Jihyun Park: Growing up in North Korea, I could have never imagined standing in the UK local elections. Here’s what I learnt.

28 May

Jihyun Park 박지현  is a North Korean defector and Human Rights Activist. She recently stood as the Conservative candidate for Moorside Ward in Bury, Greater Manchester.

“I didn’t know which party to choose for the local election.”

“I hate Boris Johnson, so I would never vote for the Conservative Party.”

“Why do none of the candidates have a phone number? It’s very difficult for older people and people with disabilities like me to find information on the internet.”

These were just some of the comments I heard when I stood as a Conservative candidate for Moorside Ward in Bury, Manchester.

I began this journey 13 years after I arrived in the UK, having fled North Korea. Back then, Bury had a small number of refugees – and even today that number is still small.

When I started campaigning, my biggest fear was how people would react to me standing in the local elections. I have often worked alongside people in the human rights sector – and have never felt discrimination there. But I wondered if that would change on the doorstep.

I needn’t have worried at all. The people I met in Bury were warm and welcoming, and smiled at me brightly. They said that if anyone could change life for the locals, it was me.

I thought about my life in North Korea, where no one said my name in such a warm way.

People born in a free world may not think a lot about the power of a name, but they are very valuable to those of us who have been stateless.

North Koreans do not even own passports. They have citizenship cards, but they are not recognised anywhere in the world – and are more of a slave card than anything.

Even in China, there were no passports. When I escaped there, I was despised and stateless, and forced to repatriate back to North Korea.

When you feel that you are a human being with rights, you are finally able to feel happiness.

During these local elections, I discovered and thought about many interesting things in British politics.

I was surprised, for one, that a lot of people do not know when local elections are held, or who is in charge of their district – as more people participate in national rather than local elections.

Especially because of my time in North Korea, I feel it is incredibly important that the public exercises their right to vote. We as Conservatives should help engage people more on this.

In general, I found men talked more to me about national issues on the doorstep, and that women were more focused on local ones, such as care, education and communities.

Again, it would be interesting to understand all of these concerns – to make sure that everyone has a stake in our political debates.

I am very excited about the future of politics. One of my big interests – and the reason I love the UK – is our landscapes.

The first thing that surprised me when I arrived here (aside from the sight of newspapers and women smoking) was the greenery that unfolded before my eyes in the cold winter.

I was amazed to find that even in icy temperatures, landscapes were an ecstasy in themselves.

I have always loved seeing people out on weekends enjoying a walk with their dog, having a picnic and children running and playing outside. I have also had many lovely picnics with my own children.

I am keen that we should preserve England’s beautiful landscapes – although I understand that there is more need for new homes.

This is why I am backing the Community Land Trust programme, which will help to build carbon negative affordable social housing.

We need homes for the future – but we must also protect the environment for our children.

Although I didn’t win the election, it was a great experience.

As a candidate, I pledged that I would repay the British people for welcoming me, but I was lucky to receive another gift from the British.

They taught me politics and freedom. Thank you!

Enver Solomon: There is a wider lesson in Jihyun Park’s Conservative story for the Government’s refugee policy

10 May

Enver Solomon is Chief Exective of the Refugee Council.

As the local election results came in on Friday, there was hope that Bury in Greater Manchester would swing to the Conservatives. It wasn’t to be, but the election had received national attention because one of the party’s proud candidates is not your average Conservative politician.

Jihyun Park, recently interviewed on this site by Andrew Gimson, was the first North Korean ever to stand in elections for the party in this country. Quite a remarkable achievement for a woman who fled the brutal communist dictatorship with her family by escaping over the border to China and eventually by plane to London.

After applying for asylum, she was given refugee status in the UK 13 years ago and housed in Bury, where she still lives with her husband Kwang and two sons. Park recently told the Times that when she first arrived in the country, she couldn’t speak a word of English. “We were given this house but there was nothing in it, no furniture, no heating,” she said. “The four of us slept in the living room covered by a single blanket. But everyone helped us. The council. Our neighbours. We will never forget this.”

Park’s story might seem unique. But it isn’t. People fleeing war, persecution, terror and dictatorships around the world are welcomed into the UK every year. Communities and councils across the land from Glasgow to Gloucester support them to set up home, put down roots in their neighbourhood and contribute to the good of the country paying taxes as law abiding citizens.

Many are part of the vast army of people employed by the NHS as doctors, nurses and ancillary staff. Others become academics, architects, accountants business people, lawyers, and lots more. And they often say they are proud that Britain is their home.

For seven decades since the UK signed the UN Convention on Refugees in 1951, the country has given protection to hundreds of thousands of people in need of safety. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, whose parents came to the UK from Uganda at the time of the dictatorship of Idi Amin is proud of the fact that the UK welcomed many Asian families cruelly expelled from the country. From Uganda to Iran to Bosnia to Afghanistan and most recently Syria people have come to the UK in the knowledge that the country will provide a safe haven for them and their families.

Conservative governments have been at the forefront of upholding this long tradition of providing refugee protection. Most recently, David Cameron when Prime Minister set up the Vulnerable Persons Syrian Resettlement Scheme. Working with the UNHCR 20,000 Syrian refugees have been brought to the UK over the last five years to rebuild their lives.

The Refugee Council has been working with councils in Yorkshire, Humberside, Hertfordshire and London to support them to successfully integrate into local communities. Many Syrians arrived with basic skills but they have found a way to make a real difference, even during the pandemic.

One example is Adil, a Syrian tailor who settled in Sheffield. When lockdown was first put in place Adil was inspired to do something to protect people against the virus. Initially he made 70 face masks, which he donated to his children’s school and his neighbours. He has now gone on to make 500 items of PPE for his local community, including masks and scrubs, purchasing many of the materials himself.

It is safer for people seeking asylum, and arguably less of a challenge to public services, if people arrive in the UK through routes designated as ‘safe and legal’ by the Government. In order to meet the scale of the global refugee displacement need, and deter people from making dangerous journeys to our shores, it is vital these routes must also be accessible for those fleeing persecution.

The Government’s New Plan for Immigration rightly commits to provide safe and legal routes for those who have been uprooted by war and terror.

But it holds back from making any firm commitment on numbers. If another 20,000 refugees were settled in the country during the next five years, it would be the equivalent of only eight in every parliamentary constituency each year. Doubling that number would mean just 16. Global Britain surely has a role to play in providing a home for a fraction of the 26 million refugees in the world today.

The reality, however, is that whether one likes it or not refugees are unable to travel and arrive in our country only via regular means. Apart from refugees who are admitted on a resettlement scheme, such as the recent programme for people escaping Syria, few are able to secure travel documents – usually because the authorities will not give them one, or they lose it or have it confiscated.

Persuading any country to give them a visa is very difficult. For all these reasons, people seek to make spontaneous journeys to safe countries in Europe. They have no choice. Of course, as a country we can’t simply give all these people protection. But what we have always done and should continue to do is give them a fair hearing if they reach our shores, so those who are in genuine need of protection are granted it. At the same time those who aren’t should be supported to return to their country.

Park is a case in point. She arrived on a plane and applied for asylum after getting to the UK. But under the government’s New Plan for Immigration, there is a risk that people like her will be turned away, or only given temporary protection. if they have travelled through another so-called safe country, or don’t make an asylum application entirely in accordance with the government’s rules.

When people come to our country seeking asylum we need a fair and effective system so that everybody in need of protection is given a just hearing. Both compassion and control are important. Let’s continue to welcome people like Jihyun Park, support them to rebuild their lives and contribute to our country. Refugee protection is a great British value that we should be proud to uphold.

Ben Bradley: I will not be undertaking unconscious bias training – and call on my colleagues to take the same stand

15 Sep

Ben Bradley is MP for Mansfield.

The evidence is growing that many of our institutions are dominated by a metropolitan “groupthink” that is intolerant to any diversity of views, whether it’s the BBC, the British Library or even government departments. The latest such evidence is the further rollout of unconscious bias training here in the Commons.

This particular idea, that we all need to be re-educated and taught to suppress our innate urge to be awful to each other all the time, is costing the taxpayer a bomb as it rolls through our various government agencies and quangos. Next it’s the turn of MPs to be told that all of our thoughts are offensive and should be corrected.

I found out recently that House of Commons staff have been forced to sit through this nonsense since 2016, but the course is being extended in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests – a subject on which my thoughts have been pretty well publicised – and MPs will be expected to sit through it too. Let me be clear right from the off; I will not be taking it.

Nobody doubts that racism exists and can make life more challenging for some people. Nor that sexism exists, ageism and discrimination across a whole spectrum. That much is true. What I doubt here is that these things are somehow buried deep in all of our subconscious, steering us at every turn, and that with the help of some genius “educator” I can be cured of my unseen evil. I’m yet to see the evidence of it achieving a great deal, apart from big profits for the training company.

It’s been reported this week that £7,000 of taxpayer’s cash will be spent designing a course featuring a blue “Cookie Monster-esque” puppet, who wants to tell me in its cute and furry way that I shouldn’t use “offensive” words like “pensioner” or “lady”. Apparently, the puppet also plans to tell me which version of history I must use and which bits I should delete from my memory – improving my “cultural competency” – which is going to cost us around £700,000 in total. Needless to say I’m not convinced that this is an appropriate use of taxpayer’s money.

In recent weeks I completed similar “Valuing Everyone” training, aimed at explaining how I should not be mean to my staff. I guess I blindly stumbled in to that one, not quite aware until I clicked on to the Zoom call exactly what it was I was doing. It was quite a jolly couple of hours in truth – a nice chat with colleagues, but as far as I can tell it will have achieved precisely nothing except for a sizeable bill (around £750,000).

I don’t doubt that there are more than a small number of MPs who are a nightmare to work for and who can behave inappropriately. I’m just not convinced that two hours of training will have made the blindest bit of difference, despite the huge cost. In truth, if you asked the staffers in this building they could tell you who those bad bosses and managers are in seconds – it’s not a secret – and you could deal with the actual problem rather than just “being seen to do something”.

There’s something deeply undemocratic about it too, in my view. I’m elected to this place to represent my constituents. To share their thoughts and views with the House. We’ve already seen through the Brexit debates how the views of Leave voters were characterised as racist and unacceptable, and now we’re to be “educated” about which views are appropriate for us to speak about.

Who gets to decide which issues or views are appropriate for me to raise on behalf of my constituents? I’ve been told that speaking about the challenges facing working class white boys in my community is racist or sexist more than once. If it causes offence to a handful should I keep quiet? The biggest issue filling my inbox is illegal immigration, something thousands of my constituents feel very strongly about, but it’s a bit controversial, isn’t it, so should I leave it alone? The thought police will be the death of open debate and stymie our democracy.

I’ve said it more than once, that the electoral shift in the demographics of the “average” Tory voter in 2019 are not something we can ignore. They elected Conservatives, with a clear conservative message in that election about law and order, taking back control, freedom and free speech that can give a voice to places like Mansfield that have been ignored for a long time… We need to stick to that message and those values.

It’s pretty well recognised now that this kind of imposition of one set of values on to others is wildly unpopular with what is now the “core” Conservative vote – the working class folks of Mansfield, of Bury and of Redcar. They abhor the antics of BLM, of Extinction Rebellion and the like telling them what they should think. They know their own minds. It’s that kind of conflict with the metropolitan bubble where our institutions largely exist that lead us to Brexit, too. Woke ideology seems pretty deeply embedded at this point.

In my view we should be unabashed in our cultural conservatism, sticking up for free speech and the right to “make my own bloody mind up, thank you very much”, and stepping in to block this “unconscious bias” nonsense. I, for one, will not be taking it, and I’d call on my colleagues to take the same stand. Maybe we can have a good go at some bigger reforms too. After all, this is a Conservative Government!

Neil O’Brien: The next algorithm disaster – coming to a Conservative constituency near you. This time, it’s housing growth.

24 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Algorithms have been in the news, not for good reasons. One lesson from the A-levels row is that principles which seem reasonable can lead to outcomes you don’t expect. Another algorithm’s coming down the tracks: the new formula for how many houses must be built in different places. There are few with higher stakes.

I wrote about the housing White Paper in my last column: it proposes not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time. In other words, if we don’t like the results of the new algorithm, we’ll have blocked off the emergency exits.

The new algorithm is set out here. It’s not particularly easy to read. For example, one of many factors is set out in bullet point 30:

Adjustment Factor = [( Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4 4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current yearr and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Clear enough for you?

I thought it might be a while before we saw what the new algorithm would produce in practice. But Lichfields, the planning consultancy, has translated the algorithm into what it would mean for local authorities.

The numbers that the formula spits out can be compared to the number of homes actually being delivered over recent years, or to the numbers in the current (optional) national formula. Whichever way you look at it, it’s controversial.

I’ve long argued we should concentrate more development in inner urban areas, for various reasons I’ll come back to below.  But this algorithm doesn’t do that – at least not outside London.  In the capital, the algorithm would indeed increase numbers substantially.

But in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.

Overall, the algorithm proposes a south-centric model of growth for Britain (with some growth in the midlands).

If we compare the algorithm to recent delivery, the South East has been delivering just over 39,000 homes a year, and will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000, a 57 per cent increase. The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase.

For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years. But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail.

The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas. Comparing the existing national formula to the proposal, we can see this for most large cities.

The number for Birmingham comes down 15 per cent, while the rest of the West Midlands goes up 52 per cent.

Numbers for Leicester go down 35 per cent. The rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent.

Nottingham goes down 22 per cent, the rest of Nottinghamshire goes up 48 per cent.

Southampton goes down 17 per cent, Portsmouth down 15 per cent and Basingstoke down 23 per cent, but the rest of Hampshire would go up 39 per cent.

Wealthy Bristol would see some growth (5 per cent) but much lower than the rest of Gloucester, Somerset and Wiltshire (47 per cent).

It’s the same story up north. Leeds down 14 per cent, Sheffield down 19 per cent, and Bradford down 29 per cent. But the East Riding up 34 per cent, North Yorkshire up 80 per cent, and North East Lincolnshire up 123 per cent.

In the north west the core cities of Manchester (-37 per cent) and Liverpool (-26 per cent) see huge falls, while the areas around them shoot up. In Greater Manchester, for example, the growth is shifted to the blue suburbs and shires. Outer parts go up: Wigan up 10 per cent, Bury, up 12 per cent, and Rochdale up 97 per cent. And areas to the south and north of the conurbation up much further: Cheshire up 108 per cent, while Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley and the Ribble Valley together go up 149 per cent.

But it isn’t just that the numbers in the new formula are lower than the old formula for urban areas. In many cases the new formula suggests a lower number than their recent rate of delivery. This is true of Sheffield (12 per cent below actual delivery), Leeds (16 per cent), Bradford (23 per cent), the entire North East (28 per cent), Nottingham (30 per cent), Manchester, (31 per cent), Leicester, (32 per cent) and Liverpool (59 per cent). The new formula seems to assume we are going to level down our cities, not level up.

It’s true that there’s another step between the Housing Need Assessment which this algorithm produces and the final housing target, which can be reduced a bit to account for delivery constraints like greenbelt.

But if we go with this algorithm unamended, outside London most Conservative MPs will be seeing large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced. Is this what we want?

Leaving aside the politics, I think not. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has much less dense cities.

Places like Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all had smaller populations in 2017 than 1981, while places like Birmingham and Manchester weren’t much bigger. Our cities have untapped potential, many went through a period of shrinkage and have space, and there are health and environmental reasons to prefer urban growth too.

In dense urban areas, people are more likely to walk or cycle – and in the UK, people in cities walk twice as far as those in villages each year. This reduces public transport costs and improves health.

Denser cities can sustain better public transport and so cut car congestion and time spent travelling. As well as reducing pollution from transport, denser cities reduce energy use and pollution because flats and terraced homes are much more energy efficient.

I’m not sure the draft algorithm is even doing what Ministers wanted it to. The document in which it is set out says that “the Government has heard powerful representations that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.”

But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite.

There may be technical reasons why things aren’t working out: there’s lots of ways to measure affordability… differences between residence-based and workplace-based income measures… there were certain caps in the old model, population projections have changed and so on.

However, the bigger issue is this.

There’s no “objective” way of calculating how many homes are “needed” in an area. While there are ways of carving up the numbers that are seen as more or less fair, ultimately a vision is required.

Projections of population growth are circular: the projected population growth for the farmland between Bletchley and Stony Stratford would’ve been pretty low before we built Milton Keynes there.

Likewise the forecast for the derelict Docklands of the early 1980s. While there are real economic constraints, the future need not resemble the past.

Though it took a huge effort, Germany raised East Germans from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent per cent below the national average income since reunification. That’s levelling up.

Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.