Bim Afolami: The Olympic model of spotting and developing talent should be applied to academia

26 Jul

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

As the Olympics begins, I have a giddy sense of excitement. The coverage is the BBC at its best. I start to care about events you barely knew existed (Men’s 10m Air pistol anyone?), and cheer on each British athlete with immense fervour.

There is something magical about the Olympics. It isn’t just the hype. It is the stories behind each and every champion. There is something special about the sacrifices they have made, spending their teenage years in a mixture of holiday training camps in addition to the relentless grind before and after school, and seeing all of that effort culminate in competing at the very highest level.

We rightly applaud and celebrate them, and we also praise their highly focused coaches and families who have helped develop their extraordinary single-minded focus on achievement from a young age.

After the failure of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, during which Team GB only won one gold medal, finishing 36th in the medal table – below Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan – it prompted a period of furious self-flagellation in the media and serious soul searching among administrators.

Due to the brilliant decision of John Major as Prime Minister to introduce the National Lottery, this provided the funds for the “World Class Performance Programme” to start diverting funds into elite sport. It allowed athletes to devote themselves entirely to their training, paying their living costs and delivering a wide range of support services, from physiotherapy to sports science and nutrition.

Extra funds were also invested in greatly improved facilities across a range of different fields. The talent development programmes that made sure promising athletes were funnelled into their best sport at a younger age. All of this work has led to Team GB hugely improving its performance at Olympic Games, finishing 4th overall in Beijing 2008, 3rd in London 2012, and 2nd in Rio 2016.

Why do we think about academic and intellectual achievement so differently? Why do we regard the selection of children for academic ability and potential so anathema, yet ruthless and narrow selection for sporting prowess is regarded as rightly necessary to develop the leading stars of the future?

We need to focus on developing our brightest and most talented people, in a range of different fields, from a young age – and do this irrespective of their social background. As the Prime Minister often says, talent is evenly distributed in this country, but opportunity is not. We need to rediscover meritocracy in Britain.

The truth is that in order to do so, one is confronted by a difficult problem. How to discover and develop talented children in the population at large when the ladder of opportunity has so many rungs missing? And how do you give the best possible opportunities to such children once you have discovered them?

Adrian Wooldridge, Managing Editor of the Economist, in his new book The Aristocracy of Talent argues that the way to do this is to revive two ideas that were at the heart of the meritocratic movement until the “progressive” reforms of the 1960s: IQ testing and academic selection.

We know the arguments about the 11 plus – the Left argues that dividing the country between sheep and goats at 11, on the basis of one test at a very young age, does immense harm to those who failed in the process; the Right retorting that it gave unique life chances to bright working class children who were identified early and given life changing opportunities.

The best way forward is to learn from the failures and successes of the past. We don’t need a national 11 plus in the old style. We need more of a variegated school system that has lots of different types of schools from technical schools to music schools and arts schools, but which also makes room for highly academic schools in the state sector.

We have already provided the material for this with school academies – Brampton Manor Academy, for example, is situated in Newham, East London, with one in five children eligible for free school meals. The sixth form is highly selective (on the basis of GCSE grades), and it cultivates a highly academic atmosphere, with intensive Oxbridge training as well as a host of extracurricular subjects. Last year it won 55 places at Oxbridge – their method is working.

The Government could push this revolution further by allowing academies to select at 11 – not with an 11 plus, but with IQ tests developed precisely to avoid being susceptible to intensive tutoring that is all too common in preparation for that exam. This would not just be for the typical “academic” subjects.

For example, we should turbocharge the intake for our university technical colleges (which start at 13-14 years old) by scouring the country and actively selecting children with special aptitude in technical, engineering and design skills. These are the children who will go on to build our future high tech manufacturing capacity, or develop the sort of innovative ideas that will help us achieve Net Zero by 2050.

Wooldridge argues that, in addition to this, we could create a system of fully-funded national scholarships, awarded on the basis of a combination of IQ and social need, that would allow children to study at any school in the country – opportunities to be selected for this would happen continuously throughout secondary school, lest late developers be missed.

Private schools would be forced to open up a certain number of places to these students. These national merit scholars would be given free university education in return for agreeing to spend at least 10 years working in the public sector.

This would address the public sector’s growing problem with attracting high flyers, particularly in IT and tech. It would repair the fraying link between public service and intellectual excellence. As government and governing becomes ever more complex, and we demand more from our teachers and other public servants, we should try and ensure that more of the most academically able students are incentivised and trained for life in public service.

I know that real life is not the Olympics. Yet training and developing our most able young people for the future will not just be important for identifying hidden talent, but it will benefit all of our society. It is mad that the only type of selection that is verboten in the state sector is academic, when the wealthy can just pay for it.

Let’s rejuvenate the idea of meritocracy, and truly ensure that the most talented, from every background can get to the top. We might end up with better technical skills in industry, better civil servants, better teachers, and yes – much better politicians!

Emily Carver: Politicians’ refusal to discuss NHS reform is cowardly at best and sinister at worst

10 Mar

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The recent furore over the proposed one per cent pay rise for NHS staff has served as yet another reminder of just how toxic and claustrophobic public debate over our health service has become.

Unsurprisingly, the press framed the Government’s decision as a callous attack on nurses (despite the fact that the pay rise would apply across-the-board), the unions slammed the “pitiful” increase as “the worst kind of insult” to NHS workers and threatened strike action, while the opposition rallied to demand justice for our “Covid heroes”. All very predictable. But while the headlines may have been foreseeable, it is still troubling to see how little room there is for rational discussion when it comes to “our NHS”.

First, it doesn’t take much digging to discover that the headline figure of one per cent is misleading. The wage banding system for NHS staff – as with most of the public sector – allows for regular incremental wage rises; and overtime payments and extra allowances for staff in London and the South East are also built into the system. The problem is that the way staff are remunerated appears arbitrary and allows little room for targeted or performance-based pay rises.

In an institution, which employs 1.3 million people, this is not only an inefficient way of using taxpayers’ money, but a rather unfair and possibly demotivating method for deciding pay. Few would disagree that pay should ideally reflect contribution and performance, rather than rely on national pay bargaining. It is distinctly disingenuous to claim that every single employee in the NHS, regardless of their role, responsibility or competence, deserves the exact same increase.

For now, fundamental change in the way we decide NHS pay is likely to be placed on the backburner, along with reforms to many other areas of public policy. Far simpler for ministers to slap an NHS badge on their lapel and squabble over how many extra billions we should pump into the behemoth this year. Why risk the inevitable backlash that comes with calling for more substantial reform?

It was only a few weeks ago that the IEA’s relatively innocuous briefing paper Viral Myths, which challenged the idea that the NHS has been a “star performer” during the pandemic, triggered explosive media coverage. The fact that the paper made it clear that it was talking about the institution rather than the staff mattered very little when the opportunity arose for politicians and commentators to make incendiary remarks – see Angela Rayner’s public outburst for a particularly wearying display of point-scoring.

It is clear that much of the political class would rather pander to the narrative of the NHS as the “envy of the world” than stick their head above the parapet and dare to suggest we might have something to learn from international best practice.

But this is cowardly at best and sinister at worst when you consider that the NHS consistently ranks in the bottom third in international comparisons of health system performance, which, to our shame, translates into thousands of unnecessarily lost lives each year. Failing to implement – or even entertain the notion of – change helps no-one, aside from perhaps a handful who use it for cheap populism. Reform would not undermine hard-working staff, quite the opposite. Releasing frontline staff from the broken system they are trapped within would be a mark of respect and gratitude.

In the months to come, the case for reform will strengthen. As immediate pressure from Covid patients eases, it is doubtful the NHS will breathe a sigh of relief. It has been estimated that as many as six million “hidden” patients could join the queue for NHS treatment in the coming months, which could see waiting lists reach eight million by October this year. The reported rise in the number of people now booking private appointments suggests that the public are growing increasingly aware that the service is in poor health, and increasingly impatient at how long it takes to get the treatment they need. If this trend continues, as is surely inevitable, it is not inconceivable that resentment will start to bubble at the vast sums funnelled towards an unreformed NHS.

Although the pandemic has exposed systemic weaknesses in the NHS, people appear intolerant to change. Such is the potency of the two rhetorical strawmen devotees of our healthcare system are able to erect: first, that criticism of the institution is tantamount to criticism of its workers and second, that the only alternative to our universal provision is the American system. But perhaps, as the trauma of the pandemic eases, their resolve may soften. Either way, our representatives owe it to us (let’s remember the NHS budget is likely to reach a colossal £200 billion this year) to engage in sensible discussions over reform.

It is simply unacceptable that it is now the norm for patients to wait months and months for routine operations – as was the case even before the pandemic struck. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world; it should be a national scandal that our health service produces health outcomes more similar to that of the Czech Republic and Slovenia than of Switzerland or Belgium, both of which, it is important to stress, benefit from universal market-based healthcare systems.

The burden on the NHS in the months and years to come may be unlike anything we have yet experienced. The Government speaks of a global Britain, but this must include a willingness to learn from other countries, and healthcare should be no exception. Those hackneyed arguments that any failings are down to underfunding, or that the only other choice besides the NHS is the US model, are borderline insulting to a voting public who have sacrificed so much over the past year to “protect the NHS”.

Garvan Walshe: We can be sure that those who have been vaccinated won’t die of Covid. So the case for lockdowns is vanishing fast.

18 Feb

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Having detected three cases of Covid–19, Melbourne has been put into lockdown. The European Centre for Disease Control suggests it might have to be maintained until the summer. Germany is getting increasingly jumpy about new variants, despite never exceeding 300 cases per 100,000 people.

Spurred by vaccine delays – particularly acute thanks to the European Commision’s utter mess of procurment – a narrative is taking hold. It states that the vaccines are ineffective against new variants, and could be ineffective against variants yet to emerge. What is needed, the argument goes, is to prevent the circulation of the virus, and therefore the chance that these variants could ever emerge.

We know, of course that for the elderly, and for those with co-morbidities, Covid is lethal. In old and fat Western societies, these can easily be millions of people. For the rest of us, it, with a few exceptions, is not unlike other afflictions: it ranges from utterly harmless to deeply unpleasant – sometimes with long-term effects. We don’t shut society down to eliminate these in the case of other diseases.

For the last year, most of these populations have been deprived of their freedom. They have sacrificed their ability to pursue their normal life and exist as social beings in order to protect the vulnerable in society. Perhaps the introverted don’t mind do much: the other day I asked a friend, a writer of scholarly books who lives in America, how he was coping, and he replied “since I’m a hermit, I’ve nothing to complain about”.

But some of us like company, and have been hard hit. And since in our open societies people tend to gravitate to jobs that suit them, the inequality is sharpened.

Strict, long confinements like France’s and Belgium’s are the toughest to bear. In Spain, by contrast, cafes and restaurants have usually remained open, if for fewer hours. People with secure jobs in the public sector will come out of this pandemic with higher savings ,because there’s nothing to spend money on.

But if you run a small business, the difficulty in meeting people makes finding new clients extremely hard, even if you’re not in a sector hit by restrictions. It’s worst of all for workers in hospitality and travel – hugely improtant in sunny southern Europe.

The mental health effects of enforced solitude are only slightly leavened by our knowledge that everybody else is going through the same thing. Thankfully, Spanish and Italian authorities have been less draconian this time, and don’t restrict people from walking outside.

That’s not the case in Paris, where you are formally limited to staying within a kilometre of your home. It goes without saying that it helps to be richer: self-isolating in a cramped flatshare with unsympathetic housemates is much more difficult than in a spacious family home with a garden. For people trapped in abusive relationships, it’s a living hell.

It’s one thing to endure all this in order to prevent people dying, and for a relatively short period of time; quite another because something could happen that might return us to this situation. Our nerves are already wearing thin, capital running low and reserves of hope becoming exhausted.

As the most basic level, the aggregate effect of vaccination is to reduce the number of people susceptible to the virus. So what would happen if restrictions were lifted entirely once the vulnerable were vaccinated?

If 80 per cent of the vulnerable are vaccinated, instead of 10–15 per cent of the population being at serious risk, then two to three per cent are.  If their infection fatality rate is five per cent, they are all infected, and vaccination is 70 per cent effective, that would result in 0.2 per cent death rate – or around 90,000–120,000 deaths in the UK.

But in reality, their death and serious illness numbers would be considerably lower than that. For a start, they would not all be infected. Though vaccination is at least 70 per cent effective against infection, it is 100 per cent effective against serious illness and death: this is true even for the variants. We can be sure that anyone who has been vaccinated won’t die of Covid.

Indeed, evidence is now emerging that vaccination reduces transmissibility as well as severity of infection: this is good in itself, and also because it reduces the number of copies of the virus that are capable of generating mutations, and therefore the likelihood of more troublesome variants emerging.

Finally, with good surveillance of infection strains, we will have time to adapt the vaccine to variants that emerge. This is because the maths of exponential growth leads to an explosion, but only after a phase of slow expansion. That phase, which lasts several months with Covid, is enough time to refine vaccines, provided the mutations are detected early.

This changes the calculation that justified the earlier lockdowns. Last year, Imperial College’s modelling calculated that 550,000 people could die, and so justified the extreme restrictions that were imposed.

As the threat recedes, reopening should not be an all or nothing affair. Measures that don’t cost very much, such as tests before international travel, masks on public transport, working from home where possible, limitations on capacity for cinemas and theatres, bans on large events where superspreading can occur, and so on, should continue for longer.

But basic restrictions on seeing our fellow human beings, particularly outside, and on people who make their living serving food and drink while we do so need to be among the first to go.

Timing is critical, of course, because vaccinations take a few weeks before they generate strong immunity, but their effects can be tested by observing the number of more severe cases and hospitalisations. The dramatic success of Israel’s vaccination programme has been overshadowed by the ultra-Orthodox community’s refusal to take part in even basic social distancing but, even there, the make-up of hospitalisations has changed. As vaccines are distributed, the proportion of severe cases will go down, and pressure on hospitals will ease, allowing more opening up. This – not the mere fact of vaccines being administered, nor the complete elimination of Covid cases – is the essential metric.

Actual eradication of viruses is extremely difficult, and seems only to have been achieved with smallpox. Covid will stay endemic and mutate in the world population. However, that’s not as scary as it sounds. The virus only cares about replicating and finding new hosts. Mutations that help it spread harmlessly are much more useful to Covid than the ones that kill us.

As long as most of us are exposed to it while young, like the other coronaviruses that circulate and cause colds, it won’t cause a public health crisis. That, not zero-covid, is an outcome that we, and the virus can both live with.

Mattie Heaven: Iran’s government is a terrorist regime. British Ministers must face this truth – and act on it.

15 Feb

Mattie Heaven is a policy and advocacy advisor to the International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights. She was Parliamentary Candidate for Coventry South in the 2019 general election.

Having lived in the UK most of my life, I’ve been faced with the challenge of explaining why human rights violations in Iran should greatly concern our government and my fellow citizens. The short answer is that the extremism of the Iranian regime is not limited to Iran itself – but is exported across the globe.

Aside from the brutal violation of human rights inside of the country, the Islamic Republic of Iran has openly funded terrorist organisations across the Middle East, using proxy wars to gain further control of the region, and uses diplomatic channels to carry out terrorist operations against both Iranians living abroad and the international community, as a means of eliminating any opposing viewpoint that they may consider a threat.

For example, consider the recent case of the senior Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi. According to reports released by German police and an indictment in a Belgian court, Assadi, the third secretary of the Iranian Embassy in Austria, attempted to organise an atrocity on European soil.

He smuggled half-a-kilo of explosives onto the continent, with the intention of bombing a rally in France organised by the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran.  Had it gone off, the victims could have included four Conservative MPs – David Amess, Bob Blackman, Matthew Offord and Theresa Villiers, plus a Labour one, Roger Godsiff.

Clearly, the plan was not that of an individual carrying out an unauthorised act of terror, but a plot approved by the heads of the Iranian regime and organised through diplomatic channels.

If you want another recent example, mull the example of Mohammad Naserzadeh, a staff member of the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul, who was recently arrested by the Turkish authorities for his alleged involvement in the murder of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, a vocal critic of the Iranian regime.

The extremist actions of the Iranian diplomats can be understood better when we ponder the ideology of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, the most powerful official in the Islamic Republic, who has compared Israel to a “cancerous tumour, that must be wiped off the map”.

This is the state-sponsored radical and extremist ideology which led to the Buenos Aires bombing in July 1994 in Argentina. This terrorist attack orchestrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran resulted in the death of 85 innocent people, and injured hundreds.

It is clear that the Iranian regime, over the last 40 years, has consistently shown an unwillingness to reform, or even attempt to improve the quality of life of its citizens, its troubling human rights record and its relationship with the western world. So maintaining the current diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran would be a devastating mistake – potentially with fatal consequences.

The regime has resisted reform, since it is fundamentally an undemocratic, and has frequently persecuted and arrested not only its critics, but also those such as the diverse religious and ethnic groups throughout Iran who choose to live a life other than the one officially prescribed its fundamentalist ideology,

Moreover, the issue of women and children’s rights in the country are of serious concern.  Women, half of Iran’s population, are under consistent oppression, with the underage marriage of girls being encouraged by the Mullahs. Not to mention the sobering fact that more child offenders are executed in Iran than in any other country in the world.

Unfortunately, during recent decades, the EU has mostly ignored the suffering of the Iranian people in the interest of economic gain, and has thus largely turned a blind eye to the inhumane actions of the Iranian authorities. This short-sighted view has not only led to the abandonment of human rights principles that the EU is based on, but also has worked against Europe’s own longer-term potential gains, by fuelling and empowering Iran’s ruling regime, and the global threat that it poses.

A Global Britain, as outlined by Dominic Raab, must means establishing our own standards here in the UK, and reinforcing sanctions to hold those who commit serious abuses of human rights to account, as part of UK’s commitment to democracy, freedom, and the rules-based international system,

Systems based on dictatorship will not last forever, and the people of those countries will always remember governments that stood by their side. A free Iran with a truly democratic system will no doubt provide the UK with much more profitable and long-term investment opportunities than the current regime can offer – unleashing the true potential of its citizens, and becoming a productive member of the international community.

Furthermore, since Iran is among the world’s largest sponsors of terrorism, its resources – some 84 million people, with vast resources of gold, oil and gas – are currently being employed in order to facilitate the regime’s terrorist ideology. Which in turn can lead to the mobilisation of hundreds of millions of potentially dangerous people around the world, with an extremist agenda to destroy western civilisation, or take it hostage.

Finally, a note on the freedom of press – following Iran’s recent execution of the prominent journalist, Rouhollah Zam, during December last year, and the ongoing threats against Iranian journalists outside of Iran. A free press in a democratic system is considered the ‘fourth pillar’ that can prevent collusion amongst the other pillars of State.

So if the regime in Iran is pressured to enforce human rights standards, we can be sure that any dangerous action in Iran that could jeopardize world peace and security would then be thwarted by the free flow of information within Iran itself.  There then would be reasonable hope for meaningful dialogue towards stable economic and diplomatic relations.

Were Iran’s human rights to be put at the forefront of the Government’s foreign policy, those who control the Iranian regime would soon come to realise that its inhumane actions and spread of terror across the world has severe consequences for it – thus providing the only incentive that can bring about legitimate change within the country.

Kristian Niemietz: What difference does the size of the state make to how is deals with Covid? None.

9 Feb

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs

We are not having a very good pandemic so far.

With over 1,500 deaths per million people, Britain has one of the highest Covid death rates in the world. You can quibble a bit with those figures, but only at the margins. The number of excess deaths – that is, the number of deaths over and above what we would expect in a normal year – matches the number of Covid deaths far too closely for this to be a statistical fluke.   

In addition to having a higher Covid death rate, we have also had a worse economic downturn than most comparable countries. The UK economy shrank by about 10 per cent in 2020, compared to a European average of seven per cent, and about five per cent in North America and Japan.

And it is not as if we had lighter or shorter lockdowns than others. Our only redeeming feature so far has been the very fast approval, procurement and rollout of the vaccine. But there can be no denying that at least until the end of 2020, the UK has been coping extremely badly with this pandemic. The question is why.  

Britain’s left-wing commentariat was quick to ascribe all this to “austerity”. For example, Polly Toynbee, the Guardian columnist, talks about “an incapacitated public realm, naked in the blast of this epidemic. It wasn’t just the NHS and social care […] but every service crippled by cuts: public health, police, local government, the army and Whitehall – all denuded.” 

Owen Jones, the arch-Corbynite writer, asserts: “a state hollowed out by austerity and market dogma is, in large part, to blame: it cannot be stressed enough that it is mostly because of these ideologically driven failures that Britain has been – is – one of the worst-hit countries on Earth.”

Michael Marmot, the “inequality czar”, wrote a Guardian article with the self-explanatory title “Why did England have Europe’s worst Covid figures? The answer starts with austerity.” 

I could easily find dozens of similar quotes, but you get the gist. It is a highly fashionable opinion. But as is usually the case with fashionable opinions, it is also completely baseless.

“Small-state Britain” is a myth. Despite all the waffle about “austerity”, in 2019, UK public spending still stood at about 40 per cent of GDP. This is a perfectly normal figure for an OECD economy, neither unusually high, nor unusually low.

But that is beside the point anyway. As I show in my new report Viral Myths: Why we risk learning the wrong lessons from the pandemic (published by the Institute of Economic Affairs), the size of the public sector is completely unrelated to how well, or how badly, different countries have been coping with the pandemic.

If the size of the state were the critical factor, Belgium, where government spending accounts for over half of GDP – one of the highest levels in the world – should have been superbly prepared for the pandemic. Alas, they were not. With a Covid death rate of over 1,800 per million, they did even worse than Britain, and their economy also shrank by over eight per cent.

In Italy, where public spending accounts for almost half of GDP, both the Covid death rate and the economic “growth” rate are about the same as Britain’s. France, which has perhaps the largest state in the world (unless you count North Korea and Cuba) fared somewhat better than Britain, but not by a huge margin.

Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, fared better than most developed countries, with public spending levels that are (moderately) lower than the UK’s. South Korea, with public spending levels of less than a third of GDP, was one of the star performers, and so were Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, where public spending stands at less than a quarter of GDP.

It was not government largesse that saved the best performers. It was specific policy packages, containing measures such as early travel restrictions, a rapid roll-out of mass testing, effective test-and-trace-and-isolate systems, and a rigorous enforcement of quarantining requirements (combined with financial support to make this economically viable).

This is, of course, Captain Hindsight speaking. Being right with the benefit of hindsight is, admittedly, not very impressive. But it is still better than being wrong despite that benefit.

The Deal in Detail 4) The environment and energy

31 Dec

Benedict McAleenan is a Senior Adviser to Policy Exchange’s Energy & Environment Unit. Ed Birkett is a Senior Research Fellow at Policy Exchange.

If you listen to much of the anti-Brexit rhetoric, you’d think that the EU was the sole driver of environmental progress in the UK and its only protector. Given half a chance, the UK would apparently repeal every environmental and climate change policy it could find. Given the UK’s cross-party support for environmental protection and for Net Zero, this risk was always theoretical.

The deal includes substantial provisions on the environment and on climate change as part of the ‘Level Playing Field’ and associated ‘non-regression’ clauses, which will require both the UK and the EU to uphold existing protections.

On energy, the deal introduces new mechanisms for the UK and the EU to cooperate on nuclear power, natural gas and electricity. The deal also looks forward to future cooperation on cross-border energy projects in the North Sea, which, as we’ve previously written, holds the key to a Net Zero economy. It also suggests an intention to cooperate on carbon pricing and hints at a linked Emissions Trading System. On both energy and the environment, this deal is a sensible starting point for longer-term cooperation.

Protecting the environment

On fishing, the big negotiation points were about the business of fishing fleets, not sustainability. So once the fisheries transition period ends the UK will be responsible for managing the sustainability of its own resources. Now that we understand how fisheries will operate with regard to our European neighbours, the UK Government should recommit to its sustainability pledges. This should include the sustainability of ‘shared stocks’, i.e. fish that swim across borders, so we’ll need to collaborate closely with the EU on marine standards.

The level playing field rules allow both sides to diverge on environmental standards. Throughout the Brexit debate, the EU has often been painted as a gold standard while the UK has been presented as quite the opposite. That isn’t accurate: The UK exceeds the EU on a number of protections, from climate policy to animal welfare. Diverging from the EU’s farm policies, for example, will be a major boon for the UK’s environmental wellbeing.

However, membership of the EU provided important environmental oversight. This has helped to address the tragedy of the commons which can arise from more local political trade-offs. The Environment Act aims to fill this void with an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will replace EU institutions in scrutinising environmental protections.

The Deal’s ‘rebalancing’ mechanism (part of its level playing field provisions) will provide some checks on top of the OEP, but these will be limited. By allowing both sides the chance to impose tariffs (among other things) if the other loosens environmental checks, it may help to prevent backsliding. However, the provisions only relate to how the changes affect trade and investments. That is, if a loosening of regulations can’t be explicitly shown to impact trade, then they won’t come under the remit of the Deal. So, the onus is back on British politicians, the OEP, civil society and voters to ensure the environment is protected. That’s perfectly reasonable within the terms of a trade deal between sovereign nations.

Of course, the UK and the EU have different legal philosophies that govern the evolution of law and regulation. The EU’s French-style precautionary approach jars with the British ‘common law’ tradition. How they will manage divergence is still to be seen.

There’s also a question over devolved administrations. Environmental protections are mostly devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, so the UK government can’t easily prevent the Welsh, for example, from relaxing environmental rules and potentially affecting trade.

Cooperation on energy and climate

When it comes to energy, the UK and the EU have a lot to gain from cooperation, so it’s not surprising that the deal includes substantial provisions in these areas. The benefits of close cooperation will continue to grow. One area where the Deal is ambitious is cooperation on renewable energy projects, particularly in the North Sea. There’s massive potential for low-carbon energy projects in the North Sea, including offshore wind and offshore electricity grids.

By 2050, offshore wind capacity in the UK’s part of the North Sea is likely to increase tenfold. Both sides have recognised that, to make the most of the North Sea, they need to work together on offshore wind projects and offshore electricity grids.

When it’s windy in the UK, we can export our excess electricity to Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Whereas on cold, still days, we will increasingly import electricity from the continent. This mutual cooperation directly reduces electricity bills by making the most of cheap renewable energy when it’s available.

From January 2021, Great Britain will no longer have access to the automated ‘market coupling’ system that improves the efficiency of trading electricity. However, the deal aims to develop a new system for trading electricity by 2022. In the meantime, electricity bills are likely to rise in both the UK and the EU. Any cost rises will be manageable, but the biggest effect could be felt by customers in Ireland and Northern Ireland, because the Single Electricity Market (which covers ROI and NI) is small and only interconnected to Great Britain.

The Deal also leaves open the possibility of cooperation on carbon pricing. For now, the UK is setting up its own Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) to replace the EU ETS. Longer-term, the UK and the EU could link these Emissions Trading Schemes, as Switzerland has done with the EU. As we’ve previously written, the UK and the EU should also explore cooperation on carbon border pricing, which is critical to decarbonising heavy industry without offshoring manufacturing jobs to countries with higher carbon emissions.

On electric vehicles, the UK and the EU have agreed transitional arrangements that will make it easier for EVs manufactured in the UK to qualify for tariff-free exports to the EU. This is a sensible step that will give UK car manufacturers more time to build up their supply chains for EVs, including battery “gigafactories”.

Under this deal, the UK Government regains control over regulation of emissions from vehicles. This will give the Government more freedom to go further and faster on the rollout of Electric Vehicles, including the ability to legislate to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, which was announced as part of the Prime Minister’s ten-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. We have previously written about how a California-style Zero-Emission Vehicle Mandate (‘ZEV Mandate’) can reduce the cost of the transition to zero-emission vehicles powered by electricity or hydrogen. Under a ZEV Mandate, manufacturers would be required to sell an increasing proportion of electric and hydrogen vehicles each year. Next year’s Green Paper on the petrol and diesel phase-out is the perfect opportunity for the Government to introduce a ZEV mandate and show how we can use new-found regulatory freedom to boost both the environment and industry.

In summary, it’s a good deal, but there’s still work to be done to develop collaborative partnerships on energy systems and environmental protection. From liberal energy markets to legislating on net zero, both parties have been close for decades. The key now is to implement these provisions as smoothly as possible so that we can continue to trade with increasingly sustainable industries on both sides.

This is the fourth in a series of pieces from Policy Exchange looking at specific issues that arise from the Brexit trade deal.

Garvan Walshe: Gloomy Sturgeon projects competence. The Government doesn’t – and the Union may be the price it pays.

19 Nov

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

The Prime Minister’s reset has had immediate effects on Scotland. Out with “devolution is a disaster”, in with a “Union task force” (£). And in the Financial Times to boot, no longer boycotted by the No 10 media operation, but graced by a Prime Ministerial op-ed.

Details about the task force, which is to include English, Welsh and Scottish Tory MPs, are scarce. As the party with no Northern Irish MPs, it would be wise to add a Northern Irish peer, and David Trimble is an obvious candidate. Its mission to make the emotional and cultural case for the Union is welcome. Merely pointing to the fiscal benefits of Scottish membership of the Union is too easily spun as “we pay for you, so shut up” (a problem that scuppered Arthur Balfour’s unsuccessful “killing home rule with kindness” in relation to Ireland at the turn of the century).

The Scottish experience in the Union in the 100 years before the independence push has been a good deal better than the Irish (it’s only a decade since the last Scottish Prime Minister), but that hasn’t stopped the SNP dominating Scottish politics as Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond dominated the Irish scene.

Unlike Redmond and Parnell, the SNP doesn’t hold the balance of power at Westminster, but it has, because of the devolution, a platform to show how it would govern an independent Scotland.

Though it might irk unionists, who can point at failures in education, a self-inflicted wound over trans self-ID, the grubby mess involving Alex Salmond’s trial, and cruelty of anti-Covid measures applied to Scottish students, it’s a platform the SNP has made good use of.

It took maximum advantage of two events — Brexit and the Covid pandemic — to switch the balance of risk away from independence and convince Scots that leaving the Union had become the safer option. Brexit moved public opinion to give independence a slight edge. Covid has turned that slender lead into a solid advantage of around ten points.

The effect of Brexit will not be possible to address in the short term. There’s simply a difference of belief between the Government, which was elected to get Brexit done, after all, and Scottish public opinion, which is strongly against it, but safety and predictability are things the Government should, in principle, be able to get a handle on.

Number 10 has come in for heavy criticism for its management of the pandemic, which, however true it may be in an absolute sense, feels distinctly unfair when compared to Scotland.

England’s record has not been particularly good, but then neither has that of France, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, the United States, or most pointedly Scotland. All have had high death rates, found their test and trace systems overwhelmed, and struggled to gain acceptance for public health restrictions. These serious problems are common to almost all Western countries. An independent Scotland is just as likely to suffer from them.

What the SNP has been able to do has been to communicate stability (something that comes more naturally to Sturgeon than the bombastic Salmond). Unlike the Government in London, which has veered between seriousness and hope, Sturgeon has been consistently sober and gloomy. She has avoided overpromising on test and trace, and did not convert useful rapid antigen testing into a grossly over-the-top operation moonshot. This has allowed her to be perceived as far more competent despite having the same Western Standard Average performance in managing the disease.

There is, however, a useful lesson to be drawn from this. Projecting competence does not require achieving excellence. The public will react positively to a government that provides a realistic assessment of the difficulties faced. They understand that governing a country isn’t like pitching for investment in a start up, and would prefer a tolerably realistic assessment of the difficulties ahead then to endure an emotional rollercoaster of hopes raised only to be dashed.

This is not to rule out inspiration as a part of political rhetoric, but it is best for mobilising support for very long-term struggles, like the fight against climate change.

Scots go to the polls next May, and whether the SNP can get an overall majority at Holyrood will be a key test of their movement. Douglas Ross has an uphill battle to stop them, but reset towards realism from the Government could just convince wavering Scots that it’s safe to stay in.

Robert Halfon: This time round, let’s keep the schools open – and not risk an epidemic of education poverty

4 Nov

Now is the time to back Boris Johnson

However reluctantly, we need to back Boris on the lockdown.

Regular readers of my column will know that I have been no shrinking violet when it comes to recommending changes to Government policy. But on Covid, I think we have no option but to support the Prime Minister.

When the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), the Chief Scientific Adviser, Public Health England and independent modelling all suggest a huge rise in deaths and an overwhelmed NHS on the current national trajectory, what Government wouldn’t listen to that advice?

As we learned from the comfort of our sofas on Saturday evening, we could see, without action, up to twice as many deaths over the winter as we saw in the first wave – exceeding as many as 4,000 deaths per day.

In September, critics hounded Sir Patrick Vallance for saying that there could be 200 deaths a day from Covid by mid-November. In fact, we reached that figure much sooner, in late October, rising to 326 by 31 October.

Even if some predictions seem wildly high, would the leader of our country really be willing to risk it? Death cannot be reversed.

For those who question the statistics, read my colleague Neil O’Brien’s article on this site and his numerous tweets, explaining the data behind the decisions that are being made.

Of course, there are differing views about the science from the professionals involved – there always will be. But, at the end of the day, if you ignore advice from the top medical and science advisers appointed by the State to look after our health, what is the point in having such appointments in the first place?

Moreover, it is not as if Britain is unique in all this. Belgium, Italy, France and Germany faced a similar fate and have imposed tougher restrictions and lockdowns. Are the Government’s medical advisers in these countries, who are also dealing with a second wave, all wrong?

I just don’t think as a country we can afford to take the view that this is just the sniffles, as the Brazillian President has suggested. As for the comparisons with flu, we have an annual vaccine and significant herd immunity.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have preferred to keep the traffic light tier system as a compromise. I still think we should return to this system in a months’ time. There is real demand for the Government to publish much more data behind its decisions to close certain venues, alongside the impact of lockdown on the economy, livelihoods, poverty, mental and physical health. Apparent anomalies like not allowing pubs to serve takeaway drinks need to be answered.

In press conferences, the Government should do more to emphasise understanding of the devastation these decisions are causing small business owners, their employees and their families, and then set out (in good time) policies to mitigate against these consequences. The Prime Minister’s statement in the Commons on Monday, announcing additional support for businesses and the self-employed through November, was enormously welcome.

However, given that I am not a scientist nor an epidemiologist, if the CMO says that the situation is rapidly becoming much worse, and urgent action is needed, who am I to argue? I certainly don’t think I am an idiot for listening to what they have to say.

So we need to back Johnson at this time. The Government is walking a tightrope between destitution and death. Opposition to what the Prime Minister is doing in a national emergency sows confusion in the eyes of the public. It gives succour to political enemies – who can shout the loudest, without having to take life or death decisions.

Keep the schools open

Of course, more than ever, schools need to be safe for teachers, support staff, children and parents. It is absolutely right that teachers and support staff who are at risk – those who are vulnerable, or need to self-isolate – should be able to stay at home.

However, thank goodness the Chief Medical Officer and others have said that, even with the new restrictions, it is safe to keep schools open and vital for children, pupils and students.

Pointing to the “extensive evidence”, the Chief and Deputy Medical Officers across the UK reached the consensus that “there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19” – with the fatality rate being lower than seasonal flu. In their joint statement, they noted schools are also “not a common route of transmission”. Data from the ONS also suggests teachers are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19 compared to the general working-age population.

During the last lockdown, around 2.3 million children did no home learning (or less than one hour per day), according to the UCL Institute of Education.

The Education Endowment Foundation estimated that the disadvantage attainment gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to school closures.

And just last week, a study reported in Schools Week found that Year Seven pupils are 22 months behind expectations in their writing ability. Disadvantaged students have inevitably suffered the greatest.

Scientific research has shown that it is safe to keep the schools open and that closing them would exacerbate issues relating to children’s mental health and wellbeing, safeguarding and academic attainment.

Throughout this pandemic, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has been a powerful advocate for keeping children in school – not only for their education, but mental health and safeguarding. In advance of the lockdown announcement she tweeted, “We’ve always said that schools should be the last to shut and first to open. It would be a disaster for children’s well-being and education if they were to close”. I doubt that the Children’s Commissioner would make such a statement if she thought there was significant risk to those in schools.

Even the Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, told Andrew Marr on Sunday that schools should remain open as we go into a second national lockdown, recognising that, “the harm caused to children by not being in school is huge”.

The Head of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, issued a response to the Prime Minister’s statement, saying: “It is right that keeping schools open should be the priority in the new national lockdown… Children only get one chance at education, and we have to do everything possible to provide continuity of learning.”

As Serge Cefai, Headteacher of the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Camberwell, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One on Monday: “Good schools and good teachers will always prioritise the needs of the children. And, of course, it’s a balancing act, but we need to understand that the harm in keeping children at home is huge… The idea that sending children home will stop the transmission is absolute nonsense”.

Daniel Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation – London’s biggest academy chain of 50 schools – said: “Young people have already lost a large chunk of their education and disadvantaged children have been damaged most. Aside from the loss of education, there is rising evidence of mental health and child protection issues under lockdown. The closure of schools would inflict more, probably irreparable, damage to those who can afford it least”.

So many heads, teachers and support staff are working day and night to keep our schools open. I’ve seen the extraordinary work they do in my own constituency of Harlow.

Other European countries imposing lockdowns have also decided to keep schools and colleges open. In Germany, for example, a conference of Ministers in October stressed that children’s right to an education is best served in the classroom, arguing: “This must take highest priority in making all decisions about restrictive measures that need to be taken”.

The Prime Minister has said that the Government is ramping up testing. Capacity is now at close to 520,000 tests per day. Schools have access to the Department for Education and Public Health England for sound advice and guidance.

To put it mildly, it is disappointing that the National Education Union would rather risk an epidemic of education poverty, rather than doing everything possible to keep our children learning.

Iain Dale: Stop this utter selfishness and pathetic whinging about not having a normal Christmas to look forward to

30 Oct

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Again, it feels like the calm before the Covid storm, doesn’t it?

As more and more swathes of the country go into Tier Three lockdown, it’s clear that, by this time next week, most of the north and parts of the Midlands will have joined Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire in that tier. It’s only a matter of time before London does too, I suspect.

This week, even Germany has gone back into a partial lockdown.  Spain has declared a state of emergency.  France has announced a further draconian lockdown – and Coronavirus in Belgium is seemingly out of control.

At some point in the next two or three weeks, the Government will be forced to take a very difficult decision. No one wants a second national lockdown, but I’m afraid it is looking all but inevitable.

We could of course, take a different pah, ignore the scientific consensus and let the virus take its course – or let it rip, might be a more accurate way of putting it. I cannot see any responsible Government taking that course of action.

In the end, we are going to have to learn to live with this virus. But until our test and trace system is worthy of the name, or a vaccine becomes available, it’s very difficult to see any degree of normality returning to our lives in the next six months – or maybe for longer.

– – – – – – – – – –

After the political debacle about the provision of free school meals, and yet again being comprehensively outplayed by a young Premier League footballer, the next challenge for the Government is how to counter the pathetic accusations about the government ‘cancelling’ Christmas.

Those who make the accusation claim to be those who don’t have a Scooby Doo about what Christmas is all about. It’s not some quasi-materialistic present giving binge; it is a religious festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

There is nothing the Government can do or will do that could cancelsthat celebration. Yes, it may mean that family gatherings are more limited in number. Yes, it may mean that we don’t do as much present-buying as we have done in the past. Yes, it will be different.

But for God’s sake, if people don’t understand the seriousness of the situation the country may be in by Christmas, then there is nothing anyone can say or do which will shake people out of their utter selfishness and pathetic whinging.

I can say that. The Government can’t. But somehow, they will need to take on the view that somehow we should all be given a free pass on Christmas Day to let the virus rip.

– – – – – – – – – –

Arzoo Raja is 13 years old. She lived in Italy with her Christian parents. She too was brought up as a Christian. On October 13, she was abducted from outside her house. A few days, later the Italian Police said they had received marriage papers, which stated she was 18.

Her new “husband” was 44 year old Ali Azhar, who also stated Arzoo had converted to Islam, and her new name was Arzoo Faatima.

Her parents provided her birth certificate to the Italian and Pakistani authorities to prove that she was 13. This cut no ice with the Sindh High Court in Karachi, which ruled that she had converted of her own volition, and that she had entered into the marriage of her own free will. The court even criticised the Pakistani police for “harassing” Arzoo after her abduction.

In effect, the court has validated both forced marriage and rape. There have been protests on the streets of Lahore and Karachi.

Countries like the UK cannot stand by, and trot out the well-worn narrative that we can’t interfere with the judiciary of a sovereign nation.

No, but we can turn off the aid tap. We can call in the Pakistani High Commissioner for an interview without coffee. We and other countries have both the power and influence to stop this.

Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, has a daughter called Tyrian. He should think how he would have felt if his daughter had been abducted like this when she was 13.

Just for reporting this news on Twitter I have been accused of being islamophobic and “not understanding” the culture. Utter tosh. If we are meant to keep quiet about child abduction and forced marriage, we have come to a pretty pass. I, for one, will continue to speak out, no matter what the backlash.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Thursday morning we all woke up to yet another terror attack in France, with two people being beheaded and another murdered in the name of “the religion of peace”.

Apparently, it is politically incorrect to point out that while the barbarous acts were taking place, the perpetrators were joyfully shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.

Muslims quite rightly point out that these acts are ‘not in my name’, but the uncomfortable fact is that this is not the view of the terrorists.

In his autobiography, David Cameron says he regrets maintaining that these kind of terror attacks were nothing to do with Islam. He argues that adherents of mainstream Islam have tried to disassociate themselves from the attacks without ever really understanding what has driven the terrorists to assert that they do their dastardly deeds in the name of their religion. He is right.

Stephen Booth: The Brexit trade talks, the romance and realities of fishing, and its crucial importance for Scotland

29 Oct

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

UK and EU negotiators are now targeting a mid-November deadline to reach a trade agreement. This would give the European Parliament enough time to consider the treaty and hold a vote on it in the last session of the year, due in the week of December 14 – only two weeks before the Brexit transition period ends.

A fortnight ago, a public row erupted due to the apparent suggestion from EU leaders that further compromises all had to come from the UK side and that this was a precondition for “intensified” negotiations. After Downing Street declared the talks “over”, some on the EU side, including Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Mark Rutte, Dutch Prime Minister, sought to immediately defuse the situation, saying the bloc was also willing to make concessions. Ultimately, it took Michel Barnier’s speech to the European Parliament, in which he said it was his intention to “seek the necessary compromises on both sides”, to get the UK to confirm that talks were back on track.

After these theatrics, the EU does appear to have dropped its insistence that the most difficult areas must be settled before progress can be made on lower hanging fruit. The Financial Times reports that much of the talks this week have been engaged with the technical process of agreeing common legal text in areas where there is already considerable agreement, including many of the rules for trade in goods and services, with a mixture of EU and UK drafts being used to reach a consolidated text.

The fact that very little has leaked out of this week’s round of talks is a positive sign that these negotiations are now serious and, indeed, “intensive”. Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, this week stated optimistically that: “We’re likely to get a deal, but it won’t be easy.” Charles Michel, the EU Council President, was more equivocal, noting that the two sides have yet to overcome their differences on “level playing field” guarantees, fishing, and the deal’s enforcement.

As I noted in my previous column, the differences over subsidies seem to be narrowing and fishing is increasingly emerging as the major sticking point.

Fishing’s political symbolism is outsized compared to its economic importance to either side. The industry is not significant across the UK – it makes up only around 0.1 per cent of gross value added. The economic contribution is similar in Spain, Denmark and France, which together account for over half the total EU catch.

On the UK side, we know that the Common Fisheries Policy was long viewed as one of the major inequities of British membership and fishing communities were among the most vocal supporters of Leave in the EU referendum. In 2017, around 35 per cent of fish landed by EU vessels from the north Atlantic came from UK waters. By contrast, only 13 per cent of fish landed by UK vessels came from EU waters.

There is a certain romance that an island nation attaches to the sea-faring industry. But cold, hard political realities also explain the significance of fishing in this negotiation. Although not a major national employer, the industry is of course very important to particular communities – often remote, such as along the west coast of Scotland, in Wales and Northern Ireland, with limited other employment opportunities – and, ultimately, the negotiation is a zero-sum game for both sides. More fishing quota for the UK means less for the EU.

For a Conservative Government with increasing reason to be concerned about the state of the Union, there is obvious political benefit to ensuring a better settlement. According to the Government’s statistics, the UK’s largest and most valuable fish landings are in the north-east of Scotland, where larger trawlers tend to operate. 40 per cent of fishers working on UK boats are on Scottish boats. Should the UK gain extra quota, this region is likely to benefit the most. A Brexit dividend for Scotland would be an important win.

The EU knows that the UK has leverage when it comes to fishing access. A failure to reach a deal would mean the UK was under no obligation to provide access to foreign boats at all. Brussels had therefore wanted a deal on fishing rights settled in July, well before the final horse-trading of end-game negotiations.

Nevertheless, a wider trade deal – if it includes a better quota share – is also in the interests of the UK fishing industry. The UK imports most of the fish British consumers want to eat but exports most of the fish UK vessels catch. The EU is by far the biggest market for UK exports. It should also be noted that the wider fish processing industry is a larger, although less vocal, employer than the catch sector. Failure to reach a trade deal would increase costs for UK exports and the processing industry via new trade barriers.

Brussels’ starting position – described as “maximalist” by Barnier – was essentially that its fishing rights in UK waters should not change after the transition period. The EU has so far turned down the UK’s request to move to a new regime of annual quota negotiations – a model the UK recently agreed with Norway.

A possible compromise is likely to rest on establishing a process under which EU fleets’ catch would be phased down over a number of years. The UK would regain a much greater share of future catch opportunities but EU fishing communities would be assured of their rights over the medium-term. How the 100 or so stocks that are up for discussion might be apportioned could also present opportunities to ensure certain political constituencies are prioritised.

So far, Emmanuel Macron, the French President, has been steadfast in his belief that the EU should stand firm on fishing access, vowing to scupper any Brexit deal that “sacrifices” French fishermen. He is aware of a potential political backlash in coastal and rural areas.

However, despite the rhetoric, reports suggest that in private, at least, the French government is preparing the industry for a compromise. It should be noted that Macron is also effectively negotiating with the rest of the EU about how much of the residual quota France will get in the future.

Given the wider economic and political issues at stake, it still seems unlikely that fishing will be the deal-breaker. Macron is likely to come under increasing pressure from member states most exposed to no deal – Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany – to moderate his position. However, it is clear that the political choreography of reaching a deal on this issue is vitally important on both sides of the table.