Sarah Ingham: Greensill – not so much “what does Jeremy think?” as “what on earth was Jeremy thinking?”

17 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

The Greensill controversy has come like pennies from heaven – and definitely not in a brown envelope – for the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

After a year as Labour leader, his personal Key Stage 1, SKeir Starmer’s approval ratings are at best tepid. Unsurprisingly at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, he sought to join various dots – ‘dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates’ – to conjure up a picture of the return of Tory sleaze.

The former Director of Public Prosecutions clearly wishes to make the case that this Conservative administration is as tainted by corruption as John Major’s was almost three decades ago.

Sir Keir might have leapt on the Greensill bandwagon a tad hastily, without really knowing where it might end up. Although a former Conservative Prime Minister is ostensibly the star of the saga, it is becoming clear that this is might not be a story about Westminster, but Whitehall; about mandarins, not MPs and ministers.

Photographed with Lex Greensill, David Cameron’s very own Deal in the Desert raises a number of questions, not least whether the Aussie has shares in R.M Williams. But surely the most famous blue-suited bromance since Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper were at Centre Court for the 2013 Wimbledon Men’s Final – however funny-odd the image is – has begun to fade compared with the more recent revelations about civil servants’ moonlighting.

The United Kingdom’s Chief Procurement Officer oversees a budget of £40 billion. The demands of looking after that huge amount of taxpayers’ hard-earned money apparently failed to preclude a side-hustle of working for Greensill for a couple of months. And it seems that Bill Crothers’ ‘one man, two guvnors’ approach might not be an isolated instance in Whitehall.

On Thursday, Lord Pickles, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which guides former ministers and civil servants on outside employment, stated there ‘doesn’t seem to have been any boundaries at all’ between civil servants and the private sector.

The previous day at Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson suggested that it was not clear that those boundaries ‘have been properly understood’, although he thought that ‘it is a good idea in principle that top civil servants should be able to engage with business and should have experience of the private sector.’

As Crothers’ former boss, the late Lord Heywood of Whitehall, found, private sector experience is complicated. What Does Jeremy Think?  written by his widow Suzanne, details his three-year mid-career stint at Morgan Stanley, a job he took up in early 2004 ‘following the three months of unpaid leave required by the Cabinet Office’).

On his return to the civil service, working for Gordon Brown in the Cabinet Office, Heywood’s banking experience and contacts proved invaluable following the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath. Conversely, Morgan Stanley may have benefited from Heywood’s input in its pitch to work for QinetiQ, the former government defence research agency, which the bank hoped it would be able to help float on the Stock Exchange.

Ever since the Greensill story broke, the media has been gripped by an ethical panic, emulated this week by MPs. Sir Keir’s call for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the saga was defeated by 95 votes. This reminder of dismal political reality for the Opposition turns out to have been unnecessary. In a Parliamentary pile-on, no fewer than seven inquiries into lobbying have been set up, including by the Treasury Select Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Such inquiries are pointless – creating as much hot air as the demands this week that Something Must Be Done. Something usually involves political grandstanding, followed by gratuitous legislation.

These inquiries should save themselves their time and our money by examining the existing ethical framework that governs the conduct of MPs, civil servants and others in the public sector. If the 1990s is being revisited by anyone trying to build a case concerning Conservative corruption, they should focus not on cash for questions, but the answers provided by Lord Nolan’s 1995 Report on Standards in Public Life.

This sets out expected ethical standards – including honesty, openness and integrity – because, as Nolan stated more than a generation ago, ‘people in public life are not always as clear as they should be about where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie’.

In a 1993 MORI poll cited by Nolan, only 14 per cent of respondents generally trusted that politicians would tell the truth, opposed to 37 per cent trusting civil servants. MPs planning to involve themselves in Greensill autopsies should perhaps reflect on the finding that 69 per cent thought it wrong to accept free tickets to Wimbledon or other sporting events. Whether the public’s attitude towards freebies has changed since then is surely something to be considered by the Committee on Standards. Its on-going inquiry into the Code of Conduct for MPs is timely.

As Cabinet Secretary to two Prime Ministers and Head of the Home Civil Service, Heywood sought to modernise the mandarinate, while adhering to the overarching principles of public service, first set down in the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report: honesty, integrity and political impartiality.

Westminster and Whitehall are already bound by numerous laws and rules and, overseen by supervisory bodies such as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The thickets of formal regulation that have grown up in the past few decades did not prevent Greensill or the MPs’ expenses’ scandal.

In January, the Standards Committee heard that the plethora of existing guidance can be ‘byzantine’. In his evidence, Graham Brady observed that something is lost if we move to a world where we are expecting absolute, detailed compliance with a detailed set of rules, ‘rather than an overarching expectation that members should behave with integrity and honesty’.

The rush towards Something Must Be Done should be paused. How about dusting off Nolan and Northcote-Trevelyan – and having a fresh look at ethics, values and standards, as well as the concept of trust?

Or, in another echo of the 1990s, going back to basics.

The Greensill saga must not become a pretext for reducing ministers’ access to outside expertise

31 Mar

The regulator’s decision to clear David Cameron of having broken the rules around lobbying – ‘on a technicality’, as one newspaper put it – will doubtless have come as a great relief to the man himself.

But his actions could still cast a long shadow over the Government’s efforts to shake-up the Civil Service and introduce fresh thinking into Whitehall (assuming that this agenda has survived the departure of its architect, Dominic Cummings).

For whilst the narrow issue examined by the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists was his personally contacting ministers to try and drum up financial support for Greensill Capital, the much bigger one – explored at length in the Sunday Times – is the manner in which Lex Greensill was given such extraordinary access to policy-making.

Bringing in an outside expert to advise on policy isn’t unusual. What is remarkable is that Greensill was brought in, and allocated a team of civil servants, without anybody clarifying what his formal role actually was or who he was accountable too.

Worse, it seems he was actually ‘advising’ – it might be better to say ‘advocating for’ – policies from which he stood to gain financially if adopted. Specifically, he wanted to introduce private ‘supply chain finance’ to public sector supply chains. This is a solution to late payments that sees a bank pay the value of invoices up front, for a fee, and then accept repayment once the actual client has paid.

When the Government decided to adopt his scheme for paying pharmacists, the contract was initially won by CitiBank (which Greensill had left weeks before) before being taken over by… Greensill Capital, which went on to provide £1.2 billion in loans. Greensill himself ranged across other departments, including the Ministry of Defence, trying to drum up more business. If the Sunday Times is right, this was all without being able to demonstrate that this ‘solution’ was actually needed.

But we should perhaps be a little cautious to take that at face value. The paper’s reporting seems to draw heavily on Civil Service sources, and it isn’t difficult to imagine that some of these might not be disinterested assessors of private-sector intrusions into their remit. Nor to imagine that the Greensill saga, combined with Cummings’ exit, might see a fresh effort to dissuade ministers from putting their faith in ‘weirdos and misfits’.

That would be a mistake. The Civil Service is for obvious structural reasons largely immune to the pressures that drive innovation in commerce and industry. Schumpeter’s gale scarcely stirs the still air of Whitehall, and even the boldest attempt to simulate it (the dissolution of DfID) has apparently largely seen hold International Development hands stage a reverse-takeover of the Foreign Office.

Ministers need to be able to draw on outside thinking to support them when they need to take on institutional attitudes. Which makes it very important that when they do, they do it properly.

As the SNP stonewalls Holyrood, Parliament should help hold Scottish civil servants to account

13 Mar

One of the many problems exposed by the ongoing scandal engulfing the Scottish Government is the extent to which the SNP appear to have politicised the Civil Service north of the border.

The role of Leslie Evans, Scotland’s seniormost civil servant, has come under particular scrutiny. Indeed she has been urged to “reflect on her position” by MSPs over her role in the decision to keep fighting Alex Salmond’s judicial review despite dire warnings from the Scottish Government’s own lawyers – a decision which ended up costing the taxpayer over £500,000.

It appears as if the official inquiry into the affair will heavily criticise the Permanent Secretary, and it may be that Nicola Sturgeon sacrifices her to try and draw a line under the scandal. But whilst MSPs have been frustrated by the Scottish Government’s ceaseless efforts to hinder the Holyrood investigation, there may yet be a way to ensure that the role of the Civil Service, at least, receives greater scrutiny.

This is because the bureaucracies supporting both the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government (but not currently, for historical reasons, the Northern Ireland Executive) are part of the same Home Civil Service that supports HM Government. And this means that Westminster has a legitimate role in their oversight, and that there must be a Minister who is answerable for their conduct to the House of Commons.

Liam Fox has been pressing this point this week. On Wednesday, he asked Boris Johnson for assurances that civil servants who felt under pressure from Scottish ministers could appeal farther up the UK (properly ‘GB’) hierarchy for redress. On Thursday, he asked the Speaker to which Department questions pertaining to the Scottish civil service should be addressed.

The upshot of all this is that Scottish civil servants could also, in principle, be called before MPs as part of parliamentary inquiries. This is perhaps unlikely in the case of the Scottish Affairs Committee, chaired as it is by Pete Wishart, a veteran Nationalist. But allegations of improper conduct on the part of any section of the Civil Service would seem a proper subject for an inquiry by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), chaired by William Wragg.

Crucially, such investigations could offer a means for Westminster to offer important and perhaps much-needed additional scrutiny in this area without the initiative being led by the Government or the Prime Minister. It is thus harder to fit into the ‘power grab’ narrative.

It may be unwise to rock the boat ahead of the Holyrood elections in May, as the SNP will be desperate for anything they can spin as an attack on Scotland to arrest their current slide in the polls. But once that’s done it is time for Parliament, as well as the Government, to demonstrate that it remains an institution for the whole United Kingdom.

How to advise Lord North, or Heath, or Thatcher, or Johnson

5 Mar

Political Advice: Past, Present and Future edited by Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose

The press is excited by stories about Boris Johnson’s advisers. Who is in, who out? Who is briefing against whom? Carrie Symonds is running the country from her sofa! The news that leopards are to be reintroduced into St James’s Park shows she is. And anyhow, who paid for the sofa?

Readers who wish to take a longer view of political advice are advised to get hold of this book. But be warned: it does not offer a crib, a cut-out-and-keep guide to how to be an adviser.

The lesson of the book is that there are no lessons. If this volume were by a single author, we could perhaps deduce from it a doctrine, but it is actually the work of 14 different contributors, who on 8th June 2017 met for a one-day conference on Political Advice at All Souls College, Oxford.

We are not fed anything so misleading as a theory of advice, but in these 14 essays we do find intimations, continuities and recurrences as we travel with these authors from Periclean Athens via the Renaissance, Tudor England, the Scottish Enlightenment, British orientalists in Persia, Edward Heath’s managerialists in Whitehall and astrologers at the court of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, to an account of the impossibility of advising Donald Trump.

Nobody can govern alone: every ruler needs help, and as the editors, Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose, remark in their introduction, the people running the show today “have no more time or concentration than their predecessors in antiquity”.

There is a limit to how much advice anyone can take in, let alone make use of. William Waldegrave writes, in this volume, about his experience of being a member of the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) from 1971-73.

Heath, both as Leader of the Opposition and from 1970 as Prime Minister, had a tremendous appetite for policy advice. He was a man of his time, for as Waldegrave reminds us,

“the late 1960s had seen much discussion of whether Britain’s institutions had sufficiently modernised themselves: the civil service was among those subject to criticism, including self-criticism. This had led in 1966 to the establishment, after a select committee of the House of Commons had levelled the accusation of amateurism at the modern service, of the Fulton Committee…it made trenchant criticisms of what it saw as the cult of the generalist, the lack of influence by scientists, poor training and recruitment practices and other matters.”

The CPRS was one way in which Heath was determined to modernise the machinery of government, by creating a central strategic staff who would engage in long-term thinking and apply the latest management techniques, many of them imported from the United States, to which “two exceptionally able younger Conservatives”, David Howell (now Lord Howell) and Mark Schreiber (now Lord Marlesford) had been despatched on a mission to find out what was happening there.

In 1970, Howell made, in his pamphlet A New Style of Government, the first use in the United Kingdom of the word “privatisation”. According to Waldegrave, these British experts “linked management theory to political doctrine in a more interesting way than is found in most of the American work of the time”, relating “managerial efficiency…to the development of modern liberal free-market doctrines”.

What happened? Heath made a complete hash of things, and in February 1974 the British people threw him out of office. His administration had been characterised, not by long-term thinking, but by desperate short-term expedients which culminated in the lights going out.

And yet all that advice was not entirely wasted. After 1979, privatisation became, with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, one of the Government’s most significant and successful policies.

She too was tremendously keen on getting good advice. She and her advisers learned from Heath’s mistakes, and for a long time her judgement of what was politically possible proved better than his.

But as Waldegrave goes on to say, both Houses of Parliament continue to feel “a deep suspicion of Bonapartist tendencies on the part of the Prime Minister”.

We don’t want a presidential system in this country, and got the central staffs created by Lloyd George and Churchill to fight the two world wars disbanded as soon as those conflicts were over.

Waldegrave, who served as a minister from 1981-97, regrets “the steady erosion” in recent times

“of a sense of Cabinet collectivity. Mr Blair is perhaps most to blame for this, but Mr Cameron is not innocent either. What the press has called ‘sofa government’ – combined with an over-intrusive regime of freedom of information – has taken us back to the time before Maurice Hankey and the establishment of the Cabinet Secretariat in 1916. Some major items of policy are not discussed collectively at all, and if they are discussed, little is recorded for fear of an immediate and politically driven application under the Freedom of Information Act. This is a recipe for bad decision-taking, as well as for ultimate lack of accountability.”

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister too recently for his behaviour in office to be considered in this volume. But one can’t help wondering whether his critics have been asking the wrong question.

They have assumed he is too weak: that he will soon be swept from office. Perhaps they should have been asking, instead, whether he is too strong: whether Bonapartist tendencies are beginning to manifest themselves.

For whoever occupies Number Ten has a near monopoly of the political advice which other ministers would need in order to make forceful arguments in Cabinet, or Cabinet committee, about any subject beyond their departmental responsibilities.

Sajid Javid refused, on being told he would not be allowed to choose his own advisers, to continue as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Jesse Norman, currently serving as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, contributes to this volume an essay entitled Smith as SpAd? Adam Smith and Advice to Politicians.

The first part of this title has a Wodehousian ring. It prompts the thought that in modern English literature, the greatest provider of advice is Jeeves, and the greatest recipient Wooster.

Adam Smith often advised politicians:

“In 1766-7, he supplied information about French taxes to, and corrected the calculations of, Charles Townshend, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in relation to the Sinking Fund designed to repay debt incurred during the Seven Years’ War; the fund was topped up in Townshend’s 1767 budget. He also advised Lord Shelburne on colonial policy at this time. Lord North thanked Smith for his advice on his 1777 Budget, when he took ideas from The Wealth of Nations for two new taxes, on manservants and on property sold by auction. He took two more ideas in 1778: the malt tax and a very Smithian duty on the rentable value of buildings. Also in 1778, Smith wrote ‘Thoughts on the State of the Contest with America’, a long and considered memorandum setting out different options for British policy towards the American colonies, then in revolt, at the request of his friend Alexander Wedderburn, the Solicitor General.”

We also find Smith advising on trade between Britain and Ireland. Just now his help would be invaluable. He recognised, as Norman puts it, “that the world was an imperfect place, in which evils could exist and persist”.

Smith was not the laissez-faire ideologue for which he has sometimes been mistaken. Nor was he the kind of generalist with which the Fulton Committee, and latterly Dominic Cummings, considered the civil service to be over-provided. Smith was a Commissioner of Customs, active in the regulation and suppression of smuggling.

Colin Burrow remarks, in his essay entitled How Not To Do It: Poets and Counsel, Thomas Wyatt to Geoffrey Hill:

“The figure of the frank speaker condemned to the margins of political life, and thus unable to deliver counsel to his monarch, became one of the major literary personae of the later Henrician period.”

Twitter is just now infested with such frank speakers, who do not turn out to be gifted poets, but spend their days denouncing with hysterical self-righteousness anyone with whom they disagree.

The adviser has to be willing to compromise; often works for palpably inadequate leaders; but is at least on the field of play.

Paul Mercer: Covid tests, airport checks – and how to avoid British citizens from being stranded abroad

18 Jan

Paul Mercer is the director of an international consultancy firm, and is a Charnwood Borough councillor.

The move to insist that returning travellers take a negative Covid-19 test makes sense, because it reduces the chance of new infections being brought into the UK, and means that passengers are less likely to infect each other.

Tests in Canada revealed that 1.5 per cent of non-symptomatic travellers were positive. Although this number seems low, it suggests that every international flight is importing potentially three or four infected people. Other research has suggested a minimal chance of catching Covid-19 from another passenger on a plane. But even if only 95 per cent of passengers succeed in getting the test, that would reduce the number coming into the UK with it to less than one in 1,300.

Governments rightly recognise that some foreign travel is necessary for international business to continue, but placing impenetrable barriers in their way ultimately means that contracts don’t get signed and the economy suffers.

On January 11, Robert Courts announced that “passengers arriving by ship, plane or train will have to take a test up to three days before departure and provide evidence of a negative result before they travel”. This was defined in a subsequent statutory instrument published on January 16 – the day before the changes were implemented.

The rules largely rely upon threatening to fine airlines who fail to check rather than doing so when one arrives in the UK, although immigration officers can still impose fixed penalty fines, starting at £500 for failure to produce a certificate.

The Government recognises that in some cases obtaining a test within three days may be difficult, but the problem is that airlines, faced with the threat of a £2,000 fine, are unlikely to allow any UK-bound passengers to board without a certificate.

A significant problem is that although many countries are offering ‘48 hour checks’ the reality is that these take longer, because the certificates can only be picked up later on the third day.

Typically, they recommend that you turn up for the check at 8.00am and collect the result two days later at 3.00pm – a 54-hour turnaround. If you assume one hour to get to the airport, it follows that you can only depart between 7.00pm and 9.00am to meet the 72-hour rule. The rules are quite specific that it is the time from when the sample was taken rather than when the certificate was produced that counts.

A third difficulty is that the negative test result must include one’s date of birth and when the sample was taken. I have had two Covid PCR tests outside the UK in the past two months, and neither of them met these requirements, although both included my passport number – which, curiously, has been omitted from these requirements. If airlines follow these rules strictly, then many people will be unable to return to the UK. The new policies stipulate that certificates must be in English, Spanish or French, and this seems likely to exclude even more people.

A final problem is that there is no way for travellers to get clarity about these regulations. Courts stated that British nationals who were having problems meeting this requirement “should contact the nearest consulate, embassy or high commission”.

When I followed his advice last week, I was informed by ‘David F’ at the ‘Consular Contact Centre’ that “the Home Office owns information regarding entry to the UK, including testing requirements, quarantine and exemptions”, and that he could therefore not help. Instead I should “contact the Home Office”.

He added that “for information about Covid-19 testing requirements abroad”, the Foreign Office recommended “an Internet search of the words ‘Covid testing near me’.” This produced helpful links to Chicago, Mumbai, Cheltenham and San Francisco.

The new regulations have also quietly taken away some of the exemptions from quarantining introduced for business travellers, those involved in advertising productions, the arts, television production, the National Lottery and journalists.

If these rules are to be effective with impending legitimate travel, more than reliance upon airlines and the occasional random check by an immigration officer is required. The current online Public Health Passenger Locator Form’ (PLF) works seamlessly, because it is linked to passports which are checked at eGates on returning to the UK. Passengers without the form are not allowed through.

It would make more sense to add a requirement to attach the Covid Test Certificate to the PLF and enter its details at the same time. This would offer several advantages. It would deter the temptation to submit a fraudulent certificate; it would make it considerably easier for airlines to carry out the necessary check; and the UK authorities would have a record that the appropriate certificate had been obtained.

Over the next few days, it will become apparent whether the Government, in reducing the risk of transmission, has stranded many British citizens abroad who have legitimately travelled for business purposes.

Gareth Lyon: We need a Public Sector Neutrality Act to rein in politicisation

8 Jan

Gareth Lyon is a former councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

The institutions which we fund through our taxes, and the people who work in them, should be politically neutral. No one should be required to provide financial support to political causes with which they disagree. No one employed in a public body should be able to use that body or their position to advance their own political agenda. Taxpayer funded bodies should use their funds to carry out the work they were commissioned to do – not to lobby for further taxpayer funding.

Four statements which should be utterly uncontroversial, and to which the vast majority of the population would be likely to agree, and yet which are roundly ignored at all tiers of Government in the UK.

From the BBC to the police, from the NHS to teachers, from local government to quangos, and throughout central government and those charities which are largely dependent on taxpayer funding, there is not just an acceptance that certain political agendas can and should be pursued both by individuals and by the institutions themselves – but also a blindness that there could possibly be anything wrong with such behaviour.

As well as wasting time and money, and putting many capable people off working in the public sector, there is also a deep and worrying injustice in our own institutions being politicised in such a way to advance causes which often do not command the democratic support of the majority in this country. This is damaging to trust and the integrity of our state as a whole and undermines the fundamental belief in institutional impartiality without which no modern democracy can function.

That is why we need a Public Sector Neutrality Act to reign in the politicisation we are seeing and to help restore trust in our Government. Some of this Act would codify the requirements for neutrality which do already exist in a piecemeal fashion around our institutions or which have remained unwritten until now; in the way that much of our constitution was before the actions of misguided reformers made this necessary. Other provisions will deal with fresh challenges which emerged in recent years and which have not yet received sufficient attention.

As a starting point I would suggest that four elements would be:

  • A ban on the use of positions within publicly funded organisations to promote political viewpoints. This is something which the new BBC regime has started to indicate an understanding of. There is a particularly nauseating form of caveating which goes on in Twitter biographies and elsewhere, where a person states their employer and their position in a respected publicly funded organisation then seeks to weasel out of professional accountability by stating “all views my own” or something similar. These transparent attempts to borrow the credibility of their employer and the position they are entrusted with is a very visible form of politicisation and is particularly dangerous because it chips at the margins of professional neutrality. It is, however, the margins which are best served by clear lines. Such behaviour needs to be banned.
  • A ban on taxpayer funded lobbying. The TaxPayers’ Alliance estimates that between 2017 and 2019 the UK Government funded lobbying organisations opposed to Government policy to the tune of nearly £40 million. This is however the tip of the iceberg. We also need to take into account the funding provided by organisations which themselves are largely government funded to lobbying organisations, think tanks or campaign groups and to funding provided by local government. We then need to look at the funding which these bodies spend on professional lobbyists – either directly employed under a variety of titles, or through public affairs agencies and the amount of senior leadership time which is spent in such lobbying. It is fundamentally wrong for the taxpayer to bankroll one body they are forced to fund, to lobby another body they are forced to fund, in favour of its own institutional agenda. This has a distorting effect on Government policy, is incredibly wasteful of taxpayer funding, and has a significant drag effect on Government energy and decision-making as it is forced to in effect, spend precious time and energy talking to itself.
  • A ban on publicly funded organisations supporting political organisations or campaigns. A tighter definition of political organisations and campaigns is needed to ensure that publicly funded organisations do not contribute funding, or signal their support for organisations which have political aims. Recent examples of where public sector organisations have clearly overstepped the line include police forces becoming supporters of Stonewall, and local authorities and numerous senior officials in central Government signalling their support for Black Lives Matter. These are both clearly organisations with political aims and positions and should be regarded as just as much of an issue as one of these organisations or figures declaring their support for a political party would be – with obvious implications for the level of trust people with different political views can have in such bodies.
  • A more extensive set of restrictions on public sector employees holding positions in political parties. This may be the most contentious of these proposals but is surely a logical extension of restrictions which are already widely accepted. There are whole arms of the British state – such as the Armed Forces, where those employed are barred from holding political office or office in political parties. There are others, such as local Government and the civil service, where employees below a certain level of seniority are permitted to do so. The logic seems to be that such people are not in senior enough positions for any political bias to be either visible or concerning. If this has ever been the case it is surely not now.

An IT technician, a media officer, a lawyer or even a policy officer will potentially find themselves in positions where they have access to politically sensitive materials. As people can hold these roles at relatively junior levels it is only right that the restrictions should apply. At a time when it is becoming easier than ever to leak politically sensitive matters, and when the political leanings of staff may be more apparent than ever through social media, such a move would certainly increase confidence amongst the elected politicians they work with and for.

This is not an exhaustive list – clearly many others will have ideas for areas where the causes of trust, transparency, and fairness in public life need urgent protection.

Mark Lehain: The end of unconscious bias training and Truss’s coming speech on equality – signs of a Ministerial anti-woke fightback.

16 Dec

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

Yesterday’s announcement that “unconscious bias training” (UBT) is being scrapped for civil servants is a very welcome one indeed.

UBT is perhaps the most conspicuous example of the kind of worrying thing that has crept into organisations in recent years under the guise of “equality and diversity”.

Obviously we want the workplace and elsewhere to be welcoming and supportive. First of all, it’s the right thing to do morally. It’s also the best way to ensure better performance: it makes it more likely that the widest possible pool of talent will want to work for you, and that as many customers as possible will buy your goods and services.

The issue with UBT and so many other “woke” approaches is that they actually do the opposite. They make it harder to have open and honest discussion between people, and create or deepen identity-based division and resentments.

This is because they take a very particular, quasi-religious, view on the world – everything is generally awful, due to the wrong people having power over everyone else – and insist that everyone adopts it. People who don’t buy into it are seen as part of the problem and heretical – and should be dealt with as such. History tells us that absolutist religions don’t make for happy countries, and “woke” workplaces are no different.

The good news is that UBT, like the Emperor’s New Clothes, doesn’t stand up to any kind of examination when you look at the evidence.

Indeed, it’s this paucity of supporting evidence that has allowed the civil service to make yesterday’s tactical retreat: in the Written Ministerial Statement announcing the end of UBT, it is said that “an internal review decided in January 2020 that unconscious bias training would be phased out in departments.” Yes, I’m sure it did…

(You’ll forgive me if I take this with a pinch of salt, given the enthusiasm with which senior civil servants were still pushing it as a response to the Black Lives Matters protests this summer. Still: Luke 15:7.)

So: the ending of UBT is a useful move in the right direction. But we shouldn’t consider it in isolation. Take a step back and it’s part of the broader move by the Government to rein in some of the more extreme politically correct excesses that went unchecked before.

In the past few months we’ve had the Department for Education remind schools of their obligation to teach political issues in a balanced way and Kemi Badenoch emphasise that Critical Race Theory shouldn’t be taught in schools as fact. Oliver Dowden told galleries and museums to not remove objects under pressure from activists. Liz Truss found a middle way through the minefield that is trans rights, and looks set to take the equality debate in a more consensual, small-c conservative direction with her speech tomorrow.

Then there’s the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. It’s quietly getting on with the job of examining what evidence – as opposed to emotions – tells us about why there are differences in outcomes between groups of people in health, education, etc. Its report on COVID disparities gives a good idea of the approach being taken.

Much recent Westminster gossip has focused on who is in or out with the Prime Minister, and what this means about the broader direction of the government. Well, it seems to me that the Cummings and goings have made little difference to the growing importance of using the evidence and existing law to take the heat out of the culture wars.

Some left-wing activists like to present this as a hard-right government stoking things up, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. All we’ve seen so far is politicians asking the public sector and taxpayer-funded organisations to keep their practice in line with existing law and public opinion, and focus on their core functions, not wokery.

There’s everything to gain from this approach too: less taxpayer cash will be wasted, performance should improve, and it’s very popular with the public too.

Yesterday’s move against Unconscious Bias Training was very conscious – we should hope for more of this kind of thing in the months ahead.

Frank Young: We’re sleepwalking into a crisis if we don’t vaccinate against poverty, too

9 Dec

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Conservative Prime Ministers were waging “an all-out assault on poverty”, or standing on the steps of Downing Street making solemn promises to make “social reform” the top priority for government.

These were Conservative Prime Ministers. This wasn’t just rhetorical flourish – the sort of thing a politician might say to give the impression of being a caring sort of person there was real focus on tackling poverty in the depths of Whitehall. It is little known outside of the civil service, but had David Cameron stayed in office for one week more in 2016, he would have announced his ‘life chances strategy’ – a plan to tackle poverty which was on the grid, ready to be rolled out. Turn back the clock to the start of a decade, and the Coalition Government introduced a framework for tackling persistent poverty. It’s still there if you do a Google search.

Recent polling conducted by Survation on behalf of the Centre for Social Justice unmasks the true scale of the poverty precipice that we’re looking over as 2020 comes to an end. This work, quizzing over a thousand households on the lowest incomes found that more than one in three are afraid of losing their job in coming months; nearly as many have been unable to pay a bill, one in five are going hungry and one in six fear being made homeless. A quarter of these families have less than £350 saved up when crisis hits. This is the sort of analysis that should get ministers scrambling for a proper plan to tackle poverty.

Support for the Conservative Party from low income voters appears to be ebbing away. Labour now enjoys twice as much support among this group than the Conservative Party. In 2019 the Labour still had a lead, but the gap was much smaller. The low-income households we polled make up one in six voters, more than enough to swing the seats that decide elections.

Only three in ten low income voters think the Conservative Party is concerned about supporting people on low incomes, against over a half who said the same thing about the Labour Party. In crude political terms, the path to victory in 2024 requires a poverty plan. There’s no realistic chance of ‘levelling up’ if we don’t address the social impact of disadvantage alongside economic revival. If we can have an ‘industrial strategy’ – then we can surely have a social equivalent too.

The true reality of poverty will be hard to escape as we recover from the Covid-19 epidemic and a plan of action is needed now more than at any point in recent history. Last week, we discovered that Government mandarins were circulating secret Armageddon documents, detailing the true impact of lockdown and coronavirus related restrictions on British business.

It shouldn’t surprise us that such a document exists, or the detail into which it delves. It is the job of government and the role of Parliament to extract it from ministers for full public scrutiny. What should surprise us is that there is no social equivalent. Where is the detailed analysis of the social impact of closing down the economy (and the answer is not in recent Government documents cribbed from the Office for National Statistics)?

It’s always easy to criticise and turn politics into Christmas panto. When it was needed, the Chancellor stepped in quickly with bags full of borrowed cash to prevent an unemployment catastrophe and extra cash for welfare claims. His furlough plans came with a Rishi Sunak logo but, once support is lifted, we will need to think about a long term solution to match the short term reaction. This means more than simply transferring money through welfare cheques.

A grand plan needs go back to the ‘root causes’ of poverty much loved of previous Conservative Prime Ministers. That means putting a focus on reducing family breakdown and dysfunction, recovery from addiction, ensuring unemployment doesn’t drift into long term worklessness and ensuring our education system helps children growing up in poor households escape poverty in adulthood.

There’s no reason why the Conservative Party can’t scoop up plenty of support in parts of the country where money is tight, and the need for the state to step in the greatest. Immunisation with a vaccine is only part of the job in 2021. The lesson of the last year is poorer communities are much more vulnerable to the next virus or health emergency. If we can plan for the economy to take off when the virus is behind us, we should plan to reduce poverty too. There is nothing socially just about a bankrupt country, but it takes more than a roaring economy to really push down on people living in miserable conditions.

James Heywood: The case for public sector pay restraint is founded on fairness

21 Nov

James Heywood is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.

We may be eight months into this pandemic, but we have barely begun to see its full impact on the labour market. The unemployment rate, which has already risen from 3.9 to 4.8 per cent compared to a year ago, is expected by the Bank of England to rise as high as 7.5 per cent, and other forecasts put it much higher still. Wages fell over the summer and wage growth is expected to remain subdued for some time.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show the worst month for wages was June, with a decline across the economy as a whole of 1.6 per cent compared to 12 months before. Within those June figures, however, there is a huge disparity between the public and private sectors; earnings in the private sector were down nearly 3 per cent, while the public sector actually saw growth of 4.5 per cent.

In fact, pay growth in the public sector is now higher than it has been for over a decade. Private sector wages have improved a little since June, but even that bounce back in the late summer as restrictions were lifted was far outpaced by earnings growth in the public sector. A recent survey of employers found that more than half of private sector employers expect to freeze pay over the next 12 months, compared to average expected rises in basic pay of two per cent by public sector employers.

The setting of public sector wage rates has to take into account what is going on in the rest of the labour market. With the labour market tightening in recent years and wages picking up, the Government has found it necessary to ease up on public pay policy to keep pace with the private sector and prevent problems with recruitment and retention. It is right that pay policy should reflect what is happening elsewhere in the labour market. Now that the private sector is suffering a sudden shock, it is reasonable, fair and prudent to adjust pay policy in the public sector.

Public sector workers, on average, receive a pay premium compared to their private sector counterparts, even once factors such as types of role and levels of qualification have been accounted for. This gap is wider still once the generosity of pension provision in the public sector is factored in. In the public sector 86 per cent of workers receive implicit employer pension contributions worth 10 per cent of earnings or more, compared to just 10 per cent of private sector workers. Employees in many areas of the public sector also benefit from incremental pay rises in addition to the uprating of basic pay levels, meaning their pay increases automatically unless they are already at the top of their pay band.

The ONS have modelled the differential in earnings taking all these factors into account, including pensions. While public sector pay restraint after 2010 has narrowed the gap somewhat, the ONS estimate that the public sector earnings premium in 2019 was still seven per cent. This gap has only narrowed by three percentage points since 2011, and has been rising since 2017. Now that private sector earnings are stagnating, it may quickly widen again significantly unless the Government alters pay policy.

The Centre for Policy Studies published a paper yesterday which looks at comparisons of pay in the public and private sectors and explores the Chancellor’s options for pay restraint. Limiting average pay uprating to one per cent each year for the next three years could deliver a reduction in annual expenditure of nearly £6 billion and ensure private sector workers are not being left behind unfairly. Not only is it unfair on workers facing pay cuts and the threat of redundancy to continue widening the gap between public and private sector remuneration, it also distorts the labour market.

We should be clear: this is not a simple argument about public sector ‘fat cats’ or top civil servants with gold-plated pensions, and we should not pretend otherwise. Most of the public sector workers we are talking about, including no doubt some of the people reading this, do not earn huge salaries, and some work in high pressure or dangerous jobs.

The Government will need to think carefully about how any change to pay policy is presented, and the approach should be nuanced and flexible. Pay restraint is not about a political assault on the public sector – not only would that be unfair, especially after the year our NHS has experienced, it would also be terrible politics. It is simply about making a reasoned case that pay policy should reflect developments in the wider labour market and should be fair to all workers and all taxpayers across the UK.

The Ministerial Code is a paper tiger – Johnson is responsible for who serves in his Government

21 Nov

At the time of writing, the above tweet has 7,500 ‘likes’ on Twitter and has been retweeted at least 1,700 times. Fake news, it seems, travels fast.

That is not to say that Priti Patel did not breach the Ministerial Code (‘the Code’). The official finding – which interested readers can find here – is that she did. The Code states “Harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent” with it, and Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister’s adviser on ministerial standards, reported that “Instances of the behaviour reported to the Cabinet Office” fit the definition of bullying (but not harassment).

Boris Johnson has indicated that he will keep the Home Secretary in post. In this he apparently enjoys the broad support of Conservative MPs but not that of Sir Alex, who has resigned.

This decision has sparked yet another debate about standards in public life, which is fair enough. But it has led some commentators to grossly overstate the significance of a ‘breach of the Ministerial Code’. Whether or not someone should be automatically dismissed for breaching the Code is quite a separate question to whether or not someone should be dismissed for bullying.

As we shall see, the former is a question to which the answer is ‘no’. Were the Prime Minister to succumb to what the Institute for Government refers to as “increasing pressure” to put the Code on a legal footing, we should find ourselves with remarkably few ministers left standing.

To understand why, it is helpful to have actually read the Code, the latest version of which is here. Doing so reveals that yes, it prohibits serious misconduct, including alleged bullying and indeed having private meetings with foreign officials, the breach which sparked Patel’s last departure from Government.

But it also covers a whole range of things which are, for better or worse, widely regarded as part of modern political life. For example:

“S2.1 The principle of collective responsibility requires that Ministers should be able to express their views frankly in the expectation that they can argue freely in private while maintaining a united front when decisions have been reached. This in turn requires that the privacy of opinions expressed in Cabinet and Ministerial Committees, including in correspondence, should be maintained.”

Let us hope none of the journalists getting over-excited about a breach of the Code has ever actively participated in one by reporting a leak from the Cabinet. Or how about…

“S1.3a. The principle of collective responsibility applies to all Government Ministers.”

Taken at face value, this dates the last time that “a cabinet minister has broken the ministerial code and not been sacked or resigned” to perhaps March of last year, when four Cabinet ministers abstained during a vote on a motion to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Or failing that maybe 2017, when the then-Foreign Secretary started setting out his personal ‘red lines’ for the Brexit negotiations, in defiance of the Cabinet position.

Perhaps, in this cynical age, it is impossible to read the word ‘guidelines’ without interpreting it as ‘rules we don’t intend to enforce’. But the Code itself is quite explicit about its true nature:

“1.5 The Code provides guidance to Ministers on how they should act and arrange their affairs in order to uphold these standards. It lists the principles which may apply in particular situations. It applies to all members of the Government and covers Parliamentary Private Secretaries in paragraphs 3.7 – 3.12.

“1.6 Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the Code and for justifying their actions and conduct to Parliament and the public. However, Ministers only remain in office for so long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister. He is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards.”

The Ministerial Code is far too broad a document for any breach to be ipso facto a mortal political sin – not least because it is not hard to find previous instances where similar conduct has not been similarly punished. It is not designed to be, and was never intended to be, a substitute for the Prime Minister’s discretion as to who serves in the Government.

Both his judgement and his Ministers must be judged on the specifics of any individual allegation of misconduct – not merely on the fact that they have ‘broken the Code’.