Liam Fox: Are we really going to close down the global economy every time a new virus emerges?

24 Jan

Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for International Trade, and is MP for North Somerset.

Over 71,000 more people died in 2020 than would have been expected in a normal year. Apart from a deluded and dangerous minority whose addiction to conspiracy theories leave them in denial about the impact (or even the existence) of Covid-19, most people recognise that these excess deaths are due directly or indirectly to the pandemic.

The UK has been recognised as one of the world leaders in the vaccination programme. Britain has made £548 million available to the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access facility (COVAX), to support equitable and affordable access to new coronavirus vaccines and treatments around the world.

The rollout of the vaccine to the UK population has also been impressive, although there is growing concern about the decision to extend the period between doses of the Pfizer (but not the Oxford AstraZeneca) vaccine.

If we are to continue to lead globally on the issue – and this year’s G7 summit gives us an ideal opportunity to do so – we must be clear about the reality in which we find ourselves, and recognise that the data systems we currently have will be inadequate to deal with the challenges of global pandemic.

We need to understanding that, contrary to a great deal of assertion, this is unlikely to be a “once in a generation” event.

The first major, and deadly, coronavirus outbreak of the 21st century was SARS in 2002.  The second was MERS in 2012. So we are now in the third major global coronavirus outbreak in 20 years.

While the first two had higher death rates than Covid-19, it is the transmissibility of the latest viral variant that has caused such damage. There is, however, no guarantee that we will not get both a more deadly and more transmissible outbreak in the future.  It is likely that Coronavirus is here to stay, and that we will have to deal with potential new variants emerging from time to time around the world.  To have any chance of dealing with this effectively, we need to develop international protocols, and this means having standardised recording of data.

In the UK, there is no single measure to calculate the mortality rate for Covid-19 accurately . We use inferences from total excess death rates, the number of people who have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test, and those who have had Covid-19 mentioned as a contributory cause on their death certificate.

None of these on their own can give us a truly accurate picture about the cost in lives of the virus.  There are three different types of patients who may fall within the excess mortality figures.

The first group is those who have died of Covid, i.e: where this was the main cause of death.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 made changes to death certification which may cloud the waters in this regard. While it is still intended that the doctor who attended the deceased during their last illness should, where possible, complete the death certificate, the Act also allows this to be completed if a patient was not seen by any medical practitioner during their last illness.

If that happens, a doctor would need to state to the best of their knowledge and belief the cause of death.  Covid-19 is now an acceptable ‘direct’ or ‘underlying’ cause of death for the purposes of the certificate but, although it is a notifiable disease, this does not mean that deaths from it must be reported to the coroner.

This may well result in fewer post-mortems being conducted, and a valuable source of data missed.  Some autopsy studies of patients who died of “influenza” during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic showed that, while almost all patients had evidence of bacterial pneumonia, fewer than 50 per cent tested positive for influenza viral antigens or viral RNA. In other words, there was a significant overestimate of the numbers who had actually died of influenza itself.

The second group is those who died with Covid19, that is, those who had been diagnosed with a positive test ,but who may have died of other, unrelated causes.

It seems strange to many that someone who tested positive for the virus but was hit by a bus within a month is counted as a Covid-19 death.

The third group is those who have died as a consequence of Covid-19, including those who did not access medical care because of lockdown, or those who were unable to access the appropriate care because hospitals were overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.

This will be of importance in determining how we run our healthcare services, especially if pandemic is likely to occur more frequently.  It has long been the practice in the NHS to run at very high bed occupancy rates.

We have to ask, if pandemic is going to be potentially a more frequent event, whether this is tilting the balance between efficiency and resilience in the wrong direction.  Given that we have spent billions of pounds trying to stop the capacity of our healthcare system being overwhelmed, would it not be more sensible (and potentially more financially prudent) in future to run the system with many more beds available than we expect to need at any one time?

Given the overall cost to our economy and the impact on the future of our public finances, perhaps we need to re-visit some of the assumptions that have underpinned policy under governments of all political colours. ,

Britain has a real opportunity to lead the global debate and the government can lead the way with the shakeup of Public Health England and the Resilience Unit within the Cabinet Office, both of which should have been better prepared for any pandemic.

I have supported the Government in all the lockdown measures they have taken in relation to Covid-19 but, in future, are we really going to close down the global economy every time a new virus emerges?

If not, what are the international protocols that we will need to develop as a global community and what are the metrics that we will require to make them work? Without proper information, how will we be able to determine the case fatality rate (the deaths from a disease compared to the total number of people diagnosed in a particular period) which will be one of the key measures that we will have to make in the event of a new outbreak?

We will also need enforceable global rules around transparency and notification. As we head for the G7, there can be no better example of “Global Britain” than for Britain to take a lead in pandemic preparedness and work towards global definitions that will enable us to avoid the uncoordinated global response that we have seen during Covid19.

James Frayne: Perhaps the Conservatives should simply revert to being southern and posh

10 Nov

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In my twenties, I took a serious interest in US politics and campaigns, naively coming to think of the UK and US as culturally similar. It’s an easy mistake: a shared history; mutual respect for each other’s institutions; similar attitudes to the free market, individual rights and the rule of law; overlapping tastes in popular culture.

But it’s a mistake nonetheless. When I lived and worked in Washington DC and New York City for a couple of years – theoretically culturally familiar places – I came to realise how utterly foreign the US is. While I love the US and believe they’re our closest ally, I’m culturally European. I’m now firmly of the view those people seeking to apply political and electoral lessons from the US to the UK are usually wasting their time.

As Nick Timothy pointed out yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, the idea that Boris Johnson’s conservatism is damaged by Donald Trump’s defeat is ludicrous – the two are cut from different cloth, despite persistent but silly commentary linking “Brexit and Trump”.

So I stress: those looking to learn lessons from the US are mostly wasting their time. But one important consideration does arise for British Conservatives.

This is the electoral danger of letting down the new working class voters who have flocked to Trump’s GOP and the Conservative Party respectively.

In the US, these voters are often called Reagan Democrats or sometimes Springsteen Democrats; in the UK, we tend to call them the “traditional working class”; either way, they’re the working class of industrial and post industrial areas. While their similarities stretch only so far, given the differing nature of British and American labour markets and industrial history, the theme of working class disappointment is relevant.

We shouldn’t over-simplify: there were many reasons why Trump won in 2016; aggressive cultural conservatism was only one of them. But Trump partly carried so-called “rust-belt” states by promising to bring back long-lost manufacturing jobs and heavy industry. In short, he pledged to bring back dignity to hard-up places. The fact that this hasn’t happened – despite a surge in the national economy – dented his re-election chances.

A reality check: it doesn’t appear that Joe Biden truly surged amongst working class voters, nor did Trump collapse. But they do appear to have shifted markedly away from him. Given his narrow lead amongst the working class – and indeed his narrow lead in rust-belt states, full stop – this shift was enough to cause serious electoral problems.

British Conservatives face a similar problem. No, they didn’t make the same sorts of promises to the traditional working class in 2019; they didn’t promise the equivalent of, say, bringing back coal and steel to the North of England.

But while “getting Brexit done” was the most important part of their campaign last December, “levelling up” has become the party’s central public narrative (Covid aside) ever since; it runs through almost all of their policy communications. Their promises to the working class are far less outlandish than Trump’s, but they’re arguably more defined by their promises because they’ve talked of little else.

Trump’s winning coalition was large, but it was shallow, because of its reliance on new voters with no history of voting Republican. The same is true here. The Conservatives’ 80 seat majority looks massive, but it’s also precarious because again it’s built on new voters with few loyalties.

While working class people will cut the Conservatives slack because of Covid, they’ll soon be asking what progress the Government has made for them. They will certainly not accept the opposite of “levelling up” – the further decline of their towns and cities (which is already happening).

Just like those long-term Democrats who asked whether shifting their votes to their historical economic and moral opponents was worth it after all, so those traditional working class Labour voters from the Midlands, North and the Coast will pose the same sort of question. They’ll ask whether the Conservatives were all talk. And as I’ve written before, Keir Starmer is a very different proposition for the working class than Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s reported today that Rishi Sunak has promised Northern MPs more resources and more attention in the post-Covid period, largely, apparently, in the form of new infrastructure spending. This is welcome. (Though what about other areas – not least the Midlands and the coast?)

But time isn’t on their side, and the task is huge. Unless they can offer meaningful social and economic progress in such places as Walsall, Wolverhampton, Derby, Rotherham and Oldham, they will be out. Yes, they’ll be able to blame Covid-19 – but so what?

In fact, such little progress is being made, with time rapidly running out, it will soon be time to consider whether the Conservatives should junk their presumed working class strategy and focus once again on the affluent South. And it’s possible that the party should indeed take the easy route, follow its heart, and go back to being Southern and posh; yes, I’m serious.

Where should the Conservatives focus? Infrastructure matters. Ultimately, however, improving the economy outside the prosperous South East will require radically improving education and skills at all levels – seeking to build new businesses and industries from this new base of skilled workers. But you’re talking of two or three Parliaments to see the fruits of any such decisions made now. The Conservatives don’t have that luxury.

Rapid progress will depend on being able to show town centres – and specifically high streets – have improved. This doesn’t just mean defending commerce; it means making town centres safer and more attractive and, crucially, fostering local pride. The Party should be throwing itself into this task. A useful immediate start to focus minds: use all those screens in the Cabinet Office to display figures from a Towns Dashboard.

Paul Maynard: Here’s why I believe as an ex-Minister that a hard rain may indeed be coming for the civil service

31 Aug

Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

When an early morning call from Number 10 is scheduled on reshuffle day, then the writing is on the wall. The only question is where you want to be when you are asked to “step aside” from Government. Clearly not my Commons office – like the rest of the estate, mobile reception is at best intermittent.

I sat Portcullis House, but then thought better of being dumped in front of passing colleagues, so I strolled down the Embankment a little to receive the inevitable. The Prime Minister was friendly and had perfected the art of the rueful rejection. No-one will ever describe it as pleasant – unless they had pre-planned their departure.

Rather than head straight back to Parliament, I strolled across Waterloo Bridge in dismal drizzle. Never has the location felt so far removed from the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset. I certainly wasn’t in paradise, and rather hoped that the only sunset wasn’t that of my political career. From that bridge, I could gaze upon the Whitehall skyline as if it were some hermetic village, peopled by a priestly caste who floated high above my constituents’ supposedly more mundane concerns, and start mulling over my conclusions about how government does and doesn’t work.

More time in my Commons office then lockdown gave me an opportunity – and how we ex-Ministers seek them – to reflect on whether I felt I had achieved much in office, and whether the machinery of government is best equipped to help ministers do what they both wish and need to do to achieve their lofty ambitions.

Indeed, I felt I had achieved, though others may disagree with the footling nature of my supposed achievements. HS2 anyone? I looked back fondly on my promotion of the “sunflower” lanyard across the transport sector as part of the Inclusive Transport review I oversaw when first a transport minister.

That was until I read Michael Gove’s recent and insightful lecture to the Ditchley Foundation – “inclusive lanyards” came in for a bit of stick as a poor substitute for achieving radical change. The sight of so many such lanyards in supermarkets now has given me pause for thought also.

Gove made so many points which did resonate with me though. Not the least was the need for greater specialism by both ministers and civil servants. As the Major Rail Projects Minister, I literally begged to be sent on some course that might enable me to do a better job of holding delivery bodies to account – yet it was always “just around the corner” until the axe fell.

Excellent officials populated all my three differing ministerial stints, yet many seemed to be in perpetual motion as they moved from role to role, barely staying long enough to finish a project they started. There were exceptions – and they were all the more effective for it.

Ministers are often advised to pick three things to achieve within their average 18 month tenure, but even that degree of longevity seems optimistic these days – so fast is the hamster wheel of ministerial life. You realise things are dysfunctional when you find that you know more about an issue than the officials briefing you, or when you seem to be scheduling farewell drinks for someone in your private office every couple of months.

Individual civil servants are sincere, capable and enthusiastic. I was one of those ministers who knew we were just hot air without people to turn our vision into reality. They are easy targets for ministers lacking that subtle art of both listening and hearing.

However, I remember with enthusiasm that, in opposition, think tanks were a steady stream of innovative policy ideas. In particular, I recall Oliver Letwin’s pamphlet on the conveyor belt to crime – but the conveyor belt of fresh ideas seems to have gradually slowed down.

Within Downing Street, we need to reach out and ensure the hothouse of talent can be harnessed better. We have started to shy away from difficult complexity in addressing our policy challenges on the occasions we do decide to try and deal with them.

But for too long, whichever party may be in government, as a nation we have failed on some of the grand challenges. As a party, we have great ideas and insights, but they fail to see the light of day when they come to be put into practice.

I know ministers are often frustrated that they don’t feel they get the guidance they need as to what the centre wants. Involvement only seems to come when something goes wrong. In Canada, on appointment, ministers receive a “mandate letter” setting out what they are expected to achieve by the Prime Minister. Such a move would be both radical and positive, I believe, in this country. In addition, Canadian ministers don’t have to locate themselves in a departmental silo. The team of officials is built around their briefs – relatively narrow briefs which change as political priorities wax and wane.

So we need to try much, much harder to burst the departmental silos. Whilst some ministers sit across government departments, and the Cabinet Office has at times acted as an enforcer of key themes, on some of the really big thematic underpinnings of policy, Whitehall has not been able to effectively co-ordinate.

Ministerial committees are flabby, too full of a mix of posturing and defensiveness, as ministers defend the turf or score points off colleagues rather than collaborate to achieve. They always struck me as akin to the “boardroom” section of The Apprentice. It isn’t enough just to have someone in your private office picking up the phone to a distant department a small part of whose remit you hold the brief for, if only in theory. Build the structure around the minister’s mission.

That’s why I think we should appoint a pair of cross-government thematic ministers based in Cabinet Office, with the right to attend cabinet, focusing on social justice, infrastructure or inter-generational solidarity – as a test-bed for a new way of structuring Whitehall.

Is the answer to relocate Civil Service decision-making, as some suggest? If it is a case of aping the BBC and transplanting the denizens of Barnes to equally affluent Bowdon, modish Hackney to already-gentrified Hale, then the answer is no. Was the sole reason it was mooted sending the Lords to York was because senior civil servants had found some highly desirable Victorian villas they could afford in Harrogate?

If it is locating, not just processing, PIP claims to Blackpool (hundreds are already here), but those who come up with the processes and financial provisions within which those decisions have to be made, then yes. It needs to be more than a sop to the newly-won constituencies. Indeed, we’d be happy to host the Lords in Blackpool’s magnificent Winter Gardens ballroom where so many of them once strutted their stuff at party conferences.

History is littered with temporary bursts of enthusiasm for reforming the machinery of government or replanting clumps of civil servants in stonier ground. Often this is because it is seen to be an end in itself, rather than measured by whether the fundamental outputs change. Maybe this time will be different – the very scale of the challenge we now face with Covid will force through some radical innovation.

My knowledge of the Wade-Giles romanization methodology for Mandarin doesn’t allow me to confirm whether the Chinese characters for “crisis” and “opportunity” are in fact one and the same, as one endlessly-repeated ‘fact’ that is trotted out states. But even if they aren’t, it has to be how we approach the coming years.

The machinery of state has shown itself to lack the bandwidth and agility required to deliver complexity at pace. A hard rain may indeed be coming, if only because there is no alternative. Far worse, perhaps, would be the ‘spits and spots’ of precipitation beloved of BBC forecasters. Do it properly or not at all.

Allan Mallinson: What is the army for?

30 Aug

Allan Mallinson is a former soldier, novelist and writer. 

So it leaked out that the MoD is considering scrapping its tanks. And Tobias Ellwood, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, says it would be better if the MoD waited for the strategic direction to emerge from the Cabinet Office’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

They’re both right. Logically, decisions about tanks – the heavy end of army business – ought to follow from how the Review sees the future. On the other hand, the MoD has a budget to manage and can’t assume it will get bigger. They’ve been looking at options for a “strategic pause” in procurement for the past two years. That’s what staff work is about: possibilities, options, risks. Besides, they’ve been asked specifically by the Review “What changes are needed to Defence so that it can underpin the UK’s security and respond to the challenges and opportunities we face?”

I know this because I’ve been asked the same. Last week I received an invitation from the MoD to enter a submission. It was no particular honour. Everyone is invited: see the link here.

We’ve been here before. In 1998 the new Blair government had celebrity focus groups for its Strategic Defence Review. It made participants feel important. They bought into the outcome, which by and large they agreed was a good one, which it would have been if only the premises had held good, which they didn’t, and if Gordon Brown’s Treasury had funded it, which they didn’t. Perhaps this time things will be different.

The Integrated Review intends to “define the Government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade”. It will set “the long-term strategic aims of our international policy and national security, rooted in our national interests, so that our activity overseas delivers for the British people.”

It will “re-examine the UK’s priorities and objectives in light of the UK’s departure from the European Union and at a time when the global landscape is changing rapidly.” For it foresees “increasing instability and challenges to global governance”, adding that last year witnessed the highest number of state-based conflicts since 1946.

In the last decade it estimates that “more than half the world’s population lived in direct contact with, or proximity to, significant political violence”, and that by 2030 some 80 per cent of the world’s extreme poor will live in fragile states.

It’s not all bad news, though. The Cabinet Office believes that in 2030 the UK will be “stronger, wealthier, more equal, more sustainable, more united across nations and regions.”

In asking what changes are needed to Defence, the Review adds that submissions “focusing on the changing character of warfare, broader concepts of deterrence, technological advantage and the role of the Armed Forces in building national resilience are particularly welcome.”

So, not exactly blue-sky thinking, but certainly not (too) constrained. My inclination, however, as I was first a soldier, is to leave vexed questions such as Trident replacement, the superiority of land-based airpower, and the vulnerability of our “carrier-strike”, and instead ask rather more basically “What is the army for?” (Not “will be for“, because that implies it has no enduring purpose).

For the army is in a very present predicament. According to one former Chief of the General Staff, the robustly pragmatic Sir Mike Jackson, the army is probably no longer capable of war because it is simply too small, a “shadow”, he says, of what it was just a few decades ago.

Too much of it is part-time, with all that that means for quality and readiness. At the end of the Cold War the regular army was more twice its present size, and the Territorials were 80,000. Now the regulars can barely muster 80,000, and the Reserve 30,000.

How did it happen? The answer could be instructive.

John Major cut numbers drastically at the end of the Cold War – his “peace dividend”. The then CGS, Sir John Chapple, argued in vain that the army needed the dividend more than the Treasury because the future was so uncertain. Indeed, at the time the army was still liberating Kuwait. But as William Cecil, Lord Burghley, wrote, “Soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer”; and Major saw that the future was peaceful.

Blair and Brown, despite their interventionist appetites – Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan – cut troop and equipment numbers even further, justified by novel doctrines of limited scale and “fast in, fast out”, as if the enemy had no vote.

Worse still, in 2010 the Coalition government all but emasculated the infantry and armoured corps, even while fighting continued in Iraq and Afghanistan. The chancellor, George Osborne, anticipating the end of both campaigns and the coming of the elusive “summer”, demanded more chimneys be blocked up. Both Iraq and Afghanistan had been policy mistakes, ran the logic; policy mistakes could be avoided, and “winter”, if it returned at all, needn’t be too severe. Indeed, if there were a smaller army there’d be less incentive to use it.

This was nothing new. Writing of the Duke of Wellington’s struggle with the Whig government in the 1830s, the historian Sir John Fortescue concluded “Wellington’s care was less to improve the army than to save it from destruction.”

The same could be said of all army chiefs since the end of the Cold War. With no threat of invasion, no threat to internal security requiring a military response, and little need to defend overseas possessions, all that they’ve been able to do is point to residual Nato commitments, “defence engagement” (working and training with local forces in areas of instability) and peacekeeping.

But in auditing the manpower bill for this, the Treasury has always been able to find further economies because they’re good at measuring finite things. More cuts followed in 2015. Consequently there are now more postmen than regular troops.

The problem is that the MoD is always made to answer the wrong question. Or chooses to.

The Greeks had a word for it. They called their army stratos, “a body of men”, while the Romans called theirs not by what it was but by what it did: exercitus – “practice”, “training”. Both took for granted the fundamental need for a body of men that trained constantly.

When in 1906, however, Britain’s great reforming war minister, the philosopher Richard Burdon Haldane, famously asked “What is the army for?” he posed a different and existential question. Did the army, like the Royal Navy, have a specifiable purpose that not just determined its form but justified its very being? 1914 rudely interrupted the discussion.

What answer should the Integrated Review expect of the same question today? The Royal Navy is responsible for the strategic nuclear deterrent, and minds Britain’s trade routes as advocated by Sir Walter Raleigh. The Royal Air Force exists for the air defence of the United Kingdom, for which it was founded in April 1918, the air arms of the other two services having been judged not up to the task.

These functions are 24/7. But the army has no comparable purpose. Not, at least, one that justifies its existence beyond its original purpose in 1660: a few guards and garrisons. It should therefore refuse battle on terms of mere accountancy.

Trotsky explained why: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Only during the Cold War has Britain had remotely adequate defence insurance. Instead it has preferred to pay ruinous repair bills. In 1985, at the height of the Cold War, defence spending was 5.1 per cent of GDP. At present, as a Nato member the UK is committed to just two per cent of GDP.

In real terms, this will not fund armed forces capable of full-spectrum war. Can it really make sense for post-Brexit “Global Britain” to be paying an insurance policy comparable to those of Belgium and Luxembourg?

Indeed, rather than insurance, shouldn’t the Defence budget be regarded as infrastructure investment, like HS2?

Rather than trying to justify itself by specific tasks, which come and go at a whim, the army should insist on funding for its fundamental, enduring purpose: to be ready for war, war that cannot be foreseen or its character predicted – even, paradoxically, by the army itself.

That, ultimately, is what the army is for.

Radical: While political leaders hide from confrontation, activists are winning the war on self-identification

18 Aug

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and co-founder of Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate. She and Rebecca Lowe, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.

Regardless of commitments about a summer announcement, Parliament went into recess without any further clarity from Liz Truss on the Government’s plans for reform of the Gender Recognition Act. Nonetheless, there has been no let up in the debate.

It had been expected that the changes to the law that the May government had consulted on – which would have allowed people to change their legal sex without a medical diagnosis, or evidence of having lived for some time as a member of the opposite sex – would be abandoned by the current Westminster government.

In Scotland, reforms of the law to this effect in are still expected to proceed, after having been put on hold during the Covid crisis. But the signs had been pretty clear for months that Westminster had decided against so-called “self-ID” for England and Wales.

In the weeks before recess, however, trans rights activists became ever more vocal in their efforts to mobilise support for self-ID. Publications such as Pink News worked hard, misusing survey data (and misrepresenting the current law), to try to create the impression of a country in which the vast majority of people favoured self-ID, and with it the ability for male-bodied transwomen to use women-only facilities. As ever, mainstream-media reporting too often went along with this false narrative.

Perhaps the influence of these activist groups is one reason for the Government’s delay in confirming its position formally, as promised. After all, government departments and quangos, from the Cabinet Office to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), have signed up to receive guidance and training from Stonewall, through its Diversity Champions programme – and Stonewall is a highly political organisation, which has been lobbying the Government particularly strongly on trans issues.

Transactivist talking points have also been adopted by representatives within the Conservative Party. Many common examples of transactivist misinformation can be found in this piece by Crispin Blunt and Sue Pascoe, for instance – ironically, in a section devoted to “myth-busting”. So it would not be surprising if the Minister for Equalities has faced the pressure of opposition from within the party over her rethink on pushing forward with self-ID.

The EHRC itself joined the fray last week. Not, however, as might have been hoped, to clarify and improve its guidance on the existing laws protecting women that have been the subject of widespread misunderstanding (as seen in the Blunt and Pascoe piece referred to above). But, rather, to publish another tendentious survey, and remonstrate with its respondents who didn’t support transwomen’s access to women-only spaces and services.

Whilst she acknowledged that a great majority of British people broadly support trans people’s rights to live free of discrimination, and do not consider themselves to be transphobic, Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, also noted that “people were found to be less supportive of trans people in specific situations”. The specific situations in question included women’s refuges and facilities such as public toilets.

Yet far from acknowledging that there are good reasons, and legal support, for such views, Hilsenrath seems to consider that the people holding them need to be helped to change their minds, by bringing about a better “level of understanding on the key facts surrounding the debate” by “both sides improving the level of discourse”.

This seems, again, rather ironic considering the poor guidance the EHRC has published on the legal facts of the matter. Indeed, although Hisenrath called for a constructive, tolerant, and fact-based dialogue on law and policy, it seems very clear what the EHRC considers to be the “right” outcome of any dialogue.

In a recent thoughtful piece for The Spectator, James Kirkup called for the Government to take the sting out of the issue by first publishing a “drily technical” announcement that: self-id would be dropped, tweaks made to existing processes regarding legal sex changes, to make them faster and cheaper; and, proper clarity provided in guidance on single-sex provisions. Then the “wider issues” of “reconciling conflicting rights and addressing the woefully poor evidence-base on trans issues, should be kicked even further into the long grass, with a proper fact-finding ‘further investigation’ that must report before any major change can come”.

Now, apart from the fact that what Kirkup considers would be an undramatic, “technical” announcement is, in effect, exactly what the trans lobby have been campaigning against – and publicly positing as a “rolling back” of trans rights – this calm approach seems sensible.

However, it comes with risks. Conservative governments have not traditionally been good at making conservative appointments, and trans lobbyists and activists have excelled at capturing public bodies. There is surely a serious risk, therefore, that any investigative commission, instead of fearlessly finding and reporting on the truth in medical and legal matters, would be susceptible to the same forces that have caused scientific papers to be withdrawn, and legal “guidance” to distort the law.

Certainly, however, there is no reason for Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, or Keir Starmer for that matter, to get personally involved in the unedifying social-media gender wars. But, it is also the case that they should not allow themselves to get caught up in the “both sides are equal” fallacy that the EHRC and others have been perpetuating.

Legal rights associated with sex have become a political matter, whether we like it or not, and a Conservative government should not hide from making necessary political decisions to acknowledge the reality of sex, and the legal and policy considerations that flow from that. In real life, public bodies continue to adopt policies that are in conflict with current law. Yet these decisions seem to undergo little or no consultation or scrutiny – until, as seen with the spate of legal action against guidance to schools, brave individuals stand up and challenge them.

NHS Lanarkshire recently announced an HR protocol , which effectively makes staff changing rooms mixed sex, included people who dress as the opposite gender for “erotic pleasure” under the umbrella of “trans”, and by claims that staff could be discriminating against trans colleagues by “not thinking” of them as the gender they present.  A Labour MSP who tried to hold NHS Lanarkshire to account over this, and who questioned how a medical organisation could propagate the idea of a baby having its gender “assigned at birth”, was met with calls that she should be disciplined by her party.

These are the consequences of political leaders leaving the field. Hiding behind a commission of experts, therefore, in order to avoid offending the groups of highly engaged and influential activists who have occupied that field, would itself be a political decision, and one that seems unlikely to improve the quality of the debate.

Iain Dale: Butler and the police, and why Williamson will be feeling anxious this week

14 Aug

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

I have no problem in saying I am concerned at the number of times law abiding black people are stopped by the Police just because they happen to be driving a nice car, or indeed, for seemingly no apparent reason than the colour of their skin. There’s no point in pretending we don’t have a problem here because we do.

However, we’re getting to the point where individual police officers now feel they can’t stop someone who is black for fear of being accused of racism.

Take the example this week, when Dawn Butler, the Labour MP, complained that she was in a car which was stopped because (she thought) the driver and she were black. She released a video she had recorded on her phone to try to prove her point. She had no complaint about how the police spoke to her, but nevertheless made it all about race.

The police patiently explained that the car was stopped because the officers had mistakenly typed the registration plate into the national computer and it came up with the fact that the car had come from North Yorkshire. Once they had realised their mistake and typed in the correct number, they apologised and Butler and her friend went on their way.

She then released the video on social media, and there then descended a vicious war between those who defended the police and those who defended her. The police have been quite robust in defending the officers concerned, and have pointed out they could not have stopped the car due to their racial profile, given the car had tinted windows. And so the debate goes on…

– – – – – – – – – –

I can imagine how anxious Gavin Williamson will have been this week. The last thing he will have wanted is to go through what John Swinney, the Scottish Education Secretary, has been through in Scotland over the release of exam results.

Only 24 hours before the A Level results were released, the Education Secretary announced a major change and said that if a student was unhappy with their grades they could either resit the exam in October or take the result of their mock exam. What he didn’t do is say that they could accept the predicted grades from their teacher.

This has caused outrage. Teachers have said that they are best placed to predict grades, and in some cases they may well be right, but not in all. Just at a human level, teachers will tend to give higher grades rather than lower ones. Is a teacher really going to want to fail anyone? If they did so, it would reflect on them and their own teaching abilities. But in real life, people do fail.

I sympathise wholly with anyone who hasn’t got the grades they were expecting or felt they should have been awarded. The trouble is, there is no perfect system. OfQual has released figures which demonstrate that the overall grades this year are on a par, or even slightly better, than the last two years.

However, it appears that 35 per cent of grades have been downgraded from the teachers’ predictions. That’s slightly less than in Scotland, but still a massive number, which will give the Government’s opponents a lot to chew on.

The students I feel for particularly are those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may be at a higher risk of being underestimated because of the fact that their schools might not have had such great results in the past.

I genuinely hope universities and colleges are as flexible as they can be and will still accept those students who results might not quite have been what had been expected. It’s scant comfort to those who didn’t get the grades they thought they would get to say that this happens each year.

Understandably, those who didn’t get the grades will seek to blame Covid. My advice, for what it is worth is for them, to work bloody hard over the next two months and resit the exams in October. I hope schools will provide every support for them to do so.

– – – – – – – – – –

Reshuffle speculation is always rife at this time of year, and at least it gives political journalists something to write about during August.

They can rest their pens this summer, though. I am hearing that a reshuffle is being pencilled in for January and not before, on the basis that it will be quite clear by then which ministers need shifting or removing.

I doubt whether the names on the chopping board will change in the meantime, but I reckon there will be at least eight cabinet ministers who will be experiencing a few months of “squeaky bum” moments between now and then.

Tony Smith: In over 40 years of Home Office experience, I can’t recall a time when our borders have been under so much pressure

17 Jul

Tony Smith is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

In 2017, Charlie Elphicke, then MP for Dover and Deal, posted in these pages about how Britain needed to be Ready on Day One to meet the Brexit borders challenge.

At that time, he expected Day One to fall in March 2019 – allowing us around 18 months to commence work on the biggest border transformation programme ever seen in this country. He advocated a range of measures, particularly in the port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel, which account for 40 per cent of our trade with the EU.

Many of Elphicke’s proposals for new investment in roads, lorry parks, port infrastructure and IT upgrades in Kent were foreseeable from the day Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016. I worked closely with him and others to develop a workable border transformation proposal at that time, which we submitted to Ministers and presented to an APPG in Parliament.

Yet four years have elapsed – and only now are we seeing any real commitment from government to invest to upgrade our ports and borders to cope with the huge challenges ahead. This week, Michael Gove announced a £705 million spending package to help manage Britain’s borders to prepare for Brexit as the transition period (and free movement) ends on 31 December this year.

It has been criticised by Labour as being “too little too late”. In response to industry concerns and COVID-19 delays, the Government has also announced that “full import controls” will be “phased in”, and not fully implemented until July 2021; prompting claims from Liz Truss that the UK could be left open to legal challenge and smuggling.

Meanwhile, we have seen a record daily total of irregular migrants crossing the channel from France, and Priti Patel has announced a new “points based” immigration system, which is set to commence on 1 January next year, requiring EU citizens to get permission to enter and remain in the UK for the first time in 40 years.

In over 40 years’ experience in the Home Office, I cannot recall a time when the UK Border has been under this degree of pressure on all fronts at the same time – immigration policy, customs infrastructure, and border security.

The only saving grace for the Border Force is the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced traffic at our ports to a trickle, at a time when we would simultaneously be facing up to new record volumes and the usual criticisms from ports and airports about queues and delays at the UK Border.

Even so, the hasty implementation of a quarantine measure at the UK Border – and the rapid relaxation of it to cater for the holiday season – has not inspired confidence, either from the transportation industry or from the Border Force officers themselves.

Brexit and the ending of free movement provides the Government with unparalleled opportunities to build the “world class” border that it aspires to. But border transformation programmes take time and require careful handling. We do not have a great track record of delivering major IT and infrastructure changes at the UK border.

Key factors identified in the past that have led to programme failures include a lack of clear vision and direction, inconsistent leadership, ineffective public/private sector engagement, and governance. It is vital that we learn these lessons now.

Of course, this commitment to fund new infrastructure at our major ports of entry is welcome; and better late than never. The opportunities available for turning our major ports into global trading hubs, building freeports, implementing “drive through” and “walk through” borders based on advanced data analytics and risk assessments are all within reach. But it would be wrong to underestimate the enormity of the challenge ahead.

Setting out a vision is one thing; turning it into an operational reality is another thing entirely. Having been Senior Responsible Owner for the UK Border Agency’s London 2012 Programme for over three years, I know that this will only work if the government can build a cross Whitehall Programme that actively engages with the myriad of Departments and Agencies with a stake in the UK Border, ranging from the Home Office and HMRC through to Transport, Health, DEFRA and the like.

Of course, there will be the familiar tensions between facilitation and control; people and goods; compliance and regulation. These were always there. But taking a narrow view that HMRC “does goods” and Home Office “does people” no longer works, especially in the UK where we have a joint Border Force doing both.

There are some encouraging signs that the Cabinet Office is taking greater control over border-related projects, rather than simply acting as a co-ordinator between departments. But the fact that HMRC has issued a “Border Operating Model” claiming to cover “all of the processes and systems, across all government departments, that will be used at the border”, without any cross reference to an announcement from the Home Office on the same day setting out the “Border of the Future” “with new processes, biometrics and technology” as part of the new points- based immigration system is a case in point.

If we are to retain a single UK Border Force to operate the new rules, then we need to consolidate the strategic, policy and programme arms behind them.

To succeed, Whitehall will need to galvanise the very best people, systems, and processes into a fully functional Border Transformation Programme. This means bringing the key contributors to economic revival including the ports, transportation companies, traders and the world class technology suppliers to the table; and uniting them behind a common purpose to end free movement and implement to build the world class border we all want.

And to expect to deliver all this against a specific “Day One” deadline set by politicians – be it in January or June 2021 – is prone to failure, as history has shown us.

Friends of Cummings: “A hard rain is coming.”

24 Jun

Readouts from Dominic Cummings’ Zoom meeting with other SpAds have a way of becoming public.  One made its way to ConservativeHome yesterday which was then posted as a Twitter thread.

The sum of it is that Cummings is against centralistion, not for it; that his goal is to make the centre smaller, empower departments and change civil service fundamentals; that “anybody who has read what I’ve said about management over the years will know it’s ludicrous to suggest the solution to Whitehall’s problems is a bigger centre and more centralisation”, and that the centre is already too big, incoherent and adds to the problems with departments.

A smaller and more elite centre is needed; big changes are coming to Number Ten and the Cabinet Office, and many officials now accepted the need for radical changes. Anything to the contrary is “more media inventions”.

The briefing ended with the words: “a hard rain is coming”.

Cue a mass of protests to this site claiming that the readout was simply friends of Cummings throwing up chaff, and that none of it should be believed for a moment.

SpAds were told last July that they are to report to Cummings; their contracts were changed to ensure so formally; SpAds that he didn’t care for have been removed; big decisions go through him, and so can’t always be taken quickly – hence the foul-up over Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free meals for children over the summer; Sonia Khan was removed; so were Sajid Javid’s main SpAds, hence the former Chancellor’s resignation; Number Ten and the Treasury have been joined at the top, and so on.

Who’s right?

For what it’s worth, here’s a view from people inside government who work with him, admire him – but also maintain a critical detachment.

“Dom is a decentraliser,” we were told.  “But he’s resistant to decentralising to people who he thinks aren’t up to the job.  And there are departments of which he’s institutionally suspicious, such as Justice.”

“If he thinks you know your stuff and are capable then he’ll leave you alone – one topical example being Munira Mirza, who he rates.”

What can certainly be said is that so far, for better or worse, institutional change in Whitehall has been less sweeping than originally briefed: DfId has been swallowed up by the Foreign Office, and that’s about it.

Clearly, changes to the sprawling Cabinet Office, which is not held to have performed well during Coronavirus, are coming, as we wrote recently.

If there were more Ministers that Cummings rated, perhaps there would be more decentralistion.  But he’s on record as taking a low view of most of them: “PJ Masks will do a greater job than all of them put together.”  Which gives us the chance to republish our illustration of Cummings as the Splat Monster.