Greig Baker: I’ve been a Conservative member for the past 20 years – but vaccine passports have pushed me to my limit

28 Jul

Greig Baker is a former Chairman of the Canterbury Conservatives Association.

I am enormously proud to have been a Conservative member for the past 20 years, but I just can’t do it anymore. The threat of vaccine passports is the straw that is breaking this camel’s back.

I have supported the party through the rough and smooth. I have loved some of the things we have achieved (like saving the country in the ‘80s, gay marriage, and vaccines) and have had some doubts about others (I’d rather give tax breaks to entrepreneurs tackling climate change than ban things or fine people, for example).

But all told, I understand that being in a party is about sharing a broad set of beliefs and helping each other promote solutions, finding common ground with people and working to reach practical solutions that actually achieve stuff, rather than being a purist all the time.

Basically, until now I have been confident that being a Conservative meant helping to make things better for the people who need help most.

That confidence started to take a hit when the Government assumed far-reaching emergency powers early last year. Lockdown followed lockdown, laws gave local “emanations of the state” (to use a phrase from the PM’s past) the ability to detain people they simply “suspect” have Covid, and people were banned from seeing family, meeting friends, or shacking up with someone they fancy. Every measure was felt most keenly by people who could least afford to bear the burden.

But fine, we didn’t know what we were dealing with and maybe it was best to be cautious. Maybe it was right to borrow hundreds of billions of pounds, too. I honestly don’t know for sure either way.

What I do know is that making everyday life conditional on medical status from now on, or even just threatening to do so, is not what I thought Conservatism was all about.

I don’t want a vaccine passport and I don’t want anyone else to be coerced into having one either. I don’t want the Government spending vast sums on a system that could give the wrong people access to health records, is open to fraud, would discriminate by age and ethnicity, create new burdens on business, discourage personal responsibility and that would inevitably be used in an ever growing list of places for an ever growing list of reasons.

Precedents are called precedents because they are followed. Show your vaccine passport at the football or voting booth to prove you haven’t got flu or shingles, anyone? Presumably, that is, unless you’re on important “Government Business”…

If, in the best possible case, ministers espousing this kind of “certification” are just flying a kite to test public reaction, then I think that kite needs shooting down as quickly as possible. And if they are actually planning to introduce vaccine passports through the front, back, or any other door, I think that door needs to be slammed shut and double bolted right now.

Surely mandatory vaccines and certifications for inspection go against everything it means to be a Conservative? How on earth does a belief in personal responsibility, limited intervention and faith in your neighbour marry up with demanding to see vaccine passports?

I do see reasons for hope. MPs like Steve Baker (no relation) and Mark Harper offer constructive scrutiny of the restrictions we have faced or could be lumbered with.

Backbenchers gave another term at the head of the ’22 to Graham Brady, too, which says something important about how our MPs view their role and the best way to support the Government. I have also been reassured every time a minister has promised not to introduce a mandatory health certificate that would dramatically extend the state’s reach into our daily lives – I just wish they’d stick to it.

The prospect of vaccine passports, the creation of a more interventionist state, and the higher taxes that would be needed to pay for it, leave me cold. I just can’t feel comfortable with these proposals – let alone summon the will to go out and try to convince voters of them.

Membership has been a big part of my life and I have met true friends through the party. I sincerely wish them well and I get it when they say that it’s better to stay in and try to change things from the inside. I really hope they can.

But I can’t be a member of a party that makes people’s ability to go about their daily lives conditional on undergoing a medical procedure and then proving they’ve done so to anyone who asks. This seems to be counter to everything we stand for.

Of course, the party is so much bigger than any one person and, rightly, it will barely notice my leaving. But I hope senior Conservatives take a moment to think how some of the grassroots feel about our slide towards a state of affairs where the Government dictates terms in every area of normal life. I know I am not alone in my worries about this – just look at my Twitter feed.

I would be delighted if someone could reassure me that my idea of being a Conservative has not been wrong all these years. Indeed, if the PM could regain the enthusiasm for a truly liberal approach to Government that he showed in the years before he took office, I’m all ears.

Greig Baker: Council borrowing was meant to fund public works improvements – not speculative investments

25 Aug

Greig Baker is the Chairman of the Canterbury Conservatives Association.

The ice edges of Norwegian glaciers that have held their secrets for millennia are being slowly forced back by searing temperatures. As the white stuff disappears, archaeologists are being presented with Viking walking sticks, weapons, and even human remains that haven’t seen daylight in generations. While the summer sunshine is also beating down on our own villages and towns, it is the COVID-inspired lockdown, rather than the unseasonal weather, that is lifting the veil on some of our Local Authorities’ age-old secrets. Unfortunately, the discoveries are often just as grisly as anything you might find in a Norseman’s fjord.

Worse, our Councils’ artefacts have little to do with some ancient Danegeld and everything to do with the pound in your pocket right now. Because the national lockdown has revealed the flaws in ludicrously ambitious gambles taken by many Councils that decided to become speculative property investors, placing bets on your behalf with debt doled out by the ‘Public Works Loan Board’, or PWLB.

The PWLB is different to most lenders. For a start, it has, until recently, been formally led by twelve Commissioners on behalf of the Crown, using powers dating back to 1875. More importantly, it also takes a rather unusual approach to approving loans to Councils asking to take out debt on your behalf: there is no assessment of a Council’s ability to repay; no investigation into how the money will be used; and no paper trail, because all applications have to be made by phone with funds normally issued within two days. To further sweeten the deal, the PWLB lets Councils take out large loans at cheaper-than-market rates – normally around 1.91 per cent for a 5 year loan and around 2.45 per cent for a 45 year loan.

Unsurprisingly, Councils have been rushing headlong into these new debt deals. It is not uncommon for the PWLB to issue more than 1,000 loans a year, taking the outstanding principal owed by Councils to more than £85.7 billion at the last count. Now, the cost of COVID might have taken some of the shock out of such figures, but when you get up around the £90 billion figure, then pretty soon you’re talking real money (actually, about £1,400 of new debt for every individual woman, man and child in the country).

That debt is not evenly spread between Councils, either, since a few have chosen to make their own mountains out of it. A handful of Local Authorities with existing extensive PWLB debt are the most likely to apply for additional loans – partly because of their familiarity with the system and partly because of their growing reliance upon it. The National Audit Office reports that 80 per cent of the cumulative PWLB spending used to buy commercial property is done by only 14 per cent of Local Authorities.

And that’s where the real rub lies. The PWLB was originally established to fund essential capital projects specific to local areas. But some of our more ‘inventive’ Councils have been using these loans to gamble on commercial property purchases (incredibly, often outside their local patch), hoping that the rent from private tenants would cover overspending elsewhere. The most active of these Councils have really been getting stuck in, with a handful ramping up their median gross external borrowing levels from three per cent of their spending power in 2015-16 to 756 per cent of their spending power in 2018-19. To put that in practical terms, one Council with gross annual income of about £70 million took on £380 million of debt to fund just one deal – effectively making them major property speculators that only dabble in public services.

There are three big problems with all of this.

First, most voters don’t know it is happening – and they probably wouldn’t appreciate their Council taking on risky debts to drive up local property prices if they did. The NAO warns there is “insufficient transparency and reporting to elected members or the public; limited internal challenge to decision making; [and] reduced governance to enable faster decision-making”. That can’t be good.

Second, the Council Officers designing these debt-funded speculations, and the Councillors signing them off, rarely have any particular idea what they’re getting into. Using vast amounts of debt to buy commercial property on the high street – when online shopping was already changing the business case for it, even before visitors were locked down and locked out – must rank up there with Gordon selling the gold as an astute investment decision. They have been betting on red when the roulette ball has been comfortably settled on black for some time.

And third, like a racetrack loser hoping for one last chance to get back level, as things go belly up, profligate Councils will claim Whitehall did not give them enough money in the first place and, worse, turn to taxpayers across the country to bail them out.

Thankfully, the new Government is starting to get a handle on things and introduce some accountability to what has been a worryingly opaque system. As of this year, the Treasury has assumed effective control of the PWLB and HMG is trying to ensure investments focus on housing, infrastructure, and front-line services. It has also warned Councils that they should stop making “speculative commercial investments” before they come a cropper.

To be fair, some Councils are also looking at alternative sources of cash, such as issuing debt themselves through a new Municipal Bonds Agency – though this obviously still carries significant risk for the taxpaying public.

In addition, I’d like to see a cultural change. If Councils feel they really have to borrow to boost their area, they could use that money to attract and retain private investment – for example, by continuing the suspension of Business Rates or resisting the temptation to charge for the parking that the public has already paid for (twice). Local Authorities could even remove their own incentive to fund speculation with debt by simply spending less.

In my day job, I run a political intelligence agency and we try to help clients see what’s coming around the corner. For four years, we have been writing briefings about what would happen when the next downturn revealed Councils’ use of PWLB debt and the knock-on effect on Local Authorities’ ability to fund local amenities, spend (and spend effectively) on infrastructure projects, and create a positive environment for local businesses to flourish and genuinely create wealth for local communities. Sadly, that downturn has now come on the heels of a virus.

COVID-19, like some contagious version of melting Scandinavian ice, is going to reveal a lot about local public finances that people would have preferred stayed hidden. It’s worth remembering that state employees, as admirable as some are, rarely have special investment insights. In fact, they are just ordinary people, perhaps even your neighbours and, newly denuded by lockdown, some of their choices about what to do with your money are looking pretty silly.

As archaeologists root around in the Norwegian sludge, I’m reminded of the legend that the Viking god Odin gave an eye in return for knowledge. Now we know how some Councils spend our money, I fear it will cost us an arm and a leg.