David Gauke: Next week’s spending review – and why our holiday from spending restraint is coming to an end

21 Nov

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

For reasons that some readers will understand, the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street was not a source of great sorrow for me. It appears that I am not alone. Nonetheless, Cummings’ resignation/dismissal makes the Prime Minister’s job much harder in at least one respect.

We are already pushing the limits on when a free trade agreement with the EU can be agreed in order for it to be in place by the end of the year. Boris Johnson continues to appear to be undecided as to whether he is willing to make the necessary concessions in order to get a deal (thus upsetting hardline Brexiteers) or leave without a deal (wreaking further damage to the economy and the integrity of the United Kingdom).

Both options have been apparent for some time, and they are sub-optimal for the Prime Minister and the country. Now he really has to choose.

If he compromises, some people will say that, without Cummings, the Prime Minister lacks a spine. Cummings may well be one of the people making this point.

If he does not get a deal, the Prime Minister’s strategy must be to convince the Leave half of the country that the ensuing mess is the fault of the European Union (it will be a hopeless task to avoid the blame with the other half of the country). To do that, he will need a communications strategy that is ruthless, aggressive and lacking in self-doubt, entirely untroubled by the overwhelming evidence pointing to a different interpretation of the situation. These are exactly the circumstances in which Cummings has a track record of success.

This is a bad time for the Prime Minister to fall out with his most influential adviser.

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Anyone entering politics will be aware that there may come a moment when there is a conflict between what one perceives as the national interest and the furtherance of one’s career.

We can currently see this playing out in the United States, as Donald Trump continues to refuse to accept the election result. With a few honourable exceptions, most senior Republicans have gone along with this nonsense. Presumably, none of them believe the election was rigged in favour of Joe Biden, but they dare not say so because of the fear of offending the Republic base.

Although not as egregious, there are similarities in the UK. Fear of offending the Conservative grassroots has inhibited too many senior Tories in setting out the realities of our departure from the European Union for far too long.

At this particular time, the talk of Westminster and Whitehall is that the overwhelming majority of the Cabinet favour a compromise with the EU because they are conscious of the consequences of failing to get a deal. But the ambitious amongst them know that to be seen to be associated with compromise on Brexit is a career damaging move.

As a consequence, they keep their heads down, content to let others challenge the prejudices of their party’s more extreme supporters. If things ultimately go as badly as they might, history will not judge kindly.

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The Prime Minister’s announcement of an ambitious green agenda will, we are told, help create thousands of green jobs. The increase in defence spending will, we are told, help create 10,000 new jobs. Such announcements are always treated as being good news – a further justification for a policy.

There are good arguments to be made for reducing carbon emissions and improving our defence capabilities but, while the fact that pursuing these policies requires the employment of more people may be good news for the individuals concerned, for the Government and society as a whole, this is a cost not a benefit. Employing people is expensive. And if they are employed to do one thing, they are no longer available to be employed to do something else which society or the economy might value.

I do not always agree with everything Nigel Lawson says, but he has a point when he states that “a programme to erect statues of Boris in every town and village in the land would also ‘create jobs’ but that doesn’t make it a sensible thing to do”.

To give an equally absurd example, it is not a cause of celebration that, from January, the country is going to require an additional 50,000 customs agents because of increased bureaucracy involved in trading with the EU. I repeat, this is a cost not a benefit.

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Wednesday will see the Spending Review, albeit one that is less comprehensive than first intended. I suspect much of the focus will be on the Office for Budget Responsibility’s assessment of the public finances, which is likely to be ghastly.

Borrowing this year will certainly be a peacetime record and might not be far behind a wartime record, either. To some extent, that does not matter as much as it might do – we can get our debt away easily and cheaply enough in a world where markets are much more forgiving of high levels of Government debt than they were even a few years ago.

But the worry will be that, even a few years down the line when the virus is behind us, we will still be borrowing very large sums of money. Exceptional borrowing in an exceptional year is one thing, but one cannot expect to get away with that forever.

Something will have to be done – but when? One of the many challenges for the Chancellor is that the political and economic cycles are misaligned.

Politically, he would want to get tax rises or spending cuts (and it will be mainly the former) in place early in a Parliament so that the pain is well out the way by the time we get to 2024.

Economically, the consensus view is that early tax increases might choke off a recovery so better wait a while. On that basis, even with the recent good news on vaccines, 2022 would be the earliest point for tax increases (and plenty would argue for later).

The politics of tax increases also appears to be immensely difficult. The Prime Minister seems dug in on the tax lock (preventing increases in the rates of income tax, national insurance contributions and VAT, which between them raise two thirds of Government revenue) whilst the back benchers also appear squeamish about any kind of fiscal consolidation.

As a country, we have given ourselves a bit of a holiday from thinking about the public finances. This coming week might indicate that this holiday will soon be coming to an end.

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Should we relax Covid-19 restrictions to save Christmas? It would be lovely to have a normal Christmas, but I am not sure proponents of seasonal break in restrictions have thought this through.

There is every reason to believe that Christmas would be a super spreader event, resulting in the deaths of thousands just weeks before we will have vaccinated the vulnerable.

For too many families, making the wrong decision about Christmas 2020 could mean that all future Christmases will be tinged with sadness, loss and guilt. Just be patient; we are nearly there.

The Government is up against the clock to justify its next set of restrictions – as the Covid Recovery Group grows

17 Nov

Will they or won’t they? Is the question being asked of MPs in regards to whether they will extend the current lockdown restrictions in England. Although these measures are due to expire on December 2, at yesterday’s press conference, Matt Hancock told the nation that it was “too early to know” if they had worked.

The Government’s post-lockdown plan is to return to the tiered system of lockdown. But even that could shift. At the same press conference as Hancock, Susan Hopkins of Public Health England, threw a spanner in the works when she said there had been “little effect from Tier 1”, and that the Government might have to “think about strengthening” tiers “to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone.”

Despite some encouraging statistics about the nation’s battle with Covid – intensive care admissions have fallen, and hospitals are running at “normal capacity”, according to Carl Heneghan, a professor director of evidence-based medicine at Oxford University – there are signs the Government will play it safe when it comes to imposing more restrictions.

There was the fact that Rishi Sunak recently expanded the furlough scheme so that it will last until March. More recently, a newspaper printed emails from George Pascoe-Watson, Chairman of Portland Communications, who had been advising Dido Harding and James Bethell on strategy and communications, revealing he had been “been privately advised that tier 2 restrictions will be imposed on London until at least the spring of next year.” 

In short, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to make the following prediction (contingent on hospitalisations being at a manageable level): the Government will phase out the lockdown (thereby keeping its promise and avoiding the difficulties of an extension being approved) but then move parts of the country into Tier 2, 3 or 4 (as has just been imposed on 11 local authorities in Scotland) – with the measures in place until spring. Therefore, many will be left feeling that they are in de facto lockdown. 

One reason the Government might feel emboldened to keep restrictions going is the news of two vaccines, as well as the knowledge that mass testing is being rapidly developed. It’s far easier to ask people to “sit tight” if they know an exit strategy is on its way.

But one group that is going to present a big headache for the Government is the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group (CRG), whose members will vote on the next set of restrictions. The CRG has been steadily growing in numbers, now standing at around 70 members, according to reports. Depending on how much bigger this figure gets, and what restrictions the Government next wants to impose, it may have to increasingly call on Labour to get the voting numbers.

And it’s not only the idea of a national lockdown that the CRG is opposed to. Its members are also sceptical of softer restrictions; or, at least, they want them to be justified. Mark Harper, CRG chairman, has called some of the previous Covid-19 measures “arbitrary”, and the group is unlikely to ease off the pressure because of a vaccine. Steve Baker, its deputy chairman, has said that “we must find a more sustainable way of leading our lives until a vaccine is rolled out”. As far as the CRG is concerned, days, weeks and months are too long in terms of waiting for Pfizer to come to the rescue.

The group’s main demand is that the Government is more transparent with information on the cost of lockdown. It wants a full-cost benefit analysis of restrictions on a regional basis, and for the Government to publish the models that inform policies – so that members of the public can make up their own mind. In short, the CRG is trying to place the burden of proof onto the Government to explain why it’s imposing any restrictions – as opposed to MPs having to argue for them to come off.

As Harper tells me: “When the Government brings forward its proposals for what follows the lockdown, it’s incumbent on it to show that for every restriction it wants to put in place, the good done by the restriction outweighs the harm, both from a health perspective and an economic perspective.”

Given that December 2 is approaching the Christmas period, the pressure will be all the greater for the Government to explain the rationale for each set of restrictions, as even more closures for shops could signal their end. MPs will also be after more information for how the Government’s mass testing programmes are coming along – one of the main ways it can reopen the economy until the vaccine arrives.

Interestingly, the Government could be about to run into difficulties not so disimilar from the ones Angela Merkel has experienced in Germany. Merkel had wanted to tighten Germany’s restrictions, but failed to win the support of the country’s state leaders. Thus she has had to postpone decision making in this regard. In essence, just as the public support for lockdown might be tiring, so is MPs’.

Either way, the next couple of weeks will be interesting to say the least.

Elsewhere:

Jonathan Gullis: The blight of Covid gives us new reason to cut back school holidays

16 Nov

Jonathan Gullis is MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and a member of the Education Select Committee. He was previously a secondary school teacher.

The Government has rightly decided to extend free school meals for the holidays, and give hard-pressed families reassurance that their kids will be fed this winter. But at a time when many kids are falling behind due to the pandemic and many families are struggling, we should go further.

It is time to cut school holidays, to give disadvantaged students time to catch up with their peers after long gaps in learning due to covid and to further ease the pressure on family finances. We could cut two weeks from the long summer break, and even shave a few days off at Christmas and Easter, to help children reclaim their futures.

As a former teacher, I know the problems that long holidays create for poorer families. Holiday learning loss contributes to widening attainment gaps between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students. Evidence gathered during the lockdown in April shows that pupils were doing on average two and a half hours of school work per day.

When broken down based on eligibility for free school meals a shocking gap can be observed. Around a quarter of pupils eligible for free school meals spent on average no time or under an hour on schooling compared with 18 per cent of those students not eligible.

The same survey found that roughly a fifth of free school meal pupils had no access to a computer at home, compared to seven per cent for other students. Another survey found that some pupils could return to school having made only 70 per cent progress compared to a normal year in reading and only 50 per cent in maths.

Another factor contributing to the attainment gap is the home environment, and specifically the involvement (or lack of) parents in a child’s educational development. Disadvantaged parents are less likely to support children because they may be in work, or lack the money to pay for tutoring, learning software or homework clubs.

These combined factors contribute to disadvantaged children falling behind their peers during long holiday breaks. Studies have found that only after seven weeks of teaching in the autumn do some children exceed the level of education they achieved prior to the summer.

And that’s before the impact on family finances. The average cost of holiday childcare in the UK is £133 per week. Between 2003 and 2015, nursery costs increased by 77 per cent while earnings have remained roughly the same. It is estimated that the loss of free school meals adds between £30 and £40 per week to parents’ outgoings during school holidays.

There is also evidence that long school holidays cause an increase in child poverty. Evidence from charities suggests that food bank use accelerates significantly among families during the long summer holidays as they struggle to feed their children every day. Every year, three million children are at risk of going hungry over the summer period every year.

Long periods out of school also have a knock on effect on children’s physical health. Evidence shows that children from more disadvantaged backgrounds suffered a greater loss of fitness following the summer holidays. The poorest quarter of kids see a drop in their fitness levels 18 times greater than the wealthiest 25 per cent over the summer.

There is wide variation the length of school holidays around the world. In some parts of Asia, including high performing countries like South Korea and Japan, students are only on summer holiday for four weeks, whereas in Italy and Portugal pupils are typically out of school for up to 13 weeks.

A number of academics have made the case for shorter summer holidays, including Professor Tina Hascher of the University of Bern, who has argued that four weeks of summer holiday should be enough to ensure pupils, teachers and parents are able to enjoy a degree of respite whilst mitigating the effects of the summer slide in learning.

When I was a teacher, I recognised the value of the summer break. It is an important time for students to rest and recover after a long academic year. But, I also know from experience the difficulty some students face when they start the year in September after a long summer of losing academic ground.

Lockdown has taught us the difficulties that come with long stints away from the classroom, with learning suffering, health suffering, families struggling financially and a widening attainment gap between well off and disadvantaged students.

This is why I am proposing that the Government introduce a shorter summer break of four weeks from Summer 2021, and consider reducing other holidays, including the upcoming Christmas break. These new weeks of learning should be used for structured activities and education in the term-time either side.

We cannot change the past. The time that has been lost has been lost. But we can make up for that lost time. Reducing the length of school holidays will help close this attainment gap, while reducing the burden on working families.

Iain Dale: Stop this utter selfishness and pathetic whinging about not having a normal Christmas to look forward to

30 Oct

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

Again, it feels like the calm before the Covid storm, doesn’t it?

As more and more swathes of the country go into Tier Three lockdown, it’s clear that, by this time next week, most of the north and parts of the Midlands will have joined Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire in that tier. It’s only a matter of time before London does too, I suspect.

This week, even Germany has gone back into a partial lockdown.  Spain has declared a state of emergency.  France has announced a further draconian lockdown – and Coronavirus in Belgium is seemingly out of control.

At some point in the next two or three weeks, the Government will be forced to take a very difficult decision. No one wants a second national lockdown, but I’m afraid it is looking all but inevitable.

We could of course, take a different pah, ignore the scientific consensus and let the virus take its course – or let it rip, might be a more accurate way of putting it. I cannot see any responsible Government taking that course of action.

In the end, we are going to have to learn to live with this virus. But until our test and trace system is worthy of the name, or a vaccine becomes available, it’s very difficult to see any degree of normality returning to our lives in the next six months – or maybe for longer.

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After the political debacle about the provision of free school meals, and yet again being comprehensively outplayed by a young Premier League footballer, the next challenge for the Government is how to counter the pathetic accusations about the government ‘cancelling’ Christmas.

Those who make the accusation claim to be those who don’t have a Scooby Doo about what Christmas is all about. It’s not some quasi-materialistic present giving binge; it is a religious festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

There is nothing the Government can do or will do that could cancelsthat celebration. Yes, it may mean that family gatherings are more limited in number. Yes, it may mean that we don’t do as much present-buying as we have done in the past. Yes, it will be different.

But for God’s sake, if people don’t understand the seriousness of the situation the country may be in by Christmas, then there is nothing anyone can say or do which will shake people out of their utter selfishness and pathetic whinging.

I can say that. The Government can’t. But somehow, they will need to take on the view that somehow we should all be given a free pass on Christmas Day to let the virus rip.

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Arzoo Raja is 13 years old. She lived in Italy with her Christian parents. She too was brought up as a Christian. On October 13, she was abducted from outside her house. A few days, later the Italian Police said they had received marriage papers, which stated she was 18.

Her new “husband” was 44 year old Ali Azhar, who also stated Arzoo had converted to Islam, and her new name was Arzoo Faatima.

Her parents provided her birth certificate to the Italian and Pakistani authorities to prove that she was 13. This cut no ice with the Sindh High Court in Karachi, which ruled that she had converted of her own volition, and that she had entered into the marriage of her own free will. The court even criticised the Pakistani police for “harassing” Arzoo after her abduction.

In effect, the court has validated both forced marriage and rape. There have been protests on the streets of Lahore and Karachi.

Countries like the UK cannot stand by, and trot out the well-worn narrative that we can’t interfere with the judiciary of a sovereign nation.

No, but we can turn off the aid tap. We can call in the Pakistani High Commissioner for an interview without coffee. We and other countries have both the power and influence to stop this.

Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, has a daughter called Tyrian. He should think how he would have felt if his daughter had been abducted like this when she was 13.

Just for reporting this news on Twitter I have been accused of being islamophobic and “not understanding” the culture. Utter tosh. If we are meant to keep quiet about child abduction and forced marriage, we have come to a pretty pass. I, for one, will continue to speak out, no matter what the backlash.

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On Thursday morning we all woke up to yet another terror attack in France, with two people being beheaded and another murdered in the name of “the religion of peace”.

Apparently, it is politically incorrect to point out that while the barbarous acts were taking place, the perpetrators were joyfully shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.

Muslims quite rightly point out that these acts are ‘not in my name’, but the uncomfortable fact is that this is not the view of the terrorists.

In his autobiography, David Cameron says he regrets maintaining that these kind of terror attacks were nothing to do with Islam. He argues that adherents of mainstream Islam have tried to disassociate themselves from the attacks without ever really understanding what has driven the terrorists to assert that they do their dastardly deeds in the name of their religion. He is right.

James Frayne: Expect people to prepare for minor civil disobedience at Christmas

27 Oct

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

How much do the public care about Christmas? Will they be prepared to endure a minimal so-called “Digital Christmas” in the name of keeping the R-rate down?

Of course, everything depends about the perceived state of the country in mid-December. But let’s try to think about where we’re heading, where we might be at that point, and then about what the public might accept.

Let’s deal with the obvious first: those things that might make the public more willing to accept a Digital Christmas.

  • Concerns for the NHS will rise during the winter. Just as people know the NHS always struggles in the winter, so they’ll also know significant numbers of Coronavirus cases would be a terrible additional burden. While there appears to have been a large increase in hospital admissions during these early days of a second spike, it isn’t clear that hospitals are much more burdened than they otherwise would be (I suspect for complex reasons). Nonetheless, people will be alert to any change; and, clearly, if there is a serious surge in admissions and visible shortages of beds and care, with large numbers of deaths, people will think very differently about things, Christmas or not.
  • Optimism about a 2021 vaccine will be visible. I’m unclear at this point what the prospects of an effective vaccine will do to public opinion in the Christmas period. At one level, it might encourage people to play it safe for one last time before better times in the new year. (“If we can all make one last sacrifice…”) But it could also make people think their behaviour doesn’t matter so much, because help is on the way. I think they’ll certainly take a devil may care attitude if it appears that, contrary to the hype, a vaccine looks like it’s still many, many months away and if coverage is likely to be minimal. Politicians have wisely played down the idea of a game-changing vaccine for this reason
  • Public opinion is currently changing rapidly; people are becoming less willing to accept the rules as they are. At the moment, only a significant minority want looser rules and guidelines, the majority want things as they are; but the direction of travel is clear. A surge in serious cases and / or deaths would change things and make people more cautious, but a general uptick along the lines we’ve seen recently, or an uptick that mirrors seasonal admissions, would likely see demands for looser restrictions grow.

Let’s now look at those things that might make the public more hostile to a Digital Christmas.

  • Exasperation with the rules/guidelines will likely be much higher. We’ve known for some time people are struggling to understand the various rules and guidelines which are complex and change regularly.  (Unforgivably, Government Ministers themselves have struggled to remember what they are). But exasperation will turn to anger as we approach Christmas if the prospect of a Digital Christmas looks real. At this point, people won’t be irritated because the rules are complex; rather, they’ll be angry the rules seem inconsistent, bordering on stupid, as we’ve seen in Wales. They’ll ask, why, for example, people can still visit pubs, but can’t enjoy a single day with their closest relatives – some of whom might be on their own. There will be endless comparisons: why can we do this but not this?
  • Minor rule-breaking will increase. There are signs that this is on the rise, and that more people are becoming comfortable with risk. Forget the illegal raves and other illicit gatherings: I’m referring to regular minor rule-breaking – people not isolating for 14 days when they’ve come into contact with those that have tested positive; more people foregoing masks in supermarkets; people visiting others’ houses when they shouldn’t; and so on. This is surely likely to increase significantly in the coming weeks; more people seem to be thinking they’ll probably be OK if they break the rules in a minimal way (a massive change from the spring). The Government is alive to this; it’s been suggested the 14-day quarantine figure might be reduced. But the seal has been broken; rule breaking, however minor, is going to become common and by Christmas will likely be the norm.
  • Fears for the economy – and the high street in particular – will rise. Concerns for the economy is going to keep going up as Government support slowly tapers off and unemployment and business bankruptcies tick up. Because it’s so visible, the high street plays a disproportionately important role in the public mind; it’s a signifier for the health of the economy more generally. Given the health of the high street will be on people’s minds into Christmas – as it always is – public concern for the economy will be heightened.
  • Knowledge about the cause of infections will be higher. Partly because we simply know more about the Coronavirus and its effects – which the media is now passing on in more detail and more regularly – the public are going to increasingly question Government and scientific advice. They’re going to become more discerning judges of public policy. In the face-off between Greater Manchester and the Government, and in the criticisms of Government policy levelled by the hospitality industry, we are seeing more people ask questions about the causes of infections and the nature of their rise. In such a climate, people are more likely to question the basis for Government decisions on Christmas.

What does all this mean?

It’s hard to say at this point. As I’ve written a few times recently on this site, my strong sense at this point is that public opinion is moving against harsh measures because of a perception that –

(a) we always go back to square one whenever we loosen measures, so what’s the point?

and

(b) because concerns about the economy are finally starting to catch up with the reality of the grave economic situation.

My sense is that, for the reasons stated above, unless there’s a really very serious surge in deaths, and unless hospitals are demonstrably seriously more burdened than they would otherwise be (and not simply under the usual seasonal strain), then people will be extremely angry about the prospect of a Digital Christmas.

In turn, I would expect people to prepare for widespread minor civil disobedience; by that I don’t mean people having 20 people around for Christmas, but that many, many people will plan to invite guests from outside their bubble, and prepare to breach the rule of six for a few hours.

I’ve seen it said that people would accept a minimal Christmas if it appeared to be part of a consistent, national policy of restrictions.

I disagree with this view one hundred per cent; the point is, outside of a total national lockdown of the sort we saw in the Spring, it will never look like rules are being applied consistently and with good judgement. If people are already claiming that it’s ridiculous you can, say, go on a political demonstration but you can’t visit your elderly relatives, think how angry they’ll be around Christmas. (Incidentally, if any politicians did appear to breach their own rules in this period, it really would hit the fan).

You occasionally see people sneering about the public obsession with Christmas: it’s only one day; we’re not really a religious country; it’s not relevant to other faiths and those with none; and so on.

Of course Christmas isn’t primarily a religious festival for most; but it’s a day when people take time out to meet family members they might not otherwise see; and when many people try to include those that otherwise live lonely lives in something joyful.

The English aren’t naturally “big family” people: we have tight nuclear families, not the extended families you see in parts of Europe and Asia. Christmas is the exception. The Government should do everything possible to make sure people can enjoy something that feels vaguely festive. Or, yes, they’ll pay a price. Just watch Labour do everything they can to have their Christmas Cake and eat it on this issue.