Chris Newton: The Government’s Free Speech Bill won’t fix universities if viewpoint diversity isn’t addressed too

21 Sep

Dr Chris Newton is a military historian and a former defence policy adviser in the Conservative Research Department.

As universities start a new academic year, the Government’s Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill is going through Parliament. The bill strengthens and protects university freedom of speech and is desperately needed.

University cancel culture” is not just an American phenomenon (and Peter Boghossian’s recent resignation letter to Portland State University indicates it’s still a major problem there). One needn’t go back far to find examples of academics and students in the UK having their freedom of speech threatened as well.

Just this month, the media reported that the University of Bristol dropped Professor Steven Greer’s module on Islam and the Far East. This is despite Greer being cleared by a five-month investigation into complaints about his alleged views on Islam.

In Scotland, where the bill will not unfortunately apply, Neil Thin, a senior lecturer Edinburgh University who criticised the renaming of David Hume Tower, faced an investigation after students made unsubstantiated accusations against him. While the university dismissed the complaints, Thin has spoken about the “severe psychological and social damage that can be caused by…unnecessary punitive investigations”.

These are just a couple out of a whole litany of cases where academics have been subjected to event cancellations, petitions calling for their dismissal, or witch trial style disciplinary procedures.

Their views aren’t, on the whole, regarded as particularly controversial in the real world. Academics have been denounced for defending Brexit, arguing that British history contains good as well as bad aspects, and for saying that biological sex is scientific fact. These views have been met with cries of “xenophobe”, “racist“, or “transphobe, among other slurs.

Recent research indicates that there is a deeper cultural problem. A 2020 report from Policy Exchange found that 44 per cent of academics surveyed who identified as “fairly right” and 63 per cent of those who were “very right” stated that they worked in a hostile working climate. These concerns seem to be justified as only 54 per cent of academics indicated that they would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter at lunch.

The Free Speech Bill should at the very least prevent further noplatformings. Some have argued that universities will also have to create bureaucratic structures that will ensure legal compliance. The Free Speech Union will also keep defending its members and reminding universities of their legal obligations.

These are important developments, but Nadhim Zahawi, the new Education Secretary, should consider whether the bill as it stands is still a sticking plaster that only deals with the symptoms and not the root causes of the problem.

As has been pointed out by Policy Exchange and others, universities have been able to enforce an ideological orthodoxy because they are dominated by one side of the political spectrum. The Policy Exchange report found that under 20 per cent of academics voted for right-leaning parties in 2017 and 2019, while 75 per cent voted for either Labour, the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens. For all the preaching about “diversity and inclusion” that goes on in universities, political diversity is very much forgotten.

Fuelling the intolerance is also the growing influence of radicals. The past few years have witnessed the emergence of “critical theories” or “critical social justice”, once a fringe element, as a powerful force on campus, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

Critical theories” include postcolonialism, critical race theory, and critical gender studies, and are descendants of Marxism and Postmodernism. They believe that Western societies are structurally unequal, and ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals, and transgender people are systemically oppressed.

There is no room for individual agency; power dynamics are structural and pre-determined by group identity. An ideology that believes that those who question their claims regarding systemic oppression are “complicit” in the discrimination is not exactly going to be open to alternative views.

There has been an increasing expectation from university diversity officers that the whole institution should reflect this new orthodoxy. This is reflected in initiatives such as “decolonising the curriculum”, which seems to be more interested in deleting fundamental content than genuinely making courses more diverse.

Leicester University proposed to ditch Geoffrey Chaucer and Beowulf from the English curriculum in favour of more modules about race and sexuality. Exeter University’s library requested that lecturers decolonise their reading lists, “look beyond traditional textbooks”, and embrace “grey literature” such as tweets. Musicologist Professor Paul Harper-Scott has just resigned from Royal Holloway in London due to the “dogmatic” nature of the decolonising agenda.

The new government guidance does prohibit the imposition of political agendas like “decolonising the curriculum” on staff, but there are potential ways around it. One way is to simply hire believers. Many lecturing job adverts now ask for specialists in critical theories, or for a commitment to the “decolonisingagenda.

The Policy Exchange report also indicates that there is potentially some political discrimination in hiring. 37 per cent of academics who voted Remain said they are likely to discriminate against a Brexiteer in job applications. Leavers face an 80 per cent chance of being discriminated against on a four-person panel.

Moreover, half would rank a grant application lower if it came from a right-wing perspective. There is little use of a Free Speech Bill if almost everyone already believes in the same set of ideas. What is needed are measures that will restore viewpoint diversity.

What can be done? Potential options include, first, the Office for Students monitoring recruitment and grant approval practices, as well as providing incentives to ensure fair play and a degree of balance. However, some may be uncomfortable with such a degree of state intervention.

A second approach is to create new higher education institutions explicitly committed to philosophical pluralism. A key problem, however, is that the barriers to entry are exorbitant. The Government could remove some of these barriers, for example allowing small start-up organisations to offer masters courses initially to get themselves established, before offering other degrees later on. It could also, as the Cieo think tank suggested, help set up new “free universities”.

The Free Speech Bill is a positive step in moving universities back in the right direction, but it is only a first step. What we really need is not just a Free Speech Bill, but a Free Speech and Viewpoint Diversity Bill.

Andrea Leadsom: A short and medium term plan for energy costs. First, protection from price rises. Then action on lower bills.

21 Sep

Andrea Leadsom is a former Business Secretary and Energy Minister, and is MP for South Northamptonshire.

Rocketing gas and electricity prices this year are putting the cost of energy back on the political agenda. As suppliers raise their prices, there will be more financial pressure on households and businesses, many of whom already struggle to afford their energy bills.

Rising prices are mainly due to higher gas prices as economies recover after the pandemic. But there are also other factors driving them up, including the rising cost of managing an electricity system with less reliable generation from offshore wind farms.

This winter, the Government and the regulator Ofgem will be closely monitoring energy bills to avoid customers being hit with excessive price increases next spring when the energy price cap is updated.

In the medium term, the Government must reform our energy system to reduce bills once and for all. The UK’s Electricity Market Reform was forward-thinking when it was introduced in the early-2010s, but it is increasingly clear that further reform is needed to allow customers to take advantage of the falling cost of renewables.

This summer, we have seen the challenges inherent in our current energy system, with high gas prices making gas power stations look expensive, persistently low wind speeds reducing output from wind farms, and a number of the UK’s ageing nuclear power stations offline for maintenance.

Last summer, we faced almost the opposite problem, with long periods of excess electricity generation as demand fell during the first coronavirus lockdown.

With offshore wind capacity set to quadruple by 2030, we will have more frequent periods of too much power or too little power, with these conditions perhaps just a few hours or a few days apart.

There are solutions to balance the intermittency of wind power, but they will only be developed if the Government provides incentives for the private sector to develop new and affordable technology, as it did with larger, more productive and cheaper offshore wind turbines.

As many have argued over a number of years, the market must lead our choices when it comes to the energy sector. Government made great strides through the Electricity Market Reform programme, establishing competitive auctions for offshore wind and setting up the Capacity Market to ensure reliable electricity supplies as we reduce our emissions.

To a great extent we have been victims of our own success, and the rapid deployment of new renewable technologies now requires a much more local approach, with new sources of green industrial activity concentrated in coastal hubs such as Teesside and Humberside to take advantage of cheap offshore wind and electrolysers producing hydrogen at times of high wind that can be used to provide back up when the wind doesn’t blow. The UK’s best wind resources are concentrated in many of our industrial hubs, reinforcing the fact that offshore wind is central to the Levelling Up agenda.

Households are a crucial part of our drive to decarbonise our energy system, so they should get new incentives, depending on where they are in the country. For example, a new pricing system might reward drivers in Cornwall for charging during sunny weather to take advantage of local solar farms, and reward drivers in Scotland for charging during windy weather to take advantage of local wind farms.

Of course, for smart charging to be appealing for customers, it will most likely have to be automated.

The good news is that much of this technology already exists, with innovative energy suppliers already taking advantage of smart meters to offer new types of tariffs to customers. The bad news is that the current design of our electricity market doesn’t fully reward customers for using energy at different times of day.

Today, we have a national price for electricity across all parts of Great Britain in each trading period, which dampens incentives to match supply and demand locally. Other markets are designed differently, including many US markets that use ‘local electricity pricing’.

With local pricing, prices reflect local supply and demand, which increasingly varies by time of day in different parts of the country depending on how windy or how sunny it is.

These changing demands on our energy system all point to the need for a second phase of electricity market reform, “EMR 2.0”, as argued for by organisations including Policy Exchange and the Energy Systems Catapult.

Local electricity pricing should be at heart of these reforms, alongside a review to ensure that subsidy auctions for offshore wind farms and the Capacity Market are fit for a Net Zero electricity system. Energy reforms must be supported by changes to the institutions governing the electricity system, including an Independent System Operator that is fully separate from the National Grid, something that has been long argued for and I am delighted to see the Government taking forward.

There’s much to be proud of and there is no doubt that with attention to the system itself, government can lead the way in not only decarbonising but keeping the costs to consumers down.

Olivier Guitta: Biden’s decision to snub France will weaken, not embolden, the U.S. in its dealings with China

20 Sep

Olivier Guitta is the Managing Director of GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical risk consulting company for companies and governments.

On September 16 President Emmanuel Macron announced that French forces had killed Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the emir of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, in Mali.

Coincidentally, al-Sahrawi had been at the top of the U.S. wanted list for murdering American Special forces in Niger in 2017. So, it is quite ironic that on the same day U.S. President Joe Biden back-stabbed France by announcing a defence alliance with Australia and the UK that included taking away from Paris the contract of the century.

France had signed in 2016 a deal worth $66 billion to supply 12 diesel-powered submarines to Australia. As late as August 30 both countries’ leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the submarine programme. This while Australia had been negotiating since at least March with the UK and the U.S. on getting a deal for nuclear-powered submarines.

It was a deal so secret and so controversial that reportedly only 10 people in the British government knew about it. The project was almost finalised at the G7 meeting in England in June under the nose of Macron while he was cosying up to Biden.

The Biden administration blindsided France, which accused top U.S. officials of hiding information about the deal despite repeated attempts by French diplomats to know what was going on. French diplomats said they first learned of the deal when news leaked in Australian media hours before the official announcement on Wednesday.

Expressing his fury for not only the cancellation of the deal but the handling of the announcement and the non-consulting of France, Macron immediately recalled its ambassadors in Washington and Canberra.

It is quite telling that this is the first time ever happened that France recalled its ambassador to the U.S., showing the seriousness of the diplomatic crisis. Interestingly enough, even Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said he understood Paris’ fury to be cut out from the alliance.

Things could have gone down way differently: If technology was the problem, why did the Australians not talk to the French about it since, incidentally, France also has nuclear-powered submarines?

We are not talking here about $60 million or $600 million or even $6 billion but about $66 billion. There was surely a way to find a consensus between the four allies, even when bringing to the table the U.S. and the UK, like splitting the contract in three.

In fact, the bigger picture is even more important than the huge defence contact since this AUKUS alliance, as it is called, is all about standing up to China. It is quite ironic that Biden has pushed away France from that alliance since in the past few months Paris has been one of the most sanguine to oppose China’s influence in the region.

Indeed, back in March, China complained about the French military’s activities in the disputed South China Sea, after it sent two warships there. In April, these ships took part in a three-day military exercise with the four members of the Quad alliance- Japan, India, Australia and the U.S.

That’s not all: France, that has several territories in the Pacific, has committed to helping Japan on the military and security level, i.e., protecting against China. Indeed, when Macron visited Japan during the Tokyo Olympics, Prime Minister Suga said he welcomed French plans to build on regional cooperation by boosting Paris’ efforts to “reinforce its strategic orientation, presence and actions in the Indo-Pacific in order to contribute to security, stability and sustainable development in the region.”

In light of this, Biden’s decision to snub France is another major faux-pas that is basically undermining his plan for an anti-China front. This hasn’t escaped Beijing that while officially very angry about the deal denouncing it, China might turn out to be the ultimate winner since it has de facto possibly broken the French resolve to side with the US against Beijing. Indeed, Macron said that France might narrow its focus to concentrate on its specific Indo-Pacific interests, rather than working to push back against China more broadly.

Biden, who wanted to break off from his predecessor when it came to trans-Atlantic relations, has missed yet another opportunity to do so with the AUKUS alliance. His potential anti-China front has been definitely undercut and ironically only of his own doing.

Including France in the alliance would have been wise to repair a deteriorating relationship with Europe that has witnessed the huge historical debacle in Afghanistan, the de facto approval of the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2. Biden has in just eight months lost all of his credibility in European capitals, not a small feat indeed.

John Redwood: Our energy policy should start with keeping the lights on and the factories powered up

20 Sep

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

We are living with a desperate shortage of energy. Successive governments and Ministers have ignored the need to ensure adequate supplies of electricity and primary fuels in their passion to close down and move out of coal, oil and gas as quickly as possible. Now we are caught up in a worldwide gas shortage, with fertiliser factories closed – and a Business Secretary summoning a meeting to ask what can be done to limit the spreading damage.

The Business Secretary knows enough economics to understand that, if gas is in short supply, the last thing that would help the UK procure more of it would be a series of price controls over those who dare to buy it on the world market and could sell it here.

We will not like it, but these now unruly global gas markets are controlled by Russia, the USA, and various Middle Eastern countries that have a surplus to export. They do not currently have a big enough surplus to need to take low bids.

The EU is already complaining that Russia is driving prices higher by restricting her large export supply. Why, then, did Germany make the world gas position worse by deciding to centre their energy policy on a further major addition to their pipeline capacity to import gas from Russia, ensuring their reliance on this source? They were warned by both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, as well as other alliesm not to make this obvious mistake.

The UK, too, has made itself far too dependent on energy imports. I have been warning government for years that we need to do more to generate additional power and extract more primary energy at home, endowed as we are with liberal reserves of oil, gas and coal and with access to water power and biomass.

The Business Secretary could do more than pose as concerned at his meeting if he puts in train work to find longer-term solutions to our chronic dependence on unreliable overseas sources of energy. He could ask why the Rough Field gas store was closed down, greatly reducing our stocks of gas which we now need. He should bring in more gas storage. He could review North Sea oil and gas policy, and see how the industry can be encouraged to tap more reserves from our own fields. He should keep the remaining coal power stations available with secure coal supplies for them, until there is sufficient greener power available to replace them on a reliable basis.

He should know that, at exactly the same time as we hit a world gas shortage, the UK electricity supply is under extreme stress. The remaining three coal power stations have been fired up, because there has been a marked shortage of wind for some weeks.

In recent years I have been wearing my keyboard out raising with Ministers and the wider public the issue of our need for more reliable electrical power to keep the lights on. The overriding preference for wind power was bound to leave us vulnerable to periods of calm weather.

If these coincide with cold winter days, the consequences could be disastrous. A modern sophisticated economy needs electrical power for most things. How would food factories keep working, vulnerable people stay warm at home, hospitals look after patients without sufficient power? It is particularly worrying that the current shortage takes place against a background of limited demand thanks to mild weather. The cool summer in the south did not help, as heating thermostats were triggering as late as May and even in August, needing more gas-fired power even then.

The UK’s passion for imported electricity has further weakened our position. The French interconnector in Kent was badly burned this week, taking out a potential imported supply of top up power which we rely too much on. We may discover soon that, if the shortages worsen, overseas suppliers will see exporting to us as an easy cut to make to husband their own limited supplies for domestic use.

When electricity was first privatised, we made security of supply the prime issue in the new system. There was a substantial margin of extra domestic capacity available to bring on stream if one or more of the baseload generating plants had problems. We did not need imports.  We made price the second important issue, with a system which always ensured the next cheapest power was brought on stream as demand picked up. In the early years of privatisation we both had plenty of capacity at home, and experienced falling prices. The dash for gas, with many new combined cycle gas plants going in, took feedstock from a healthy UK North Sea and replaced some older less fuel efficient and dirtier coal capacity, so the policy was also green.

Today, the Business Secretary needs to review the complex mesh of subsidies, regulations, penalty taxes and import arrangements that passes for an energy policy. It is delivering a shortage of power. It is holding up a good industrial strategy, as industrial expansion needs access to plenty of reliable competitively priced anergy. It is now threatening consumers with much higher electricity and gas prices.

He should order changes that will open up more UK primary energy for us to use. He should want an electricity system that has more reliable renewable power which may take the form of hydro, pump storage and battery, but which also has enough back up capacity from biomass or gas, so we can be sure to keep the factories powered up.

Elimination of our dependence on imported electricity and a substantial reduction in our dependence on imported gas should be a minimum objective. The market would do this if it were allowed to function but, because of the comprehensive muddle of government-inspired past interventions, it now needs dramatic government action to put it right for the future.

In the meantime, we rely on the goodwill of the gas and electricity exporters and will have to pay up to secure supplies. It is the perfect storm, with both gas and electricity scarce. At home, an absence of wind leaves us short, and abroad Hurricane Ida closed down some important US gas capacity. Relying on the wind is a dangerous way of living.

Nick Gibb: My advice to my successors at Education. Don’t scrap GCSEs or ease up on standards.

20 Sep

Nick Gibb is MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, and was the Minister of State for School Standards until last week’s Government reshuffle.

Just before the 2010 general election, I visited a school in north London to see children being taught to read. One nine year-old girl was unable to read a single word unaided. Her reading book had words in it such as “Tyrannosaurus” and yet she struggled to read the word “even”. It was clear that she was expected to learn by sight and repetition rather than through decoding words by sounding out the letters. It wasn’t clear to me that she even knew the sounds of the alphabet and yet she was being expected to read this children’s book to the teacher.

It broke my heart to see a child just a couple of years from secondary school so far away from developing even the basic skills of reading – let alone a love of the written word that would sustain her throughout her adult life.

The memory of that young girl stayed fresh in my mind every day during my nearly ten years as an Education minister. It was experiences like this that led us, when we came into office in 2010, to place a greater emphasis on phonics teaching, strengthening its primacy in the National Curriculum.

In 2012 we introduced the Phonics Check for six year-olds to make sure they were on track to becoming fluent readers. This enabled schools to identify and support those children who were falling behind, because the evidence is clear that reading is within the grasp of almost every child.

When the test was introduced, just 58 per cent of six year-olds reached the expected standard. As a result of schools improving the teaching of reading through the adoption of systematic phonics, 82 per cent were at or above the expected standard by 2019 .

In the latest PIRLS international study of the reading ability of 9-year-olds, England had its highest ever score, rising from joint tenth in 2011 to joint eighth place out of 50 countries in 2016. The rise was attributed to improved reading by boys and lower-performing children, and the report acknowledged the close association between children’s Phonics Check results and their performance in PIRLS.

I use the example of phonics because being able to read is of fundamental importance for every child’s education and life chances. But phonics also exemplifies the battles we have waged since 2010 against the ideologically-driven bad practice that has bedevilled the education system since the 1950s.

For the first time, a Conservative Government systematically challenged the so-called “progressive” approach – an ideology which downgraded the importance of knowledge and academic rigour and which argued that children learn better through projects and through self-discovery (‘finding out’ as the Plowden Report termed it in 1960) than by teacher-led teaching. This philosophy decries exams and dismisses the importance of committing knowledge to memory. It is a philosophy which was failing – and in some schools, despite the huge improvements we’ve made, is still failing – generations of children.

So, in 2010, we started the process of revising the curriculum – restoring the centrality of knowledge. With the help of teachers, we re-wrote the Primary Curriculum, with maths based on the highly successful Singapore curriculum, and with English focused on developing fluent and accomplished readers and which emphasised the love and habit of reading.

For secondary schools, we improved the quality of GCSEs and A levels, putting them on a par with qualifications in countries with the highest performing education systems – aware as we were that future generations will be competing with the world’s best educated populations.

And I urge my successors to resist the siren voices of those who call for GCSEs to be abolished. Nothing would widen the attainment gap more than such a dismal and unambitious policy. For a large minority of people, GCSEs are the last academic qualification they will take. Remove them, and that group lose any valid certification of a broad education. GCSEs also serve to define a demanding curriculum and they help hold schools to account. Remove them and weaker schools will grow weaker still.

As we undertook these reforms, I was struck by how often the most articulate and passionate proponents of a knowledge-based curriculum were not always natural Conservatives. In fact, many saw themselves as on the left of politics.

But we were united in our dismay at the number of schools that were simply not providing the quality of education or standards of behaviour that parents expected and which our country needed. These schools were unpopular but, for a want of places elsewhere, were filled by children who, as a consequence, were destined not to live up to their promise – another cause of heartbreak.

With the Government’s focus on driving up standards and despite raising the bar for what qualifies as a good school, over the last 10 years the number of schools judged by Ofsted to be outstanding rose from 68 per cent in 2010 to 86 per cent in 2019.

But there is clearly more to do. I worry about the 14 per cent of schools that are still judged as inadequate or needing to improve. Too often, these failing schools are in areas of deprivation, serving communities that more than anywhere else deserve and need the highest quality schools not the worst schools.

My plea to the new team at the Education Department is simple: don’t listen to those who excuse failing standards and who argue that schools in deprived areas cannot succeed. President George W Bush was right to dismiss such arguments as the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. Our ambition must not be limited by such arguments.

Thanks to the huge success of the academies and free schools programme – which unshackled schools from the cloying control of local authority bureaucracies – there are now schools serving the most disadvantaged parts of the country that are delivering a standard of education that rival or exceed the best in the country – state or independent.

Schools like Michaela in Brent with 41 per cent of pupils qualifying for free school meals, Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford (30 per cent), or Eden Boys School in Birmingham (40 per cent) – but all achieving GCSE progress scores that put them at the very top of the national performance table.

These are schools that take a strong approach to behaviour, that emphasise the importance of a knowledge-rich academic curriculum (at least to the age of 16), and which have very high expectations for their pupils regardless of their background. If these schools can achieve the standards they do in the most disadvantaged parts of the country, then it is clear that poverty never needs to be a reason for poor educational outcomes. What we need is a Michaela or a Dixons Trinity or an Eden Boys in every city and town serving those communities that have been let down for generations.

What these schools also have in common is a high proportion of their pupils being entered for the EBacc combination of core academic GCSEs – English, maths, at least two sciences, a humanity and a foreign language. These are the subjects that more affluent families will expect their children to study because they give young people the greatest opportunities and options for their future. If it’s right for these children, it’s right for all children regardless of their background. That’s why it is so important that the EBacc remains as a key metric by which we hold schools to account.

As we emerge from the Covid pandemic and 18 months of disrupted education, the £3 billion of catch-up funding is crucial. But building and opening new free schools will be just as important in helping ensure that children in the most deprived areas catch-up.

Ultimately, the life chances of children are enhanced by exceptional teaching – and this is especially true for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s why in 2010 I was so keen that our first White Paper should be called The Importance of Teaching.

Over the last 10 years in Government, and the five years prior to that in Opposition, I have visited hundreds of schools throughout England. Wherever I went, despite varying standards, all the teachers I met were conscientious, energetic and committed to their pupils. The huge expansion of the Teach First programme since 2010 has brought new graduates into the profession; many have stayed in teaching and are becoming headteachers.

Teaching is an important and fulfilling vocation. It has the power to change and shape lives. We owe all our teachers a huge debt of gratitude. But they need better support, especially in the first years of their career, so we have set about ensuring their initial training is based firmly on evidence and have set higher expectations of teacher training institutions.

I am delighted that my friend, Nadhim Zahawi, has been appointed to deliver the next phase of our reforms. Much has been achieved since 2010, but there is still much more to do. If I were to give the newly reshuffled team at the DfE one piece of advice it would be this: remember that reform must be a continuous process, the speed can change but momentum must not stop.

If we let up our concentration on standards, on what evidence tells us works; if we stop pushing forward the knowledge-based curriculum or abandon changes to teacher training, the tide will turn. It’s hard work, but the progressive ideology has not gone away. It would be a tragedy for future generations if we gave in and settled for an easier life.

Rehman Chisti: How mainstream Islamic teaching can help to hold the Taliban to account

19 Sep

Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and previously served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2019-20).

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has raised serious questions about the rights of religious minorities, women, and others under its rule in Afghanistan – and its interpretation of Islam. As the Prime Minister has stated, we have to judge the Taliban by their actions, not their words.

As someone from a Muslim background, whose father, uncles, and grandfathers were Imams, religion and faith are a central part of my life. This was reflected during my service as the UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, when I worked with colleagues to challenge the persecution of individuals based on their faith around the world.

In fact, faith is an integral part of many people’s lives across the globe, especially in the Middle East and Central and South Asia region. According to a Pew Research Center report, 84 per cent of the world’s population claim to identify themselves with a religion. In my view, if we don’t understand religion, including the abuse of religion, it will be even harder for us to understand the world.

Having had the honour of working as an adviser to Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and first female head of state in the Islamic world, from 1999 to 2007, I know full well the strong and inspiring leadership role that women can play in Islamic nations. Islam has a rich tradition of inclusivity and respect which we must put forward and be proud of. In fact, we can see examples of strong female leadership in Islam throughout history, both in the distant and near past.

Muslim women have always played a crucial part in society as rulers, jurists, businesswomen, scholars, and benefactresses. Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, was not just his companion, but a businesswoman in her own right; Aisha bint Abu Bakr, another of the Prophet’s wives, became a brilliant scholar and tutored many men.

We can also see this in Shifa Abdullah, one of Prophet Muhammad’s companions, who held a leadership role in supervising transactions in the marketplace of the Islamic empire’s first capital, Medina. Or with Rabi’ah Bint Mu’awwad, an eminent scholar and jurist of Islamic law in Medina who taught famous male scholars. And with Fatima al Fihri, a Muslim woman who founded, in 859, what is today the oldest continuously operating university in the world, al-Qarawiyyin University in Fez.

In more recent times, we can look of course to Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, but also to Bangladesh: this country, which has the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population, has had a female prime minister for nearly 28 of the past 30 years.

Khaleda Zia, the country’s first female Prime Minister, and Sheikh Hasina, the incumbent, have been two of the country’s pre-eminent political leaders, and have overwhelmingly held the office of Prime Minister since 1991.

In Europe, Atifete Jahjaga served as the first female President of Muslim-majority Kosovo, from 2011 to 2016. During her time in office, she fought against extremism and radicalisation, fostered reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups in the country, and hosted a key International Women’s Summit.

Of course, there are divergences on theology in Islam as there are in every faith. But as set out above, Islam’s past and present has at its heart the values of all other faiths: respect, inclusivity, and tolerance. It is this version of Islam that we must champion.

As I set out to the Prime Minister last week in the House of Commons, he should call on the 57-member state Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to ask Al-Azhar, a widely respected and leading institutional authority on moderate Islamic thought, to issue a statement confirming the rights of religious minorities and women in Islam.

The Taliban in Afghanistan claim that they will rule within the confines of Islam. A statement from an institution such as Al-Azhar will let the world judge whether the Taliban’s actions are indeed in line with the teachings of Islam.

In my recent meeting with the Kuwait Ambassador, Al-Duwaisan, the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in London, who has served in his role for nearly 30 years, he was very supportive of calling on the OIC to ask Al-Azhar to set out the inclusive approach to the rights of women and religious minorities in Islam.

On this occasion therefore, when we have the support of Muslim-majority countries, I would urge the Government to move forward urgently with this proposal. Al-Azhar is a hugely well-respected institution across the globe, founded over 1000 years ago. Recently in 2019, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar jointly signed with Pope Francis a Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, and when the UN Security Council held a session to discuss anti-terrorism, al-Azhar was the only Islamic institution invited to take part.

If we are to build an inclusive society and world, we must all play our part and that means setting out the true virtues and values of our faiths.

Nat Wei: Why Britain needs a sovereign wealth fund now more than ever

18 Sep

Lord Wei is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He is a co-founder of Teach First, a social entrepreneur, and a former government adviser.

The recent furore over National Insurance and social care has once again brought into focus the lack of resilience of our public finances. Putting aside the large National Debt we have and the deficit, or the vast amount of QE driving up asset prices everywhere, we seem to be endlessly stuck in a loop whereby taxes have to rise after global events such as pandemics, war, or financial crises.

Surely if we were to learn the lessons from the last 20 plus years we ought to be prepared for such eventualities, and have some national insurance in place for the nation itself. A number of our international peers have sovereign wealth funds, such as Norway, which they judiciously built up from their natural resource sales. We ought to have our own fund, perhaps by converting our £36 billion in annual R&D investments into the future Teslas or Dysons of Britain into equity or at least a right to licence the IP developed by them in non-competing sectors. What might have happened if we had given workers on furlough the chance to do R&D for their companies as a condition of being put on furlough, and received some of the equity in the ideas they generated instead of their being paid to simply not work at all by the Government?

As we build our own sovereign wealth we ought to be able to use the proceeds from it to smooth the fiscal cycle and keep the tax burden below a certain amount (say 30 per cent) in the three years after a major global event (vs events affecting our country only, to avoid the moral hazard of governments using it to mitigate their poor policy decisions).

If we do not do this, then we will forever be at the mercy of needing international capital just to stay afloat and not truly sovereign, which surely was to be one of the benefits of Brexit. In so doing we can over time also enhance our reputation as a Party of fiscal prudence and harness capital for public and not just private good.

Could such a fund make a dent in issues such as the National Insurance tax rise? And where would we find the capital in these straitened times to launch it, as well as not to be seen to be losing public money on what might be a risky venture? Well to put the recent £12bn raised in annual tax rises in perspective, Apple and Amazon combined are now worth $4.7 trillion as of yesterday  and Apple alone paid out $14 billion in dividends last year. If Britain invested wisely it might be able to absorb part or most of the cost of any tax rises during times when the economy needs support to rebuild using such a sovereign wealth tech fund, and any shortfall could be covered if needed by partial sales of assets.

A fellow Brit from the last century has also given us some potential initial capital, having bequeathed to the nation an amount in a Trust which by Act of Parliament was originally set aside to pay the National Debt in what is called the National Fund. When I first heard about it ten or so years ago it was making the investment house a packet managing these assets and was worth £400 million. In 2020 the value had grown to about £520 million. A tidy sum but it will likely never ever be used to pay down the National Debt, its original mandate, so we should repurpose it by Act of Parliament and turn it into our sovereign wealth fund, to be managed at cost by our most successful tech investors to back and scale up our most promising national champions.

Having missed the chance to create our sovereign wealth fund from natural mineral and gas resources, it is time to use the other resource we still have, which is the wealth of talent now available from our entrepreneurial base, so we can grow our economy, and relieve the burden of tax for those communities especially who are looking to us to help support and empower them to level up.

Greg Smith and Dehenna Davison: Introducing ’30 Ideas for 2030′, a free-market blueprint for levelling up

17 Sep

Greg Smith is the MP for Buckingham. Dehenna Davison is MP for Bishop Auckland. They are co-chairs of the Free Market Forum.

Of Boris Johnson many successes, his ability to sell the Conservative message to members of the public who had hitherto never considered voting for our party is among the most impressive.

During the 2019 general election, Conservative candidates who were “doing their time” by standing in unwinnable seats quickly came to realise voters were developing a healthy appetite for low taxes and Conservative economics – for the sunlit uplands of opportunity that could come from ‘taking back control’ – both of our national policies and of their own lives.

Since the election the Government has, of course, devoted most of its time towards the two overriding issues of Brexit and Covid. These have prevented it from undertaking the type of free market policies that many of we newer MPs might have wished for.

It was of course right for the state to step in and protect lives and livelihoods during Covid, and it may have been necessary for the government to simply replicate large tracts of EU rules initially in order to give businesses some certainty during the immediate transition from EU membership to full independence. But with a Brexit deal done and Covid believed to be endemic, it is time to consider what comes next.

The Free Market Forum aims to promote ideas and stimulate discussion over how we make Britain economically and socially freer, boosting the economic opportunities and growth across the nation, encouraging innovation and creating jobs. We want to lead the conversation within the Conservative Party on the importance of retaining the traditions of fiscal prudence, low-taxes, and limited regulation – key pillars to support growth and opportunity.

For many in left behind parts of the country, the reality is that the private sector is stifled by a bloated public sector that is almost Soviet-sized in some areas of the North. Thirteen years of Labour – whose ambition seemed to amount to little more than throwing money at those left behind and hope for the best – was followed by little change from by well-meaning Conservative governments since 2010.

This has meant that for decades, many of our communities could not even begin to imagine a world where they could succeed through entrepreneurism or seizing opportunities for themselves, rather than just waiting for the state to do it for them.

Innovate UK polling indicates that the confidence to start a new business, for example, is far lower in left behind Britain than in the more affluent parts. In the North East, a shocking 44 per cent of those with an idea and desire to start a new business lack the confidence to take the plunge and go for it (compared to less than 30 per cent nationwide). Clearly, restoring a culture of risk is needed if we are going to help these places succeed.

Our new paper, 30 Ideas for 2030, is our first effort to dip our toes in the water. The 30 ideas – from MPs, peers and respected academics – cover a broad swathe of policy areas, from reducing occupational regulation to reforming the BBC, from using technology to enhance teaching in our classrooms to removing the barriers to self-employment and alternative business models. While not a policy prospectus, we are hopeful that these options for cutting the state and instead empowering the individual will provide some food for thought in government.

As you might expect, considering the almost historic levels of taxation as a proportion of GDP and a state that seems to be growing ever larger, many of the ideas revolve around tax reform.

The former Chancellor, George Osborne, dubbed our tax code “one of the most complex and opaque tax codes in the world” on assuming office in 2010. Yet a decade later we still have, at over 10 million words, the longest tax code in the world, 48 times the length that of Hong Kong – which is considered to be the gold standard by most tax accountants. This tax complexity results in dozens of loopholes and offsets which reduce government income and also distort the economic activity of both businesses and individuals.

Taxes should be as low as possible, but it is equally important that they should be simple and universal.

With our economy still weak from the Covid lockdowns, and considering the additional tax burden the government is now choosing to add on to National Insurance, we should be scrapping the planned increase in Corporation Tax and looking to simplify the tax system more broadly. Other tax reforms which should be under consideration include the wholesale abolition of Stamp Duty Land Tax, which, alongside prudent free market reforms to planning regulations, could do much to alleviate the worst of our housing crisis and get more young people onto the property ladder.

There is much to do over the next ten years as we build back better following Covid. But it is only by embracing freedom and economic liberalism, and continuing to make the case for it instead of becoming an increasingly paternalistic, state-controlled nation by default, that we will make a real difference to those left behind, and make Britain a richer, stronger country.

Terry Barnes: The significance of this new U.S-UK-Australia security pact – and Johnson’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific

17 Sep

Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government.

It may have been missed in Britain midst the excitement of Boris Johnson’s reshuffle and the attention-greedy Sussexes making the cover of Time, but this week’s announcement by Boris Johnson, Joe Biden and Scott Morrison of a ‘trilateral security partnership’, to be known as AUKUS, is hugely significant.

It is to be a relationship of defence, technological and security cooperation. While it essentially formalises existing exchanges between three traditional allies, that in itself has historic strategic and geopolitical implications.

Here in Australia, this announcement is huge news. Not only is Australia formalising a security pact with her two greatest and closest traditional allies, but she is also being admitted by the US and UK into a very select club: countries operating nuclear-powered submarines. Morrison’s government is thereby walking away from a costly but irretrievably dysfunctional contract with the French to co-build a dozen conventional next-generation submarines, exposing itself to billions of dollars in termination costs.  But this hasn’t been a deal-breaker.

That AUKUS was announced, within eight months of the next Australian general election, is even more significant. It’s one thing for a conservative government to sign such a security agreement and pursue nuclear submarines. It’s quite another for a traditionally anti-nuclear and US-skeptical Labor party opposition to endorse such a radical reshaping of Australia’s national security framework. Yet it has – today publicly committed itself to the agreement should Labor win next year’s election, a possibility if opinion polls are right.

Furthermore, just weeks after marking its 70th anniversary, the joint announcement confirms that the ANZUS alliance of Australia, New Zealand and the United States is officially dead.

New Zealand suspended ANZUS almost 40 years ago, because it refused to allow US nuclear-powered ships into her ports: this week, Jacinda Ardern insisted that this bar would apply to nuclear-powered Australian submarines as well. Since New Zealand’s inflexible opposition to nuclear-powered ships sits with Ardern’s refusal to join any Five Eyes strategic arrangements that might antagonise China, AUKUS effectively kills off whatever vestiges of ANZUS are left.

Australia, on the other hand, has been increasingly vocal about the Chinese regime’s geostrategic muscle-flexing, as well as its internal behaviour. Morrison was the first world leader to demand that China account for the origin and escape of Covid-19 from Wuhan, and has given his MPs free rein to criticise China’s strategic ambitions and human rights record – despite the regime’s wolf warrior bullying diplomacy and trade retaliations. AUKUS reminds Xi Jinping that ‘little’ Australia has great and powerful friends, and that she does not stand alone in calling out his bullying.

Jinping certainly should sit up and take note of this critical new development. The two great Anglosphere powers are joining a third, Australia, in making it emphatically clear to China and the world that the Pacific and Indian oceans are not Chinese lakes. The UK and US giving Australia nuclear-powered submarine capability – with the speed, endurance and stealth that this capability ensures – means that there will be a local nuclear-powered, if not nuclear-armed deterrent straddling the approaches to busiest blue water sea-lanes in the world running through the South China Sea.

But from Britain’s perspective, this is a truly remarkable strategic development, the significance of which may not be immediately realised outside Whitehall.

AUKUS is not just sending HMS Queen Elizabeth through the Indian and Pacific Oceans to make an important but nevertheless symbolic freedom of navigation gesture to demonstrate Britain’s resistance to China’s increasingly bellicose aggression. For the first time in the half a century since she withdrew a standing presence from east of Suez, the United Kingdom is joining a formal geostrategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

That sends not only a starkly clear message to China: it reassures the entire Indo-Pacific region, and especially India, Japan, and South Korea – and Hong Kong and Taiwan – that their security interests are also British interests. Johnson, Ben Wallace and Liz Truss – fresh from negotiating, with Australia, Britain’s first post-Brexit free trade deal – have grasped the importance and necessity of the UK re-engaging in the Indo-Pacific strategically as well as economically.

And the United States benefits, too, in that strengthening the offensive as well as the defensive capability of a key regional ally in Australia will, in time, ease the burden of what Paul Kennedy years ago called ‘imperial overstretch’. Biden may have forgotten Morrison’s name in the leaders’ announcement hook-up, but surely realises how strategically important a politically stable, but strategically-strengthened, Australia will be to the overall peace and stability of the entire Indo-Pacific region.

To be sure, in Britain this announcement was overshadowed by other events. But in the longer term, AUKUS may well be part of any tangible and lasting legacy of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

William Hall: Why ministers must press on to bed the Armed Forces Covenant into all areas of public life

16 Sep

William Hall is the Policy Lead for Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces. He is Deputy Chairman of Oxfordshire Conservatives and works in UK defence, infrastructure and education.

The Conservative Party is a broad church but one of the core areas that unites us is support for our armed forces and a belief in the importance of a strong national defence.

Progress has been made, but we must do more to support the military community. The Armed Forces Covenant must be further enhanced and strengthened so that it has a greater force of law.

The Covenant articulates that the nation has a moral obligation to members of the Armed Forces Community in return for the sacrifices they endure. The armed forces community includes regular personnel, reservists, veterans, and immediate families. Specifically, the Covenant outlines two core principles:

  • No disadvantage: no current or former member of the armed forces, or their families, should be at a disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.
  • Special consideration: special consideration is appropriate in some cases, particularly for those who have been injured or bereaved.

That these goals should be a key pillar of Conservative thinking on defence should not be in question. The Conservative Party would stray considerably from its proper philosophical and moral course were it pursue anything other than a full-throated advocacy of support for ex-servicemen and armed forces personnel.

In the 2010 Conservative Manifesto our party was elected to government on a promise to fix the covenant that had been let fall into ‘disrepair’ by Labour. Writing on ConservativeHome, James Sunderland, now MP and supporter of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces, said “the Conservative Party must re-affirm its support for all serving personnel, veterans and their families, not only as the traditional party of the Armed Forces, but also as the defender of the democratic rights and freedoms that we share.”

The party’s backbenchers and Cabinet appear in agreement that defence spending and focus must be a priority and the announcement of an additional £24.1 billion funding is welcome.

The Armed Forces Covenant is a statement of a principle. It does not itself infer legal obligations and rights on members of the community. Instead, it is referred to by laws which may require it to be taken into account, and is a governing pillar for the body politic. The Secretary of State for Defence must make an annual report to Parliament on the government’s progress in honouring the Covenant. In particular the Defence Secretary must have regard to the following:

  • The unique obligations of, and sacrifices made by, the armed forces;
  • The principle that it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising for service people from membership, or former membership, of the armed forces; and
  • The principle that special provision for service people may be justified by the effects on such people of membership, or former membership, of the armed forces.

The Armed Forces Covenant Fund was launched in 2015 with a budget of £10m a year to support “mutually beneficial projects and programmes being delivered by organisations across the UK in partnership with the Armed Forces Community”. It supports the obligation that the Covenant represents through four broad funding areas: removing barriers to family life; extra support after service for those that need help; measures to integrate military and civilian communities; and non-core healthcare services for veterans.

One of Boris Johnson’s first actions as Prime Minister was the establishment of the Office of Veterans Affairs (OVA), led by Johnny Mercer as Minister for Defence People and Veterans jointly with the Cabinet Office. In its first year the OVA launched a new railcard for veterans, a scheme to provide guaranteed interviews in the civil service for veterans, plans for a National Insurance Holiday for employers who hire veterans, and prioritisation of veterans for new homes.

The establishment of the OVA supports the cross-Whitehall approach that the Covenant represents. It is telling that the ministerial responsibilities straddle both the MoD and the Cabinet Office signalling a continued entrenchment of the Covenant in policy formulation in every Department. This is a welcome step in furthering the goals of the Covenant.

It would be beneficial to the continued impact of the OVA if its mission were treated in a way similar to other overarching, cross-departmental themes of the Government. The Armed Forces Community is impacted by the decisions of every Department and it is right that the political sponsorship of this is significant. To enhance this, a useful addition would be a focused team of political and non-political advisers similar to those tasked with taking forward other thematic priorities, including the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Local authorities are a key deliverer of services to the beneficiaries of the Covenant. The Local Government Association’s (LGA) report ‘Our Community – Our Covenant: Improving the Delivery of Local Covenant Pledges’ provided concerning insight into the delivery of this service at a local level.

Of the Council Chief Executives surveyed by the LGA, 48 per cent reported that they had a good understanding of the Covenant, and 39 per cent a moderate understanding. Perhaps even more concerning is that the same report found that almost a quarter of surveyed members of the Armed Forces Community felt that their local authority did not understand their needs.

In areas with higher visibility of the armed forces in the community the local authority tended to be better at folding the Covenant into their decisions. However, a post-code lottery of council awareness is simply not good enough.

Over the last decade, the Armed Forces Covenant’s scope and impact has increasingly benefitted from the political sponsorship of the Conservative Party in Government. This looks set to continue apace. Service provision areas of high impact for the Covenant are being brought into law in order to strengthen the existing framework of regard for its principles.

As this progress continues it will be increasingly necessary to focus on those parts of public services that are most complex, unwilling to change, or unaware of the specific requirements of the Armed Forces Community. To achieve the ultimate aims of the Covenant, it will be necessary to maintain the political trajectory that recent defence announcements have signalled and to root out areas of poor performance in local authorities and service providers.

Fundamentally, the Covenant seeks to apply some very simple principles to an incredibly complicated legal and governmental landscape. It must therefore be an ongoing project and a living commitment.

A longer version of this article appears in Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces’ new Policy Pamphlet.