Ben Roback: What do Biden’s appointments tell us about his presidency?

27 Jan

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

In what became an incredibly strange time between Joe Biden winning the 2020 election and taking the oath of office, the Cabinet began to take shape.

It presented a political maze of trickery to be navigated by a president who is seeking to counterbalance blue collar centrists with liberal millennials who make no apologies for their flirtations with democratic socialism.

That challenge is no more unique than Boris Johnson marrying post-Brexit free marketeers with big state interventionists. But whilst the Prime Minister need not spend a second considering what Sir Keir Starmer thinks about his Cabinet, let alone voting on his proposed appointment, President Biden must get his nominees approved by the Senate.

Having won the two run-off elections in Georgia, the Democrats have an effective majority in the Senate. With a 50-50 split, Vice President Kamala Harris will break the tie in any split votes. That should, in theory, mean the President can get his Cabinet appointments through – as long as the Democratic caucus remains united. The president is not reliant on Republican votes. He is looking for them, nevertheless.

The Biden presidency is seeking reach across the aisle wherever possible and work with Republicans. This reflects a desire to lower the political temperature from far further back than just the past four years. Tensions rose under Barack Obama and soared under Donald Trump. Everything became a political fight. The White House wants to calm the country down.

Optically therefore, the White House wants to project bipartisanship in its first 100 days by nominating Cabinet appointees who are able to gain at least pockets of Republic support.

When we think of bipartisanship, we tend to think of opposing political parties working together. The challenge for President Biden is deeper than that. His modus operandi is finding people and policies that can attract at least a modicum of Republican support. But his own party is increasingly fractious.

Biden’s first 100 days are likely to pass by during a honeymoon period of rapid-fire executive action, but the clash between blue collar Democratic towns and democratic socialists in California and New York looms large over the White House. The Cabinet is a fascinating first look at how he will manage those tensions.

In terms of Cabinet appointments, keeping competing interests together poses two major challenges. First, diversity. If all of Biden’s appointments are approved, this will be the most diverse Cabinet in US history. The list of would-be firsts is extensive – first Native American cabinet secretary (Deb Haaland); first female national intelligence director (Avril Haines); first Latino secretary of homeland security (Alejandro Mayorkas); first openly gay cabinet member (Pete Buttigieg). This week, Janet Yellen was confirmed as Treasury Secretary, the first woman to ever hold that role.

This is a modern Democratic Party that has evolved quickly into one that champions diversity of more than just gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation – hence the second test. To compile a Cabinet sufficiently stocked with liberal minds ready to enact left-wing policies.

A Senate majority gives Biden the green light to appoint his Cabinet

From his decades in public life and his inaugural address, it is clear that Biden will seek to govern in the first instance as a bipartisan president. Keeping his own side together will prove taxing, if not as challenging as winning over the opposition.

In seeking to avoid any major early fights with Republicans over Cabinet approvals, Biden has overlooked the dominant left-wing figures on Capitol Hill. No Cabinet jobs for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. No promotion for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He wants to keep his political powder dry over personnel, in order to push Republicans when it comes to hard policy – starting with a $1.9trn COVID relief package.

Cabinet appointments are crucial because they are the first signal of the intended direction of travel for any given administration. For Biden, a big question lingers: can the leadership tame the left of the Democratic Party?

Consider the nominations of Yellen (US Treasury) and Rohit Chopra (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), two of the more eye-opening appointments that Biden hopes will keep the left on side.

Chopra was an early hire of Senator Warren after she set up the CFPB in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis under the Obama administration. He will now oversee the financial products and services that are offered to consumers, with overall supervision of banks and financial institutions. A Federal Trade Commissioner since 2018, Chopra has sought to increase the scrutiny of Big Tech corporations that pose risks to privacy, national security, and fair competition. He now has the ability and scope to rein in Wall Street’s and Silicon Valley’s perceived excesses – a top priority for the types of Democrats listed above who were passed over for Cabinet roles themselves.

Yellen’s qualifications for the role are self-explanatory, hence her confirmation by Congress this week. As Chairwoman of the Fed, conservatives wondered if she was seeking to overtly politicise the role. Now, as Secretary of the Treasury, she will be responsible for guiding the Biden administration’s economic response to the pandemic – a seismic undertaking, and one that will fall heavily under the spotlight if the left of the party does not think the White House and Treasury’s proposed plans are generous enough.

She is in many respects a typical Biden appointment, in that she has a track record of securing bipartisan backing. Her nomination to the Fed in 2014 won support from some Republicans.

In her Cabinet confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Yellen urged Congress to approve trillions of dollars more in pandemic relief and economic stimulus, saying that Congress should “act big” without worrying about national debt. “The focus now is not on tax increases. It is on programmes to help us get through the pandemic,” she stressed. Liberals will have cheered financial support being her guiding principle, with scant regard for the (soaring) US national debt.

The role of the Cabinet is to deliver the President’s agenda. This Cabinet, the proposed most diverse top team in US history, has a herculean task on its hands. Biden made it clear in his inaugural address that he wants to be a president for all Americans. Practically, that means finding bipartisan policies that he can work with Republicans on. That will not always mean keeping the liberal wing of his party on side.

On policy, the early round of executive actions has provided plenty for the left to cheer. The President has moved quickly to undo a litany of Trump administration policies by halting border wall construction, placing a 100-day pause on deportations, and embracing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants through DACA.

The middle of the Venn diagram that charts issues supported by Democrats and Republicans is narrow. Both have been pushed to a more hawkish view of China. The insurrection at the Capitol has put big tech sharply in the spotlight again for being too slow to muzzle Trump (Democrats) and too authoritarian on freedom of speech (Republicans). Biden will need to tread carefully to keep both groups together as he tasks his top team with taming the tech titans.

People make policy

Keeping the left of the party on board will not be limited to just Cabinet appointments. With Congress confirming this week that it would not blow up the filibuster in the Senate, the biggest planks of Biden’s legislative agenda will only be able to pass Congress if it has bipartisan support. That means the left’s biggest wins will need to come from presidential executive actions – major policy shifts at the forefront of the left’s agenda like a $1.9trn COVID relief package and a $15 minimum wage requires legislation, not executive order.

That in turn reinforces the need for Biden to keep the left happy through the appointments he makes – after all, people make policy.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: The comedian has learned how to play tragedy

27 Jan

The pandemic has changed Boris Johnson. He is better than he was a year ago at being the sombre bearer of bad tidings, the leader who expresses the nation’s grief.

Both at yesterday afternoon’s Downing Street press conference, and today at PMQs and in his Commons statement, he struck the right note of unadorned sorrow.

Johnson has always been known as an entertainer, a comedian, a debunker of pieties, a man who in the darkest moments can be relied on to bring us the lighter side of life.

Now it falls to him to express the pieties demanded by 100,000 deaths. The comedian must learn how to play tragedy.

This is not just a challenge for him. It is also a challenge for his audience.

Last March, many of us could not believe he was going to manage it. The comic actor was still there, and from time to time could be glimpsed peering out from behind the stiff funeral robes he had been obliged to put on.

As a sketchwriter, one felt it one’s professional duty to detect and magnify those gleams of levity, and if possible to contribute some levity of one’s own.

Johnson’s critics continue to insist he is a clown, incapable of rising to the crisis, responsible for a host of errors and unable to learn from what has gone wrong.

Sir Keir Starmer, replying to the Prime Minister’s statement, said “how offensive it was to pretend there was a protective ring round our care homes”, went on to list many other mistakes, and said these are “a damning indictment” of how the Government has handled the pandemic.

It is the duty of the Opposition to oppose. This column will not join the Prime Minister in reproaching Sir Keir for identifying the many errors, inconsistencies and last-minute changes of mind which have characterised the Government’s policy on schools.

But Johnson now communicates a solemn sincerity of which in the earlier part of his career he gave scant sign, and his opponents are going to have to take account of this change.

Benedict Rogers: The Government urgently needs an integration plan for those fleeing oppression in Hong Kong

27 Jan

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer and a former parliamentary candidate. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). 

On July 1 last year, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, announced one of the most courageous, generous and heroic expansions of immigration policy in post-Second World War history. With the backing of the Prime Minister and the leadership of the Home Secretary, both of whom deserve credit, he unveiled an offer to millions of Hong Kongers in their hour of need, telling them they could come to Britain, live, study and work here and be on a pathway to citizenship and security.

At the end of this month, in just a few days’ time, that offer becomes a reality. Covid-19 restrictions on our borders, quarantine and flightpaths may delay the flow, but without doubt a large number of Hong Kongers will take up the offer just as soon as they can. The expansion of the British National Overseas (BNO) passport right means that over five million Hong Kongers – those born before 1997 and their dependents – are eligible to come to the United Kingdom, to live here, buy or rent property here, find a job here and be on a “pathway to citizenship” that will enable them to settle here.

In the Home Office’s own terms, it’s a hybrid scheme – part humanitarian rescue, part migration. Those who qualify for BNO are not coming as refugees, but migrants and future British citizens. But some – those born after 1997, who include the most vulnerable young protesters in grave danger of political prosecution – are already coming to Britain too, in search of urgent sanctuary. We must be ready to support them.

The Government’s offer is generous and bold but for the potential of the scheme to be realised, we must now prioritise integration.

When thousands of Hong Kongers arrive at Heathrow and are waved through under the new scheme, what happens next? What preparations are in place for quarantine, how to help them find housing, jobs, schools for their kids, access to a GP? They have no recourse to public funds under the terms of the offer, but there is a need for a welcome pack and an integration plan.

A common misperception prevails that Hong Kongers are all wealthy, super-educated, entrepreneurial and speak great English: so no problem. I lived in Hong Kong for five years and have worked with Hong Kongers for almost 25 years, and I can tell you: most are dynamic, many are entrepreneurial, a good number are educated, but not all speak good English, some don’t have wealth and a few are very vulnerable. Helping them get up on their feet will not be onerous on the taxpayer, and the millions of pounds in capital which may arrive with them will doubtless be a boon, but those who choose to flee oppression in Hong Kong deserve a warm welcome and signposts to help them start their new lives.

We need a plan – from government and civil society. That’s why this week over ten civil society groups have signed a letter to Penny Mordaunt, the Paymaster General, who is coordinating the Government’s response, to call for one to be put in place.

This should draw on the extensive experience that civil society, churches, communities, families and individuals have of welcoming people to the UK: a society where people from around the world have found they can flourish. But government – in Whitehall and at local authority level – need a plan, and some resources, in place.

There should be an information hub for Hong Kongers when they arrive – for the immediate pandemic-related question of where they go for quarantine, and then the short-term question of what arrangements can be made for accommodation.

Then Government and civil society should work together to ensure that Hong Kongers are welcomed, and receive the advice they need to settle in – to find a doctor, a school, a job, a community and opportunities.

Given the chance, Hong Kongers will be a net gain for Britain’s economy and society. As a generalisation and in the long-run, they will be people with a “get up and go” spirit who will start businesses, create jobs and contribute to our professions. They will be doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants and teachers who will bring talent to our public sector, or small business people who will begin enterprises that will bring dynamism to our economy.

To those in Britain who fear that a migration influx will “steal” jobs, I say that on the contrary they will create them. Some might even be recruited to our foreign and defence apparatus to bring linguistic and intelligence expertise to enhance our national security. The idea of a “charter city” for Hong Kongers, perhaps in the north of England, advanced by Lord Skildelsky, Lord Alton and others, could be further explored. All in all, it’s a moral and humanitarian policy that will result in a net gain for Britain. But only if done well because if implemented poorly – or with no planning at all – it could foster resentment and even Sinophobia.

Whitehall, local government, civil society and communities all have a part to play in welcoming Hong Kongers to Britain. That needs a plan, co-ordination and resources. Mordaunt must call an emergency cross-departmental ministerial meeting immediately, to put a plan in place to ensure that an historic offer doesn’t become an historic disaster.

David Davis: We must vote today to bar our spies from inflicting torture and our police from deploying children

27 Jan

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

Today, MPs will be asked to vote on a hugely consequential piece of legislation granting the intelligence agencies, police and other government bodies the power to both authorise children as undercover agents, and to allow all agents to commit the most serious of crimes.

If passed in its original form, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill would continue the practice of children being sent into dangerous situations with minimal safeguards in place. It would also open the prospect of state-sanctioned murder, torture or rape. This is a grave mistake.

I was one of the Ministers who took the Intelligence Services Act through the Commons in 1994. I worked closely with our intelligence services to safeguard Britain from foreign adversaries and terrorist plots, so I know the value of information derived from undercover sources.

I also know that they sometimes need to infiltrate gangs and even commit crime in order to protect us. No-one is suggesting that they should do so with one hand tied behind their backs.

However, adults doing this work is one thing. Children is an entirely different matter.

As it stands, the Code of Practice governing the use of children in these circumstances is not backed by statute, and falls far short of providing adequate protection for the most vulnerable.

The use of child spies can result in children being put in incredibly dangerous positions. It is a morally repugnant policy, with minimal safeguards in place.

It has already been confirmed by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner that these child spies can often themselves be the victims, whether that is because they are part of violent gangs or victims of child sexual abuse.

These are precisely the people we should be helping. When their involvement in crime comes to light, we should be doing everything possible to remove them from that situation, not sending them back into harm’s way.

Not only does the Bill run the risk of putting children in dangerous situations without appropriate safeguards, but it also raises the possibility of 16 and 17-year-olds being authorised by any of dozens of different state agencies to spy on their parents.

These agencies include police forces and the intelligence services, but also extends to the Food Standards Agency and the Gambling Commission. Do we really want to give such arbitrary and unfettered powers to such agencies?

To address these concerns, the House of Lords passed an amendment which drastically improves the Bill. The amendment limits the deployment of child spies to only “exceptional circumstances”, where all other methods to gain the information have failed and only if there is no risk of “any reasonably foreseeable harm”.

This goes someway towards correcting the currently inadequate policy.

However, the use of child spies is not the only area in which the Bill falls down.

It also authorises agents to commit a broad range of crimes. So, if we are to permit the use of child spies in exceptional circumstances, we also need hard limits on the types of crime they – and intelligence sources more generally – can become involved with.

There can never be justification for agents of the British state being authorised to commit murder and torture. Yet that is precisely what this Bill will allow, if left unamended.

Our ‘Five Eyes’ security partners recognise the need for limits: nowadays the US, Australia and Canada all have common-sense limits on what their covert agents can do.

If the CHIS Bill becomes law without these limits, it is almost certain to be challenged in the courts and may eventually be overturned. We have been here before. The last time a security bill was rammed through Parliament in such haste, I took the government to court over the resulting Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act. It was found to be unlawful within a year.

The Government has claimed that if we specify that agents of the state may never be authorised to commit murder or torture, criminal gangs will weed out undercover operatives by challenging them to commit acts of extreme violence to prove they are not working for the state.

This is nonsense. This is a scenario from Reservoir Dogs or 24, not a sound basis on which to pass legislation – a point made well by the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken MacDonald, who encouraged Ministers to “peel their eyes away from The Sopranos and acknowledge that public confidence in official lawbreaking is a fragile thing that requires the reassurance of boundaries.”

We need only look to the example of America’s FBI, which runs thousands of informants within terrorist and mafia groups – all under clear limits on what they allow their operatives to do. Is the Government seriously suggesting that we can’t learn from their example? This is the FBI – not some leftie human rights organisation.

The Intelligence Services Act, which I took through Parliament in 1994, allowed MI6 to commit crimes overseas. At the time, we thought this was a licence for MI6 agents to bribe, burgle, blackmail, and bug, not to kill or to torture.

Nevertheless, within a decade, it was being used to authorise rendition and torture. We must not make the same mistake again.

Only last month, the intelligence watchdog uncovered serious concerns over the very practices the Government is seeking to put into statute. The Investigatory Powers Commissioner uncovered a case in 2019 in which an MI6 agent broke informal “red lines” set by the agency against very serious criminality. But instead of stopping their work with this criminal or telling a Minister, they sought to have him reauthorised regardless.

Again, the Lords have recognised these issues and, earlier this month, peers handed the Government a defeat by voting in favour of an amendment preventing murder, torture or sexual violence from being authorised.

The amendment was backed by a list of peers with deep experience of working with the security services to keep Britain safe, including the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Lord Anderson, and several former heads of the Home Office, Foreign Office, and Cabinet Office, such as Lord Wilson of Dinton and Lord Jay of Ewelme, as well as the former National Security Adviser Lord Ricketts and the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald.

The breadth of this coalition, and the combined experience it brings to bear, should give the Government pause.

I urge my colleagues in the Commons to support these two common-sense amendments backed by peers which would curtail the use of child spies and establish hard and sensible limits on the crimes agents can be authorised to commit.

Retaining these amendments would ensure that this vital legislation is fit for purpose and not wide open to abuse.

Newslinks for Wednesday 27th January 2021

27 Jan

Coronavirus 1) Virus deaths pass 100,000

“The UK has become the first European country to officially record more than 100,000 coronavirus deaths, a figure described by health leaders as a tragedy. Britain is the fifth nation in the world to reach six figures, after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico. It now has a higher coronavirus death rate per million people than any other country. There were 7,776 deaths registered in the UK in the week ending January 15 with the virus mentioned on the death certificate, bringing the total since the beginning of the pandemic to 103,602.” – The Times

  • Johnson ‘deeply sorry for every life that has been lost’ to Covid – Daily Telegraph
Analysis:
  • Covid-19 death toll: where did the UK make mistakes? – The Times
  • From Rolls Royce to Skoda: How the pandemic has exposed Britain’s failed ‘regulatory state’ – Daily Telegraph
  • 100,000 coronavirus deaths in charts: What’s really happening in the UK – Daily Telegraph
  • 100,000 Covid deaths: How we know so much more than when UK’s first victim perished – Daily Telegraph
Comment:

>Yesterday:

Coronavirus 2) Johnson prepares to “unveil road map out of lockdown in mid-February”

“BORIS Johnson is preparing to unveil his road map out of lockdown by mid-February – as Britain is now on course to vaccinate 30 million people by March. Government sources hint the PM’s ambitious blueprint is likely to include crucial targets concerning the roll out of coronavirus jabs, falling numbers of infections and the reopening of some schools. The eagerly-awaited document is said to be likely to be published sometime around February 15 – the date the PM has already pledged to review the current pandemic measures.” – The Sun

  • Whitty declares the top of the second wave – The Times

Coronavirus 3) Quarantine hotels for highest-risk passengers

“The government will announce today a limited hotel quarantine system for arrivals from high-risk countries after Boris Johnson rejected calls by Priti Patel for the temporary closure of Britain’s borders. The Times has been told that the home secretary pushed for a travel ban to stop potentially vaccine-resistant strains of coronavirus being imported into the country. Ms Patel suggested the move to allow time for the preparation of a blanket hotel quarantine system for all arrivals.” – The Times

  • Police fined over lockdown haircuts – The Times

Coronavirus 4) Schools in low Covid infection areas may open sooner, parents told

“Boris Johnson said schools would reopen only “cautiously” as parents were promised news within days about the chance of children going back after the half-term holiday. The prime minister suggested that schools could reopen first in English regions with a lower infection rate. Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils in primary schools, and those sitting GSCEs and A-levels are expected to be the first to return under plans being drawn up by Gavin Williamson, mirroring the first national lockdown last year. The education secretary has rejected a rota system because it will not help parents back to work or reduce transmission.” – The Times

  • “Lack of planning” could see them “remain closed until the summer”, the Children’s Commissioner warns – Daily Telegraph
  • Portugal blocks remote lessons at private schools to help state pupils – The Times
Comment:

>Today:

Coronavirus 5) UK ‘head start’ on EU means over-50s will be vaccinated by March, AstraZeneca chief says

“The UK’s “head start” in rolling out vaccines before the European Union means nearly everyone aged over 50 will be inoculated by March, the AstraZeneca chief executive has said. Pascal Soriot said he believed the UK was on course to administer doses to “maybe 28 or 30 million people” within weeks – nearly half the total population – and would comfortably hit the target of vaccinating the most vulnerable groups by mid-February. It came amid rising international tension after the EU threatened to block vaccine doses from leaving the Continent without prior approval, leading Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, to accuse Brussels of “protectionism and narrow nationalism”.” – Daily Telegraph

  • New Covid therapies will make life normal, says Head of the NHS – The Times
  • Pioneering antibody treatment for Covid that is being trialled on NHS is found to ‘prevent 100% of symptomatic infections and cut asymptomatic infections in half’ – Daily Mail
  • Germany presses Brussels for powers to block vaccine exports – FT
Comment:

£1 million wasted on cycle-friendly road zones that councils abandoned

“More than £1 million of public money has been wasted on cycle-friendly road schemes that were subsequently ripped out because of local opposition, an investigation has found. Research showed that almost one in ten “low-traffic neighbourhoods” has been abandoned as little as a month after being introduced after complaints from residents and businesses. In one case, Westminster council spent almost £138,000 on design, engineering and consultation fees only to scrap a scheme before it was launched.” – The Times

Boost for Trump as 45 Republican senators vote to dismiss impeachment…

“Donald Trump’s hopes of avoiding conviction by the US Senate received a boost on Tuesday when 45 Republicans tried to dismiss his impeachment trial before it even began. The procedural vote was not enough to prevent the trial going ahead, since 55 senators voted that it should, but it did suggest that Democrats face an uphill battle to get the 67 senators they will need for a conviction on a two-thirds majority vote. Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives on the charge of “incitement of insurrection” following the storming of the US Capitol, including the Senate chamber, by an angry mob on 6 January. Senators gathered at the scene of the crime on Tuesday to begin his trial.” – The Guardian

… as Biden tells Putin to come clean about Navalny

“President Biden challenged President Putin yesterday over the poisoning of the opposition activist Alexei Navalny in his first phone call with his Russian counterpart since taking office. He also raised concerns over evidence of Russian interference in US elections, over a massive cyberespionage campaign against the American government, and over reports that Russia placed bounties on US troops in Afghanistan. In addition, he expressed “strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty” in the face of continued aggression from Moscow.” – The Times

News in brief:

100,000 dead

27 Jan
  • The Government says that “data from the four nations are not directly comparable”, but an Imperial College study in October found that “England, Wales and Scotland had among the highest rate of deaths from all causes, including Covid-19, as a result of the first wave of the pandemic”.  The governments of all three appear to be in the same boat.
  • The core pandemic policy has been to “protect the NHS”.  This is a political fundamental: the public would not have tolerated, and the Government would not have survived, Lombardy-style TV pictures of emergency rooms closed, intensive care units collapsing, patients dying on trolleys – and choking to death in care parks or at home without palliative care.
  • There is therefore a strong case, as Liam Fox argued on this site on Monday, for running the NHS in England, as elsewhere, less “hot” in future.  (And, talking of the former Trade Secretary’s article, the UK and other countries need to work on comparable case, hospitalisation and death figures.)
  • Doing so would certainly have helped ameliorate some of the worst of the care homes disaster, and the contribution made by agency staff moving from one setting to another raises a political intractable again: social care reform.
  • If the bedrock policy is indeed “to protect the NHS”, it makes no sense to claim that Ministers’ decisions are “guided by the science”: protecting the NHS first and foremost is a political decision.  It appears that Ministers followed the advice of SAGE and the government scientific officers more closely at the start of the pandemic than recently.
  • In the absence of vaccines, test and trace remains a better strategic response to a pandemic than lockdowns or voluntarism.  (Germany has the 38th and Sweden the 17th worst deaths per million.)  It is clearly unlikely to work unless it is applied very early, more drastically, and makes more use of local government and if necessary the armed forces.
  • The failure of test and trace to deliver to the required standard was part of the reason for the abolition of Public Health England.  The work of NHS staff on the ground has been heroic, the operations of the NHS as an institution more mixed.  Covid-19 has re-raised the question of whether the Lansley reforms were mistaken in putting parts of the system at arms-length from political control .
  • If the NHS is not menaced by collapse, test and trace systems don’t work as well as they should, and no vaccines are available, the strategic choices narrow to lockdowns or voluntarism.  In those circumstances, Ministers need advice from economists as well as epidemiologists, and SAGE needs widening in future to this effect – as it has conceded itself.
  • The Civil Contingencies Act would have allowed for more Parliamentary scrutiny of the Government than the Coronavirus Act has done.  There is a very good case for using it during any future pandemic.  Virtual proceedings and the absence of many MPs from Westminster, while necessary, have done nothing to help hold the Government to account, and civil liberties have undoubtedly been compromised.
  • It is understandable that no agreed programme for national online learning, backed by Ofsted inspections, was available when the pandemic broke.  But there still isn’t one second time round, and preparations for one in future will be essential.
  • The Government’s quarantine airports plan will need to be policed – which is a reminder that unpreparedness and delivery failure have stretched across the whole of government: the NHS app bungle, the software cock-up that led to the under-reporting of 16,000 cases, the early problems with PPE, controversies over contracts.
  • Ministers should set out a timetable for an inquiry once it becomes apparent that the vaccination programme is working, variants are under control, and hospitalisation returns to normal: that looks like being some point during the spring.
  • A Parliamentary inquiry would risk dissolving along partisan lines.  A judge-led fact-finding inquiry looks like the only practicable alternative.  There is a case for it offering immunity from prosecution, as in parts of the Grenfell inquiry, in order to help get at the truth.  If the inquiry suggests in its report that Ministers were gravely at fault they will be compelled to resign in any event.

We’ve tried above to look to the future rather than to blame any of the governments or administrations involved.  And the success of the vaccine programme should be weighed against the failure represented by the death figures – as must the nightmarish burden for Ministers as they, like their equivalents abroad, have sought to grapple with the biggest pandemic in a century.

But as Bernard Jenkin said to this site yesterday: “government must prepare for a mass of possible events, and many of these will be unknown to the public”.  Success against future pandemics may depend on the priority which Ministers give to those preparations against the claims of a mass of competitors.

Robert Halfon: I’m not a lockdown sceptic. But I am a “school-down” sceptic – and fear for the impact of these closures.

27 Jan

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Media speculation in recent days has suggested that pupils may not be back into the classroom until after Easter. This is despite the previous indication that schools and colleges would reopen after the February half-term, when Lockdown III was announced on January 4.

To be clear, I am not a lockdown sceptic. In fact, I voted for all the Government measures to control the virus. However, I am a “school-down” sceptic. I worry enormously about the impact that prolonged school closures will have on the mental health, social development, academic attainment and safeguarding of children.

The Times this week published a letter from leading clinicians and paediatricians, warning that: “Anxiety, depression and self-harm are all at frightening levels” among our young people, and that: “Parents are showing signs of psychological stress and even breakdown as a result of the pressures of trying to home-school their children and sustain their jobs and businesses”.

At the end of December, Dr Karen Street, an Officer for Mental Health at the RSPCH, wrote about the harrowing 400 per cent increase in eating disorders among young people, in part due to school closures and social isolation.

Mental health is inextricably linked to children’s ability to learn and their attainment outcomes. The Department for Education’s own pre-pandemic study found that pupils’ wellbeing also predicted their later academic progression. For example, children with better wellbeing at age seven had a value-added key stage two score 2.46 points higher (equivalent to more than one term’s progress) than pupils with poorer wellbeing.

We know that education inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The IFS’s New Year Message report stated that “a long-term consequence of the pandemic will be to halt, or even reverse” the closing of the attainment gap.

So now, more than ever, children need to be in the right headspace to learn.

The Department for Education’s roll-out of more than one million devices for children on the wrong side of the digital divide will undoubtedly make a difference. But for all the laptops in the world, children need to have the motivation to open them, study independently at home, and have the support from parents, which may not always be possible if the parents are struggling with work, alongside looking after their kids. Millions of laptops also doesn’t necessarily mean we deal with the huge mental health problems now faced by many pupils.

So, what is needed? A mental health practitioner available to pupils, parents and school staff, stationed in every school, both online and in person. Place2Be, for example, worked with 33,000 children and young people last year and delivered 29,869 support sessions for parents. The charity’s impact assessment states that 81 per cent of those with severe difficulties showed an improvement in their mental health.

What’s more, those pupils receiving one-to-one support were able to keep pace academically with their peers (of the same attainment and background characteristics), suggesting that the possible negative impact of their mental health difficulties on their learning were mitigated.

While the Government has invested more in mental health, after the Coronavirus, there is going to be a radical rethink as to how children are supported with mental health and counselling.

A growing source of unease for many pupils, parents and school staff is the lack of certainty or a plan for school reopenings. We need an educational route map out of Coronavirus for schools and colleges.

No one expects a specific date for reopening. Of course, decisions should be guided by the scientific evidence on community cases and transmission rates.

However, school and college staff, pupils and their parents deserve a clear explanation of the criteria and the conditions that need to be met before the Government reopens schools, so that they can prepare.

Public Health England officials concluded this week from its monitoring of infections in schools that: “There’s a strong case for primary schools to reopen” after the February half-term, “once infection rates start falling and are sufficiently low to allow easing of national lockdown measures” and that the “evidence is building to show that primaries are a safe environment.”

Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, told my Education Select Committee last week that: “School children definitely can transmit infection in schools. They can transmit it in any environment. But it is not a significant driver, as yet, as far as we can see, of large-scale community infections. Rather it is the other way round, that if there is a rise in community rates, you will see a rise in children as well.”

For all these reasons, we must get schools open again and sooner rather than later. In areas of the country – or in primaries – where the science suggests it would be safe for schools to reopen, they absolutely must do so.

Regular testing of pupils and staff will be important to keep schools open safely. That is why I, alongside Miriam Cates MP, and nine other MPs, wrote to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation should also look at making teachers and support staff a priority for vaccinations – purely, on the basis it will mean schools can open sooner rather than later.

Interestingly, there is a growing coalition to get schools reopen again – not just the parent group, UsforThem, but children and young people’s charities.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has added to the calls for clarity, saying: “Children are more withdrawn, they are suffering in terms of isolation, confidence levels are falling, and some have serious issues…Families will need hope and clarity about what comes next, and that of course is what the speculation we’re hearing really feeds into, that confusion.”

It is worth noting that not all teaching unions are opposed to educational professionals being back at school. As Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the Today programme on Monday: “Without anybody jumping the queue over vulnerable people… if you’re able to give the reassurance to those people working in schools and colleges that they’re not suddenly going to disappear into self-isolation because of vaccinations, starting with the staff, that would be reassuring I think so that we can get some continuity. Similarly, if we are able to do that with children and young people, the same thing.

“But, I don’t know that we need to wait for [vaccinations to reopen schools]. I think if we’ve got a very clear idea of what the scientific principles are, which then lead to the educational principles, could we not have more young people coming into school as appropriate, rather than this revolving door we’ve got at the moment?”

I recognise that the Government is firefighting in dealing with the Coronavirus, but surely one of the most important functions of the engine of the State is to get our schools and colleges open soon. The Secretary of State for Education and the Government should form an education “coalition of the willing” to get all children learning full-time again.

Clive Moffatt: Going green with the lights off. We need a more realistic approach to climate change.

27 Jan

Clive Moffatt founded Moffatt Associates in 1988, and has over 30 years experience in international research, marketing and communications. He was the founder and chairman of the UK Energy Security Group between 2017-19.

The recent Energy White Paper sets out an ambitious UK agenda for the COP26 conference in Glasgow. The scale, complexity and the costs to industry and consumers of what is intended are unprecedented, and much of it has not been thought through.

Right now, there are too many unknowns on the road to 2050. The focus should be on the next 15 years, with policy options evaluated in terms of their likely economic and welfare impact before specific actions are confirmed. Otherwise, there is a huge political risk that the “Green Revolution” will backfire.

Pricing carbon – reducing investment risk

The EU experience showed that using emissions trading to set a carbon price there was a risk that politicians would not stick to the national annual allocation plans and be tempted to adjust the supply of C02 certificates to satisfy energy intensive users. This led to uncertainty over the likely level of the C02 price and a higher cost of capital.

Setting an initial 15-year gradually rising trajectory for the price of carbon would reduce the risk to investors in “green” technologies. It would also underpin a more affordable decline in the use of unabated natural gas and support new investment in renewable generation and provide much-needed tax revenue to finance subsidies and new infrastructure.

To help industry to adjust and protect the competitiveness, consideration should be given to; (a) implementing on a sector and/or company level a system of carbon tax rebates and/or energy efficiency grants based on an agreed plan to reduce industry’s CO2 footprint and (b) imposing a carbon equalisation tax on imports from countries where competing manufacturers operate under a less onerous carbon emissions regime.

Electricity market – looming generation gap

There are simply too many unknowns (eg scale and roll-out of electrification in transport and heating) to allow any sensible 30 year prediction of the future level of electricity demand and its profile.

What we do know is that we face an impending shortage of both baseload and flexible capacity prompted by the demise of coal (2024), the retirement of old nuclear and gas plant aggravated by low operating margin (below the historical 10 per cent ratio of available capacity to demand).

And the answer is not simply more wind.

System balancing – more wind equals more gas

Covid-19 restrictions this year have resulted in a sharp drop (15 per cent) in electricity demand and environmental lobbyists have been quick to highlight that wind has increased its share.

But these figures obscure the fact that the location and variability of wind generation means that more gas generation is required to balance daily demand and supply – i.e: keeping the lights on when either there is too much wind (which has to be paid not to produce) or too little power is generated because the wind is not blowing.

Before any level of additional wind capacity target and auction details are confirmed, more work is needed to evaluate costs and benefits, in particular:

(a) assess the cost to consumers in levies to finance the subsidies required.

(b) the need for significant additional flexible gas generation and

(c) whether the UK supply chain supporting wind power is robust enough to deliver.

Right now, no one knows for certain how much additional baseload and peaking capacity will be needed to support an extra 40GW of wind on the network but these balancing costs will rise sharply and more gas will be needed. (see below)

Nuclear power – no more reactors?

The Government is keen to support a second new EDF reactor at Sizewell because it sees every GW of baseload nuclear power as saving subsidies on weather-dependent renewable energy – but nuclear is more expensive, and wind not the only alternative.

Technological problems and delays have meant that Hinkley Point C with an estimated completion cost of £25bn is the most expensive in the world and the contracted price (set for 35 years) is more than double the current price of electricity. Government support in funding construction of another large reactor could reduce energy output costs, but only marginally. Meanwhile, the technology for smaller modular reactors is only a prototype, and the UK can deliver to scale and at an affordable Cfd contract price compared with falling cost of renewables.

While nuclear power offers a long-term baseload nil carbon supply of electricity, the costs to the taxpayers and consumers cannot be justified, and the time has probably come to withdraw support for any more nuclear power and explore other options.

Transitional role for natural gas

More analysis is needed to (a) quantify the UK’s likely requirement for base and peaking natural gas assuming various optional targets for new wind (b) introducing a long term C02 price (see above) (c) no new nuclear after Hinkley (see above) and (d) devise a new capacity auction/s to underpin targeted new investment in gas generation over next 15 years.

Eventually, with the falling cost of renewables and a gradual rising trajectory for C02, it would make a lot of sense to try and reduce overall capacity incentive and distribution costs by setting staged quantum targets for C02 emissions, and allowing wind with battery storage to compete with large-scale gas with CCS to contract to deliver reliable and flexible energy.

However, this approach now might not attract sufficient new wind and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is still a prototype. What we do know is that CCS is likely to consume more gas, increases electricity costs significantly and that the disposal or utilisation of the CO2 poses costly logistical problems. More work is needed to evaluate the feasibility and costs of CCS before it is made compulsory.

Initial auction bids for gas only could be made CCS compatible with additional capacity incentive contracts available when required eg indexed for capex and opex and with preferential rules for despatch. CCS and carbon intensity targets should not be applied to smaller (localised) flexible gas plant required for only short-term system balancing.

Gas – underpinning physical and price security

Natural gas will be needed for power and heat for the next 20 -30 years, and possibly as source for hydrogen for possible heating and transport. Viability of a hydrogen network has still to be proven, but producing it from natural gas looks in principle to be more cost-effective than electrolysis using masses of additional wind power.

In the debate about electrification – i.e: heat pumps v gas decarbonisation for domestic heating – there are currently too many unknowns and subsidies for energy efficiency and regulations which would force 25 million consumers to undergo the expense of replacing their gas boilers should be deferred pending a detailed economic and welfare analysis.

What is certain is that natural gas has key transitional role to play but the UK will be dependent on imported gas from 2025.

So, policies are urgently required to underpin new investment in gas storage capacity to ensure the integrity of the gas network (inc meeting the expected growth in hydrogen production to fuel heat and transport) and mitigate both wholesale gas and electricity price volatility and sharp rises in consumer energy costs at times of system stress.

COP26 and next steps – four suggested policy principles

(a) What we do should be based on what others do to meet the global challenge;

(b) The transition to net-zero must underpin energy security and affordability;

(c) All net zero policies must have clear domestic economic and welfare benefits ;

(d) Need to encourage market competition in the delivery of least cost solutions.