Gareth Lyon: We need a Public Sector Neutrality Act to rein in politicisation

8 Jan

Gareth Lyon is a former councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

The institutions which we fund through our taxes, and the people who work in them, should be politically neutral. No one should be required to provide financial support to political causes with which they disagree. No one employed in a public body should be able to use that body or their position to advance their own political agenda. Taxpayer funded bodies should use their funds to carry out the work they were commissioned to do – not to lobby for further taxpayer funding.

Four statements which should be utterly uncontroversial, and to which the vast majority of the population would be likely to agree, and yet which are roundly ignored at all tiers of Government in the UK.

From the BBC to the police, from the NHS to teachers, from local government to quangos, and throughout central government and those charities which are largely dependent on taxpayer funding, there is not just an acceptance that certain political agendas can and should be pursued both by individuals and by the institutions themselves – but also a blindness that there could possibly be anything wrong with such behaviour.

As well as wasting time and money, and putting many capable people off working in the public sector, there is also a deep and worrying injustice in our own institutions being politicised in such a way to advance causes which often do not command the democratic support of the majority in this country. This is damaging to trust and the integrity of our state as a whole and undermines the fundamental belief in institutional impartiality without which no modern democracy can function.

That is why we need a Public Sector Neutrality Act to reign in the politicisation we are seeing and to help restore trust in our Government. Some of this Act would codify the requirements for neutrality which do already exist in a piecemeal fashion around our institutions or which have remained unwritten until now; in the way that much of our constitution was before the actions of misguided reformers made this necessary. Other provisions will deal with fresh challenges which emerged in recent years and which have not yet received sufficient attention.

As a starting point I would suggest that four elements would be:

  • A ban on the use of positions within publicly funded organisations to promote political viewpoints. This is something which the new BBC regime has started to indicate an understanding of. There is a particularly nauseating form of caveating which goes on in Twitter biographies and elsewhere, where a person states their employer and their position in a respected publicly funded organisation then seeks to weasel out of professional accountability by stating “all views my own” or something similar. These transparent attempts to borrow the credibility of their employer and the position they are entrusted with is a very visible form of politicisation and is particularly dangerous because it chips at the margins of professional neutrality. It is, however, the margins which are best served by clear lines. Such behaviour needs to be banned.
  • A ban on taxpayer funded lobbying. The TaxPayers’ Alliance estimates that between 2017 and 2019 the UK Government funded lobbying organisations opposed to Government policy to the tune of nearly £40 million. This is however the tip of the iceberg. We also need to take into account the funding provided by organisations which themselves are largely government funded to lobbying organisations, think tanks or campaign groups and to funding provided by local government. We then need to look at the funding which these bodies spend on professional lobbyists – either directly employed under a variety of titles, or through public affairs agencies and the amount of senior leadership time which is spent in such lobbying. It is fundamentally wrong for the taxpayer to bankroll one body they are forced to fund, to lobby another body they are forced to fund, in favour of its own institutional agenda. This has a distorting effect on Government policy, is incredibly wasteful of taxpayer funding, and has a significant drag effect on Government energy and decision-making as it is forced to in effect, spend precious time and energy talking to itself.
  • A ban on publicly funded organisations supporting political organisations or campaigns. A tighter definition of political organisations and campaigns is needed to ensure that publicly funded organisations do not contribute funding, or signal their support for organisations which have political aims. Recent examples of where public sector organisations have clearly overstepped the line include police forces becoming supporters of Stonewall, and local authorities and numerous senior officials in central Government signalling their support for Black Lives Matter. These are both clearly organisations with political aims and positions and should be regarded as just as much of an issue as one of these organisations or figures declaring their support for a political party would be – with obvious implications for the level of trust people with different political views can have in such bodies.
  • A more extensive set of restrictions on public sector employees holding positions in political parties. This may be the most contentious of these proposals but is surely a logical extension of restrictions which are already widely accepted. There are whole arms of the British state – such as the Armed Forces, where those employed are barred from holding political office or office in political parties. There are others, such as local Government and the civil service, where employees below a certain level of seniority are permitted to do so. The logic seems to be that such people are not in senior enough positions for any political bias to be either visible or concerning. If this has ever been the case it is surely not now.

An IT technician, a media officer, a lawyer or even a policy officer will potentially find themselves in positions where they have access to politically sensitive materials. As people can hold these roles at relatively junior levels it is only right that the restrictions should apply. At a time when it is becoming easier than ever to leak politically sensitive matters, and when the political leanings of staff may be more apparent than ever through social media, such a move would certainly increase confidence amongst the elected politicians they work with and for.

This is not an exhaustive list – clearly many others will have ideas for areas where the causes of trust, transparency, and fairness in public life need urgent protection.

Gareth Lyon: Reforming social care must include an increase in the supply of accommodation. More choice is needed.

7 Oct

Gareth Lyon is the Head of Policy and Communications at the Associated Retirement Community Operators. He is a former councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

Whilst the recently announced delay to the Government’s proposals on reforming social care will come as a big disappointment to a sector which has been lacking in political and policy direction for a long time, there may be a silver lining if this is used as an opportunity to reframe the debate away from the demand side hole it is stuck in right now – ie, how care is to be funded. Important though that is, we must also look at the opportunities presented by supply-side reform and how care is delivered.

Of course social care is not sufficiently well funded in this country and something needs to be done about it. Part of the solution may well lie though, in structuring services so that people actually choose to fund their own care by buying in to a wider package including lifestyle and wellness offerings as well as convenience and the ability to avoid financial hassle and risk.

This is certainly one of the lessons the UK can learn from Australia and New Zealand where the shape of the care system is very different to over here, and where far greater choice of options exists.

A major feature of the care landscape in those countries is retirement villages, known in the UK by a variety of terms including Extra Care and Retirement Communities. They combine the benefits of older people being able to live in a home of their own (with every resident owning or renting a flat or bungalow) and the security of 24-hour onsite staffing, the provision of high quality onsite care, and the availability of onsite facilities such as restaurants, gyms, allotments, bars, swimming pools etc.

Older people choose to move into a retirement community because of these advantages, the social benefits of having a community available onsite, and the well documented health and wellness advantages which make it much less likely that they will end up in a care home or residential home.

Retirement communities are fundamentally different to the sheltered housing or retirement flats we are familiar with in this country – not just because of the provision of care and facilities, but also because of how they operate – the developers not just building out and moving on, but staying onsite and providing these services funded by service charges and fees tied to the value of the property when people come to selling on.

The result of this is that the care which is provided onsite is subsidised out of the fees which people voluntarily choose to pay. Care which reduces the strain on the wider social care system and which would not otherwise have received this funding.

There is a clear lesson to be learned here – that contrary to all public policy presumptions at the moment, people need not be forced to pay for care. By providing the right package of services people are prepared to pay for it themselves.

A very high proportion of older people own their own homes and are at least theoretically in a position to take up this opportunity. For those who do not, the UK already has a well respected affordable housing version of retirement communities, which is well placed to expand and form one of the centre pieces of a new system.

As things stand, in the UK our retirement communities sector provides about a tenth of the capacity per head of population that the New Zealand and Australian sectors do. For this sector to play a role there will need to be significant growth – and fast.

It is interesting that investors appear to have detected the opportunity presented by new forms of provision before policymakers have. Major long-term capital investors such as Legal & General, AXA, Schroders, and Bupa have all made and are making investments in the nascent UK retirement community sector.

It is however clear that, as with any new sector, new and adapted regulation, specifically in relation to planning, consumer protection, and leases is needed. Early indications are that the Government understands that something needs to be done but has not yet found the administrative capacity to do it.

Yet compared to the much more intractable challenges of securing consensus on funding reform for the wider social care system, and with several months set to elapse before that fight even begins, there is certainly something to be said for the Government dedicating at least some of its energies to the supply side options already presenting themselves now.

Gareth Lyon: In defence of district councils

3 Sep

Gareth Lyon is a former councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

We are now approaching the inevitable and tragic culmination of efforts to undermine District Councils.

At this stage, to have the opportunity to extol the good that borough and district councils do, feels more like being given the opportunity to bury, rather than to praise them.

It is increasingly regarded as an open secret that the Government sees the future of local government as lying in massive county-wide unitary councils, possibly supplemented by a patchwork of parish councils.

This outcome will come as no surprise to those of us who have followed closely the treatment of district and borough councils over recent decades.

Whist there surely has not been a deliberate strategy to systematically undermine district councils and prevent them from functioning as effectively as they can, it is sometimes hard to discern how such a strategy would manifest itself differently from the effects of the cruel and negligent treatment of this tier of councils by successive Governments.

By way of context, the UK is already something of an outlier in Europe in terms of the average size of the lowest tier of local government, its funding and its powers. France, Spain and Germany in particular, entrust far more responsibility to bodies equal to, or smaller, in size than English district and borough councils.

Yet district and borough councils are a very prominent feature of local political life in the UK, and almost always the arrangement of responsibilities means that they are on a hiding to nothing.

Taking Council Tax as an example. Being a tax which must specifically be paid as opposed to being deducted automatically like PAYE or NI it is consistently amongst the most noticed and most hated taxes in the country.

It is well known that your local council will arrange collection of this (and other understandably unpopular taxes like business rates); what is less well understood is how little of this tax is actually collected for the district/borough itself to use.

Indeed, many districts and boroughs I know are obliged to hand over more than 90 per cent of what they collect to other less local and less accessible authorities, such as the county council, fire service, or Police and Crime Commissioner.

This may seem like a small point but it should not be underestimated how much responsibility people will ascribe to the authority whose headed notepaper they receive their tax demand on.

In many cases, district and borough councils have managed to freeze or reduce their Council Tax charge without this even being noticed by their electorate as it is more than cancelled out by substantial increases from other authorities.

This leaves districts and boroughs as the unloved collectors of money due to others while having no say in its spend.

The situation is, if anything, even wore on Business Rates. This absurd tax is divided between the various tiers of Government, with councils facing tax revenues being “clawed back” by central Government if they succeed in fostering local businesses, boosting economic activity, and ultimately receipts by too much… yet facing the full force of economic headwinds if substantial local businesses get into trouble, relocate, or downsize.

This awkward position, of being consistently in the frame for decisions which are made elsewhere and imposed locally – with districts and borough as the most accessible and identifiable local representation taking the blame is now established in almost every area of council activity.

In key competencies such as planning and development and licensing, councils room for manoeuvre has been strictly limited for some time – with central Government and an army of unaccountable and remote inspectors being able to overrule decisions at the drop of a hat.

Over recent years though this has extended into many new areas by the back door – local councils are responsible for attracting and fostering local businesses, except that all the decisions about key infrastructure to support businesses are made at a regional or national level.

Local councils usually have responsibility for parking, except that county councils have the ability to use the trump card of responsibility for highways to effectively dictate policy – along of course with the Government’s green agenda balancing the scales further against car users.

Councils have responsibility for recycling and numerous environmental matters – but the heavy hand of central Government is starting to fall here too – often with no appreciation for local factors or demographics.

With these and dozens of other wounds being administered to the body of district and borough councils it could be argued that the Government may be considering the right thing in handing everything over to vast unitary authorities – even if they may have been a party to the assassination.

Yet this is to ignore the fact that it is much easier for most people to get to know their local councillor and to raise issues with them. It is to ignore the fact that there are massive differences between Aldershot at one end of Hampshire and the New Forest on the other – and that local identities matter in politics.

Ultimately there is a risk that the Government ignores the wishes of local people to have the power to make more of the political decisions which affect their lives.

One could even argue that it is time for those driving such thinking to get out London and meet some people who are not centralising special advisors…

 

Gareth Lyon: Rushmoor has reinvigorated its old town twinning approach to business and economic development.

16 Jul

Cllr Gareth Lyon is a former councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

In 1908, a pioneering American showman by the name of Samuel Cody, who had drawn inspiration from European innovation and Chinese kite design, undertook the first successful manned aeroplane flight in the UK. Since then Farnborough has been proud of its heritage as the home of British flight – and has retained a resolutely international outlook.

As well as being home to a huge number of cutting edge British, American, and European companies, it also is the home of the UK’s largest private airport – and the world’s best airshow.

Together with Aldershot – proudly home of the British army and also the possessor of a global reputation – it forms Rushmoor. This area is now pioneering a new wave of innovations and international links which are enriching the lives of its residents, attracting huge levels of business investment, innovation, and creativity. All of this whilst proudly building on its history and being sure of its place in the world.

In recent years, Rushmoor has made the decision to reinvigorate its old town twinning approach by bringing in a fresh focus on business and economic development. To this end, the highly respected Rushmoor International Association has worked with local businesses, museums, and the airport to forge links with Dayton, Ohio and Rzeszow in Poland. Both of these towns are the homes of aviation in their own countries and continue to serve as hubs of innovation and expertise in this field.

These international links are real and meaningful on a number of levels – not just to local and international businesses in aviation and associated fields, but also culturally – with local aviation enthusiasts having been crucial in establishing them. The cultural ties are now being embedded and are delivering for the borough as a whole – as the old town twinning practices of involving schools, sports clubs, and the arts, continues to hold sway.

In concrete terms it is certain that major investments such as the Farnborough International Conference Centre and Gulf Stream’s decision to locate its European headquarters in Farnborough are down to both these international links and the global ethos which exists behind them. On a local level too we are seeing the effect of this – with Rushmoor being consistently in the top few areas in the country for both patents and employment year on year.

Aldershot too has been pioneering based on its historical strengths. In recent weeks we have received formal notification from the Embassy of Nepal that the application to build an international link between Aldershot and the municipality of Gorkha. This is both a recognition of the deep and heartfelt friendship between the two areas, courtesy of the Gurkha forces serving in the British Army which have been stationed in Aldershot for much of their history, and of a desire to build stronger and better connections.

Somewhere between five and ten per cent of our local population are thought to be Nepalese or of Nepalese origin and they are a community which is well represented in the ranks of local businesses, voluntary groups, community groups (including the local Conservative Party), as well as of course our armed forces.

Formally recognising these links with Nepal and making it easier for business, education, culture, and mutual understanding to be established between these areas will be much to the benefit of both.

And of course, it goes without saying that as a well-run Conservative council, Rushmoor is not splurging taxpayers money on these partnerships nor funding councillors’ junkets for fact-finding missions etc. These partnerships are organic, community-led, and backed by business – and are all the more sustainable and meaningful for being so.

These new global partnerships exist alongside the old and important ties we have built with European friends – such as Meudon in France and Oberursel in Germany. I am confident that these will continue to be valued and meaningful in future.

It is this approach of building on our shared history and values, incorporating new approaches, innovation, business, and growth whilst retaining a cultural focus and a friendship with our European neighbours which should serve a model for how towns across Britain can thrive in future.

Indeed there are lessons here for the UK as a whole. Take heed and take flight.