John Baron: A shortfall in funding threatens the British Council’s future. The Government must act now to protect this crucial institution.

2 Jun

John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.

Since 1934 the British Council been promoting British culture, education and the English language abroad, as well as facilitating cultural exchanges and building trust between the UK and other countries.

Along with the BBC World Service it is one of the “jewels in the crown” of British soft power, and a key reason why the UK is often termed a “soft power superpower”. And yet, because of a shortfall in funding of around £10 million, the Government is about to make a poor strategic decision in overseeing the largest single set of closures in the British Council’s near 90-year history.

The Prime Minister, himself a former Foreign Secretary with direct experience of the British Council’s excellent work overseas, highlighted the organisation’s value to the UK in his personal foreword to the Government’s recently-launched Integrated Review. This was mirrored in the Defence Secretary’s response to me in the House of Commons when he said that “in my opinion there is not enough of the British Council around the world”. However, circumstances suggest the opposite may soon be the case.

Sadly the Coronavirus pandemic hit the British Council hard, as the commercial activities which provide the overwhelming amount of its income in usual times almost completely ceased with the lockdowns across the world. Only 15 per cent of the British Council’s income comes from its government grant, which compares favourably to its French, German and Japanese equivalents which receive 48, 62 and 65 per cent respectively.

After a precarious few months, the Government made good on the Prime Minister’s commitment at PMQs in March 2020 to support the British Council by providing a comprehensive amount of financial support while the commercial activities restart. These should be restored to their pre-pandemic levels in about three years’ time, after which the organisation should be self-sustaining with its small FCDO grant.

Nevertheless, there remains a shortfall of about £10 million between the amount of financial support provided by the Government and what is required to run the British Council’s existing international network and programming.

Unfortunately a recently-published exchange of letters between Tom Tugendhat, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and the Foreign Secretary confirms this shortfall will not be made up by the Government, and consequently that the British Council will have to cease some of its non-formal education programming and close its in-country activity in a number of countries. Even closing five offices would mean the largest set of closures in the British Council’s near 90-year history.

Such a retreat from the international stage is not in keeping with the idea of “Global Britain”, and it is at odds with the Government’s ambitions as set out in the Integrated Review. Instead, the Government should think strategically about our soft power and take the longer view, rather than making short-term decisions which in the coming years we may regret. After all, withdrawing from a country will leave a vacuum which other countries will be sure to fill.

In recent months the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group, of which I am Chairman, has been conducting a rear-guard action “under the radar” to persuade the Government to think again and find the missing £10 million which would make these damaging closures unnecessary. We will now be moving to a wider campaign in Parliament and elsewhere on behalf of a great British institution which magnifies our influence across the world.

John Baron: When our troops depart Afghanistan, they leave the dream of ‘liberal intervention’ behind

4 May

John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.

After 20 years, Joe Biden is drawing the United States’ longest war to a close. All remaining US troops will leave the country by 11th September 2021, along with the 7,000 troops of other nations, including Britain, whose presence in Afghanistan without their American allies is unsustainable.

This brings to a close another misguided intervention. The lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria need to be heeded as we come to realise that, while always maintaining our guard against terrorism, the greater danger to our security was always potentially hostile nation states.

Biden is the fourth US President to oversee the war in Afghanistan, and as Vice-President was noted for his attempts to dissuade Barack Obama from his troop surge at the beginning of his first term. It appears he has not deviated from his views that an ongoing military presence is unlikely to achieve a winning position any time soon.

My parliamentary career has been punctuated by my resistance to overseas military deployments, largely driven by my concerns that we, in Britain and in the West more generally, have a tendency to rush into situations without fully understanding the situation on the ground, what we wish to achieve or how we intend to do it – and therefore do not resource operations correctly and have no clear exit strategy. These interventions also served as a distraction from greater dangers elsewhere.

Afghanistan is unfortunately a strong example of this. I did not oppose the initial intervention after the terrorist outrages on 11th September 2001 – it made good sense to rid the country of the relatively small number of international terrorists who had made the country their base. The initial light deployment of special forces, backed by friendly Afghans and 21st-century technology, was successful. Those in al-Qaeda who stood and fought were quickly destroyed, and many of the survivors quickly crossed the borders.

However, once this had been achieved, rather than winding up the mission the British Government and its allies greatly expanded the scope of the deployment to include wholesale reform of Afghanistan and Afghan society in pursuit of goals such as human rights, western-style democracy, and the rule of law.

This drift into nation-building, which I strongly opposed, required the defeat of the Taliban who, though brutal in their dealings with the Afghan people, had never been our enemy – it was al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, who attacked on 11th September.

The international troop deployment was never sufficient to hold the whole country, nor seal its porous borders – an essential part of fighting any insurgency.

Meanwhile, the international community, led by the United States, undermined any diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban with unrealistic and impossible preconditions. Insisting on the Taliban laying down their arms and accepting the new Afghan constitution before even agreeing to any talks, as the US did for many years, meant that no substantive progress was possible. It was Donald Trump who finally began the process of negotiations that have led us to this point.

In now announcing that the US will pull out of Afghanistan by September, come what may, Biden has provided little incentive for the Taliban to keep to any agreement with the Americans – some strategic patience on their behalf perhaps confirming the glib assertion that ‘the West may have the clocks, but we have the time’.

Though the President and other international allies have pledged to support the Afghan Government, it remains to be seen how well they will be able to resist the predations of the Taliban without the presence of foreign troops. Indeed, the present deployment of some 10,000 NATO troops, including 2,500 American and about 750 British soldiers, largely on training duties in support of Afghan Government forces, is seemingly holding the line with very small international casualties in recent years, even as their Afghan allies are losing a significant number of men.

It is clear that British commanders are unnerved by the announcement of the American withdrawal, which suggests a concerning lack of communication between allies, amid concerns that a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan might mirror the hasty US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which left the Iraqi Government exposed when Daesh attacked a few years later.

Nevertheless, I am pleased that the military deployment in Afghanistan is coming to a close and that the laudable but misguided ideology of ‘liberal interventionism’ has largely faded into obscurity. This has taken some time – as Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron once correctly observed that it is impossible to drop a fully-formed democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet, but this did not prevent him as Prime Minister from attempting military interventions in Libya, Syria and Iraq, largely without success.

However, Theresa May’s 2017 assertion in Philadelphia that ‘the days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our image are over’ suggests this experience has finally been definitively heeded, a fact underlined by her careful and limited involvement in the international air strikes against the Assad Government later that year.

There will always be a role for British forces to play a role on the international stage, but the idea of wholesale ‘regime change’ for altruistic reasons, as we attempted in Afghanistan for too long, has had its day. Time now to focus on greater dangers.

John Baron: Torching quangos, scrapping cash – Sunak’s Budget should break with the past

26 Jan

John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.

Early March will see Rishi Sunak deliver this year’s Budget at an important juncture. A huge financial blackhole courtesy of much-needed Covid support packages presents stark choices.

If the left-leaning preference for higher taxes, and therefore slower growth, is to be avoided then the right savings need to be made to fund deserving causes.

He will not be short of suggestions – this piece is yet another suggesting the previously unthinkable, and that the culling of various white elephants would leave plenty of firepower in the Treasury’s coffers, with change to spare.

Even before the pandemic, talk of the budget deficit shrinking could not conceal the inconvenient truth that the UK (and developed world generally) was adding to its already enormous debt pile. The interest payments needed to service this debt totals more than the entire spending of some Government departments, including the Ministry of Defence.

Short of a globally-coordinated debt amnesty, this is a time for bold decisions if the country is to break free of the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world of quantitative easing – which distorts prices and incentives, and stores numerous troubles. So what of the previously unthinkable should the Chancellor consider?

Cash should be banished. It is difficult to measure the extent of the black market but, given the apparent prevalence of cash transactions for work undertaken which is not declared to the taxman, it could be considerable. A significant one-off lift in the country’s GDP would result, and this would be followed by consistent increased tax returns thereafter. Technology now allows us to pay for everything, no matter how small the expense. If petty cash is deemed necessary, then only allow coinage in circulation.

Next, the myriad of quangos which has grown unchecked over recent decades needs be culled. Analysis from the Taxpayers’ Alliance suggests that tackling the web of quangos and related public bodies could save a significant proportion of the £206 billion these bodies currently cost in total. Even a modest reduction would save many billions.

Every new government boasts of plans for a ‘bonfire of the quangos’. With an 80-seat majority, now is the time to finally light the kindling.

In addition, as a long-term sceptic, I again urge the Chancellor to scrap High Speed Two. Advances in telecommunications which enable people to work as productively on the move as at the office have rendered it redundant, and the growth of home working during this pandemic should be the last nail in the coffin. Last year’s Oakervee Review stated that £9 billion has been spent so far, of which between £2-3 billion should be recoverable through land and property sales. Together with wind-up costs, this could result in savings of up to £80 billion – and perhaps more if cost estimates keep rising.

We should also explore whether to tax profits on home sales, or increase Stamp Duty, while ensuring fairness for those starting in life. This would also help to reduce income inequality over time.

Recent research by the Stockholm School of Economics explored why the ‘rich keep getting richer’ by measuring the performance of different income groups – such surveys being the most reliable globally because they report on total wealth, including house values. It found the top households did much better than the median not because of better investment strategies but because they could afford to take on more risk courtesy of, for example, a managed portfolio of different assets which has performed better than house values over time.

Such a tax would help to level the playing field between different types of investment, provided government also encouraged investment in pensions and ISAs.

This policy should be complemented by a significant reduction in taxes for a more productive part of the economy – the corporate sector, especially for smaller businesses given they tend to be more dynamic and employ more people. This would give entrepreneurs a welcome shot in the arm as well as attract further inward investment. We should not forget Donald Trump did not get everything wrong – his decision to slash corporation tax from 35 per cent to 21 per cent contributed to record tax receipts flowing into US government coffers.

Indeed, the Government should consider reducing taxes more generally. Evidence worldwide, as illustrated by the Laffer Curve, reminds us how tax reductions can increase the overall tax take – George Osborne’s cut of the top rate of tax raked in far more than Gordon Brown’s 50 per cent rate ever did. It also leaves more money in peoples’ pockets to spend as they wish.

The Chancellor should also use our new-found status and freedoms outside the EU to our advantage. If not already done, he should commission a wide-ranging review as to the new opportunities. Many of us suggested improvements to financial regulation during the recent passage of the Financial Services Bill, but there are many others. We should ensure our nimbleness outside the juggernaut of EU regulation is distinctive – our stealing a vaccine march on the lumbering EU shows what can be achieved.

As such, in addition to funding tax reductions, the Chancellor should increase still further the National Living Wage, and to keep increasing it well above inflation in the years ahead. This will boost the take-home pay of the lowest paid and make work more financially rewarding, while businesses would be compensated by the cuts to corporation tax. Together with a controlled immigration policy, it would also encourage higher research and development and so help productivity. Personal allowances should also be consistently increased ahead of inflation.

The Conservative Party is nothing if it does not deliver its One Nation agenda – a strong economy being a means to an end to better help those less fortunate. Such a policy would serve to reduce the state’s role in individual’s finances and reduce bureaucracy over time. It should also assuage concerns about any political fallout from placing higher taxes on residential property, if properly presented.

In pursuing the agenda, the Government should always aim to ‘level up’ rather than down. Otherwise, enterprise and entrepreneurship, key ingredients of a prosperous society, will wither and we will be the poorer for it. As such, it should consider spending even more on encouraging emerging technologies (such as artificial intelligence, robotics and fintech), renewables, and other innovations to ensure British businesses remain at the cutting edge of new developments.

A global Britain requires a vision not confined by the failed policies of the past. It is important to take the right turn at this juncture, as economic prosperity is the best way of moving the country on from the Brexit debate. It is also the best way of reducing the debt pile over time.

Some of these policies would be best introduced during the early period of an administration which boasts a strong majority – so this is the time for Sunak and Boris Johnson to step up.