as the continued lack of widespread integrated education across communities. There is now an entire generation of people within Northern Ireland – the ‘Good Friday generation’ – who have only known peace. If we are to continue to build on the hard won gains of the peace process then we need to support the next generation to move beyond traditional divides and the tenets of a post-conflict society.

This Government has a clear role to play as an enduring force for good in Northern Ireland – fostering healthy debate based on the principles of honesty, transparency and mutual respect. My priority will remain the articulation of a strong, optimistic and pro-active case for the UK and Northern Ireland’s place within it.