Mark Lehain: “The Government stands unequivocally against critical race theory.” The significance of Badenoch’s speech this week.

22 Oct

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

On Tuesday, towards the end of an otherwise run-of-the-mill debate on Black History Month in the Commons, Kemi Badenoch said the following:

“I want to be absolutely clear that the Government stand unequivocally against critical race theory… We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt. Let me be clear that any school that teaches those elements of critical race theory as fact, or that promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”

And boom: there it is – the clearest statement yet that the Government is serious about taking on some of the hard-left ideas that have taken hold of large chunks of the public and private sectors in recent times.  You can see the whole of Badenoch’s speech above.

Her words build on guidance released by the Department for Education last month, which contained a reminder for schools of their legal obligation to “offer a balanced presentation of opposing views” when covering political issues.

The requirement for schools to be impartial on such matters is longstanding including private schools and academies – but you wouldn’t think this was the case judging by the reaction of some people. Even John McDonell popped up to claim it was more evidence that a “drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace”, bless him.

Reminding people of a law that growing numbers are ignoring is important, but not in itself enough.

My campaign group, The Campaign for Common Sense has been tracking the issue of biased schools for a while now, and we’ve four simple, low-effort, suggestions as to how schools can be helped to get back on track.

First of all, the Department for Education should work with the Headteacher unions to develop further guidance and exemplification on the kinds of issues that are tripping schools up. (Sadly, there’s no point talking to the big teacher unions as they’re completely in thrall to Critical Race Theory and other leftist ideology.)

Next, Gavin Williamson should write to the Headteacher and Chair of Governors (or Trustees) of every school in England. He would remind them of their obligations to impartiality, and share the results of the union collaboration to assist with compliance.

Third, schools are already obliged to publish curriculum details on their website, and we propose that they add to this a statement from the Headteacher confirming one thing: that they have checked the curriculum programme and resources and are satisfied that pupils will received a politically impartial education. (They should be doing this already, so this is literally two-minutes work for them.)

Finally, Ofsted should spot-check for impartiality as part of their inspection process; this could be whilst evaluating the “Quality of Education” or “Personal Development” areas. If non-compliance meant a school’s all-important “Overall Effectiveness” judgement couldn’t be “Good” or better, you can be sure political balance would be restored very quickly indeed.

These steps would go a long way to improving things for pupils, but it raises questions about the wider public sector.

The previous Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education was particularly keen on Critical Race theory and other “woke” ideas, but even though he has been moved on the department still runs “Project Race”, and has civil servants who act as “Race Champions”. Much time and money is also given over to other politically correct initiatives including gender identity, unconscious bias, and so on. And of course, this is happening across all departments, not just education.

Stopping civil servants from allocating precious resources to these kinds of things is vital if politically contested ideas are going to be removed and the Civil Service depoliticised.

It probably shouldn’t stop there, though – after all, lots of public services are provided by quangos, third sector organisations, and charities. Obviously, how these organisations spend their own or other people’s money is absolutely their own business. But future public sector grants and contracts should insert a clause that the money that comes from them cannot be spent on politically contested ideas and practices.

All of the above would make a big difference to the focus and quality of lots of our public services. However, these changes would pale into insignificance if the government got the right people into key roles.

Consider how Liz Truss has taken the heat out of the issue of transgender rights and self-ID. Or the way the Commission of Race and Ethnic Disparities is moving the issue of racism away from emotions and onto evidence & practical improvements.

And look at the impact of a quiet letter to museums about historical displays places previously under pressure to remove objects are now standing firm.

The bad ideas we’re challenging are like the Emperor’s New Clothes – point out how wrong they are, and they quickly fall apart.

Marvel at the impact Badenoch made with a few words in parliament. Now imagine a government filled with similarly clear-sighted souls. We could quickly get back to common sense issues and improving everyday lives. Here’s hoping that Badenoch’s speech in parliament marked the start of a concerted push, and not a chance blast in the dark.

Anthony Browne: Are we really going to pass a law that would devastate many of the world’s poorest people?

11 Oct

Anthony Browne MP is MP for South Cambridgeshire, and is Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment.

Would you support a law that could ban imports of tea, coffee and bananas into the UK, devastating many of the world’s poorest economies – and people? Or that effectively bans food imports from developed nations which have a trade deal with us – but allows them from those that don’t?

No, I didn’t think so.

But that would be the impact of last week’s House of Lords well-intentioned but ill thought-out amendment to the Agriculture Bill, coming to the Commons tomorrow, which insists that agricultural imports under any trade deal would have to be produced to the UK’s environmental protection, animal welfare, food safety and plant health standards.

Making sure we don’t allow trade deals to undermine our environmental and animal welfare standards is an issue I passionately support, to the extent I made it the thrust of my maiden speech. I have been environment correspondent of two national newspapers, and am chair of the APPG on the Environment.

I have a rural constituency, and like most MPs, my inbox is flooded with demands – many prompted by Jamie Oliver’s campaigners – that I support this amendment. The Conservative Manifesto is also committed to ensuring trade deals don’t undermine our animal welfare, food safety and environmental standards. I know that the overwhelming majority of my colleagues support this aim.

The amendment sounds entirely reasonable, but its consequences could be utterly unreasonable. It is based on very solid principles which we can all support – but simply legislating for good principles rarely makes for good law.

Even its supporters should accept from the outset that this law is not a preservation of our current standards on imports, but a dramatic raising of them. It creates a potentially vast set of new conditions, which do not exist under any existing EU or UK agreement.

It would be extremely unlikely that trading partners would agree to all requirements; in some cases, it might not even be possible for them to do so. The EU is instinctively protectionist, but even it does not require that all imports have to precisely meet our environmental and animal welfare standards. Do campaigners think EU standards are unacceptably low?

We import bananas from many countries including the Dominican Republic, Belize and Cameroon. We import coffee from Indonesia, Ghana and Vietnam and black tea from Kenya. We do all this under existing (EU) rules.

But this amendment would require all these countries to have processes in place to show that they meet thousands of pages of UK domestic environmental and animal welfare legislation. The cost would be prohibitive and also unnecessary: I can tell you for free that they do not meet the carbon emission targets of the Climate Change Act that are now UK law. If we pass this amendment, pretty much all food imports would be banned from pretty much all developing countries if we signed a trade deal with them.

Developed nations can better afford to provide the evidence that they meet UK standards, but many of them are seriously inappropriate. Our geography and climate mean that we need strict legal controls on nitrate concentration in soils, which are inappropriate for other countries. We have laws (to protect nesting birds) on what time of year farmers are allowed to cut hedges, which would be completely wrong-headed to impose on producers with different eco-systems.

Campaigners would take cases to court to decide what imports are allowed. We were the first major economy in the world to legislate for Net Zero by 2050. Do we ban all agricultural imports from countries without those legal targets? There is a contradiction between us wanting to be world-leading on environmental standards, and then insisting we will only trade with those who have the same standards.

There is also the bizarre unintended consequence that the amendment only applies to trade where there is a free trade agreement. So we could import coffee from Vietnam if we have don’t have a trade agreement, but if we do have a trade agreement we would have to ban coffee imports. Our trade deals would become anti-trade deals.

Like the EU, we should be pragmatic. The detail is so complex, we can’t tie the hands of our trade negotiators with blunt legislation, but rather we should examine in detail whether we support what they are proposing.

That is why the government has agreed with campaigners to set up an independent Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise on how best the UK can seize new export opportunities, while ensuring animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined. I think there are strong arguments to make this commission permanent to scrutinise future trade deals. If you don’t trust the assurances of ministers, Parliament already has the power to reject any trade deal that it does not like.

Debate on this issue often ends up focused on the US’s chlorinated chicken. But there is already a UK law banning any product other than potable water from being used to decontaminate meat. Whatever is agreed in any trade deal, chlorinated chicken could only be sold in the UK if Parliament passes legislation allowing it. As Sir Humphrey would say: that would be very brave.

The overwhelming weight of political opinion is against us lowering our standards. We need to keep the same high standards on food and agriculture imports as we had in the EU. And that is exactly what the Government is doing.

Anthony Browne: Are we really going to pass a law that would devastate many of the world’s poorest people?

11 Oct

Anthony Browne MP is MP for South Cambridgeshire, and is Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment.

Would you support a law that could ban imports of tea, coffee and bananas into the UK, devastating many of the world’s poorest economies – and people? Or that effectively bans food imports from developed nations which have a trade deal with us – but allows them from those that don’t?

No, I didn’t think so.

But that would be the impact of last week’s House of Lords well-intentioned but ill thought-out amendment to the Agriculture Bill, coming to the Commons tomorrow, which insists that agricultural imports under any trade deal would have to be produced to the UK’s environmental protection, animal welfare, food safety and plant health standards.

Making sure we don’t allow trade deals to undermine our environmental and animal welfare standards is an issue I passionately support, to the extent I made it the thrust of my maiden speech. I have been environment correspondent of two national newspapers, and am chair of the APPG on the Environment.

I have a rural constituency, and like most MPs, my inbox is flooded with demands – many prompted by Jamie Oliver’s campaigners – that I support this amendment. The Conservative Manifesto is also committed to ensuring trade deals don’t undermine our animal welfare, food safety and environmental standards. I know that the overwhelming majority of my colleagues support this aim.

The amendment sounds entirely reasonable, but its consequences could be utterly unreasonable. It is based on very solid principles which we can all support – but simply legislating for good principles rarely makes for good law.

Even its supporters should accept from the outset that this law is not a preservation of our current standards on imports, but a dramatic raising of them. It creates a potentially vast set of new conditions, which do not exist under any existing EU or UK agreement.

It would be extremely unlikely that trading partners would agree to all requirements; in some cases, it might not even be possible for them to do so. The EU is instinctively protectionist, but even it does not require that all imports have to precisely meet our environmental and animal welfare standards. Do campaigners think EU standards are unacceptably low?

We import bananas from many countries including the Dominican Republic, Belize and Cameroon. We import coffee from Indonesia, Ghana and Vietnam and black tea from Kenya. We do all this under existing (EU) rules.

But this amendment would require all these countries to have processes in place to show that they meet thousands of pages of UK domestic environmental and animal welfare legislation. The cost would be prohibitive and also unnecessary: I can tell you for free that they do not meet the carbon emission targets of the Climate Change Act that are now UK law. If we pass this amendment, pretty much all food imports would be banned from pretty much all developing countries if we signed a trade deal with them.

Developed nations can better afford to provide the evidence that they meet UK standards, but many of them are seriously inappropriate. Our geography and climate mean that we need strict legal controls on nitrate concentration in soils, which are inappropriate for other countries. We have laws (to protect nesting birds) on what time of year farmers are allowed to cut hedges, which would be completely wrong-headed to impose on producers with different eco-systems.

Campaigners would take cases to court to decide what imports are allowed. We were the first major economy in the world to legislate for Net Zero by 2050. Do we ban all agricultural imports from countries without those legal targets? There is a contradiction between us wanting to be world-leading on environmental standards, and then insisting we will only trade with those who have the same standards.

There is also the bizarre unintended consequence that the amendment only applies to trade where there is a free trade agreement. So we could import coffee from Vietnam if we have don’t have a trade agreement, but if we do have a trade agreement we would have to ban coffee imports. Our trade deals would become anti-trade deals.

Like the EU, we should be pragmatic. The detail is so complex, we can’t tie the hands of our trade negotiators with blunt legislation, but rather we should examine in detail whether we support what they are proposing.

That is why the government has agreed with campaigners to set up an independent Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise on how best the UK can seize new export opportunities, while ensuring animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined. I think there are strong arguments to make this commission permanent to scrutinise future trade deals. If you don’t trust the assurances of ministers, Parliament already has the power to reject any trade deal that it does not like.

Debate on this issue often ends up focused on the US’s chlorinated chicken. But there is already a UK law banning any product other than potable water from being used to decontaminate meat. Whatever is agreed in any trade deal, chlorinated chicken could only be sold in the UK if Parliament passes legislation allowing it. As Sir Humphrey would say: that would be very brave.

The overwhelming weight of political opinion is against us lowering our standards. We need to keep the same high standards on food and agriculture imports as we had in the EU. And that is exactly what the Government is doing.

Neil O’Brien: Johnson should instruct a team of Ministers to wage war on woke

21 Sep

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Every day brings fresh examples of the woke revolution rolling through western institutions.

The last couple of weeks saw Edinburgh University ‘cancelling’ the great Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume, taking his name off one of its buildings. The BBC broadcasting a comedian joking about killing white people. The Parliamentary authorities considering making MPs undertake “unconscious bias training”. The Natural History Museum reviewing displays relating to Charles Darwin, because the voyage of the Beagle could be seen as “colonialism”. The SNP administration in Edinburgh trying to push through a “Hate Crime” law – despite being warned by everyone from the Police Federation to comedians and novelists that it threatens free speech.

In the US, where the woke agenda is further advanced, it was announced that films must now hit diversity quotas to be eligible to win an Oscar.  The English department at the University of Chicago announced it will admit only those graduate students who plan to work in Black Studies.

I’ve written before about what’s wrong with the woke agenda, but others have put it better than me, and in response to the woke revolution, there’s now a diverse group of thinkers pushing back.

Ed West and Douglas Murray have chronicled the excesses of wokery in books that are funny as well as perceptive.  Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have explained the origins of the woke agenda in the “critical theory” sweeping universities over recent decades.  Tom Holland, though not a political writer, explains how much the woke agenda owes (without realising it) to Christianity.

For me, one of the most compelling critiques is by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, two liberal professors in the US.

They are worried the woke agenda isn’t just undermining basic liberal ideas like free speech and debate, but encouraging younger people to think in ways that are damaging.

They diagnose three bad ways of thinking which have become engrained in US universities: a belief that young people are emotionally fragile and have to be protected from ideas they might find upsetting; a belief that you should always trust your emotions, prioritising emotion over reason; and forms of us-versus-them thinking which divide the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, with no in-betweens.

As Haidt and Lukianoff write, making universities into ‘safe spaces’ with no intellectual diversity is setting people up to fail: students don’t get used to disagreeing reasonably; or understanding that people who don’t agree with you may not be evil. As someone pointed out: you don’t help someone get strong by taking the weights out of the gym for them.

Their book contains hair-raising accounts of the kind of protests and madness this agenda has led to in US universities, increasingly a world of ‘trigger warnings’, ‘no-platforming’ and everyone walking on eggshells for fear of committing ‘microagressions.’

While this may seem remote to us living in Britain and not working in universities, the truth is that ideas from the US relentlessly percolate into the UK.

Whether it’s the Black Lives Matter protests in London, or British teenagers referring to the British police as “Feds”, ideas always blow over from across the Atlantic, so what happens in the US today will likely happen here tomorrow.

I find the woke agenda alarming because it promises a future very different from the one I grew up hoping for. When I was a teenager the future was going to be that we would be increasingly colour-blind.  That people would be treated as individuals, not members of races.  That everyone was capable of fitting into our shared modern, western culture.

Instead, wokeism tells us we should increasingly see each other as members of different races.  That ethnic minorities can’t assimilate into a modern, western culture because that they are (in some ill-defined way) incompatible with that culture.  That young people from ethnic minorities should be on their guard at all times, because they live in a culture which seeps racism from every pore.

Worst of all, it tells us that we must stay in our lane.  That we can’t enjoy another culture, because that’s “cultural appropriation.” That values like working hard or objectivity or the nuclear family are characteristics of white people, not others.

I’m not the first to say it (indeed there’s comedy sketches about it) but in the same way that the extreme left and extreme right are kind of similar, the woke agenda and the racist one have some powerful similarities.

If we think the woke agenda is damaging, divisive and illiberal, what can we do about it?

There’s now a number of campaign groups dealing with different aspects of it. The Free Speech Union does what it says on the tin. The Campaign for Common Sense brings a thoughtful take to the big questions raised by the woke agenda. The Equiano Project and “All In Britain” promote grown-up, non-hysterical discussion about race and diversity.

But what should we do as a Party and a Government?

While the Prime Minister is quite right to speak out on absurdities like the Last Night of the Proms saga, he simply can’t be everywhere, since he has a virus to fight, an economy to save and a Brexit deal to land. So the Government needs to empower a minister, or group of ministers, to lead and deal with this.

Different solutions are possible in different fields. For example, in the civil service, government has more control.  The Government could end programmes like “unconscious bias training” which don’t work and waste money, but have official backing and are compulsory for all staff in many departments.  The other day, it was revealed that the Ministry Of Defence has more diversity and equality officers than the Royal Navy has warships. Do we need so many people in such roles in the public sector?

In other fields like broadcasting, universities and cultural institutions, government has less direct control. Ministers like Oliver Dowden and Gavin Williamson have rightly rapped institutions over the knuckles when they have done things that are unacceptable.

But as well as intervening, government also needs to communicate why this agenda is wrong and divisive, and what it opposes.

Margaret Thatcher could not intervene personally in every departmental squabble.  But she didn’t’ have to. Civil servants didn’t have to wonder what her view on an issue would be. You knew. Because she took time to make arguments of principle, again and again.

That’s what’s needed now. One common theme in many woke rows is that people in positions of leadership simply don’t understand where the boundaries are.

For example, permanent secretaries of various government departments tweeted their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The Civil Service Race Forum attacks government, claiming “many anti BAME policies originated in Whitehall.” Several department’s intranets have promoted highly contentious material about “white privilege” and Britain’s “systemic racism.”

Officials need to understand that they are not posting neutral stuff that everyone agrees on, but one side of a political argument.

When the British Library promoted materials to staff suggesting they should back a campaign by Diane Abbott, how could its leadership not spot that they were violating the rules on political neutrality?

The truth is we all live in bubbles, and if you run a large arts organisation in London most of the people you know probably have a certain world view. Such people need to be reminded that the taxpayers who pay their wages don’t all agree, and they have an obligation to be neutral.

To get them to understand where the boundaries are, government needs to set them out clearly and wholeheartedly.  The Prime Minister has even bigger battles to fight. But he should empower a minister to lay down the law, and wage war on woke.

Conservatives can’t be neutral about culture

7 Sep

MPs are to be made to take unconscious bias training.  A former Prime Minister of Australia is targeted because he is a social conservative.  The British Library links changes to the way it will work to George Floyd’s murder in America.   Extinction Rebellion clip the wings of a free press.  Senior civil servants declare publicly for Black Lives Matter.

Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have a majority of 80.  But the Left’s long march through the institutions seems, if anything, to speed up.

And the Government either won’t do anything about it or doesn’t want to – or both.  What’s the point of a Tory Government, a stonking majority and Brexit itself if nothing changes?

That’s the case for the prosection from some on the Right.  Should Johnson and his Government be found guilty?

The first thing a fair-minded jury would do is mull the charge sheet above.  It would see at once that the incidents and developments above vary in important ways.  For example, the Executive does not control the Legislature.  So whether to conduct bias training or otherwise is a matter for MPs, not Ministers.

The second course it would take is to try to work out what government should and shouldn’t do.  To take another example, Ministerial control of police operations would be alien to the British model of policing by consent, and to a free society.

Third, it would ask those at the top of the Government what they have to say for themselves.  The answers ConservativeHome gets when it puts that question, off the record, is a mix of the following.

Downing Street has “limited bandwidth” – i.e: fewer people than it needs.  Changing the culture of government is like turning round a supertanker, but it can be done.  Look at the change of tone from the BBC’s new Director-General.  And there are victories as well as defeats: the corporation backed down over Last Night of the Proms and the Government didn’t over Abbott’s appointment.

But that’s not all that some of our sources will say when they’re being candid.  They say that the Prime Minister moves slowly not just for reasons of political calculation, but because he’s internally conflicted.  His upbringing, attitudes and reflexes are liberal as well as conservative.  So he moves cautiously – being slower out of traps to champion the singing of Rule Britannia, as it happens, than did Keir Starmer.

You, ladies and gentlemen of the conservative jury, will reach your own verdict – or, if you’re sensible, conclude that putting the Government on a trial after it has had less than a year in office is premature.  Nonetheless, here’s our provisional take.

Johnson is denounced by much of the Remain-flavoured Left as a British Trumpian Bannonite – a misreading which helps to explain why he keeps on winning.  He is right not to declare a culture war from Downing Street.  The British people aren’t in our view enthusiasts for wars of any kind.

But if you think about it for a moment, you’ll see that one of the reasons he doesn’t need to declare such a war is that is already being fought.  The noisiest and nastiest parts of it tend to be where race, sex and religion are contested.

Those in the front line aren’t necessarily conservatives, let alone Conservatives.  They include J.K.Rowling as well as Katherine Birbalsingh (who’s being interviewed live by Mark Wallace this week ; Germaine Greer as well as Nigel Biggar.

That they and others are in the hottest parts of the action may explain why, to large parts of the conservative movement, the real heroes of our time are private citizens rather than public ones.  Consider the case of Jordan Peterson.

Some will say that the Conservative Party, and the centre-right more broadly, is divided about this cultural struggle, citing such telltale signs as Matt Hancock deliberately declaring “Black Lives Matter” at a Government Coronavirus press conference, or Grant Shapps declaring that he’d check Abbott’s record before going for a drink with him.

We think this is an over-complication.  Sure, conservatives won’t always agree about culture any more than they will about economics.  That’s why, inter alia, the flavour of David Cameron’s Downing Street was different from that of Johnson’s.  Near the top, there were fewer northern accents, more women, and fewer “weirdos and misfits”.

But we suspect that if Tory MPs were surveyed, the following attitudes would be found.  Support for equality of opportunity, or as close as one can get to it, rather than equality of outcome.  Much less backing for abortion on demand than on the Labour benches.  Much more for the free market being a friend of the environment, not an enemy.  Caution on reforming the Gender Recognition Act.   Agreement that real diversity must include a diversity of viewpoints.  Disagreement that poor working-class white people have a race privilege.  Poll them and prove us wrong.

In other words, Conservative MPs are more likely to share the patriotic instincts of most voters than Labour ones.  If you doubt it, ask yourself why Starmer is so anxious to present as Labour a patriotic party; why he was quicker than Johnson in coming out for Rule Britannia, and whywe read – his team want to present him as a very British hero who led in prosecuting an Islamist bomb plot. That’s solid ground for the Prime Minister to have beneath him

So while these are early days, we say that just because a Tory Government can’t – and shouldn’t – do everything, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t do something.  For example, there is a Minister for the Civil Service.  He is no less senior a figure than the Prime Minister himself.

So it’s up to Johnson to ensure that senior civil servants don’t promote, in practice if not in theory, causes that are outside any reasonable reading of its code – such as Black Lives Matter which, on any impartial reading, is tainted by anti-white dogma.  (Which doesn’t for a moment preclude following-up on Theresa May’s observation that “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”.)

Cultural change isn’t driven by governments, and thank goodness for that.  Over time, those that have transformed human lives most are the products of human invention (railways; the pill; vaccines) or conviction (the Abrahamic religions; the Enlightenment; secular humanism – or, talking of black lives mattering, America’s civil war.

But though the role of government should be limited, it is real, and modern Britain will always be more than just a market with a flag on top.  Governments propose laws, present manifestos, fund public services, make arguments – just as Johnson’s pre-election one did for delivering Brexit. And, talking of Extinction Rebellion, set the framework for policing policy.

We’d like to see the Prime Minister speak more swiftly when what Neil O’Brien calls the New Puritans – i.e: the legions of the woke – try to silence their opponents.  And ensure that the Government keeps them out of what government does.  Were Cummings and co to reduce its size and scope, that task would become just a bit easier.

Bernard Jenkin: Case’s appointment could mark a fresh start – after deteriorating confidence between Ministers and officials

4 Sep

Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Liaison Committee. He is MP for Harwich and North Essex.

The appointment of Simon Case as Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service presents a new opportunity to make a fresh start on the relationship between the Government and the civil servants. It follows a period of deteriorating confidence and increasing disillusion between the Government and its officials.

Ministers must want to end the paralysing effects of regular disputes with the civil servants upon whom they depend for policy and advice and for the delivery of their decisions. Ministers need to wake up to the fact that, on any realistic time horizon, this is the only civil service there is.  There is no instant alternative.  By all means complain about it (best in private), but nurture it too.  That means improving Whitehall leadership and addressing Whitehall culture.  This appointment should jolt the coming generation of Whitehall leaders out of any remaining complacency that there must be change.  But what kind of change?

Michael Gove’s Ditchley lecture about Whitehall highlighted at least 18 criticisms, most of them familiar and about which the civil service has been too complacent for too long.  Michael also proposed six main solutions: relocating Government decision-making out of London: recruiting policymakers from “overlooked and hitherto undervalued communities”; a “more thoughtful approach to devolution”; promoting officials in-role, to reduce churn and to retain talent; and re-establishing a “properly-resourced campus for training those in Government”.

Sadly, that last and vital proposal has already been dropped, because the Treasury knew nothing of this announcement before it was made.  So back we go to just on-line learning and teaching by contractors. Overall, the speech did not give a clear vision of what sort of institution we want it to be.

It is curious that a speech addressing organisational dysfunction should place so little emphasis on the need for the civil service to develop its own stronger leadership.  The new National Leadership Centre has been established to develop better leaders across the public sector, and should be supported by ministers.

Like any other organisation, the Civil Service depends above all on capable leaders.  Equip every official with subject knowledge, expertise and technical skills, fix the structure, stop the churn, and Whitehall will still show many of the Ditchley list of failings unless it develops better leaders.  And leadership is not just an accident of personality.  A great concert pianist may be born with exceptional gifts, but won’t succeed without copious instruction, practice, reviewing and learning.  Capable leaders are the same.

A telling piece of evidence to Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee inquiry on public procurement came from Lord Levene.  He reformed defence procurement in the 1980s, and came back to advise the Cameron administration in 2010.  He observed how in 1985 he found that 1970s reforms had been “replaced by the bureaucracy which took charge again, and the system soon reverted to type”; and also that when he returned in 2010, again he found “a situation where we were effectively back at the point at which I found myself in the spring of 1985.”

In both cases, temporary radical and apparently successful leadership had failed to leave any permanent effect.  What should be the lesson of this?  Yes, importing fresh leadership from outside can be very positive, but permanent transformation of capability and culture requires much more than just temporarily imposing a new person to provide better direction.

Nor did the Ditchley speech present any ideas that would address weaknesses in Whitehall culture, even though it complained about it being “risk-averse”.  With all the blame handed out by ministers these days, why are we surprised about that?  We must learn from Francis Maude’s experience of reforming Whitehall.  He achieved some significant and lasting organisational changes. He would however be the first to agree that he was disappointed by the very limited impact on Whitehall culture.

He later said that he should have addressed that first, and not as an afterthought.  Instead, he had laid emphasis on trying to gain political control over Permanent Secretary appointments and ministers’ private offices. He got some changes, but the culture remained unchanged.

The lessons of his period are twofold.  First, so much more can be achieved in collaboration with Whitehall.  Second, to attempt to force structural change without addressing culture is the slowest and least effective means of achieving meaningful change.  The fruits from his fighting against civil servants are hard to find.  Reform cannot be forced on such a large and living institution.

The appointment of Simon Case as Head of the Civil Service is an opportunity for ministers and officials to agree how to address leadership and culture in Whitehall.  It is also a signal that the civil service must wake up to its own need to reform its beliefs, attitudes and behaviours (which is what we mean by ‘culture’).  Ministers and officials need to agree about which attitudes and behaviours they want to strengthen, and which need to be rooted out.  This should be at the core of leadership development.

These choices need to be based upon a clear expression of purpose and values, by which leaders must be expected to lead by their example.  That includes ministers.  Experience from all organisations show that lasting change cannot be achieved without unity and a clear example from the top.  A few enthusiasts will not be enough to defeat institutional inertia.  The resisters (and there are always some) have to be confronted and if necessary, forced out, but the resisters will win if everyone senses hesitancy or division at the top.  A few extra weirdos and misfits who can do Monte Carlo Method or Bayesian statistics may be nice to have, but they will not alter the culture of Whitehall one jot.

Bernard Jenkin: Case’s appointment could mark a fresh start – after deteriorating confidence between Ministers and officials

4 Sep

Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Liaison Committee. He is MP for Harwich and North Essex.

The appointment of Simon Case as Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service presents a new opportunity to make a fresh start on the relationship between the Government and the civil servants. It follows a period of deteriorating confidence and increasing disillusion between the Government and its officials.

Ministers must want to end the paralysing effects of regular disputes with the civil servants upon whom they depend for policy and advice and for the delivery of their decisions. Ministers need to wake up to the fact that, on any realistic time horizon, this is the only civil service there is.  There is no instant alternative.  By all means complain about it (best in private), but nurture it too.  That means improving Whitehall leadership and addressing Whitehall culture.  This appointment should jolt the coming generation of Whitehall leaders out of any remaining complacency that there must be change.  But what kind of change?

Michael Gove’s Ditchley lecture about Whitehall highlighted at least 18 criticisms, most of them familiar and about which the civil service has been too complacent for too long.  Michael also proposed six main solutions: relocating Government decision-making out of London: recruiting policymakers from “overlooked and hitherto undervalued communities”; a “more thoughtful approach to devolution”; promoting officials in-role, to reduce churn and to retain talent; and re-establishing a “properly-resourced campus for training those in Government”.

Sadly, that last and vital proposal has already been dropped, because the Treasury knew nothing of this announcement before it was made.  So back we go to just on-line learning and teaching by contractors. Overall, the speech did not give a clear vision of what sort of institution we want it to be.

It is curious that a speech addressing organisational dysfunction should place so little emphasis on the need for the civil service to develop its own stronger leadership.  The new National Leadership Centre has been established to develop better leaders across the public sector, and should be supported by ministers.

Like any other organisation, the Civil Service depends above all on capable leaders.  Equip every official with subject knowledge, expertise and technical skills, fix the structure, stop the churn, and Whitehall will still show many of the Ditchley list of failings unless it develops better leaders.  And leadership is not just an accident of personality.  A great concert pianist may be born with exceptional gifts, but won’t succeed without copious instruction, practice, reviewing and learning.  Capable leaders are the same.

A telling piece of evidence to Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee inquiry on public procurement came from Lord Levene.  He reformed defence procurement in the 1980s, and came back to advise the Cameron administration in 2010.  He observed how in 1985 he found that 1970s reforms had been “replaced by the bureaucracy which took charge again, and the system soon reverted to type”; and also that when he returned in 2010, again he found “a situation where we were effectively back at the point at which I found myself in the spring of 1985.”

In both cases, temporary radical and apparently successful leadership had failed to leave any permanent effect.  What should be the lesson of this?  Yes, importing fresh leadership from outside can be very positive, but permanent transformation of capability and culture requires much more than just temporarily imposing a new person to provide better direction.

Nor did the Ditchley speech present any ideas that would address weaknesses in Whitehall culture, even though it complained about it being “risk-averse”.  With all the blame handed out by ministers these days, why are we surprised about that?  We must learn from Francis Maude’s experience of reforming Whitehall.  He achieved some significant and lasting organisational changes. He would however be the first to agree that he was disappointed by the very limited impact on Whitehall culture.

He later said that he should have addressed that first, and not as an afterthought.  Instead, he had laid emphasis on trying to gain political control over Permanent Secretary appointments and ministers’ private offices. He got some changes, but the culture remained unchanged.

The lessons of his period are twofold.  First, so much more can be achieved in collaboration with Whitehall.  Second, to attempt to force structural change without addressing culture is the slowest and least effective means of achieving meaningful change.  The fruits from his fighting against civil servants are hard to find.  Reform cannot be forced on such a large and living institution.

The appointment of Simon Case as Head of the Civil Service is an opportunity for ministers and officials to agree how to address leadership and culture in Whitehall.  It is also a signal that the civil service must wake up to its own need to reform its beliefs, attitudes and behaviours (which is what we mean by ‘culture’).  Ministers and officials need to agree about which attitudes and behaviours they want to strengthen, and which need to be rooted out.  This should be at the core of leadership development.

These choices need to be based upon a clear expression of purpose and values, by which leaders must be expected to lead by their example.  That includes ministers.  Experience from all organisations show that lasting change cannot be achieved without unity and a clear example from the top.  A few enthusiasts will not be enough to defeat institutional inertia.  The resisters (and there are always some) have to be confronted and if necessary, forced out, but the resisters will win if everyone senses hesitancy or division at the top.  A few extra weirdos and misfits who can do Monte Carlo Method or Bayesian statistics may be nice to have, but they will not alter the culture of Whitehall one jot.

Securing the Majority? 4) Getting more Conservatives appointed to public bodies

3 Sep

After the 2019 election, we suggested five ways that Boris Johnson could help to secure the Party’s electoral position as part of our Majority series. This was the fourth. Eight months on, how are they doing?

– – –

Securing The Majority? 4) Getting more Conservatives appointed to public bodies

The thorny question of public appointments is one in which the Tories have only shown intermittent interest over the past ten years.

David Cameron, whose freedom of manoeuvre was restricted by the Coalition, did not really start to take action until late in the day, before the issue was neglected again under Theresa May’s leadership.

Yet with a huge range of responsibilities vested in New Labour’s ‘quangocracy’, the question of ensuring proper representation for Conservatives is not just about fairness – it has real implications for delivering and bedding in the broader Government agenda.

As Paul noted in his original piece, there seems to be no appetite for a full-on fight to wrest control of senior appointments away from the Civil Service (alas). Instead, as we reported in March, the plan appears to be a hard push to increase what Michael Gove called “regional diversity, and diversity of thought”. Alex Hickman, the Prime Minister’s business adviser, is now the spad responsible for appointments.

Ministers are apparently more across this issue too, compared to previous administrations. Appointments are now recognised as an important legacy issue, as many of the appointees will considerably outlast the Secretary of State who appointed them or, indeed, the Government.

Work is also underway on the political side to create more CCHQ support for would-be appointees, with the goal of building a ‘talent pool’ and helping to steer suitable candidates towards particular appointments as they emerge, as well as to be a bit more strategic about when appointments are made (some think one reason Toby Young was forced out of the Office for Students was because the story broke at a quiet point in the news cycle).

It will take time to tell if this process is bearing fruit. One indicator will be how frequently the Government is accused of ‘cronyism’, as it was when Patrick McLoughlin and Nick de Bois landed jobs at Visit Britain and Visit England.

Daniel Hannan: Politicians can’t win. When they don’t give us what we want, we protest. And when they then do, we carry on.

19 Aug

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The exam fiasco is a neat demonstration of what is wrong with our administrative state, our media culture and, frankly, our own double standards.

A bad thing happens. We demand, in an angry but unfocused way, that Something Be Done – in this instance, that schools be closed. When confronted with the consequence of our own demand – i.e: that there is no way to be fair to exam candidates other than to let them sit the papers – we howl with protest.

We don’t blame ourselves, obviously. Nor do we blame those who made it impossible for schools to reopen: teachers’ unions, hostile councils and, indeed, reluctant parents. Nor yet do we blame the people who actually drew up and applied the grading system. No, we focus all our anger on the politicians – the same politicians whom we insisted should “step back and trust the professionals”, should “let teachers get on”, should “stop using our kids as a political football”.

It’s the same story every time. Voters demand that technical agencies be free from political interference, but then rage at ministers when those agencies screw things up. Thus, in an inversion of Stanley Baldwin’s quip about the press barons, ministers have responsibility without power.

There is, for example, an unwritten media rule that, whenever failures in procurement by Public Health England or the NHS are reported, these bodies must always be called “the Government”. The verbal trick allows us to draw a distinction between public sector officials (who are presented as undervalued heroes) and politicians (who are vaguely assumed to be malevolent as well as incompetent).

No one suggests that ministers were directly involved in the procurement failures, any more than that that Gavin Williamson personally drew up the grading algorithm (which drew on input from hundreds of interested parties, including the teaching unions, who were perfectly happy with it). No one needs to point to anything specific, because politicians enjoy the automatic disbenefit of the doubt.

It has long been a convention in this country that ministers carry the can – a good and necessary one. The problem is when ministers have had nothing to do with the can until it is thrust into their hands.

Let’s go back to those grades. Most of us will have come across cases of individual injustice. A young friend of mine, who was top of her year, had had 15 A*s at GCSE and was predicted 4 A*s at A-level, knew as soon as she learned how the algorithm had been drawn up that she was likely to be penalised (one of her predicted A*s was in further maths, so she understands how these things work).

Her school – not an underperforming inner city comprehensive, but a successful private girls school – had had two dud years in two of her subjects, and she knew that no computer would award her the grade that she would have achieved in the exam itself. Sure enough, the algorithm did its work and she missed her university offer.

People in her situation were rightly furious. A computer model had deleteriously altered the course of their lives. Those on the other side – of whom there must have been a great many, since results overall rose this year – naturally attributed their good fortune to themselves rather than to the system. That is how these things work.

When ministers stepped in to redress the grievances of the losers, they created new losers. They reversed years of work against grade inflation and gave many students artificially high marks. The losers thus include those who took their exams last year or will take them next year, those who took them this year and would have done well without the boost, and, not least, universities which now face an administrative nightmare.

As Phil Taylor reminded us on this site yesterday, the algorithm had in fact worked in most cases: “Indeed, 88 per cent of students had got their first choice university place on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high, as was the number of disadvantaged students set to attend”.

My point is not that the U-turn was wrong. My point is that all our options were bad once we had made the calamitous decision to close schools – despite the fact that there has still not been a single identified case of anyone catching Covid-19 from a child anywhere in the world. The time to complain was then, not now.

I know I have banged on a great deal about the hopelessness of our quango state, but the past six months have made my case for me. It’s not just the obvious incompetence of PHE and NHS administrators. It’s every unelected agency, from an immigration service unable to deport illegal migrants to our super-woke police constabularies.

In a powerful article for The Atlantic, Tom McTague argues that “Britain was sick before it caught the coronavirus.” His article, which sets out in pitiless detail our various cock-ups, has had a huge impact, reminiscent of the gloom provoked by the valedictory despatch of our Paris ambassador, Sir Nicholas Henderson, in March 1979, which unflinchingly set out the mess that Britain was then in.

In fact, though Sir Nicholas didn’t know it, Britain was on the cusp of a national revival. Its administrative state was failing, but the country as a whole was not. In the 1980s, free to pursue their ambitions, the British outperformed every European economy and resumed their place at the world’s top tables.

Now, as then, we should avoid the mistake of thinking that the failure of our bureaucracies denotes a general national failure. Going into the Covid-19 crisis, we were a prosperous and successful country, leading the world in biotech and artificial intelligence, higher education and the audiovisual sector, legal and financial services. We face a specific and remediable problem, not a general decline.

The good news is that, even before the pandemic hit, this Government was determined to tackle the quangocracy. Back in January, that might have seemed a slightly recherché and eccentric priority. Not any more.

Politicians should indeed carry the can – over the electoral cycle. Ministers must by now be aware of how rusted and useless the machinery of state has become. They have four years to fix it.

Howard Flight: Parkinson’s Law revisited

3 Aug

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

An old friend of mine sent me a very interesting article on Parkinson’s Law Today. The theoretical law of the 1950s has changed to a mathematical equation describing the rate at which bureaucracies expand over time. Two different case studies of our times are financial regulators and the NHS. The numbers employed in both territories continue to grow way beyond any practical justification.

There are some fascinating facts supporting the arguments. At a time when the British Empire was in decline, the Colonial Office had its greatest number of staff who were folded into the Foreign Office, due to a lack of colonies to administer! Such contrarian growth is explained by two key factors – officials want to multiply subordinates, not rivals; and officials make work for each other. The number of people employed in a bureaucracy tends to rise by between five and seven per cent a year. That was irrespective of any variation in the amount of work – if any – to be done.

Parkinson also proposed a rule about the efficiency of Administrative Council. He defined a coefficient of inefficiency with the number of members as the main determining variable. This is an attempt to define the size at which a committee or other decision-making Body will become wholly inefficient, if not useless. In Parkinson’s Law, “The Pursuit of Progress”, a chapter is devoted to the basic question of what Parkinson called Comitology – how committees, government candidates, and other such Bodies are created and eventually grow irrelevant, if they are not initially designated as such. Interestingly the world Comitology has recently been invented independently by the EU for a different non-humorous meaning. Empirical evidence is extracted from historical and contemporary government candidates. Most frequently the minimal size of a States’ most powerful and prestigious Body is five members.

From English history, Parkinson notes a number of bodys that lost power as they grew.

The First Cabinet was the Council of the Crown, now the House of Lords which grew from a handful to 29, and then to 50 by 1600 by which time it had lost most of its power. A new Body in 1257 numbering fewer than 10; it grew to 172 members and ceased to meet. The third incarnation was the Privy Council, initially numbering less than 10 members but rising to 47 in 1679. In 1715 the Privy Council lost power to the Cabinet Council with eight members, rising to 20 by 1725. Around 1740 the Cabinet Council was superseded by an inner group called the Cabinet, initially with five members. In the 1950s the Cabinet was still the official governing Body. From 1939 until the 1950’s there was an effort to save the Cabinet as an institution. Membership had been fluctuating from a high of 23 down to 18 in 1954.

Parkinson proposed a detailed mathematical expression for the coefficient of inefficiency, featuring many possible influences. In 2008 an attempt was made to verify empirically the proposed model. Parkinson thought that membership exceeding around 20 makes a committee manifestly inefficient. Less certain is the optimal number of members which is somewhere between three and 20. For a group of 20, individual discussions may dilute the power of the leader. Common sense suggests eight may be the optimum number, but this is not supported by observations. No contemporary Government in Parkinson’s data set had eight members and only the unfortunate Charles 1st had a committee of State of that size.

This territory should merit regular measurement, reviews, and analysis. It is painfully clear to citizens that when organisations become too big, they also become inefficient and vulnerable.

Increases in NHS staff have accounted for nearly all the increase in public sector jobs – numbers now stand at 1.75 million, 32 per cent of all public sector jobs and five per cent of all jobs in the UK. It is surely self-evident to conclude that a monolithic approach to providing and managing healthcare makes no sense and invites bad experience and outturn. Logically the unit size should be broken down to leadership teams of under 20 with sufficient staff numbers to operate the range of services provided by each particular hospital. Staff could be lent to and borrowed by particular hospitals as and when required. Accountability should probably be to the relevant local authority, Cabinet or constituency MPs.

Civil Service jobs hit a record low in 2016 but have been increasing again recently. Currently, they stand at 460,000. There are nearly four times as many people working in the NHS as there are in the Civil Service.

This is the territory which the Chancellor needs to research and examine in detail. It is probable that Civil Service numbers could be reduced by 60,000 to 400,000 with anybody scarcely noticing. This should save of the order £500 million a year. The NHS is a more difficult proposition as a result of the support it has achieved for dealing honourably with COVID-19 patients. My view is that restructuring into manageable sized units is the key to better and greater efficiency and that in time it too could effect cost savings of £50m pa.