Neil Parish: Ministers can help deliver their climate ambition to improve the nation’s air quality

29 Nov

Neil Parish is Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Tiverton and Honiton.

A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister showcased this Government’s brilliant environmental credentials and commitment to the natural environment with the launch of a new 10-point climate plan. The ten-point climate plan sets out an ambitious roadmap to achieving our net zero emissions target by capturing the wide-reaching changes required across our whole economy.

Now, as preparations for next year’s climate summit intensify, the Prime Minister has an ideal opportunity to demonstrate that environmental leadership at home through the landmark Environment Bill. The Bill returns to Parliament soon for Report Stage, and is a key opportunity for the Government to build on its environmental ambition set out in the ten-point climate plan by acting further and faster to improve the UK’s air quality for all.

Improving the nation’s air quality has never been more important as we are reminded of the tragic impact air pollution can have on our health by the launch of the inquest into the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah. Ella, who lived near one of London’s busiest roads, was nine years old when she suffered a fatal asthma attack in 2013 after three years of seizures and breathing problems. The two-week inquest begins this week and will examine the extent to which air pollution contributed to or caused her death.

As cases like Ella’s demonstrate the dangerous state of our nation’s air and its impact on our health, I have tabled an amendment to the Environment Bill that would require us to achieve 2005 World Health Organization (WHO) guideline limits for particulate matter (PM2.5) by 2030.

PM2.5 are small harmful particles that can penetrate deep into our lungs. They are a major component of the UK’s air pollution, and can have devastating impacts for our health. In fact, the British Heart Foundation found that living in an area with high levels of PM2.5 for one year can have the same health impact as smoking 150 cigarettes a year. So, although the UK is currently meeting legal limits for PM2.5, this is because our existing limits are much looser than what is required to truly safeguard our health.

Strengthening our air pollution target and committing to achieve it by 2030, however, is feasible, popular and well-accepted. For example, when Michael Gove was Environment Secretary, he said that ‘we have to ensure our Environment Bill includes a legally binding commitment on particulate matter so that no part of the country exceeds the levels recommended by the WHO.’

This was also one of the main recommendations made in the 2018 Joint Select Committee report on “Improving Air Quality” published by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which I chair, alongside the Environmental Audit Committee and the Health and Transport Select Committee. Meanwhile, a technical analysis by Defra revealed that reaching WHO guidelines is achievable.

When the amendment is supplemented with a range of practical steps that can help get polluting vehicles off our streets, the Government can truly make our air cleaner and healthier up and down the country. I therefore applaud the recently announced ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. It is a signal that our Government has the vision and fearlessness to tackle the nation’s dirty air. The Government must now build on this announcement with further measures to improve the nation’s air quality, including turbocharging its plan for a network of rapid charging points, and working with local authorities in key cities to roll out clean air zones too.

By committing ourselves through our new Environment Bill to reach WHO guidelines on air quality by 2030, Britain can yet again demonstrate our environmental leadership at home and on the world stage.  I have campaigned for several years to clean up the air we breathe, and very much hope we can now seize this once-in-a generation opportunity to do so.

Henry Smith: The defence sector has a vital role to play in levelling up – but needs Treasury support

28 Nov

Henry Smith is the Member of Parliament for Crawley.

In Crawley, where the aerospace sector is a significant local employer, we have been hit hard by the impact of Covid-19. This will be an extremely challenging time for individuals and families in my constituency and we must look to replace those jobs quickly.

I believe that this recovery can, and should, be technology-led and that one of the Government departments with the biggest budgets – the Ministry of Defence – could be at the heart of it. With the Integrated Review due to report soon, it is important that the UK takes this opportunity to adapt to an environment where technology, science and data are at the centre of delivering our global ambitions.

I agree with Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, that investing in cyber, space, electronic warfare, AI, robotics and autonomy is vital for our future prosperity and security. These kinds of technologies will be critical in building not only national resilience for the UK but a resilient digitally enabled economy.

However, in order to make the Integrated Review effective and the long-term platform on which to build the nation’s security, it must be accompanied by a multi-year spending settlement.

I appreciate that Rishi Sunak needs to focus on the present. But in an industry where contracts are for tens of years and companies make decisions on R&D investment with a long-term view, the absence of a multi-year settlement adds to uncertainty, causes delays in programme decisions, and makes the UK less attractive to large defence companies for investment.

British national security cannot be separated from the strength of our onshore defence and technology base, which increasingly that includes cyber and digital. The ability to rapidly respond to changing threats or shifts in international dynamics is critical. By developing our industry at home, we are able to make decisions to prioritise our values and protect our security, as the Government rightly did with the Huawei/5G decision.

As we have seen throughout this pandemic, our economic and social lives have been shifted online and the importance of being able to have trust in the systems we use, – that our data is secure, that a website is legitimate – can scarcely be overstated. Given the importance of the digital economy, digital trust must now be considered a foundation for national security; we should consider an intrinsic aspect of our Critical National Infrastructure.

Having world leading capabilities that are created and developed in Britain can also support our trade ambitions and export strength. Export sales can help spread the costs of design and production, potentially bringing down the cost of capabilities for the Armed Forces and saving taxpayers’ money. The reputation of the British military is such that when they can be cited as a reference user it adds significant weight to an export campaign.

In order to maximise the UK-wide benefit, the Government must back our industry by choosing to place a high weighting on the positive economic and employment impacts for Britain when making contract decisions, particularly when taxpayer money has been invested in the development of key technologies.

Brexit represents a chance to level the playing field for our defence industry, having previously been hampered by EU competition laws that were interpreted differently across the different states. The Ministry of Defence must be serious about using criteria to make contract decisions that take into account the impact on British jobs. With a large budget and significant annual capital spending, the MoD can be a vital tool in supporting the economic resilience of the nation as well as our security in the more traditional terms. This is something we have seen in countries across the world as they respond to Covid-19 including the US, France, Germany, and Australia.

Like in Crawley, colleagues from many parts of the nation, from Broughton, Brough, and Barrow, will also know benefits of big manufacturers supporting both employment in their area and a national supply chain. By giving the MoD a multi-year settlement, the Government will be recognising the value that defence spending brings to the national and – crucially – local economies.

We must be thinking about the long-term future of our manufacturing towns, and the Government needs to demonstrate their commitment by giving industry the certainty it needs to level up the economy across our United Kingdom.

Joel Gladwin: International rivals are catching up on the UK’s fintech success. Here’s how we can defend our crown.

27 Nov

Joel Gladwin is Head of Policy at the Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec).

Our fintech sector is a great British success story. Investment into UK fintech companies is at record highs, accounting for over a third of all investment into the sector in Europe. Last year, London had more people working in fintech and a greater number of venture capital investment deals than any other city in the world.

Companies like Monzo, Starling, Revolut and TransferWise are all less than 10 years old but they have matured into global brands in their own right. They have also grown into formidable rivals for customers and their cash, putting pressure on the rest of the financial services sector to step outside its comfort zone, innovate rapidly and embrace a fail-fast, customer-centric culture.

Our historic strength in financial services, combined with forward-thinking regulators in the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and pro-competition policy in the form of open banking, have all contributed to establishing London as the fintech capital of the world.

But that is enough backslapping for now.

Not only are our international rivals catching up when it comes to the volume of fintech deals, they are also drawing up plans to open up more financial – as well as non-financial – data for their fintechs to access and innovate. These plans go well beyond the limited scope of our own open banking regime. The key to defending our fintech crown will be building on this momentum.

Thankfully, the Government is already starting to think seriously about what comes next, with the Treasury and the FCA embarking upon a number of reviews this year including on payments regulations, open finance and the broader UK fintech sector.

Moving beyond open banking to open finance is the next logical step for our fintech sector’s growth and development. It will open up the savings, credit, mortgages and pensions sectors for innovation – and, ultimately, bring consumers more choice, convenience, and ease when it comes to managing their finances.

In its latest Digital Finance Strategy the EU has committed to establishing an open finance framework by 2024. As someone who was involved in the lobbying battles of getting PSD2 over the line – the EU regulation that made open banking possible – I know full well that this is an extremely ambitious target by European standards.

After all, the bureaucratic wranglings of Brussels led PSD2 to be an extremely lengthy project. It spanned five years (2013 to 2018), one directive, eight guidelines, six technical standards and seven opinions. And it has still not been delivered in parts of Europe to this very day. The UK’s approach towards a functional open finance ecosystem can now be quicker, leaner and more agile.

By returning to our principles based approach to regulation, rather than overly prescriptive technical standards, and enabling the market of AP specialists to get on and build the connections for open finance from below, new research by The Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec) suggests that it would be possible to unlock the benefits of open in two years.

This isn’t a novel idea either. It has been the approach taken by the Australian Government which has introduced arguably the most expansive open data regulatory initiative in the world.

The Australian Consumer Data Right (CDR) will give consumers the right to access not only their financial data but also utility and telecom data by 2021, even though they started on their journey two years later than us. A market-led, principles-based regulatory framework will allow the UK to deliver open finance much quicker than our near neighbours.

The Chancellor has also made it clear that he will “review our regulatory framework on financial services” and that “not being inside the EU more generally gives us a chance to do things differently.” One area that desperately needs the Treasury’s attention is the innovation-killing, anti-competitive, EU regulation that forces customers to re-authenticate third party access with their bank every 90 days – known as Secure Customer Authentication (SCA).

Imagine having to send your accountant, bookkeeper or financial adviser a new letter of authority every 90 days just so they can continue to work on your behalf. The chances of forgetting to do so would be high – potentially missing filing deadlines, payroll or important insights on your financial health. But this is precisely the situation that customers of accountancy software and financial adviser platforms face.

As a result, fintechs are forced to endure customer attrition rates between 13 per cent and 65 per cent according to industry data, rates which are not viable for any business at either end of the spectrum. This is made even worse by this process being managed by the very same banks for which open banking measures were introduced to provide competition. There is little incentive for them to get this right.

These barriers have thwarted open banking’s potential to add $1.4 billion to the UK’s GDP on an annual basis, according to analysis from the Centre for Economics & Business Research. It is vital that we address them.

The UK’s regulatory influence on the global stage will endure. Informal channels, networks and knowledge communities have always played a critical role in shaping the content and application of policy frameworks, especially in areas where technological progress necessitates new approaches such as fintech. By moving quickly to embrace an open finance environment, and correcting the deficiencies within existing European regulation, the UK can continue to lead on fintech.

Robert Courts: How our new Test to Release scheme will help to revive British tourism

27 Nov

Robert Courts is Transport Minister and MP for Witney.

2020 has been a year like no other. During this pandemic our reality shifted, slowly at first – but as borders closed, flights were grounded and millions stayed at home, our world became less connected, less open, and less familiar.

It’s time for that to change. Our decisive action to prevent the virus from spreading freely throughout the world came at the price of a hammer blow to the UK aviation industry, a booming sector that in normal years contributes around £14 billion to the economy and directly employs 130,000 people.

But aviation is a British success story, and we must get it back in the air. That’s why we’ve developed the Test to Release scheme which, just like the vaccines now around the corner, will provide a much-needed shot in the arm to the sector.

In just a few short weeks, passengers arriving into England will be able to choose to take a Covid test at home. This is to shorten the required period of self-isolation by up to a week and go about their daily lives – provided, of course, that they receive a negative result.

It’s a real game-changer. Not only will it allow for the restart of our world-leading long-haul airline industry, but crucially, as it relies on a single test, it is also affordable – opening up short-haul travel too. A UK that has visitors from across the globe is what we’ve come to know and love, so I’m glad we’ll once again see tourists from Brussels to Bermuda in our towns and cities.

In addition, as we are insisting on the use of the private testing network, it will not burden NHS Test and Trace. Doctors, nurses and teachers – these vital workers must have first call on public resources.

Our route out of this pandemic is looking more positive than ever, but we must focus on what we can do right now to bolster travel while keeping the public safe. Giving people the choice to test on day five not only encourages travel, but supports the industry when it needs it most.

From the very first days of the pandemic we’ve followed the science, and Test to Release is no different. Scientists have told us that the effectiveness of a day five test is significantly greater than the effectiveness of a single test on arrival.

Of course, I understand the frustration felt when we saw other countries such as Germany, France and Iceland rushing to eliminate the need for self-isolation through testing on arrival. However, we’ve seen time and again that countries didn’t in fact eliminate the need for self-isolation. The practice was just re-introduced when imported case numbers rose once more.

There are no easy ways to solve the problem of imported cases. That’s why we stuck with self-isolation plus Travel Corridors while looking for a longer-term solution. I believe Test to Release is that. So by taking this approach we can be absolutely certain that we can continue to prevent the spread of this virus while reigniting confidence in international travel.

My lifelong passion for aviation is rooted in its ability to connect people. Test to Release is the best example of how we can make that happen again. For those that choose to, it will provide the ability to holiday again, to visit family again, and to do business again. It signals to the world that the UK is ready to once again lead the way when it comes to travel and tourism. Test to Release will bridge the gap between the dark days of the pandemic and the bright future ahead.

But it’s only been possible thanks to the tireless work of this Government, hand in hand with the private sector. We’ve been working flat out with the health, travel and testing sectors to revive tourism and travel. No doubt there will be tough months to come but airlines, ports, and operators can look to the future with more optimism than ever before.

We know how hard it’s been for an industry that provides for so many, and that’s why we’re offering a new package of financial support in the New Year for English airports and ground handlers serving them, to shore up jobs and reinforce local economies. Travelling has always been one of the great joys of modern life, and I’m delighted to say it will be again, in 2021 and beyond.

Paul Maynard: Maintaining the Universal Credit uplift is of major importance in Red Wall seats such as mine

27 Nov

Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

So in the end, the Spending Review didn’t contain the answer we had hoped for when it came to whether the Universal Credit uplift will remain. To be fair, we weren’t given a ‘no’ either – and so the chance to keep lobbying, and to look at how the £5.7 billion can be spent most effectively, can continue, with Ministers remaining keen to engage.

The eyes of millions of families and many leading charities will not be averted, however. They will still want sufficient warning to plan for the future, and will be hoping that the £20 UC uplift, which was introduced at the start of this crisis, will remain, and be extended to families on legacy benefits (notwithstanding a Government desire to continue moving people off such benefits and on to UC).

Making the money we spend work harder and achieve more by being spent in a targeted manner is crucial. The last few weeks have demonstrated that there is strong public and political will in our country to solve poverty. The debate about tackling holiday hunger showed a desire for creative strategies to tackle problems at root. It was good to see that the Government did not want to just simply stick a plaster over children going hungry by providing vouchers for a fortnight, but instead committed a longer-term investment to support the most vulnerable.

As well as seeking to ensure that no child goes hungry this winter, Ministers also want to ensure that every child can reach their full potential: that will take a longer-term plan to improve work, housing, schooling, health and communities – all of which the Conservative Government is committed to.  Part of this it means supporting families facing hardship now.

The opportunity thus remains to make a strong statement on our commitment to supporting low-income families by keeping the lifeline of the £20 uplift to UC. Going into this crisis, the Government recognised that our social security system was not sufficient in protecting people from hardship and swiftly implemented the uplift.

Not only did it keep millions afloat, but it was an effective economic stimulus. By targeting spending on low-income, low-wealth households who need to spend the money rather than save it, that spend was injected straight back into the economy, right when it was needed most.  Implementing this uplift was the right thing to do then and making it longer-term will be the right thing to do now. It is not as if the economic aspect of the crisis is diminishing, after all.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation arguea that if this uplift ends in April as planned, then 16 million people will be in families who will lose £1,040 from their annual incomes overnight – pulling 700,000 more people into poverty, including 300,000 children.

Many constituents tell me that they are concerned about their ability to cope with such an income loss, when the pandemic has already caused them to lose so much. Furthermore, cutting social security spending will act in the opposite way to the initial stimulus – by taking money out of an already extremely weak economy, we will risk more jobs and hinder our economic recovery.

Such a move would hit some towns and cities harder than others, especially those where there are a high number of families who rely on Universal Credit, such as in my own constituency of Blackpool North & Cleveleys. One in five working-age adults receive Universal Credit here and, as a town with a proud record of tourism and hospitality, we have been ravaged by the pandemic and lockdown restrictions.

I have already seen the devastating impact on our local economy and, if a cut goes ahead, falling incomes will inevitably lead to even lower spending, risking more jobs and income loss. And whilst I loathe with equal frustration the phrases “Red Wall” and “Blue Belt”, families in these regions are 50 per cent more likely to lose out than those in the South East.

We have had promising news in commitments to green infrastructure, defence spending and ‘levelling up’ funding (another annoying phrase) that will both sustain existing jobs and create new ones across the North.

However, in order that we see the benefit of this investment, we must enable our social security system safety net to play its role in supporting families to keep them out of hardship. A strong social security system acts as the automatic stabilisers for local economies when hit by the uncertainty of job loss and sickness.

But it should also be a helping hand throughout life’s ups and downs – giving families the security to move back into work after having a baby, retrain into a new industry and seize the opportunities as economies reshape themselves.

The investment into Universal Credit during this crisis has added some security during a time of uncertainty and fear. This crisis has demonstrated that none of us know what is around the corner, and we all need a social security system that we can rely on.

Paul Maynard: Maintaining the Universal Credit uplift is of major importance in Red Wall seats such as mine

27 Nov

Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

So in the end, the Spending Review didn’t contain the answer we had hoped for when it came to whether the Universal Credit uplift will remain. To be fair, we weren’t given a ‘no’ either – and so the chance to keep lobbying, and to look at how the £5.7 billion can be spent most effectively, can continue, with Ministers remaining keen to engage.

The eyes of millions of families and many leading charities will not be averted, however. They will still want sufficient warning to plan for the future, and will be hoping that the £20 UC uplift, which was introduced at the start of this crisis, will remain, and be extended to families on legacy benefits (notwithstanding a Government desire to continue moving people off such benefits and on to UC).

Making the money we spend work harder and achieve more by being spent in a targeted manner is crucial. The last few weeks have demonstrated that there is strong public and political will in our country to solve poverty. The debate about tackling holiday hunger showed a desire for creative strategies to tackle problems at root. It was good to see that the Government did not want to just simply stick a plaster over children going hungry by providing vouchers for a fortnight, but instead committed a longer-term investment to support the most vulnerable.

As well as seeking to ensure that no child goes hungry this winter, Ministers also want to ensure that every child can reach their full potential: that will take a longer-term plan to improve work, housing, schooling, health and communities – all of which the Conservative Government is committed to.  Part of this it means supporting families facing hardship now.

The opportunity thus remains to make a strong statement on our commitment to supporting low-income families by keeping the lifeline of the £20 uplift to UC. Going into this crisis, the Government recognised that our social security system was not sufficient in protecting people from hardship and swiftly implemented the uplift.

Not only did it keep millions afloat, but it was an effective economic stimulus. By targeting spending on low-income, low-wealth households who need to spend the money rather than save it, that spend was injected straight back into the economy, right when it was needed most.  Implementing this uplift was the right thing to do then and making it longer-term will be the right thing to do now. It is not as if the economic aspect of the crisis is diminishing, after all.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation arguea that if this uplift ends in April as planned, then 16 million people will be in families who will lose £1,040 from their annual incomes overnight – pulling 700,000 more people into poverty, including 300,000 children.

Many constituents tell me that they are concerned about their ability to cope with such an income loss, when the pandemic has already caused them to lose so much. Furthermore, cutting social security spending will act in the opposite way to the initial stimulus – by taking money out of an already extremely weak economy, we will risk more jobs and hinder our economic recovery.

Such a move would hit some towns and cities harder than others, especially those where there are a high number of families who rely on Universal Credit, such as in my own constituency of Blackpool North & Cleveleys. One in five working-age adults receive Universal Credit here and, as a town with a proud record of tourism and hospitality, we have been ravaged by the pandemic and lockdown restrictions.

I have already seen the devastating impact on our local economy and, if a cut goes ahead, falling incomes will inevitably lead to even lower spending, risking more jobs and income loss. And whilst I loathe with equal frustration the phrases “Red Wall” and “Blue Belt”, families in these regions are 50 per cent more likely to lose out than those in the South East.

We have had promising news in commitments to green infrastructure, defence spending and ‘levelling up’ funding (another annoying phrase) that will both sustain existing jobs and create new ones across the North.

However, in order that we see the benefit of this investment, we must enable our social security system safety net to play its role in supporting families to keep them out of hardship. A strong social security system acts as the automatic stabilisers for local economies when hit by the uncertainty of job loss and sickness.

But it should also be a helping hand throughout life’s ups and downs – giving families the security to move back into work after having a baby, retrain into a new industry and seize the opportunities as economies reshape themselves.

The investment into Universal Credit during this crisis has added some security during a time of uncertainty and fear. This crisis has demonstrated that none of us know what is around the corner, and we all need a social security system that we can rely on.

Caroline Johnson: Tiers are a tough but necessary step for the country. We must hold our nerve over winter.

26 Nov

Dr Caroline Johnson is the MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham.

Today the Government will announce the new tiers that will apply across different areas of the country, after analysis of the latest ONS data out yesterday.

The Prime Minister was clear that after this second period of lockdown we would return to a three-tier local and regional approach. We know that the new tiering system will be tougher than before we went into national restrictions, and I know many colleagues have expressed concerns about their constituents and local businesses facing further restrictive measures.

I share their concerns, however the scientific advice has been clear that, while the previous tiers did reduce the R rate, they were not quite enough to bring R below 1, and therefore it is right that the tiers have had to be toughened in some ways as we head into colder winter months, so that we can protect the NHS and save lives.

While it is completely understandable that people want to avoid the toughest restrictions if possible, adherence to these tiers is how we will avoid another national lockdown and the only way we will get through the tough winter months that still lie ahead.

As sorely tempting as it is to get back to some normality of life, especially over the festive season, whether that be heading to the pub or meeting friends and family, it would be wrong to risk lives and overwhelming the NHS when the real prospect of ending restrictions with vaccines and mass testing is now within reach.

And I believe the public understands this. A recent poll by ComRes showed that in England, adults are three times as likely to support moving to a tiered approach than oppose.

To its credit, the Government has listened to concerns and learned lessons from the original tiered system, and made important changes. Sensibly, the 10pm closing time for hospitality has been shifted to 11pm with a 10pm last orders, to allow for more staggered departures. Across all tiers, non-essential retail will be able to remain open and operate in a Covid secure way, in a vital boost for small businesses over the Christmas period.

As a doctor, I am particularly pleased that gyms will be reopening and outdoor sports – like tennis and golf – can resume across all tiers, so people can keep fit. Spectator sports can also resume outside in some tiers with capacity limits and social distancing, and collective worship and weddings can resume.

And as before, the Government will continue to provide financial support to areas, including cash grants for closed businesses and extra funding for local authorities.

The principle of targeting the toughest measures in areas where the virus is most prevalent remains the right one. Crucially, the Government has published clear indicators which will determine the tier each area will go into on December 2 and how areas then move between tiers thereafter. Those indicators will include case detection rates in all age groups, case detection rates in the over 60s, the rate at which cases are rising or falling, positivity rate, and pressure on local NHS services.

Tiers will be reviewed every 14 days against these indicators, providing much needed clarity and a route out of restrictions. These tiers are designed to keep the R below 1 and therefore allow areas to move down the tiers, rather than simply escalate as the epidemic grows.

I know there are some areas of the country that have been under some form of restrictions since the summer, which is why it is right that those areas in Tier 3 restrictions will be being prioritised for community testing rollouts.

There is at last some light at the end of what has been a long tunnel. All the indications are that through the collective effort of the people of Liverpool, the community testing trial has been a success and is ready to be rolled out much further, to 13 million people before Christmas, including NHS staff and care homes.

Community testing is not the silver bullet, but it is a powerful tool at our disposal – one that offers us new and exciting possibilities. There will be a clear incentive for everyone in areas where the virus prevalence is high to get a test, to help reduce the spread of the virus and eventually minimise the restrictions in your area.

We have also had a slew of positive news on vaccines over the last week and thanks to the work of the Vaccine Taskforce we have secured more than 350 million doses of vaccines of all kinds. The development of vaccines has been hugely impressive work at an unprecedented speed.

However, even if these vaccines are approved – we still have some road ahead of us before all those who need a vaccine have been inoculated. That is why it is so important that we hold firm and return to the tiered system so that we can get through the next few months.

It would be fatal now to become complacent. We must hold our nerve, reluctantly but resolutely re-enter the regional tiers and get through the winter. If we can continue to show the discipline and resolve that has characterised the entire country’s steadfast response to this crisis, then next spring we can build back better from Coronavirus and it could truly be a season of renewal like no other.

Liam Fox: Today, the Chancellor should aim to boost an unambiguously private sector-led recovery

25 Nov

Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for International Trade, and is MP for North Somerset.

The successful development of vaccines by the world’s largest – private sector – pharmaceutical companies brings much-needed optimism as we look forward to 2021. Yet, any political respite for the Government is likely to be short lived, as the focus inevitably shifts towards the seismic economic impact that the coronavirus has created at home and abroad.

As the Chancellor said at the weekend “people will see the scale of the economic shock laid bare”.

The UK’s overall debt has now reached 100.8 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) – a level not seen since the early 1960s. It is terrifying to imagine where we would be if the public finances had not been improved to the extent they have over the past decade. The most recent Bank of England forecast estimates that unemployment may peak at around 7.7 per cent in April to June of next year but could be as high as 10 per cent.

The key to the post-Covid-19 recovery will rely on the ability of Britain’s small businesses to create jobs on the scale that we have seen in recent years. At the beginning of 2020 there were 5.82 million small businesses (with 0 to 49 employees), 99.3 per cent of the total business population.

Despite the unprecedented support from the Government through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (the furlough) which has been extended to the end of March 2021, the Business Interruption Loan Scheme and the Self-Employment Income Support Grant, many small businesses fear that they may not survive the transition to the economic “new normal”.

The unprecedented government assistance has masked the fact that this group has suffered more than most in the varying degrees of lockdown that we have experienced since March, with some still struggling to get lenders to support them.

The longer that lockdown continues, the more that demand for their goods and services is likely to be depressed and their viability threatened. Many fear they may not survive to see the recovery. That is why, in his spending statement this week, the Chancellor must make clear the Government’s commitment to Britain’s SMEs, for this must be an unambiguously private sector-led recovery.

While there are understandable demands to pump more funding into the public sector, we must restore the habit of making sure we have the money in the bank before we start spending it.

Unless we are able to grow our economy through the private sector and generate more national income, then we will be back in the territory of having to choose between damaging tax rises or unpopular spending cuts.

Our ability to borrow heavily during this crisis has maintained the viability of a large part of our economy but an inability to control future borrowing will be deeply damaging to our long-term prosperity and our ability to fund the quality public services on which we depend.

I would like, in his financial statement, to see the Chancellor replace or at least add to David Cameron’s policy test which was “how will this affect and be perceived by every family in Britain”. The new test would be “the entrepreneur test”. This is in line with his natural instincts.

We must assess how every bit of legislation and every regulation will affect the wealth creating part of our economy and our every statement and every speech should be mindful of the message it sends to our small business community.

We must ensure that we are not only a great place for business start-ups but that we can deal with the lack of capital that often results in a failure of scale ups. We must ensure that the elements that make the United Kingdom such an attractive place for foreign direct investment continue – a stable regulatory framework, an attractive tax environment, flexible skills in our labour force, access to quality higher education, access to tech and gold standard protection for intellectual property. As the world’s third largest destination for foreign direct investment, we are already strong in all these areas.

In the 1980s, the Conservatives demonstrated our commitment to the ownership society through our totemic policy of council house sales. The Conservatives must now be seen as the natural ally for every white van man and woman, every tech entrepreneur and every corner shop owner. The Chancellor must make us unequivocally the party of small business.

Edward Leigh: If Pakistan won’t crack down on the kidnapping of young girls, we should cut off aid

24 Nov

Sir Edward Leigh is Member of Parliament for Gainsborough.

On 13th October, in Karachi, Pakistan, 13-year-old Catholic girl Arzoo Raja, was kidnapped in broad daylight by a 44-year-old man called Ali Azhar. Her parents were told she had converted to Islam and decided to marry him.

Her parents went straight to the police and produced a National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) birth certificate showing she is 13. They argued the marriage was invalid in line with the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, that forbids marriage to anyone under the age of 18.

Yet, on 29th October, the Karachi High Court ruled that she was neither abducted nor had she been forced to marry.

Three days later, after protests and international criticism, the court changed its mind and Arzoo was “recovered” and placed in a women and girls’ shelter. There was a medical examination of Arzoo which found she is “around 14 years of age”. Her abductor is now on judicial remand and Arzoo is still in the shelter.

Unfortunately, cases such as Arzoo’s are not uncommon in Pakistan. In April, another Catholic girl, 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz, was bundled into a car at gunpoint by three men during the lockdown in Madina Town, near Faisalabad.

As with Arzoo, Maira’s mother was told her daughter had married one of the men who abducted her, Mohamad Nakash Tariq, and converted to Islam.

Maira’s family also went to the police with a NADRA birth certificate. This time it showed she was 14. Nakash said she was 19. The case went to court and eventually the Lahore High Court ruled in Mr Nakash’s favour. The marriage was valid. She had “embraced Islam”.

Two weeks after this decision, Maira escaped Nakash and went straight to the police. She told them:

“I found myself at an unknown place where the accused forced me to have a glass of juice that contained some intoxicant. I was semi-conscious at that moment and the accused raped me forcefully and also filmed me naked. When I came to my senses, I started shouting and requesting them to release me…They threatened to murder my whole family. They have also shown me my naked video and pictures which they have taken on their mobile while raping me.”

Maira is now on the run, with extremist mobs going door-to-door looking for her. In their eyes, she is an apostate and they will kill her if they find her. This is why for #RedWednesday this year, Aid to the Church in Need have launched a campaign calling on Maira to be granted asylum to the UK so that she can rebuild her life free of this threat. They have launched a petition which has been signed by over 8,500 people.

Sumera Shafique, her lawyer, said: “Maira’s life is in constant danger because she is condemned as an apostate by her abductor and his supporters. Unless Maira and her family can leave Pakistan they will always be at risk of being killed.”

These are not isolated examples. The Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan calculate that every year in Pakistan, up to 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls and young women between the ages of 12 and 25 are abducted.

Pakistan is the biggest recipient of UK aid. It is reported that we pay an estimated £383,000 per day in aid to Pakistan. Over 20 years, it adds up to £2.8 billion. In 2019/20 we sent £302 million. In 2018/19 it was £325 million. Should we really send such a large sum of taxpayers’ money to a country where women are treated so poorly? What message are we sending by funding a country that treats its religious minorities so abhorrently?

Cases like Arzoo and Maira’s are endemic in a society that has serious issues with its treatment of women and religious minorities. To be both a Christian and a woman in Pakistan is a double jeopardy. The ostracisation they face on a daily basis puts them in a dangerous position. They are soft targets for predatory and rapacious men. For example, Maira had been forced to drop out of school and work because her family are so poor. That she also has no father around made her more vulnerable.

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore spoke to ACN about the kidnappings of these girls, condemning it as a “crime”. He said: “Yes [abductions of under-age girls] are happening” and added that “there have been many kidnappings recently.”

He added: “Kidnapping is a crime. It has to be treated as one. This is the only way to stop it. The girls are usually 14, 15. The men often already have one wife. They can be 25 or older. They can be younger, more like 20.”

As Archbishop Shaw rightly points out, both Azhar, Arzoo’s abductor, and Nakash Tariq, Maira’s abductor, were middle-aged and already married with children. Nakash Tariq has two young children. Archbishop Shaw also raised another motivation for the men. He said: “It is lust. They think ‘she is pretty I want her’. It is a crime. But it has a possible religious component too.”

According to these men, the girls, of their own volition, decided to convert and get married. Yet, a number of questions arise. Why is it only ever young girls so desperate to convert to Islam? Why never young boys? Why never middle-aged women? Why never middle-aged men?

Further, quite why Maira would need to be bundled into a car at gunpoint – an event captured on CCTV – when she was converting of her own desire is unclear. And if Arzoo was such a willing convert and would-be bride, why was she only taken as soon as her parents left for work?

The evidence suggests that the problem of abduction, rape, and forced marriage and conversion to Islam of underage girls of religious minorities is a serious problem in Pakistan. ACN told me that their contacts estimate that there are probably far more than 1,000 cases each year, but families are too scared or too poor to raise them.

The UK needs to use its position as a global power, and generous benefactor of Pakistan, to deal with this problem. It is unclear to me the wisdom of sending such an administration vast sums of money. Perhaps for the government of Pakistan to bring about the requisite change, we need to hit them where it hurts: their coffers.

Alexander Downer: A forward-thinking UK should shift the weight of its strategic policy towards the Indo-Pacific region

24 Nov

Alexander Downer is the Chairman of Policy Exchange, a former Australian High Commissioner to the UK and former Australian Foreign Minister.

Anyone who thinks Brexit represents the UK retreating pathetically from the modern world into “splendid isolation” – and that this is how our departure from the EU is viewed by our international allies – should read The New York Times a bit less, and listen more to the voices of world leaders and friends of this country who say differently.

Three recent examples stand out for me. The first is Stephen Harper, former Canadian Prime Minister, Chairman of the International Democrat Union – an alliance of Conservative and right-leaning parties – and Chair of Policy Exchange’s Indo-Pacific Commission. Announcing the launch of that commission over the summer, he argued that the “declinist” view of the UK “flies in the face of much available evidence”, noting that “Britain remains the world’s fifth largest economic power, with a proud history as a seafaring, trading nation and a commercial network that has outlasted the Empire”. He is spot on.

The second is Shinzo Abe, former Japanese Prime Minister, and the most significant Asian democratic politician of the post-war era. In the foreword to the new report from Policy Exchange’s Indo-Pacific Commission, published on Monday, he says: “As a leading global power, Britain has a major role to play in the Indo-Pacific,” observing that “on the security front, the British military, and the Royal Navy in particular, will be a welcome presence in the seas of the Indo-Pacific.”

Third comes Scott Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister, who was awarded the inaugural Policy Exchange Grotius Prize, named in honour of the founding father of international law, on Monday. On the commission’s proposal for Britain to shift the weight of its strategic policy toward the Indo-Pacific, he said: “I couldn’t agree more and have conveyed the same to Boris. I endorse the report’s ‘new vision for a reinvigorated community of free and independent nations with one overriding goal in mind: to reinforce a sustainable rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region (IPR) that is resilient but adaptable to the great power realities of the 21st century.’”

There you have it. We’ve grown used, in recent decades, to gloomy domestic talk of Britain’s post-imperial decline but – as I have found in my own experience, as Australia’s Foreign Minister and latterly as the Australian High Commissioner in London – international perspectives tend to tip the scales the other way. The UK’s friends are united in their belief that there is an important role for this country to play and a whole world beyond Europe that wishes to give a very warm welcome.

Nowhere is that more true than the Indo-Pacific – home to some of the fastest-growing economies of the 21st century. Britain, out of national self-interest more than anything else, should be working hard to build new trading relationships here, backed up with diplomatic and military heft. It is a very positive sign that the first major free trade deal signed by UK Government was with Japan, the third largest economy in the world.

As Liz Truss, the UK’s International Trade Secretary, recognised at the time, the deal was an important step towards joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would, she argued, “give UK business a gateway to the Asia-Pacific region and help to increase the resilience and diversity of our supply chains”. Policy Exchange’s Indo-Pacific Commission backs up that idea strongly, noting that it would link the UK to more than 13 per cent of global GDP and the world’s third-largest free trade area.

As the report also makes clear, there has been far too much focus in foreign policy circles over the last 30 years on the economic and military might of China, at the expense of the rest of the Indo-Pacific region. I firmly believe that China should be engaged with, rather than contained, and that its importance to the world’s economy has only been underlined in the past year as we have battled a pandemic that emerged in Wuhan and led to a global economic shutdown.

However, even in a year such as the one we have had, it is vital to note the huge economic transformation that has been going on in China in recent decades is part of a wider regional trend driven by other economic powerhouses, including Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, India the Association of South East Asian Nations, and Australia.

Of course, Britain cannot overplay its hand in the region as it seeks to play a greater role in what used to be called “east of Suez” in colonial times. Wisely, the emphasis in the Commission’s report – contributed to by key political and diplomatic thinkers in countries from New Zealand to Sri Lanka – is not on the UK acting as a “leader” in the Indo-Pacific, but rather as an “enabler” and facilitator for others in the region, which should take the lead.

This will apply in particular to one of the most attractive ideas in the report – a new Indo-Pacific Charter, which would in effect be a clear set of mutually shared aspirations for the future of future of Indo-Pacific relations that other major global players like the UK, and the US – which has a greater military and diplomatic presence there than any other foreign power – can support.

This charter could be as significant in the 21st century as the Atlantic Charter, signed by Churchill and Roosevelt in 1941, was in the 20th century. Suggested principles include no nation being “prevented by any other from free and full access to the high seas/global commons of the Indo-Pacific, for any peaceful purposes, including trade”. Without basic rules such as this, the region clearly will struggle to prosper.

There can be no forcing or co-opting of independent sovereign nations into submitting to such principles. But the idea, as Morrison observed in his brilliant speech accepting the Grotius Prize, is instead nations “freely submitting to such rules” around economic, security and global environmental issues “because it is in their broader national interest to do so”.

It will be in Britain’s national interest to engage more fully in the future in a prosperous Indo-Pacific. Likewise, as we have seen with Policy Exchange’s Indo-Pacific Commission report and the warm response to it, nations in the region see it as in their national interest to welcome the UK with open arms.