Georgia L Gilholy: It’s time the Tories filled the God-shaped hole in British schooling

20 May

Georgia L Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.

If the average British citizen has any formal connection with religion, it is usually via occasional rites of passage or increasingly secularised holidays.

A 2014 YouGov survey found that a measly ten er cent of Brits confessed to religion playing a ‘very important’ part in their lives.

While many faith-based communities persist, and the religious roots of our culture are never far from the surface, for most of Britain transcendent faith is no longer understood, never mind adhered to.

At first glance, this might seem surprising. After all, teaching Religious Education (RE) is a legal requirement in English schools. Maintained schools are statutorily obliged to teach it, while academies and free schools are contractually required in their funding agreements. Faith schools must follow the national curriculum but are permitted to choose their own RE topics.

The subject also remains popular, with analysis released this week by the RE Policy Unit demonstrating a 50 per cent uptick in A-level entries for the subject since 2003, beating the more traditional humanities options of Geography and History.

This is against the backdrop of RE receiving no subject-specific funding from 2016 to 2021. During the same period, £387 million was allocated to music projects, £154 million to maths projects, £56 million to science projects, £28.5 million to English projects, and £16 million to languages projects. It is time the Government put RE on an even keeling with such disciplines.

Worryingly, 500 secondary schools are still reporting zero hours of RE provision in Year 11. Meanwhile, at a time when the Government is pushing schools to join multi-academy trusts, approximately 34 per cent of current academies report no timetabled RE classes.

The 2021 Ofsted research review also identified barriers to high-quality RE teaching, which included an insufficient supply of properly well-equipped teachers.

Syllabi for the most popular RE qualifications, GCSEs, also routinely allow students to study just two religions to pass their exams, hardly amounting to an in-depth exploration of global spirituality.

As Ofsted guidance stresses, RE “affords students the opportunity to make sense of their own place in the world”, and it is hard to disagree with their point.

In light of increasingly polarised political debates, surely the school children set to come of age in this fractious landscape deserve to benefit from the millennia of ethical reflection offered by religious perspectives?

A familiarity with faith is also crucial in light of growing issues of religious extremism. Despite the growing presence of far-right ideologies, Islamist extremism remains the dominant terror threat in the United Kingdom.

As Dr Rakib Ehsan, a social cohesion expert,  told me, a broad RE curriculum “has the potential to cultivate social trust and mutual respect between young British people of different religious backgrounds,” including those across all groups who may be at risk of falling prey to extremism.

He also emphasised the possibility of interfaith cohesion through such a curriculum, stating that:

“There is much common ground to be struck when it comes to the family-oriented and community-spirited values that can be found under various belief systems.”

Surely secular and faith schools alike would benefit from a well-rounded education in the religions that have and continue to shape Britain and the world? As Camille Paglia, the atheist art scholar, stresses, religions represent “the metaphysical system that honours the largeness of the universe…. Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair.”

As a religious person I obviously appreciate the value of some doctrines in and of themselves. But surely regardless of one’s personal beliefs, an academic acquaintance with religion is essential to a balanced perspective?

This is particularly true when it comes to confronting history. How can one accurately study slavery and its opponents in Europe, for example, without grappling with the classical doctrine of “natural slaves”? The evangelism of the abolitionist Clapham Sect? The Catholic scholasticism that underpinned the Valladolid debates of sixteenth-century Spain?

The STEM obsession of successive Conservative governments has probably not helped the fate of RE, nor has it uniquely impacted it. All three English A-level courses saw entries fall by one fifth between 2016 and 2019, while STEM entries grew by the same proportion.

This followed the spurious claim, made by then-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan in Autumn 2014, that it “couldn’t be further from the truth,” that arts and humanities subjects are useful.

While this is blatantly not the case when it comes to understanding art, culture and history at the least, these claims fail to line up even with purely material considerations. Indeed, the average post-graduation salaries of arts students are similar to their STEM counterparts.

It is an act of historical and social vandalism to dismiss the role of religion in Britain and beyond. The study of religion has just as much a place in the curriculum as maths, science, or other humanities subjects.

It is time schooling began to reflect the importance of religious studies, rather than pitting valuable disciplines against each other.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon abandons her flagship schools pledge as she touts separation in the US

19 May

At the end of last month, we stopped by to take an overview of the many and varied scandals and failures besetting the Scottish Government.

Unfortunately, none of this was sufficient to prevent the SNP winning a record haul in this month’s local elections. Devolution seems to have created an unhappy dynamic where electoral success and quality of governance have decoupled.

Still, amidst acres of Protocol discourse let’s check in and see how the Nationalists are faring now the elections are out of the way.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the Scottish Government has formally abandoned its mission to close the attainment gap between rich school pupils and poor by 2026.

In a move which has been described as “a betrayal of Scotland’s children”, the Nationalists’ education secretary announced that the “arbitrary date” could no longer be met.

Bear in mind, Nicola Sturgeon first made her grand promise on school outcomes in 2016. By 2026, the SNP will have had a full decade to deliver on it – and that’s only if you exclude the five years they had a majority after the 2011 election and the four years they led a minority government before that.

Yet a party which claims it could set up an independent Scottish state in a matter of years, it turns out, has decided it won’t be able to deliver better school outcomes after almost 20 years in power.

Doubtless the First Minister is now rather less keen on voters taking her up on her call for pupil performance to be the yardstick by which voters measured her success. Not that they seem inclined to do so.

In the meantime, Sturgeon has been getting down to her actual priority: independence. On a trip to the United States to drum up support for separation, the First Minister claimed the war in Ukraine strengthened her conviction that an independent Scotland would join NATO.

This question continues to divide the separatist movement. The Greens came out against it immediately, and even the more pragmatic Nationalists have yet to overcome their party’s historic antipathy to nuclear weapons. Potential NATO partner are unlikely to be impressed by a prospective member seeking to shelter under the allied nuclear umbrella whilst shuttering Faslane.

Dissent in the ranks?

This morning, the News Letter reported on a fiery meeting of the Northern Irish Conservatives in which both Boris Johnson and Brandon Lewis were criticised for the lack of any central support by local activists.

Although the national leadership was defended by Matthew Robinson, who was the sole Tory candidate in this month’s Assembly elections, other members of the Ulster party have got in touch to set out their case against CCHQ:

“Apparently when the local Party has appealed for support from the leadership the Party centrally has demanded that they activists raise £100,000 of funding before even an article can appear from the Prime Minister in the local media supporting their endeavours.

“Likewise, it is apparently not possible for the PM or the Chancellor to appear at a Party event in NI to help raise profile and funds until the local party guarantees funds to the Party centrally. This is surely somewhat of a chicken and egg situation?”

Furthermore, members in Wales report “unconfirmed “rumours that Andrew RT Davies, the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly, “may be about to try and separate the Welsh party from the UK one”, launching the process at this weekend’s Welsh Conference. So that’s something to keep an eye on.

Ryan Bourne: Shape-shifting ‘Keynesians’ really just want more spending all the time

18 May

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Are British Keynesians wedded to a macroeconomic theory, or just engaged in motivated reasoning to justify ever more government stimulus?

I ask, because last week the New Statesman’s George Eaton tweeted:

“The UK is on the brink of recession – entirely predictable given benefit cuts, tax rises and rate rises piled on top of falling real wages. Do we really have to do Keynesianism 101 again?”

As this line of thinking takes off, it’s worth exploring the merits of such claims.

Economists around the world recognize that supply-shocks resulting from the pandemic and Ukraine war have created inflationary pressures by constraining the output of our economies. That means that for any given growth in overall spending, we are seeing less real output growth and more inflation.

It takes pure denial, though, to ignore how genuine excess demand has added fuel to the fire of these problems. Overly expansionary macroeconomic policies have clearly driven up the price level further, exhibited by overall spending growth rising sharply above its pre-Covid trend.

For the decade prior to the pandemic, the UK’s nominal GDP (NGDP) – i.e. total spending in money terms, or aggregate demand – grew at an average rate of 3.7 per cent per year. When the pandemic hit, NGDP fell sharply as households hunkered down and were prevented from spending on things they’d usually enjoy.

The Government spent and transferred vast amounts in relief, borrowing £450 billion, to try to counteract the downturn. Combined with the enforced depression in spending from business closures, households have since scurried away £200 billion more than expected in savings.

Crucially, the Bank of England also cut its base rate to 0.1 percent and ploughed in £200 billion in quantitative easing. All fiscal and monetary levers were yanked to try to ensure a robust demand-side recovery when things reopened.

It’s now clear that there was too much stimulus for too long. Not only does the latest year’s worth of data show British NGDP 1.8 percent above the level we’d have seen if a pre-Covid trend had been maintained, but NGDP growth accelerated towards the back end of last year.

In 2022 Q2 it grew at an annualised rate of 10.5 percent, three times its pre-crisis trend. That sort of aggregate spending growth guarantees significantly above-target inflation.

Ultimately, the buck for this stops with the Bank of England. They have the mandate and tools to curb demand-driven inflationary pressure.

Andrew Bailey and co. can certainly throw their hands up and claim they are powerless to have prevented the oil price hikes or supply-chain disruption, but they are culpable for not having kept aggregate spending growth on an even keel (remember, monetary policy operates with a lag).

Contra Eaton, it’s therefore entirely appropriate to be hitting the macroeconomic brakes with rate hikes or, yes, spending cuts.

Monetary policy is king, and you can argue that certain tax hikes may worsen supply conditions in the economy or that providing certain targeted relief is worthy given the difficulties people face.

But given the macroeconomic conditions, it’s bizarre to be endorsing more fiscal and monetary stimulus as a general idea, at a time of very low unemployment and very high inflation.

Indeed, “falling real wages” are not a phenomenon that arises from nowhere. They are the result of a macroeconomic policy error that caused too much money chasing too little output, driving up the price level and short-changing people’s nominal pay.

More top-down government spending risks exacerbating these pressures, forcing the Bank into the choice of sharper rate rises or letting inflation embed itself in people’s expectations, making future policy tightening more damaging.

Self-declared advocates of “Keynesianism 101” should understand this. Their case for macroeconomic stabilisation policies was largely based on the concept of sticky wages.

When aggregate demand fell, they said, people’s unwillingness to take cash pay cuts would prevent wages falling to price people back into work. This would create unemployment, as more people would be supplying their labour at the old wages than what firms demand.

In the Keynesian view, printing and spending money to drive up inflation is therefore a feature of stimulus, not a bug, as it allows falling real wages to do the job of ensuring a faster return to full employment.

Yet, weirdly, a lot of today’s Neo-Keynesians want to simultaneously credit macroeconomic policy for us returning to very low unemployment levels, but overlook that real wages are falling partly because of the overexuberance of the policies they celebrate.

This doublethink is especially egregious in the US, where the Democratic left are dreaming up ever-more elaborate theories to explain away inflation as a distinct phenomenon.

The latest brainwave is that companies with monopoly power are responsible for rising prices.

How companies suddenly became more greedy or powerful in the past year is left unexplained, but this misdiagnosis has now entered the realm of policy. Just last week, progressives in Congress introduced new anti-price gouging laws that would empower the federal government to fine firms who significantly raise prices during emergencies.

No British politicos go that far, at least yet. But Eaton’s talk of a recession risk from policy tightening and the zombie idea of a clear trade-off between inflation and unemployment could soon turn into a political argument for keeping the macroeconomic taps on.

It’s important to be clear then that the aim of policy in trying to curb excess inflation should not be to reduce the overall level of aggregate demand. It should be to slow its growth to eliminate any demand-side pressures pushing inflation above two percent.

If the Bank of England slams the brakes way too hard, or tries to counteract any war-induced price pressures to get inflation right on target, we’d see wilder swings in output and employment.

The point is, there’s no iron law where monetary and fiscal tightening must result in recession or more unemployment. In the US the rate of demand growth has significantly decreased, but businesses continue to add plenty of jobs. Here, the number of vacancies exceeds the number of people unemployed for the first time since records began.

Even if one was convinced that macroeconomic tightening hampers hiring, it’s therefore not obvious it would cause much more unemployment, particularly if it helps quell worker’s inflation expectations before they manifest into higher pay demands.

For many, though, macroeconomic stimulus is simply “good” and so the opposite must be “bad.” When unemployment is high, more government spending is the answer. When inflation is eroding wage slips and unemployment is low, more government spending is the answer.

As Keynes famously did not say: “When the facts change, I find new reasons to advocate for stimulus packages.”

Robert Halfon: Our chaotic prison education system is crying out for an overhaul

18 May

Robert Halfon MP is Chair of the Education Select Committee, a former Minister for Skills, and former Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party.

For the majority of offenders, prison must be a place where the skin of an old life is shed, and a new one begins.

Education – from a practical apprenticeship to a masters’ degree – must act as a kind of restorative justice that gives prisoners the chance to build the confidence, skills, and knowledge they need to change their lives; to start again and get good employment when they finish their sentence.

For the past eighteen months, the Education Committee, which I chair, has been conducting an inquiry into the state of education in prisons.

One of the key recurring themes we heard from all our witnesses was that education is one of the most important factors in reducing re-offending. Indeed, research from the Ministry of Justice shows that those who had participated in education whilst in prison were 7.5 per cent less likely to reoffend within twelve months of release.

However, evidence also shows that only 17 per cent of adult prisoners were actually in employment.

Six years after the publication of the Coates Review into prison education in 2016, our Committee found that the ambition set out in this landmark review had not been pursued or met.

Almost two thirds of prison inspections conducted by Ofsted show poor quality management of the education, skills and work provision, with nine of thirty-two inspected institutions achieving a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rating compared with eight out of ten providers for further education in the wider community.

At the same time, the number of prisoners participating in education qualifications has plummeted. In 2018, the number of prisoners participating in a course equivalent to AS-levels or above showed a 90 per cent decrease compared to the 2010/2011 academic year.

Prison education is often paid at a lower rate than unskilled work, acting as a disincentive to engage with education.

Perhaps most worryingly of all, data shows that over 30 per cent of offenders have a learning difficulty or learning challenges but there are only 25 qualified Special Education Needs Co-ordinators (SENCos) across all public prisons, equating to just one SENCo for every four prisons.

And to cap it all off, the physical and digital infrastructure of prisons is in a dire state, with the majority of prisons without the cabling or hardware to support internet access, or a digital device which would enable prisoners to access remote learning through courses on offer by the Open University, for example.

Now, I’m not saying that every offender should be given a state of the art MacBook Pro, or the ability to freely surf the internet. But as the Fourth Industrial Revolution approaches, prisoners will need the digital and technical skills not only to support their ability to learn, but also to acquire the skills necessary for their future employment opportunities.

As our new report makes clear, the arguments for placing education at the heart of the prison system is a no-brainer.

I welcome the commitments the Government have made to date, for example in supporting my campaign to allow offenders to undertake formal apprenticeships from the prison (previously this was not possible). I tabled an amendment to the Skills Act urging for this to be done and am hugely grateful to both Dominic Raab and Nadhim Zahawi for pledging to make this happen.

But it must go further and support a root-and-branch overhaul of the chaotic prison education system as it currently stands.

First, there must be a culture shift in prisons which embeds education at the heart of the system. The Government should appoint a Deputy Governor for Learning in each prison, with a clear and meaningful education and skills plan related to employment and training which would be monitored by Ofsted.

Second, there must be a universal and rigorous assessment process and screening for every prisoner upon entry to identify people’s educational abilities and any SEND or additional learning needs, as well as their academic achievements. Funding should be properly allocated to allow for one SENCo per prison.

Third, individual education passports should be introduced which contain a record of each prisoner’s learning and educational needs. This would facilitate better transfer of studies as prisoners move from prison to prison. Offenders’ ongoing education, and whether their studies can be sustained, should also be taken into account when deciding whether to move prison learners.

Stronger incentivisation for learning should also be considered, such as making pay received for education equal to the amounts received for work, as long as offenders can demonstrate progress within their studies.

Fourth, businesses could be encouraged through financial incentives, such as through the apprenticeship levy, to overcome their reservations and employ former prisoners. The Government must also commit to publishing a clear timetable to set out the roll-out of employment hubs across the prison estate and the establishment of Employment Advisers within the prison system.

Finally, prisoners should be provided with effective digital equipment to enable them to conduct proper online learning.

As Dame Sally Coates said, “Let there be no doubt. Education should be at the heart of the prison system.”

I completely agree. The founding principal of the prison estate must not just be about justice, but to prevent re-offending too, with education acting as the keystone to achieving this ambition.

I urge the Government to carefully consider the steps set out in our Committee’s report which would reframe learning in the prison system and ensure every prisoner is able to overcome the challenges of their past and climb the ladder of opportunity into their future.

Andy Street: How thinking green, and levelling up, can insulate against future cost-of-living shocks

17 May

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Rising inflation, soaring energy bills, and the spiralling cost of living have led to calls from some to step back from net zero ambitions and the levelling up mission.

This is wrong. I believe we must step into both of these challenges even more determinedly.

Here in the West Midlands, we are particularly affected by increasing fuel poverty, precisely because too many of our jobs are lowly paid – so we must act now to help those who are struggling. However, the real answer is building a more resilient economy for the future.

Crucially, as Conservatives, I believe we must recognise the huge economic opportunities of the green economy: to create well-paid jobs, improve our nation’s energy security, and bring prices down. This is not about tree-hugging or eco ‘virtue signalling’. It’s about pounds, shillings and pence.

Just as there are multiple causes behind the rising cost of living, we must find multiple ways of bringing it under control. I want to use this column to outline how we can do this by tackling the climate challenge, delivering on levelling up, and learning from the successes of devolution.

First of all, however, people need real help now with the rising cost of living. Regionally, we can help in a number of ways – by working to ensure fares on public transport remain low, for example. I have also never used a council tax precept to pay for the office of Mayor.

These may be small decisions, but they are real contributions we can make at a local level.

Nationally, the Government has introduced cuts to fuel duty, is raising the National Insurance threshold from July, has reduced the Universal Credit taper rate, and increased work allowances for the self-employed. Rebates on energy bills will also help.

However, there needs to be more short term help with energy bills, best delivered via the Warm Homes Fund, which provides a way of targeting support.

While I believe the Government is right to reject the idea of reducing VAT on energy – which would simply reward the biggest users – I do expect that the Chancellor will act again before Autumn to help those who are struggling.

The real solution to cost of living pressures, however, lies in schemes like retrofitting, which will cut household bills. Long term, we must think green.

In the West Midlands, we are leading the way in this innovative field. A consortium led by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has been awarded £7.5m to make hundreds of social housing homes more energy efficient.

The WMCA’s Energy Capital team works to drive forward innovation, retrofitting old homes, improving insulation, and making the most of the progress in solar power generation.

Again, the Government is encouraging this by reducing tax on renewable technology, including zero per cent VAT on solar panels – and it is in the regions that the challenge is being grasped.

For example, we are spending £2.8 million on retrofitting 300 homes across Coventry and Solihull to make them more efficient, in a scheme that will demonstrate what could be achieved on a much bigger scale.

Last week I also visited Project 80, the UK’s first affordable housing development to satisfy the Government’s new Future Homes Standard being built right here in the West Midlands – where eco building methods are driving bills down by 65 per cent.

This local innovation in the green economy can drive national policy, with the regions providing testing grounds for schemes of differing sizes.

We are pioneering Energy Innovation Zones, to stimulate local clean energy innovation and drive productivity, as well as exports and growth. Four of these zones are planned at Tyseley, UK Central in Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire and in the Black Country.

Ensuring a more resilient energy future isn’t just about adopting greener solutions and building warmer homes, it’s also about creating better-paid jobs that improve household incomes. Delivering levelling up will support people worst hit by the cost of living crisis, by driving growth in areas that have been ‘left behind’.

But we have to do it, not just talk about it.

Again, addressing the climate challenge can play its part in levelling up, by providing quality opportunities in green manufacturing, retrofitting, electrification, and the digital economy, all of which are being driven locally.

Only last week I opened a new Electric Vehicle Centre at the City of Wolverhampton College, which will help bring the Green Industrial Revolution to life: establishing a UK centre of excellence for the automotive industry while creating high-tech 21st-century jobs, in collaboration with employers.

As Conservatives, it is those employers we should listen to. I recently chaired an Energy Crisis Roundtable, which saw leading companies and business bodies discuss their most pressing energy concerns.

Energy costs are having a powerful impact on industry, a particular concern here in the West Midlands. Another initiative, called ‘Repowering the Black Country’, is developing four zero carbon industrial hubs so businesses can take advantage of clean growth opportunities. We must build on ideas like this, locally and nationally.

At the roundtable, business leaders also outlined the powers they would like to see transferred from Whitehall to our region to strengthen industrial resilience.

The message is clear: we must be bold in devolving the powers to allow the regions to innovate.

We can shape greener transport networks that are cheaper to run. We can build future-proof homes and retrofit older ones to make them warmer and more cost-efficient. We can develop a skilled, better paid workforce. We can regenerate our areas with future energy needs in mind.

The cost of living crisis is being driven by many factors. Short-term help is vital as families and businesses feel the pinch.

But by pressing ahead with future-proofing schemes, delivering on our levelling up mission, and empowering the regions to innovate, we can help to insulate our nation, long-term, against future cost of living concerns.

Gerard Lyons: Ministers have an opportunity to cut taxes, drive supply side reform – and help reduce the cost of living

17 May

Dr Gerard Lyons is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. He was Chief Economic Adviser to Boris Johnson during his second term as Mayor of London.

“My Government’s priority is to grow and strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living for families.” These opening two lines of the Queen’s Speech provided a powerful message.

Further action is needed to address the cost of living crisis. Also, those affected are not just families, but the vast bulk of households that are being squeezed. If the Government doesn’t appreciate this, then it may have its work cut out.

To its credit, the Government has already announced a host of targeted measures. These include a £150 refund on council tax for those in bands A to D. While welcome, the gains are partially offset by a rise in the average Council Tax in band D of £67.

The main help by far, though, was announced by the Chancellor in the Spring Statement – an increase in the threshold at which the higher rate of national insurance is to be paid. This has now been aligned with the starting threshold for income tax, around £242 per week. There is also the expectation that the Government will act again, as energy bills are expected to rise again this autumn, when the new price cap kicks-in.

Indeed, the cost of living crisis looks set to get worse, before it gets better. UK inflation is set to peak soon, probably above 10 per cent, and will then stay elevated for some time. While inflation is set to decelerate next year, it seems unlikely to return to its two per cent target anytime soon.

It also vital to appreciate that we are very quickly moving away from the main problem being inflation to it being a lack of economic growth. There thus needs to be a reiteration of a clear, executable vision and strategy to grow and strengthen the economy. But first, the cost of living crisis merits further attention.

High fuel and food prices are already exacerbating problems for lower income households, who spend a higher proportion of their income on these areas. At the same time, a large part of peoples’ disposable incomes fund their housing costs. Furthermore, as the retail price index heads higher, rail fares will rise, and changes earlier this year added to the cost of repaying student loans.

While some have savings they can dip into, many don’t. Thus, overall, discretionary spending will be squeezed with widespread negative consequences for retailers and many firms. In turn, there will be upward pressure on costs, prices and wages.

Even the labour market, where unemployment is low, could see change since a sharp economic slowdown is likely, including the possibility of a technical recession with two successive negative quarters of economic growth.

The challenge is that, surely, the Government can’t go on spending taxpayers’ money at every sign of trouble? That is right – but downside economic risks mean intervention is needed, not only to ease the burden but also through low taxes to revitalise growth. The situation also highlights the need to restore both fiscal and monetary stability, once the economy allows, allowing scope to cope with future shocks.

The economic and political shock-absorber is a looser fiscal policy over the next year. Although the budget deficit is higher than one would like, the good news is that it is falling sharply: from £317.8 billion in 2020/21 to £151.8 billion in 2021/22, and is expected by the Office for Budget Responsibility to decline further to £127.8 billion in 2022/23. Moreover, higher inflation is already bolstering tax receipts.

So what should be done? Relaxing fiscal policy and targeted support should not add to inflation since demand is already slowing. Targeted help is needed for those on low incomes, but also there is a need to help the squeezed middle.

Other countries have enacted policies to shield people from rising energy prices, including reduced taxes on energy or VAT; retail price regulation; wholesale price regulation; transfers to vulnerable groups; mandating firms’ behaviour; windfall profits tax; business support; or other measures (such as cutting the green levy in Germany).

While other countries, too, are tightening monetary policy, the UK is unusual in that it is squeezing fiscal policy. Benefits, for instance, were not raised in line with higher inflation in the Spring Statement, when perhaps they should have been. Crucially, the tax take is at an all-time high. The latter needs to be reversed. It includes too many people being dragged into higher tax brackets, and this can only be addressed by raising tax allowances and the levels at which people enter higher tax bands.

Quickly executable targeted measures could include a further increase in the Council Tax rebate. Another would be to use Universal Credit to direct more money to those in most need, while preserving work incentives. A mid-year rerating of benefits to raise them in line with higher inflation may take longer to implement but is another option

Temporary removal of some of the permanent components of fuel duties should be considered although, like many of these measures, further cuts in taxes on energy are not cheap. The temporary five pence cut in fuel duty is set to cost £2.4 billion this fiscal year. Suspending VAT on domestic energy while gas prices remain high has been suggested by some MPs.

Another possible but unlikely option is a temporary suspension of the environmental levy paid on energy bills. It would not, in my view, compromise the Government’s commitment to the green agenda, and could free up about £340 per household per year. The importance of addressing climate change is critical; it is peoples’ ability to pay that is the issue.

There is a clear case for bringing forward the one pence cut in income tax that has been pencilled in for before the next election. The Treasury calculates that this will costs £5.4 billion in its first year, but it would address an important issue in that income tax collection is now heavily concentrated, with roughly four in ten adults only paying it. A broader tax base with low tax rates makes more sense, but that may be a future aim.

There is also a search for non-fiscal measures that can help businesses and households. Measures that both ease the burden on firms and employers, while bolstering their confidence about the future, should figure prominently.

The most obvious is to implement supply-side measures from the Taskforce on Innovation and Growth Report. Although some may take time to feed through, they should bolster business confidence and encourage investment.

Also, measures to turbo-charge the housing market are welcome. Planning reform, while necessary, appears to have taken a back burner. A year ago, in a research paper for Policy Exchange, I outlined measures on the demand side that could help Generation Rent become Generation Buy, including allowing those who cannot afford deposits to use their history of regular rent payment to enter the housing market.

If the economic climate deteriorates, banks should be encouraged to exercise forbearance on loans if firms encounter difficulty. The Bank of England should also re-examine prudential requirements to ensure that these are not having a negative impact on growth.

This proactive policy response to address immediate challenges is complimentary to other areas of policy. It should not threaten the inflation outlook. Crucially, it is consistent with the existing fiscal strategy of reducing the ratio of debt to GDP from its present level of 96.2 per cent and the aim to achieve a significant improvement in the public finances. Strengthening the economy is the aim, easing the cost of living crisis is the immediate focus.

John Redwood: The EU is failing to implement parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol and has damaged the Belfast Agreement

16 May

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

Brexit was a vote to take back control. Remain tried to turn it into a narrow discussion of trade and trading arrangements, denying much more constitutional significance to the EU. Brexiteers wanted our country back. We knew that greater prosperity and freedom as a result would depend on what use Parliament made of the freedom to make our own choices. The public, in anger at the way the 2017-19 Parliament tried to undermine the verdict of the people and tie us back into much of the EU’s laws and arrangements, voted for the big Brexit majority in 2019.

Given the hassle and the anti-democratic efforts of so many in a Remain-dominated establishment to keep us close to the EU, it was understandable that the Prime Minister would rush through a Withdrawal Act before the last election when he was still hamstrung by the absence of a Brexit majority.

After the Conservative win, he speeded up negotiations on a future relationship. The EU had insisted on a two-stage process, agreeing terms of withdrawal, leaving and only then negotiating a future relationship. A possible trade agreement to supplement WTO most favoured national trading that would otherwise apply helped them more than us, but was used by the Remain establishment to keep us closer to EU rules.

The EU broke its own interpretation of EU law which it said necessitated this phased approach by inserting a Northern Ireland Protocol into the Withdrawal Agreement which did tackle some future relationship issues which were meant to be out of bounds at that stage.

The Protocol it drafted was contradictory and ambiguous. It contained a lot of clauses requiring Northern Ireland compliance with the EU Single Market, but it also included clear statements that Northern Ireland would be part of the UK’s internal market and would benefit from UK free trade deals, and that Northern Ireland’s status as part of the U.K would be confirmed.

Both sides recognised the the Protocol did not represent the final answer, which is why it included Article 13.8 which provided for cancelling or replacing it in due course. It was assumed by many there would be a clearer statement in the future relationship treaty. When it did not produce one, Northern Ireland was left facing an uncertain future. Conflicting jurisdictions in the EU and U.K took very  different views of what the contradictory and ambiguous document meant.

The EU decided on a maximalist interpretation, imposing or seeking to impose a vast array of controls and checks on internal U.K. trade passing between Great Britian and Northern Ireland. The U.K. politely spent two years asking for some give as well as take from the EU with no success. The Unionist parties in the recent Stormont elections suffered from the damage done to Great Britain/Northern Ireland trade, and to the sense of identity of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland by the intrusion of the EU into  their lives.

The U.K according to the EU cannot change VAT in Northern Ireland when we change it for Great Britain against EU laws. Northern Ireland has to accept an avalanche of new law from the EU every year while Great Britain does not have to accept or legislate for anything similar. Northern Ireland gets no vote or voice on the laws the EU imposes

As a result, unionist members of Stormont are refusing to join an executive or government in Northern Ireland until the Protocol is removed or substantially amended. They see an EU understandably on the side of its member state, the Republic of Ireland – out to govern against their wishes and interests, forcing on them an unwanted border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and many costs and impediments to Great Britain/Northern Ireland trade. The U.K. has refused to implement all of them, but the ones already in place are damaging enough.

The Government needs to take action to remedy this big problem. The Belfast Agreement which established peace in Northern Ireland after years of violence is important and is rightly backed by the President of the USA. This agreement has now been undermined by the Protocol . Both the unionist and the nationalist communities need to giv  their consent to any major decision in Northern Ireland. The unionists do not consent to the Protocol which they think undermines the Act of Union and deprives them of full and equal membership of the Union of the U.K.

As the EU seems to delight in forcing Northern Ireland against its will into dependence on EU laws and rules that the Government must act soon and unilaterally  to remedy this. The EU mouths its meaningless and wrong soundbite that the UK and Northern Ireland have to stick to an international treaty and must not break their law. The truth is that the EU is failing to carry through the parts of the Protocol it does not like and has damaged the Good Friday Agreement. It is controlling parts of tax policy in Northern Ireland and stopping British supermarkets delivering food to Northern Ireland’s shops.

The U.K. anyway has the power to legislate independently reserved carefully in the crucial Clause 38 of our Withdrawal Act which is the only form of the Treaty which has power in U.K. law. That Article reserves the right for the U.K. to assert its sovereignty over any of these matters if it needs to. The Government could also operate legally under the terms of the Protocol itself as Article 16 allows us to take unilateral action where the other party has damaged the economy and society of Northern Ireland and or where trade with the U.K. has been impeded. Clearly, both tests have been met.

Many British businesses have stopped selling into Northern Ireland or have streamlined what they sell faced with ridiculous EU imposed checks. More importantly, the delicate balance between the two communities has been fractured with unionists wanting their country back. It is important that the Government upholds the Belfast Agreement. That means explaining all this to US Democrats who do not understand the unionist position or the legal background

It means acting unilaterally and fairly to take control of Great Britain/Northern Ireland trade whilst guaranteeing the full force of the state to prevent non-complaint goods travelling into the Republic. It means standing up to the EU as it mouths falsehoods and threatens illegal responses. Brexit is not done all the time it does not extend to Northern Ireland. Our Union is not safe all the time when the people who believe most in it are treated so badly.

Sarah Ingham: Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO is a timely reminder that freedom is not free

13 May

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

As Victory Day was commemorated on Monday in Moscow, in London the Defence Secretary reminded us that ‘freedom is not free’.

The words are carved into the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, the three-year conflict which began in 1950 under the auspices of the United Nations.

More than 90,000 British troops served in Korea, among them National Servicemen, alongside Americans and personnel from 20 other nations. The Battle of Imjin River was surely the hardest fought by the British Army in the second half of the century.

Last November, Boris Johnson sent a message to the annual gathering at the UN Memorial Cemetery in the port city of Busan, where the recently discovered remains of three unidentified British soldiers were buried with military honours:

“On the banks of the Imjin River, 70 years ago, British and South Korean troops fought side by side against the forces of tyranny. And today, just as we did then, the United Kingdom stands with you for peace, prosperity, and the stability of the Korean Peninsula.”

Among the allies killed in action were more than 40,000 Americans and 1,100 British servicemen. Korea was the first major armed conflict of the Cold War, the great ideological stand-off between the communist East and the capitalist, liberal and democratic West.

Or was it?

At Monday’s Defence of Europe conference, organised by King’s College London’s School of Security Studies and Reaction, historian Niall Ferguson suggested that Cold War Two is underway. Once again, it is a struggle between the world’s two superpowers – this time, between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

‘In this second Cold War, China is the senior partner and Russia is the junior partner.’ According to Ferguson’s framing, the conflict in Ukraine is the mirror image of Korea: the first hot war of our new Cold War. If this thesis holds true, these are dangerous times.

In recent weeks, Sweden and Finland’s membership of NATO has gone from possible to probable to almost definite, a seismic shift from both countries’ traditional non-alignment.

With an 800-mile land border with Russia, Finland is especially vulnerable to any aggression by Moscow. A poll for national broadcaster YLE this week found that 76 per cent of Finns now want to join the alliance, up from 60 per cent in March. Until recently, support for membership rarely reached 30 per cent.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister signed new security agreements with Stockholm and Helsinki, promising Britain’s assistance in the event of conventional, cyber or hybrid attack. Enhanced intelligence sharing is planned as part of a “step-change in defence and security co-operation”. Moscow will no doubt be mindful that the United Kingdom retains the nuclear deterrent.

Given their first-rate defence capabilities, both Sweden and Finland will be warmly welcomed by NATO. Both already have close ties with the alliance, participating in joint military exercises, training and operations, leading to their forces being inter-operable with other members.

Cooperation was intensified following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and was then given renewed impetus after the invasion of Ukraine in February.

In retaining conscription, Finland is unusual in a Europe that has moved towards all-volunteer forces. Ostensibly, the Finnish Defence Forces seem small, with fewer than 20,000 personnel.

However, three-quarters of all men undertake military service and afterwards become reservists, which requires refresher training of a minimum of 80 days a year. Consequently, there is a Reserve of 238,000.

Military Balance 2022, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies suggests that, while Finland’s army comprises 13,400 soldiers – or just 4,400 if the 9,000 conscripts are excluded – it maintains a mobilisation strength of 285,000. There is also a Border Guard of 2,700, with 12,000 reservists on standby.

“You are the best person to defend our country”. In Conscript 2020, sent out to young people about to undertake national service, Finland is clear about collective responsibility:

“Independence and safe conditions for our citizens must be maintained – they are what Finland has fought for in previous wars. As a conscript, you are an important part of our national defence.”

In 2020, more than 80 per cent of Finns aged under 25 supported conscription, according to the annual survey by the Finnish Parliament’s Advisory Board for Defence Information. International terrorism and the refugee crisis were then primary concerns.

More men than women backed national service, which remains voluntary for women. Last year, however, a record number applied to serve their country. This number will surely increase with images of grandmothers in Ukraine taking up arms.

By invoking previous wars, Finland is tapping into the sentiment expressed by the Immortal Regiment, the families of those Russians who perished in the Great Patriotic War and other conflicts. It underlines the power of war and sacrifice in shaping a nation and forging a collective identity.

Coinciding with the Victory Day Parade in Red Square, Ben Wallace was speaking at the National Army Museum in Chelsea. He accused the Kremlin of hijacking history and exploiting the heroic sacrifice made during the Great Patriotic War to justify the attack on Ukraine.

The former Scots Guards officer gave an insightful critique of Russian military performance in Ukraine, highlighting the dereliction of duty by the officer corps, in particular the absence of leadership among the General Staff.

While the Russian forces evinced “moral decay”, the Ukrainian forces – including militias, women and minorities – showed the power of the “moral component”, which includes not just weaponry and leadership, but the will to fight and to win.

Today, those defending Ukraine, like those Russians who fought the Nazis in the 1940s and all those who stand ready to defend Finland, are a reminder that every British citizen might one day have a role to play in this country’s defence – and that freedom and security are not free.

Henry Hill: Truss may struggle to persuade Brussels that the threat of action on the Protocol is real this time

12 May

Anyone who has followed the row over the Northern Irish Protocol for the past several years surely cannot help but be deeply wary of any suggestion that the Government might be actually about to do something about it.

For than once, Whitehall sources have strongly suggested that if talks hadn’t progressed by this or that date, ministers would have no choice but to trigger Article 16, only for the deadlines to come and go with no change.

A week ago, it looked as if this latest round of sabre-rustling was following a similar course.

Following an (almost-certainly hostile) leak of Liz Truss’s plans for special legislation to override the Protocol, Brandon Lewis seemed to pour cold water on the idea when he ruled it out of the Queen’s Speech. And indeed, no such Bill appeared therein.

But days afterwards, the Government has marched itself much further up the hill than ever before. The Daily Telegraph reports that Truss has set a deadline not weeks or months away, but of just 72 hours.

And today Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, has apparently received legal advice to the effect that it would be legal for the Government to overrule parts of the Protocol.

This is probably less seismic than it might sound, not least because, in the British system, Parliament can already legislate to whatever effect it pleases, so long as the Bill is properly drafted. Although this can be more or less in line with our international commitments, those do not trump its sovereign law-making power.

But more seriously because the main barriers to this course of action aren’t legal, but practical and diplomatic. A Bill of the sort apparently being drawn up by the Foreign Office would provide a locus for opposition in the House of Commons and likely provoke retaliation from Brussels. And a trade war would do nothing to ease the cost-of-living crisis.

This is the case even if, as has been suggested to me, the form of the legislation would not be to directly set aside aspects of the Protocol but to empower the Secretary of State to do so, basically creating a sounder legal footing for future carefully-targeted interventions such as the Government’s unilateral extension of grace periods.

(It is worth remembering that all the current problems with the Protocol are those arising whilst the United Kingdom is quietly refusing to implement significant parts of it. It would otherwise be even worse.)

Does the Government have sufficient will for this fight? It certainly seems to have got its allies in the press on board: “let’s destroy the myth that the EU’s priority in Northern Ireland is peace”, says this morning’s Sun.

But it is still far from clear that sufficient preparatory work has been done, either to ready the economy for the impact of a ‘trade war’ with the EU.

Nor to make the case for London’s (legitimate) interpretation of the Belfast Agreement, which does not mandate an invisible border on the island of Ireland but does guarantee Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, which certainly changed when key provisions of the Act of Union guaranteeing unfettered commerce were overridden by the legislation enacting the Protocol.

Still, there are reasons why the Government might think this strategy might work. The EU has not proven entirely unwilling to alter its rules in relation to the Protocol, and did so to resolve the row over medicines.

And having operated the grace periods for so long, London can reasonably ask Brussels where the evidence is for the dangerous distortions of the Single Market which allegedly loomed if British sausages were allowed to flow freely into Northern Ireland. They have been so flowing for two years. Where is the damage?

It is telling that in all the acres of coverage about the consequences of Truss’s plan, nobody seems to be suggesting that Ireland would be forced out of the Single Market. Yet if the EU truly believed the Protocol was necessary to safeguard its economy, and that London was prepared to tear it up, that would surely be on the cards.

Regardless, we will apparently know in less than a week whether or not the Government is serious this time. A 72-hour deadline doesn’t leave you with many places to hide.

Garvan Walshe: Finland and Sweden’s NATO application shows how much Russia has already lost 

12 May

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Finland and Sweden applying to join NATO is more evidence that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a monstrous mistake. Moscow has maintained an effective veto on Swedish and Finnish membership since ether Cold War. Now, with Russian troops bogged down in the Donbas, Helsinki and Stockholm can join while Russia’s too busy to do much about it.

It also complicates Putin’s tactical situation.  NATO forces could soon be positioned to open a second front north of St Petersburg, limiting Russia’s ability to intimidate the Baltic States, and to broaden the directions from which Murmansk on the Arctic coast can be subject to counterattacks.

Instead of Finland defending a 830 mile border with Russia, Russia will now have to defend another 830 miles of border with NATO. The island of Gotland, from which the Baltic Sea can be controlled, will be a NATO, not just a Swedish, island.

But the most important difference is geopolitical. Look at the globe from the top, and list the countries across the Pole from Russia: the United States (through Alaska), Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the UK, Norway, Sweden and Finland. This arc sweeps down through the Baltic States, Poland and the other countries that escaped Soviet domination in 1989, to Ukraine. All except Ukraine are in NATO – and Ukraine is inflicting the biggest defeat of Russia since the Japanese in 1905.

Apart from the US and Canada, which must also pay attention to Chinese ambitions in the Pacific, all these states see resisting Russian aggression as their main defence policy task. 

This will remain the case until the Russian state comes to understand that its purpose should be to improve the lives of Russian people, and that this is hindered, not helped, by paranoid militarism. Yet that process won’t even begin until Putin leaves office, and could well be reversed, even if he’s followed by a liberalising successor. Both Tsar Alexander II’s and Boris Yeltsin’s openings were overturned.  

These first-line states, of which the UK, Poland and Ukraine are the main military powers, can expect to maintain decades of containment of Moscow. As well as strengthening their own cooperation, they need to keep the rest of the Western alliance involved. 

Even setting aside the risk of a second Trump administration, a United States that returns to isolationism, or is simply focused on China, would be unable to help mount a defence against Russian aggression in the way it has this time. Continental European powers such as France and Germany under less immediate threat to Russia need to be persuaded who their real friends are.

The German government is divided. While Annalena Baerbock, its Foreign Minister, has been steadfast in her support for Ukraine, Olaf Scholz appears to lack the courage of his convictions, and needs continually to be pushed to live up to the Zeitenwende he announced immediately after Russia invaded.

And as Emmanuel’s Macron’s speech on Monday showed, France still struggles to shrug off its reflex of seeking somehow to involve Russia in contributing to security in Europe. This thinking has long been obsolete: a democratic Germany inside the EU has long made a Russian balance to Prussia unnecessary, and Poland’s integration into the West made it unsustainable.

But winning the political battles in France and Germany (and maintaining Mario Draghi’s new pro-Ukrainian consensus in Italy) will take more concerted diplomatic effort. It’s been entertaining to watch the friendly rivalry by former European schoolmates as they compete for visits to Kyiv and videotaped addresses by Volodomyr Zelensky. Whether they are Anglo-Swedish NLAWs (anti-tank weapons), US Javelins, German Panzerfausts or French CAESAR howitzers, all contribute to Ukraine’s fight for freedom. This is not a race, but a collective effort in which all democracies should take part.  

Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO, accompanied by British security guarantees for both countries until the NATO accession process is complete, is one such initiative. Denmark joining the EU’s defence policy (it currently has an opt out: a referendum is due on 1 June, and ‘join’ has a 20 point lead) is another.  The requirement is not necessarily unity of institutions, but unity of action, which must be pursued through NATO, EU initiatives and the British-led Joint Expeditionary force. 

Next winter, when inflation and high energy prices are due to bite, will prove critical. Russia will put every ounce of its political manipulation effort into splitting Germany, France and Italy from the front line states. It is an essential British interest that these efforts fail. 

Lasting peace in Europe will only come once Russia, like Germany has, abandons imperialist ambitions, reforms its militaristic culture, and retreats from all territory in other states that it has occupied. Putin’s defeat won’t be enough on its own to trigger the introspection and reconstruction that Russia needs. But it is a necessary step, and his inability to enforce Moscow’s ban on Finnish and Swedish NATO membership is evidence that he is starting to lose.