Steve Baker: Wycombe’s food insecurity levels are a huge wake-up call. We must renew our vision of Conservative social justice.

3 Aug

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

On the one hand, it is simple to tell just by walking down the streets of High Wycombe there are people who do not find life easy. It’s probably true of a town of any size across the country. On the other, what did come as a surprise is the Food Foundation’s report, splashed by The Guardian, showing Wycombe had the greatest food insecurity in the whole of the UK. This is not something to dismiss lightly, and we must take this as a clarion call to action. 

The Wycombe constituency has some of the poorest and the richest people in the country, sometimes only living a short distance away from each other. This brings its own challenges. When civil servants are creating public policy and look at Wycombe the overall demographic is one of affluence. It is easy to think that everything is all right. But the constituency contains some areas of true deprivation. People in these areas have worse health outcomes, worse education results, and all the other traditional markers of a hard life. Low pay is compounded with high housing costs which squeeze low-income household budgets to breaking point.

The Coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions have brought these areas into sharp focus. There was a huge strain on working parents on low incomes; they had to continue to work, home educate children and provide more food such as snacks and lunch which were normally provided at school. My caseworkers were speaking to parents with young children who had not yet received their free school meal vouchers, and this meant they were finding it hard to feed their family.

Many people had jobs, but some had no work or a severely reduced income as a result of the Covid lockdowns and restrictions and did not qualify for any of the Government support schemes due to the nature of their employment. These were people who had to ask for help to feed their families for the first time. 

It is clear the lockdown pushed some people to the edge. I do not want to rehash all the things I said about the need for lockdown restrictions to be lifted as soon as it was safe to do so, but these were exactly the sort of people I had in mind when I said it. It wasn’t merely about allowing people to go abroad on holiday; it was about allowing hard working people to manage their everyday lives.

Before I became an MP, I did work for the Centre for Social Justice and I have always had an interest in making sure the least affluent in society are lifted up. For a long time, I have said more money should go into UC; we spend an enormous amount on the welfare state and it should help the people who need it, but this clearly doesn’t always happen.

I have previously lobbied ministers about the five week wait for benefits to kick-in once a new application is made. I know the £20 a week extra on Universal Credit has been welcomed by those who rely on benefits and, ideally, it should be kept. But the amount paid in UC is only one aspect of supporting those most in need. We have not yet broken the cycles of poverty the CSJ identified before we came to power in 2010: it is time now to renew our vision of Conservative social justice.

Charities and public agencies need to work alongside those who use foodbanks regularly or are food insecure to offer life coaching and mentoring. Getting the balance right here will be key. I do not want an authoritarian approach to telling people what to do, but most of us could use a helping hand or sounding board every now and then.

Buckinghamshire Council is working on a project to bring together debt support and advice, helping people get back into employment and addressing local skill shortages and training opportunities, greater take-up of food voucher schemes and better support to access benefits to ensure income maximisation.

All these schemes will help but the best way of lifting people out of poverty, and the knock-on effect of food insecurity, is through work and higher paying jobs. The Government’s Plan For Jobs includes the Kickstart and Restart scheme, and gives support for apprenticeships, traineeships and doubling the number of work coaches to get people back on their feet and into work. 

That’s a great start, but I want long-term prosperity for every one of my constituents. We must unleash the wealth creating potential of our great United Kingdom to secure it.

Steve Baker: The UK almost certainly needs an Electoral Integrity Bill. The question is whether it goes far enough.

3 Jun

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

It is easy for people living in small, stable communities to wonder why the Electoral Integrity Bill is needed at all. For those campaigning in urban areas, the answer will be obvious.

I am certain votes are being cast which ought not to be cast, votes which ought to be cast are being cast by those who ought not to be casting them, votes are being cast in particular ways as a result of treating and intimidation and, for various reasons, prosecutions are not forthcoming.

The Government is absolutely right to propose no party campaigners should handle postal votes. I know of cases where a person has turned up at a polling station several times with a clutch of postal votes in their hand. I have received accounts of candidates visiting electors’ homes, demanding postal votes are completed in front of them and then taking them away. I know these are not isolated incidents. We cannot assume voters enjoy secrecy and freedom when marking a ballot paper at home.

Our current electoral system has not caught up with population growth and the realities of modern life. Our procedures have become somewhat quaint, a point which struck me when I looked at the rules for candidates entering polling stations to check for personation. While I know many of my constituents, I do not know a sufficient number that I can go into every polling station and have any chance of spotting personation.

Those opposing the need to have photo ID when voting at a polling station say the number of people prosecuted for personation is low. I would agree. But the reason it is low is because all too often no prosecution is made despite overwhelming evidence being presented to the authorities.

Far from saying the provisions in the Election Integrity Bill are unwarranted, I would say they do not go far enough.

When Individual Voter Registration was introduced, I was pleased that, at last, it would not be possible for people to register more than once in a constituency. I quickly became wise to the fact it was still possible for people to vote more than once. In the 2017 election, an opposition activist was registered twice in a small street at different addresses. He voted at one address in person, and at the other with a postal vote. This was not a mere slip-up. He did the same at the General Election a few weeks later.

In urban areas, where there is a high churn of registrations, and where people live in houses of multiple occupation, it is not easy to determine who is entitled to be on the electoral roll and who isn’t. At one address in my constituency, a small three-bed Edwardian terraced house has 12 adults registered to vote. Either this is house is grossly over-occupied, or people are registered who have no right to do so. It just so happens that all those 12 voters regularly vote at election time.

I know of landlords who register to vote at properties they own, but where they do not reside. We have found foreign nationals on the electoral roll living legally in the United Kingdom, but who are neither nationals of the UK or the Commonwealth, nor EU citizens. Nevertheless, they are on our register to vote.

My election agent found out the hard way that if you want to object to a person’s name being on the electoral roll, your name is disclosed to the person to whom the objection is being made. Surely it should be possible to challenge an entry on the roll without disclosing who has made the complaint so long as there are reasonable grounds to do so?

I know the law allows people to register legally at more than one address, and that it is legal to vote in different elections on the same day. But the time has come to put a mark by people’s names showing which address is their principal residence, and therefore entitling them to vote at parliamentary elections, and which is a secondary address which will allow voting in local elections only.

The law is often very clear, but what is not clear is that appropriate importance is always attributed to each and every vote and to prosecuting offences. I am clear that when one vote is stolen, or otherwise corrupted away, it is not just a pencil mark on a piece of paper but the inheritance of a tradition of liberty and equality fought for at great cost and handed down over centuries.

If we fail to understand the magnitude of the corruption of even a single vote, we are a politically bankrupt nation.

Here is a link to Steve Baker’s recent speech on the Electoral Integrity Bill.

Steve Baker: Ministers should reject a second lockdown and prepare for Plan B

19 Oct

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

“We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts” – Harold Macmillan

The public are rightly concerned. Daily, they are warned of disaster. “Coronavirus is deadly and it is now spreading exponentially in the UK,” said Matt Hancock last week.  No wonder poll after poll shows consistent public support for stricter measures, even as the economy tanks and mental health sinks.

The omniscient SAGE has spoken. The Government drags along. The language of fear cows the public. Cases soar. Truly, we have fallen down for the divine right of experts.

But this is not working. We need experts and expertise, but we must beware of experts with counterproductive incentives, and of the structural problem of the division of expertise among fields and individuals.

Ministers and experts have worked hard in good faith, but the pandemic has asked the impossible of them. We must not blindly follow whatever strategy is put forward by scientists with a monopoly on advice. We now know that SAGE has suggested another national lockdown, but calling it a “circuit breaker” cannot make it costless. The immense economic, social and non-Coronavirus health damage that the first lockdown caused means that we cannot allow another.

Many of the problems we are experiencing boil down to fundamental issues in how we use experts to inform social policy. We need a better system of expert influence on social policy without tearing down the edifice, but we must avoid the monopoly rule of experts. Thankfully, there is a literature of expert failure showing how government can more safely and effectively take advice.

Scientists respond to incentives like everyone one. Pressures bear on even the most sober, scientific and impartial person. Knowledge in a pandemic is incomplete and uncertain. Suppose an epidemiologist provides the Prime Minister with a low estimate of the number of deaths, and there is no lockdown. Perhaps there are many more deaths than predicted. The epidemiologist will be blamed as a bad scientist. Shame and guilt will follow: a bad outcome.

Suppose our expert provides a high number and there is lockdown. However many people die, it can always be said it would have been worse without lockdown. A high estimate therefore implies credit for saving lives. Praise, pride and innocence follow: a good outcome.

Expert failure also arises when incentives create uniformity of opinion. Professionals earn livings from the official recognition of their profession’s knowledge, enforcing orthodoxy. We think experts do not disagree over “the science” so we are quick to follow their advice.

Moreover, all experts only give a partial perspective. We must recognise that epidemiologists are not economists, GPs, mental health practitioners, cancer specialists or social workers. Their narrow expertise must be complemented, and not at the ministerial level.

Furthermore, since the start of the outbreak, scientists, politicians and the media have treated untested and uncertain theories as certain. When scientists speak of the risks of coronavirus, they do not speak of certain knowledge. Risk is not certainty – as Professor Neil Ferguson’s now infamous record of predictions illustrates. Confusing the two is damaging.

Government expert advice requires four important reforms.

First, we must simulate a market for expert advice using competing expert groups in the same field.

Second, ministers should require three independent expert opinions on critical policy.

Third, the partial perspective of experts should be exposed by bringing together complementary fields.

Finally, employing “red teams” (advocati diaboli) is a good way to challenge and test prevailing expert opinion.

Meanwhile, a Department of Health and Social Care report has shown the lockdown leading to more cancer deaths, deteriorating mental health and many other social harms that can make the cure worse than the disease.

Breast Cancer Now has estimated that around 986,000 women have missed mammograms in the UK after screening services were paused because of coronavirus. The charity has also estimated that around 8,600 women could be living with undetected breast cancer.

Earlier this month, 66 GPs wrote to the Health Secretary to urge him to consider non-Coronavirus harms and deaths with equal standing beside coronavirus deaths. This complex optimisation problem of saving the most lives deserves more public debate.

Dr Raghib Ali, an epidemiologist and consultant in acute medicine, recently highlighted on this site that lockdowns can need to be repeated until a vaccine or fully effective treatment is found. They postpone rather than prevent infection, and a vaccine may not come.

Even if it does, it may not be as effective as people hope. A vaccine may take longer to be rolled out than people wish. No wonder in response to my question last week on when the vulnerable may be vaccinated, the Prime Minister stated that he cannot say by when he expects a vaccine to be produced. He admitted that a vaccine may never come.

But the Government’s strategy remains to supress the virus until vaccination. That has petrified sections of our economy, propped up by £745 billion of quantitative easing and ultra-cheap credit. In evidence to the Treasury Select Committee, the Bank of England has made it clear that such extraordinary monetary policy is only possible because of the independence of the Monetary Policy Committee, and that it is not its job to fund government.

The implication is clear: if inflation were to rise above target, then the Bank would have to act under its mandate. With QE at about the level of Government borrowing today, that could have the effect of pulling the plug on public spending.

The Government’s finances and our broader economy are in a precarious position. Even without an inflation, such extraordinary monetary policy is bound to create misallocation of resources: the longer we prop up our economy like this, the deeper the distortions and the longer and harder our economic recovery will be.

The economy is, of course, closely related to the health of the nation: poverty shortens lives. That’s why Ministers must move now to reform the structure of expert advice, publish serious analysis of the costs of the options they face and prepare for plan B. It is time for Conservatives to relieve experts of unreasonable burdens and reject a second national lockdown.

Steve Baker: The Coronavirus Act created the most dangerous changes to state power seen in a generation. It must be replaced.

29 Sep

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

As we went into lockdown in late March, Parliament passed the Coronavirus Act. The public wanted action, but this act was an overreaction, creating the most sweeping and dangerous changes to state power seen in a generation. And while it was widely understood and accepted that we would all have to make temporary sacrifices, these new powers could last indefinitely.

The Act, which the human rights group Liberty has called “the biggest restriction on our individual and collective freedoms in a generation”, goes far beyond proportionate action. It contains powers many people don’t even know exist, and stands on the statute books as a potentially permanent threat to our freedom.

It imposes restrictions on the right to protest, creates radical powers to suspend elections and undermines oversight of covert Government surveillance programmes.

The most dangerous powers in the Act can be found in Schedule 21, containing extreme police detention powers. This Schedule gives breath-taking powers to the police, immigration officers and other officials to detain any “potentially infectious” members of the public, including children, potentially indefinitely and in unspecified locations.

The Health Secretary has further made a string of separate laws, including the self-isolation law brought into force yesterday, making it a criminal offence to fail to isolate, whether as a result of a positive Covid-19 test, close contact with an infected person, or travel from a country on the quarantine list.

In what world would we want police officers tasked with locking up members of the public outside of these laws, somehow determining that they are “potentially infectious”? Our police have a tough enough job as it is. Now they would have to be highly trained lawyers perfectly to navigate the stack of statutory instruments they are now supposed to impose; and they would have to be at least highly trained medics to sensibly wield these powers.

The College of Policing has already attempted two versions of guidance on Schedule 21, and has now had to open a consultation on the powers, seemingly in attempt to stem the flow of unlawful policing under the powers. As one line in the consultation tellingly says: “police officers are not medically trained”.

Every single charge under the Coronavirus Act – 141 so far – has been found unlawful on review by the CPS, which had to open a rolling review of every use of these powers due to these prolific failures. The Schedule 21 powers are responsible for the shocking rate of 100 per cent unlawful prosecutions under the Coronavirus Act.

For almost six months, we have lived not just with the anxiety of health warnings, but with this sprawling web of control. In other circumstances, Britain would have condemned both the content of this legislation and the way it passed. The Act went through Parliament in one day. The Health Protection Regulations were passed through emergency powers – avoiding any oversight both when they were imposed, and when they were repeatedly altered throughout lockdown.

The Act was rushed through in a bid to give the Government the powers it needs to get to grips with this disease, but, six months later, it’s evident that it’s a blunt instrument that does more harm than good. The patience and goodwill that saw us all make enormous sacrifices and help each other through the early days of lockdown are not infinite resources – they will be depleted if the Government strategy fails to learn and improve.

The prospect of a second wave of Covid-19 infections means we must continue to take precautions and make sacrifices where necessary and proportionate. It absolutely does not mean we must continue exactly as we have up to this point.

This is the point at which to look back on the last six months and ensure we have learned from them. During the lockdown, much Government decision-making was unclear and communications seemed confused. As we rattled through a dizzying set of lockdown regulations, many of us were left unsure if we might be criminalised for anything from looking after our families to going out for exercise.

Research indicates we will reap the most public health benefits by giving people the tools to comply by way of clear, evidence-based messaging rather than coercing them into submission. We need the British public to trust that the Government is following the evidence; we should also trust in them to act sensibly for their families and neighbours rather than policing their every move.

The Coronavirus Act and other legislation used in the crisis create enormous changes to our relationship as individuals with the state. The Act was a blunt and excessive reaction to an unknown threat, and the last six months have shown we need to facilitate compliance, rather than relying on coercion and control.

Tomorrow, Parliament will vote on whether to repeal the Act. It seems likely it will hang over us for at least another six months, and possibly years to come. Those of us who love liberty stand ready to help the Government do what is right: to show the public that we have heard their concerns, seen their sacrifices, and are ready to deliver a better strategy.

When so many have sacrificed so much, we will not be forgiven if we do not learn from the experience of the past six months. We have learned that the Coronavirus Act goes too far. The Government should bring forward plans to repeal and replace it with legislation that we can scrutinise full in the light of experience – before it damages faith in this Government, and our civil liberties beyond repair.