Julian Brazier: The Integrated Review is groundbreaking, but doesn’t go far enough in addressing the Army’s weaknesses

19 Jun

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Recent exposure of the weaknesses in the Ajax light tank further fuel the view that the Army has drawn the short straw in the Integrated Review (IR). Its re-equipment programme is in trouble, while many are focused on the cut in regular personnel numbers.

First some context. The IR is genuinely groundbreaking. It prioritises a more powerful Navy (rightly for an island nation with Britain’s maritime tradition) and Strategic Command which owns key portfolios like cyber, space and special forces.

The Review emphasises transformative technologies and artefacts like artificial Intelligence, quantum computing and drones. It recognises that, with civilian technology rapidly evolving, this can only be delivered through a whole force prism: regular forces, reserves, contractors and civil servants (including GCHQ’s experts and civilian technologists).

Against this template, today’s Army is hampered by a grim legacy. First, the bravery and professionalism of our young officers and soldiers was not matched by the wisdom of its senior commanders in the two major Army-led conflicts of the past generation, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The surrender of Basra, and its recovery by a combined force of Iraqis and Americans, was a national humiliation. The “Platoon Houses” strategy in Helmand flew in the face of established principles of war, cost soldiers’ lives, led to the deaths of many civilians in Helmand, and drove angry young Afghans into joining the Taliban. Again, we had to be bailed out, this time by reinforcements from the US Marines.

The resultant heart-rending trickle of returning dead and maimed young men and women fractured public confidence in the Army’s work. As General Sir Nicholas Carter, the current Chief of Defence Staff, has remarked, the British people sympathise with soldiers but have lost empathy for their job. This was compounded by the outsourcing of recruiting a decade ago to Capita whose dismal performance left the Regular Army thousands short and handicapped the growth of the Army Reserve.

It must be hard for the current generation of generals to listen to lectures in the media from their predecessors who bequeathed them this poisoned chalice.

This legacy is worsened by a third factor. While Royal Navy and RAF investment is mainly concentrated in a few huge long-term programmes from Trident successor to Tempest, as the manpower intensive service, the Army has large numbers of smaller programmes, usually with shorter life-cycles. The result has been that, in successive hiatuses in MoD’s finances over the past generation, the easiest option has been to cancel Army’s equipment, leaving it with an ageing portfolio.

The centrepiece of the Army is its warfighting division. Despite new technologies, our major allies – and potential adversaries, like Russia, China and Iran – recognise that armour remains a key component. Britain plans two future tanks: 148 upgraded Challenger main battle tanks and a family of 589 Ajax light armoured vehicles for armoured reconnaissance roles. Sadly, neither is a good story.

Taking Ajax first, reported weaknesses include excessive vibration leading to an inability to fire on the move, damage to the health and hearing of crews, a de facto speed limit of just 20mph, and an inability to reverse over a 20mm step – all this in a role where agility is critical. Nevertheless, the suite of advanced weapon systems for the Ajax family is remarkable and, if these issues can be overcome, offer an important step forward. It is too soon to give up on Ajax – despite the £3 billion already spent.

In contrast, the proposal to re-turret Challenger, has little upside. Fixing an existing gun, in a new turret, to a tank without the matching turret ring, combines high technical risk with depressingly low technological ambition. If, as it is alleged, only one prototype is planned, and the development and production phases will be telescoped, it will also fly in the face of costly lessons of the past. Furthermore, the projected number is too few to be credible or economic.

It would be better to proceed with only one risky programme, Ajax, accept a trough in main battle tank capability, save money in the short term, and then participate in either the American or German programmes for a new generation of tanks.  If Ajax fails, MoD could up the number of those and top up with an off-the-shelf recce vehicle.

Army reformers have moved forward where they can. Sandhurst is full again and soldier recruiting has recovered. Soldier retention has improved too although for officers it has been damaged by the bizarre Future Accommodation Model (FAM), imposed by MoD.

The latter allocates houses based on family size rather than rank so a private with a large family gets the house which a young company commander would have occupied until recently. This is a system used by no other army in the West and discriminatory to those who cannot have children. (It equally affects the RAF, but not the Navy; with its people concentrated in three large coastal cities; owner occupation for naval families is the norm, an option the others cannot follow).

The new programme of “rangers”, second line special forces, is an important innovation, alongside the shift towards more drones, after the lessons from Armenia. Given the tight financial constraints, the choice of Boxer to replace the Warrior as the infantry’s battlefield taxi also looks sound.

The Army Reserve has rebuilt, and reserve units are now routinely carrying out tasks from armoured recce in Poland to peacekeeping in Cyprus to Covid testing here. The Army has also set the pace in integrating senior reservists into their decision making – a process which the RAF and Strategic Command are now following but the Navy, perhaps emboldened by recent financial victories, has studiously avoided. Not surprisingly, the latter are now falling behind in areas like cyber.

Lord Lancaster’s innovative paper FR30 points to additional ways that Defence can grow capability affordably, but emphasises that individual reserve units need to be larger if they are to play the front line roles they do in our English-speaking allies.  More than half the US Army is in the National Guard and USAR, including most infantry brigades. Moving more capability to the reserves makes sense.

What is urgently needed is to halt the Challenger upgrade programmes before more money is wasted, wait to join the next generation of tanks, fix Ajax, and stem the flow of young officers, not least by scrapping FAM. This would enable a credible regular armoured division, backed by a genuine reserve capability which enabled the fielding of a large, capable army at longer notice.

Britain’s army can become the best again, but only if the land forces element of the IR is revisited.

Julian Brazier: A single allowance rate for Inheritance Tax – and five other proposals for making social care more resilient

23 Jan

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

A great deal is currently being written about resilience – normally an underrated subject in politics. Building resilience should not just be about considering major national or global crises, but also involve asking questions about the likelihood of – and the solutions to – more frequent and more local crises. These range from NHS winter pressures to power cuts to cyber and terrorist attacks.

At the same time, there is an overwhelming view today that social care needs urgent reform and greater intervention from government. Yet there seems to be little appetite for considering these two great issues together:  the care of the elderly and its implications for national and local resilience.

This article seeks to show that incentives in current provision, for social care, benefits and tax, are reducing resilience. Some of the current proposals for social care ‘reform’ would worsen this.

The largest category of vulnerable people are those elderly people who cannot live without supporting care. Their domestic circumstances can be divided into four broad categories, listed in descending order of independence:

  • Those still in their original homes (whether owned or rented) with visiting carers,
  • the growing category of those in specially adapted sheltered accommodation
  • those living with family, in so called ‘inter-generational’ arrangements and, finally,
  • those in residential care.

How do these categories measure up for resilience?

At first sight, the least resilient group are those people living in their own, unmodified homes; they are reliant on visiting carers, who may not be able – or willing – to come in a crisis. They are also more likely to fall over or have an episode isolated in surroundings which have not been adapted, are most vulnerable in power cuts, for the same reason, and – crucially – they are often difficult to discharge from hospital.

But there are serious problems with the fourth category too. We have seen the problems with care homes in a pandemic. With their communal eating and recreation facilities, such homes have proved principal vectors of disease.

Equally, they have become a major cause of bed blocking, once the dangers of releasing patients to them was recognised. Britain’s higher-than-European-average concentration of people in residential homes has worsened our death rates and increased pressures on the NHS.

As Conservatives, we should also be concerned that residential care is not only the most expensive arrangement (whoever is picking up the bill). It also, for those fit enough to choose, offers the least independence.

This brings us to the two middle categories above.

Dwelling in adapted accommodation and living with younger family members are both comparatively resilient arrangements, and both are much less expensive than residential care.

They also have other features most Conservatives approve of. They offer a degree of independence absent in residential homes. There is also the potential for free childcare in inter-generational arrangements, or where nearby retirement accommodation has been chosen. Both categories offer an antidote to the loneliness of those still stranded with limited mobility in their original homes.

Any new system which aims to promote resilience should direct incentives towards rewarding, rather than penalising, these two middle categories: those who step down to retirement accommodation and those cared for by their descendants. That is how resilience is maximised.

Yet this is far from the case at present. Our commitment to ring-fencing the principal home for tax and benefit calculation purposes is a great policy, but one which has perverse unintended consequences when applied to transfers between generations. The state ends up penalising the heirs of those who aim for resilience, and rewarding many of those whose parents become most dependent.

For example, if an elderly person struggles on in their own home without much money, the state picks up the bill for their carers, and the potential strain on the NHS is maximised. Yet, if they own that home, their heirs will maximise the windfall when they die, compared to the alternatives. This has been exacerbated by the George Osborne tax break on Inheritance Tax, which greatly increases the exempt allowance, if and only if the inheritance is tied up in bricks and mortar.

On the other hand, suppose the same old person were to sell and move into purpose-built sheltered accommodation. They are less likely to have accidents where design has the frail in mind – and easier to release from hospital especially if there is warden assistance or such accommodation was selected to be close to relatives. Such people are also much less at risk in times of crisis – overall, a resilient arrangement.

Yet, from the point of view of their heirs, their estate diminishes, as the cash released from sale of the home is used to pay carers and service fees. If the original home was worth more than half a million pounds, thanks to the Osborne inheritance tax break, the heirs also face paying more tax than if the parent had soldiered on in the original house.

Similar points can be made about the position of families who look after elderly relatives at home, who have sold or moved out of their own houses. The one incentive such families currently get from the system for providing their loving care (and potentially relieving the state) is the carers’ allowance. Yet it is rumoured that there is a plan afoot to means test that. So, if the arriving parent or relative owns the proceeds of selling a property, that allowance would be lost.

It is time we built the promotion of resilience into our design of social care. My proposals are as follows:

  1. Abolish the Osborne bricks and mortar tax break by re-establishing a single allowance rate for Inheritance Tax.
  2. Extend that principle across the range of tax and benefit policies for the elderly to ensure that there is no financial incentive for potential recipients of inheritances to encourage their parents/relatives to stay in their homes, if they wish to move.
  3. Keep the carer’s allowance universal, so that those caring for relatives at home or in nearby accommodation can continue to draw it.
  4. Resist lobbying from the care sector and residents’ heirs for the taxpayer to take on more of the cost of residential fees to protect inheritances. Despite the political clamour, such proposals would be paid in part from by the taxes of those who are looking after relatives either at home or in neighbouring accommodation. That would doubly incentivise more people to move into residential homes, further increasing cost and – critically – still further reducing national resilience.
  5. Offer tax incentives to the elderly to move out of family homes into sheltered accommodation, including a permanent end to stamp duty on such properties. (Ironically, many councils pay ‘key money’ to release family accommodation but there is no scheme for owner occupiers). Gareth Lyon’s excellent article on this site pointed out how small this sector still is compared with Australia and new Zealand.

Shakespeare’s adage “sorrows … come not as single spies, but in battalions” is apt in the era of globalisation.  We simply do not know what shocks and challenges are just ahead. We must recognise that how we structure social care – and the associated tax and benefit framework for the elderly and their heirs – has profound consequences for resilience in major crises. It is also important for services under pressure in ‘peacetime’.

Julian Brazier: Outdoor residential centres are of huge importance to young people – but they are near closure

26 Oct

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Daily, every organ of the media carries concerns about parts of our economy and wider society which are in desperate straits from Covid. One group which has been largely forgotten, however, are the outdoor residential centres. These provide an opportunity for adventure and outside activity for young people, through schools, scout, guide and other youth groups and summer camps.

As a trustee of the Summer Camps Trust, I have had a briefing from our membership organisations, some of which are household names in the youth adventure sector. The picture is not just bleak, it is dire. The current ruling from the Department for Education is that residential outdoor centres cannot accept overnight bookings. Without some movement on Covid restrictions, the majority of the sector is at risk of closure.

This matters. When so many young people live an indoor life based around social media, when obesity, loneliness and mental illness are increasing, it is surely obvious that giving children and adolescents the opportunity to test themselves in the rugged outdoors and to develop teamwork, leadership and build lasting friendships is important.

In its 2018 report, the CBI commented on: “the central importance of a positive attitude and broader skills such as resilience, communication, problem-solving and aiming high both at work and in life.”

These are all central aspects of what youngsters gain through structured outdoor adventure. Yet in a letter to the Prime Minister, UK Outdoors says:

“Nearly 3000 jobs have already been lost and many outdoor education facilities have permanently closed as over £500m of revenue has been lost… If there is no change before the Spring term, half of outdoor education capacity will be lost permanently alongside over 10,000 jobs.”

Like other industries, such centres have been able to benefit from furlough payments and the sector has tried hard to stay on the front foot, encouraging day visits where practicable, and getting representatives into schools and youth clubs to drum up support for the future.

But this cannot last. Even after making valuable skilled staff redundant, the wage bill for the core has to be paid. Maintenance of buildings, often in exposed locations, cannot stop. This is a sector where margins have always been tight – nobody grows rich in it – so there is little fat to fall back on. The same restrictions are wrecking the cadet movement, preventing them from using either those same residential centres or MoD property.

So why is this happening? The most recent letter from the Department for Education to those raising concerns quotes the following advice for schools on residential educational visits:

“Public Health England has advised that the resumption of residential visits will unnecessarily increase the risk of transmission of the virus due to a number of factors, some of which are listed below:

  • increased social interaction of groups of children and adults outside of their established bubbles;
  • increased contact time with others in an indoor setting;
  • sharing bedroom facilities;
  • sharing of accommodation more broadly and close living arrangements (including sharing facilities such as canteens, showers and toilets); and
  • additional travel across country and the interaction with others that the children and adults accompanying them would not otherwise encounter.”

In practice, such advice has to be treated by schools as an instruction unless they wish to open themselves up to the risk of litigation on several fronts.

It is worth unpicking the factors listed. First of all, school groups, (the largest category) are already in bubbles and – despite some valiant efforts by many schools, it is geographically inescapable that the children mix more widely in their schools. They share “canteens, showers and toilets”. Nevertheless few organisations are as flexible – and have as much experience in managing risk – as outdoor residential centres – and most of their activities are, as the name suggests, outdoor.

The whole operation is far less disruptive to anti-Covid measures than our universities which – alone of European countries – are based on a model in where the vast majority of students study away from home. Six times a year, hundreds of thousands of young people travel across Britain to random locations, breaking up home bubbles to travel between campuses and home.

Even as someone who has called for a smaller, more local, university sector on this site, I recognise that to depart from this model in a Big Bang (with no end in sight) would bring our universities to their knees. Few students would pay £9,000 a year for online courses, and none would pay for university accommodation barred to them.

Are we really saying that hundreds of thousands of young people can move six times a year randomly, and yet that school children, who are less likely to pass on infections, cannot travel together from their schools to get an opportunity which for many is the only affordable way they will experience outdoor adventure?

A closer parallel group are boarding schools. As a Conservative, the politics of envy is the last thing I wish to promote, but can it be right that the children of better-off families continue to enjoy all the benefits of private residential education but those of less well-off parents are denied an opportunity to go away even once to see what the great outdoors has to offer? In practice boarding schools are using sensible mitigation measures just as residential centres are doing on their (sadly rare) day parties.

Allowing school groups back to residential centres will save many of them, but I feel bound to make the wider case. Cadet, Scout and Guide groups give huge opportunities to youngsters and the best social mixing of all is the traditional summer camps model, bringing children together from across the country and a range of backgrounds.

If we are going to continue to allow universities and boarding schools to continue, it is time we allowed the same for the struggling residential outdoor sector. Access to natural spaces for the most disadvantaged, those from low socioeconomic and some minority ethnic groups, has reduced dramatically since lockdown and these groups often only gain access through school and youth trips. The mental health of a generation has been affected. We need to see these centres reopen up if this is not to worsen.

Two MPs have raised this issue, my good friend, James Gray – with his expertise in Polar adventure – and the Liberal Democrat, Tim Farron, whose Cumbria constituency is a national centre for outdoor adventure. It is good news that the Government has committed to reviewing the guidance in November. Let us hope for a change of heart.

Julian Brazier: The future of the Army – and why Haldane’s approach remains the best.

30 Sep

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Much of the public discussion around the Integrated Review of security and defence is focused on one issue – the size of the Army. Here on ConHome, Allan Mallinson recently asked a critical question: What is the Army for? It’s a good question – for too long we have been shaping our forces around “defence planning assumptions”, despite the fact that many of our wars and campaigns have been wholly unexpected; the First World War, the Falklands War and 9/11’s triggering of the Afghan campaign are examples. While the purpose of the Royal Navy and RAF are obvious, with Russian incursions into our air space and territorial waters and Chinese threats to our shipping routes, the Army is more like an insurance policy: there for when you need it.

Richard Haldane was the last minister to ask the fundamental question. Field Marshal Haig – not a man known for humility – wrote in 1918, six years after Haldane’s tenure ended:

‘… the greatest Secretary for War England has ever had. In grateful remembrance of [Haldane’s] successful efforts in organising the Military forces for War on the Continent…’

Haldane believed that Britain, with her commitment to a strong Navy, could never afford a peacetime Regular Army large enough to be sustainable in a major war. So, first, he honed a highly professional regular expeditionary force as a gallant vanguard. Then, he brought together the various reserve elements which Field Marshal Wolseley had built up (and drawn on in the Boer War) into a Territorial Force twice the size of the Regular Army. This ‘Second Line’ would be a vehicle to mobilise the nation.

That Second Line delivered surprisingly fast. Sir John French, our first commander in France, commented that:

‘“Without the assistance which the Territorials afforded between October 1914 and June 1915, it would have been impossible to hold the line in France and Belgium.”

Haldane’s vision extended further. Alongside the Territorial Force, he developed OTCs and cadet forces in universities, schools and communities, all positioning the Army closer to the wider public. Hitherto, cultural isolation had encouraged notoriously little public support for soldiers. Unlike the Navy, with a merchant marine (then) visible in ports in most of our great cities, the Army badly needed citizen advocates.

In the Second World War, Territorial units fought in every theatre. Some of our most innovative leaders, from Bill Slim (Birmingham OTC) to David Stirling (pre-war Guards reservist), came through “Haldane” routes rather than regular officer training.

Today this is the model across the English-speaking world. The National Guard and USAR – America’s twin volunteer reserve forces – together number the same as her Active Army. The Canadians and Australians also have a higher proportion of volunteer reserve units in their armies than we do. In autumn 2002, one fifth of our forces in Iraq and one eighth in Afghanistan were – simultaneously – from our small reserves. The Americans used much larger proportions.

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Army was well over a million – today it is under 250,000, but Russia can still mobilise an enormous army. One Russian soldier captured by the Ukrainians was a tractor driver from Siberia in his day job.

The Regular Army needs high professional standards (which it has), good quality training (currently hampered by Covid), modern equipment including digitisation (far more to do), decent conditions of service (housing is the Achilles’ heel) and a command structure able to operate at levels above its actual strength. We have just two divisions, but we need to think and plan for corps and armies, in war. They won’t, mostly, be regulars.

Some say what is needed is technology rather than mass, but digitisation is far ahead in the civilian world. It is no accident that Defence’s best cyber defence unit – as measured in the top US competition – is an Army Reserve unit. More broadly, mass will continue to be critical in the messy business of land warfare. The concrete urban sprawl which covers so many of the world’s trouble spots can suck up brigades to the acre, as recently seen in Mosul. Our present structure, 80,000 regulars and 30,000 reservists, is small.

The good news is that the Army has made progress in integrating reserves. A philosophy of backfilling regular units, rather than using formed bodies which build leaders and comradeship, had wrecked the Territorial Army by 2010. The smallest ever reserve officer intake to Sandhurst dwindled to just seven cadets. Last summer all 100-odd places were filled, with more turned away.

Capability is rebuilding too. Reserve battalions have started covering the Cyprus UN commitment again, a reserve light recce squadron is currently patrolling the Russian border in Estonia and, nationwide, reserves have been visible manning Covid testing stations.

At a time when some are questioning our ability to operate armour affordably and at scale, the one reserve armoured regiment, the Royal Wessex Yeomanry has progressed from backfilling individual crew members for regular regiments to exercising regularly at squadron level. The Army Reserve remains exceedingly small, as a basis for regeneration, but the direction of travel is right.

The other two services have a long way to go. Unlike the Americans and Israelis, the RAF still discards its expensively trained pilots (£13 million for a fast jet) when they finish full-time service. Fixed wing transport apart, it has no flying reserves. The opportunity to run-on Tornados in reserve formations was lost. There is hope, however, as the RAF Board have appointed their first reservist – with a successful military and civilian career – to join them.

The picture in the Naval Service is mixed. The Navy has a highly cost-effective Reserve Flying Branch – manned by ex-regulars. In contrast, the Royal Marines Reserves are expensive (e.g. regular Lieutenant Colonels commanding company-sized reserve units), unscalable because they have almost no young officers – instead being run by a generous scale of costly regular permanent staff – and are now hamstrung by slashed training budgets.

One development would have Haldane turning in his grave. The property and advocacy for the reserves and the management of the cadet forces are handled by an independent set of regional institutions called Reserve Forces and Cadet Associations (County Associations, when Haldane established them). These attract high grade people onto their councils who serve unpaid; one regional chairman, for example, is both former chief executive of a major power company and a former reserve major general, another owns his own 500-person business. The small, locally embedded, staffs they employ are far more efficient than the wretched organisations who ‘manage’ MoD’s estate.

In a fit of institutional hysteria, MoD is seeking to turn these RFCAs into a conventional quango – the first shots were fired against this in an excellent House of Lords debate. This idea should die.

That great historian and Territorial officer, Richard Holmes, used to say that anyone who designs reserves around defence planning assumptions has forgotten what a reserve is for. We need to extend that view to the Army as a whole, and Haldane’s approach remains the best: a high quality regular leading edge, with reserves providing both depth and integration with the nation as a whole.

Julian Brazier: Helping Lebanon to succeed is in our interests

12 Sep

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

After the horrific explosion in Beirut last month, the dust has cleared and the world has moved on, but Lebanon matters to Britain and the West. It is at a critical junction: on the one hand, offering substantial commercial opportunity, but with the spectre of destabilising an important and dangerous region, on the other. Britain is well-placed to help steer Lebanon on the right path by building on some excellent work already in train.

Why does Lebanon matter? The country is a temporary home to nearly two million Syrian refugees, the largest concentration in the Middle East, and these people will be on the move westward if Lebanon melts down. Thanks to David Cameron, Britain is a lead provider of aid to their camps, but the geo-strategic issues and opportunities go far beyond refugees and aid.

The country sits between the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus, and Israel and Britain’s strategic bases on Cyprus just across the sea. Barely 15 miles north of its border is Russia’s naval base at Tartus, the keystone of Putin’s Mediterranean strategy.

Lebanon is staggering under Syrian destabilisation, government corruption, popular anger, Covid and now this devastating explosion. If the West allows it to go under, others will welcome the opportunity for a takeover with baleful consequences for western interests.

Yet, despite troubles which would have destroyed many nations, Lebanon remains a beacon of diversity and tolerance, with its Christian, Sunni, Shiite, Druze and other peoples. How many other countries in the Middle East have two ex-presidents enjoying retirement, in their former fiefdoms? Its universities and its media are arguably the best in the Middle East.

With its bustling and cosmopolitan capital, Beirut, its spirit of entrepreneurship and worldwide links through its highly-networked commercial diaspora all over the globe, the country offers a gateway to the wider Arab world and far beyond. This all represents an opportunity which others are recognising.

China is financing a $60 million Conservatoire near Beirut. President Macron’s high-profile visit, after the explosion, was a surprise to nobody – yet, despite its short period as a French possession, a growing proportion of Lebanese people look towards the Anglophone world for ties. Lebanon was the first Arab country to sign a post-Brexit trade agreement with the UK. More than ever, now is the time to build on our connections.

Liverpool Docks has a stake in the Port of Beirut and the programme to rebuild it will offer opportunities for our construction sector. Two hundred infrastructure projects were planned, before the explosion, utilising $11.6 billion in assistance from international donors; as they come forward, British companies should be bidding for them. On a larger scale, Lebanese ports will be central to the long-delayed programme to rebuild Syria after the destruction in its civil war; infrastructure companies from around the world are waiting for. to this.

Lebanon has a considerable confirmed off-shore oil and gas reserves yet to be exploited, offering yet another opportunity. Tourism and transport offer openings too. The national carrier, Middle East Airlines, placed a large order for Rolls Royce engines last year.

So, the opportunities are there. What is our government’s current role and what else should we be doing?

Since Cameron’s victory in 2010, Britain has recognised the importance of Lebanon and has been providing the kind of high quality, low-cost help which is as valuable as the aid to its refugee camps. Our military mission of just 30 ex-soldiers provide training for the Lebanese Army, one of the few genuinely national institutions drawing from all confessional groups. Ministry of Defence unearthed some pre-packed border strongpoints, designed for Ulster but never used, which have been installed on the Lebanese border and now play a critical role in keeping the horrors of the Syrian Civil War out of Lebanon.

We also set up the Lebanese British Tech Hub which grows small, dynamic tech start-ups to the benefit of both countries. Recently Lord Risby (Richard Spring, the former Foreign Office Minister) has been appointed as our first Lebanese trade envoy and both countries are well served with able ambassadors, Chris Rampling in Beirut, and Rami Mortada in London.

So, when the explosion devastated Beirut, it was appropriate that, in the words of Lebanon’s world famous singer, Shiraz:

“Britain was the first to arrive on the scene of the devastation, and then set a template for other countries to copy.”

With all the goodwill towards Britain, it is time for us to pull together the strands of our assistance to Lebanon and provide additional help in ways which would have a value far beyond any modest cost. This will be made easier by the welcome decision to merge the Foreign Office with the Department for International Development.

I believe that the greatest single requirement in Lebanon is assistance in making the transition to responsible, accountable democracy after a generation of corrupt leadership. The Lebanese Parliament has a finance committee led by the energetic and respected Ibrahim Kanaan. Could we send someone from the National Audit Office to help set up an organisation to assist them?

The Lebanese Central Bank has largely avoided the corruption in government but is struggling with inflation and debt. Could we lend an official to advise them and help with rebuilding the Finance ministry which is in much worse shape? Advice from HMRC on rebuilding the tax base would be valuable too. Lebanon’s Police are not respected in the way their Army is. Seconding a senior British Police officer could do disproportionate good.

Not all initiatives need to be government led. A small group of us have been trying to set up a Lebanese British Business Council, independent of government, hopefully to be resuscitated after Covid.

In summary, the multiple crises in Lebanon represent both a critical threat to Middle Eastern stability and an opportunity for Britain to build on its established programmes to promote our strategic and economic interests. What is needed is not vast sums of money but the kind of joined-up thinking which this government is instilling throughout Whitehall. The Government is undertaking the largest review to its foreign and defence policy since the end of the Cold War, against the backdrop of Brexit. Lebanon should be recognised as a key country in its region and should become a platform for western influence in the Middle East.

Julian Brazier: How tackling the causes of rising demand would help the Government solve the housing crisis

14 Aug

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Robin Hodgson’s excellent recent pamphlet, explores the critical link between our growing population, and issues like housing shortages and infrastructure overstretch. He has – rightly – won support from some heavy hitting MPs, including John Hayes, in his call for a standing commission – a Demographic Authority – to examine and advise on population issues, along the lines of the Office of Budget Responsibility’s oversight of fiscal matters.

Good as the proposals are, I want to suggest a different intermediate approach for the short term, closer to the Government’s current programme. At a time when it is handling both the Covid crisis and an unusually heavy programme of change, not least from Brexit, there is a danger that a proposal to set up an entirely new body may be simply brushed aside as a bridge too far.

First let’s take a deep dive into the issues. The Government’s commitment to more building is surely right, whatever one’s view of the detail of the proposed planning reforms; this site has carried many articles on how unaffordable housing is in large parts of the UK. It is terrible for young people wishing to set up home, and the collapse in home ownership has played a critical role in the fall in Conservative support among the under 40s. We have to make housing – both to rent and, even more important, to buy – affordable again.

Yet, at the same time a parallel, and almost entirely separate, debate has taken place on immigration, despite the fact that immigration is the major factor in population growth, itself the main cause of increased demand for housing; last year, the Office for National Statistics predicted that the population would rise by another three million over the next decade to around 70 million.

It predicts that four fifths of this will be from migrants arriving and having children, only one fifth from natural change – ie more births than deaths as people live longer. (There is an additional factor driving demand, independent of population size, but smaller in effect: household size is on a long-term decline, as families break up and more people live alone, meaning more homes required per thousand people).

In other words, in the course of two Parliaments, on current projections, we have to build homes for three million extra people – more than the population of Greater Manchester – before a single extra property is available to tackle housing shortages.

It is against this background that our new immigration policy needs to be reviewed as a matter of urgency. It contains a welcome end to free movement with the EU, in line with our manifesto promise. We also have pledges from Boris Johnson and Priti Patel to take action on the disgraceful cross-channel trafficking of illegal migrants.

Nevertheless, important and welcome though these measures are, neither addresses what are now the two largest categories of migration: those coming to work (now overwhelmingly from outside the EU) and – counter-intuitively – students who settle and their dependants.

Take workers first. The new points-based approach for all migrants applying to work is welcome but the key is the level of movement it allows. It is right that some categories (such as doctors) should have no cap but surely, at a time when unemployment is rising fast as a result of Covid, wrong that the Government proposes to lower the minimum income level, paving the way for more workers from outside the EU.

Leaving the current Covid crisis aside, a wider point applies. Immigration policy, especially in the field of employment, is set after taking advice from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

That body has a remit which is focused almost exclusively on a narrow subset of economic factors, the needs of the labour market. The papers the MAC has published look in a balanced but narrow fashion at the requirements of sections of the economy and regions of the UK, as well as the impact on existing workers. Housing and infrastructure issues – such as transport congestion, water shortages, flooding etc – are barely mentioned.

This is underlined by work MAC commissioned from Oxford Economics, which analyses the net benefit/cost of categories of migrants entirely in “current” terms, ie tax payments made, benefits drawn etc, ignoring the capital (and social) costs of funding new infrastructure to meet a rising population. What is urgently needed is for the Government to extend MAC’s brief to cover housing pressures and infrastructure requirements as well as the job market.

The second major problem with the system relates to students. All governments have recognised the importance of encouraging “the brightest and the best” young people from around the world to come and study in our universities. But here has also been a sustained campaign, orchestrated by the higher education lobby, to take these students out of our immigration statistics.

This would, incidentally, mean abandoning the internationally agreed measure of migration. Much more important, two studies by ONS illustrate why it would be a serious policy mistake. In 2016, one study showed that the influx of students was running at well over double the number of students leaving the UK, (those who had finished their stay and British students travelling to study abroad), a net inflow of 135,000.

The second ONS study in 2018 showed that students and their dependents amounted to almost 30 per cent of all people granted settlement in the UK the previous year. Any serious attempt to get control of migration has to include students.

Under the new (but pre-Covid) rules, any student is automatically granted two years right of abode after finishing his or her course, despite the large surplus of UK graduates; only half of recent UK graduates work in graduate level roles, according to an Education Select committee report – and that was pre-Covid.

This is compounded by the fact that there are no national standards for student entry (domestic or foreign) so any university struggling for funds can accept any student who can get a study visa and can pay the first year’s fees. Worse still, the visa regime is under constant pressure from the universities and others to “relax”. David Cameron closed over 800 dodgy colleges, but we are close to a point where, without proper academic hurdles, would-be economic migrants no longer need them – they can often use a university instead.

So students should be included in our immigration strategy. The policy of allowing a two-year stay needs to be reviewed in the light of Covid and a tight restriction imposed on staying on, unless they have valuable skills not available in the domestic pool. Overdue measures should be introduced to ensure that students do actually return at the end the end of their stay.

In summary, the Government, from the Prime Minister down, is right to identify housing shortages as a critical social ill and boost building. But a policy which seeks to boost supply without doing anything to tackle rising demand, driven by heavy migration, can only succeed if we build on a scale which is probably unachievable.

Even if it did succeed for a while, it would come at the price of overload on public services, heavy congestion, water shortages and even flooding, as flood plains disappear under concrete.

Adopting these simple reforms for applicant workers, advice from the MAC and for students – and improving enforcement – would go a long way to solving the housing crisis and reducing the growing pressure on our infrastructure.

Julian Brazier: The time is now for university reform. Here’s how we fix Britain’s broken institutions.

28 Jul

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

The public debate about the future of universities has moved a long way in the last year or two. Michelle Donovan’s excellent recent speech was an important step: the first time a spokesman for any British government has acknowledged that university is poorly serving a substantial proportion of students.

It has since been underlined by a strong statement from Gavin Williamson. The concerns expressed by think tanks, individual writers and the House of Commons Education Committee, which concluded that only half of recent graduates were in graduate level jobs, have been brushed aside unanswered by the university lobby.

Instead, apologists for the universities repeatedly cite statistics about the value of degrees, based on averages which mix the highest performers with those struggling at the margin. Worse, they focus on high participation rates around the world, simply ignoring the two major ways in which the UK is out of line. First, in almost every other country, most students study from home, roughly halving the cost of a campus-based course, and, second, and more importantly, most students in those countries with high HE rates study vocational subjects.

These two factors make comparison with HE participation rates abroad misleading. It is interesting, however, to look at Switzerland and Germany because both are, in one important respect, like us and unlike the majority; they deliver the bulk of their vocational education outside universities, making their statistics more comparable to ours than say France, Italy, Spain or indeed America. Germany and Switzerland have much lower HE participation rates than the UK and both have low unemployment – and exceptionally high productivity.

The Government understands this. As it moves towards reform, a model is emerging based on a shift towards vocational courses at universities, combined with more FE and apprenticeships. More vocational courses are being floated by government as the gateway (along with cuts in vice chancellors’ salaries where appropriate) to assistance from a new bailout fund.

But that limited lever can only apply for the duration of the Covid crisis and only to those institutions seeking financial help. Yet, the crisis is driving record numbers of school leavers into applying for HE this year, despite the Government’s laudable efforts to sustain the sagging jobs market and build up positive alternatives like apprenticeships.

The tanker is drifting further off course. So, the urgent question is, how can the Government enforce its laudable aims without fatally compromising the independence of universities?

My suggestion is that they formally split courses into three categories: two academic, STEM and Arts/other, together with a third, vocational category. Then a set of minimum admission standards should be applied within each of the three categories for eligibility for student loans and other government support. This would leave universities free to control their admissions, but effectively block them offering places to those below the relevant national standard. There could be a limited system of exemptions based on foundation courses for mature students.

The setting of standards would be controversial, but the following broad approach would be a significant improvement on the existing “money for old rope” approach. STEM courses should require a good A level grade in mathematics – it is unrealistic to expect anyone to benefit from a degree in engineering or computer science without a sound mathematical base. In a few cases, like the biological sciences, a minimum overall A level combination might substitute for a maths result.

At a time when the economy desperately needs more STEM graduates, it is in nobody’s interests to allow youngsters to study subjects which they lack the mental capacity to master. We need better maths and science teaching in schools – and more more pupils, including more girls, studying STEM subjects – not to offer false hopes afterwards, as many universities are doing. Too many good universities are already spending the first year of physics and engineering degrees on remedial maths.

The hardest to set nationally would be the arts sector. The Government might wish to avoid the temptation of comparing classics with PPE or geography, to choose three subjects entirely at random, and just set a minimum standard across the board, say three Cs at A Level.

Finally, standards for vocational courses could be set in consultation with industry. Such consultation might suggest that FE or apprenticeships are more appropriate, except for those with the strongest academic base. Certainly, most students should study in their local city or town (other than those living in the most remote areas), to keep costs and debt down.

In her speech, Michelle raised concerns about universities recruiting school leavers for courses that do nothing to improve their life chances. These split into two categories – those on the wrong course and those who should not be at university. Introducing national standards would rescue the most vulnerable group, the latter category, and, incidentally, make permanent the laudable recent ban on unconditional offers. It would have a second important effect too – many of the non-vocational courses would wither because of the paucity of applicants likely to achieve the new standard.

None of this would interfere with universities’ independence, but the package would stop a minority of universities cynically exploiting those most unable to benefit, by shackling them with a lifetime of debt and lost aspirations. It would also save the taxpayer a great deal of money as most student loans are unlikely to ever be fully repaid.

The standards could also be applied to overseas students, so that our doors remain wide open to the brightest and the best – but not to low achievers who currently automatically qualify for a two-year additional stay.

The Government also has an opportunity to drive good leadership by vice chancellors in a quite different way. The honours system sends powerful messages, and two filters could be applied to applications for senior university staff, apart from the obvious main category of awards for academic and research achievement.

First there is an opportunity to highlight those VCs like Karen Cox at the University of Kent, who have acted unilaterally before the government guidelines were published. She announced a large personal pay cut – and imposed the same on her senior colleagues – while protecting low-paid staff. That is real leadership.

The second filter is highlighted by the contrast between Oxford University, on the one hand, where Louise Richardson has consistently resisted Chinese investment with compromising strings. She has also defended dons like Nigel Biggar against woke lynch mobs.

At Cambridge, on the other hand, Stephen Toope, the Vice Chancellor, has presided over the creeping takeover of critical parts of his empire by cheque-waving Chinese organisations and turned a blind eye to the impact on academic independence.

At the same time, he has taken a strong stand in favour of a BAME academic who published profoundly racist material, citing the importance of free speech, and yet allowed a don to be ejected for disagreeing with the woke mob and Jordan Peterson to be denied a visiting professorship, because he was once photographed with a student who was wearing an offensive tee-shirt.

Making Louise Richardson a Dame – and blocking any efforts by the HE Blob to get an honour for her Cambridge counterpart – would send a clear message that Conservatives believe in academic freedom.

We have a great deal to be proud of in our university sector, with the highest-ranking institutions in the world, alongside America, but – in the interests of the rising generation – elements of the system badly need reform. At last, we have a government willing to take action. Here are some ideas for a plan.