Patrick Timms: A residential version of Portcullis House could help the civil service recruit better – and level up the UK

9 Jun

Patrick Timms is Deputy Editor of Wolves of Westminster and Co-Political Editor of The Backbencher.

The Prime Minister’s “levelling-up” agenda is an important and exciting one. It will deliver a real boost to left-behind communities across the country. However, in order to achieve this to its fullest possible extent, the Government and civil service will require two things in terms of staffing:

1) Some experienced and capable leaders and staffers with a thorough knowledge of their regions, who wish to remain there in order to spearhead and support change locally.

2) Other experienced and capable leaders and staffers from those regions who are able to come down (or up, or across) and work in government / civil service roles in Westminster and Whitehall.

Aside from the odd fanciful notions expressed in the past couple of years (such as moving the House of Lords to York), we all know that large parts of the seat of governance will remain in central London and that this is not going to change any time soon, if ever. That creates a certain reality around the talent pool to be recruited from when the Government / civil service is looking to draw in staff to advise or otherwise work for it on a permanent, full-time basis: they need to be able to get to central London every day.

For younger recruits, this can be less of a challenge if they do not live in or around London already – they do not have commitments elsewhere. There are several names of people in their 20s that occur to me in this regard. People like these were able to come and live and work in central London precisely because they were previously living with their parents, so renting in London would be their only housing expense.

However, if there is now more of a focus on people slightly older (in their 30s or 40s, say) – which, I gather from party sources, there is – owing to their relative youth but greater experience, then this presents a problem.

These people are far more likely to already have commitments elsewhere; for example, they may have already bought a home in the regions. For them, it would be foolish in the extreme to sell up and move to renting in London; having got onto the property ladder, it would be a great misstep to get off it again. Renting out their property is not always an option, either – where else would they keep all their possessions, given the size of just about anything most people could afford in London?

However, aside from their main skillset, they will also have extensive experience of the issues faced by their region and it would be extremely helpful to be able to employ these people in government / civil service roles too, so that recruitment is not restricted to the Greater London catchment area.

This should be very important for the Government’s agenda; if the Prime Minister wishes to truly level up the country and “switch up” the way our society works, then he should not be limited to the Greater London crowd alone to help Get It Done™.

In the Cummings era of this government, there was said to be a great focus on data science. That era may now be over, but some of its ethos prevails. “Helen” might be the most talented data scientist in the country, and eminently suitable for the role – but she is 35 and is just about getting by with her mortgage in Exeter. She is not going to be applying for that job on Parliament Street.

Accordingly, I propose that the Government buys up a large residential property in central London and uses this to house such people who apply for and are successful in obtaining a government / civil service role. They would be offered rent at a heavily subsidised monthly price (perhaps two or three hundred pounds per month), essentially just to cover maintenance expenses. The provision would remain in place for only as long as they hold their role, plus perhaps a two-week grace period either side to allow people to acclimatise and depart without issue.

It would, in essence, be a bit like a “residential version of Portcullis House”. Just as PCH is where such people might work, the new provision could be where they would live.

This provision would not be available to those already living in and around London, but solely to those with existing property commitments elsewhere in the regions, who would not be able to afford to maintain both a property there and the cost of a full rent plus bills in central London – but perhaps just a few hundred. There must surely be a great many potentially valuable people up and down the country who, but for this final hurdle, could certainly be of great use to the Prime Minister’s agenda – if they could only manage to live there!

There would also be some security for those involved, as they would still have a property to go back to once their role was over or if it did not work out.

Clearly, this would incur a one-time cost to find, buy up and renovate such a property, but that is essentially a budget line item in one fiscal year. Afterwards, the maintenance costs for that building would fade into the noise of all the others owned and maintained by the State anyway. And once in place, the value of being able to draw staff over from anywhere in the country, without the need (for them) to worry about accommodation, would clearly be very significant. Any future government would be able to make use of those facilities to better pursue its own agenda too.

It would open up a new dynamic in terms of the typical Westminster/Whitehall staffer figure, which – in my view! – is long overdue regardless. In doing so, and with a now-broader perspective from its staffers, the Government would be better informed and able to act more smartly to improve the living standards of communities all across the land.

My own MP and I are at odds over this – but then, he was used to being moved around the country before he won an election. He says that people move around all the time for jobs, and that jobs with the Government or civil service are no different.

I disagree – these jobs are about the governance of our country. They are not like any other, and there should be no barriers whatsoever to the State’s ability to recruit the very best and brightest for the roles it needs – especially those from the regions, given the current agenda. Where they might come from, and whether or not they could otherwise afford to maintain two residences at once, really should not matter in the slightest.

Anyone with experience in Westminster and Whitehall circles knows that the quality of staffing there makes up a large part of how effective the governance of this country is – regardless of who has been elected to be in charge of it. If the Government makes this move, it can help rebalance perspectives at the heart of governance towards the regions.

That, it has consistently said, is what it wants to do. Adopting this proposal would be of great help there.

Patrick Timms: Blame the unions, not teachers themselves, if our schools don’t re-open

22 Aug

Patrick Timms is Deputy Editor of Wolves of Westminster and Co-Political Editor of The Backbencher.

When it was revealed earlier this month that a Labour peer, Lord Hendy, had allegedly been advising the teaching unions – as well as several others – for a couple of months on how to avoid a return to work for their members while the Coronavirus pandemic continues, the story sparked uproar.  Whispers suggest that the issue has since gone all the way up to Keir Starmer’s office.

But it would be a lazy conclusion to draw that it is the teachers themselves – or other unionised workers – who are somehow to blame for this, should it come to pass.

With a ten-year background working as ancillary staff in the education sector, I can state with complete confidence that teachers are some of the most dedicated and hard-working people you will ever meet.

Their working day does not end, contrary to popular belief, when the final bell goes for the kids – there is often a lot more to be done.  And what they can’t get done at school, they end up taking home with them.  This is something that partners or spouses of teachers generally just have to get used to, to which many will attest.

But if the Government does indeed fail in its objective of getting all schools fully reopened in a couple of weeks’ time, then what the Hendry revelation tells us is that it is not this country’s hard-working teachers who will have masterminded that outcome, but rather those they trust to advise them on workplace issues: their unions.  And they, in turn, are embroiled in political games-playing of a most sordid nature.

The teaching (and other educational) unions are known for being militant, yes – this is true.  But they are also a necessary force in a sector whose workforce stands at regular risk of, for example, baseless allegations made by young people who have discovered they have a lot more power to do so nowadays than their parents’ generation ever did.

This is not in any way to detract from genuine safeguarding issues, but as one former colleague once said to me when I was starting out: “if you work in education and you’re not in a union, you’re an idiot”.  It did not take long for me to observe the wisdom of that statement myself.

And so the teachers and other school staff trust the unions – they have to! – to look after their interests in the workplace.  But what they should not expect is that these people will have got into bed with others who have a rather different agenda.

For Lord Hendy and his ilk – he is by no means alone in this – know exactly what they are up to.  His particularly idiosyncratic interpretation of hazardous health regulations betrays an ulterior motive.

While these do mention of “biological agents” as a potential “substance hazardous to health”, even a cursory glance at the whole range of materials put out by the Health and Safety Executive about them makes it clear that they are really designed for things like asbestos – not a flu bug on steroids.  To suggest that the spirit of this law was always intended to encompass global pandemics is, to put it mildly, simply disingenuous.

Then again, it is by no means uncommon in the legal profession to get around the spirit of a law precisely by the letter of it.

The reality is that the forces of the socialist far-left have been smarting ever since last December.  Reeling from their own inability to defeat Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, such groups as Momentum soon began plotting to retake control of the Labour Party in a “pincer movement”.

They also rapidly reached the conclusion that they needed to rebuild their movement “from the bottom up”, instead of “from the top down” – or so I’m told.  It was this to which they reportedly ascribed their main failings – after all, it certainly couldn’t be down to their policies…

Soon afterwards, the lockdown took hold, which gave them precisely what they needed.  Ordinary citizens up and down the country began to create ‘mutual aid’ groups to support one another.  Momentum and others on the far-left duly took note of this, and shamefully planned to exploit these groups to spread their own political philosophy during a time of national emergency.

It was later revealed that they had indeed followed through on these plans, as described by their own activists.  In the meantime, actual strike action was being planned by people with a similar value system, with activists lauding the notion of “organis[ing] workers into conflict with employers”.

Rebecca Long-Bailey was wheeled out to tell union leaders – with rather Orwellian flair – that they needed to “politically educate” their members, in a move that I personally suspect had far more to do with her demise as Shadow Education Secretary the following week than the unwise sharing of a quite unsavoury article on social media.

Mark Serwotka, the General Secretary of the PCS, went so far as to pin the blame for tens of thousands of deaths squarely on the Conservative Party’s overwhelming general election victory, and said there was now a need for a “combative” trade union movement to “fight the Government”.  Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that only one in five civil servants are said to have returned to work thus far.

They managed it with the machinery of government first – now, they are coming for the schools.  It is all part of the same agenda.

But perhaps there is one silver lining from this revelation: it should prompt the Government to make new law.  If it is indeed so easy to ‘repurpose’ existing legislation to the detriment of our children’s education and our wider economic recovery at present, then the Government must make sure that this changes post-haste.

Assuming we are going to be living with this virus for some while yet, as many have claimed – or if it mutates – then something along the lines of a Control of National Epidemics Act would seem very apposite in these times.

It would set out the test for when emergency measures for both closing down and reopening parts of society could be brought in and how often they should be reviewed, define these clearly based on the experiences of 2020, and – most crucially, in this regard – be unequivocal about its (temporary) capacity to override aspects of other legislation until the crisis is resolved.  This, perhaps, could put paid to the machinations of Hendy et al.

The purpose of a trade union is to defend and promote its members’ interests.  It is not to disrupt the wider functioning of society, nor to be “combative” towards the Government during a national crisis.  People are just scared at the moment in this country.  Teachers are scared, as are their pupils.  So are the parents of those pupils.  And so are the employers of those parents.

Those who do exploit that fear, along with the very noble notion of collective labour organisation itself (which is not a phrase you will often hear from a Tory), in order to further their own political agenda, should all be hanging their heads in shame.