Anvar Sarygulov: Conservatives must make simplifying the welfare system an urgent priority

16 May

Anvar Sarygulov is the Head of Research at Bright Blue.

With the public struggling financially, reports that Cabinet ministers are looking to find new ‘non-fiscal’ ways to combat the cost of living crisis were met with a significant degree of derision.

But it is good for Conservative ministers, and the departments they lead, to take a long, hard look at how to better use existing schemes which are already in place to support those on low incomes.

A particular area for improvement is the headache-inducing, byzantine quagmire of disparate state benefits, grants, and payments that support the most vulnerable in our society.

Currently, many government schemes which could be playing a key role in supporting families through this current crisis have low levels of take-up. Part of the challenge of increasing take-up is the significant administrative hoops low-income families need to jump through to access them.

First, they must be aware of their existence, and then also submit pages of personal information that the Government for the most part already holds. This creates an unnecessary administrative burden not only for the claimants, but also for the state.

For example, take Healthy Start vouchers. They provide weekly food vouchers worth between £4.25 and £8.50 to low-income mothers, from their tenth week of pregnancy to the fourth birthday of their child. In March 2022, this NHS-administered scheme had a take-up rate of 72 per cent in England and Wales.

That means that almost 150,000 households in need were not receiving a significant sum of money that could alleviate the need to visit a food bank – even though the Government holds most of the information needed to automate claims for the vouchers.

It is not only the state’s offer to help with costs of birth that are afflicted by low take-up, but also its offer to help with the costs of death.

The Funeral Expenses Payment, which provides help for costs of a funeral for those on low incomes, paid out on average £1,838 in 2020-21. But before the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of awards steadily decreased, from 40,000 in 2006-07 to 25,000 in 2019-20, despite the number of deaths increasing in the same period.

It is certain that there are low-income families out there who are missing out on thousands of pounds of support at a very difficult point in their lives, because of lack of awareness or the complex 25-page form.

There are also substantive concerns about the take-up of the support offered through the recently-introduced Household Support Fund, which provides low-income households with ad-hoc grants or vouchers through their local authority. Rishi Sunak committed a further £500 million to this Fund in the 2022 Spring Statement.

Each local authority, already greatly stretched in terms of resources, is responsible for the design and rollout of their own scheme. There are also barriers for low-income people to access it, who not only need to be aware that the Fund exists, but must also then submit information about their financial status.

The growth of the social security system over many decades has led to the accumulation of layers upon layers of complexity to address new and emerging needs. But the labyrinthine nature of our welfare system is now hurting both the government and those it is supposed to support.

In this context, the Conservatives need to be proud of the core achievement of Universal Credit: simplifying six disparate in-work and out-of-work payments scattered across three government departments into one streamlined benefit. Now they need to boldly continue their work in reducing complexity.

Rather than continuing to bolt-on new ways to support people, like the Household Support Fund, and growing the administrative behemoth that is our social security system, the Government needs to think much more about how it can use the existing benefit systems and information databases to provide simplified help to people who need it.

The changes to the Warm Home Discount scheme being introduced this year, which will use government-held property, benefit and tax data to automatically identify low-income households most in need of help with heating bills, is an example of what ministers should be doing across the social security system.

Getting more people to take-up existing schemes will not be sufficient to tackle the cost-of-living crisis given its scale: with inflation forecast to peak at ten per cent this year, but benefits only rising by 3.1 per cent this April, the outlook for low-income households is dire.

However, reducing complexity will still substantively benefit thousands of low-income households who are currently missing out on vital support, and it will be through simplifying bureaucratic demands and harnessing the power of technology that the Conservatives will make a difference and increase take-up.

Ryan Shorthouse and Sam Robinson: Tax reforms, not tax cuts, are what the Government needs to deliver

27 Apr

Ryan Shorthouse is the CEO of Bright Blue and Sam Robinson is a senior researcher at Bright Blue. They have co-authored a new report, ‘A vision for tax reform in the 2020s’

The UK Government has, rightly, committed to three preeminent economic, social, and environmental objectives in the years ahead: boosting growth and living standards; levelling up the country; and achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Unusually for a Conservative Government, there is a high degree of tolerance for historically high levels of taxation and spending. This is a very different situation to after the 2008 financial crisis, when the Coalition Government cut both taxes and spending – the latter deeply.

The Chancellor recently announced the Spring Statement Tax Plan, with a vision for a lower tax economy. This seemed to mark a return to conventional conservative thinking. But official Government policy is still consistent with a more social-democratic model.

If high levels of public spending to meet major objectives are to be maintained whilst servicing current budget surpluses, this country will need to pursue a tax reforming – not solely a tax cutting – agenda. As well as shoring up the public finances, tax reform can also play a positive part in achieving economic, social, and environmental objectives.

We believe the Chancellor can be much more ambitious with tax during this Parliament. Nevertheless, reforms to taxation can be incredibly politically contentious, meaning it is under-utilised as a tool to help achieve positive and far-reaching change. 

If tax reforms are to be both effective and ambitious, it is vital that proposals derive from clear principles that attract sufficient political support. For the past two years, the team behind Bright Blue’s project on tax reform has sought to do exactly this. We now propose nine key principles that should underpin an ambitious programme of reform, supported by policy recommendations to achieve them. 

First, that the tax system supports effort, enterprise, and entrepreneurialism. Tax in the UK is increasingly falling on income from work rather than from other activities. It should be an urgent priority to better reward people’s effort by reducing taxes on work, especially National Insurance and the Health and Social Care Levy. Doing this, alongside broadening their scope to include pensions and rental income, would spread the impact of these taxes more evenly across the incomes and ages, reversing the troublesome shift of overall tax onto workers.

Second, the system should fairly tax income derived from luck, rent-seeking, and externalities. If the tax system adequately taxed income derived from these sources, we could lower taxes on more productive activities in a more sustainable manner. For example, Inheritance Tax’s current design means that many life-enhancing transfers of wealth go untaxed. It should be replaced with a Lifetime Receipts Tax.

Third, activities by individuals and institutions should be treated more equally. The current design of the tax system leaves individuals and institutions receiving the same amount of income paying vastly different effective tax rates. Self-employed people pay considerably less than workers, largely thanks to Employers’ National Insurance, meaning businesses have an incentive to contract labour on a self-employed basis. The Treasury should aim to reduce the difference between employees and the self-employed, initially by focusing on cutting employers’ National Insurance Contributions.

Fourth, tax policy should incentivise investment to facilitate long-term growth. The Government has recognised the role tax policy can play in spurring business investment through the ‘super-deduction’. However, this currently ends in 2023, and the headline Corporation Tax rates are scheduled to rise. The UK therefore has one of the least generous systems of capital allowances among OECD countries. The Treasury should move to a system of full immediate expensing of capital investment when the super-deduction expires in 2023.

Fifth, we need to ensure sound public finances. Simply borrowing more and more to meet today’s spending demands is economically and morally unacceptable. A tax-reforming agenda needs to ensure that the UK’s fiscal trajectory is sustainable, whilst also ensuring value for money in both spending and tax reliefs. The Government could follow the German model, which legally mandates biannual reviews of corporate tax reliefs based on a standard evaluative framework including: target accuracy, cost-effectiveness, necessity, and sustainability. 

Sixth, taxes should be easier to understand and harder to avoid. A needlessly complex tax system is confusing, reducing tax transparency and politicians’ ability to explain what tax reforms are achieving. Some taxes – particularly Inheritance Tax – are easily avoided. The Government ought to tighten eligibility for key Inheritance Tax reliefs such as Agricultural Property Relief or Business Property Relief.

Seventh, the tax system should support the Net Zero agenda. The UK’s current carbon pricing across different economic sectors is insufficient. Certain sectors such as aviation and residential gas effectively receive subsidies for carbon emissions. A standard, economy-wide carbon tax is not feasible. However, the Government should set a target price range for carbon taxes across the whole economy by 2030, with a ‘floor price’ that each economic sector would have to achieve at a minimum, to facilitate consistent carbon prices across different sectors. 

Eighth, future reforms should protect and enhance the livelihoods of the poorest. The Government has taken action to blunt the impact of the new Health and Social Care Levy, but more should be done with tax to protect the poorest. A new ‘Green Dividend Framework’ should be established, made up of the revenues from existing and new carbon pricing measures; a specific portion of funds from these revenues should be used to reduce the impact of rising prices on low-income households and vulnerable customers.

Ninth, our tax system should address regional imbalances. Council Tax falls disproportionately on properties outside of the South East. Stamp Duty Land Tax also plays a part in slowing progress on levelling up by removing incentives to move home. It is time to replace both taxes with a Proportional Property Tax based on the value of people’s homes, with tax exemptions for those under £50,000.

The recent Spring Statement Tax Plan can and should be supplemented: to not just always ideologically fixate on lowering taxes, but to use tax as a tool to help a much wider set of economic, social and environmental goals. Ultimately, we believe that tax can achieve its potential as a substantial policy lever that facilitates bigger and bolder changes.

Max Anderson: 5G broadband is the key to cost-effective levelling up

12 Apr

Max Anderson is a Communications Officer for Bright Blue.

As gas and electricity prices spiral, the cost of living crisis is worsening. Politicians are under increasing pressure to find new solutions to take the burden off stretched household budgets.

Despite Rishi Sunak’s attempts to show himself as the man with all the tax-cutting solutions, his “confused” Spring Statement did little to help those who need it most.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation predicted the Chancellor’s measures won’t prevent 600,000 people being pulled into poverty.

While the overall focus has been on National Insurance, Income Tax, and Fuel Duty, one potential cost-cutting solution has largely gone unnoticed: 5G broadband.

5G has been ‘claimed’ by Michael Gove’s Levelling Up White Paper as it pushes its Wireless Infrastructure Strategy. This isn’t surprising.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of digital infrastructure, as people struggled to keep their social lives and businesses afloat, exposing how insufficient our digital infrastructure is. Polling by Bright Blue revealed that 53 per cent of people working from home during the pandemic struggled with poor internet.

The Government will be hoping that 5G, and its up to 300Mbps download speed, will play its part in levelling up our digital infrastructure while also providing the wireless broadband speeds to offer the platform for innovative technology to improve other sectors.

Despite a small minority who love burning it down, the importance of 5G infrastructure has been recognised as a tool the Government can exploit for providing better internet, but it needs to be recognised as an opportunity to provide cheaper broadband and lower household bills too.

This is especially true for rural communities, whose reliance on cars for transport has also left them particularly open to the cost of living crisis due to rising fuel prices.

Last year, OfCom found that 30 per cent of UK households, mainly rural and left-behind communities, were still on copper wiring broadband as opposed to full-fibre broadband. Although copper broadband is cheap to maintain, it generally can only provide 10 Mbps. As this speed is seen as too slow for UK households, Openreach have taken the decision to switch off all copper broadband by 2025.

However, installing fibre-optic cabling manually and directly into people’s homes is an incredibly expensive and time-consuming task, with the bill ultimately being passed onto consumers, putting greater pressure on households, or onto the Government through further subsidies.

This means the cost-of-living crisis is only going to get worse for rural and left-behind communities who, in a rush to install fibre-optic to ensure they aren’t cut off in 2025, will have to foot the bill for replacing their copper wiring.

However, fibre-optic’s high cost doesn’t end there. Maintaining these connections directly into every single person’s home is an incredibly expensive job, and this cost will once again be passed onto all consumers.

This is where 5G broadband can offer consumers a solution. 5G broadband removes entirely this last mile bottleneck of cabling. Instead of a cable being directly fitted to your home, 5G provides you with broadband from a tower a mile away, through the airwaves straight to your router.

Broadband companies wouldn’t need to maintain, replace and then charge you for this last mile of cabling, which is one of the most costly elements of broadband.

According to Ovum, 5G broadband has the potential to save UK households £240 a year. For rural and left-behind communities, who will also need to cover the expenses of replacing their copper wiring, the potential savings are even greater.

Installing 5G nationally will not be an easy feat, and is currently seen as the technology of tomorrow and not today.

However, the Government must see the radical and cost-saving difference 5G can make in people’s lives during a time when every household is struggling. It should encourage further 5G investment and prosperity building on what the Levelling Up White Paper has started.

Yet DCMS has struggled to keep pace with the digital revolution, shown by their “botched” Online Safety Bill. For once, the Government needs to be proactive and not reactive when it comes to Britain’s growing digital world and creating infrastructure for innovation and saving consumers money is the perfect two birds with one stone solution.

‘The Treasury is taking with one hand to give away with the other’. Think tanks react to the Spring Statement

23 Mar

Centre for Policy Studies

Raising National Insurance thresholds to match Income Tax welcome

“The Centre for Policy Studies warmly welcomed the Chancellor’s landmark decision to raise National Insurance thresholds to the same level as income tax, in response to the cost of living crisis.

“This policy, the Universal Working Income, was suggested by the Centre for Policy Studies in its landmark 2018 paper Make Work Pay, and was adopted by the Conservatives in their 2019 manifesto. At the time, we calculated it would take 2.4 million people out of tax altogether.

“The CPS had recently argued that increasing NI thresholds was the best way to offset the effects of the Government’s increase in National Insurance for those on low and average incomes – but welcomed the Chancellor’s decision to go much further.”

Adam Smith Institute

Chancellor is ‘gas-lighting’ voters over his tax plans

“The big announcement today will undoubtedly be the 1p cut to the basic rate of income tax. Such a cut won’t go into effect until 2024 and Brits need relief now. It’s a cynical ploy to cut tax just in time for the next election, while at the same time hiking tax on workers through National Insurance. In terms of intergenerational inequality, lowering income tax while increasing NIC shifts the tax burden from the old to the young.

“In an ideal world, the Chancellor would have scrapped the planned National Insurance Contribution rise, although it is encouraging to see that he plans to raise the NIC threshold in line with income tax thresholds.”

TaxPayers’ Alliance

The Treasury is taking with one hand to give away with the other.

“Cutting income tax down the line will be easily offset by the upcoming national insurance hike and freezing income tax thresholds, leaving taxpayers out of pocket overall. If the government wants to give taxpayers and businesses a respite from rises, they’d do well to simply scrap the health and social care levy.”

“The alignment of income tax and national insurance is a welcome step to simplifying the tax system. The chancellor should take this chance to combine the two into a single income tax and offer a really radical reform of the tax code.”

Centre for Social Justice

The reality is this cost of living crisis is just getting started

“Today we needed to see a strategy for those struggling the most. Universal Credit remains the best weapon in Government’s arsenal to get support directly to those who will be worst hit by the spike in energy prices, while also helping claimants into work.

“Building on the profoundly welcome cut to the taper rate at the Autumn Budget, the Government should further harness the flexibility within UC to help those furthest from the labour market by investing more in the system in response to rising energy costs and the wider cost of living.”

Bright Blue

Since the Chancellor seems to be allergic to welfare, he is hamstringing himself by refusing to do what would help best

“This is the confused Chancellor. He is desperate to burnish his Hayekian credentials to his colleagues, but he has been consistently Keynesian in his response to two major crises during his short tenure, using a mixture of public spending and now tax cuts to stimulate the economy through troubled times. Public debt, tax levels and inflation will remain historically very high for the foreseeable future, much higher than what fiscally hawkish economists would advise.

The fairest way of helping households struggling with a range of costs, especially fuel and energy, is through broad subsidies such as Universal Credit or broad taxes such as VAT, National insurance or Income Tax.”

Policy Exchange

It is not surprising that the Chancellor is trying to hold on to fiscal rules

“Indeed, the Chancellor’s focus on security in this Spring Statement reveals the tension at the heart of a new culture of enterprise in these difficult economic times. In the long-term, it is the creative destruction, innovation and churn that create a resilient economy. But in the short-term, you need resilient businesses who aren’t laden with debt service costs or input squeezes to make those long-term investments. You need consumer confidence, protected by Government spending in difficult times, to power private business.

“In this Statement, the Chancellor is making the judgement that, ultimately, a moderate intervention will suffice for now, to get through the current challenges, and that too much protection, too much ‘security’ will ultimately cover up weaknesses and hamper the dynamic economy the Chancellor is so eager to create. This is perhaps the biggest call of all, and we should all hope he is right.”

Institute of Economic Affairs

This was a mitigation mini-Budget, not a radical one

“The reduction in fuel duty will make a small difference to households. The decision to raise the National Insurance threshold means workers on an average wage will see their contributions fall, despite the planned 2.5 percentage point rise going ahead. The pledge to reduce the basic rate of income tax is welcome.

“But the UK will spend £83bn on debt interest this year – almost double our entire defence budget. The Chancellor will not achieve economic ‘security’ without a commitment to drastically bringing down our tax bill and reducing government spending, which has spiralled out of control. Only then will he boost our anaemic growth forecasts.”

Onward

Time is running out if the Chancellor wants his economic plan to be felt before the next election

“Today’s statement was a firefighter’s statement. The Chancellor has warned about inflation since he entered the Treasury and today his warnings were realised. The 5p cut to fuel duty and the rising threshold for National Insurance contributions offer considerable protection against spiralling inflation, especially for those on the lowest incomes – and, from 2024, he ensured that voters will keep an extra penny from every pound they earn.

“Critics will say he should have scrapped the planned National Insurance rise. But doing so would have meant finding £12 billion elsewhere for the NHS and social care, or explaining to voters why they must wait months for operations in the run up to a general election. Ultimately this left him with no easy choices.

“But while voters recognise that the Chancellor is fighting fires on all fronts, he cannot lose sight of why the Government was elected back in 2019 – to level up opportunity across the UK. Today’s statement had positive language on capital investment, R&D and apprenticeships, but scant detail and no decisions until the Autumn.”

Conservative Environment Network

Today’s Spring Statement will help people cope with rising household bills 

“Scrapping VAT for insulation will help people upgrade their homes and reduce their energy bills. This quick and simple tax cut will help families with soaring gas prices. The Chancellor should also look to expand existing energy efficiency schemes to help fuel poor households insulate their homes.

In the short term, a fuel duty cut will soften the blow of rocketing oil prices, helping motorists and cutting the cost of transporting goods across the country. But the crisis underlines the need urgently review the UK’s road taxes.

As people switch to electric vehicles, which will reduce the UK’s dependence on expensive oil imports, road taxes like fuel duty will need to be replaced. This is an opportunity to deliver a fairer deal for motorists and cut congestion while raising revenue for excellent public services.”

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Chancellor has abandoned many to the threat of destitution, not economic security

“The Chancellor has acted recklessly in pressing ahead with a second real-terms cut to benefits in six months, while prioritising people on middle and higher incomes.

“Changes to National Insurance won’t help those who aren’t working or can’t work due to disability, illness or caring responsibilities, and exposes them to an increased risk of becoming destitute. This means they will face regularly going without absolute essentials such as food, energy and basic hygiene products.

“We can’t build a strong or secure economy by weakening the incomes of the poorest. With benefits reaching their lowest level in real terms since 1985, the Chancellor had ample opportunity with his increased headroom to uprate them in line with inflation to protect those most at risk.”

Institute for Fiscal Studies

If he wants to be remembered as a tax reforming chancellor, so far he is headed in the wrong direction

“There are two paradoxes at the heart of today’s statement. The Chancellor has managed to announce tax cuts without reducing the planned tax take from previous plans. And by saying nothing about spending, he is reducing the real-terms generosity of his plans for spending on public services. That’s what inflation does.

“The cuts to income tax and National Insurance are effectively paid for by increasing revenues as a result of fiscal drag. The freezing of the income tax personal allowance and higher rate threshold turn out to be much bigger tax rises than first intended. As a result, almost all workers will be paying more tax on their earnings in 2025 than they would have been paying without this parliament’s reforms to income tax and NICs, despite the tax cutting measures announced today.

“And by keeping to previously announced cash plans for public spending Mr Sunak is being considerably less generous to public services than he intended when he set out his spending plans in the Autumn.”

Spencer Pitfield: The new polling that shows health and social care to be voters’ top priorities

20 Jan

Dr Spencer Pitfield OBE is Director Union Blue and Senior Consultant at Techne UK.

It goes without saying that we live in simply unprecedented and febrile political times. Like others, I approach the evening news with a sense of foreboding and overall weariness as day after day one new devastating revelation after another appears.

I spend a lot of time it seems repeating my newfound mantra to those who ask for a quick personal political comment: I will not, and cannot, defend what is clearly indefensible… if you break the rules, you must be held accountable… no one is above the law.

Like everyone who enters into politics, whatever their level or role, I have always wanted to do the very best for our communities and country at large. Whilst the unedifying sight of the Conservative Party attempting to self-destruct and the polarised tub thumping of the other parties continues, I cannot help but be so very saddened that we are losing sight of the really grave issues we face at this time.

How difficult it seems now to get ‘airtime’ for the required debate and careful consideration of key policy issues and approaches which are so urgently required.

In 2019 the Prime Minister was elected with a sizable majority, and at the time I was particularly excited by the then promise to further develop and promote what has become known as the ‘levelling up agenda’.

A promise, in short, to provide a better quality of life and opportunity for those in the most deprived parts of our country; an exciting vision to reduce inequality, support those in poverty out of it, and to give those people in most need across our country a ‘leg up’ on the ladder of opportunity.

Polling just released, however, conducted by Techne UK in partnership with the think tank Bright Blue, makes for very sombre reading at the halfway mark of this Parliament.

Those surveyed believe the Government has been performing worse than expected since the last general election across almost all key policy areas polled. Significantly, and most worryingly for the Government, except in the policy areas of climate change and healthcare (net +13 per cent), a majority of 2019 Conservative voters believe too that the Conservative Party is not delivering on its key election policy promises.

Further to the overall assertion that Government has not been able to deliver on its promised agenda, this poll also highlights voters feel particularly concerned that we remain massively unprepared to deal with the major challenges no doubt coming down the line in 2022. These include the rising cost of living (food and energy prices in particular), flooding, and crime.

Here particularly social care (net -34 per cent) and Local Government (net -37 per cent) received the poorest marks from those surveyed.

Poverty is particularly emphasised by those questioned in this research highlighting that the public feels that people on lower incomes have been most likely to suffer since the last election. Indeed, large majorities of respondents think those on low incomes (71 per cent) and the very poorest in our society (70 per cent) have become financially worse off since December 2019. By stark contrast very few people thought those on high incomes have become worse off (nine per cent).

Other ways the Government might better support hard working families included keeping prices for everyday goods low (16 per cent) and increasing the minimum wage (23 per cent). Those polled believed the best ways to support businesses affected by the pandemic would be the continued provision of well-targeted grants and loans to those companies most affected.

With regards to what the Government should prioritise in 2022, improving healthcare and social care perhaps unsurprisingly come out on top.

The considerable dilemma though that the Government faces – both within the Conservative Party and across the country – is the fact that those polled are also clear that the best way to help people at this time is to cut taxes for low- and middle-income families, whilst simultaneously also wishing for public spending levels in key policy areas to be increased.

A balancing act that this Chancellor, indeed any chancellor, would struggle to accomplish – especially at a time when Government debt levels due to this terrible pandemic are so very high.

Throughout this important poll it is clear that voters feel that Boris Johnson’s Government has underperformed, is unprepared for what is to come, and across almost all key policy areas of concern has not delivered.

People feel worse off, and they fear things are only going to get worse.

Regardless of the Prime Minister’s very considerable political problems, history tells us when you are seen not to be delivering on the policy priorities of the people your days in office are numbered.

This is therefore not just a critical juncture for the Prime Minister – without immediate action in key policy areas it will become difficult to win people back.

Paul Howell: Locally-led institutions are crucial to the Government’s levelling up agenda

17 Jan

Paul Howell MP for Sedgefield & co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods.

If there is one New Year’s resolution that the Conservative government should keep to, it’s to make progress on its nascent levelling-up agenda. In his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson pledged to lead a government that would finally answer the pleas of the “forgotten people and the left behind towns” that had backed Brexit.

This covenant was sealed when the same communities delivered the Prime Minister his stonking majority in 2019. The interruption of Covid has frustrated action so progress is now imperative to show us what makes levelling up truly distinct. Another election really isn’t that far away.

The Government has made some progress, with the first allocations from the Levelling Up Fund and the Towns Fund. The Levelling Up White Paper, delayed until early this year, must finally provide the clarity and direction the Government’s admirable yet frustratingly abstract ambition has so far lacked.

One aspect might be that levelling up cannot be delivered by Whitehall fiat. Communities don’t want the Government in London to tell them how to make their lives better, they want the opportunity to make that change themselves. While the state still has an important role to play, it is trusted locally-led institutions that must lead the way. This principle must be at the heart of the plan.

Conservatives recognise, in particular, the need to build and protect institutions, especially for local communities. Institutions leverage and support individual behaviour, bringing different people together in pursuit of a common good, so that social cohesion and capital is strengthened. Thriving local institutions are thus vital for levelling up so-called “left-behind” areas.

So what are these key local institutions that can support and transform individuals and communities in deprived areas? Conservatives have traditionally looked to the Church and charities, but housing associations are also increasingly critical anchor institutions in “left-behind” areas.

As local institutions with a proven track record of supporting and transforming individuals and communities in deprived areas across the country, housing associations are a key lever for unlocking the potential of “left-behind” areas. Almost half of all socially rented homes are located in the most deprived 20 per cent of areas in England. More than 2.4 million households live in accommodation provided by housing associations, particularly in the Midlands, the North East, and North West of England.

Today, the PlaceShapers network of community-focused housing associations, working with Bright Blue Intelligence, launches a new report, Stay Local, Go Far. The report encourages us to cast regeneration as central to levelling up, and think about four dimensions of regeneration: physical, economic, social, and democratic. Housing associations can and do, support such regeneration.

Livin is a housing association in my constituency. I have seen how it has supported these four dimensions in its work. Livin’s approach is based on improving the prospects of whole places, rather than just individuals.

First, the restoration of physical infrastructure is essential. Housing associations ensure access to affordable and sustainable housing. Private funding contributed £6 for every £1 of public funding for housing associations in 2019, representing £13.5 billion of new private finance. A 1930s estate known for high levels of anti-social behaviour, was unattractive for private investment, but £5.4 million from Livin helped to transform the area, increasing homeownership from 32 per cent to 62 per cent and halving energy bills. Leveraging such investment, in partnership with both the state and market, makes housing associations such critical enablers of levelling up.

Second, on economic regeneration: housing associations act as significant providers of jobs, both directly and indirectly, with around 140,000 people employed, often involving apprenticeships and specialist training for the members of the community. Many housing associations support young people not in education, employment, or training with support to get into employment, often using their strong connections with local businesses and other quality training providers.

Levelling up isn’t just about pure economics, of course, it’s also about making places feel more liveable and boosting civic engagement and pride. It is the “place” where people live that determines how good they feel about their lot. Social landlords invest £750 million each year into community work, beyond the core provision of housing. They provide financial and administrative support for community projects.

All of these community benefits are enhanced by democratic involvement of housing association residents in decisions and projects that affect them. Autonomy over running properties and shared spaces, including budgets to spend on improvements, builds trust and enhances engagement. But communities need support to do this.

Levelling up so-called “left-behind” areas, especially in coastal and former industrial areas, is a noble aim, but it is hard work, requiring significant investment and patience. No government working alone can transform deprived communities.

Modern conservative politicians and thinkers are looking to improve the security – not just the liberty – of people living in this country, especially those on lower incomes who voted for a Conservative government for the first time in a generation, sometimes ever. Looking more to its communitarian traditions, the Conservatives in office today need new allies and institutions to build economically, socially and environmentally vibrant communities in traditionally poor areas. Housing associations are here to help.

Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield: The pandemic has shown why Britain needs domestic abuse leave

21 Dec

Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield is a Researcher at Bright Blue.

Office lights across the UK are being switched off once more as Omicron emerges after but a few halcyon months of Covid optimism. Now, many employees are being asked or told to work from home again.  

For lots of us, a return to our home ‘offices’ means a return to an uncomfortable seat in a noisy kitchen, to dodgy internet and attention-seeking pets that howl during virtual meetings. Or, perhaps worse, to a desolate desk in a bedroom corner, devoid of the pleasant chatter of co-workers.

However, with the rise of Omicron and the implementation of Plan B, a minority of people are going back into home working situations that are not only simply unpleasant or inconvenient, but dangerous. 

Troublingly, Bright Blue research published earlier this month found that between March 2020 and February 2021, home workers have been over ten times more likely than non-home workers to report experiencing domestic abuse (11 per cent versus one per cent). What we have uncovered in terms of disabled workers is even worse – 27 per cent of disabled home workers report experiencing domestic abuse during the pandemic.

Our findings illuminate the plight of those trapped in their homes with abusers during the pandemic, fearing for their lives and physical safety, in addition to the economic, social and health stresses that have burdened the entire nation since March 2020. 

In addition to the marked surges in demand for domestic abuse support services during the pandemic, a recent report from an NGO coalition, which includes Women’s Aid and Respect, shows how the pandemic made life more difficult and dangerous for domestic abuse victims in a myriad of ways.

That includes making it more practically complicated to leave potentially life-threatening situations, but also reducing the number of social situations in which someone, such as co-worker or shop assistant, may notice that something is very wrong and offer help. 

In short, the excision of many from their places of work during the pandemic has acted to underline the support that offices and all external places of work can offer domestic abuse victims and survivors as places of refuge and a source of vital economic independence that can prevent financial control by abusers. 

But even outside of pandemic times, too many victims of domestic abuse lose the critical lifeline, financial and otherwise, provided to them by their employment as a direct result of the abuse they face. That can be because of perpetrators actively sabotaging their ability to work, but also because of the time off that they may need to take, which can be last-minute and urgent.

As Paul Scully, BEIS Minister, highlighted earlier this year, as many as one in five domestic abuse victims may need time off work as a result of abuse. Clearly, this is not only a pandemic problem and it will not go away when restrictions finally lapse. 

The Government does recognise the importance of employment to victims and the role that employers can and should play in supporting these employees, and launched a review into workplace support for domestic abuse victims and survivors and identifying an “unmet need” for more flexibility and time off work. But in light of our findings and the harsh lessons that can be drawn from the pandemic, Bright Blue is calling on the Government to move quickly in response to domestic abuse, and introduce a new right for all employees alongside its work from home guidance: the right to domestic abuse leave.

Renewing annually, this policy would grant all employees the automatic right to five days paid and five days unpaid domestic abuse per year. The leave could be claimed using a wide range of types of proof, including retroactively, from doctors’ letters to court orders. Flexible, accessible and functional, this mirrors the right to domestic abuse leave already possessed by workers living in our commonwealth friends, New Zealand and Australia.

Instantly, this policy would act to increase the ability of domestic abuse victims to keep their jobs, preserving not only their economic independence but also access to the safe harbour and moral support of colleagues provided by the workplace, which many home workers have so sorely missed during lockdowns.

Patrick Hall: MPs are right to bring forward a ban on trophy hunting imports, but could go further in thwarting the illegal wildlife trade

15 Dec

Patrick Hall is a Senior Research Fellow at the think tank Bright Blue.

It’s just over two years to the day since the Conservatives won their stonking majority, yet one of their manifesto commitments remains undelivered: banning imports from trophy hunting.

Currently, trophy hunters can travel to countries that are home to charismatic species such as lions, elephants, giraffes, hippopotamuses and baboons, shoot as many as they please, and return to the UK bringing their sickening souvenirs with them. The effect on wildlife is, unsurprisingly, damaging. Only approximately 20,000 lions are left in the wild today. And that is just one harrowing statistic of many when it comes to species decline.

Having previously cited a lack of time as the reason for delay, the Government has finally announced it will be proposing a law to ban trophy hunters from bringing back the bodies and body parts of charismatic species they’ve killed. George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, expects it to be one of the toughest bans in the world, estimated to prevent the body parts of over 7,000 species from being brought into the UK.

Pressure has been placed on the Government to move more quickly to introduce a ban after John Spellar, the Labour MP, unveiled his own legislation on the issue – the Hunting Trophy Import (Prohibition) Bill.

The introduction of such a ban needn’t wait any longer. From a political perspective, it’s a vote winner; 89 per cent of Conservative voters support a ban on imports from trophy hunting. From a fiscal perspective, it bears no cost to the Treasury.

In fact, this country could go further. The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth more than £15 billion a year, is the world’s fourth most profitable criminal enterprise and is often undertaken or supported by corrupt officials, criminal gangs and even terrorist networks. As some regions of the world become wealthier, this risks increasing the demand for, and therefore the illegal trade in, products from endangered species.

In Bright Blue’s report, Global green giant?, we put forward ambitious new recommendations for government to combat the international illegal wildlife trade.

The US Magnitsky Act 2012 allows the US Government to sanction individuals implicated in gross human rights abuses by freezing their assets and barring them from entry into the country. The UK passed its own version of this through an amendment to existing legislation, named the ‘Magnitsky Clause’. The Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 includes “gross human rights violation” as a reason for imposing sanctions on someone or an entity. The type of sanction and authority to enact them is at the discretion of an appropriate Minister.

Amendments to existing legislation should be made to enable the UK Government to freeze UK-based assets of foreign citizens implicated in supporting the illegal wildlife trade, wildlife crime, and other forms of gross species and habitat destruction.

Intelligence sharing is another tool for thwarting the illegal wildlife trade. The EU-TWIX scheme is a database among EU member states containing centralised data on seizures and reported offences. Despite Brexit, the UK remains a part of EU-TWIX. The UK should advocate for and help to build a Commonwealth version of the EU-TWIX scheme.

Admittedly, the UK Government has already made several commitments to increasing evidence sharing amongst Commonwealth nations in relation to the illegal wildlife trade, including working directly with local law enforcement agencies in countries where the wildlife crime is prevalent and providing operational support to Intepol’s ‘Project Predator’ – an international enforcement and intelligence sharing initiative to protect tigers in the wild.

However, there is no official framework for sharing intelligence amongst Commonwealth nations. It makes sense for there to be, given how prolific the illegal wildlife trade is in many of those countries, particularly in Africa and Asia.

Currently, the incumbent Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth of Nations is Boris Johnson, our Prime Minister, presenting an opportunity for the UK to take the lead in establishing a Commonwealth illegal wildlife trade intelligence sharing scheme. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, also known as CHOGM, is where collective Commonwealth declarations are made. The 26th CHOGM is yet to take place; it would be reassuring to see the Prime Minister use his final moments as Chair-in-Office to lay the foundation for such a scheme.

There’s a role for the private sector to play in combating the illegal wildlife trade as well. Already, the Wildlife Financial Taskforce exists, which comprises 30 international banks and financial organisations committed to not facilitating or tolerating any financial flows from the illegal wildlife trade.

However, this initiative exists on a voluntary basis. Currently, commercial organisations with an annual turnover greater than £36 million are obliged to prevent slavery in their supply chains through the Modern Slavery Act. A similar statutory duty should be placed on organisations to monitor and prevent financial flows which could reasonably be linked to the illegal wildlife trade.

The Government has spent ample time talking tough on trophy hunting and the illegal wildlife trade. It’s now time to see delivery.

Joseph Silke: However well intentioned, Harper’s Law is a mistake

2 Dec

Joseph Silke is communications manager at Bright Blue.

On the evening of Thursday 15th August 2019, 28-year-old Thames Valley police constable Andrew Harper was dragged along a Berkshire road to his death, lassoed while pursuing three fleeing suspects in an incident of quad bike theft.

The suspects were later cleared of murder, but convicted of his manslaughter. Henry Long, who was driving the bike and had pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole, who had pleaded not guilty but were found guilty by the jury, were both sentenced to 13 years.

PC Harper’s widow, Lissie Harper, has since campaigned for a significant change in the law, which the Lord Chancellor and Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, formally backed last week: mandatory life sentences for those who kill an emergency worker in the course of their duty.

Few can comprehend the grief she must be feeling, but the Government’s decision to back her campaign by passing a ‘Harper’s Law’ is illiberal and alarming.

Regardless of what one thinks about the severity of the sentence handed down to his killers, and however well intentioned the campaign for it might be, Harper’s Law should be opposed by all those who believe in a free and fair society in which all life is treated equally.

Harper’s Law would signify a fundamental unbalancing in the relationship between the individual and the state. It would create a two-tier hierarchy for killing, with agents of the state elevated above the people they serve. The lives of emergency workers, particularly police officers, should not be considered of greater importance than those of the rest of society.

The police are a vital part of the community, and their efforts during the pandemic have been rightly recognised and praised, but the Peelian principles upon which British policing was founded rests on the notion that police officers are regarded as citizens in uniform, as one of us, underpinning policing by consent. This law would undermine that bond.

The proposal also erodes the vital distinction between murder and manslaughter, and between different examples of manslaughter, which has been a key component of criminal law for hundreds of years.

A mandatory life sentence removes the discretion usually available to judges to determine the proportional punishment in cases of manslaughter. Manslaughter takes many forms, with some more egregious than others. It is for judges to consider what mitigating factors might be at play when sentencing, which is an integral part of their role.

As such, defendants found guilty of manslaughter can already be given a life sentence by a judge if deemed appropriate. Harper’s Law isn’t needed for that, but would instead automatically inflict the most severe punishment in English law in every case, regardless of the circumstances involved, on par with murder.

This would be a massive expansion in the powers of the state and would inevitably lead to miscarriages of justice, in which higher sentences are handed down for crimes which would otherwise have involved lighter prison terms. Even for those who believe that Harper’s case ended unjustly, with sentences that were too lenient, the reaction cannot be to introduce new injustices elsewhere.

There is also already an existing process by which sentences deemed to be insufficient can be challenged by the Attorney General’s Office, and potentially increased by the Court of Appeal. In this case, an appeal was made, and the sentences were not changed.

The Government wants to show its commitment to key workers, especially the police, and that is perfectly reasonable. Harper’s Law, however, is the wrong way to do it. It is lazy policymaking, with highly damaging consequences.

Josh Buckland: How a new carbon pricing system can provide a credible path to Net Zero

30 Jul

Josh Buckland is the author of Bright Blue’s Green money: a plan to reform UK carbon pricing and a former energy and environment special adviser to the Prime Minister. 

Beyond simply raising funds for the Treasury, the tax system has long been used by governments of all colours to deliver other political and policy objectives. It has been used as a lever to drive social policy, as well as to stoke economic growth.

More recently, it has been used to improve public health, such as through the introduction of the sugar tax last decade. The tax system has always had to serve many masters.

One such alternative master is to tackle climate change. Despite the recent popular surge in political interest in green issues across the political spectrum, this is nothing new. At his final Budget in 1993, Norman Lamont introduced VAT on domestic energy bills, linking it to honouring the country’s commitment to stabilise emissions by 2000 made at the 1992 Rio Summit.

Ever since, chancellors have seen the potential of putting a price on carbon emissions. A combination of carbon taxes now delivers around £50 billion annually to the Exchequer, around seven per cent of total tax receipts and equivalent to 2.3 per cent of GDP.

While by no means a silver bullet, there is a strong free market case for taxing carbon emissions. The environmental damage done through emitting carbon is not automatically factored into the price of the goods we buy and sell, whether it be a plane ticket or a product online.

Just a small change in the price of a carbon-intensive goods to reflect this true ‘cost’ can potentially have a significant impact, as we have seen through the reduction in plastic bag use driven by the 10p charge on the same. If done well, it can allow market competition to take the lead in finding the green technology solutions needed, avoiding the need for costly public subsidies and continual state intervention. 

However, any tax is fraught with political risk. While there is general support for government taking action to cut emissions across both the right and left, the majority of the public favour being incentivised to do so, rather than government acting to restrict choice or increase prices. Ministers are rightly all too aware of a basic political rule – people never vote for tax rises. 

Notwithstanding this obvious political challenge, since the passage of the Climate Change Act in 2008, government has taken steps to align the tax system with the need to reduce the impact we all have on the natural environment. A tax on carbon emissions in the power sector has driven down the use of coal power to the point that it now meets less than two per cent of annual power demand. Businesses and households also pay a range of carbon taxes across what they buy and sell, incentivising companies to make products that use less energy. 

Despite numerous examples of successfully mobilising private investment through taxing emissions, the Government’s approach to doing so has been piecemeal. There are significant inconsistencies – the tax we all pay for using electricity in our homes is three times what we pay for using gas for heating. Much of the tax system is effectively ‘carbon blind’ and many pro-environmental measures effectively place a flat tax across all consumers, putting the greatest burden on those on the lowest incomes. 

With the UK hosting the climate conference COP26 in November, there is an opportunity to champion a free market approach to tackling climate change. In order to do so, the independent think tank Bright Blue has today published a report, Green money: a plan to reform UK carbon pricing, setting out how government can turn the tax system green. 

The report recommends that the Government should leave no hiding place for carbon by placing a consistent price on all emissions. This would be done through tailored measures across each sector of the economy which ensure the market can adequately respond, rather than simply increasing the prices consumers pay. It also argues that the revenue generated through green taxes should be recycled back into UK green innovation to cut the costs of tackling climate change, as well as reducing the energy bills of those least well off to ease the green transition. 

The political and economic challenges in reaching the UK’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050 are significant and public backing must be achieved to make it possible. While some on the left argue that this means we must revert to an overbearing state, unlocking the power of market competition remains our best hope. We can only do so if we get serious about putting a proper price on carbon emissions.