Steve Baker: The Coronavirus Act created the most dangerous changes to state power seen in a generation. It must be replaced.

29 Sep

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

As we went into lockdown in late March, Parliament passed the Coronavirus Act. The public wanted action, but this act was an overreaction, creating the most sweeping and dangerous changes to state power seen in a generation. And while it was widely understood and accepted that we would all have to make temporary sacrifices, these new powers could last indefinitely.

The Act, which the human rights group Liberty has called “the biggest restriction on our individual and collective freedoms in a generation”, goes far beyond proportionate action. It contains powers many people don’t even know exist, and stands on the statute books as a potentially permanent threat to our freedom.

It imposes restrictions on the right to protest, creates radical powers to suspend elections and undermines oversight of covert Government surveillance programmes.

The most dangerous powers in the Act can be found in Schedule 21, containing extreme police detention powers. This Schedule gives breath-taking powers to the police, immigration officers and other officials to detain any “potentially infectious” members of the public, including children, potentially indefinitely and in unspecified locations.

The Health Secretary has further made a string of separate laws, including the self-isolation law brought into force yesterday, making it a criminal offence to fail to isolate, whether as a result of a positive Covid-19 test, close contact with an infected person, or travel from a country on the quarantine list.

In what world would we want police officers tasked with locking up members of the public outside of these laws, somehow determining that they are “potentially infectious”? Our police have a tough enough job as it is. Now they would have to be highly trained lawyers perfectly to navigate the stack of statutory instruments they are now supposed to impose; and they would have to be at least highly trained medics to sensibly wield these powers.

The College of Policing has already attempted two versions of guidance on Schedule 21, and has now had to open a consultation on the powers, seemingly in attempt to stem the flow of unlawful policing under the powers. As one line in the consultation tellingly says: “police officers are not medically trained”.

Every single charge under the Coronavirus Act – 141 so far – has been found unlawful on review by the CPS, which had to open a rolling review of every use of these powers due to these prolific failures. The Schedule 21 powers are responsible for the shocking rate of 100 per cent unlawful prosecutions under the Coronavirus Act.

For almost six months, we have lived not just with the anxiety of health warnings, but with this sprawling web of control. In other circumstances, Britain would have condemned both the content of this legislation and the way it passed. The Act went through Parliament in one day. The Health Protection Regulations were passed through emergency powers – avoiding any oversight both when they were imposed, and when they were repeatedly altered throughout lockdown.

The Act was rushed through in a bid to give the Government the powers it needs to get to grips with this disease, but, six months later, it’s evident that it’s a blunt instrument that does more harm than good. The patience and goodwill that saw us all make enormous sacrifices and help each other through the early days of lockdown are not infinite resources – they will be depleted if the Government strategy fails to learn and improve.

The prospect of a second wave of Covid-19 infections means we must continue to take precautions and make sacrifices where necessary and proportionate. It absolutely does not mean we must continue exactly as we have up to this point.

This is the point at which to look back on the last six months and ensure we have learned from them. During the lockdown, much Government decision-making was unclear and communications seemed confused. As we rattled through a dizzying set of lockdown regulations, many of us were left unsure if we might be criminalised for anything from looking after our families to going out for exercise.

Research indicates we will reap the most public health benefits by giving people the tools to comply by way of clear, evidence-based messaging rather than coercing them into submission. We need the British public to trust that the Government is following the evidence; we should also trust in them to act sensibly for their families and neighbours rather than policing their every move.

The Coronavirus Act and other legislation used in the crisis create enormous changes to our relationship as individuals with the state. The Act was a blunt and excessive reaction to an unknown threat, and the last six months have shown we need to facilitate compliance, rather than relying on coercion and control.

Tomorrow, Parliament will vote on whether to repeal the Act. It seems likely it will hang over us for at least another six months, and possibly years to come. Those of us who love liberty stand ready to help the Government do what is right: to show the public that we have heard their concerns, seen their sacrifices, and are ready to deliver a better strategy.

When so many have sacrificed so much, we will not be forgiven if we do not learn from the experience of the past six months. We have learned that the Coronavirus Act goes too far. The Government should bring forward plans to repeal and replace it with legislation that we can scrutinise full in the light of experience – before it damages faith in this Government, and our civil liberties beyond repair.

Bella Wallersteiner: Let the young work, play and be free of the rule of six – while older people learn to live with the virus

29 Sep

Bella Wallersteiner is Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Greg Smith MP.

The social compact is crumbling: for the first time since the 1960s young people are challenging the fundamental tenets that hold society together. This is not the sneering anarchy of the Sex Pistols in the 1970s or the solipsistic hedonism of the New Romantics in the 1980s, but the start of a new revolution as young people come to understand the scale of their betrayal by government and the media.

Having complied with lockdown, infantilised by their return to childhood bedrooms and enforced celibacy for six months, they accepted their loss of income from summer jobs, the imposition of travel restrictions and even the boredom and banality of online learning in the absence of lectures and seminars.

School leavers had the additional stress of Centre Assessed Grades and the application of a flawed algorithm, followed by a scramble for university places. In the blame-game which followed, no one has taken responsibility for this fiasco, there is no sign of an official enquiry and it is far from clear how exams will run next year.

During lockdown, altruistic young people worked in food banks, collected prescriptions, and went shopping for elderly neighbours who were shielding. Many were inspired by the example of Captain (now Sir)co Tom Moore to raise funds for the NHS (usually the Government’s responsibility). They stayed away from beloved grandparents in the knowledge that transmitting the virus to the elderly could have fatal consequences.

Instead of receiving praise for demonstrating grit, resilience and kindness, young people are now being vilified. Students are being blamed for the return of Covid-19 – even though viral transmission rates rose dramatically in the weeks before schools and universities re-opened. The media is awash with sanctimonious reports of illegal raves, student house parties and the collapse of social distancing.

Now that universities have re-opened, students are blamed for local spikes in transmissions. The response has been to lock down halls of residence and cancel lectures, face-to-face teaching, and social gatherings. After months of subservience to the will of the state, young people are beginning to question the lazy rhetoric that we are all in this together, we must follow the science and Covid-19 kills indiscriminately.

Rishi Sunak has exhorted us to face up to our fears. He is right. We now know far more about this virus than we did in March. Public awareness of the risks, and how to navigate them, is also much greater. The truth is that the virus has revealed fault lines in society between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, those with access to gardens and those who must make do with the local park. The science of epidemiology has proved as reliable as Jeremy Corbyn’s memory of being present, but not involved, in laying a wreath to honour members of the Black September terror group.

What we do know for certain is that this virus discriminates by race, weight, age, and overall health – it is racist, fattist, gerontophobe and Darwinian. Statistically, young people are relatively unaffected by Covid-19: the susceptibility of individuals under the age of 25 to the disease is less than half that of adults aged over 25. Not only are young people less likely to succumb to the illness, they have a lower propensity to show clinical symptoms when they do contract the coronavirus.

Neither is it clear whether spikes in cases among the young inevitably lead to increased deaths among the older demographic. Yet it is the young who are being told to self-isolate in student halls across the country, even after they have tested negative. Grinch-like finger-wagging authorities threaten to cancel Christmas unless students comply with increasingly draconian restrictions.Predictably, the laboratory for these policies is north of the border: where Scotland leads, England inevitably follows.

It is about time we had an honest conversation about segmenting the population with more targeted protection for the elderly and vulnerable. Young people should be actively encouraged to get on with life, build up some herd immunity and bolster our limping economy. Young people are the entrepreneurs, pacesetters, and problem solvers of the future – they will be vital to our recovery from this crisis.

But the consequences of not releasing this potential soon enough could be catastrophic. The impact of lockdown on mental health, especially among adolescents and young people, has yet to be determined. It is clear, however, that the removal of support networks and the cancellation of summer activities has led to an increase in the number of referrals for depression, self-harming and suicide.

In times of economic crisis, it is young people, with less experience, who are the first to be let go. Record numbers of young people are claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and the economic impact of the virus on young people’s prospects is already starting to show.

Our response to Covid-19 could create a lost generation destined for long-term unemployment and mental health problems. It is depressing that those most vulnerable, the elderly and those with underlying health issues, are still at risk.

What is unnecessary, and indeed immoral, is to disrupt the lives of young people who could be released from the strictures of the Coronavirus Act. We need to stop berating the young for pushing the boundaries, testing the limits of what is allowed and setting themselves free. Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? Let the young work and play, and even, dare I say, meet in groups of seven at their local Wetherspoons, while the rest of society adjusts to learning to live with the virus.

Tony Devenish: Opponents of planning reform ignore the big changes in the sort of buildings we need

29 Sep

Tony Devenish is a member of the London Assembly for West Central.

The Government’s White Paper “Planning for the Future” is 80 pages long, but essential reading – and not just for ” built environment nerds”. Nicholas Boys-Smith, of Create Streets, has made an excellent case for it. As someone who has served as a Planning Chairman on Westminster City Council for much of the last 15 years’ and more recently served as the London Assembly’s Planning Chairman (2016-17) and Regeneration Chairman (2018-20) I commend his work.

While Boys-Smith covered the planning specifics, it’s the politics I wish to cover here. A recent Financial Times report should be a “wake up call” for those who think we still live in an analogue age – including some voices at the Local Government Association, London Councils, and “Sadiq Can’t” – as the Prime Minister calls the deeply disappointing Mayor of London.

The FT declares that “Apple passes markets’ milestone as shares take valuation to $2 trillion.” A doubling in just two years. The White Paper spells out these realities – with proposed solutions. To be clear, Covid has accelerated trends as great as those that followed the changes to society within decades of the invention of trains, motor cars, and jet engines. The internet is here to stay. The public has chosen to do nearly half of shopping online. They exercise choice – which is a Conservative word. That means the mix of buildings we will need in the future will be very different.

When I read some of the ill-informed coverage of the White Paper it makes me think of the mob which protested outside Wapping Print Works and Orgreave mines in the 1980s. Luddites are as old as history. My London constituency contained (at least pre-covid) the biggest cluster of wealth-creating businessmen and women globally with the possible exception of New York.

One canny self-made Sunday Times Rich List constituent put it much better than I can:

“Whenever someone says they have made their money in X, it almost always came from either food, the rag trade, land and property. That’s where the tax comes from to pay for our public services. Which the Left forget”.

When I first sat on a Council Planning Committee in 2006, I was astonished by the almost artisan 19th Century approach of much of planning. But, as the White Paper states “notices (of planning applications) on lampposts are changing to an interactive map based online system”. Since March 2020, many Councils have seen greater political engagement, with Covid encouraging residents’ to use existing online tools to register their views. Hundreds, not dozens, of people are having their say.

The White Paper will be modified before becoming law. It is not perfect, nor does it pretend to be. But it is right to focus on two outcomes:

  1. Reform equals more homes and more jobs. We hear a great deal about Europe from the media. I have yet to see many quote page 14 of the White Paper: “In Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, you can get twice as much housing space for your money compared to the UK”. We can make the necessary reforms here and learn the lessons which underpin the White Paper from the late great Sir Roger Scruton’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. Does anyone seriously believe we don’t need more homes or jobs?
  2. Reform equals proper (not tickbox) engagement of the entire community. From MP’s expenses – to the Brexit referendum – has shown we all need to do more to win back the publics’ trust. At present I am receiving dozens of emails a week from upset constituents in Hammersmith and Fulham who feel a planning application was rushed through just before Covid with little or no communication changing the entire feel of their locality. The current system is not fit for purpose. Only those who work full time in the planning world fully comprehend how to “work the system”. Reform of a 1947 system is urgently required. Please note it does not mean conservation areas are under threat – something I would fight against with all my power. Design must be improved for many buildings.

So do read and respond to the White Paper with its 26 questions. To all my colleagues in local government, please help make this long overdue reform work. Something we can be proud of.

My grandfather was a housebuilder in the 1920s and 1930s. When I read that in the last 30 years, the number of small builder businesses have dropped by 40 per cent I applaud Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government, for taking on noisy special interests. He may follow Ken Baker, Iain Duncan-Smith, and Michael Gove, and be one of the few Cabinet Ministers to actually achieve something.

Innovation and invention for a different future

29 Sep

Dave Massey, Head of Strategic Intelligence

The problem of poverty is growing here in the UK, and as the Covid-19 pandemic continues more and more people are struggling to afford the essentials. As our statistics show, the number of emergency food parcels distributed by food banks in the Trussell Trust network rose almost 20% last year.

And as the impact of the pandemic began to be felt across the UK in April, need was a shocking 89% higher than the same period in 2019. Our latest research forecasts that this winter food banks in our network will give out six emergency food parcels every minute – a staggering 61% increase on last year.

This isn’t right. It is a huge concern for us and for food banks up and down the country, and should be a huge concern to everyone in the UK.

Food banks work tirelessly to support people in crisis, not only by providing them with emergency food supplies, but also by signposting them to other organisations who can help them work through other issues (for example, by offering debt management support). We will continue to support food banks to do this vital work in the short term, but ultimately this work shouldn’t be needed at all. No one should be forced to use a food bank because they can’t afford the essentials.

That’s why we’re also working to bring about a future in the UK where food banks are no longer needed. This is an ambitious goal, particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect us all, but we know that change is possible.

Together, we are powerful and we can drive real change. We are working in partnership with many organisations to create the future we wish to see. Today, we’re excited to be partnering with the IBM IXM Programme at a hackathon focused on food poverty run by University College London. The IXN Programme brings industry and academia together to address the world’s most pressing challenges and offers a rapid route to innovation.

Students will be invited to put forward solutions to improve food bank operations here and now, consider how technoology could unblock the unintended barriers that our ‘digital first’ society places on many people, understand what is happening now and predict what will happen in the future around food bank use, and engage the public in new and innovative ways to help everyone understand the problem of poverty.

To create a UK without the need for food banks will require a combination of creativity, imagination, complete understanding of the whole problem, and technical expertise – as well as innovation and invention. We are excited to see whaht the students come up with!

The post Innovation and invention for a different future appeared first on The Trussell Trust.

The police must be politically impartial. That includes being even-handed in upholding the law on protests.

28 Sep

Soldiers are not able to pick and choose which wars they fight in. Nor can the police decide the laws they are tasked with upholding. Naturally, there are practical limits, but we rely on our elected representatives to show some consideration and exercise restraint in the burdens they impose on public servants. It is hard to think of a greater change in the requirements expected from the police than the coronavirus restrictions.

In some ways the lockdown made their work easier  – for obvious reasons crime levels fell. If we are at home then the opportunities for burglars are diminished, as they are for muggers. When most shops were closed it was unremarkable that a reduction in shoplifting took place. On the other hand, enforcing the restrictions meant the police had to rapidly absorb considerable new duties.

The role of the police should not be to go beyond the regulations in restricting our activity. There were unfortunate instances of this – going through supermarket trolleys for “non-essential items” or ordering people not to sit in their front gardens. But I suspect these were exceptions and genuine misunderstandings due to the rapid pace at which the new rules were introduced.

What has been more concerning is the police force expressing an opinion on the merits of the lockdown. The police can and should advise on the practicalities of enforcing it. Individual police officers will have their own views. The majority of the public agreed with the lockdown as necessary to save lives. A minority of us felt (or feel in retrospect) it was disproportionate and may well end up costing more lives than it saved. The police as an institution should not have a view on that. Nor on the array of the details that arise. Some police officers may feel the 10pm closing time for pubs is a mistake – that doesn’t mean they are entitled to allow the pubs to stay open. In Scotland and Wales the “rule of six” exempts children under 12. In England, it does not. The respective police forces should get on with applying it accordingly. We all need to try and follow whatever the law happens to be where we live – whether or not we think it is a sensible law. The police have a duty to ensure we comply – but it is impertinent for them to tell us we should agree with any particular law even though we are obliged to accept it.

Nothing can be more important in terms of the police’s political neutrality than the conduct of demonstrations. Yet the blatant lapses by the police have been alarming. The regulations have changed but, quite properly, make no distinction as to the allegiance of the protestors. The problem is over the selective way in which they are enforced.

Before July 4th, public gatherings were limited to no more than six people. The law defines a “gathering” as a meeting involving “social interaction with each other, or to undertake any other activity”. That includes protests – even if social distancing was maintained, even if they are entirely peaceful.

So when 19 people (included Piers Corbyn, brother of Jeremy) were arrested at an anti-lockdown demonstration in Hyde Park on May 16th the police were doing their job. But have they shown consistency? On May 31st there was a Black Lives Matter protest outside the US Embassy and there were five arrests – two for assaulting a police officer. In many other protests – in Bournemouth, Coventry, Liverpool and elsewhere – no arrests were made. Criticism has been made of the passive police response to a statue being pulled down by a mob in Bristol and vandalism, in Westminster, of the Cenotaph and Winston Churchill’s statue. But these demonstrations were already illegal even before such instances took place.

On June 13th rival demonstrators came to London supposedly to “protect” statues and monuments. They included a cohort of racists and another of drunken football hooligans who were mainly were “up for a ruck” rather than having any very clear political motive. One of them urinated outside Parliament next to a memorial to PC Keith Palmer. 113 arrests were made which would seem a suitably robust response. But why the leniency shown on other occasions?

An indulgent response is usually given to Extinction Rebellion. The group organised several demos on May 30th, in defiance of the lockdown rules. The police could not give “precise numbers” on arrests.

Since July 4th, the rules changed so that demonstrations were allowed but with a requirement for organisers to carry out a health and safety risk assessment. The pressure group, Liberty, objected that demonstrations should have a full exemption. It argued that:

“The risk assessment is impossible to meet because: It is a workplace assessment which makes no legal sense when applied to a protest. There is no guidance on how a protest organiser should manage risk, or what a proper assessment looks like. No information has been provided on how assessments will be monitored.

“This means that anyone attending or organising a protest could find themselves at risk of arrest because it is impossible to know if a satisfactory risk assessment has been carried out.”

Another concern is that it gives the police great discretion over which particular “risk assessments” come up to scratch. 16 arrests were made on Saturday after an anti lockdown protest – where speakers included Piers Corbyn and the conspiracy theorist, David Icke. Apparently, a risk assessment was sent in but it was not complied with.

Then we had the very effective disruption of newspaper deliveries by Extinction Rebellion in the early hours of September 5th. The reason it succeeded was due to the police being so feeble. Hertfordshire Police said:

“Our officers are engaging with the group, which consists of around 100 people, and we are working to facilitate the rights of both the protestors and those affected by their presence.”

But those involved in criminal obstruction should have been arrested and removed without delay. The police should be aware there is no “right” to “protest” in such a way – even if they had sent in a “risk assessment” which would seem unlikely.

Some may dismiss such complaints on the grounds that in the past the police have been accused by the Left of bias. Certainly, during the mass pickets of the Thatcher era there was great controversy. Sir Keir Starmer, before he became Labour leader, put out a video stressing his “solidarity” with coal miners and striking print workers. The police were accused of “taking sides” – but in allowing those who wished to go into work to do so, they were upholding the law.

So far as the police are concerned, they would presumably deny any political discrimination at the number of arrests at different demonstrations. Operational decisions are not always easy. No doubt. But the credibility is undermined by the police “taking the knee” to some demonstrators (indeed being advised by their superiors to do so) and not to others. I am not proposing they should kneel before Piers Corbyn. They should not do so before anyone. Equality before the law is vital to a free and democratic society. The political impartiality of our police is a matter of historic pride for our country. It has been eroded and must be restored.

The FCA and the Bank of England encourage market participants in further switch to SONIA in interest rate swap markets

28 Sep
Following close engagement with market participants, the FCA and Bank of England support and encourage liquidity providers in the sterling swaps market to adopt new quoting conventions for inter-dealer trading based on SONIA instead of LIBOR from 27 October this year. The intention is to facilitate the further shift in market liquidity toward SONIA swaps, bringing benefits for a wide range of end users and other market participants as they move away from use of LIBOR.

The three testing days for Johnson coming up in the Commons. (Or two and a half at least.)

28 Sep
  • Today, there is a general debate on Covid-19.  That will give the Government’s backbench critics who want a Sweden-style approach a chance to make their case.  It will be well worth watching to see how many put it; how strongly; and how many Tory backbenchers make the counter-case for lockdowns, which polling suggests have strong public support.
  • Tomorrow comes the remaining stages of the UK Internal Market Bill – and so also the revolt against it headed by Theresa May.  The Government’s concession of an eventual Commons vote on any safeguarding measures that might be argued to break international law, in the event of No Deal on trade, has won round such discontented MPs as Geoffrey Cox, Damian Green and Bob Neil.  We will see tomorrow evening how many others vote against the Government or more likely abstain on Third Reading.
  • Wednesday sees the second reading of the Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) (No.2) Bill.  The main bone of contention is likely to be the permission it would grant for two-storey extensions to homes and tower blocks to go ahead without planning permission.  That’s unlikely to provoke a mass backbench revolt.  But the debate will be worth watching to see how many backbenchers pile in to criticise the coming planning reforms that will bring about more housebuilding in shire Tory seats.
  • Finally, there is the renewal of the Coronavirus Act’s temporary provisions – and the Brady amendment seeking more Parliamentary control.  It’s not clear as we write whether or not the Speaker will select it for debate.  The Government appears to be holding back any concessions, in case it isn’t chosen after all.

Newslinks for Monday 28th September 2020

28 Sep

Coronavirus 1) ‘Emergency lockdown plan to ban socialising’

“Ministers are preparing to enforce a total social lockdown across much of northern Britain and potentially London to combat a spiralling second wave of coronavirus. Under the new emergency plan, all pubs, restaurants and bars would be ordered to shut for two weeks initially. Households would also be banned indefinitely from meeting each other in any indoor location where they were not already under the order. The social lockdown was among options presented to the cabinet’s Covid-19 strategy committee before last week’s new restrictions, which included a 10pm curfew on all hospitality venues. The Times has learnt that the group of six ministers, led by Boris Johnson, held them back, fearing a backlash from Tory MPs and sections of the public.” – The Times

  • Local lockdowns failing to slow the increase in cases – Daily Telegraph
  • Curbs may only be delaying third wave, says expert – The Times
  • More restrictions in Wales as Cardiff and Swansea in lockdown – WalesOnline
  • Government plans to shut pubs and restaurants for two weeks – Daily Mail
  • Pubs and restaurants in North and London could be shut – The Sun
  • Test and Trace still plagued by serious problems, say its staff – The Times
  • 10 million download NHS Covid app – The Times
  • Labour accuses Sunak of consigning 1m jobs ‘to the scrapheap’ – The Guardian

Coronavirus 2) £10,000 fines introduced as Government faces rebellion by MPs

“Neighbours are being encouraged by the Government to report Covid sufferers who are not self-isolating to the police, on the day it becomes an offence punishable with a fine of up to £10,000. Like other coronavirus restrictions, it has not been subject to a vote in Parliament, and the Prime Minister has been warned that he faces “certain” defeat in Parliament this week if he refuses demands to give MPs more of a say. Up to 100 Tory MPs are now said to be ready to back a proposed amendment to the Coronavirus Act, tabled by Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, which would force ministers to give Parliament a vote on future measures.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Defy Tory lockdown rebels and expect ‘certain’ defeat, Johnson warned – Daily Telegraph
  • Tory revolt over ‘draconian’ restrictions grows, as police ‘plan home checks’ – Daily Mail
  • Transgressors face heftier fines – FT
  • Government ponders plans for a ‘Neighbour Day’ bank holiday – Daily Telegraph

Coronavirus 3) Dowden defends students’ university return

“The culture secretary has defended students going back to university in England after a union labelled the situation “shambolic”. Oliver Dowden told the Andrew Marr Show it was important students did not “give up a year of their life” by not going. Labour has called on the government to consider pausing the return after Covid outbreaks meant thousands of students had to isolate in their accommodation. A scientist who advises the government said the situation was “inevitable”. Mr Dowden said: “Young people have paid a huge price during this crisis and I think it is only fair to try and get them back – we have got clear guidelines for them to follow.” It comes as the UK recorded a further 5,693 cases and 17 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.” – BBC News

  • Senior Tories call for tuition refunds for university students – Daily Telegraph

BBC 1) Brexiteer ex-editors ‘scare off’ rivals for BBC and Ofcom jobs

“Officials are concerned that there will be too few applicants for the two top jobs in television after it emerged that Boris Johnson had offered the roles to outspoken critics of the BBC. Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail, is the prime minister’s choice to become chairman of Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, replacing Lord Burns, who is due to leave before the end of the year. Lord Moore of Etchingham, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph, who has refused to pay the licence fee, has been asked by the prime minister to become BBC chairman. The Times was told of one potential applicant who was no longer interested in applying.” – The Times

  • Johnson ‘determined’ to politically rebalance quangos – Daily Telegraph

BBC 2) TV licence fee evaders ‘will no longer face prison’

“Failure to buy a TV licence will be decriminalised and replaced with fines enforced in the civil courts and by bailiffs under government plans. Ministers are expected to announce the change as soon as next month with non-payment being treated as a “civil debt” in the same way it is for people who do not pay their utility bills. The BBC will be entitled to pursue non-payers through county courts and use bailiffs to collect fines. Failure to pay will also affect credit ratings. A government source said that decriminalising the licence fee was a “done deal” but added that there was a debate about how to replace it.” – The Times

Tory heartlands ‘will have to find space for 1.5m new homes’

“Communities in large parts of the Conservatives’ traditional heartlands will have to find space for 1.5 million new homes under a “mutant” planning algorithm being considered by the Government. The plans, reportedly the brainchild of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, will deliver an additional five million homes across England over the next 15 years, with nearly a third in rural counties. The five million target is two million more than the targets already set out in local plans that had been democratically agreed by local councils, according to analysis by the House of Commons library. Urban areas and communities largely in the north of England are largely let off the requirement for new homes, with shire counties hardest hit by the need for overbuilding, raising fears of a “concreting” over the South.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Johnson commits to ‘restoring to nature’ 30 per cent of Britain by 2030 – Daily Telegraph

MP claims Labour failed to stop intimidation

“Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Keir Starmer should “hang their heads in shame” after failing to act on allegations that an MP has been subjected to a campaign of bullying and intimidation, it is claimed. Supporters of Emma Lewell-Buck, the MP for South Shields since 2013, allege that a plot against her has been orchestrated by key figures in the Labour stronghold. She has asked for help from the national party but told The Times that she felt “utterly let down” by successive leaders. “I’ve been complaining to them almost since I was first elected but no effective action has been taken,” she said.” – The Times


Barratt: How Sir Ed can kick-start a Lib Dem revival

“Conference speeches are one of the few times in a year that coverage is given to what the Liberal Democrat leader wants to say on their own terms. The fact the speech is broadcast also means there is no filter to that content – at least for those who do watch it in full! Which is not to say that all speeches go off without a hitch. I recall breaking out in a panic at the sight of an empty stage for Tim Farron’s inaugural leader’s speech. He had managed to miss his cue to go on. I was not alone — his spokesman remembers desperately kicking in a toilet door as he searched for his missing boss.” – The Times

  • Davey promises ‘to be the voice of carers’ – BBC News

And finally, Parliament’s bars exempt from curfew

“Parliament’s bars will not be subject to the 10pm curfew or have to gather customers’ details despite the imposition of tougher rules on pubs last Thursday, The Times has learnt. Facilities serving alcohol on the parliamentary estate are understood to be exempt from the earlier closing time on the basis that they fall under the description of “a workplace canteen”. The regulations announced by Boris Johnson last week state that “workplace canteens may remain open where there is no practical alternative for staff at that workplace to obtain food”. Bar staff and customers in the Palace of Westminster will not be required to follow stricter rules on face coverings introduced for other licensed premises.” – The Times

News in Brief

Bank of England statement on European Securities and Markets Authority recognition decisions

28 Sep
The Bank of England welcomes the European Securities and Markets Authority’s (ESMA) recognition decisions with respect to central counterparties (CCPs) established in third countries. The decisions give the formal permission for UK CCPs to operate in the EU, continue to provide clearing services to their EU members, and EU banks to continue meet their obligations to UK CCPs.

We need a Plan B for universities as well as schools – and much the same one

28 Sep

Government sources insist that students will be allowed to go home for Christmas – and not be locked up en masse, as they have been at some universities, unable to leave halls of residence.

Ruth Davidson has swooped on the shutdown in Scotland, writing that students have been confined to their rooms, barred from visiting shops to buy food – let alone pubs or restaurants – banned from travelling home, policed by extra security staff and threatened with letters instructing compliance under threat of suspension.

These, remember, aren’t people who necessarily have Covid-19, or who have been directly in contact with others who do.  It isn’t obvious that the situation is much different in parts of England, where some three thousand students are apparently also locked down.

Nor is it clear how many students will be able to be at home with their family when Christmas comes.  For either the Government’s latest restrictions will be in place, if Boris Johnson maintains his grip on policy, or else even stricter ones will have superceded them.  We hope that mass testing will be up and running by then, but aren’t counting our chickens, or Yuletide turkeys either, come to that.

In which case, the number of students allowed home will depend on the number who have symptoms of the virus, since those who have it must self-isolate for 14 days by law, as must those contacted by test-and-trace services.  Government guidance also says that “all other household members need to stay at home and not leave the house for 14 days” if another has the virus.  What happens when the location is not a home but student accommodation?

This provokes the further question of whether students should have returned to university.  If you want to attack Ministers, you will claim that the present tangle was forseeable.  If you want to defend it, you will counter that normality must resume – as nearly as possible, anyway.

There are a number of short-term means of plastering over the cracks, none of which will provide a smooth and seamless finish.  Some universities are offering vouchers for food, or rebates, or providing food directly.  Robert Halfon wants the students affected to recieve discounts.

The colleges will argue that they shouldn’t pay these, since they aren’t responsible for the lockdown rules.  The Chancellor might well say in response that this may be so, but the Commons can’t simply load more debt on the taxpayer indefinitely – or there won’t be any public money for universities in the first place.

There are issues for the long-term as well as for the short.  The central aim of the Government’s latest Covid-19 measures is to build a firewall between work and home, with the former operating as near normally as possible but the latter less, as part of the balance to protect livelihoods as well as lives.

Schools are placed in the former category, partly because parents will be unable to work normally if they aren’t, and partly because of the value we place on education.  University education also has value, both to the economy and in its own right.

But it has never been universally available to all regardless of qualification, as is obviously the case for primary and secondary schooling.  And as our columnist Neil O’Brien notes, the number of students in higher education is out of balance: for around ten per cent of women, and a quarter of men, their degree isn’t worth it.

He wrote recently that “highly subsidised universities would propose to government how they will reduce their cost to the taxpayer. That could mean reducing numbers on some courses, or making them cheaper with shorter degrees, or and doing more online. Or a mix”.  This is where student accomodation comes in.  Why do a higher proportion of British students leave home for higher education, compared to some other comparable countries?

The answer is bound up with the monopoly that Oxford and Cambridge held on university education in England from the medieval period until 1827, when University College, London, opened.  In consequence, an assumption was written into our educational culture that if students were to go university, they should go to it rather than it come to them.

This was less so on the continent, where local universities are more common – though our national picture has changed as new universities have suddenly sprung up fully-formed, or as other institutions have gradually become universities.

So for example, David Willetts, in his A University Education, traces the story of how, in Bradford, the Mechanics Institute morphed its way through Bradford Technical School to Bradford Technical College to the Bradford College of Art & Technology to Bradford College…to Bradford University.

However, there is no uniform story of locally-rooted colleges becoming Oxbridge-type universities, complete with ivy-laden walls or red brick or both.  The former colleges of advanced techology, such as Braford itself, have spells in industry as part of their courses.  Others have links to regional or local industries.

All of which reinforces the question of whether the country needs so many other universities and students following the Oxbridge model in the first place.

The short-term pressure on living space, accomodation and lecture rooms will intensify next year, as the knock-on effects of this year’s A-level fiasco work their way through the system, because of the students who have now qualified to enter a university, but have been forced to postpone entry until next year.

Meanwhile, the long-term trend to doing more online is being speeded up by the Coronavirus, as the move from learning together from lectures in big rooms to doing to separately from screens in smaller ones gathers pace.  Furthermore, universities aren’t always in full control of the living quarters that they offer students.

Halfon is certainly right in believing that the Government needs a Plan B for universities – mirroring the one that both he, this site and others have called for in schools, as the Covid-19 case numbers rise.

Obviously, universities have an independence from government that schools don’t.  But it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to design a fee and finance system that rewards universities for more online teaching.

Such a solution would be fiercely debated.  Moving schooling online temporarily is one thing; shifting “the university experience” online too would be another (though to some extent this is happening already).

We already complain that young people are stuck at home for too long.  Do we want them there during their university years, too?

What about the horizan-widening that moving to a new place brings, together with mixing with others from outside one’s home town, city or village?

Our bleak answer is that one can no more turn back the online tide than one could turn back a real one, and that the universities, like so much and many elsewhere, have no alternative but to sink or swim in it.