Christian Wakeford: Why we need a Cabinet Minister for Net Zero

3 Sep

Christian Wakeford is MP for Bury South.

As the MP for Bury South, in the so-called “Red Wall”, I have no doubt about the need to drive down emissions.

I am a supporter of our Conservative manifesto commitment to Net Zero by 2050, and like many of my colleagues in Parliament, my focus is on finding practical and affordable policies which will allow us to live more sustainably.

Some have recently questioned our Net Zero commitments, but poll after poll shows increasing public concern over the environment and a desire for faster action.

85 per cent of the British public are concerned about climate change, while the environment is now the third biggest priority for the public, behind healthcare and the economy, with 33 per cent saying it’s the most important issue.

In my constituency, I held a pre-COP26 “environment forum” for local people. It was a great opportunity to hear their views, concerns and hopes about our efforts to tackle climate change.

However, throughout the forum it was highlighted that government of all levels is notoriously bad at working cross department and this leads to either duplicated working or watered down and overcomplicated projects.

This will only hold back the action they want to see. The suggestion of having someone oversee action on climate change, from a cross-departmental basis, was regarded as efficient and sensible.

My constituents are right. It’s clear that we will need a senior Cabinet Minister for Net Zero to oversee this transition – ​working directly with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Every sector must become more sustainable – and government has a big role to play in setting the right framework.

You only have to look at the example of housing. According to Green Alliance, whose Net Zero Policy Tracker comes out this month, homes account for 16 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and require substantial reductions. We need joined-up policy to ensure home decarbonisation is fair, whether it is on retrofitting old houses or building standards for new homes.

The Future Homes Standard, for example, should be brought forward from 2025 to ensure new homes built today are the greenest they can be. Not only will it be better for the homeowner, it will also save the Treasury and taxpayer money in the long-run, cutting out the need to subsidise expensive retrofitting down the line. A Minister for Net Zero could ensure our transition to a more sustainable economy is as quick and efficient as possible.

Currently, Alok Sharma, who is doing a brilliant job as President Designate of COP26, sits around the decision-making table as a Minister in the Cabinet Office.

This adds extra weight to the Government’s green credentials and demonstrates that we are taking our climate conference hosting responsibilities seriously. But after COP26, he could be out of a job and there is a danger that the impetus generated by hosting the UN climate change conference will be lost.

As part of our COP26 legacy, a Cabinet Minister for Net Zero can show the world how to lead cross-government action on the matter. They can also help knock heads together within government and act as both a convener and an elected spokesperson.

Not only that, they will be answerable to Parliament, providing extra scrutiny and coverage of the most pressing and challenging issue we face as we build back better from the pandemic. My constituents approve – and I hope the Government will too.

Ryan Bourne: Furlough might have averted mass layoffs. But the Government’s next challenge is the reallocation economy.

11 Aug

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

What is the biggest challenge currently facing the UK’s jobs market? Not “mass unemployment,” as was feared as Covid-19 ravaged and lockdowns closed businesses last year. No, the concern today – according to the Governor of the Bank of England – is labour shortages.

Last Thursday, Andrew Bailey said, “The challenge of avoiding a steep rise in unemployment has been replaced by that of ensuring a flow of labour into jobs. I want to emphasise that this is a crucial challenge.” This is acknowledgement of one of the pains of what I call the “reallocation economy.”

In spring 2020, the furlough scheme was designed to avert mass layoffs and protect job relationships until things reopened. The idea was that government social insurance to pay wages would help firms “bridge” through a temporary shutdown, allowing them to retain workers and so protecting the productive capacity of the economy. Last spring, as many as 8.9 million jobs had wages subsidised by the taxpayer at the peak.

The Chancellor, and most pundits, will say it worked, albeit lasting longer than expected. Official unemployment peaked just 5.2 per cent last year, against 14.8 per cent in the United States. Now, with furlough winding down, just 1.1 to 1.6 million are left on the scheme, and with almost half of these on “flexible furloughs.”

Though many of these subsidised jobs may be non-viable as support ends, the Treasury will look at the huge 862,000 vacancies in the country and think: we have avoided a jobs disaster and now have a clear glidepath back to full employment.

So what’s the problem? Well, you can’t just “pause” an economy for a year in a world of ever-changing preferences, demands, and technologies. Research already showed larger job changes between sectors and occupations up until January than seen in the Great Recession.

It seems likely Covid-19 will have lasting effects on our preferences, where and how we want to work, and where we are able to travel too. As our lives re-normalise, this and a bounceback in service industries will see many workers temporarily finding themselves in the “wrong” jobs given new trends, or in the wrong places, and or with the wrong skills.

The result of this will be an extended period of teething problems as labour markets adjust to these new realities. There’s always substantial churn in jobs anyway, as workers and activities are reallocated over time. But this change is likely to be far more dramatic given the partial freeze of much of the economy. Rigidities in wages and an unwillingness to move risk creating temporary shortages and wage and price volatility along the way.

To be sure, this seems a better problem than mass unemployment. But Bailey is right: it’s a headwind to growth. Reallocation is a process, and often a slow one. Businesses have to attract and train new workers. Workers have to search for roles. People or firms have to move locations. And companies have to decide whether to risk taking on permanent new employees or undertaking new investments. All this limits the productive capacity of the economy.

The U.S. experienced some of these challenges with its earlier reopening. Leisure and hospitality saw particularly severe shortages of available workers through summer, due to ongoing worries about Covid-19, generous government benefits to the unemployed, and people reassessing their work ambitions.

Average hourly wages surged in these sectors and are still 10 per cent up on February 2020 as labour supply failed to meet growing demand. Businesses paid big signing-on bonuses and raised wages to entice workers to them, but that hasn’t always been enough to fulfil consumer needs: some restaurants couldn’t profitably open every day.

There’s suggestive evidence of similar difficulties in the UK. A British Chamber of Commerce survey for Q2 found that as a growing number of businesses sought to hire again, 70 per cent were having difficulties finding staff, with figures as high as 82 per cent and 76 per cent in construction and hotels and catering.

ONS data for June shows 102,000 vacancies in accommodation and food services–its highest ever recorded level. Pubs and restaurants had to pay temporary workers much higher wages and bonuses to get staff in June. The number of vacancies is surging too in arts, entertainment and recreation and real estate.

Many other factors will contribute to this reallocation challenge than just reopening services though. Surveys show the pandemic has led to a broader “rethinking” by the public about their work roles–perhaps unsurprising given the disruption we’ve seen.

An Aviva poll found 60 per cent of workers say they intend to “learn new skills, gain qualifications or change their career” due to the pandemic. It’s been well-documented that large numbers of young people have opted for extended stints in higher education too. Only a fraction of all this will need to occur for large shifts in local and sector labour supplies.

Other workers are willing to stay with employers, but demanding “let me work from home or I’ll quit.” Nick Bloom’s research suggests a modal desire from office workers for two to three days home working per week. As businesses experiment, some workers will not be happy with their arrangements and move on, while companies must decide whether to adjust to these preferences by widening the geographical net on remote hiring.

Any permanent shift in where work occurs as things crystallise will have sharp consequences for the spatial location of city’s service industries, such as eateries, entertainment, and bars, as well as reductions in demand for inner-city office cleaning, security, and delivery. The process of these support and service workers finding new roles, moving, and re-training will take time too.

Now when politicians hear the word “economic challenge,” their instinct is to dream up a policy to “deal with it.” And after over a year of subsidising jobs, it will be tempting for the Chancellor and Prime Minister to consider incentives, nudges, and public statements to try to force a return to the economy of February 2020, or else to devise new laws to entrench what workers want (see the new demands for a “right” to flexible working).

But beyond removing furlough and other policies that delay reallocation, the Government has no special insight about what’s best for the long-term. How to get the right workers to the right places will only be “addressed” by the experimentation and coordination that comes from market activity, and the reaction to the signals of profitability, wages, and prices.

Though relief helped avert mass layoffs, we will see a hangover as the economy adjusts to new realities. Not because “relief” was or is inadequate, but because the crisis has disrupted so much.

Andrea Leadsom: Flexible work will benefit both businesses and their employees

5 Aug

Andrea Leadsom MP is chair of the Early Years Healthy Development Review, which has just published a six-point action plan.

When lockdown hit, furlough became the country’s lifeline. It saved thousands of jobs, kept many companies afloat and provided the vital life support system to stop our economy from grinding to a complete halt.

But such a broad intervention has inevitably created winners and losers, from those who took furlough and then found a second job – boosting their income at the taxpayers’ expense, to those who missed furlough’s financial support because of their specific situation making them ineligible. The outrage towards those who took advantage of the situation, and the anger and frustration of those who have really suffered, will be felt for a long time to come.

Furlough has led to a unique set of problems for both businesses and employees. There are some employees who are now afraid of coming back to work – the lengthy time on furlough has left them lacking the confidence that work can be safe.

For other employees who have worked throughout lockdown, the end of restrictions cannot come soon enough. Every day I receive emails from some who are furious that there are still constraints on their freedom. Others think their employer should let them work permanently from home as they have come to appreciate the lack of a commute to work.

And then there are many, particularly young people, just starting out in the world of work, whose employers have not allowed them back to their premises. For those employees – longing for workplace camaraderie, the chat around the coffee machine, even a proper desk, the return to work cannot come soon enough.

With so many different perspectives, there is little wonder that employers are needing to look carefully at how to transition back to normality. Their prospects have also been profoundly impacted – many businesses have taken out Bounceback loans and CBILS to stay afloat and a number have been generous in topping up their employee’s furlough.

Some employers have taken advantage of furlough to close their offices and reduce their overheads, leaving their employees with nowhere to work other than their own bedroom. And frustratingly, some businesses have taken out taxpayer guaranteed loans with no intention of ever repaying them or reopening again.

This all points to a challenging world of work post lockdown at a time when our economy needs to bounce back if we are to recover from the vast amount of debt the country took on to survive. The Chancellor has a real challenge to incentivise both workers and businesses and get things moving again.

I think the answer lies in making flexible work standard – whereby there is a collaborative agreement between employer and employee on the number of hours worked and where the job is. It can reflect both the reality of post Covid preferences and the need to restore our economy. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that allowing – even encouraging – people to work flexibly will boost productivity, increase diversity in the workforce and help our wellbeing. I hope that the Government will consider the role it can play in our recovery.

When our economy suffers, we all suffer. Bouncing back in a strong, determined way will boost our recovery, and allow the Covid debt to be tackled quickly – otherwise it becomes a millstone around the necks of the next generation. Much like we all played our part in the national effort against the pandemic – caring for our neighbours, supporting our NHS and taking up the vaccine, now is the time to play our role in helping our nation’s fiscal and mental health. Helping people back to new flexible jobs is where it must start.

Liz Sugg and Ritah Anindo Obonyo: At this week’s Global Education Summit, we need to talk about sex

29 Jul

Baroness Liz Sugg CBE is a Conservative peer and Ritah Anindo Obonyo is a member SheDecides Kenya.

When Boris Johnson co-hosts the Global Partnership for Education summit this week, we want him to talk about sex.

Why? Because comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is absolutely vital to realising the UK’s commitment to ensuring 12 years of quality education for young people everywhere.

The Global Partnership for Education provides a vital opportunity for Boris Johnson and other world-leaders to commit funding to transforming education systems in the world’s poorest countries. That transformation must have CSE at its heart.

For girls in particular, access to comprehensive sexuality education gives them the tools and knowledge they need to understand their rights and to make decisions about their own bodies. Whether in Kent or Kenya, it helps to prevent gender-based violence and sexual exploitation. In fact, it is key to women’s and girls’ economic empowerment later on in life.

The benefits of CSE cannot be ignored. Girls who don’t receive sex education are more likely to drop out of school due to early marriage and pregnancy. In sub-Saharan Africa, four million girls leave school before finishing due to early pregnancy.

In contrast, when we provide CSE and information on reproductive choices, we can help girls stay in school. We know that girls who complete secondary education are five times more likely to be educated on HIV/AIDS, keeping them safer and giving them the tools they need to make decisions about their bodies.

Growing up in the Korogocho Slum in Kenya, I, Ritah Anindo Obonyo had no sex education. My two friends and I used to talk about what was happening to our bodies – both friends then dropped out of school as a result of early pregnancy.

Without sex education, young people access information from unreliable sources. They have poor reproductive health outcomes. They are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS – in Sub-Saharan Africa six out of seven new HIV infections occur in young women aged 15-24. All of these issues have a profound effect on women’s life chances and equality and have been exacerbated by Covid-19.

We know that women’s economic and social equality is impossible to achieve when women don’t have ownership of their own bodies. Sex education is therefore key to sustainable development.

For many years now, the UK Government championed our belief that CSE is crucial to girls’ empowerment. The UK taxpayer should be proud that, via the international aid budget, we have collectively helped empower vulnerable women and girls around the world.

But when I, Baroness Sugg, resigned as Minister for Sustainable Development and Special Envoy on Girls’ Education last year, I did so because the progress we have made on supporting women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health faced a grave threat with a budget cut that broke both the Conservative Party manifesto promise and international commitments.

Two weeks before the launch of the Global Partnership for Education Summit the UK Parliament approved the fiscal circumstances needed before we return to spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on international development.. This will unequivocally damage the rights of girls and risks rolling back decades of progress.

The cuts will force the closure of sexual and reproductive health services in some of the world’s poorest countries. It will lead to more women and girls being forced to access unsafe abortion. It risks more women dying in childbirth.

Simon Cooke, the Director of MSI Reproductive Choices and also a SheDecides Champion, has warned the cuts will “do more damage … than the global gag rule” – a US policy that denied federal funding to NGOs that offered abortion services or advice that resulted in 20,000 unnecessary maternal deaths and 1.8 million unsafe abortions between 2017 and 2000.

What will the UK Government’s record be?

The cut to international aid will end life-changing and life-saving programmes that deliver information and advice on sexual and reproductive health. We are deeply concerned about the long-term impact a lack of education about sex, respect, consent and bodies will have on girls in the Global South, particularly as they deal with the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Of course, we cannot change the past. But we can look to the future. As ministers prepare for this week’s Global Education summit, we ask them: are we going to leave women and girls behind as the world builds back better from Covid-19? Or are we ready to ensure girls’ rights are protected by investing in CSE?

The Chancellor has promised to work with parliamentarians to ensure the UK’s overseas development aid budget is spent in a way that has maximum impact. We know that ensuring every child has access to CSE will have a huge impact in the years and decades to come. It will create healthier and more equal communities. It will boost women’s economic empowerment. It will reduce maternal deaths, unsafe abortions, and rates of child marriage.

This week’s summit provides the UK with an important opportunity to raise its hand and recommit to quality education. We need to hear from the Prime Minister that he commits to funding education systems to include CSE, for every child in the world, no matter where they live.

So, Prime Minister, are you ready to talk about sex?

Anne McIntosh: How casinos and betting shops can help the economy recover once life returns to normal

2 Jul

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering is a former Conservative MP and MEP. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

On July 19, we hope to see the end of the remaining Covid restrictions, allowing people across the country to return to normal – or whatever the “new normal” will look like.

The pandemic has of course been difficult for all of us, especially for those who have lost loved ones and for the businesses which form the backbone of the UK economy. The lockdowns we have all had to endure over the past 18 months have been especially difficult for companies which rely on people coming through their doors on a daily basis to survive.

I have a particular interest in casinos and the night time economy, having chaired the Lords Committee on reviewing the Licensing Act 2003.

According to a recent study by Ernst and Young for the Betting and Gaming Council, casinos directly employ 11,600 people and, in the year before the pandemic, contributed £500 million to the Treasury in tax. In addition, casinos in London also contribute £120 million to the capital’s tourism sector, something which will prove vital once international travel returns to pre-pandemic levels.

Clearly, Covid has been extremely difficult for the casino sector and I recognise the hard work that they have put in to support their staff and ensure their premises were Covid-secure upon re-opening. Millions of pounds have been spent on state-of-the-art test and trace systems, Plexiglass screens, hand sanitisation stations and installing social distancing measures.

These efforts were recognised in a report published earlier this year, in which Dr Lisa Ackerley, a Chartered Environmental Health Practitioner, said: “The casino industry has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by embracing the need to implement a full range of stringent measures to keep staff and customers safe. In my opinion, this industry’s response has resulted in it being as safe, if not safer, during the pandemic than many others.”

And it’s not just when it comes to Covid that the sector’s commitment to customer safety is demonstrated. Casinos are part of the Proof of Age Standards Scheme (PASS), which ensures that their premises are no-go zones for anyone under the age of 18. I should declare an interest here as I am chair of the PASS board. Holders of age verification cards bearing the PASS hologram must pass stringent checks to prove that they are able to enter establishments which are off-limits to under-18s.

At a time when the Government is carrying out the Gambling Review – a much-needed exercise which I warmly support – it is important that ministers are fully aware of the efforts the industry is making to protect young people.

This is also demonstrated by betting shops, another important driver of economic growth which have suffered during the pandemic, as the lockdowns forced them to close their doors for months on end. According to the same Ernst and Young report I mentioned earlier, the UK’s 6,750 betting shops support 46,000 jobs and pay nearly £1 billion a year in tax to the Treasury. At a time when the Chancellor needs all the money he can get to repair the nation’s Covid-battered finances, these are not small numbers.

What’s more, betting shops are also vital parts of a successful high street. According to a report carried out before the pandemic by ESA Retail, 82 per cent of their customers visited at least once a week, with 89 per cent of them going on to visit other shops in the area. So it’s clear that prosperous betting shops are good news for local economies across the UK.

Betting shops are also signed up to the Proof of Age Scheme, preventing access by under-18s to betting shops and slot machines, providing a robust and secure age verification procedure. Indeed, according to Serve Legal, betting shops now have the highest pass rate for any age-restricted product retailers when it comes to keeping under 18s out of their premises.

Thankfully, it seems as though the Covid vaccines are doing their job and – according to Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary – the full unlocking planned for July 19 will be an “irreversible” process. I sincerely hope he is correct, because the future success of casinos, betting shops and indeed the whole economy, depends on it.

Iain Dale: The EU has no interest in Northern Ireland’s future prosperity. It just sees it as a mechanism to exert its power.

5 Mar

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

Most budgets are curate’s eggs. Good in parts. This one was no different.

Politically, it was a triumph for Brand Rishi. It was well delivered. His post-Budget press conference was slick and smooth. He comes across as a transparently nice and competent individual. That’s because he is.

But was it a budget with a narrative? Was it a “reset” budget? Was it a transformational budget? No, it was not.

It is possible to argue that it couldn’t be anything else than be a budget for the short term, given we have no idea where we will be this time next year, but even if you accept that argument, it disappointed on a number of levels.

The super-deduction measure was innovative and will have a massive event on investment over the next two years. And then it ends. It’s too short term, and should have surely been tapered.

Did corporation tax really need to be increased in one go by six per cent in two years’ time? Wouldn’t a gradual approach have been better, even if you accept it needed to rise. Which I do not.

It’s a tax rise which will inevitably make this country less likely to attract the levels of foreign inward investment in the long term. You can’t argue one day that lowering business taxes is a good thing and makes us more competitive, and then argue that by putting up corporation tax by a quarter still means that we are just as competitive.

Leaving the EU certainly gave some companies pause for thought about locating here, or increasing their presence here. We are lucky that most decided to go ahead anyway, but we do not need to give any company an excuse not to do so.

We may still have the fifth lowest rate of corporation tax among G20 countries, and yes, as Sunak argues, our rate will still be lower than in American, Canada, France, Germany and Italy.

But I’m afraid that argument cuts little ice in a world where the last thing the British government needs to do is do anything to put off businesses considering building a presence here.

Having said all that, two snap opinion polls show that the public approve the Budget with only 11 or 12 per cent disapproving. So from a political point of view, it was job done for the Chancellor. But I still wonder whether a bit more long term, “reset” thinking was needed and that both Sunak and the Government might come to regret that it was largely absent.

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If the pandemic hadn’t happened, surely this Budget would have been all about the post Brexit economy. Brexit wasn’t mentioned directly once in the Chancellor’s speech, although towards the end we heard a few oblique references.

What we needed was a pathway to the future, not just over the next couple of years, but over the next couple of decades. We needed a vision.

Businesspeople needed to be reassured about the future of our trading patterns, not just with the rest of the world, but with the EU. Too many businesses seem to be finding that the so-called “free trade agreement” with the EU is nothing of the sort. The inevitable bureaucratic teething problems in trading with EU countries are still there, two months on.

OK, there are no queues at Dover, but the attitude of (particularly, but not exclusively) of French customs officials leaves something to be desired. I hear time and time again reports that countries deal perfectly happily and efficiently with the US, China or even Russia, yet find it that deliveries to European customers are being returned to them by couriers with no explanation and on multiple occasions. They feel powerless to do anything about it.

And don’t get me started on the Northern Ireland protocol, whose only effect so far as I can see has been to effectively annexe Northern Ireland to the EU. Just as Martin Selmayr threatened.

The EU has no interest in Northern Ireland’s future prosperity. It just sees it as a mechanism to exert its power. It is a constitutional outrage that British companies are not free to trade without restriction to all parts of the sovereign United Kingdom. The checks that are now being demanded by the EU are so disproportionate as to be totally unreasonable. The British government bent over backwards to make a compromise to meet EU concerns that the Single Market could be compromised, but its goodwill has been exploited at every turn.

At some point this has to stop, and the unilateral extension of the grace period is the inevitable consequence of EU inflexibility. It is not, as the Irish government unhelpfully says, a breach of international law. What it is, is a sign that Britain’s patience with the EU on this issue is about to expire.

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I’ve been watching a new documentary on how Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election called The Accidental President.

It’s made by the British film maker James Fletcher, who is now based in New York. Fletcher will be familiar to many for his work filming David Cameron for the WebCameron project back in the day.

It’s a fascinating account of Trump’s rise to the presidency. There was no narration, no voiceover, just 90 minutes of original campaign footage together with lots of testimony from political commentators, eye witnesses and vox pops.

The most powerful moment was when commentators were asked to name Trump’s campaign slogan. They all trotted out “Make America Great Again”. They were then asked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan. None of them could recall it, bar one, who recalled it was “Stronger Together”. He then followed it up with “whatever that means”.

If proof were needed that political slogans can be all powerful, then we now have it.

Iain Dale: Teaching unions are loud but wrong on vaccines. Besides, what about those without powerful public advocates?

26 Feb

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

The Coronavirus pandemic has shown how true the maxim is that those who shout the loudest get the most attention.

Take teachers, for example.

And before I go on, I should say that originally I was going to be a teacher (of German, since you ask) and I have the highest regard for the teaching profession.

However, the very thought that teachers should be vaccinated ahead of other groups is for the birds.

There is no evidence that teachers are more likely to either contract or die of Coronavirus than anyone else.

Indeed, the league table of occupations with the most Coronavirus deaths put teachers almost at the bottom.

But the teachers unions have a very loud voice and they used it to persuade the Labour Party to press the Government to put teachers at the top of the next round of vaccinations.

It would have been easy to give in, but they didn’t. And quite right too.

This week the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) declared that teachers were no more at risk than other people.

What about those who don’t have powerful public advocates – refuse collectors, people who work in funeral parlours, taxi drivers (who top the death list), bus drivers? I could go on.

The JCVI is absolutely right to say that once the 1-9 groups are complete, the rollout should continue to be largely based on age bands.

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Clickbait headline of the week has to go to Pink News, which came up with this gem: “Horny thief steals £600 of sex toys – including a vegan bondage kit”.

The mind boggles. I mean, a leather gimp mask made out of Quorn? Whatever next.

I’m afraid clickbait headlines are not just the province of tabloids. I’ve noticed even The Times has started to get down dirty in the hope of attracting more hits.

This week a headline tried to persuade us that prisoners (at least they didn’t call them “lags”) were going to queue jump and get the vaccine ahead of teachers and police officers.

What a shame the words underneath the headline said nothing of the sort.

Headline writers have a job to do, but that job is not to exaggerate the truth or reality.

– – – – – – – – –

All attention is now turning towards Rishi Sunak’s budget on Wednesday.

In some ways this could be seen as the most important budget for a generation.

It will set the tone for the next decade of rebuilding our economy.

It cannot be business as usual and has to show a huge degree of imagination and understanding of what is needed to recreate an enterprise economy.

Everything must be geared to encouraging economic activity and new business startups. Tinkering with the odd tax rate here and there won’t be enough.

It is also an important day for the Chancellor personally. His popularity ratings are rightfully very high, but this budget will define him for a lot of us.

Has he got what it takes, or will this it all be a bit of a damp squib with decisions delayed and a sense of “meh-ness” pervading the country?

We all accept that debts have to be repaid. But now is not the time to start putting up taxes.

It is rumoured he is thinking of increasing corporation tax.

For a party which traditionally can’t see a tax without wanting to put it up, it is supremely ironic that Labour has declared it would be against a rise, however minimal, in corporation tax.

But it’s a good bit of opposition politics, however opportunistic it is.

To put up corporation or any business tax at the moment would be a complete slap in the face for those businesses who, just as they see a degree of normality (and hopefully profitability) to return, they are told the first thing they will have to do is pay more tax.

There are plenty of people who have done well out of the pandemic, the most obvious being Amazon. It’s fair enough to think of ways of finding new ways of taxing them, but however that is done, it’s important to ensure that it’s not the paying consumer who is hit.

I’d like to see a national insurance holiday for a year for any new business startup. As I said last week, I’d like to see IR35 and the loan charge abolished. This war against the self employed has to stop.

But most of all I want to see a truly radical budget speech.

We are about to find out of what metal Sunak is made.

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I hope you’ve all got your popcorn ready for Alex Salmond’s appearance before a committee of the Scottish Parliament this lunchtime.

It promises to be quite an event.

I don’t profess to be an expert on the internal affairs of the SNP, but I have a feeling that an implosion is imminent.

And at last the English media has woken up to what could well become one of the biggest political stories of the year.

If the worst were to happen (for the SNP, I mean) and Nicola Sturgeon was to be forced out of office, it’s difficult to see who the ready replacement is.

Succession planning was something Salmond did well. He groomed Sturgeon for the job, and few could say with a straight face that she has made a hash of it (although if you work in Scottish education, or parts of the Scottish NHS you might contest that assertion).

She, however, has failed to do that. There is no natural successor.

And that’s a real concern, both for the SNP and for Scotland more generally.

Paul Howell and Heather Wheeler: Full HS2 is critical to our election commitment to rebalance the economy

16 Feb

Paul Howell is the MP for Sedgefield and Heather Wheeler is the MP for South Derbyshire.

After our landslide election victory last year, the Prime Minister made a promise to unite the country and level-up our nations and regions. The jobs-first approach and once in a generation levels of public investment in infrastructure announced by the Chancellor in his spending review set our party on course to deliver on these promises, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic.

The Chancellor has invested in supporting businesses and individuals throughout the pandemic – at massive cost to the Exchequer. But now that the vaccine is being rapidly rolled out across the country, we need to start thinking seriously about the economic recovery. We feel strongly that we need to invest in infrastructure and that in particular, investing in new rail lines, upgrades and new train fleets is one of the best ways to do so.

As Members of Parliament representing constituencies in the Midlands and the North East, we are pleased to see reform of the Treasury’s Green Book rules to unlock future public investment for our regions. Too often in the past, a rigid interpretation of the rules has led to spending in London and the South East, with areas such as ours being overlooked. The reforms under consideration have the potential to turn the situation on its head – essential if we are going to achieve our goals of levelling up.

The publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy is also welcome, as is the unequivocal support it provides for High Speed 2 – our flagship national transport project.

When the Government gave HS2 the go-ahead it recognised that it will deliver vital connectivity, cut journey times and boost capacity. We are aware of the current calls to cancel the project outright given the impact of Coronavirus. However, as Andrew Stephenson recently said, to do so would “send a terrible signal out globally about the UK intending to build back better from Covid-19.”

With over half of the Phase 1 budget for the line from London to Birmingham already spent or contracted to, such calls are frankly nonsensical, and would lead to the loss of 13,000 jobs directly employed by HS2 and tens of thousands more in the supply chain.

Construction is well underway across the route, and British businesses are benefiting, such as County Durham based Cleveland Bridge, a world-leading steel engineering company. It produced twenty-four massive steel girders that form part of the first of HS2’s new modular bridges, recently installed over the A446 in Solihull in just 45 minutes.

Instead, we must continue with this once in a generation investment into UK plc. HS2 will serve as a much-needed catalyst for economic change across many of the cities and towns that are now Conservative constituencies. Many of these areas have seen positive change over recent years but such is the scale of the economic challenge that our levelling-up agenda must double down on investments such as these to drive economic growth and opportunity. This is made all the more important in light of the ongoing battle to contain Covid-19 across the UK, but particularly in our Blue Wall areas.

And to counter those who say the impact of home working and changes to commuting, or the future widespread introduction of autonomous vehicles means that we should no longer invest in rail, we say that is wrong. Demand for rail travel rose year on year since privatisation in 1995 – and pre-pandemic was predicted to go on rising – and we see no reason for this to change in the longer term. HS2 is intended to have an operating life of 120 years; it is right that we are thinking long term and investing in high-speed rail, just as virtually every advanced economy in the world is doing.

Try telling people in Japan, Germany, South Korea, China, Turkey and elsewhere that such investment is a waste of money and you will get an incredulous response. With many more countries now developing national and international high-speed rail networks, we have the opportunity in the UK to establish a world leading capability and export new trains, equipment and expertise to the likes of India, Australia, Scandinavia and many more. This opportunity is too often overlooked, but it has huge potential.

Making sure the British public gets the best bang for their buck from our flagship national transport project and that it truly delivers for the whole country will be vital. Anything less would be a missed opportunity. That is why HS2’s Phase 2b, Midlands Engine Rail, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and our plans to reverse Beeching’s cuts must also get the green light from the Integrated Rail Plan, which we are eagerly awaiting. Furthermore, investing in rail, and shifting people away from car and domestic air travel, is critical to achieving the Government’s net zero targets.

The opportunity from this unprecedented public investment is not just about new tracks, wires, bridges and tunnels – important though they are. We represent areas with rich and unrivalled heritage of train building, with two major rolling stock factories (Bombardier Transportation in Derby and Hitachi Rail in Newton Aycliffe) directly employing thousands of our constituents and supporting many thousands more jobs in their British supply chains.

After too many years of decline, when we saw British train building virtually extinguished, train building is back.

We now have two established UK factories employing highly skilled workers who are producing new trains that improve the journeys of British passengers. Were they to secure the order for the new fleet of very high-speed trains it would secure jobs and investment in regions outside HS2’s Phase 1 route, thereby spreading the programme’s benefits more evenly across the country to regions like the East Midlands and the North East. More broadly, it would enhance and protect vital existing investment in rail manufacturing at a time when the pandemic has created uncertainty across the rail sector.

We cannot waste the opportunity that our Government’s high-speed rail investment plans presents. Using it to level-up the economic fortunes of the areas we represent will make good on the Prime Minister’s promise to first time Tory voters at the last election – to unite our country and re-balance our economy. It is time to build back better.

Miles Briggs: The pandemic has hit betting shops hard. The Gambling Review must do nothing to hamper their recovery.

11 Feb

Miles Briggs is a Conservative MSP for Lothian and Chair of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Horse Racing and Bloodstock Industry. This is a sponsored post by the Betting & Gaming Council.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns on our high streets is already obvious. Shuttered premises are commonplace in town centres across the UK, and the recovery of the economy will be long and hard.

It is vital, therefore, that governments in London and Edinburgh do nothing to make things more difficult than they already are.

As the Chair of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Horse Racing and Bloodstock Industry, I am acutely aware of what the pandemic has meant for our betting shops – and the knock-on effect for horseracing, which relies so heavily on the funding they generate for the sport.

With shops closed for large parts of 2020 and no immediate prospect of them reopening, bookmakers – particularly the independent sector – are understandably worried about what the future holds for them and their loyal staff.

The additional £40 million funding from the UK government to help the industry through the pandemic was very welcome. However, the impact of Covid-19 on the sector is significant and the future is uncertain.

All of this is taking place at the same time as the UK government’s review of the 2005 Gambling Act. I very much welcome the review and, with all the pressures and upheaval we have witnessed over the last year, it was encouraging to hear ministers say that the review must strike the right balance between protecting the vulnerable and not spoiling the enjoyment of the overwhelming majority who enjoy a flutter perfectly safely.

As a report last week by PwC showed, the unlicensed and unsafe black market will be the main beneficiaries if ministers get changes to regulation wrong and inadvertently drive ordinary punters in their direction.

Bluntly, the financial viability of sports like racing, darts, rugby league, snooker and much of football – which rely heavily on the support they receive from the regulated industry – is on the line.

I recently visited Midlothian-based bookmaker Scotbet’s Slateford Road shop in Edinburgh and met with management and staff to hear first-hand about the impact the Covid restrictions have had on the company and the wider industry.

In recent years we have seen the decline in the number of independent betting shops. The pandemic has sadly hit them especially hard, given their limited opportunities to adapt and develop online services. Scotbet is a good example of what has happened to high street bookmakers, with its shop numbers falling from a peak of 75 to just 30 today.

Across the UK, there are now 6,750 betting shops, a fall of around 1,600 in the past two years – denying local authorities around £15 million in lost business rates. Over the same period, the number of people they employ has also reduced by nearly 10,000, taking with them the income tax and national insurance they paid to the Treasury.

When you consider that the entire regulated industry – covering betting shops, casinos, bingo and online – contributes some £3.2 billion in taxes to the Treasury, it’s clear that anything that further impacts negatively on this should be avoided at all costs – especially as the Chancellor tries to repair the damage done to the public finances by Covid-19.

Local betting shops are also vital community hubs and are at the vanguard of attempts to promote safer gambling. Staff are trained to spot the signs of someone getting into trouble, and are able to direct customers towards the help they need.

The business challenges arising from the pandemic are significant and will take time to recover from – for all those, like me, who value horse racing across the UK, it is vital that we look to the future sustainability of the sector.

More recently, the Jockey Club has warned of a £60 million shortfall in its revenue if strict new affordability checks being considered by the Gambling Commission are introduced. These proposed changes have the potential to prevent millions of regular punters from placing a bet if the stake is deemed to be unaffordable.

Increased checks can be a good thing if they are targeted at vulnerable customers – but we should be wary of anything that risks driving mainstream customers to the unregulated black market, where there are none of the protections and safer gambling measures which are put in place by licensed operators.

The betting industry contributes around £350 million a year to racing through the levy, media rights and sponsorship, so any measures that affect the viability of betting will inevitably have a negative impact on the entire sport.

I sincerely hope that racing in Scotland – and across the UK – can bounce back stronger in the months and years ahead. A healthy racing industry is not just important for many local jobs, but also the supply chains it supports in places like Ayr, Hamilton, Kelso, Musselburgh, and Perth.

Thanks to the wonders of modern science and our amazing NHS, we are finally turning the corner on the pandemic. It would be a tragedy if well-meaning politicians inadvertently introduced changes which compounded the economic damage already done by Covid-19.

Andy Street: 15 years on, we can finally heal the scars of MG Rover’s collapse

1 Dec

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

The battle to protect our economy from Coronavirus has brought comparisons with previous downturns, re-examining past recessions and reminding us of the impact felt when major industrial players have collapsed.

The levels of borrowing outlined last week by Rishi Sunak are testament to the unprecedented efforts being made by Government to draw on past experiences and protect jobs as we face a new kind of recession.

Here in the West Midlands, there remain acres upon acres of former industrial land which remind us of previous slumps. With government backing, we are now reclaiming these eyesores to provide new homes and job opportunities.

And as we face this latest challenge, I am hopeful that we will finally heal one of the biggest, and most painful, of these scars. Longbridge, in Birmingham, offers an opportunity to use this economic crisis to erase the results of an infamous economic shockwave.

Completing the regeneration of Longbridge would be a powerful example of Conservative policy actively “levelling up” the economy. For 15 years, local people have waited to see this site fully reclaimed. Let’s show them that after three years under a Conservative mayor, and with a new Conservative MP in place, we are ready to deliver it.

For anyone whose roots are in the West Midlands, car making holds a special place in our hearts. As someone brought up in Northfield, just up the road from the famous Longbridge car plant, I am also very conscious of the past of our car industry. Home of “the Austin”, Longbridge at its 1960s zenith was one of the world’s biggest car factories, employing tens of thousands of people producing ground-breaking vehicles like the Mini.

Then, of course, came the painful decline through the disastrous British Leyland years and beyond. The causes of that decline are still the cause of much debate, but no-one can argue about the individual and collective pain that each job loss brought.

This culminated 15 years ago in the collapse of MG Rover, with the loss of the remaining 6,000 jobs. It remains one of the darkest days in the history of Birmingham and the West Midlands.

Psychologically, the closure dented the confidence of a region with a proud automotive pedigree. Economically, MG Rover’s collapse impacted on the thousands of people who worked for the firm and the massive supply chain that supported it.

Physically, when MG Rover shut its gates for the last time it left behind a vast industrial site that reminded us of the closure.

Since then, much of the site has been redeveloped. Developer St Modwen has shown real ambition and vision, effectively building a new town centre on part of site, which also boasts a fantastic college. Aquapak, a firm at the cutting edge of recycled polymers, recently welcomed Alok Sharma to their premises on the new business park there.

The old MG Rover site is being reshaped by a sustainable mix of businesses and housing redevelopment, including state-of-the-art senior living. Yet every time I pass Longbridge, I look across to the parts that remain empty and think about what it once meant for local jobs.

Now I’m determined to complete the regeneration of Longbridge, reclaiming a site that once represented one of our region’s most established industries, by applying one of our newest.

In the last year I have been joined by fellow Brummie Gary Sambrook, the Conservative MP for the area, in this ambition. He has been working with developer St. Modwen to get MG Rover’s “West Works” site redeveloped, and once again generating opportunity for local people.

Together we are promoting Longbridge’s strong business case to be a critical site for Government support through the Urban Transformation Fund. That’s why I submitted Longbridge to Government as one of our region’s top funding bids and it is why Sambrook passionately pitched it to the Chancellor last week in the Commons debate on the Spending Review.

To put it simply, this derelict site – which has been levelled for years – could provide a quite profound and tangible example of “levelling up” in action, and illustrate the West Midlands ability to bounce back from adversity.

That ability is also reflected in the land reclamation technology being pioneered here, which up until the pandemic hit, was cleaning up derelict eyesores like Longbridge and helping us build new homes at record numbers, through our “brownfield first” policy.

The exciting investment in the National Brownfield Institute at Wolverhampton will cement our position as a national leader in remediation and construction technology.

It is fitting that this example of West Midlands 21st Century innovation can be put to use to “level up” Longbridge, given its links to our industrial heritage.

Of course, there is another reason why the fate of the remaining Longbridge site would resonate so much now. The automotive industry is facing huge challenges. The sector is going through a revolution, illustrated by the Government’s ambitious decision to stop the production of petrol and diesel cars in 2030.

Longbridge stood as a reminder of what happens when we fail to invest in our automotive sector. The promise of £500 million in the Spending Review, to back electric battery technology and production shows the resolve not let this happen again. That’s why the Gigafactory that is so critical to our automotive future must be built in the West Midlands.

Longbridge may, sadly, never produce another car – but the site can produce quality new jobs for local people. With a new Gigafactory, we can recharge the automotive industry 15 years after MG Rover’s collapse.

By backing the regeneration of Longbridge, while investing in the West Midland’s automotive future, the Government can not only accelerate its ambitions to “level up” the economy – it can also drive home a profound message about our ability as a nation to bounce back.