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’.

Dean Godson: It’s easier for the right to a left on economics than for the left to move right on culture. That’s a plus for Johnson.

21 Nov

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

“You have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?” asks Rachel Wolf on this site last week. Well, the Conservative Party has been walking and chewing gum since Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act — and there is no reason why the “reset” triggered by the departure of Dominic Cummings should change that.

Representing a critical mass of both the prosperous and the “Just About Managing” classes and parts of the country is what all successful political parties do in democracies. Since the Tory party became the party of Brexit and expanded – or maybe one should say rediscovered parts of its working class base – it is certainly true that the heterogenous coalition which it represents has spoken with a somewhat different accent.

Indeed, a case can be made that the part of the political class that ascended to power after December 2019 represents a significant break with all governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May (though less so the latter) tended to put global integration before national sovereignty, the metropolitan before the provincial, higher education before further education, trains and planes before buses, diversity before cohesion, the cognitive classes before the artisanal ones.

Their version of the national interest broadly reflected the priorities of what my colleague David Goodhart, who was interviewed recently by this site, has called the people who see the world from Anywhere. And in his most recent book Head, Hand Heart, he describes a narrowing definition of a successful life, as seen by Anywhere Britain, based around academic success, a university education and entry into high-status professional employment. This is the world of the big cities, the university towns and much of the middle and upper public sector, (and certainly of wide swathes of the senior civil service which were at daggers drawn with Dominic Cummings).

But what of that part of the population that cannot achieve or does not want to achieve this version of success? They still want recognition, and to feel able to contribute to the national story and the Brexit vote provided the opportunity for many of them to say ‘no’ to much of that governing class consensus.

The Vote Leave strand of the Johnson Government sought to represent and appeal to this part of the electorate – summed up in the phrase “Levelling up” – in a way that no government, let alone a Conservative government, has done for decades. That has, unavoidably, created tensions with many powerful interests and beliefs, including inside the Tory Party itself, many of which came to be focused on the pugnacious personality of Dominic Cummings.

A more emollient tone can be struck – but to abandon what was termed “Erdington modernisation” (after Nick Timothy’s Birmingham roots) and return to the necessary but not sufficient Notting Hill modernisation (in which the party made its peace with much of modern liberalism) is now very hard.

This is the case for electoral reasons as much as any other – with both Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage both praying for a return to Cameron-Osborne era Conservatism with its implicit assumption that the common good can be achieved through a kind of trickle-down from the most successful and dynamic parts of our society.

There are other reasons for thinking that it would be foolish to switch back now. Politics for most of the post-war period has been dominated by economics. And, of course, a thriving economy is still a sine qua non for any government. But economics is a means not an end, and the economistic bias of the Anywheres gave us the failed cost-benefit analysis of the Remain campaign.

Today’s much higher profile for the security and identity cultural issues ought to be a boon to the centre-right because, as has been pointed out, it is easier for the right to move a bit to the left on economics (as it certainly has done) than for the left to move right on cultural issues (as Starmer would no doubt like to do, but will find his path blocked).

This does not require an aggressive culture war from the right. The cultural offensive has been coming mainly from the left – as exemplified by the controversies over statues and the decolonisation of museums. The right needs to stand up for common sense, and for the large majority who accept the equalities of modern liberalism but do not want their sensibilities constantly undermined.

Conservatives should be the party of value diversity. Go back to the 1950s and the country was often dominated by a conformist, traditional culture that stunted the lives of many people and often punished those who deviated. Over many decades, much higher levels of choice and freedom for women and minorities of various kinds have been achieved.

Part of the Left now wants to impose a degree of progressive conformity comparable to the traditional conformity of earlier decades. Tolerance and pluralism should be the watchwords in these matters — with a strong bed-rock of rights and anti-discrimination legislation, but also an understanding that rights and values often clash and the ratchet should not only turn in a progressive direction.

That all said, walking and chewing gum is possible, and there is space, post-Cummings, for a new tone and a new stress on policy bridges that seek common ground between Anywhere and Somewhere priorities.

The green industrial revolution is clearly one of those policy areas, and should not be seen as a soft bourgeois indulgence. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, it is places like Teesside, Port Talbot and Merseyside that are now centres of green technology and jobs. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, underlined the same point in the introduction to Policy Exchange’s recent report on The Future of the North Sea, and on ConservativeHome earlier this week. Research we will soon be publishing on redesigning the national grid should also generate many good, skilled jobs in areas that are sometimes seen as “left behind”.

The re-set seems more likely to be a milder form of reboot. Without Cummings, some of the urgency will go out of parts of the recent agenda, particularly the machinery of government and data in government focus. But many of the priorities of the new conservatism—Brexit, levelling up, higher spending on the NHS and police, social care, boosting further education, immigration reform, restoring some bustle and pride to Britain’s often unloved towns—are owned by a broad range of the people that matter.

The Red Wall voters are likely to prove more complex beasts than in the Vote Leave or Remain caricatures – and no political strategy can focus too much on just one slice of the population but without producing visible, tangible improvements to the lives of people in places like Stoke and Leigh before the next election the Conservatives will not be returned in 2024.

Bob Seely: Lessons from the Cummings era about leadership, decentralisation, localism – and making more use of MPs

15 Nov

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

Dominic Cummings has gone, but his strengths – and weaknesses – have lessons for us, and his departure still leaves Britain’s government in need of reform.

First, in fairness to Cummings, we need creative thinkers in politics, and he was clearly is as allergic to waffle as he was to a decent dress sense. However, being a free thinker is not the same as being a leader. Every organisation needs genuinely creative thinkers like Cummings to challenge group-think and, as the cliché puts it, think outside the box.

You do not, however, put them in charge because, unless they are there to drive a single issue for a specific amount of time, chaos ensues. Iconocasts question and challenge – and sometimes trash things – but they rarely build.

Cummings’ ability to diagnosis a problem was impressive, but his ability to drive solutions was flawed.

Two Armed Forces comparisons here are useful.

Cummings saw through the chaff to a single core idea. Broadly speaking, in military theory this is called “understanding the centre of gravity”. It’s rare to see it convincingly reduced to a single idea, without the laziness of adding the ballast of supporting points. The Brexit referendum, the levelling up agenda, the need to use data better, all showed that Cummings had the ability to understand clearly a problem: revolutionaries often do.

But whilst Cummings had a rare clarity of thinking, the evidence suggests he wasn’t so good at implementing it. I wonder if that was difficulty in delegating, and a need to keep control – if so, this issue goes much wider than Cummings.

The trend towards centralisation is actively damaging Government. Add our growing culture of risk-aversion, as well as the human rights legal industry, and you have some understanding why centralised Government is slow and cumbersome and its reform is difficult.

Compare this situation with best practise decision-making in the Armed Forces – which is called “mission command”.

Mission command is the combining of centralised intent with decentralised command; it’s when generals give orders to achieve an objective, but the responsibility for delivering that intent is pushed as far down the command chain as possible.

It is the system which gives young men and woman significant responsibility very early in the military careers, and is perhaps the key reason why they stand out so much from their civilian peers. They have responsibly forced on them.

We need such a culture of decentralised responsibility in the civil service and in local government. In which central government sets a broad agenda, but the responsibility for delivering it is pushed down to the lowest possible level, with freedoms to experiment to provide the best way forward.

Revolutionaries want centralised states because they want to drive change, but this is rarely successful. In non-democracies, many centralised revolutions produced catastrophic consequences in the twentieth century. And in democracies, over-centralisation has inhibited reform and good government.

For example, Labour’s obsessions with a top-down, targets-driven culture resulted in NHS managers prioritising treatment based on targets, not need: people died as a result. Another example – Germany’s decentralised health and public health system has coped with Covid-19 much better than ours.

In Westminster, the recent sucking-away of political influence from MPs has caused friction and frustration. Disdain has been accompanied by mistakes: not a good combination. Downing Street now has a chance to reset relationship with MPs who feel marginalised over a variety of issues, including the disastrous housing algorithm and the potentially destructive planning changes. MPs need to be able to contribute to policy. Ministers need to have power and agency in their own right, not just be cyphers.

However, for successful reform to happen, we need a change of culture, not just a change of names. Second, ‘taking back control’ must now mean finding ways to decentralise decision-making from Whitehall and Westminster. Government, working with MPs must drive the intent, but decentralised command must give more power and flexibility for local leaders and local councils to drive local initiatives, the best of which we could all learn from.

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.