Ministers mustn’t let down future generations over housing – whatever happens in by-elections

21 Jun

After last week’s disastrous by-election result, some MPs have blamed the Government’s homes plan for alienating Tory voters in the South. It is clear that the Liberal Democrats were partly able to overturn the Conservatives’ 16,000 majority in Chesham & Amersham by weaponising constituents’ concerns about houses being built in their area, as well as HS2, and their environmental impact.

The news has furthered some Conservatives’ conviction that the Government should scrap, or at least rethink, its radical proposals to get housing done. “Look Boris Johnson, the electorate has given its verdict!” is the message they are hoping the Prime Minister hears, with up to 50 to 60 MPs reportedly prepared to rebel against the reforms. Many have been against them from the start, due to the impact that they will have on the greenfield sites.

With all of these objections, the question many renters will wonder is: what do those against the planning reforms propose instead? Because the housing crisis is urgent and not going away – prices have soared throughout the pandemic. Far from solving the crisis, the Conservatives have introduced policies that can increase demand, such as scrapping the net migration target. Do they realise the contradictions here?

As I have written before, I suspect part of the reason many MPs are relaxed on this issue is it doesn’t affect them. They earn enough to get out of the rental market and/ or live outside the South East, where demand is concentrated. They are insulated from the problems of Generation Rent. But sooner or later this problem is going to hit the Tories – hard – due to the demographics the party needs to attract at the next election (and that’s before we get to the societal consequences – birth rate etc).

As Stephen Bush has pointed out, it’s voters between 30 and 50 who will be the most vital group for parties to win over the next election. Sometimes this fact seems to be missed, due to lots of political conversations now revolving around regional demographics. Conservatives have been blamed for neglecting the South in the by-election, for instance. But we shouldn’t forget that renters, and the young, are people who also need their own “levelling up” push, and could be easily enticed by a party that understands this.

To be fair to Johnson and Robert Jenrick, the housing minister, they have made great efforts to get housing done. Steve Baker, too, is trying to find a way forward – suggesting that homeowners whose views or peace and quiet are affected by developments could receive cash compensation. There is still widespread inertia, however, and this is not only from the Tories.

Indeed, other parties that have spotted an opportunity in kicking off about “green spaces” and environmentalism. It’s interesting to note that Ed Davey – whose party succeeded in Chesham & Amersham because of its green space obsession – wants the UK should reopen negotiations with the EU on free movement. But where does he think people should live as the population expands?

Either way, Conservatives have to get a move on with housing, which is having a knock on effect on so many other parts of life. Today, for instance, Downing Street said it was finalising “proposals for coming up with a long term solution for social care”. But it seems ridiculous to think you can solve the issue without getting people housed. There are huge ramifications when one half of society (renters) has no security or way to save.

Yes the Chesham & Amersham result was disappointing. But it cannot be used to kick the can down the road on housing. The crisis needs a similar amount of urgency applied to it as has been done with climate change, in which the expression “what about the young’s futures?” was cried by the same parties that now see developers as the enemy. But what about the young’s future, hey?

Iain Dale: Very little shocks me. But Cummings’ text message reveal was truly disgusting and morally bankrupt.

18 Jun

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

Negotiating a deal with the DUP and Sinn Féin can’t be anyone’s idea of a dream job, but Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary has enabled it to happen in record time. I’ve no idea how he did it, given the personalities involved, but however it happened, it surely has to be welcomed by everyone across the political spectrum, both in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Let’s hope it lasts.

However, with the resignation of Edwin Poots as leader of the DUP after only three weeks last night, it’s entirely possible that the new First Minister, Paul Givan – an ally of Poots – might feel duty bound to fall on his sword too. My instinct is that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is likely to be the next DUP leader and he’s on record saying that he thinks the same person should hold both posts.

The elections to Stormont next year are certainly going to be interesting. Between now and then the whole sorry situation with the Northern Ireland Protocol has to be sorted. Surely a piece of cake for a man who negotiated a power sharing agreement! Sorry, Brandon.

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Anyone who has worked in politics will have some fairly fruity exchanges in historic texts on their mobile phone. I certainly have built up a whole library over the years, although it has to be said mine tend to be in emails rather than texts. My former colleagues at Biteback would regularly suggest we published a volume of my “special emails”. I well remember one to Michael Winner, where I basically told him never to speak to any of my staff again, after he called our young female PR assistant a “c***” on the phone.

One suspects he would have got on well with Dominic Cummings. Very little shocks me, but to reveal text exchanges with the Prime Minister like he has is truly disgusting. Morally it’s bankrupt, ethically it stinks. You can argue a public interest point all you like, but it is still wrong. If ministers can’t communicate confidentially with their advisers, how can they possibly do their jobs properly?

In the end, if Cummings thought the Prime Minister was so useless, why did he stay in his job? I’m sure there are many valid things Cummings has to say, but actions like this undermines any remaining credibility he enjoys. Mind you, he undermined himself earlier this week when he informed us we would have to pay to his Substack account (or should that be Shelfstack?) if we wanted the full unvarnished details of his thoughts on this, that and everything. Again, morally bankrupt.

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From a PR and organisational viewpoint the G7 was an unalloyed success. The pictures that emerged from it were simply outstanding. Whoever had the idea to hold the summit in Cornwall, and whoever did the “advance” work deserves a medal at the very least. The backdrops to virtually every event were breathtaking, and will have done the Cornish tourism industry a huge amount of good in the medium term.

Substantively, I’m not sure the summit achieved a huge amount behind the things which had been agreed in advance. The media were desperate to ramp up a row over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and Macron did his best to help them, but it never really materialised. Joe Biden showed he was the adult in the room by not playing ball, and avoided playing up to his voters of Irish descent in the US.

The Irish lobby in Congress is something to behold and you have to filter anything the American government says on Ireland through that prism. The Irish embassy in Washington DC is one of the most powerful influences on US administrations of both colours. Rhetoric on Ireland on Capitol Hill doesn’t always match the reality of the US government’s position.

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The issue of vaccines in care homes is one that has gradually risen in prominence up the news agenda, and rightly so. I cannot for the life of me understand how a care professional would not take a vaccine which by definition reduces the risk for the people they care for of getting Covid or dying from it.

Vaccines can never be 100 per cent effective, so no one can ever be completely protected. In a phone-in on Wednesday I spoke to a care home owner in Bournemouth who said that 60 per cent of her staff hadn’t had the vaccine and she wasn’t remotely bothered. Astonishing. She said proper PPE was far more important and it wasn’t up to her to persuade her staff to take a vaccine, it was up to the Government.

I’m afraid she got the rough edge of my tongue. For me it comes down to something very simple. If I had a close relative in a care home, I would not want them being cared for by someone who hadn’t been vaccinated. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. And for that reason I support mandatory vaccinations for care home workers.

Tom Hunt: Soft sentencing is causing voters to lose faith in the justice system. And it’s up to the Government to put it right.

18 Jun

Tom Hunt is the Conservative MP for Ipswich.

The Conservative Party, with the inroads made into the “Red Wall” seats, has a great opportunity to better align itself with some of the deeply held views of both our traditional voter base and the Labour converts who have grown fed up at what might be described as the Labour Party’s “softness”.

When it comes to law and order, it is undeniable that our voters are in favour of firm policies to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. My constituents are also routinely outraged when sentencing is soft and when they feel that prisoners are being allowed to get away with crimes from behind bars.

They rightly feel that justice isn’t being served in these instances, and it is an affront to them as law abiding citizens. Many of them believe that the criminal justice system is completely broken, and they have lost faith and trust in it.

But whatever the reasons for this, whether it is lax guidance handed down by the Sentencing Council, an increasing tendency within the judiciary to vastly mitigate sentences, or a lack of enforcement within individual prisons, the public ultimately look to the Government as being responsible.

When they see, every day, people being handed soft sentences for some of the most horrid crimes, they do not consider judicial independence or make the distinction between different independent institutions, but rather they look to the Prime Minister, to the Home Secretary, and to their MPs to rectify the problem.

How then are we to rectify this? How do we ensure that the public continues to trust that we are the party of law and order?

There are two examples of heinous crimes which have outraged my constituents in Ipswich. To say that these two cases have cut through within the consciousness of my constituents would be an understatement.

One is the killing of Richard Day by Andrea Cristea, who punched him in the neck and was seen laughing over his body as he searched his pockets for money. Shockingly, Cristea, convicted of the manslaughter of Day was in the end given only a four-year sentence. With time spent on remand and automatic halfway release, he will be behind bars for only 10 months.

People in Ipswich are asking how this is possible. There really does seem to be a huge disconnect between the justice expected by the public and what is handed down in courts. Unfortunately, the judiciary appear very much out of touch with public sentiment (we need only look to the High Court’s Napier Barracks decision to see another prominent example of them being cut-off from the opinion of the public).

There was also the brutal killing of 17-year-old Tavis Spencer-Aitkens by a gang of five. In this case, four of the killers were convicted for murder and one for manslaughter however upon appeal one murderer, Kyreis Davies, had his sentence brought down from life to 16 years. This is because Davies was 16 at the time.

Polling has shown that there is a natural inclination towards harsher sentencing and stricter punishment when it comes to violent crime. We need to give our voters some credit and push hard for the tougher punishment which they are asking for. I appreciate that we may not be able to go as far as many would like. We have an independent judiciary after all. But then it falls on us as politicians to make some noise about it and to push for legislation which will encourage harsher sentences being handed down.

Something needs to be done, and we cannot simply say to the public that it is the fault of some independent body which they have never heard of. They feel as though they are being let down by politicians and so many have completely lost faith in the justice system.

We also need to clamp down on the perception that once convicted for some of the most heinous crimes, the punishment itself is overly soft. Unacceptably, the killers of Tavis have been able to further outrage the public and torment Tavis’ family from behind bars. Each of the five killers have at some point used social media from behind bars. One particularly egregious repeat offender, Callum Plaats, at one occasion boasted on Snapchat about how he will only serve half of his 14-year sentence – “five years left, light work”.

This criminal usage of social media has caused an extraordinary amount of pain and suffering to the family of Tavis who lose faith in the justice system with every post. No victims of violent crime should ever have to be taunted by these criminals serving time. The Government has given me assurances that it is tackling this issue, but it is clear that we have a large problem with how the public perceives these inadequacies throughout the whole of the justice system at every level.

In parliament I have been active alongside Sir Iain Duncan Smith and a number of my other colleagues on a campaign to change the law on pet theft which is a crime that has exploded this year over the pandemic. I had written to the sentencing council asking them to amend their guidelines so that judges could better take into account the emotional trauma to both the owners and the animals for a crime like this, but they could not understand the huge public feeling on this issue and refused to take it any further. Unfortunately, institutions such as the Sentencing Council are cut off and divorced from public sentiment, and we need to find a way to grapple with this.

A group of MPs are now pushing to introduce a new law on pet theft which will see harsher sentencing and introduce a number of measures to deter criminals from illegally trafficking stolen pets.

We saw with the Release of Prisoners Order 2020 that measures ending the halfway release of those sentenced to over seven years for serious violent crimes and sexual offences such as rape were hugely popular. This was then extended in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which similarly ended the automatic halfway release of those who have been sentenced to over four years for these types of crimes. This is exactly the type of thing we as Conservative politicians should be pushing for in all areas more widely.

It’s not just the right thing to do as representatives of a public who are asking for it, but it is a matter of political imperative. The reality is that like on so many other issues such as immigration, on law and order the Conservative Government is on trial. If we are to hold on to our new voters, we need to show them that we do actually care about the policies which matter to them.

We cannot just rest on our laurels and imagine that getting Brexit done and being the party of patriotism will continue to resonate if the voters cannot see material change in areas such as law and order.

It is simply not enough for us to say, “we cannot deal with this because it is in the hands of some other body”. We must act now to restore faith and public trust in our justice system – whether that means looking at the role of the Sentencing Council or how we instruct the judiciary going forward, all options should be on the table.

Bim Afolami: The Government’s Net Gain initiative will be transformative – but its implementation must be sped up

17 Jun

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

Preserving what is good about our country so we can safely pass it on to future generations is at the heart of Conservatism. It is something that – as Tory MPs – we should all care about. Whether “Leaver” or “Remainer”, North or South, rural or urban, all of us share a common duty to conserve those vital parts of our shared heritage which make Britain great.

Our natural environment – our hedgerows, woods, moors and heaths – is one key element of this shared heritage. Indeed, the preservation of our country as a green and pleasant land is something we can unite around. Lady Thatcher recognised this with her pioneering work on the environment which culminated in the Environmental Protection Act, but this Government has continued this tradition.

From our commitment to Net Zero; to the Prime Minister’s undoubted personal enthusiasm for green projects; to the Government’s 10-point green plan that will transform our economy and will result in the creation of 250,000 new jobs, there can be no doubt in the public’s mind about the Government’s determination to ensure that we “build back greener”, and I believe this mission statement can bring the Party together as we look to deliver on our manifesto over the rest of this Parliament.

The Environment Bill (currently going through the House of Lords) is a worthy next step in the Conservative march towards establishing ourselves as the champions of the environment. It is a truly momentous piece of legislation and contains a number of brilliant policies.

One of those initiatives is “Net Gain”, a world-leading initiative that will ensure that various types of property are developed in such a way that the biodiversity value of the site (i.e. the sum total of habitats currently there) increases at the end of the build. According to the Government’s studies, this will save 9,644 ha of habitat per year, and will create an additional 5,428 ha.

Net Gain has a long history. For years it has been called for by academics and campaigners. The version of the policy set out in the Bill itself has been in development for nearly a decade, and was announced by Michael Gove over two years ago. The eyes of the world are on us as we become the first major economy to take such an ambitious step. Get it right, and countries around the world will start emulating what we’re doing – with major gains for the whole planet. It is very exciting that it is finally about to see the light of day – as long as we don’t allow some in Whitehall to delay this crucial initiative.

Buried away in the response to the response to a recent consultation is a proposal from the Government for a two year “stand still” transition period. In other words, we are about to voluntarily delay this policy. This puts at risk the destruction of 19,288 ha of habitat – that’s over 30,000 football fields. Without a considered rethink, we risk turning a flagship policy we have been developing for 10 years into something that looks like backsliding.

Let me be clear – as often with major policy changes, there are sensible reasons for a transition period. There are various things that have to be prepped – local authorities will need additional resources; there are strong arguments for brownfield sites to be exempt for at least two years; and we need to make sure that small developers can easily access the tools they need to comply with the new rules. But all of these points are arguments for a two year phasing in of the policy, not a two year stand still.

To meet the (rightly) lofty ambitions set by the Prime Minister, the Government should be bold and set out a better plan for the Net Gain transition period. They should announce a phase-in with the details described above, so we can start restoring our environment from next year after the Bill gets Royal Assent.

And they should set out a plan for rolling out the new technologies that small developers can use to comply with these new requirements (an obvious thing for the Government and Natural England to do is to set up an accreditation scheme that reviews and approves these new technical solutions to ease the transition).

If parts of the policy aren’t ready by the time the Bill gets Royal Assent (such as the purchasing of offsite plots and biodiversity credits) then those bits of the policy can be held back. But let’s try and do as much as we can as fast as we can – we shouldn’t stop the whole policy just because one or two bits need a little extra time.

Property developers, both large and small, have rightly welcomed Net Gain. The industry is ready, and we should be too. It is time the Government shows the sort of ambition the Environment Secretary recently championed and that we have committed to in the G7 2030 Nature Compact.

Instead of committing to a course that results in the destruction of 30,000 football fields worth of habitat, let’s announce that we are going to save 30,000 football fields. That would be a worthy next step in the Government’s path, and would turn a potential own goal into a bright, ambitious win which the Party can get behind.

Emily Carver: Many scoffed at the idea it would be hard to regain our freedoms. Yet the Government shows no sign of handing them back.

16 Jun

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

There are people in this country who would be quite happy to continue with the current restrictions on our lives – social distancing, mask wearing and the closure of sectors of our economy – in perpetuity.

For anyone in doubt, a recent media interview revealed this quite plainly to be the case. Dr Richard Taylor, former independent MP, now Co-Leader of the National Health Action Party, said that his preference was for the lockdown to “continue indefinitely”. By his own admission, the reason he is so relaxed about the societal and economic damage this would reap is because he is “extremely selfish” and quite happy with his own “self-contained life”. Suffice to say, I was gobsmacked.

You might say, well he’s clearly a public health zealot and that at least he was honest. But he’s certainly not alone in this view. It’s not a conspiracy that leading advisers to our government have become so tunnel-visioned in their approach to public health that their aim now appears to be to eliminate all risk – at least from this one threat – at any cost.

Professor Susan Michie, a member of the Communist Party of Britain and SAGE scientist who openly endorses a “zero Covid” strategy, revealed on Channel 5 News that she believes social distancing, including mask wearing, should continue not only into the long-term but forever.

It is terrifying and depressing in equal measure to think that such extreme views may be reflected in the Government’s current strategy. Now, as we face an indefinite delay to the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, it appears as if all cost-benefit analyses on restrictions have been thrown out in favour of a strategy to avoid Covid deaths at all costs, without even a pretence of parliamentary scrutiny.

More worrying for the culture of this country, is that it’s not just public health enthusiasts and risk averse bureaucrats who seem to adhere to this way of thinking. A YouGov snap poll yesterday found that 71 per cent of English people support the delay, with 41 per cent saying they “strongly” support it. According to the survey, only 24 per cent of those living in England oppose the delay, with 14 per cent saying they “strongly” oppose the decision.

Even if we allow for a large margin of error, it’s clear that most people in this country remain on board with the Government’s lockdown experiment – even 15 months after we were told “three weeks to flatten the curve”. But is this that surprising considering the UK government and Public Health England spent nearly £300 million last year on ad campaigns to frighten the public into submission?

We continue to hear the same old refrain from parts of the establishment media. What’s another two to four weeks of delay? Surely, if we’re cautious now, we can avoid another full lockdown? And the dreaded “save one life” fallacy: restrictions are worth it if they save one life, right?

It’s interesting how this consensus is dominated by those little impacted by the restrictions still in place. Could it be that those in secure public sector jobs, those still working from the comfort of their homes or on furlough, or those who don’t particularly enjoy a trip to a night club haven’t really noticed a difference in their quality of life and are therefore quite happy to take the moral high ground now?

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve thought it wise to resist engaging in intergenerational warfare over Covid, not least because it has been the elderly who have fallen victim to this disease.

However, with the upper age groups and the most vulnerable near fully vaccinated, it is unjustifiable for restrictions to remain on the young, the vast majority of whom have given up their freedoms despite being at little risk of harm. Ironically, it may be that the elderly take back their freedoms first, with certain activities closed to the not yet doubled-jabbed.

But with 81 per cent of over 65s saying they either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” the delay, Boris Johnson is under little to pressure to change tack. It’s highly likely he’ll continue to outsource responsibility for our pandemic policy to his narrow clique of scientific advisers.

And it’s not just because young people are selfish that they are more likely to oppose the continuation of these measures. If you look at the latest labour market figures, it is those under 25 who saw the largest fall in pay-rolled employment in May, despite overall unemployment remaining better than expected.

It is true that older people have also been badly impacted by redundancies and job losses, and young people may, on the whole, be able to bounce back faster. However, many young people have found themselves trapped in a state of adolescent dependency far longer than is healthy since the start of the pandemic, unable to find the kind of jobs in hospitality, events and the arts where they would have previously found employment. This hiatus could even lead to a permanent loss of income over the course of a career, as several economists have predicted. No furlough scheme or income support can replace real-life work experience.

This long-term damage is mere collateral in the Government’s stubbornly cautious approach to unlocking. We were told by Matt Hancock that restrictions would end once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated. This week, the Prime Minister said that the four-week delay was to give the NHS extra time to jab two thirds of the adult population.

Many have scoffed at the idea that it will be a fight to regain our freedoms. But if even vaccinating the most vulnerable won’t allow us to get back to life as normal, it’s hard to see the Government and SAGE loosening their grip any time soon.

A warm welcome to GB News. The channel’s launch signals a wider reset for the media.

14 Jun

Yesterday, after much anticipation, it was the launch of GB News, a TV channel that has promised to shake up traditional media in the UK. More than 164,400 people reportedly tuned in, ahead of BBC News (133,000) and Sky News (57,000), and it’s no wonder the ratings were highest. Over the last year, GB News has had a huge amount of free publicity, due to the strong reactions its very existence has provoked. 

For Conservatives, Brexiteers and otherwise, GB News is a sign that their views are finally going to be fairly represented in broadcast media (after years of watching Question Time panels with only one Leaver, and shock election results). For others, it’s the death of political impartiality in TV journalism; the Americanisation of British politics, and even worse. So what was the reality of GB News’ first night?

The immediately striking thing about GB News is that it unabashedly embraces “Britishness”, with a logo that incorporates the colours of the Union Jack – and an assurance from Andrew Neil, Chair of GB News, as he opened the show. Staring into the camera – think John Humphreys at the opening of Mastermind in terms of the lighting – he told viewers that  “we will not come at every story with the conviction that Britain is always at fault”, in what will surely be a comforting message to those fed up of Britain bashing.

Neil’s speech set out GB News’ mission. It wants to be diverse in all senses – representing Brenda from Bristol as much as the London activist – promote free speech, and to get to the “real” issues worrying voters (expect less about Downing Street curtains, and more on council tax). “Because if it matters to you, it matters to us”, Neil said – in a slogan that underpins GB News’ desire to be led by its audience. Throughout, viewers were allowed to ask questions via video link.

Soon after his opening segment, Neil introduced viewers to the presenters for the show, many of whom will be familiar to either people who tune into Sky/ BBC, or those in favour of less “traditional” media. In fact, the beauty of GB News is how its organised its hires. Executives have paired household-name presenters – Alastair Stewart, Colin Brazier, Simon McCoy – with voices from more unorthodox outlets (think podcasts especially), where they have gained large followings and been brave at calling out cancel culture, among other “woke” trends GB News wants to combat (Andrew Doyle and Inaya Folarin Iman, for instance).

GB News clearly wants to challenge accepted doctrines of our time, from whether you should take the knee at a football match to the idea that lockdown’s benefits outweigh the negatives. Dan Wootton, who has his own show on GB News, laid into the Government’s policies – in a move that will have pleased those, including myself, who are worried about restrictions being expanded today. Some of the reactions on Twitter showed just how unfamiliar the public is with having this perspective put forward on TV. (It’s interesting that nowadays you find it most on Talk Radio or podcasts – again, showing how much these opinions have come off TV to the listener market).

Although the show had some teething issues – the sound didn’t work when Neil Oliver was interviewed, for instance – some of the attacks on GB News said more about its critics than the channel itself. The Guardian gave the show one star and called it “deadly stuff” in a review more bitter sounding than Guy Verhofstadt post-Brexit – and others obsessively Tweeted their hatred for the show. Why did they spend the hottest day of the year doing this if it was so torturous?

GB News should be congratulated for throwing its hat in the (media) ring. It’s easy to complain about the status quo in broadcasting, but to actually change it is something few do – especially in such a short period of time.

GB News’ emergence should also be seen in a wider context – as a “reset” moment for the media. Quietly audiences have been slipping away to channels they feel better represent them, whether UnHerd, Triggernometry, The Megyn Kelly Show (and these are just my favourites). So it’s really no wonder why the media is more scathing than ever in its reviews of new competitors. With the talent and energy behind it, it won’t be surprising if GB News continues to do well in the ratings – and we wish it well at ConservativeHome.

Chris Skidmore: If “Global Britain” wants to succeed, it must increase its spending on innovation and research

11 Jun

Chris Skidmore was Universities Minister twice between 2018-2020, and is Co-Chair of the All Party Group on Universities and Chair of the Res Publica Lifelong Education Commission. He is MP for Kingswood.

Boris Johnson knows that narratives matter. Levelling up, taking back control, building back better may seem slogans, but they point to a vision of a post-Brexit Britain that is free to renew itself for the 21st century.

Central to that vision is also the UK as a “global science superpower”, a phrase first coined by the Prime Minister in 2019, yet which now has more than a ring of truth in its utterance when we look at the UK’s commitment to investing in research to uncover a Covid vaccine, and as a result to continue to lead the world in its vaccination programme.

It’s clear from his arrival for this weekend’s G7 meeting in Cornwall that the vision of Britain as a global centre for science and technology remains undimmed. The Prime Minister chose to showcase the UK’s future horizontal space launch site at Newquay on his arrival in Cornwall— made possible thanks to a multi-million pound government investment in partnership with Virgin Orbit, in a few years’ time, space launch into low earth orbit will be a reality, and along with vertical launch sites at Sutherland and the Shetlands, promises to give the UK the first launch base in Europe.

Yet when it comes to overall spending on science, research and innovation, if we look at the other countries attending the G7, and compare the UK’s current investment, both in terms of total investment but also as a proportion of GDP, we need lift off soon.

Currently the UK spends around 1.7 per cent of its GDP on R&D. Yet the US and China are heading towards three per cent GDP, Japan spends 3.2 per cent, Germany is planning to reach four per cent. Only Italy and Canada are behind the UK in terms of R&D investment in the G7. Outside of this group, other countries are pushing even faster still. South Korea is already at 4.5 per cent and Israel higher still at 4.9 per cent.

Of course the Government has committed to spend 2.4 per cent GDP by 2027 on R&D — what was the OECD average back in 2017 — indeed the recent government commitment to double public R&D spending to £22 billion by 2024/25 has certainly given the commitment a boost. Yet by the time we reach July 13 in a few weeks time, 2027 is just 2,000 days away. Four years have so far past, with R&D activity having only risen around 0.2 per cent of GDP in this period. With five and a half years to go, we cannot afford to continue on the same trajectory. Even the OECD average that was the benchmark for the 2.4 per cent strategy has risen to probably over 2.6 per cent.

We only need to look ahead at the pack pulling ahead in this global technological race. Joe Biden has already placed research and innovation at the centre of his “building back better” strategy. In March 2021, The White House announced that as a part of its American Jobs Plan, it was requesting Congress to authorise $180 billion in federal investment designed to advance US leadership in critical technologies and American research.

It’s clear why R&D is the industry of choice. According to a 2020 report by Breakthrough Energy on the Impacts of Federal R&D Investment on the US Economy, if the federal government were to increase its investment into R&D to at least one per cent of GDP by 2030, then that investment would support 3.4 million jobs. Additionally, this continued investment would be projected to add $478 billion in activity to the American economy with a projected $81 billion in tax revenue windfall.

As the United States seeks to increase its investment into innovations driven by R&D, the German government has also pledged to both increase its tax allowance for companies investing in research, but also increase its central funding to the tune of €2.5 billion. This investment is specifically designed to target funding for electricity mobility, battery cell production and safe charging infrastructure. Additionally, the German government has announced that it was looking to provide a €1 billion bonus programme targeting “forward-thinking” manufacturers and suppliers, specifically in the automotive industry. In 2018 alone, the German government invested the staggering sum of €105 billion into R&D.

Elsewhere, China also announced a serious increase in R&D investment during the Fourth Plenary Session of the 13th National People’s Congress in March 2021. The announcement that it will be increasing investment in R&D by more than seven per cent every year over this Five-Year Plan, with expenditure on basic research rising by 10.6 per cent in 2021 alone. These investments are yet another signal that China is seeking to dramatically increase its domestic technologies such as for example artificial intelligence, quantum information, semiconductors, biotechnology and deep space capabilities, most of which are currently dependent on international suppliers.

In the wake of the pandemic, with many economies and sectors seeking to innovate and change their working practices, to reform their business, now is the time to double down on R&D investment, especially when we recognise where the rest of the world is heading. Even I have come to doubt whether 2.4 per cent, the OECD average at the present time, will be sufficient for the scale of change that is coming in the 2020s and into the 2030s.

The success of “Global Britain” now depends on matching countries that have transformed their economies towards innovation and research. I would now go further— and suggest if we wish to keep up with our G7 colleagues, the forthcoming Innovation Strategy should set a definite timetable for three per cent, and beyond to 3.5 per cent of GDP being spent on R&D. To fail to achieve this in contrast to the other major world economies be setting ourselves up to fail.

Daniel Hannan: A Levelling Up Fund will not, on its own, turn Sunderland into Singapore. Localism will takes us closer, though.

9 Jun

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

How exactly does levelling up work? The aspiration is unimpeachable and the slogan pithy. But how does a government go about realising it? Imagine that you’re the official in charge of enriching one of our poorer regions. You sit at your desk, you open your laptop. Now what?

Part of the answer has to do with infrastructure. That’s the easy bit, the bit that the PM, with his boyish enthusiasm for bridges, railways and airports, most enjoys. But a £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund is not, on its own, going to turn Dudley into Dubai or Sunderland into Singapore.

A certain reshuffling of government departments might help at the margins. When, for example, the Department of International Trade moves 500 jobs to Darlington, it slightly boosts the economy of County Durham. But it does so at the expense of other regions, since those jobs are maintained at public expense.

So what can ministers do? How might they stimulate the generation of new wealth rather than simply pushing piles of cash around? The obvious answer is one that, for some reason, is rarely heard these days: more localism.

Let’s stick, for a moment, with Teesside. Labour, in retrospect, made a bad mistake when it held the Hartlepool by-election on the same date as the regional mayoral contest. Ben Houchen, the incumbent Conservative Tees Valley mayor, romped home with an astonishing 72.8 per cent of the vote. Why? Because he is seen as an effective local champion who stopped the airport from closing, is redeveloping the former steel works at Redcar and is turning the region into a freeport.

It is an iron law of politics that, the bigger the unit of government, the less efficient it becomes. Town halls are by no means perfect, but they are far less likely than Whitehall departments to preside over monumental cock-ups involving consultants and computers. So why not extend the model? Why not push more powers out to local people?

In 2008, Douglas Carswell and I co-wrote a book called The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain. It set out a comprehensive agenda for the diffusion, democratisation and decentralisation of power.

Some of its ideas were successfully implemented by the Coalition government which took office two years later. A recall mechanism allowed local voters to challenge an unpopular MP. Proposals could be forced onto the Commons agenda by petition (people tend to forget that this is how Brexit first made its way into Parliament). Whips lost some of their patronage powers, and parliamentary committees were elected. MPs’ expenses were reformed.

Other ideas turned out to be less successful. Locally elected sheriffs were watered down until they became Police and Crime Commissioners. I have always disliked that name: it is boring, technocratic and inaccurate (read literally, it suggests that PCCs are responsible for crimes). But, in a depressingly ahistorical spasm, Whitehall decided that sheriff sounded “too American”. Nor were the PCCs given anything like the powers we had proposed. In any event, the reform never caught the public’s imagination. People carry on grumbling about woke coppers without it seeming to occur to anyone that PCCs are there precisely to ensure that the police’s priorities don’t drift too far from everyone else’s.

Our biggest idea, granting English counties and cities the sorts of power that are exercised by Holyrood, wasn’t tried. It never is. Central governments are not usually in the business of devolving power. In almost every democracy, the long-term tendency is the other way – driven, in part, by media cultures which make it almost impossible for a minister to say “this is nothing to do with me – talk to the local council”.

Go back, for a moment, to the idea of freeports or special economic zones. The original example, Shenzhen, was a huge success. It didn’t simply suck activity in from neighbouring provinces. It generated new wealth, because it had real power.

Imagine that our freeports could, say, scrap all taxes on savings and inheritance, or require balanced budgets, or introduce Singapore-style healthcare systems. Then we would get the growth that comes from innovation. New schemes would be piloted and trialled. What worked would spread. Jurisdictional competition would give us something we have never known before in this country – downward pressure on tax rates.

Sadly, though, whatever interest politicians show in localism when they are in opposition tends to evaporate once they assume office. Indeed, it is surprising – and creditable – that David Cameron went as far as he did.

Still, there are real dangers in letting things lie. The epidemic and the lockdowns have placed powers in the hands of the central administration that would have been unthinkable two years’ ago. Closed committees decide whether we can leave the country, enjoy our property or meet our friends. State budgets have grown commensurately. And governments are never in a hurry to return the powers that they had assumed on a supposedly emergency basis.

We left the EU precisely to take back control. Having repatriated power, it would be unforgivable to leave it in the hands of Whitehall functionaries. Instead, we should give local communities the tools to raise themselves. Otherwise, four or five years from now, we might find our levelling up rhetoric thrown back at us in anger.

Heather Wheeler: The Conservatives have changed, and the ’22 needs to change too. That’s why I’m standing to be its Chair.

9 Jun

Heather Wheeler is the MP for South Derbyshire and running to be Chairman of the 1922 Committee.

The make-up of the Parliamentary Conservative Party has changed a great deal since I was first elected back in 2010. The political landscape and the values of the party have changed too and this is why I have decided to put my name forward as Chair of the 1922 Committee.

Back in 2010, we had 305 MPs and the election map showed a clear North-South divide with a liberal smattering of orange around the shires.

Fast forward to today and there are no fewer than 364 Conservative MPs and the election map shows a sea of blue up and down the country.

Those orange patches are so small they are almost impossible to spot these days and even the red ones are largely confined to the cities. Whole swathes of the Midlands (my patch) and the North have been won over by a combination of Conservative values and a promise to respect their vote and “Get Brexit Done”.

The demographics are different these days too. Back in 2010, there were 49 women Conservative MPs, today there are 87. In the interim period, we have also elected our second female leader and the country’s second female Prime Minister too.

However, the Parliamentary Party is still yet to elect a female chair of the 1922 Committee; a fact that I was actually unaware of until a colleague pointed it out to me after I announced my candidacy.

I obviously hope that my colleagues vote to change that in the upcoming 1922 elections. But I don’t believe in tokenism and hope to secure their votes as a result of my abilities and experience rather than my gender.

With the Labour Party beset by persistent ideological infighting and a toxic obsession with wokery, issues almost all voters I speak with have no time for, this shifting landscape looks set to continue.

Strong Conservative policies such as the Government’s levelling up agenda are already bearing fruit and there is a real chance that if we remain on the right track, the so-called “Red Wall” seats could and should become permanently blue.

Down here in Westminster we have been blessed with an exciting new generation of Conservative MPs who, like me, represent constituencies steeped in manufacturing and agriculture.

Our party is blessed with talent, MPs like Jane Hunt from Loughborough who has successfully held a University seat, John Lamont MP from Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk who has fought off the SNP, and Craig Williams MP from Montgomeryshire who has bounced back from losing a previous seat to secure a strong majority in a traditionally liberal Welsh seat.

These MPs and the many more like them are the future of our party and it is imperative that we do everything we can to keep them here in Westminster, working hard for their constituents, for as long as possible.

This is even more important with the process of the boundary changes officially starting from Tuesday June 8. We will have a huge task negotiating on behalf of sitting MPs who, through no fault of their own, may find themselves seatless.

The 1922 Committee has a key role to play in delivering that.

The ‘22 needs to act as both a conduit between the Parliamentary Party and our ministerial colleagues and a counterbalance to a government with a large majority and a wide-ranging agenda.

The Committee has to ensure that the voice of the backbenches is heard by ministers when it needs to be, whether that is to offer wholehearted support or constructive criticism. Its job is to ensure that this Government does remain on the right track.

The Chair is central to this role. The perfect ‘22 Chair must not be too close to the Government or too strongly opposed to them either.

It is a fine line to tread but one which, as a former minister in Boris Johnson’s Government and an independent-minded backbencher who has never been afraid to voice my own views and those of my constituents, I believe I am ideally placed to deliver.

Sir Graham Brady has shown some distinguished leadership during his time as Chair. But having held the role for 11 years, he is already the second longest-serving ’22 Chair after Edward du Cann.

The Party has changed, the political landscape has changed, and I believe it is time for the leadership of the 1922 Committee to change too. I know that many colleagues who have already offered me their support share this view.

It is time for the ‘22 to be revitalised to reflect the modern Conservative Party, to keep Government policies moving in the right direction, and to defend the values that everyone connected to the Conservative Party holds dear.

I believe I am the right person to deliver a renewed 1922 Committee that can serve the best interests of the Parliamentary Party, our grassroots members, and our voters up and down the country.

Most importantly of all, as Chair of the 1922 Committee, I will strain every sinew to ensure that we take the rights steps to deliver many more years of Conservative Party government.