Nick King: Levelling up. The challenge is less defining it than delivering it, for which Johnson will need the private sector.

25 May

Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.

To level up or not to level up? That is certainly not the question. If theres one thing the Government has been admirably clear about, it is its determination to do it. But that begs rather a lot of other legitimate questions, such as: what does levelling up really mean? How will we level up? What level are we levelling up to? How will levelling up be measured? And if answers to these questions are not forthcoming, how can we ever really know whether weve levelled up or not?

Some of these points were recently put to ministers from the Business and Housing departments by the Business Select Committee. The answers forthcoming were clearly not to the (Labour) Chair of the Committees satisfaction. He suggested there was no clarity in terms of understanding what levelling up means or the policy which sits behind it.

But there’s actually a strong argument – although you wouldn’t expect the ministers themselves to make it – that the lack of specificity around levelling up, and the catch-all nature of the term, have added to its value as a concept.

The Conservative Partys last general election manifesto talked about levelling up every part of the UK, levelling up skills and levelling up through investment in infrastructure. Prior to that manifesto, I produced a report for the Centre for Policy Studies, which called for greater devolution, enhanced skills, increased infrastructure investment and new Opportunity Zones as the principal means of levelling up.

Since the election, various other think tanks have put their own spin on levelling up, with Onwards taskforce looking at levelling up the tax system and innovation, the Centre for Progressive Policy developing its own Levelling Up Outlook, the Institute for Public and Policy Research suggesting we level up health, and Bright Blue looking at levelling up in the context of deprivation.

This all-encompassing nature of the phrase, not yet defined by any mainstream dictionary, is surely more of a strength than a weakness. We saw this during the election. Then, across the former ‘Red Wall’ seats of the Midlands and the North, people voted in their millions for levelling up, without needing a detailed policy prospectus outlining which departments would take the lead and what metrics they would apply. Yes, they wanted to ‘get Brexit done’ – but getting Brexit done was just one half of the equation to making their lives better: levelling up was the improvement that would come afterwards.

For all of its lack of explicit definition, those of us who are who committed to the levelling up cause – and I include myself in that number – feel we know what it’s aiming at. We know that at its heart it is about addressing the long-standing inequalities which exist in the United Kingdom.

Levelling up is about the life chances of people, the prospects of places and about making sure our country is the United Kingdom it should be, not the divided realm it risks becoming. In that spirit, it can be seen as a continuation of One Nation Toryism, of efforts to extend social mobility and even of various Governments rebalancing efforts.

Perhaps that is why, when Boris Johnson returned to Downing Street, having won his crushing majority in the election, he stood on the steps of Number 10 and promised to unite and level up’ our country. There followed measures such as substantial increases in infrastructure investment, the creation of the Towns Fund and, more recently, the creation of the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Renewal Fund. These all suggested a centrally-driven, targeted approach, relying on the funding of specific projects to level up specific places.

But the ambition to level up goes much wider and deeper than that. Ever since the election, every Government department has been tasked with thinking about levelling up and how to deliver it. In education, that means better schools and improved skills outside London and the South-East. For the Transport and Culture departments, that means greater national transport and digital connectivity respectively. For the Department of International Trade, it means getting more investment into the regions and more companies around the country exporting.

Now, to bring coherence and strategic intent to the levelling up agenda, the Government has promised a Levelling Up White Paper. This White Paper is to be produced by ConHome columnist, Harborough MP and the Prime Minister’s Levelling Up adviser, Neil OBrien. He is, in many respects, the perfect man for the job, with a first class brain and a long history of considering these issues, raised in the North but representing a Midlands constituency, and someone who knows his way around Whitehall.

This last point is critical given the clear intention to make this a ‘whole of government’ exercise. Virtually every department has been instructed to play its part in levelling up; the Prime Minister and the Chancellor recently put it at the heart of their Plan for Growth, and OBriens White Paper is being run out of Cabinet Office, suggesting an ambition to reach into various Whitehall departments.

He will, no doubt, have received direct orders from the Prime Minister as to what he wants in the White Paper and perhaps the slight shift in language within the Queen’s Speech gives us a clue as to what to expect. That speech promised to level up opportunities’ and the accompanying Briefing Note – prepared by the Treasury – tied the levelling up agenda much more closely to public services, such as health, education and policing. 

This suggests the Government will be looking as much at the opportunities presented to people, and within places, as the outcomes which those opportunities might lead to.For my part, the most important factor I would urge the Government to remember, is that whether we want to improve opportunities, or outcomes, levelling up needs to be centred on the potential of the private sector. As I argued in my recent Centre for Policy Studies paper with Jake Berry on rejuvenating the North, only the private sector can offer the scale of investment, the jobs and the opportunities which can lead to long-term sustainable change.

Government, of course, has a pivotal role to play. It needs to think about where it invests, about the implications of the gravitational pull of London and the South East and how it can best break the trend of self-perpetuating economic failure in the least successful parts of our country. But, most importantly, it can help create the conditions in which private enterprise can thrive.

After all, to business-loving, capitalism-supporting types like me, levelling up can only really be delivered through the dynamism of the private sector. It is its agility, investment and innovation through which life-changing opportunities will be created. Absent of that, levelling up will mean very little at all.  

Nus Ghani: The Government must act to ban British companies from exploiting slave labour

18 Nov

Nus Ghani is MP for Wealden and a member of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Select Committee.

Last week, the Government announced unprecedented action to save the rainforests. DEFRA lead on the announcement and the new legislation which will make it illegal for British businesses to use products that come from unlawful deforestation. This is hugely welcome.

Yet if the Government is able to take this legal position with UK businesses to tackle deforestation, there can be no reason why it can’t make it illegal for British firms to exploit slave labour in value chains too. And where better to focus than the supply chains in China – which is both the biggest source of pollution and slavery?

That’s why, in September, the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee announced a new inquiry into UK firms transparency and auditing of supply chains in China, with a specific focus on the link to the two million Uyghurs held on slave labour camps in the Xinjiang region.

Earlier this month we heard how H&M has led the way in investigating its supply chains, ensuring transparency and ending its relationships with suppliers in Xinjiang due to concerns about forced labour. This was in contrast to the disturbing evidence presented by other firms such as TikTok, Boohoo, and Nike.

But at least they turned up to explain their involvement in China – in contrast, Disney failed to respond to our invitation to give evidence and explain how they happened to film Mulan in the shadow of slave labour camps.

There is no doubt that in some circumstances supply chains can be long and complicated, but when it comes to Xinjaing the evidence is clear, with internment camps and re-education centres visible from satellite pictures. So it was curious when Volkswagen confidently declared it has no forced labour in its car plants in Xinjiang. One wonders how Volkswagen can be so sure?

As a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Uyghurs for Sale details, an estimated 80,000 Uyghurs have been transferred from Xinjiang to other parts of China to work in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 83 global brands in the technology, automotive and clothing sectors. The list includes brands like Apple, BMW, Dell, General Electric, General Motors, Google, Land Rover, Microsoft, Panasonic – and yes, Volkswagen itself.

There is a specific issue around cotton, fabrics and fashion. More than 80 per cent of China’s cotton is grown in the Uyghur Region, approaching almost 20 percent of global production, according to the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region. This is a group of over 50 human rights organisations including Anti-Slavery International and Human Rights Watch, endorsed by over 280 other groups from more than 35 countries. Consequently, major apparel products sold by high-street brands such as Abercrombie and Fitch, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Gap, Marks and Spencer, Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Victoria’s Secret, and Zara could have been produced by slave labour.

As Omer Kanat, Executive Director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, says: “Given that so much cotton is sourced from the Uyghur region, the fashion industry is uniquely culpable for forced labour, and by extension, systematic policies meant to destroy the Uyghur identity.”

Brands like Nike, Zara, and Uniqlo, he adds, are not only “enabling forced Uyghur labour, they’re also supporting an entire system of genocidal repression. Who is picking the cotton and stitching the clothes that western consumers are wearing every day? Uyghurs. Drawn directly from mass internment camps.”

Under Britain’s Modern Slavery Act, companies have a legal responsibility to be transparent about slavery in supply chains. Yet it is curious that at a time when businesses go to great lengths to ensure brand management and corporate social responsibility, such efforts seem to come to a halt at the borders of China when it comes to human rights.

Just to bring the issue home, Merdan Ghappar used to model for the Chinese online retailer Taobao. Today he is handcuffed to a metal bedframe in detention in China’s western Xinjiang region, one of at least a million – perhaps as many as three million – Uyghurs and other Muslims held in a network of prison camps. Perhaps those who walk the fashion catwalks of the western world today will at least remember him – and question whether they should be promoting products made by his fellow prisoners?

In September the United States took the unprecedented step of banning exports from five entities in the Xinjiang and Anhui provinces of China, including garments, cotton, computer parts, and hair products. As Kenneth Cuccinelli, the Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary said, “These extraordinary human rights violations demand an extraordinary response. This is modern-day slavery.”

Leaked high-level Chinese government documents last year speak of “absolutely no mercy”. China’s state media has declared that the aim in this crackdown on the Uyghurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.” As the Washington Post put it in an editorial, “It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.”

A new independent tribunal, chaired by the man who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic, British barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, is now investigating whether the atrocities against the Uyghurs constitute genocide. If they do, high-street brands may be complicit in this crime.

Volkswagen might want to recall its history. It should not be lost on them that Marie van de Zyl, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and others in the Jewish community, are increasingly drawing direct comparisons with the Holocaust. In a letter to the Chinese ambassador in London, she said that nobody could see the evidence and fail to note what she describes as:

“…similarities between what is alleged to be happening in the People’s Republic of China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: People being forcibly loaded on to trains; beards of religious men being trimmed; women being sterilised; and the grim spectre of concentration camps.”

Her letter was preceded by the decision by the Jewish News to highlight the discovery of 13 tonnes of Uyghur hair – with “Nazi resonance” – on the frontpage of the newspaper. Indeed, it is significant that the Jewish News is the only British newspaper to have highlighted the plight of the Uyghurs on their frontpage, and has done so twice.

Just as we are asked about our legacy on the rainforests, so we will also have to explain how we responded to a modern day, technologically-advanced destruction of the Uyghur. We need a national effort – on the left and right – to wake up to the fact that as important as the rainforests are, slavery threatens the existence of entire people. And we need the Government to act as decisively, and legislate stop British businesses using or abusing slavery in supply chains just as it has to stop unlawful deforestation.