Dan Boucher: Labour’s stewardship of the NHS in Wales has been disastrous. Come May, it’s time for a Conservative administration.

1 Mar

Dr Dan Boucher, Dan has stood as an Assembly and Parliamentary Candidate in Wales. He lives with his family in Swansea.

During the 2011 Assembly election campaign I well remember a lady telling me that if I hoped she was going to vote Conservative I must have another thing coming to me – given the state of the NHS in Wales. I said that I shared her concerns but thought they provided a very good reason for voting Conservative because the current situation was the result of fourteen years of Labour’s stewardship of the NHS.

The lady looked a little confused and so I explained that since May 1997 Labour had run the NHS in Wales, first, on account of the fact that Labour won the 1997 General Election and then on account of the fact that health had been devolved to the Welsh Government from the very beginning of devolution in 1999 and that throughout, the health minister had always been from the Labour Party.

Its record up to that point had certainly been none too inspiring. Labour inherited five health authorities from the prior Conservative administration but embarked on a radical restructuring programme, exchanging the five health authorities for twenty-two local health boards from April 2003. It argued this would bring health care provision closer to the people!

However, in 2009 the party performed a spectacular u-turn, explaining that the new structure was too bureaucratic and introduced an equally radical reform agenda in diametrically the opposite direction. Replacing the twenty-two local health boards with seven health authorities, it effectively conceded that the previous Conservative formula had been rather better.

Things did not improve thereafter. Between 2011 and 2016 the Welsh Government decided not to increase health spending in Wales proportionately in line with the increases introduced in England, costing the Welsh NHS approximately £800 million. This placed real strain on the system and in 2015 Betsi Cadwaladr Health Authority had to be moved into “special measures” where it remained for five and half years, the longest duration that any health authority has been put in that position anywhere in the UK.

In January 2020 – immediately prior to the outbreak of Covid – five out of our seven health authorities were subject to either “special measures”, “targeted intervention” or “enhanced monitoring.” Moreover, in that month the numbers of patients waiting 12 hours or more in A&E broke a new record, increasing by 1,590 patients compared to January 2019. Over a similar period the numbers waiting more than 36 weeks for hospital treatment almost doubled, increasing from 12,982 in December 2018 to 25,549 in December 2019.

In the last year, of course, the NHS in Wales, like the NHS across the UK, has faced the previously unimaginable Covid challenges which have demonstrated the heroism of our doctors and nurses as never before. In this context, however, Labour’s management has again been the cause of real concern. In March/April last year over 13,000 shielding letters were sent to the wrong addresses and then in August identifying details of 18,105 Welsh residents who had tested positive for the Coronavirus were uploaded onto the Public Health Wales website.

At the same time there has been less willingness to focus on addressing non-Covid health challenges than in England. Between December 2019 and December 2020 there was a tenfold increase in people waiting more than two years for a procedure on the NHS and the Health Minister has now acknowledged that it might take a full parliamentary term to clear the backlog.

Concerns came to a head in January as a result of the First Minister’s statement that rolling out the vaccination programme against Covid “is not a sprint.” Given that the proportion of people vaccinated in Wales at that time was significantly less than in England, and that the sooner people are vaccinated the less chance they will have of contradicting the disease, this generated huge public pressure for a change of approach.

In assessing the significance of Labour’s stewardship of the NHS in Wales as we approach the upcoming Welsh Parliament elections on May 6, it is important to appreciate just how central health is to Welsh devolution. Nearly 50 per cent of the Welsh Government’s budget, over £9 billion, is absorbed by health. While health might be only one of nine cabinet positions, therefore, the truth is that in monetary terms it is nearly half of devolution.

Moreover, what was true in May 2011 has continued to be true, namely that while in coalition, some ministerial posts have been held by the Lib Dems or Plaid, the Minister of Health position (along with that of First Minister and a majority of ministerial positions at any one time) has always been held by Labour.

In this context the question facing the Welsh electorate in May (or whenever the election takes place) is, in an important sense, more a question of health than anything else and in seeking to answer it the people of Wales must ask whether Labour’s record justifies another five years? Would Wales benefit from twenty-six years of Labour running the Welsh NHS, and indeed the wider Welsh Government? Now is surely the time for a Conservative administration in Cardiff Bay.

Narinder Singh: Liberal ‘defenders’ shouldn’t presume to speak for me on the Begum ruling

1 Mar

Narinder Singh is the Deputy Chairman of Harborough Conservatives.

Apparently, I’ve been living in fear since Friday and worried about my future in the country I call home. Not because I’ve done anything wrong, but because I’m a second-generation immigrant and I’ve been told we’re all now drowning in doubt and concern about our future place, because of the decision taken by the Supreme Court over Shamima Begum. From my own perspective and based on the conversations I’ve had with most of my friends and family, I can assure you we aren’t.

People will have their own view on the case and the ruling of the Supreme Court. I support this, as do the majority of the public from the polling I’ve seen – including some polling I remember from the time she was last in the news, broken down by ethnicity. But the main point I want to take on here is the supposed insight from enlightened commentators and Tweeters (believe they call it a “hot take”) who are invariably white, but seem to have appointed themselves as new BME spokespeople.

I don’t claim to speak for all BMEs (we aren’t a homogenous block) in the way that some of our liberal “defenders” claim to, but I’m confident in saying my view will be shared by more than will disagree with it. See, we understand that people can and will make mistakes, especially when younger. But there’s a difference between skiving school with your friends as we did (hope my parents aren’t reading) and travelling to Syria to pledge your allegiance to a death cult that is responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

It’s not only incorrect, but also massively insulting to try and portray us all as “scared” on the back of this, as though we’re unable to understand and appreciate the gravity of what Begum did, and just extrapolate from this ruling that we’re all at risk because of it. I think most of us, despite being regularly told we’re downtrodden victims in need of help, can gauge for ourselves the seriousness of what she did and the difference to if any one of us got a speeding ticket or drove through a red light.

Some will say she was groomed or brainwashed – an argument I do have some time for given her age – but she’s also expressed a lack of remorse in her interviews since then. ISIS have publicly said in the past they want to send their fighters back “home” to carry out attacks on foreign soil, under the guise of disillusionment with the regime as reformed characters who can be rehabilitated and integrated back into society.

With this in mind, and Begum’s clear lack of regret, the Supreme Court is right to say national security is the priority here. Who would be held responsible if she was to return, and form part of any attack that took place in this country? Not the above commentators I can assure you.

My parents were clear with us from a young age, this country will provide us with all sorts of opportunities, it’s up to us to work hard and take them. They weren’t wrong. Two of my fellow second-generation immigrants occupy two of the four great offices of state, and another held both of these offices before them, and took this initial decision (correctly).

To the self-appointed spokespeople who feel the need to speak on our behalf as though we are all of the same view, please find another charity project or pet cause to champion. We’re capable of speaking for ourselves, articulating our own concerns and can understand the severity of what Begum did, which is why this doesn’t generate fear in all of us.

This country has been exceptionally welcoming to my family and given us lots of opportunities. Yes it isn’t perfect, but I struggle to think of any other country that has been as welcoming as the UK, and where there has been as much progression to the highest offices in the land besides the US. Begum made her decision and it’s one that has no relevance or bearing on how most of us see our place in this country; please stop implying it does and stop speaking on my behalf.

Howard Flight: We should be optimistic about the UK’s 2021/22 economic recovery

1 Mar

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

It looks to me as if the UK economy is going to perform markedly better than currently, generally forecast – provided, that is, there are not further unwanted lockdowns.

The IMF forecast is also positive, forecasting an upturn from a 3.5 per cent contraction for Global GDP last year to a 5.5 per cent expansion this year. Again, this does of course hang on a successful Pan EU, vaccine rollout. With the 2020 downturn twice as deep as that which followed the Lehman collapse, so the 2021/22 recovery should be all the greater.

The strongest growth forecast remains the US at 5.1 per cent growth, reflecting particular massive stimulus support from government. Japan’s growth forecast increased marginally to 3.1 per cent with 8.1 per cent and 11.5 per cent, respectively, for China and India. The relatively smaller but faster growing Asian economies – Indonesia and Malaysia – will grow at 8.3 per cent – with the Asian economies now representing a third of the world economy.

In the case of the UK, however, the IMF forecast continues to understate. The IMF is the global lender of last resort and the single most influential institute of economic governments. Last year the IMF forecast the UK economy contracting by 10 per cent – the biggest fall of the G7 countries.

It is correct the UK was particularly susceptible to the Coronavirus pandemic, reflecting the international nature and population density of London. But the key factor responsible for the misleading figures is that the UK public sector includes in its GDP growth data, in a way relating not to spending, as with other nations, but to outcomes.

This means that when schools are closed and NHS operations are down, as during the lockdown, government consumption expenditure – a huge chunk of any advanced economy – drops off a cliff for GDP measurement purposes – even though State spending as a whole is growing fast.

As a result, the irony is that this is why the UK public sector registered a double-digit percentage contraction in our 2020 GDP numbers, while growing fast across the Eurozone.

For purposes of comparison, an expansion of 10 per cent should have been allowed for. The outlook for the real economy for the coming year should therefore be substantially positive. The IMF forecast of 4.5 per cent, and not adjusted for the public sector distortions is only marginally ahead of the Eurozone at 4.2 per cent. The actual, comparable rate allowing for these distortions looks to be of the order of 10 per cent – reflecting the vast vaccine rollout occurring and the fulfilment of massive pent up demand.

The IMF numbers do not acknowledge this conceptual wrinkle stemming from Britain implementing internationally agreed methodological changes before other major economies: and if they did the UK’s 2020 GDP contraction would be near the middle of the G7 pack. The IMF estimate is that the UK economy will expand by 4.5 per cent this year, only slightly faster than the Eurozone. With lockdown continuing into 2021 the same statistical anomaly relating to GDP, when school and health services were disrupted is impacting on current growth numbers as viewed by the IMF.

Of particular importance in accommodating economic recovery is that the G7 can now apparently live with much higher levels of public sector debt, post the Coronavirus crisis. Fiscal rules clearly need some rethinking. But for the next two years, measured meaningfully, the UK should be the fasted growing of the G7 economies. Also, the world will realise that Brexit is no disaster but rather a big positive which could harness growth.

It is forecast that an early end to Covid rules would lift the economy by £26 billion on top of the stimulus from the UK’s advanced vaccination programme.

Stanley Johnson: Why we need a clear domestic target to restore nature by 2030

1 Mar

Stanley Johnson is an environmentalist, author, former Conservative MEP and parliamentary candidate.  His new novel, The Warming, will be published next year.

Today, the Chief Executieves of more than fifty environmental non-governmental organisations have written to the Prime Minister, thanking him for his “personal efforts to put the UK at the forefront of international work to mend our broken relationship with nature”,

They refer, in particular, to the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, supported by the Prime Minister, and now signed by Leaders of 84 countries and the European Union, which proudly boasts in a banner headline that they – the leaders – are “united to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 for sustainable development”.

They insist that, to achieve that aim, the Leaders’ Pledge must be a “precursor for a strong international deal” at the 15th Conference of Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15) which is due to place later this year in Kunming, China.

Owing to the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the Kunming meeting – planned for May – is likely to be delayed again, and a new date has yet to be fixed. That is a matter for China, as the host of COP 15, to decide.

But one thing is certain. The Kunming Conference is likely to be as significant for the world’s biodiversity as the 26th meeting of the UN’s Climate Change Conference (COP 26), which will take place in Glasgow in November this year with Alok Sharma presiding, will be for the world’s climate.

Indeed, the two issues are inextricably linked. Quite apart from the fundamental importance of nature and natural resources for the health and wealth of nations, ‘nature-based solutions’ will play a major role in the fight against global warming. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, for example, probably the most respected international body in the field of nature conservation, has recently stated  that “each country should maximize the contribution of nature-based solutions; ramping up nature conservation is critical for solving the climate emergency: nature-based climate solutions have the potential to provide up to 37 per cent of the climate change mitigation needed by 2030 to stabilize warming to below 2°C.”

In today’s letter to the Prime Minister, the NGO chiefs go on to say: “though the UK is uniquely placed to secure a global agreement and can show real leadership by setting an example domestically, more decisive action is needed here in the UK to ensure we realise this rare opportunity”.

They point specifically to the Environment Bill, and the opportunities it may provide if some simple changes are made to the text currently before Parliament. They hope, in particular, to ensure that the Bill includes a clear domestic target to restore nature by 2030.

They point out that though, under the current draft, the Secretary of State has the power to set biodiversity targets – and indeed an obligation to do so – the Government would not in fact be allowed to set new 2030 targets in law since Clause 1 (6) of the Bill provides that any target date must be “no less than 15 years after the date on which the target is initially set”.

“This mismatch in urgency and timescales means that it would not be possible to set a 2030 target to halt nature’s decline, and that important actions to deliver it, such as your own commitment to protect and manage 30 per cent of land and seas for nature by 2030, cannot be placed in law under the Environment Bill framework.”

The NGO leaders are much impressed by the impact on policy of the 2008 Climate Change Act, and the legally binding targets established under its terms for greenhouse gas reductions. They believe that the same approach can be adopted for nature protection: “just as the UK led the way in creating the world’s first Climate Change Act, so we can be the first country to set ambitious targets in law for the recovery of the natural world.”

But it is not only a question of protecting and restoring our own wildlife, our wild areas and landscapes, and much-threatened biodiversit -, whether terrestrial or marine. The Environment Bill, with a key legally binding biodiversity target to halt and begin to restore the loss of biodiversity enshrined in the primary legislation, could be a template for other countries ahead of COP15. It might even help to strengthen their resolve to achieve a truly ambitious global biodiversity deal at Kunming.

So I much hope that the fifty-plus NGO leaders who wrote to the Prime Minister today, and the nation-wide petition which they are launching, do indeed succeed in their aim of persuading the government to include, as of now, a “State of Nature Target” clause in the Environment Bill.

George Eustice, Rebecca Pow and their team have done a tremendous job in getting this once-in-a generation environmental legislation as far as they have under tremendously difficult circumstances. Now is the time to go that extra mile.

And I also hope that China, with its own superb mountains, rivers, forests, deserts, coasts and wildlife, is able to seize the spectacular opportunity that hosting COP 15 presents. We have continued to destroy our natural world as if there were no tomorrow. To give just one example: according to WWF’s Living Planet Index, world-wide population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles have seen an alarming average drop of 68 per cent since 1970. We have been trashing nature and wildlife for much too long. Now is the time to stop.

Maria Miller: Death and rape threats, abuse, revenge porn. It’s time for Government to get tough with the social media giants.

28 Feb

Maria Miller is a former Culture Secretary, and is MP for Basingstoke.

I want 2021 to be the year that we finally grasp the nettle of online abuse – to create a safer, more respectful online environment, that will lead to a kinder politics too.

The need has never been greater. Abuse, bullying, and harassment on social media platforms is ruining lives, undermining our democracy, and splintering society.

As an MP, I have had to become accustomed to a regular bombardment of online verbal abuse, rape, and even death threats. In this I am far from alone. Female colleagues across the House are routinely targeted online with abusive, sexist, threatening comments. As Amnesty has shown, black female MPs are most likely to be subjected to unacceptable and even unlawful abuse.

And while women and people from an ethnic minority background are more likely than most to receive abuse online, they are not alone. Hate-filled trolls and disruptive spammers consider anyone with a social media presence to be fair game: one in four people have experienced some kind of abuse online and online bullying and harassment has been linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

While the personal impact of online abuse is intolerable, we must not underestimate the societal effect it is having. Research by the think-tank Compassion in Politics found that 27 per cent of people are put off posting on social media because of retributive abuse. We cannot have an open, honest, and pluralist political debate online in an atmosphere in which people are scared to speak up.

Which is why I am working cross-party with MPs and Peers to ensure that the upcoming Online Harms Bill is as effective as possible in tackling the scourge of online abuse.

First, the Bill must deal with the problem of anonymous social media accounts. Anonymous accounts generate the majority of the abuse and misinformation spread online and while people should have an option to act incognito on social media, the harm these accounts cause must be addressed.

I support a twin-track system: giving social media users the opportunity to create a “verified” account by supplying a piece of personal identification and the ability to filter out “unverified” accounts. This would give choice to verified users while continuing to offer protection to those, for example whistle blowers, who want to access social media anonymously.

The public back this idea. Polling by Opinium for Compassion in Politics reveals that 81 per cent of social media users would be willing to provide a piece of personal identification (passport, driving license or bank statement most probably) to gain a verified account. Three in four (72 per cent) believe that social media companies need to have a more interventionist role to wipe out the abuse on their platforms.

Of course, this approach would need to be coupled with enforcement ,and I believe that can be achieved by introducing a duty of care on social media companies, along the lines suggested in the Government’s White Paper.

For too long, they have escaped liability for the harm they cause by citing legal loopholes, arguing they are platforms for content not producers or publishers. The legal environment that has facilitated social media companies’ growth is not fit for purpose – it must change to better reflect their previously unimaginable reach and influence. Any company that sells a good to a customer already has to abide by health and safety standards, and there is no reason to exempt social media companies. Any failure by those companies to undertake effective measures to limit the impact of toxic accounts should result in legal sanctions.

Alongside a duty of care, we need more effective laws to give individuals protection, particularly when it comes to posting of images online without consent. Deepfake, revenge pornography and up-skirting are hideous inventions of the online world. I want new laws to make it a crime to post or threaten to post an intimate image without consent, and for victims to be offered the same anonymity as others subjected to a sexual offence, so we stop needing the law to play continuous ‘catch up’ as new forms of online abuse emerge.

Finally, the Government should make good on its promise to invest an independent organisation with the power and resources to regulate social media companies in the UK. All the signs suggest that Ofcom will be asked to undertake that role and I can see no problem with that proposal as long asthe company is given truly wide-ranging and independent powers, and personnel with the knowledge to tackle the social media giants.

In making these recommendations to Government, my intention is not to punish social media companies or to stifle online debate. Far from it. I want a more respectful, representative, and reasonable discourse online. So, let’s work together over the coming 12 months to make this Bill genuinely world-leading in the protection it will create for social media users, in the inclusivity it will foster, and respect it will engender.

Dehenna Davison: Levelling up means nobody should be forced to leave their home town

27 Feb

Dehenna Davison is MP for Bishop Auckland.

The past year has been tough. Nobody can deny that. The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on us all; affecting society’s health – both physically and mentally – and hitting our economy hard.

We mustn’t underestimate the economic hit Covid-19 has delivered, a hit which has shone a light on many of the economic and social divisions that already existed in our society.

With the Chancellor saying in November that our economic emergency has only just begun, we must now look at how we can ensure we use the recovery in the most effective way to level up our country.

Levelling up is at the heart of what I came into politics to do. When I talk about levelling up, I’m talking about ensuring that whether you’re born in Bishop Auckland or Beaconsfield, Birkenhead or Bath, you have access to the same opportunities.

Right now, we see young people being pushed out of towns to cities like Newcastle, or down south to London, to chase those very opportunities. The Centre for Cities report, The Great British Brain Drain, has shown housing and transport infrastructure are the main barriers to young graduates returning to, or staying in, their hometowns.

Whilst the report focuses on graduates, it’s important to highlight the role inward local investment plays in creating those high-skilled job opportunities for non-graduates, such as through apprenticeships. We need to do more to prove to young people that there are other ways to get a high-skilled job than just moving away for university.

With the Government’s recent announcement on the Green Industrial Revolution, creating 250,000 jobs, we have a real opportunity to create those high-skilled, high-paying jobs in areas like County Durham.

We don’t have to look far to see what investment can do in helping to level up. Just look across to Tees Valley to see the great work Ben Houchen is doing as Mayor. With the South Tees Development Corporation, Tees Valley has been able to secure inward investment and redevelopment, ensuring a strong base for local job creation.

If you’re a young person in 2020, we know it’s tough to get on the housing ladder. Average house prices are more than four times higher now than in the 1990s, but the same has certainly not been the case for average earnings. We need to ensure that young people do not feel frozen out of the housing market. Schemes such as Help To Buy have been lifelines for many, but in many cases, the supply of good quality, affordable housing is also an issue.

The Government’s proposed planning reforms will have a great impact on house building, helping to ensure a generation of young people are able to access the same opportunities of home ownership that their parents had.

However, what is also highlighted in research on why people tend to move towards more urban areas is that it’s not just for a job, but for the overall living experience. People want to live in areas that are attractive, and where there are fun and engaging things to do. For example, in Bishop Auckland, I often receive complaints about the fact that the town doesn’t have a cinema.

But I have a plan. People want vibrant town centres, with a buzz of both day and night life, and good places to socialise. In this sense, investment in public realm works and cultural and leisure assets is crucial. The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has stressed the idea of building well-connected communities in towns, where homes are blended with shops and civic buildings to create a real sense of place and community.

The Government is providing the tools for this, with £3.6 billion being invested through the Towns Fund alone. Bishop Auckland is benefiting from this scheme, adding to the cultural investment from The Auckland Project, together hoping to radically reshape the town centre to make it a more attractive place to live and work.

Strong public transport networks are also crucial. It’s all very well creating high-skilled jobs, but if people in certain areas can’t physically get to them, then the full benefit of levelling up efforts will always be limited. We are lucky to be living in a fast-moving technological age, so we need to be exploring options, like on-demand bus services, to provide transport routes in the most efficient and convenient way for consumers.

However, with Covid-19 accelerating workplaces’ adaptations towards working from home, this creates huge opportunities for areas that those working for firms based in major cities may not have ordinarily considered living in. Towns like Bishop Auckland could begin to market ourselves as ‘digital commuter towns’. Why shouldn’t we aim to attract those in highly-paid roles working for Manchester or London firms who are predominantly home-working? Why shouldn’t we aim to have more money being put into our local economy?

Yes, Covid-19 has presented many challenges, but it has also presented opportunities. As we focus on a recovery that aids levelling up, we need to look at ensuring that young people have multiple reasons to want to stay in their hometowns. That they’re able to aim for local, high-paid jobs, or opportunities from further afield that the digital age makes possible. That they’re able to settle down in the streets they grew up in, and they enjoy spending their free time where they live.

This is how we will truly deliver on the mission to level up.

This is part of Bright Blue’s essay series, Centre Write.

Alexander Stafford: A freeport in South Yorkshire will prove our commitment to the Blue Wall

27 Feb

Alexander Stafford is MP for Rother Valley.

As the first Conservative Member of Parliament ever to be elected to serve Rother Valley in its 101-year history, repaying the trust of my constituents and ensuring this Conservative Government works for them has been my mission from day one.

Here in the Blue Wall – and let’s call it that now – the key Conservative priority of levelling up has to become a reality if we are to hold seats like mine in 2024. It’s that simple.

Whether I’m here or 160 miles away in Parliament, my constituents must see how the opportunities and potential we all enjoy – as the world’s fifth largest economy – mean real economic rewards for everyone right across the United Kingdom. Global Britain can’t just be an idea, it must be a reality accepted and embraced in every home in the Blue Wall and right across the country.

Last week, I joined some of my Blue Wall colleagues in writing to our fellow Yorkshire MP, Rishi Sunak, asking him to consider our bid for a freeport in South Yorkshire.  This simple but effective idea of a tax and customs-free economic zone has been supported by the Chancellor for years, and we share his vision on the potential of freeports to transform our economy.  It would have direct and clear benefits for places such as Maltby in my constituency.  That’s why we are determined to see South Yorkshire chosen as one of the ten new freeports in the coming months.

Our plan – backed by a large number of businesses, community and political leaders – is for a freeport in an area around Doncaster Sheffield Airport and the nearby iPort rail terminal.  Our driving purpose is to support and grow our advanced manufacturing base, creating new opportunities, increasing employment and contributing to the levelling up that South Yorkshire needs and deserves.

The figures are stark, and exciting: our freeport could boost imports by £306 million and exports by £410 million, transforming the Sheffield city region into a net exporter of goods by the end of the decade.

And, most importantly to my constituents, 28,700 new jobs could be created – well-paid ones in advanced manufacturing, too, with wages around 19 per cent higher than average. Unlocking or accelerating over £570 million of investment is within our grasp should the freeport be granted. Imagine what a huge difference that would make in an area that for too long has been an afterthought to those in Westminster.

A freeport in South Yorkshire could even become the largest advanced manufacturing hub in Europe. It could boost clean mobility too, building and testing cleaner, more energy efficient and renewable technologies, contributing to achieving Net Zero by 2050.

International businesses have long made their home in the area – names such as Sheffield Forgemasters, Liberty Steel, Hird Group, Boeing, McLaren Automotive, Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Siemens can see the potential of South Yorkshire, and I know our bid will make that even clearer.  More globally-recognised names will be drawn to the benefits of the freeport, further boosting the potential of the region and bringing investment to build back better, now and far into the future.

On Wednesday Sunak will give the most closely-watched Budget in a generation. The unprecedented fallout from the pandemic, and the brave and necessary amelioration measures the Chancellor has implemented, cannot continue forever. Furlough and the vast array of other support businesses across the UK have received from the taxpayer have quite literally put food on the table for millions. But, of course, at some point we will have to begin to pay back the billions we borrowed in 2020. .

As the hugely effective vaccines programme administered by our NHS and volunteers allows us to emerge from the restrictions caused by the pandemic, the pressure will be on the Chancellor to plot a way out of the economic challenges we currently face. I agree strongly with him that the development of freeports will help to crank up the economic engine needed to drive our economy forward. It is important that, as we emerge from this global pandemic, the Government makes the decisions required to get our national finances under control whilst also ensuring families are supported and businesses can flourish once more. Freeports are one tool that the Chancellor has in his economic toolbox to help us do this, and I look forward to hearing what else he has to say when he addresses the House of Commons next week.

By establishing freeports, businesses and investments that would have gone elsewhere will be drawn to the UK, creating jobs and boosting confidence. By establishing them across the country, I know we can tackle deprivation, raise living standards, scale up manufacturing, and reconnect our constituents with the good that business does.

As the Prime Minister has often reminded us, votes from the Blue Wall are often only lent votes. Let’s use freeports to repay that trust our voters have placed in the Conservative Party in 2019 and give them yet another reason to vote for us again in 2024.

Ben Houchen: The Budget. On Wednesday, Sunak must hear the voice of the North – and kickstart a new era of job creation.

26 Feb

Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.

With spirits buoyed by the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of pandemic restrictions, and the light at the end of the Covid tunnel finally in sight, all eyes now turn to the Budget on March 3.

This could be one of the most influential Budgets, both for our nation and for the region I represent, in a generation. Crucial decisions need to be weighed and judged by the Chancellor to ensure that our comeback from Covid is powerful and that the light at the end of that tunnel proves to shine on a better future.

There is no doubt in my mind that the top priority for Rishi Sunak is jobs and rebuilding the economy – an economy battered by the necessary restrictions on lives and livelihoods. I know from talking to local businesses how many are fighting on the edge, and it’s to the Government’s credit that the furlough scheme and other financial support have kept so many businesses alive and people in employment.

The “Red Wall” communities in my area overwhelmingly backed Boris Johnson in the last election, and it’s essential that the faith they put in him is returned. The Prime Minister promised a new kind of government, free of Brussels blinkers and Whitehall hand-wringing, which would address ordinary people’s concerns.

The best way to prevent low incomes and low opportunities from blighting the lives and hopes of adults and children, especially in the UK’s left-behind communities, is to do all we can to create new, good quality, well-paid jobs, on an unprecedented scale.

However, for a jobs agenda to be effective, it needs to be directed with strategy and precision. This can’t be an illusory statistical employment growth driven by foreign workers on contracts in the south. At the last election, the country was promised better policymaking for towns, villages and rural areas, and a transformative levelling up programme which would see growth, prosperity, and potential finally realised in communities across the nation.

This is the moment for a step-change in that levelling up agenda, to drive a jobs revolution in areas like Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool. Only by marrying the levelling up agenda to the jobs agenda will we ensure that new growth is serious, sustained, and benefits everyone.

There are two key ways in which the Chancellor can kick-start the recovery, levelling up, and the creation of good quality, well-paid jobs in my area. I and my team have done the groundwork, and the question is: will the Government grasp these golden opportunities?

The first, and most essential, step needed is for the Chancellor to give the green light to my plans for the Teesside Freeport. With thousands of acres of developable land, the largest deep-water port on the east coast, a nation-leading focus on delivering net zero technology and clean growth, and a pathway to pioneering innovations to support the whole UK freeport ecosystem, I passionately believe that a Teesside Freeport can be a jobs dynamo, a roaring engine of economic growth, and a flag-bearing project for Global Britain.

There are huge opportunities for job creation here. The wide package of tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures and streamlined planning processes freeports will benefit from can bring in the investment needed to unlock Teesside’s latent economic power.

Sunak was an early supporter of freeports himself, so I know that he understands the enormous potential we have here. The Teesside Freeport could create more than 18,000 skilled, good-quality, well paid jobs over the next five years and boost the local economy by £3.2billion. It would also increase inward investment into Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool by over £1.4 billion.

Now the Chancellor needs to have the courage to overrule any official arguing to delay pressing ahead with this game-changing jobs catalyst. As soon as Sunak gives us the green light, I’ll be driving this forward, unleashing the potential of Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.

The second action I’m looking for from the Chancellor is another where I know he understands the opportunity, but where again he needs to cut down the unimaginative Sir Humphreys within his department.

The Government’s plan to relocate 22,000 senior Whitehall civil servants out of London by 2030 will see 800 civil servants moved from Sunak’s own department to a new northern economic campus, dubbed “Treasury North”.

The vast majority of people don’t live in metropolitan cities, they live in our towns, our villages, in the countryside and on the coast. By moving out of London these civil servants will be able to develop a greater understanding of the issues and opportunities people are confronted with on a daily basis and, ultimately, develop better policy that is anchored in real knowledge gained by living in the communities it will impact the most.

For decades, talented local people in my area, graduates of fantastic northern universities and people who should have played an important part in our communities, have been sucked away by over-centralised bureaucracy. Now this self-perpetuating cycle can be broken. More than 100 local business leaders, both Teesside and Durham Universities, and political leaders from across the political spectrum have backed my proposal to bring Treasury North to Teesside.

It would be tragic if the prospect of opportunity and in-tune government was dissolved into a cluster of London civil servants being flown to Manchester, Leeds, or Newcastle. Such an outcome would fail to deliver better policymaking for towns like Hartlepool or Darlington, villages like Stillington or Skinningrove, or rural areas far and wide, and it would fail to deliver the promised levelling up agenda.

On Wednesday, the Chancellor has the chance to set a defining roadmap for our economic recovery from Covid. As a northern MP himself, I believe that he will hear the voice of the North and kickstart a new era of job creation. The tools are in his hands. The nation is waiting for Sunak to equip us to get to work and create the jobs of tomorrow.

Anne Milton: The Government must protect pupil choice when reforming qualifications

25 Feb

Anne Milton was Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills, and MP for Guildford from 2005 to 2019.

The Department for Education is currently reviewing the findings from its consultation on changes to qualifications at Level 3 (qualifications taken after GCSEs, e.g. A Levels or BTECs).

There are about 12,000 such qualifications, and the Government has already started to ‘tidy the landscape’ by defunding some of these. There has been widespread agreement that some of this was necessary. What is likely to be more controversial is the next tranche of defunding.

The stated aim of the qualifications consultation is to: simplify the system so that the choices for young people and adults are clearer; give a better line of sight from qualifications to employment, or more study; and create confidence by ensuring that every qualification is of high quality. In other words to raise standards at this level – no one can disagree with that.

However, there is a concern that in simplifying the system we will reduce opportunities for those that haven’t yet decided on their direction in life, or those that need qualifications as stepping stones on their way to finding the right job and career.

As the Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships between 2017 and 2019, I oversaw the development of the new T Levels. T Levels are the equivalent of an A level course in time and rigor, and will be a great option when fully rolled out, including their minimum of a 45-day industry placement. They are an important additional to technical education.

But the so-called ‘applied general’ qualifications (the most well-known of which are BTECs) are now in the firing line. I saw firsthand the role that these qualifications can play in boosting the skills of young people. We need to be very careful that in limiting choice at 16 to A Levels or T Levels, a generation of keen and diverse learners is not left out. If the Prime Minister’s aim is to ‘level up’, we must make sure that we have a wide variety of qualifications in place to be the stepping-stones into work or future study.

A recent survey from Pearson, who award BTECs and the new T Levels, found that eight-out-of-ten 14-18-year-olds and eight-out-of-ten parents feel that education should provide young people with a range of practical skills, alongside theory-based learning. BTECs do just that. They are widely accepted by universities and are often completed alongside a mix of other qualifications, including A Levels.

The creative sector in particular relies on the Performing Arts BTEC, as there is no A Level, or T Level equivalent being proposed. T Levels will be fantastic in areas of the country where there are plenty of industry placements available, but less good where those opportunities are limited. Similarly, they will work well for young learners who know what sector or industry they want to work in, but not so well for those who don’t know yet, or who might change their mind.

It is this issue of choice which is particularly dear to pupils. The Pearson survey highlighted most over nine-in-ten 14-18-year-olds want to study broad areas to prepare them for a number of job roles within an industry.

BTECs are flexible, comprehensive qualifications and so can be combined with several subjects. They develop broad knowledge and understanding and provide a route into a chosen career, without limiting future decisions. This improved choice, means students are more likely to know, by the time they finish school or university, what they want to do rather than be obliged to follow a path they set themselves two or three years earlier.

A wide range of organisations including Ofqual, the Association of Colleges, and the Sixth Form Colleges Association, have already cautioned against the Government pressing ahead too quickly with their review of qualifications, highlighting the risk of destabilising the system. Young people’s path does not always travel a straight line and many of the courses and qualifications taken will be of more value than others. But those courses and qualifications are vital in building confidence, acquiring skills, helping them develop as adults, and enabling them to start on their final route to work.

The impact assessment published by government with the qualifications review highlights that learners with special educational needs (SEN), those from Asian and black ethnic backgrounds, males, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are all more likely to be negatively affected by changes to the qualifications available in the future. Moreover, Higher Education Statistics Agency data shows that a considerably greater proportion of those entering higher education who followed the BTEC route came from an ethnic minority background, or lower socio-economic groups, when compared with A Levels.

Add to this the research undertaken by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which suggests that the reforms will harm social mobility by reducing progression from University Technical Colleges to higher technical study and higher or degree apprenticeships by as much as 40 per cent, and the reforms paint a rather stark picture. There is a serious risk that the proposals would reverse recent laudable and successful efforts to widen diversity and broaden inclusion. Existing high-quality vocational qualifications, including BTECs, support a diverse range of learners, and the skills they bring to the UK economy.

I was proud to have been a minister during T level development, and policy officials, employers, and education providers worked tirelessly to get them off the ground within the time frame we set. There is no doubt that they are a much-needed addition, but they should not be the only option for the 16-year-old not wishing to take A levels. We need a choice between the early specialisation that T levels offer and broader, rigorous career-focused qualifications, such as BTECs.

Students, colleges, schools and the education sector are going through one of the most difficult periods in modern history. The education attainment gap was very apparent before Covid, and despite best efforts, the gap between the better off and less well-off students is likely to be growing rapidly. Now is not the time to cut off choices.

Simplify the system, make choices easier, and give clearer information about where qualifications will lead. Create confidence in the education system to ensure high quality. But don’t throw out qualifications that are widely accepted as being valuable to employers, to universities and to students, and which have provided millions of students wanting to succeed and find a passion with gainful employment.

Critically, make sure that there are stepping stones in place for those who haven’t yet made up their mind, want to deepen their interest in a subject and want to try out a variety of subjects when they are still young enough to do so. A binary choice between A Levels or T Levels would serve no one well.

James Somerville-Meikle: Sunak should make supporting families a priority in his Budget

25 Feb

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union.

The economic cost of this pandemic is all too clear for many. But personal finances and household budgets are not the only things feeling the strain.

For some people, this past year has pushed relationships to their limits – with more time spent at home, greater stresses and anxieties, and an emotional cost impossible to calculate.

Among the alarming reports and grim statistics of the past year, the increase in people seeking divorce guidance from Citizens Advice and law firms reporting an increase in divorce applications should be some of the most worrying signs of the long-term impact of this virus.

As the Chancellor prepares to deliver his Budget next month, the state of people’s marriages might not be foremost on his mind, but there are good reasons why Rishi Sunak should make supporting families a priority.

In 2016, the Relationships Foundation estimated that the cost of family breakdown to the taxpayer – the various extra costs of supporting single parents and managing the fallout from relationship breakdown – was £48 billion. A figure that is sadly likely to be even higher in the wake of the pandemic.

While money alone cannot and should not be enough to keep a marriage together, a greater focus on how the tax and benefit system can support families is long overdue and is needed now more than ever.

Government spending has tended to focus on picking up the pieces from relationship breakdown, rather than supporting the family unit in the first place. If the Chancellor wants to avoid spiralling welfare spending as a legacy of the pandemic, then the Treasury needs to look more closely at the tax burden faced by families not just individuals.

One of the most pressing questions facing the Chancellor is the future of the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit and tax credits. The policy has helped millions through the pandemic, but it has cost billions – £6.1 billion according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

The temporary change has meant that someone on the basic rate of Universal Credit over the past year has received an extra £1,040 than they would have done without the uplift (an increase of 29 per cent on the pre-pandemic rate).

It’s a testament to the extraordinary times we live in that this hike in payments barely made the news when it was announced in March last year, but it is certainly making headlines now that the end of the year-long extension is in sight.

In some ways perhaps this was inevitable. Once something is given – no matter how temporary – it is hard to take away. People who have felt the benefit of the higher rate of payments will also feel the loss if and when they come to an end.

The challenge facing the Chancellor is how to avoid one of the biggest and most generous changes to social security in our history ending up looking like daylight robbery.

The £20 uplift has undoubtedly helped to get more money to some of the people most in need during the pandemic. But the problem with making changes to the basic rate of Universal Credit and tax credits is that everyone is treated the same, regardless of who they are or their circumstances. A working mum with three children gets the same benefit from an extra £20 a week through tax credits as a single man with no children.

If the Chancellor is looking for a way to rebalance welfare spending in the wake of the pandemic, then a more targeted approach, focusing on support for families and those with childcare responsibilities seems like an obvious solution. It would also be a big step towards delivering the manifesto commitment of making Britain the greatest place in the world to start a family.

There are oven-ready policies that the Chancellor could introduce in his Budget that would help families, and arguably be a greater help to children in the long term than the £20 uplift.

Perhaps the most obvious option would be to scrap the two-child cap on the childcare element of Universal Credit and tax credits. The policy was introduced in the Budget in 2015 and meant that from April 2017, support provided to families through Universal Credit or tax credits would be limited to the first two children.

The Child Poverty Action Group estimated in April 2020 that 230,000 families had been affected by the policy, and that an additional 60,000 families could be affected as a result of the pandemic. The policy has been roundly criticised by faith groups, including the Catholic Church, The Muslim Council of Britain, and Board of Deputies of British Jews, on account of its discriminatory approach to larger families.

The justification for the policy was that parents claiming Universal Credit or tax credits should face the same choices about the number of children they can afford as those supporting themselves solely through work. But the economic crisis caused by the pandemic has shown how quickly families can fall into difficulty. Even in normal times, no parent can be sure that their financial security will withstand unpredictable events such as illness, death, or redundancy.

Another possible source of inspiration for the Chancellor could be moving towards fully transferable personal allowances. Currently, 10 per cent of the current personal allowance of £12,500 is transferable between couples. Going further and making personal allowances fully transferable would remove the tax penalty suffered by single earner couples and help families keep more of the money they earn.

A fully transferable personal allowance would not be cheap. David Goodhart estimated in 2016 that the cost to the Treasury would be in the region of £5 billion – a significant amount of money, but still less expensive than the £6 billion cost of maintaining the uplift in Universal Credit and tax credits.

The Chancellor could also look at increasing child benefit, which has been largely frozen since 2010. The Child Poverty Action Group has estimated that increasing child benefit by just £10 per week would reduce child poverty by 450,000 as well as helping to stimulate the economy to recover from the pandemic.

There are options available to the Chancellor for this Budget and the rest of this Parliament to create a tax and benefit system that finally supports the family unit. The pandemic has shown the importance of having strong families alongside a social security system for those who need it.

Helping families keep more of the money they earn will not solve all of their problems, but it would certainly help. Let’s use this moment to build back better for families.