Andrew Griffith: If public services aren’t radically reformed, the new healthcare levy may be in vain

14 Sep

Andrew Griffith is MP for Arundel, founder of the Campaign for Economic Growth, and the former Chief Operating Officer of Sky plc.

Like most Conservatives, I support today’s Health and Social Care Levy Bill with some reluctance. Personal contact with the care system as well as that of my constituents made clear to me that more funding is part – but only one part – of any long-term fix. In particular, my heart goes out to the millions of unpaid caregivers who stoically provide cover for (when not actually falling through) the cracks in the system as it stands today.

Nor should we get carried away. The UK remains one of the lowest tax countries in the G7, and the choice at the next election will still be between a Conservative Government which raises taxes as a last resort out of necessity, and opposition parties who never see a question to which the answer is not to spend more of other people’s money. Margaret Thatcher increased taxes when required, before going on to reduce taxes and instigate reforms that unleashed Britain’s growth for decades to come.

Conservatives’ real concern – and my own greatest fear – should be if the new Levy turns out to be in vain. So far, it has to be said, the omens are not good. Rather than a ‘long march’ towards a radically overhauled, streamlined modern state, we have the ‘slow shuffle’ of public sector employees back to their desks.

Publicly funded salaries and pension are a privilege, not a right, and a growing pile of my correspondents are making the link between their own personal experience of the state – the delayed driving licence, slow motion planning application or a growing waiting list for a continuing healthcare or childs educational assessment – and the relative responsiveness of the private and public sectors. It was a different era but, the last time the UK tried to reconcile growth and prosperity with a three-day working week in 1974, things did not end well.

As we put the crisis stage of the pandemic behind us, it is therefore critical that we do not lose sight of, or the zeal for, the radical reform of government that is required. Only by changing the machine itself can we change what it delivers for the people of Britain. The normal clock speed of government is far too slow; memorably likened to the dream where you try to run but your feet will not move.

During the pandemic a heroic effort by all concerned overcame this. The epic recent Afghanistan evacuation was another similar example. But you can’t run the British state by constant exception management. Delivering our popular and bold programme will require better instrumentation, clearer goals and new ways of working.

Without near real time data, Ministers are forced to drive not just in the rear-view mirror but using a backwards-pointing telescope. One example, the latest NHS workforce statistics are only available for April: whilst we may shortly be dealing with the impact of a difficult winter, the NHS will be telling us how many staff it had back in the midst of summer.

The excellent Commission for Smart Government recently published actionable proposals for reform. It also identified the risk that the scale of the task might encourage leaders to put the intricacies of systemic reform to one side. Tired Ministers heading towards mid-political cycle and with busy in-trays may not have the energy or the freshness for the challenge.

One lens on a future reshuffle could be to inject a little more grit into the oyster. The current Spending Review is an opportunity that should not be missed, but such exercises rarely end up in the true zero-based scrutiny of departments and their operating model that real reform requires.

This Government has everything going for it. Clear leadership, an ambitious programme and political fuel in the tank in the form of a large majority. But the yardstick of long-term political success is real action impacting the real lives of citizens across the UK. To achieve this, reform is a necessity not a luxury.

Steve Baker: Wycombe’s food insecurity levels are a huge wake-up call. We must renew our vision of Conservative social justice.

3 Aug

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

On the one hand, it is simple to tell just by walking down the streets of High Wycombe there are people who do not find life easy. It’s probably true of a town of any size across the country. On the other, what did come as a surprise is the Food Foundation’s report, splashed by The Guardian, showing Wycombe had the greatest food insecurity in the whole of the UK. This is not something to dismiss lightly, and we must take this as a clarion call to action. 

The Wycombe constituency has some of the poorest and the richest people in the country, sometimes only living a short distance away from each other. This brings its own challenges. When civil servants are creating public policy and look at Wycombe the overall demographic is one of affluence. It is easy to think that everything is all right. But the constituency contains some areas of true deprivation. People in these areas have worse health outcomes, worse education results, and all the other traditional markers of a hard life. Low pay is compounded with high housing costs which squeeze low-income household budgets to breaking point.

The Coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions have brought these areas into sharp focus. There was a huge strain on working parents on low incomes; they had to continue to work, home educate children and provide more food such as snacks and lunch which were normally provided at school. My caseworkers were speaking to parents with young children who had not yet received their free school meal vouchers, and this meant they were finding it hard to feed their family.

Many people had jobs, but some had no work or a severely reduced income as a result of the Covid lockdowns and restrictions and did not qualify for any of the Government support schemes due to the nature of their employment. These were people who had to ask for help to feed their families for the first time. 

It is clear the lockdown pushed some people to the edge. I do not want to rehash all the things I said about the need for lockdown restrictions to be lifted as soon as it was safe to do so, but these were exactly the sort of people I had in mind when I said it. It wasn’t merely about allowing people to go abroad on holiday; it was about allowing hard working people to manage their everyday lives.

Before I became an MP, I did work for the Centre for Social Justice and I have always had an interest in making sure the least affluent in society are lifted up. For a long time, I have said more money should go into UC; we spend an enormous amount on the welfare state and it should help the people who need it, but this clearly doesn’t always happen.

I have previously lobbied ministers about the five week wait for benefits to kick-in once a new application is made. I know the £20 a week extra on Universal Credit has been welcomed by those who rely on benefits and, ideally, it should be kept. But the amount paid in UC is only one aspect of supporting those most in need. We have not yet broken the cycles of poverty the CSJ identified before we came to power in 2010: it is time now to renew our vision of Conservative social justice.

Charities and public agencies need to work alongside those who use foodbanks regularly or are food insecure to offer life coaching and mentoring. Getting the balance right here will be key. I do not want an authoritarian approach to telling people what to do, but most of us could use a helping hand or sounding board every now and then.

Buckinghamshire Council is working on a project to bring together debt support and advice, helping people get back into employment and addressing local skill shortages and training opportunities, greater take-up of food voucher schemes and better support to access benefits to ensure income maximisation.

All these schemes will help but the best way of lifting people out of poverty, and the knock-on effect of food insecurity, is through work and higher paying jobs. The Government’s Plan For Jobs includes the Kickstart and Restart scheme, and gives support for apprenticeships, traineeships and doubling the number of work coaches to get people back on their feet and into work. 

That’s a great start, but I want long-term prosperity for every one of my constituents. We must unleash the wealth creating potential of our great United Kingdom to secure it.

Calvin Robinson: The Left and Right are both wrong on pronouns – and it’s distracting us from the important issues

28 Jul

Pronouns are such a non-issue. They’re the perfect example of the culture wars being exacerbated by the imagination of both sides of the debate. On the liberal-progressive Left, activists think they’re showing their virtue of inclusivity by announcing their pronouns in their bios, and on the conservative Right, we often feel like we’re being attacked or having woke nonsense shoved down our throats by social justice warriors, but is this an area where we’re both wrong?

Has any research been conducted into pronouns and how they affect the tiny minority they’re supposed to “include”? How often are people truly offended by someone using an incorrect pronoun for a person who identifies as transgender or non-binary? I imagine the number is infinitesimal, but I can’t find any hard evidence outside of ideological activist groups to back this up, either way. Could it be that we’re inventing an issue that doesn’t exist in order for the Left to virtual signal and the Right to campaign against?

Pronoun declarations have shifted from social media bios to professional email signatures. A quick search of my inbox for “he/him” and “she/her” shows a high number of results for civil servants, BBC employees, and academics at universities from Oxford University to Oxford Brookes.

When writing emails to someone, when do we ever refer to that person as he/him or she/her, anyway? Third-person pronouns rarely come up in conversation around a person in real life unless one is being rude. My grandmother would always say, “Who is she, the cat’s mother?” if I referred to someone by their pronoun instead of their name – but using the third person pronoun in an email is even rarer. The absence of body language to point out who you might be referring to makes it difficult. The whole pronoun situation is such a non-issue; it’s surprising to see how rapidly it has been taken up by the metropolitan elite: civil servants, academics and the mainstream media.

The Scottish government is now jumping on the bandwagon, pushing a “pronoun pledge” to encourage civil servants to include their pronouns in their email signatures. However, a consultation poll resulted in a vast majority (60 per cent) of respondents expressing their discomfort with the idea of having to declare their pronouns.

Could it be that an approach to appear inclusive to the minority is exclusive to the majority? Less than one per cent of the UK population identifies as trans, and while it’s important to ensure minority groups feel welcome, that should not come at the expense of the majority. Coercing people to display their pronouns could be tantamount to gender discrimination – a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010.

Then there’s the issue of made-up pronouns such as zie/zirself, ze/zem, xe/xem, which nobody outside of the exclusive trans-community knows what they mean. Is that the purpose? To design a community that is so exclusive that by default, everyone else is written off as bigoted and backward in their views?

Activist groups like Mermaids and Stonewall appear to have an agenda that you either subscribe to unquestioning or you’re cancelled for being transphobic; this approach is antagonistic and unhelpful to the small community they purport to support.

The debate around trans rights is a genuine and important one; who gets to identify as which gender is a prevalent debate in schools, sport and the criminal justice system, for example. But this is not that debate. We must not fall into the trap of conflating trans issues with pronouns in bios.

This attempt to compel people to use trans-lobby language in one’s email signatures is often portrayed by my colleagues on the Right as authoritarian – I wouldn’t go that far, it’s quite common for companies to have an email signature policy, that’s just good etiquette (or “Netiquette”), but this is just a distraction from the real battle that’s going on; the erasure of women from our culture.

The question isn’t should we include he/him or she/her in our email signatures; the important question to be asking is why are we allowing boys in our girls’ changing rooms, why are we allowing men in women’s prisons, and why are we called ‘phobics for raising these questions and wanting to protect the rights of woman and girls?

Patrick Timms: A residential version of Portcullis House could help the civil service recruit better – and level up the UK

9 Jun

Patrick Timms is Deputy Editor of Wolves of Westminster and Co-Political Editor of The Backbencher.

The Prime Minister’s “levelling-up” agenda is an important and exciting one. It will deliver a real boost to left-behind communities across the country. However, in order to achieve this to its fullest possible extent, the Government and civil service will require two things in terms of staffing:

1) Some experienced and capable leaders and staffers with a thorough knowledge of their regions, who wish to remain there in order to spearhead and support change locally.

2) Other experienced and capable leaders and staffers from those regions who are able to come down (or up, or across) and work in government / civil service roles in Westminster and Whitehall.

Aside from the odd fanciful notions expressed in the past couple of years (such as moving the House of Lords to York), we all know that large parts of the seat of governance will remain in central London and that this is not going to change any time soon, if ever. That creates a certain reality around the talent pool to be recruited from when the Government / civil service is looking to draw in staff to advise or otherwise work for it on a permanent, full-time basis: they need to be able to get to central London every day.

For younger recruits, this can be less of a challenge if they do not live in or around London already – they do not have commitments elsewhere. There are several names of people in their 20s that occur to me in this regard. People like these were able to come and live and work in central London precisely because they were previously living with their parents, so renting in London would be their only housing expense.

However, if there is now more of a focus on people slightly older (in their 30s or 40s, say) – which, I gather from party sources, there is – owing to their relative youth but greater experience, then this presents a problem.

These people are far more likely to already have commitments elsewhere; for example, they may have already bought a home in the regions. For them, it would be foolish in the extreme to sell up and move to renting in London; having got onto the property ladder, it would be a great misstep to get off it again. Renting out their property is not always an option, either – where else would they keep all their possessions, given the size of just about anything most people could afford in London?

However, aside from their main skillset, they will also have extensive experience of the issues faced by their region and it would be extremely helpful to be able to employ these people in government / civil service roles too, so that recruitment is not restricted to the Greater London catchment area.

This should be very important for the Government’s agenda; if the Prime Minister wishes to truly level up the country and “switch up” the way our society works, then he should not be limited to the Greater London crowd alone to help Get It Done™.

In the Cummings era of this government, there was said to be a great focus on data science. That era may now be over, but some of its ethos prevails. “Helen” might be the most talented data scientist in the country, and eminently suitable for the role – but she is 35 and is just about getting by with her mortgage in Exeter. She is not going to be applying for that job on Parliament Street.

Accordingly, I propose that the Government buys up a large residential property in central London and uses this to house such people who apply for and are successful in obtaining a government / civil service role. They would be offered rent at a heavily subsidised monthly price (perhaps two or three hundred pounds per month), essentially just to cover maintenance expenses. The provision would remain in place for only as long as they hold their role, plus perhaps a two-week grace period either side to allow people to acclimatise and depart without issue.

It would, in essence, be a bit like a “residential version of Portcullis House”. Just as PCH is where such people might work, the new provision could be where they would live.

This provision would not be available to those already living in and around London, but solely to those with existing property commitments elsewhere in the regions, who would not be able to afford to maintain both a property there and the cost of a full rent plus bills in central London – but perhaps just a few hundred. There must surely be a great many potentially valuable people up and down the country who, but for this final hurdle, could certainly be of great use to the Prime Minister’s agenda – if they could only manage to live there!

There would also be some security for those involved, as they would still have a property to go back to once their role was over or if it did not work out.

Clearly, this would incur a one-time cost to find, buy up and renovate such a property, but that is essentially a budget line item in one fiscal year. Afterwards, the maintenance costs for that building would fade into the noise of all the others owned and maintained by the State anyway. And once in place, the value of being able to draw staff over from anywhere in the country, without the need (for them) to worry about accommodation, would clearly be very significant. Any future government would be able to make use of those facilities to better pursue its own agenda too.

It would open up a new dynamic in terms of the typical Westminster/Whitehall staffer figure, which – in my view! – is long overdue regardless. In doing so, and with a now-broader perspective from its staffers, the Government would be better informed and able to act more smartly to improve the living standards of communities all across the land.

My own MP and I are at odds over this – but then, he was used to being moved around the country before he won an election. He says that people move around all the time for jobs, and that jobs with the Government or civil service are no different.

I disagree – these jobs are about the governance of our country. They are not like any other, and there should be no barriers whatsoever to the State’s ability to recruit the very best and brightest for the roles it needs – especially those from the regions, given the current agenda. Where they might come from, and whether or not they could otherwise afford to maintain two residences at once, really should not matter in the slightest.

Anyone with experience in Westminster and Whitehall circles knows that the quality of staffing there makes up a large part of how effective the governance of this country is – regardless of who has been elected to be in charge of it. If the Government makes this move, it can help rebalance perspectives at the heart of governance towards the regions.

That, it has consistently said, is what it wants to do. Adopting this proposal would be of great help there.

Kieran Cooke: Levelling up cannot be all things to all people. Here are some of the challenges of turning soundbite into reality.

1 Jun

Kieran Cooke is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue. This article represents the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Bright Blue.

The Prime Minister announced last month that the Government will publish a white paper on levelling up later this year. Also, in the in the recent Queen’s Speech, the Government committed to “level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom”. However, is levelling up actually an ambition that can be achieved or will it remain simply a vote-winning slogan?

If the Government is going to actually “level up” the country, it needs to know what it is levelling up beyond the broad commitment of a transformative agenda of investment in infrastructure, research and development and skills training. Otherwise, we will end up with a scattergun approach with disconnected policies and initiatives that will not collectively result in improved outcomes. It is also only by knowing what you are trying to level up that clear targets can be developed. As we all know, what gets measured gets delivered on in government.

In deciding what it will level up, the Government first needs to be clear on the distinction between levelling up places versus levelling up people. Investing in places does not necessarily improve the outcomes of those living in those areas. By investing in places only, for example through the Freeports initiative announced by the Government last October, there is a risk that jobs created are filled by those commuting in from other areas rather than benefitting local people.

Conversely, a skill development programme may benefit local people but without jobs within the local area, those people are likely to commute to other areas for work, undermining the increased prosperity of the local area. To truly level up, the Government not only needs to be clear on what it is levelling up but also have a dual focus on investing in places and people.

The ambition of the Government to level up is commendable, however, the scale of the challenge is significant. The fact that a baby boy born in Blackpool in 2018 is expected to live 10 years less than if he was born in Westminster (Office of National Statistics) demonstrates how deep rooted and complex the current regional inequalities are.

The prize in addressing these underlying factors of regional inequality that previous governments have failed to reverse is significant. However, sadly the political challenge of tackling these factors is less glamorous and will require more radical thinking than launching “vanity” infrastructure projects which are more likely to be short-term vote winners but which – like all others before it – will likely fail to get to the root of the problem.

With an 80-seat majority, and a divided opposition, you could argue that now more than ever is the Government’s chance to focus on the systemic issues causing these regional inequalities. However, with small majorities in many of the seats they won in 2019 and the Conservatives already have an eye on the ticking clock towards the next election in 2024, the allure of short term wins rather than the Government holding its nerve in addressing the root causes of regional inequalities is understandably strong.

If the Government is going to really level up the country, it will require a focused and targeted approach. Levelling up cannot be all things to all people. An overall level playing field in terms of outcomes would require all places to have the same skill composition and be of a similar size. This is not realistic nor is it economically feasible.

Instead, the levelling-up agenda should be focused on those areas with the strongest potential to have high productivity and economic growth. Analysis from the Centre for Cities found that these are the largest cities. However, many of the “red wall” seats are in those small- and medium-sized towns and cities where closing the output gap is going to be less effective. Therefore, the Government faces a difficult dilemma on where to focus on levelling up and it is yet unclear whether the evidence or political calculation will prevail.

Finally, if the Government is to really level up the country, it needs to level up not only investment but also power. This shift of power out to those areas left behind needs to be more than cosmetic changes of moving the Conservative’s headquarters to Leeds or as announced in the Spending Review, relocating 22,000 civil servants out of London.

Overall, the concept of levelling up is an appealing soundbite to voters. However, achieving it is much more complex and challenging. It remains to be seen if MPs are in it for the long haul and have the country’s best interests at heart or whether they are looking for quick political wins in areas where they need electoral favours in 2024. And thus, leaving the country no further forward than where other governments have got to in addressing regional inequalities.

Questioning Hancock. How far will Clark and Hunt go?

29 May

Three days on, we’re all in a better position to take a view of Dominic Cummings’ fireworks display: which of his rockets illuminated the landscape, which were damp squibs – and which smoulder in the grass, ready suddenly to flare up.

Perhaps there isn’t all that much difference between the first and second.  A firework can cast dramatic light on its surroundings, but it goes as quickly as it came, leaving the world it lit up unchanged.

Cummings’ display was long, dazzling and relentless, but the core message blazed out in its fiery letters seemed simple enough.  Britain’s government in general is “terrifyingly sh*t”.  Under this administration and Boris Johnson, we were and are “absolutely f*cked”. (The first two descriptions are interchangeable.)   And that Matt Hancock is a “serial liar”, so repeatedly breaching the Ministerial Code.

We don’t believe for a moment that life is that simple: if it were, the UK would have no vaccine deployment success to weigh against the hospital discharge failure.  But let’s try a thought experiment, and assume for a while that Cummings was right.  What follows?

If British government really is “terrifingly sh*t”, transforming it into gold, or at a bare minimum making it serviceable, is a long-term project, involving a Parliament that works better, a reformed civil service, more local control, stronger civic institutions, a better media, a skills culture change – and perhaps new political parties entirely.

What might just make it a medium-term enterprise would be a first-rate government.  But if Cummings is right, we don’t have one – and are “absolutely f*cked” under this administration.  Moreover, Johnson has a majority of 80 and the odds of Conservative MPs getting rid of him before the next election, while never negligible, are long.  However much Cummings might wish Rishi Sunak was Prime Minister instead.

Cummings testimony told us nothing of significance about the Prime Minister that we didn’t know before.  Which leaves us with Hancock.

On the one hand, Johnson evidently confronted his Health Secretary about care homes deaths last year; on the other, it’s hard to see why anyone in government, including Cummings himself, could have believed that capacity existed to test all those returned from hospitals for Covid right from the start. So why would Hancock have given any?  If he had, why believe him?

Cummings told the Select Committee hearing that “Hancock told us in the cabinet room that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes”.  Do his own words point to the explanation?  Did Hancock mean that people would be tested when the capacity was available later, rather than then when it wasn’t?  That’s surely the most natural explanation.

At any rate, this is where Parliament and the Commons come in – though less on the floor of the chamber itself than in the committee rooms of Portcullis House.

Hancock’s Commons statement the day after Cummings’ testimony was a reminder that the chamber rarely proves fatal for Ministers’ careers. That’s because it is essentially a theatre, not a courtroom (as Keir Starmer is finding out). Questioners tend to grandstand.  So do Ministers at bay.  Their party’s backbenchers roar them on, regardless of the merits of the case – and, sometimes, of those of the Minister.

Such posturing is scarcely unknown in Select Committees, but the joint chairmanship of the one that will question the Health Secretary sharply reduces the likelihood in this case.

For neither Greg Clark, the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, nor Jeremy Hunt, the Chairman of the Health Select Committee, are (or were ever) likely to follow in the flamboyant footsteps of, say, Keith Vaz’s chairmanship of Home Affairs.

These two experienced Parliamentarians, ex-Cabinet members both, brought restraint and incision to Cummings’ questioning.  Their joint committee’s Covid inquiry overlaps with the official one: both will seek “lessons learned”.

But the first has a head start on the second (since the official inquiry has not yet been established, let alone sat).  And it explicity covers “the impact on the social care sector”.

Maybe Cummings is right, and MPs can do little in the short term to cure our entire system of being “terrifyingly sh*t”.  But if he’s wrong, they have a chance to make a start, by taking a synoptic view of Covid’s handling, learning lessons and recommending changes.

And again, perhaps we’re all “absolutely f*cked”.  But if not, the Government will act on the advice that’s given, and we at least stand a chance of being in a better place when the next unexpected event happens.

Either way, Parliament, in the form of Hunt and Clark’s committee, is set to play a decisive role in determining Hancock’s future and, by extension, that of the Government.

His coming evidence and Cummings’ this week are part of the story of the revival of Select Committees, which is getting Parliament out and about ahead of the inquiry.

As things stand, the Cummings firework that flares and splutters the most are his claims about the Health Secretary – which have also dragged Mark Sedwill, the former Cabinet Secretary, into the fray.   Unless rebutted, these will burn his house down.

Neither Clark, sacked by Johnson, nor Hunt, defeated by Johnson, will want to open themselves up to accusations that they are seeking to settle old inter-Tory scores.

But sources on the committee tell ConHome that, since Cummings has made claims about Hancock during their proceedings, the committee will feel obliged to try to get to the bottom of them.

When asked if the committee had a right to see minutes, documents and recordings that might prove the allegations one way or the other, we were told that this is “a constitutional grey area”.  (Cummings has said that he will hand over material in his possession.)

So while the committee has no mandate to directly pursue the Health Secretary over whether he was or wasn’t in breach of the Ministerial code, it nonetheless has one to seek “lessons learned”.  If that raises the question of what he did and didn’t pledge, then so be it.

Cummings Reborn – as the champion of Parliament. He has given MPs more power, so leaving the inquiry with less.

26 May

Dominic Cummings’ marathon evidence session was bad for Ministers, bad for the civil service, bad for government – and, not least, bad for Cummings, as he turned his gun on himself, so to speak, in the wake of his drive-by shooting.

That’s to say, it was bad for all of these if the public take any notice, rather than following Clark Gable: “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.  Should they?

Some will make snap judgements about what Cummings’ evidence said about how we’re governed, whether voters care or not.  Or sigh world-wearily instead, and say that it was ever thus.

Others will try to work out which politicians are damaged most.  Or which civil servants and government departments are.  Or whether Cummings was angling for a job under a Rishi Sunak or Michael Gove-led administration.

Others still will say that the Labour manifesto of 1983 can no longer claim the title of the longest suicide note in history.  Because Cummings’ evidence has overhauled it.

Whatever your view, the very length and density of the evidence defies an instant take.  Except that its core message was Martin Amis’ definition of entropy: Everything Fucks Up.

However, one point hits home immediately.  Yesterday, Cummings bent the passage of time.  That’s to say, he brought politics forward from the Covid inquiry – and dumped it on the floor of the Commons.

Did Boris Johnson so dismiss the virus’ threat as to suggest injecting himself with it on live TV?  Did Carrie Symonds act illegally in relation to an appointment?  Did Matt Hancock lie “on multiple occasions”?

Did Mark Sedwill, then Cabinet Secretary, propose “chicken pox parties” in order that as many people as possible catch the virus?  Did the Prime Minister “not want a proper border policy”?

Was there never a plan to shield care homes or test those entering – contrary to assurances from the Health Secretary? Aren’t the dead and their families owed so much better?  And is the key problem that haunts the British people or systems?

For on the one hand, Cummings said that the crisis required “a kind of dictator” with “close to kingly authority”.  On the other, he claimed that even Bill Gates or “the most competent people in the world…would have had an absolute nightmare”.

For better or worse, Cummings’ evidence will give MPs opportunities to put all these questions soon rather than later (i.e: after the next election, in all probability, when the inquiry at last reports – by which time some of them will no longer be in the Commons).

And not just in the chamber.  Whatever else can be said of today’s session, it was a triumph for the Select Committee system.  Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt – an old double act that once wrote a pamphlet together – were sober, prepared and measured.

Pan the camera out a bit, and you can see how Select Committees are enjoying a revival.  Major inquiries have not usually been undertaken in Parliament during recent years.

Bloody Sunday, child abuse, the Iraq War: all the main ones in the last few decades, stretching all way back to the Franks Report on the Falklands War and beyond, have been farmed out by the Executive to judges (or lay experts).

But where Hunt and Clark walked today, they will continue tomorrow.  The Health Secretary faces an evidence session.  Parliamentary questions will be asked of him in the Commons today.  Johnson is to make a statement.

Other committees may get in on the act – just as they have over the Greensill collapse, over which a Treasury Select Committee inquiry is up and running.  The Business Committee has one coming.  The Public Administration Committee has already got one going.

Now have a think about who some of those committee chairmen are.  Hunt, Health Select Committee: Johnson’s leadership rival (and the man in charge of pandemic prep under previous governments).  Clark, Science Select Committee, who Johnson sacked from the Cabinet.

Mel Stride, Treasury Select Committee Chair, ditto.  (Well, almost: as Commons Leader under Theresa May, he had the right to attend.)  William Wragg, Public Administration: a persistent critic of the Government over lockdown.

What an irony it is that Cummings, who once refused to attend a Select Committee, and was threatened with a summons to the bar of the Commons, has been falling over himself in his eagerness to give evidence.

And that he, the razer of institutions – not least Parliament – has helped to restore it.  Or at least given it a chance to revive itself, and get ahead of an inquiry before its members have even been appointed.

Johnson should not let officials use the Greensill scandal to expand their power

20 Apr

There is a whiff of ‘the house always wins’ to today’s reports in the Times that Lord Evans, the head of the Government’s ethics watchdog, has called for the Prime Minister to be stripped of the authority to initiate investigations into alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code.

After all, as the papers own reporting on the subject made very clear, it was not the politicians but Jeremy Heywood, the mandarin supreme, who played the key role in bringing Lex Greensill into the heart of Whitehall.

Yet inevitably the official conclusion is even more powers for officials – one more step on the path towards what our editor described as “the Sue Gray-ification of British politics”. If there were proposals to place greater controls on the behaviour of civil servants, they went unreported.

Of course, under Evans’ proposals the Prime Minister would still retain control over what sanction to apply to ministers found to have breached the Code. But how long would that have lasted?

Consider that Evans also intends to detail a more “proportionate range of sanctions” and for the advisor on the Code to have their own staff. It is not difficult to see how, when the adviser is independently assessing the severity of a breach and there is a gradated schedule of sanctions to hand, Johnson or his successors will come under fresh pressure to renounce yet more of their remaining discretion.

This is the latest front in the war between those who think the exercise of political power should be held politically accountable, and those who would place official controls on it. We encounter it most often in the realm of public appointments, where ministers have been making an explicitly political push to shift the balance in the character of appointees whilst the éminences grises attack them for exercising ‘patronage’.

But the vision of independent panels appointing independent panels poses the question: what are they independent from? Ultimately, Parliament and the public. Instead, power simply collects in less accountable hands, and rule is laid upon rule without regard for the overall damage it can do to the political end of the system. As our editor put it:

“In other words, more of the medicine that is worsening the current illness. Obviously, Parliament needs some minimum standard to curb abuses, of which a register of interests will be part. But yet more restrictions on people who have served as Ministers will mean yet another incentive not to become one.”

We should be wary of criticisms of politicians marking their own homework coming from an officialdom which could be said to be doing the same. Nor should the remedy to the Greensill fiasco impede the Government’s worthwhile work to introduce more political accountability – and thus, political power – to the system.

Richard Ritchie: In-house, employee lobbyists are different

19 Apr

Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

When I looked after BP’s UK Government Affairs team – and I did the job throughout the Blair, Brown and Cameron years – I never liked the word ‘lobbyist’. Though I realise that, to many people, that’s what we were. But while it was our job to advance BP’s interests within Whitehall, we performed this role entirely differently from a paid lobbyist acting for various clients ‘for hire’. Amidst the current controversy, it is a great mistake to assume that by requiring in-house employee lobbyists to register, anything beneficial would be achieved. In-house lobbyists are a different breed.

I always thought we were more akin to civil servants than lobbyists. Often, our most important advice was offered internally, and our main role was to understand the political dimensions of any commercial decision and advise our managers accordingly. Although most businessmen think they understand politics, those at the top very seldom do. They tend to resemble disgruntled and angry members of a golf club who are convinced that, if only they were running the country, all would be well. Such people never liked to be warned that a commercial decision might attract political criticism. Their conviction that the action was rational, and in the shareholders’ interests, was sufficient justification. But the internal lobbyist’s job was to advise senior management that this wasn’t necessarily the case, and this required someone with political rather than commercial instincts.

This could mean telling senior managers they were mistaken, rather like an external lobbyist informing a client that he is wrong and wasting his money. If that means losing the client, an external lobbyist might think twice before giving such advice. Maybe that happens sometimes. But it’s more likely that a lobbyist will go along with what the client wants, even though it may be unrealistic and politically naïve. Proffering such advice could be difficult for the in-house lobbyist too, especially when the budget of the Government Affairs department is seen as an additional cost by those engaged in profit-making activities. Occasionally, one heard of the concept of ‘lobbying-for-profit’ as a means of justifying the commercial existence of a government affairs department to those who were sceptical of its role. But I always felt that the greatest service I might have performed for BP was to help avoid (or mitigate) costly political mistakes, rather than add directly to shareholders’ dividends.

That is why sometimes our best advice was to “do nothing.” Because we weren’t client-driven, it was much easier for us to give internal advice which might be unpopular with our bosses but which was politically realistic. Our jobs did not depend on ‘winning business’ from outside, but rather on retaining the respect of those whom we advised internally. Like civil servants, we were there to point out the dangers, but also to offer suggestions on how best to steer through commercial decisions which might be politically sensitive.

Sometimes, we were required to fulfil an advocacy role. There are always instances when amending legislation or reducing a tax will benefit a company or industry. But when this was required, the manager or director concerned normally had greater credibility with the Government than any lobbyist. Or rather, the director became the lobbyist, which raises another flaw in the requirement for employee lobbyists to be registered. In the case of a company like BP, would the CEO have to sign up to the lobbyist register? Invariably he or she is the person who will convey the important messages, not the ‘lobbyist’ who advises and frames them.

Moreover, it’s a two-way exchange. For example, when I was at BP, North Sea taxation was a contentious issue for any Chancellor and the subject of numerous reviews and consultations. My impression was that the Treasury wanted to speak to oil companies as much as oil companies wished to speak to the Treasury. However much our interests may have diverged, it was never in the Government’s interest to devise complicated legislation without a technical understanding of the effect it would have on commercial decisions to develop, or not to develop, the North Sea. The Treasury and other Government departments were just as likely to seek out BP’s views, as BP was likely to wish to communicate them. My experience was that it was best to acknowledge when our interests didn’t coincide, and simply to explain how a piece of proposed legislation would affect us.

For the oil industry, perhaps the area where most suspicion existed was over climate change and the need for ‘green’ policies. Companies differed in their approach. In those days, Exxon was the most sceptical of the need to curtail fossil fuel development, while BP under John Browne was championing ‘Beyond Petroleum’. This was as much about strategic direction as image, and clearly it had an impact upon how the respective companies advanced their positions to government. But neither company was secretive about its position. And I know that both positions were fully debated within their own companies in which the respective Government Affairs Departments were engaged. But ultimately it was the CEO who decided and advanced the case to government – and no register of interests would have made any difference as it was already public knowledge where the companies stood.

When David Cameron spoke of lobbying as the next big scandal to happen, he was referring rightly to the lack of transparency prevailing at the time. It is easy for the issue of lobbying to become confused with freedom of information, and the extent to which private conversations between the Chairman of a large company and government have a right to be kept confidential. If David Cameron had been required to register as an in-house’ lobbyist, it’s unclear what practical difference this would have made. If a company hires a senior politician or civil servant once they leave the public sector, there is no secret why it does so. It wishes to benefit from that person’s experience both of issues and people. It will probably be more effective if the person in question is simply paid directly for his services, rather than as the recipient of future share options. That, again, is a different issue.

But for the lobbying industry as a whole, away from the famous personalities, there is a distinction between those who do the work openly as an employee of a private company and those who work for a range of clients, sometimes beneath the radar. If it is to become a requirement for any employee of a company who speaks to the Government to register as a lobbyist, it will be hard to escape the reality that “we are all lobbyists now.”