Alistair Lexden: On this day – a century ago. How the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty unfolded.

6 Dec

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.

“Lock it up carefully”, Lloyd George said to his mistress and secretary, Frances Stevenson, in her room at No 10, as he handed her the British copy of the historic Anglo-Irish Treaty just before 3am on December 6 1921.

Under its terms the Union of Great Britain and Ireland, as created by Pitt the Younger 120 years earlier, came to an end. Only the six counties of the newly formed Northern Ireland were to be permitted to remain within the United Kingdom. Their devolved Parliament, which had been opened by King George V the previous June, was given the power to vote them out of the all-Ireland settlement, based on dominion status, which the Treaty embodied.

The document that was locked away in Downing Street bore the signatures of four members of the British delegation who had negotiated it. They formed a column headed by Lloyd George himself; the others, drawn from his Liberal/ Unionist coalition cabinet, were Austen Chamberlain (son of the great Joe and leader of the Unionist Party, the name then generally preferred by Conservatives), F.E.Smith, Lord Birkenhead (the Unionist Lord Chancellor), and Winston Churchill (who at this point in his career was a Liberal).

Another column listed the signatures of three of their Irish counterparts, headed by Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein in 1905, and followed by the charismatic Michael Collins, the chief organiser of the IRA’s terrorist campaign against Britain, waged from 1919 until July 1921 when a truce was agreed between the two sides. The third Irish signatory, Robert Barton, a Unionist landowner turned Republican and an intimate friend of Collins, was the Sinn Fein delegation’s economic adviser. (Other members of the two delegations, absent from the final discussions, signed later, except for one member of the Irish team whose signature was cut off a menu card and stuck on to the document.)

Never before had British and Irish representatives put their names to a formal agreement of this kind as complete equals. After the signing, which took place at 2.10am, the two sides shook hands for the first time. Trust had replaced the deep suspicion with which they had first regarded each other. Irish leaders, who a few months earlier had been denounced as rebels and murderers, had come to enjoy the respect of the British delegation. Michael Collins had undergone an astonishing transformation from terrorist leader to statesman, gaining the admiration of two prominent members of the British team, Churchill and Birkenhead.

Final agreement on the terms of the Treaty had been reached in two intense negotiating sessions in the Cabinet Room at No 10, which ended two months of wrangling. The first session, which lasted over five hours, began at 3pm on December 5. Lloyd George employed all his formidable political skills to secure a breakthrough in all but one of the key areas that had hitherto defied resolution.

The Irish gained the full fiscal and financial autonomy they craved. The British got what they wanted on defence: the use “in time of war or of strained relations with a foreign power[ of ]such harbour and other facilities as the British Government may require”, combined with the permanent retention of what came to be known as the Treaty Ports (Berehaven, Queenstown and Lough Swilly), major strategic assets which Neville Chamberlain (Austen’s half-brother) was to abandon in a further Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1938 to Churchill’s fury. (Belfast Lough was also included among the Ports, reflecting Republican hopes of winning over Northern Ireland.)

Since the start of negotiations in October, the words of an oath of allegiance which Irish elected representatives would in future be required to swear had been through endless drafts. It was at last settled with a suitably convoluted rigmarole to spare the Irish Republican conscience as much strain as possible: “I will be faithful to His Majesty King George V, his Heirs and Successors by law, in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland and Great Britain, and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of Nations.” This was the first time on which the customary reference to Empire was dropped from an official document.

There remained just one make-or-break issue: Northern Ireland, with its devolved powers over local matters entrusted to it by Westminster earlier in 1921. Sinn Fein were determined to get it into their independent state. Lloyd George was happy to give them all the help he could. In November, he had piled pressure on Sir James Craig, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister. In letters and conversations he tried, with all his accustomed craftiness, to get Craig to accept that he had a patriotic duty to remove the last barrier to peace in Ireland by joining a sovereign all-Ireland Parliament in place of Westminster, while retaining all the devolved powers that Westminster had provided.

The Unionist members of the British delegation did not demur. Not for the last time, Ulster Unionists found that they could not rely on their English Unionist allies in high places (the Party at large was much more vigorous in their defence). Austen Chamberlain said that separate arrangements for six of the nine Ulster counties were “illogical and indefensible.” He thought “ the greatest moral pressure” should be put on Northern Ireland to bring it into a settlement that was “ vital to the Empire”. His Party Chairman, Sir George Younger (later Viscount Younger of Leckie), believed “ Ulster should take some risks and forget some of the past arguments against unity in Ireland.”

These Unionist calls for compromise (surrender would be more accurate) were made against the background of a sustained press campaign, led by The Times, criticising Ulster Unionists for their intransigence. “Ulster blocks the way to peace” was the newspapers’ regular refrain.  Craig described it as “ a press campaign against Ulster without parallel in the history of Great Britain.”

But the Northern Ireland premier was unmoved. He told Lloyd George that a single parliament for Ireland was “ precisely what Ulster has for many years resisted by all the means at her disposal.”

Lloyd George tried another tack in November, concentrating his cunning this time on the leader of the Irish delegation, Arthur Griffith. Here he had much greater success than in his attempts to manoeuvre Craig into an all-Ireland parliament. At a private meeting with Griffith on 13 November, he got the leader of the Irish delegation  to give a personal written pledge that, if Northern Ireland refused to accept an all- Ireland settlement, it would remain under the British Parliament, “ but in this case, it would be necessary to revise the boundary of Northern Ireland. This might be done by a Boundary Commission…to make the boundary conform as closely as possible to the wishes of the people.”

What went unrecorded in the paper was the clear impression given by Lloyd George that Northern Ireland would lose so much territory that it could not survive as a separate entity and a united independent Ireland would as a result come into existence.

During the course of the long afternoon session in Downing Street on December 5, Lloyd George reminded Griffith of what they had agreed. Proof was needed. A frantic search was made of the Prime Minister’s wardrobe, and “eventually an insignificant pocket cast up an envelope and a piece of paper.” On the strength of this written undertaking to establish a Boundary Commission which (as Griffith understood its purpose) would undermine Northern Ireland, the leader of the Irish delegation agreed to sign the Treaty himself, but said that he could not commit his colleagues.

At this, Lloyd George assumed a magnificently melodramatic air. He had told Craig in Belfast to expect news of the outcome of the discussions in Downing Street the following day. That could of course have been done by telephone, but Lloyd George now conjured up an elaborate plan to send the news in writing  to Belfast in an attempt to force a decision out of the other two Irish  delegates.

“Here are the alternative letters which I have prepared, one enclosing Articles of Agreement reached by His Majesty’s Government and yourselves, and the other saying that the Sinn Fein representatives refuse to come within the Empire. If I send this letter it is war, and war within three days. Which letter am I to send? Whichever letter you choose travels by special train to Holyhead, and by destroyer to Belfast. The train is waiting with steam up at Euston…to reach Sir James in time we must know your answer by ten p.m tonight. You can have until then, but no longer, to decide whether you will give peace or war to your country.”

With these impassioned words ringing in their ears, the Irish delegates returned to their Knightsbridge hotel for anguished discussions amongst themselves, but promised to be back in Downing Street by the 10pm deadline. In fact, it was nearly 11.30pm when they returned.

Nothing more was heard about the special train waiting at Euston. Griffith announced calmly, “ Prime Minister, the Delegation is willing to sign the agreements, but there are a few points of drafting which perhaps it would be convenient if I mentioned at once.” The most important concerned the Boundary Commission; redrafting increased (in Irish eyes) the likelihood that Northern Ireland would collapse. At 1am on December 6, an agreed text was handed to the Downing Street typists.

In England, reaction to the Treaty was ecstatic. The Times led the way: “ These are fitting peace terms to mark the close of an age of discontent and distrust, and the beginning of a new era of happiness and mutual understanding.” In Ireland, discontent intensified and took a new form: the long quarrel with Britain was replaced by distrust and division within Sinn Fein, which led to a bitter civil war the following year. In Northern Ireland, IRA terrorism increased, generating sectarian strife; in 1922 parts of Belfast came to resemble the battlefields of the First World War. The Boundary Commission recommended only minor changes, and its report was shelved.

Englishmen looked away. “ The country”, said Austen Chamberlain, “wants peace and is tired of Ireland and Ulster.” English politicians hoped they would never have to think seriously about Irish affairs again. For nearly 50 years they had their wish—which meant that that they were fatally handicapped by ignorance when the Ulster crisis of 1969 erupted.

Howard Flight: What we can learn from Dyson

6 Dec

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Scandals about Ministers benefitting from public expenditure are damaging and have clearly damaged the Government’s popularity. But what really matters over the longer term is the success of economic policies.

Here, while there was a case for increasing public expenditure while Covid-19 was closing down too much of the economy. Government spending as prescribed in the Budget looks to be far too high and risks serious permanent damage to this administration’s standing.

I am one of the traditional Conservative voters wanting to see Government expenditure reduced significantly as soon as is possible. I cannot understand a Tory Government indulging in such huge deficits. As inflation rises, the cost of financing the public deficit rises more substantially. There is the danger of the Government being forced to cut back expenditure materially and, with this, losing its credibility.

My wife recently gave a party for old friends to celebrate getting back to normal. Most had been vaccinated three times, and the majority had had Covid-19. It is clear that we have to live with the virus and as vaccinations increase, the incidents of Covid-19 (and, in particular, fatalities), should reduce to relatively modest numbers.

This is one area in which the Government has faired well, and our economy is thus better positioned than are most European economies. The main area of Government weakness is excessive spending – and the inflation risk that comes with it.

– – –

The parliamentary magazine, The House, has conducted an interesting interview with Sir James Dyson. He has been greatly concerned about the future of British manufacturing and innovation for many years. His main worry is that we do not produce enough engineers.

In Britain. we produce 20,000 a year, China produces 600,000 and India 350,000 pa. Even the Philippines produce more engineers. In the global completive world in which technology is everything, we risk getting left behind.

We have excellent design and engineering universities in the UK, but the majority of students and researchers in them are from outside the UK. Dyson thinks the problem is our lack of interest in manufacturing which has existed since Victorian times.

The major problem is that the status of an engineer in the UK is low by comparison with Germany and France. Manufacturing is still seen as something done by the less successful. Factories are seen as places providing employment – not producing great products which we can sell all over the world. As a nation ,we admire the wrong things.

In 2017, Dyson established the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology – a private Higher Education institution. It is based in Malmsbury. Students are paid a salary for working three days a week: they study for the other two days, and have their tuition fees covered for the four-year course.

If they want a job, there is one guaranteed at the end of the course. Recent winners of the Dyson Award covering 29 countries have included a Spanish student who created a box which can detect cancer, and sends the results to a cloud and then informs the user what cancer they have and what to do next; and a Pilipino student who discovered a way to generate electricity by mashing up certain fruits and vegetables, spreading a thin film across a pane of glass and shining a light on it.

Not surprisingly, Dyson is a champion for entrepreneurs. He favours lower tax for investors and innovators. In 2010, he wrote a report for David Cameron on how to make the UK the leading tech exporter in Europe, including additional tax relief on research and development investment. Government should not try to pick winners, but make it attractive for entrepreneurs and engineers to come up with new ideas themselves.

Dyson now employs more than 12,000 people in 89 countries. In 2002, he shifted most of his manufacturing from the UK to Malaysia – largely because it was hard to find UK suppliers who could deliver components on scale.

In 2019 he was criticised for moving his headquarters to Singapore, although his UK based employees have since doubled.

As a country we need to learn from Dyson’s experience. Government needs to apply itself to reducing unnecessary red tape; if anything it is still increasing it.

We need to boost our manufacturing sector and to reduce planning constraints, both in relation to factory accommodation and housing. Our SME sector continues to be very successful – substantially the result of the Enterprise Investment Scheme and Venture Capital Trust tax incentives on investing and smaller businesses.

Government needs to sort out our finances. Faster economic growth is needed, but the money supply needs to be controlled. We need to be doing more business in Asia, where the Foreign Office can assist by identifying opportunities on the ground. There are also plenty of business opportunities for the UK in the EU, particularly in Poland and other Eastern EU countries.

We need to have a Government focusing on improving our economy – and to put behind us both Covid-19 and politically damaging scandals. Going forward the priority must be what is good for the economy.

Matt Leach: Dormant assets offer an innovative way for the Government to level up Britain

6 Dec

Matt Leach is CEO of Local Trust.

With the Levelling Up White Paper due to be published later this month, one of the key questions will be the balance it strikes between the “four pillars of levelling up” set out by Michael Gove: local leadership, living standards, public services and “pride of place”.

Whilst Rishi Sunak’s spending review established the framework within which the white paper will deliver on the economy and key public services, the impact of the white paper in addressing the first and the fourth of those pillars – local leadership and pride of place – remain less defined. But they will be vitally important to the success of “levelling up”.

One thing is clear – the maintenance of strong local leadership and fostering of civic pride and attachment to place are critically dependent on the strength of local social institutions; what Onward described as the social fabric of the nation.

It is those shared places to meet – whether pubs, community centres, cafes, places of worship or local parks – and the organisations and activities that bring us together within them that enable us to connect to one another, gain a sense of collective identity, interest and belonging.

Where necessary they provide the means by which communities can come together to make their voices heard or take collective action in their own interests (such as the upswelling of community mutual aid that took place across the country during the first months of the pandemic).

The building and sustaining of that fabric – the social infrastructure of the nation and the nurturing of the Burkean “little platoons” that help maintain it – was at the heart of Trusting the People, a pamphlet advocating a new community-powered Conservativism, authored by a group of 2019-intake MPs that was launched by Gove at a packed ConservativeHome fringe event at party conference in October.

We know that in some communities the social fabric has started to fray, and at some cost to the people who live there. Deprived neighbourhoods with lower levels of social infrastructure, appear to suffer significantly worse socioeconomic outcomes than other parts of the country, even allowing for relative deprivation. OCSI and Local Trust research in 2019 found many of those communities were concentrated on the periphery of post-industrial areas in northern England and the Midlands, and in declining coastal areas in southern England.

Often these are places that have suffered economic blight over decades because of the closure or failure of previously buoyant traditional industries, but alongside that have also suffered from the loss of the associated social institutions that supported local civic life – the shared workplaces, trade unions, pubs and working men’s clubs and assembly rooms that often defined community identity and fostered local pride and identity. If levelling-up is to succeed for those places, it needs not only to bring economic change, but also to support the rebuilding of the social fabric of those communities.

Later today, the Dormant Assets Bill will enter the House of Commons for its second reading. This legislation sets out the basis on which the next wave of dormant assets – abandoned share certificates, orphaned insurance policies and other financial instruments – will be distributed over the coming decade.

As it passed through the House of Lords, Conservative Peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots co-sponsored a successful amendment to allow for the next wave of dormant assets to be committed to a long-term project to take on that challenge. His amendment set out that such a fund would be for buildings or other assets owned or managed by organisations located in communities for the purposes of local residents’ meeting, socialising, accessing educational resources, or conducting other activities to improve their wellbeing”.

Hodgson described himself in the debate as “a builder of a brighter Britain with small bricks” – a perfect description of what we see as the vital importance of social infrastructure and investment in communities. As he argued, the “deployment of patient, long-term capital to enable the provision of the practical experience and help need to provide remedies for these deep-seated structural challenges” is precisely what is needed to sit alongside the physical and economic infrastructure investment the Government is already committed to.

This is consistent with research from the University of Cambridge, which found that the key ingredients to successful government investment in regenerating such communities included long-term funding of at least 10 years, community involvement embedded at every stage of design and delivery, and support and guidance throughout to ensure the best outcomes for residents. These key elements are also supported in another recent report by Onward on what works in neighbourhood regeneration.

The opportunity offered up by dormant assets is that it is new money available for the long term.  Sitting outside of the public finances but potentially worth hundreds of millions over the next decade, it bypasses any potential tensions between the Government’s ambitions on levelling up and the Treasury’s concern about limiting new spending and further taxation.

These assets are currently unused and unclaimed. They are not counted on any balance sheet; they are not a new tax and they would not constitute new spending.  Over 460 funders, charities, community groups and local and combined authorities have signed up to what has become the Community Wealth Fund campaign – seeking to make the case to government for this next wave of dormant funds to go to rebuilding the social infrastructure of left behind communities.

To date, ministers have held back from making any such commitment, insisting on the need for an open-ended consultation next year on where new dormant assets funding might be directed. But next week they have the opportunity to reconsider and commit those funds towards the long-term levelling up of our most left behind communities.

There is a strong case for them to do so – this proposal marries the vision of Edmund Burke to the ambition of the levelling up agenda. It offers long term support to build and rebuild the institutions conservatives have always championed, whilst targeting those areas most in need of civic renewal. As the government looks to find imaginative ways to vigorously pursue its levelling up agenda in the post-pandemic economy, this is an opportunity just waiting to be grasped.

Peter Franklin: I’m pro-mask, pro-vax and pro-lockdown (if necessary). But against compulsory vaccination. Here’s why.

6 Dec

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

I’m a Covid hardliner: pro-vax, pro-mask and — if the circumstances demand it — pro-lockdown. I’ve listened to those who think otherwise, but haven’t been convinced by their arguments.

So when a colleague warned me last year that compulsory vaccinations were on the way — plus second-class citizen status for the unvaccinated — I thought he was exaggerating. Things like that might happen in China, but not in the West.

Well, he was right and I was wrong. Last week, Germany followed Austria by singling out the unvaccinated for lockdown. The two-tier society the sceptics warned us about is happening.

But even worse is the prospect of compulsory vaccination. According to Angela Merkel (and her successor, Olaf Scholz) they’ll be coming by February.

I wonder how the German authorities intend to enforce the new policy? As far as I know, there are no plans for physical coercion. Unwilling citizens won’t be literally held down while somebody forces a needle into their veins. However there are other methods of persuasion. The state doesn’t need to use violence if it wants to ruin your life.

There’s the prospect of indefinite lockdown, for instance. Or what if a refusal to get vaccinated becomes grounds for dismissal — and not just in hospitals and care homes?

Direct financial penalties could be another weapon. The Greek government is already introducing fines of a hundred euros of month for older people who fail to get jabbed.

At this point I’d like to stress that getting jabbed is a very good idea. Vaccines work — and the evidence on the efficacy of booster shots is encouraging. And yet the decision must remain that of the individual. A vaccine mandate is not like a mask mandate. In penetrating the body it literally crosses a line — the one between you and the rest of the world.

I’m more relaxed about the frontiers of the state rolling forward than a lot of Conservatives are. But all the way into my bloodstream? Not without my say so.

But just how absolute is the principle of bodily autonomy? Imagine a serious outbreak of, say, Ebola somewhere in Europe. Should the authorities do everything possible to contain the threat — including compulsory isolation and medical treatment? I think that most of us, a few libertarians excepted, would say “yes”.

The uncomfortable fact is that very few of our liberties are entirely beyond question. There are circumstances in which most of them can be reasonably taken away from us by the state. However, that is precisely why governments need to wield such power with the utmost restraint. And therein lies the problem.

In my experience, most politicians are not in fact power-crazed maniacs. However, they are desperate to prove their relevance. One only has to look at Ursula von der Leyen’s intervention on vaccine mandates. At a press conference last week, the President of the European Commission advocated an EU-wide policy: “How we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union? This needs discussion. This needs a common approach.”

It really doesn’t. As this pandemic has proven time-and-time again, patterns of infection differ between countries (even neighbouring ones). Therefore they require country-specific responses. To filter these decisions through the EU’s unwieldy power structures and then impose them as a one-size-fits-all policy across the continent is the last thing that Europe needs. Wasn’t the debacle of the EU’s vaccine procurement programme warning enough?

Not for the first time, the British can count themselves lucky that we’re not part of this anymore. But can we be sure that vaccine mandates won’t cross the Channel?

Laurence Fox was among those horrified by Oliver Dowden’s reassurances on the matter. Asked, by Julia Hartley-Brewer to rule out German-style policies for the UK, the Conservative Party Chairman said “It’s not something we want to do or plan to do in the United Kingdom. And the reason why we… won’t hopefully have to do any of that is because of the booster…”

Leaping upon the ambiguities in Dowden’s answer, Hartley-Brewer pressed him to unequivocally rule out and condemn the German approach. You can judge for yourself, but I don’t think he did — though he did his voice his disagreement with compulsory vaccination “in principle”.

Hartley-Brewer wasn’t satisfied with that. She wanted a categorical statement that the government would “never, ever under any circumstances bring in mandatory jabs and never put in a lockdown for those who are unvaccinated.” Indeed, she pronounced herself “stunned that politicians across the board in this country aren’t making that statement.”

I’m not. If we can’t rule out a scenario in which the choice is between locking-down the unvaccinated only and locking-down the whole country, then we can be sure that our leaders will want to keep their options open.

Newslinks for Monday 6th December 2021

6 Dec

Johnson plans to let ministers throw out legal rulings…

“Downing Street is to begin a fresh war with judges over a plan to let ministers throw out any legal rulings they do not like. Boris Johnson wants to further curtail the power of the courts to overrule decisions by ministers through the process of judicial review, The Times has learnt. The move comes after a series of political clashes with judges that started over Brexit. The prime minister has ordered Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, to toughen plans to reform judges’ powers to rule on the legality of ministerial decisions. An option drawn up by Raab and Suella Braverman, the attorney-general, that is liked by No 10 is for MPs to pass an annual “Interpretation Bill” to strike out findings from judicial reviews with which the government does not agree.” – The Times

… as the Government aims to clamp down on middle-class drug users

“Boris Johnson has warned middle-class drug users they will have “nowhere to hide” as he considers confiscating passports and driving licences for those caught using Class A drugs, under government plans. People caught with the substances will be encouraged to go on drug awareness courses, which will be similar to speed awareness courses, with those refusing to take the lessons facing a range of tougher civil orders, including having their passport or driving licence removed and greater fines. The prime minister said these were examples of the “new ways” of penalising people who take “lifestyle drugs” such as cocaine.” – The Times

  • End of ‘slaps on the wrist’ for middle-class drug users – Daily Telegraph
  • Scotland seeks to ban words like addict and alcoholic under plan to tackle drugs death crisis – Daily Telegraph

Patel: The criminal drug trade is run by dangerous people whose evil has no limits… I won’t stand by while evil gangs exploit our children

“Drugs ruin lives. They are a scourge on our society, fuelling violence and crime. They destroy relationships, families and communities, the misery they spread is untold. Almost 3,000 people in England and Wales died last year from drug misuse. That’s more than all knife crime and road accidents combined. Drugs are a major driver of crime. Abusers steal to fuel their habit and the substances are a major factor in murder and other violent offences. The criminal drug trade is run by dangerous people whose evil has no limits.” – Daily Mail

Minister to seek end of Trump tariffs

“The international trade secretary is flying to the US to persuade her American counterparts to drop Trump-era tariffs on British steel and aluminium. Anne-Marie Trevelyan has said that there are “huge opportunities to deepen the trading links benefiting communities on both sides of the Atlantic” before the three-day visit, which begins today. Trevelyan’s meetings will seek to build on the recent lifting of the US ban on British beef and lamb, to push for reform of the World Trade Organisation, seek closer trade ties with individual states and further work towards a future free trade agreement.” – The Times

Lord Ashcroft: Johnson promised he’d ban the import of sickening hunting trophies. This week he must deliver.

“Animal cruelty is something which I simply cannot abide and I have spent a significant amount of time in recent years raising awareness of crimes against nature. Last year I published a book, Unfair Game, which tells the story of two undercover missions I funded in South Africa in 2018 and 2019. These operations exposed the grim truth about the shocking abuse of lions there. Over the last 30 years, they have been commoditised to such a degree that a new, captive-bred species has in effect been created. The typical lifecycle of the captive-bred lion is heartbreaking. It is born to die. Cubs are taken from their mothers when just days old and used to lure naïve tourists into paying to cuddle and pet them.” – Daily Mail

Coronavirus 1) It’s too late to stop Omicron in the UK, says scientific adviser…

“The reintroduction of pre-travel Covid tests is like “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”, a government scientific adviser has said. Professor Mark Woolhouse said that the rules had come “too late” because the Omicron variant was “already spreading pretty rapidly” in Britain. His warning came after the number of Omicron cases reported in the UK rose by 50 per cent in the last 24 hours, taking the total to 246. Scientists in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, said that although the variant appeared to be spreading faster, vaccines seemed to be protecting against it and the disease it caused was milder.” – The Times

  • UK omicron Covid cases surge by 50pc in a day – Daily Telegraph
  • NHS doctors fear Omicron variant will push them ‘over edge’ – The Times
  • Vaccines work against variant, says scientist – The Times

Coronavirus 2)… as rules are set to be extended in bid to fend off even tougher curbs – amid ongoing concerns over the variant

“Laws requiring masks in shops and on public transport are set to stay until the New Year, as ministers try to fend off demands for tougher restrictions in the run up to Christmas. Emergency regulations last week reintroduced mandatory masks until December 21 to help slow the spread of the Omicron variant. A final decision on whether to extend their use may not be taken until as late as December 18. But Whitehall sources said it was likely masks would stay mandatory for at least another three weeks to give scientists more time to assess the threat posed by Omicron. Other restrictions, such as travel tests and compulsory ten-day quarantine for those in close contact with an Omicron case, are also set to be extended.” – Daily Mail

  • Javid urged to crack down on the testing firms ‘conning’ customers – The Times
  • Backlash at new curbs on travel: Tory MPs and industry chiefs live up to condemn extra Covid tests for passengers returning to the UK – Daily Mail
  • Only third of housebound people have had a Covid booster – The Times
  • Private hospitals are offered billions to deal with Covid backlog – The Times
  • Race to expand quarantine hotels with hundreds stranded in red list countries – Daily Telegraph
  • Raab tells the public they should go to Christmas parties for the ‘social interaction’ – but admits his Ministry of Justice will swap its own festive gathering for ‘appropriate drinks at a smaller scale’ – Daily Mail

Comment:

>Yesterday:

Coronavirus 3) Next virus may be more lethal, Covid vaccine inventor Sarah Gilbert warns

“Another pandemic could prove to be both more contagious and more lethal, one of the inventors of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine warned yesterday. Dame Sarah Gilbert said that scientific advances made in viral research “must not be lost”, as the former prime minister Tony Blair urged the international community to “organise global genomic sequencing” to act faster on new variants and boost jab delivery worldwide. Gilbert, delivering the 44th Richard Dimbleby Lecture, said: “This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods. The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.”” – The Times

Coronavirus 4) Rogue firms blacklisted for contracts

“Emergency contracts will no longer be handed out without competition in a shake-up of the state’s £300 billion expenditure which aims to avoid a repeat of Covid “VIP lane” controversies. Companies that have ripped off the taxpayer or broken the law will be barred from further government contracts as ministers use post-Brexit freedoms to blacklist rogue suppliers. Firms implicated in the Grenfell fire disaster are likely to be among the first to be banned as ministers give themselves more discretion to disqualify those that have run over budget or engaged in unethical practices.” – The Times

Coronavirus 5) PM put under more pressure over No 10 Christmas party claims

“Boris Johnson is facing renewed pressure to come clean about claims that his staff broke Covid-19 rules by partying in No 10 after Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, said that it would have been “the wrong thing to do”. The prime minister has not denied reports that members of his team held a party in Downing Street on December 18 last year when London was under Tier 3 restrictions, but he has insisted that no rules were broken. There were also reports of up to three other parties being held in Downing Street despite restrictions. Under Tier 3 all indoor mixing was banned except within household bubbles.” – The Times

Migrant children left alone in hotels

“Refugee children are being put in hotels on their own because the care system is stretched to breaking point, the head of Ofsted will say tomorrow. Amanda Spielman will say at the publication of the regulator’s annual report that the number of vulnerable children is at a record high, leaving them at risk. Ofsted’s report will also cover the impact of the pandemic on schools and colleges but it is particularly concerned with the plight of unaccompanied migrant and refugee children. Their arrival has thrown chronic capacity issues in England’s care system into sharp relief, the chief inspector will say.” – The Times

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes: Lockdown and school closures let abuse go unnoticed

“Lockdown and the closure of schools weakened the child protection system that failed a six-year-old boy who was tortured and killed by his stepmother and father, the children’s commissioner has said. Dame Rachel de Souza said that the voices of children must be listened to following the murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. Arthur was killed in June last year after Emma Tustin, 32, and Thomas Hughes, 29, had submitted him to a “campaign of cruelty” that amounted to torture at their home in Shirley, Solihull. The boy was isolated, abused and forced to eat salt-laced meals before dying from an “unsurvivable brain injury” after being beaten by Tustin.” – The Times

  • Major review into boy’s murder will aim to free up social workers – Daily Telegraph

>Yesterday:

Hong Kong visa scheme could extend to the young

“Ministers are considering expanding the bespoke UK visa scheme for Hongkongers by offering it to younger people, The Times has learnt. The British National (Overseas) (BNO) visa scheme offers up to 5.4 million Hongkongers a five-year visa and a path to permanent British citizenship. It was opened on January 31 after China’s security laws were introduced. Those born after Britain handed the territory over to the Chinese in 1997 and who do not have a parent applying for the scheme are not eligible. A group of 27 Tory MPs have signed an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill, calling for the visa scheme to be expanded to all 18 to 25 year olds.” – The Times

Johnson’s levelling up plans are in disarray, claim Labour

“Labour has accused the government of being in “disarray” over levelling up plans, after ministers delayed the release of a flagship paper until next year. The delay will mean that Boris Johnson’s flagship levelling up plan to narrow the UK’s regional inequalities will not be fleshed out until the release of the government white paper in 2022. Lisa Nandy MP, the shadow secretary for levelling up, housing and communities, said: “The government’s commitment to level up our communities is in complete disarray. “After two years of empty slogans and broken promises it is now crystal clear ministers haven’t been able to come up with a single new idea to make good on the promises they made to level up our communities beyond more boards, bureaucracy and quangos.”” – The Times

Gender pay gap sees little improvement in 25 years

“There has been little change in the gender pay gap in the past 25 years when improved education for women is taken into account, a report has concluded. The study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that the average woman in the UK earned 40 per cent less than her male colleagues in 2019. It said that this was because women were 9.5 per cent more likely to not be in paid work at all, worked eight hours a week fewer than men and earned 19 per cent less per hour on average. The average is an improvement on a pay gap of 53 per cent in the 1990s but the IFS said that this was because more women had higher education qualifications. Women were now more likely than men to be graduates.” – The Times

News in brief:

The Animal Welfare Sentience Bill “should be stunned, slaughtered and put out of its misery”

6 Dec

Do you believe that Jewish and Muslim methods of animal slaughter should be banned?  That the use of animals in medical research should be barred?  That angling and fishing should be made illegal – along with breeding horses and rearing pigs?

There is a case for and against all these proposals.  And the place where they should be debated and decided is in Parliament – so that they can be considered by people we can put in or throw out at the ballot box, and who are thus accountable to us.

They should not be subject to a quango of bureaucrats.  But that is precisely what the Government’s Animal Sentience Bill, the Report Stage of which opens in the Lords today, is about to do, according to its critics.  They claim that a committee that the Bill will set up could rule on animal rights as well as animal welfare.

“The danger with this legislation is that it will become a vehicle to glue up government with an animal rights agenda that Parliament never intended and at its extreme is, frankly, bonkers, writes Nick Herbert, the Chair of the Countryside Alliance.

The core of the Government’s riposte is that the new committee won’t decide anything, but will merely make recommendations to Ministers.  They are quietly offering reassurances about who might be appointed to it in due course by the Environment Secretary.

Boris Johnson has told Conservative peers that the committee will be “toothless, clawless and fangless”.  Ministers are also saying that if they spurn its recommendations they will be safe from judicial review.  All this looks problematic.

This Government won’t be around forever.  Who might a future one appoint to the committee?  As for judicial review, can Ministers really be so sure?  After all, the Government is sufficiently displeased with the way it is used, according to today’s Times, as to threaten legislation striking down decisions that it doesn’t like.

And that the committee is intended to be toothless, clawless and fangless invites reflection.  It either carries authority, which would better be deployed by people we elect.  Or it doesn’t, in which case the question arises: what’s the point of it?

It’s reasonable to consider, say, the Committee on Climate Change, and ponder how government has taken to rubber-stamping its decisions.  There’s no reason to think it would be any less pliant given the attitude of the public to animals.

To be clear: animal welfare is a good thing; some animals are clearly sentient, and we have had legislation protecting animals welfare for some two hundred years.  The Bill has come about because of the exigencies of Brexit, which are in this instance unproblematic.

For the Government could have slapped a clause saying that it would “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals” – or words equivalent to those in the Lisbon Treaty – into Brexit legislation, or indeed into other Bills.  Two more animal-related ones were contained in the Queen’s Speech.

(Though one of them, the Animals Abroad Bill, has gone missing. Lord Ashcroft writes in the Daily Mail today about the lack of legislation in relation to the pledge in the last Conservative manifesto to “bring the ivory ban into force and extend it to cover other ivory-bearing species, and ban imports from trophy hunting of endangered animals”.)

The Bill has hung around in limbo since July, when it had its committee stage in the Lords.  That its possible consequences have been coming home to Ministers may help account for the delay.  “It should be stunned, slaughtered and put out of its misery,” one of them told me.

Nonetheless, everyone loves animals – by which I mean that most voters do, and the Prime Minister has been astute in suggesting that he feels the same way: after all, the Johnson household now has Dilyn in residence.  So the Bill will doubtless find its way to Royal Assent.  Legislate in haste, repent at leisure.

David Gauke: Truss rises – and Sunak runs towards early tax cuts in order to head her off

6 Dec

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Tax cuts are back in fashion. Having announced tax increases in his March Budget, and having agreed to the Prime Minister announcing further tax increases to fund higher health and social care expenditure in September, the Chancellor is taking every opportunity to let everyone know that he is in favour of lower taxes and plans to cut taxes before the next general election. All of this before any of the announced tax increases takes effect. What is going on?

Before examining what this tells us about what will happen next with fiscal policy, it is worth recalling how we got here.

At the time of the March Budget this year, it was evident that a fiscal tightening of some description was going to be necessary. Nothing needed to be done straight away, but it is politically easier to announce deficit-reducing measures earlier in a Parliament rather than later.

As for whether the tightening should be tax increases or spending cuts, tax increases were always the likely outcome. Years of spending restraint, pledges of high spending at the last general election and a change in the nature of Conservative support all suggested that the political reality was that taxes would go up. And so they did, with a freeze in thresholds for personal taxes and a substantial increase in corporation tax rates.

In September, the Prime Minister wanted to announce that he had solved the social care issue, the Health Secretary wanted more money for the NHS to cope with post-Covid pressures and the Chancellor – as a good fiscal conservative – wanted to ensure that any additional spending is paid for by higher taxes rather than letting borrowing take the strain.

A deal was done. The Prime Minister got his announcement, the Health Secretary got his money and the Chancellor not only got the tax increase necessary to pay for it, but he also got the Prime Minister to announce the increase in National Insurance Contributions.

We then come to the October Budget. The Chancellor had a bit more money to play with because the economy had grown faster in 2021 than had been expected ,and the damage done to the long term health of the economy by Covid had been downgraded. He had a choice between increasing spending, borrowing less and cutting taxes.

Cutting taxes was always the least likely option, because it would have been very strange to announce tax increases one month and then tax cuts the next. The real choice was between either spending the windfall or reducing borrowing, perhaps with an eye on tax cuts later in the Parliament. When it came down to it, more of the windfall went on spending than many expected.

With little tucked away for a rainy day, the possibility of future tax cuts became heavily dependent on the OBR once again downgrading their COVID scarring estimate (they remain relatively pessimistic on that compared to other forecasters).

There are, however, also significant downside risks for the economy. We do not yet know what will happen with the Omicron variant and there may be other variants in future. Triggering Article 16 in January (still possible although less likely than it was) would likely provoke a trade war and damage business confidence.

But even if there is an improved forecast from the OBR in 2022, it will be a forecast made in a period of uncertainty. The prudent course would not be to use any upside sum to either cut taxes or increase spending.

This suggests that the plan earlier this autumn was that 2022 should be a fiscally boring year. There might be some revenue neutral tax reforms but, in terms of the balance between tax and spend, the big decisions were made in 2021. The plan was to implement the announced tax increases, hold the line on additional spending bids and hope for some good news that will permit some tax cuts in 2023.

Politics has, however, intervened.

The response to the increases in NICs announced in September was relatively muted, but the October Budget landed remarkably badly with the Daily Telegraph and Spectator and a fair few Conservative MPs. Belatedly, there is a recognition that this was not a small state government. Shortly afterwards, in a separate development, Boris Johnson blundered over the Owen Paterson case and the Peppa Pig speech, and his personal ratings tumbled.

All of this has left the Prime Minister with a bigger party management issue than a public opinion issue. The Conservatives remain, at worst, level-pegging with Labour, and the Old Bexley & Sidcup by-election result was reassuringly dull. The public has not reacted strongly against the tax rises, but it looks as if the wider Conservative movement has.

To gauge the mood amongst Conservative activists, it is always instructive to look at the ConservativeHome ratings. The Prime Minister is struggling, and the Paterson affair has contributed to that (as the unfortunate Mark Spencer’s rating demonstrates), but the fall in the Chancellor’s rating suggestions a reaction against the tax increases. He is no longer the heir-apparent.

Meanwhile, Liz Truss – associated with lower taxes – continues to ride high and is on (tank) manoeuvres. It was also striking how Lord Frost – previously seen as something of a political creature of the Prime Minister’s – has asserted his independence by declaring his enthusiasm for lower taxes. He sits in second place in the league table.

Let us fast-forward to some point next year when the Budget is about to be delivered. Imagine the circumstances where Conservative MPs and activists are feeling a bit despondent because “this isn’t a proper Conservative government”; voters are feeling the pinch as living standards fall and theTelegraph (Boris Johnson’s “real boss” according to Dominic Cummings) is campaigning for tax cuts; and the Foreign Secretary lets it be known that she thinks lower taxes would unleash this country’s entrepreneurial spirits. How do we think the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will react?

I am going to hazard a guess, and suggest that they will both want tax cuts. Fiscal conservatives will point out that having decided to spend a lot of money (not to mention pursuing a growth-damaging European policy), the country might not be able to afford tax cuts, that there is the small matter of complying with the fiscal rules and that demographic pressures in the 2030s suggest that the long-term trajectory is higher taxes.

I think one could always have been confident that this is the sort of defeatist doom-mongering up with which the Prime Minister would not put. These are certainly not persuasive arguments if they imperil his position in Number 10.

The Chancellor might have been more torn. He is a fiscal conservative, and knows that Chancellors are often judged on how responsibly they act. But he is also naturally sympathetic to lower taxes and conscious of his own place (current and future) in the party, with a Prime Minister willing to be ruthless to get his own way. On the basis of the briefings currently coming out of Number 11, the Chancellor looks like he will be a tax cutter.

Tax cuts as early as 2022 might not be affordable, coherent or wise but there is definitely a scenario in which they happen regardless. If Number 10 and 11 are united in panic, political expediency will trump fiscal responsibility at the next Budget.

Andrew Mitchell: Asylum seekers. As matters stand, it would be irresponsible to vote for these new deportation measures.

6 Dec

Andrew Mitchell was International Development Secretary from 2010 to 2012, and is MP for Sutton Coldfield.

No one should be surprised that people want to come to Britain. We’re a great country – but we can’t just blame the French or kid ourselves that the Australians have the answer to immigration. Bashing the French has long been our national sport, but bashing the British is just as much a favoured French pastime.

We need an immigration policy that is firm but fair. I strongly support Priti Patel in her effort to deliver just that, but she has to play off a sticky wicket. There is no single silver bullet. But there are a series of sensible measures that would help her get back onto the front foot.

The UK’s former Ambassador to Washington, David Manning, rightly wrote this weekend that we can’t pretend to be an Indo-Pacific power while ignoring the continent to which we belong. Brexit hasn’t changed geography: China is 5,000 miles from Britain, while France is just 20. He proposes a new bilateral treaty and a new framework for foreign and defence collaboration with the EU. These are sensible olive branches for us to offer.

The deployment of wave machines and jet skis – under the so called ‘push back’ powers – would lead to catastrophic calamity and diminish our standing on the world stage.

So, too, would proposals for a ‘fantasy island’ to deposit asylum seekers where human rights could not be guaranteed. We cannot challenge abuses in China, Russia and elsewhere if drones are bring flown over a UK offshore detention centre and footage being broadcast around the world. David Davis has rightly raised the spectre of such a place becoming a “British Guantanamo Bay”.

We need to remember what makes our country a global leader. We need to use the final weeks of our presidency of the G7 and our standing at the UN to start a meaningful convening and updating of the 1951 UN refugee convention.

The world is a dangerous place, and one in which climate change and conflict will continue to drive the movement of people from the developing to the developed world for the foreseeable future. We are talking about literally millions of them being on the move.

Where once Britain led as a development superpower, this year we have withdrawn. British development policy was designed to make life at least tolerable over there so that they didn’t come over here.

We are now reaping what we have sown, but it is not too late to change course. We should be gradually returning to our 0.7 per cent commitment on aid and the genuine international leadership that gave us – not leaving it until 2024.

As well as our obligations to those fleeing Taliban persecution in Afghanistan and Chinese repression in Hong Kong, we also have a responsibility to accept our fair share of Christians from Iran, Kurds from Iraq and those fleeing war in Syria and Ethiopia.

The Home Office have full control of refugees asylum claims, but we should no longer require people to set foot on a British beach, or be fished out of British waters, to consider their claim. Pauline Latham made such a very sensible suggestion this weekend.

France received three times as many applications for asylum as we did last year. The Germans have taken the lion’s share of refugees into Europe over the last decade. We are fortunate that the channel represents the backdoor to the EU and that we are not on the frontline in the Mediterranean. We should accept our fair share. No more, no less.

Whether you can afford to pay a people smuggler should not be an entry requirement. You should not have to risk your life in a small boat. You should be able to apply at a British embassy and arrive on a plane, met by an organised local authority. And those local councils should have time to plan, resources to help and an orderly and managed system to integrate new arrivals sustainably into welcoming communities. This might sound Utopian, but it is well within our capacity to absorb just a few families into each of our constituencies each year.

I’m no bleeding heart lefty. I’m a hard-headed civil libertarian. You should always be wary of trusting “the state”, and you can’t solve international problems without countries working together. These are two fundamental Conservative principles that many of us hold dear and they are the ones that will guide my consideration of the proposals in the Nationality and Borders Bill.

Through the Bill, the Government seeks the power to deport asylum seekers before their claims are processed, many of whom will indeed qualify for asylum in Britain . But they haven’t told us where this processing will take place. One of my colleagues comically suggested the Falkland Islands, while the Albanian Foreign Minister denounced reports that they would be sent to Tirana as “fake news”. Until the Government can explain how and where they will use these powers, it is irresponsible for Parliament to grant them.

There is much to commend in this Bill, and we all want Priti Patel to succeed and get it right. But I see no end in sight to the numbers risking their lives to cross the channel until we re-establish the humanitarian resettlement routes which Britain has previously offered. Their lives and our global reputation depend on it.

Judith Barnes: Another fine standards mess – at the City of London Corporation

6 Dec

Judith Barnes was a co-opted member of the City of London Corporation’s Standards Committee until the Corporation abolished the Standards Committee earlier this year.

The government is not the only culprit when it comes to undermining standards in public life. The City of London Corporation paved the way, though without, unfortunately, the U-turn forced on the government by resistance in Parliament and the press. The sorry saga of the Corporation’s tussle over standards, detailed in a damning account by Lord Lisvane in his review of governance at the Corporation, may provide some useful pointers for Parliament in the fallout from the Owen Paterson affair.

The trouble started back in 2016 when, for the first time, a complaint about the conduct of a Member reached a hearing before the Corporation’s Standards Committee. The Committee ruled that he had breached the Corporation’s Code of Conduct. This caused consternation among the body of Members, who were particularly exercised by the iniquity of the Standards Committee in naming the Member in question in its annual report. It prompted a review by a QC who recommended a right of appeal (sound familiar?) to a committee of Members independent of the Standards Committee.

This did little to reconcile Members to the standards regime. When the same Member was found to have breached the Code of Conduct again, the new appeals committee dismissed his appeal. Members still refused to implement the proposed sanction (to suspend him from the new appeals committee, ironically).

By then, a head of steam was building to abolish the Standards Committee and outsource rulings on the conduct of Members. The Corporation turned to Lord Lisvane for a solution. Having concluded that Members were incapable of policing themselves, he recommended that the Corporation set up an independent panel to adjudicate on complaints about Members’ conduct. For legal reasons, determinations by the panel would need to be endorsed by the Corporation so, crucially, he said that any determination by the independent panel on a breach of the Code of Conduct, and recommended sanction, would need to be decided by Members without debate.

Predictably, Members, who had made great play of not wanting to be judged by their peers, then insisted on having some Members on the ‘independent’ panel when it considered appeals (to provide ‘internal context’ apparently). They threw out the need for a decision without debate which was Lord Lisvane’s attempt to put a stop to the Corporation’s repeated resistance to determinations on Members’ conduct. The upshot is that Members, who could not overturn determinations when they came from the Standards/Appeals Committees (only sanctions), are now at liberty to override any determination by the independent panel.

Events at the Corporation suggest improving the system can only do so much. Once there are appropriate safeguards in place, such as a right of appeal, an independent element, and the right procedures, elected members – at national or local level – need to recognise that verdicts delivered in accordance with the system will in the normal course merit support.

The rules governing conduct have to be right of course. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has recently decided to introduce a requirement for holders of public office to treat others with respect. Although at first glance this would appear uncontroversial, experience at the Corporation suggests it has its dangers. Along with the campaign to abolish the Standards Committee, there was a push to give Members a blanket dispensation for their term of office to speak and vote on local ward matters in which they had a financial interest, unless the matter in question affected the Member ‘uniquely or more than any of their constituents’.

One of the Members who applied for this dispensation owned his flat with his wife. In my capacity as a co-opted member of the Standards Committee, I pointed out by way of hypothetical example that, if he and his wife stood to profit from a planning application that benefitted no-one else in his ward, he would be able to vote for it.

He promptly complained that I was in breach of the Code of Conduct on the basis that I had shown a ‘lack of respect’, by slurring him and his wife as ‘hypothetical criminals’, and was ‘wrong’ (who knew being ‘wrong’ amounted to misconduct?). The second limb of this complaint was blown out of the water by a leading QC’s opinion which made it clear in no uncertain terms that such a dispensation would be unlawful. Nothing daunted, the Corporation, by some mental contortion that they have yet to explain, nevertheless concluded that my use of a hypothetical example to explain my objection to granting this unlawful dispensation could indeed constitute a ‘lack of respect’ and even ‘bring my office or authority into disrepute’.

The concept of ‘respect’ is all too open to abuse in this way. In the current climate it risks importing ‘cancel culture’ into political debate. That would undermine not only standards, but democracy itself.