Lorraine Platt: Ministers should not shirk from making Britain a world leader in animal welfare

9 May

Lorraine Platt is Co-Founder Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation.

This Government has arguably set the most ambitious animal welfare agenda of my lifetime.

After their election in 2019, the Government followed through on manifesto promises with the publication of the Action Plan for Animal Welfare, a package of commitments within three flagship bills which together have the potential to make the UK a world-leader in animal welfare. These are the Animal Sentience, Kept Animals, and Animals Abroad Bills.

One year on from this publication, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill has received Royal Assent. It enshrines animal sentience, including crustaceans, in law, and establishes an Animal Sentience Committee to scrutinise our future legislation. This is an important milestone for the UK and underpins much of the progress we need to see in improving standards for our farm animals, pets, and wild animals.

In this time have also welcomed other measures into law including the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act led by Chris Loder MP, our Patron, the recent Animals (Penalty Notices) Act led by Andrew Rosindell MP, and the Glue Traps (Offences) Act to ban the use of inhumane glue traps, led by Jane Stevenson MP.

But while the Kept Animals Bill (which would end live exports) has been carried into the next parliamentary session, recent headlines suggest the flagship Animals Abroad Bill promised in 2021 is in danger of being dropped. With the Queen’s Speech ahead on Tuesday, it is clear that this Government faces a critical juncture in deciding which legislation to prioritise in the next parliamentary session.

Indeed, the Animals Abroad Bill has prompted some debate within the parliamentary party over the last few months. Measures such as ending the import of fur, foie gras, and hunting trophies have been met with criticism from a minority of Conservative MPs, concerned that such legislation would run contrary to the philosophy of individual freedom.

These proposed laws, however, are not a question of political philosophy. As Lord Goldsmith, our Patron, wrote earlier this year: “There are some who view the issue as a matter of personal choice, but no one would extend that principle to things like dog-fighting or bear-baiting. So it’s not clear why fur farming or force-feeding geese, which arguably are associated with far greater levels of cruelty, should be any different.”

By enforcing such a ban, we are simply correcting the double standard currently at play which allows the sale of products deemed too cruel to produce in the UK. Both fur and foie gras farms were banned (in 2000 and 2006 respectively) on the basis of the unacceptable cruelty involved in production. Outsourcing these products runs contrary to our domestic legislation and sends an inconsistent message about the welfare standards we consider to be acceptable.

We urge the Government to continue pursuing the powerful legislative agenda promised in the Action Plan for Animal Welfare; policies which not only attract strong cross-party support but are incredibly popular with the British public too. A recent opinion poll carried out by Survation, for instance, shows overwhelming support for the Government’s policy of banning trophy hunting imports. While popular among voters as a whole, it is strongly backed by Conservative voters in particular – 92% of whom believe the Government should enact a ban as soon as possible.

The idea that concern for animal welfare is ‘unconservative’ is a myth, purported by a minority within the Conservative Party. From Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of the Farm Animal Welfare Committee within weeks of her election, to David Cameron’s ban on battery cages, it is the Conservatives which have time and time again driven forward legislation to advance animal welfare.

In this next parliamentary session, the Government has the opportunity to continue this important agenda, improve the lives of millions of animals, while bringing our laws into greater alignment with public sentiment. I believe this Government is ready for the challenge and can ultimately help make the UK a global leader in animal welfare.

Miriam Cates MP: The re-introduction of key abortion safeguards is a step towards tackling domestic abuse

18 Feb

Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge

Almost two years ago, suddenly and without scrutiny, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced the biggest change to abortion law in this country since 1967.

At the start of the pandemic and ensuing lockdown, the DHSC granted emergency measures to allow medical abortions to be self-administered at home without any in-person consultation. Now, the Government is mulling over whether to end this temporary policy in line with the cessation of other Covid emergency measures.

In practical terms, the changes in March 2020 have meant that a single phonecall currently suffices for women and girls to be sent abortion pills. This was no small alteration to abortion provision. The knock-on effects of this ill-judged change have since emerged, with the experiences of women revealing concerning issues.

In removing the requirement for an in-person consultation prior to abortion, there is no guarantee that the woman requesting the pills is doing so for her own legal use within the medically accepted time limit (10 weeks gestation in England and Wales). Nor is there any guarantee that she is doing so freely, without coercion. There is no way to ensure that the patient is alone. Without a face to face consultation, there are fewer or no visual markers (such as eye contact or body language). This disjuncture of care is exacerbated in cases where the woman has limited English-speaking abilities and poor computer access.

The circumstances that surround a woman’s reasons to seek abortion are complex and individual. Often victims of domestic abuse do not even realise that what they are experiencing is, in fact, coercion. For example, pressure from well-meaning parents to abort so that a student finishes her studies, a partner citing economic pressures or threatening to walk out, or teenagers encouraging their friend to just do it and swallow the pills are all instances of pregnancy coercion. How can a healthcare professional possibly certify over the phone that a woman is making the decision to abort freely?

We have seen an appalling rise in domestic abuse during the pandemic. Over 40,000 calls and contacts were made to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline during the first three months of the lockdown alone. The charity Refuge reported a 61 per cent increase in calls to its 24-hour helpline and online chat service in the past year, and a shocking 81 per cent of callers in 2020 described being “controlled” by their partner. As Lisa King from Refuge summarised: “Lockdown measures, where women have been isolated and confined with their perpetrators more than ever, have compounded their exposure to violence and abuse.”

Moreover, Refuge’s figures show that domestic violence worsens during pregnancy; 20 per cent of women using the organisation’s services are pregnant or recently gave birth, whilst studies show that four to nine per cent of women experience abuse during their pregnancy or afterwards. The most common age bracket contacting Refuge’s helpline were women aged 30-39. It is no coincidence that they are women of childbearing age.

As such, parliamentarians should be doing all we can to prevent domestic abuse situations from escalating, and ensure the highest level of support services for women. I am certain the Government does not want to put women at risk from coercive control nor put in place measures that risk aiding their abusers.

As a 2019 article in a leading medical journal states, “Potential for misuse and coercion is high when there is no way to verify who is consuming the medication and whether she is doing so willingly. Sex traffickers, incestuous abusers, and coercive boyfriends will all welcome more easily available medical abortion.”

Notably, polling of clinicians supports these concerns. Around six in seven GPs were found to be concerned that the “at-home” abortion policy could see more women being coerced into abortion, whilst 87 per cent were concerned that women were at risk of unwanted abortion arising from domestic abuse by partners controlling or monitoring their actions.

The Conservative Party manifesto in 2019 pledged “to fight crime against women and girls” and provide support for “individuals, most often women, trapped with coercive partners.” Indeed, Home Office Ministers have reassured us that the Government has “remained resolute in our commitment to tackling abuse that takes place behind closed doors and out of sight”; a commitment which has been evident through the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.

As the Government makes its decision about the long-term future of  the home abortion policy, I urge the DHSC to prioritise the security and welfare of women facing unplanned pregnancies. Coerced abortion is widely held to be a “brutal form” of “discrimination”. It is our duty to prevent it.

Lord Ashcroft: Parties aren’t Johnson’s only problem – his voters are awaiting real, positive change

27 Jan

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com

The front page of Wednesday’s Daily Mail bewailed “a nation that’s lost all sense of proportion”. The paper remains a good barometer of opinion for a large chunk of the population, and many people will have nodded with approval at the headline.

The splash cited a political class fretting over the Prime Ministerial birthday cake while Russia prepared for war, but this was not the only incongruity at hand. Readers might also have wondered whether a lengthy investigation into alleged Downing Street parties was the best possible use of the Met’s time, especially given that this news emerged on the day a woman was murdered in broad daylight on a London street by a man who by all accounts ought to have been in its custody.

Perhaps they also considered it curious that the fate of a leader who owed his position to nearly 14 million votes and an 80-seat majority in parliament seemed to depend so heavily on the judgment of a civil servant. If Boris Johnson survives it, the last few weeks might look quite bizarre in retrospect.

But that is not to dismiss the charges against the Prime Minister. Many will be understandably aghast at reports that Johnson and his entourage ignored rules they had imposed on the rest of the country – or, to look at it from the other end of the equation, imposed rules on the country which they themselves evidently considered unnecessary.

Even leaving aside the rights and wrongs, the political blunder is extraordinary: the government otherwise has a reasonably good story to tell on Covid. After one of the most successful vaccination programmes in the world, Britain is the closest of any country in the northern hemisphere to being out of the pandemic, according to Professor David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (and if that doesn’t sound like something the government should get the credit for, imagine who would be blamed if the opposite were true).

Yet the party saga is only one reason for the slump in public approval for the Prime Minister and his administration.

People’s relief and appreciation for the vaccines translated into double-digit Conservative poll leads that were never likely to last. During the crisis people were willing to suspend judgement and give ministers the benefit of the doubt, but the ebbing tide of the pandemic reveals what else is on the government’s agenda – or rather, what isn’t.

“Get Brexit Done, Unleash Britain’s Potential” was the crisp and effective slogan of 2019. No-one can deny that the first part was achieved in short order. We are still waiting for news on the second.

Things were inevitably derailed by Covid, but the Levelling Up White Paper – promised “later this year” in May 2021 – has yet to appear. The excellent aim of spreading opportunity and prosperity has been the driving force of the most successful Tory governments – promoting home ownership, encouraging new businesses, giving more people the chance to invest in industry, expanding university education and reforming welfare to make work pay all fall under that heading. What it means to Johnson remains an open question.

Meanwhile, we see lavish spending on unreformed public services, higher taxes, and rocketing living costs spurred by the government’s own energy policies. The air of at least comparative competence that traditionally helps keep the Conservatives in office seems to have taken a sabbatical.

All these complaints are real and justified and help explain Johnson’s predicament. But at the same time, it’s important to recognise what isn’t happening. For the Prime Minister’s many detractors, the last few weeks have seemed a vindication. “See? Told you so” has been the theme. But disgruntlement with a leader is not the same thing as wishing you had never voted for him.

Given the choice that was before them, vanishingly few will regret having helped send Johnson to Number 10. Still less will they repudiate the reasons why they did so. They really did want to get Brexit done, whether to see their own referendum vote honoured or to climb from the quagmire that politics had become. For many he represented a view of Britain that they shared, and which was a million miles from that of his opponents (he seemed to like it, for a start). Even Jeremy Hunt, whom I backed for the leadership, has said that only Johnson could have produced the amazing result.

Two years later, as the Prime Minister continues to give his many opponents the ammunition to eject him from office, they would do well to remember how and why he attained it.

Some of them might also reflect that for all their talk of probity in public office the thing they can’t forgive him for is that, by delivering Brexit, Johnson did what he was elected to do. But for his voters, that achievement was banked long ago. If they decide it’s time for him to go, it won’t just be because of warm Chardonnay in the Downing Street garden – it will be because there was so little else to remember.

John Redwood: Has the Government met its 2019 manifesto commitments? Here’s my assessment on where we are at.

10 Jan

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

Manifestos matter. They are the way for an incoming government to set a direction for the country and to provide a work plan for the civil service to implement.

In 2019 the Conservatives put forward a strong positive manifesto to the public. Its key messages helped the party win its first substantial majority since 1987. The main pledges were getting Brexit done, not raising the three main taxes, reducing immigration and boosting money and personnel in the NHS, the police and schools. There was also a commitment to net zero by 2050 without a detailed road map for the first few years of that long journey.

The Government will comfortably exceed its money pledges to the three main public services singled out for front page promises. I would expect it to hit its recruitment targets for more nurses, doctors, police and teachers over the Parliament. Fifty million more GP appointments should be achievable, maybe with a different balance between face-to-face and remote exchanges. So far so good.

Net zero will be more than honoured by a wide range of initiatives already taken. The danger is in going too far beyond other countries efforts with measures that have serious costs. Making and growing less ourselves to cut carbon dioxide, only to import from big fossil fuel users, is a loss for us and no win for the planet.

More difficulties surround the related issues of getting Brexit done, cutting low and no skilled migration and keeping taxes down. The idea behind these policies is to expand national wealth and income, to promote more prosperity for more people, and to level up the lower income areas and groups.

The policies were right in 2019 and remain right today. The optimistic spirit of the manifesto was its prime attraction. The idea was to boost people’s real incomes through more and better paid work. As the document stated there is “only one way to pay for world class healthcare and outstanding infrastructure and that is to foster and encourage the millions of British businesses large and small that create the wealth of the nation”. Levelling up is above all about individual personal journeys into better and more skilled jobs, into self employment and into ownership of homes and businesses.

Taxes worry people. High tax rates can kill confidence, drive business and investment out of the country and stifle entrepreneurs. The tax rate that collects the highest amount of tax is not the highest tax rate. Politicians who promise lower taxes and then put them up usually come unstuck with the electorate.

The 1974-9 Labour government presided over a nasty recession, raised taxes substantially and suffered a big defeat in 1979. The John Major government stood accused of putting up many taxes by the time of the 1997 election. It was defeated by its own backbenchers over a very unpopular attempt to hike VAT on fuel. The higher taxes contributed to the massive defeat in the general election as the outward reminder of the big Exchange Rate Mechanism recession the government had imposed.

The Labour government in 2010 was crushed by the great banking crash recession it helped bring about. The increases in income tax and fuel duty in its last budget underwrote the unpopularity. The first George Bush was a one term president because he was unable to keep his promise of no new taxes, the best thing he said in the election.

Fortunately this government has recovered the economy quickly from the sharp and sudden economic collapse brought on by anti-pandemic policies. The public is likely to be more understanding of this setback than they were of the big recessions that overwhelmed previous governments. The public will be less understanding if the Government presses on with its increase in National Insurance at a time of squeezed real incomes. It would be bad economics, as the Government needs to promote a further recovery. It is worse politics, taxing jobs and breaking a promise. The Government should drop the idea before it hits wage packets in April.

The Government also needs to redouble efforts to fulfil its promise over immigration. It said Brexit would allow real control over who comes into the country. It promised “We will not allow serious criminals into the country. If people abuse our hospitality we will remove them as quickly as possible”. The UK can now legislate as it wishes to exercise the controls it wants at the borders. The current Bill going through the Commons needs to be fit for purpose to deliver. Only a sharp drop off in illegal migration and in total numbers will now reassure people.

The manifesto showed concern for people’s fuel bills and promised “new measures to lower (energy) bills”. Instead the Government is presiding over a worrying energy shortage. We rely too much on imports, exposing us to the expensive vagaries of European markets during an acute European energy shortage. The manifesto promised the North Sea oil and gas industry ” a long future ahead” before getting to net zero, yet the Government is currently blocking a number of important new gas and oil developments that could ease the supply squeeze. Once again we need to ask why we stop our industry to cut carbon only to import fossil fuels from elsewhere generating extra CO2 to transport them.

The manifesto promised that the whole of the UK would leave the UK together. We were reassured that Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK “would maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market”. Work to do there then. The Government needs to remove obstacles to goods moving from GB to Northern Ireland where they are certified as being for UK consumption.

This may require UK legislation to reinforce the message to our officials. It is fully compliant with any reasonable interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol, which can anyway be suspended if there is diversion of trade. The protocol expresses respect for the UK internal market and is meant to be compatible with other Northern Ireland Agreements that respect the place of NI in the UK. The promise to end the jurisdiction of the European Court over the UK must be carried through.

There are enough potential wins from the freedoms Brexit brings us to be the topic of another article. The manifesto holds out the realistic expectation that government will use its creativity and power to promote a more prosperous UK forged from that independence.

There needs to be more effort to implement that great vision. Success will come if the Government cuts taxes rather than raising them and if it promotes UK production rather than importing more. It needs to concentrate on helping people achieve their aims of better paid and more skilled employment and to do more to create a great environment for setting up and growing a business.

How likely is a referendum on Net Zero?

29 Oct

Over the last few days, a rather interesting poll by YouGov has been released. It showed that the British public are in favour of a referendum on the Government’s Net Zero proposals by the next general election. Forty two per cent, in total, want a vote on the plan, 30 per cent don’t want one and 28 per cent did not declare any preference. However, when “don’t knows” were excluded from the data, 58 per cent wanted a vote on the matter.

This poll will not please the Government. In the past it could reassure itself that, as Net Zero was included in the Conservative Party manifesto of 2019, it had a clear mandate to move forward with its eco plans. But the data may be the clearest sign yet of growing public discontent. Though Net Zero was, indeed, spelled out in the document, perhaps it seemed like a minor detail among Getting Brexit Done and Levelling up. 

Now, of course, no one can miss it. As time has moved on, the headlines around it have been some of the most dramatic, even in the Covid era. From the talk about having to give up meat, to the suggestion of gas boilers being ripped out of houses around Britain, to the fact that Net Zero is estimated to cost £1 trillion over the next three decades, there’s no getting away from the eco revolution.

Many are already living under very noticeable green policies. In my local area, for instance, the Labour-run council has installed Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), and Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZs) have been expanded all across London. When I recently interviewed local tradesmen about these two things, they were unbelievably frustrated. I have no doubt that they care about the environment, but they are losing jobs due to the amount of time it takes to get through LTNs and have spent thousands upgrading their vehicles. No one listens to any of their concerns.

How would they vote, I wonder, were there a referendum on Net Zero? But what would one even look like? It’s worth pointing out that the YouGov poll asked whether people would want a referendum on Net Zero proposals, rather than Net Zero itself, but this could contain a huge number of questions. Case in point: the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the Government’s independent advisory group on reaching Net Zero, has offered over 200 recommendations about how the UK can get there. Where do you start with that list? 

Perhaps eco policies could be grouped into specific areas – from “the home” to “vehicle use”. Or maybe, as time goes on, the public will be asked to make trade offs, such as “Would you rather be a vegan or stop flying for X amount of time?” I half-joke, but it strikes me this is not so far away from the truth. Either way, you can see the complexity of bringing Net Zero to the ballot box.

One thing is for certain, which is that the Government would never put one question to the public – namely “Should the UK achieve Net Zero by 2050?” – as the UK is already legally binded towards the 2050 target through the Climate Change Act, as amended in 2019. The genie is out of the bottle and we have already done so much to become eco friendly. Do not expect to see campaigners in “Vote Net Zero” t-shirts any time soon.

Even if we weren’t legally obliged, though, it’s unlikely the Government would risk public consultation on the matter. The implications of getting the “wrong” answer would be staggering, and it cannot bank on getting the “right” one. It was interesting to note that earlier this year, Swiss voters rejected a proposed new climate law by 52 per cent – compared to 48 per cent – in a referendum. It was a warning to eco-conscious leaders on how the vote could go.

Ultimately, as was the case with the Coronavirus Act, the Government has simply decided that there’s an emergency and that this justifies it pushing through its Net Zero agenda. And so, dreaming of any vote in this becomes a futile exercise.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Government shouldn’t think hard about how to get more public involvement on its decisions. Without doing so, it seems to me that negative attention will turn to the CCC, which risks attracting the same resentment that was once directed at the EU – due to its unelected representatives and impact on policy. Voters can end up feeling “left behind”, too, as was the case in the referendum.

In general, the Government needs to check in with the public more. It has, perhaps, become overly accustomed to not having to do this during the pandemic. But beneath the slogan of “Build Back Better”, I wonder if it can hear the anger among those struggling with ULEZs and similar policies? It must connect with these voters – before it finds the next general election a de facto referendum on Net Zero.

Conservative backbenchers will have four days to express any worries they may have about the Budget

25 Oct

“Will BBC pay the price for upsetting PM?” asks The Sunday Times. It reports that the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, “has privately expressed her fury at the BBC’s Nick Robinson” after he told the Prime Minister to “stop talking” during an interview on the Today programme.

Dorries is said to have “told allies” that “NIck Robinson has cost the BBC a lot of money”.

Meanwhile Julian Knight, Chairman of the Culture Select Committee, has said if Laura Kuenssberg steps down as the BBC’s Political Editor, the Corporation should consider finding a pro-Brexit replacement for her.

All of which is interesting, especially to broadcasters wondering who might get Kuenssberg’s job.

But the rest of us should not slip into the error of supposing that in holding the Government to account, free broadcasters, and a free press, though vital, are all that matter.

When Rishi Sunak presents his Budget on Wednesday, he will be concerned to carry not just the media, but his own backbenchers, with him.

And this is a worry for Boris Johnson too. “Will PM pay the price for upsetting backbenchers?” as The Sunday Times might have put it.

Parliament matters. That conviction lay at the heart of Brexit.

The Prime Minister has been energetic in stealing Labour’s clothes. Taxes are being raised in order to give yet more money to an unreformed NHS, and supposedly to reform social care.

Labour has yet to develop a critique of this approach, which is pretty much what it would try to do itself if it were in power.

It is the Tories who are alarmed by the direction of policy. They agree with the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, who declared, when interviewed by Paul Goodman and myself at the start of this month, “I don’t believe we can tax our way to wealth.”

As Kwarteng said,

“I’ve never understood how we incentivise economic activity by increasing tax. I always come back to that. We can talk about raising taxes in the short term to deal with a short-term crisis.

“But broadly, higher tax is basically a tax on economic activity.”

Sunak will perhaps say something along the same lines on Wednesday. He is at heart a low-tax Conservative, and can hint that once he has absorbed the shock to the public finances caused by the pandemic, he will return to being a low-tax Conservative.

The Prime Minister is also an enthusiast for lower taxes. On the other hand, he is an enthusiast for various plans which indicate a need for higher spending.

He and his colleagues stood on a manifesto which said: “We will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance.”

We learned last month that the last of those is being raised from next April. Circumstances have changed dramatically, but one wonders how tolerant people will be once they are paying the extra amount.

If the Conservatives were in Opposition, it is not hard to imagine what they would say about this “tax on jobs”. Increases in corporation tax, and a freeze on income tax allowances, are also on the way.

The Budget will be debated for four days in the Commons. Conservatives who believe these tax rises will do more harm than good will have the opportunity to argue their case.

Even if the Chamber and Press Gallery are almost empty when Tory backbenchers express their doubts, cogent argument presented with evident sincerity will be noted. Snippets of it may even appear on the BBC.

A new market in long-term fixed rate mortgages?

14 Sep

At one end of the age spectrum, Britain has older people in need of social care.  At the other, younger people who want to own their own homes.  The best one can say of Ministers’ attempts to help both to date is that these are a work in progress.

The social care plan that will be voted on these evening will do nothing much to improve the provision or quality of care, whether delivered in one’s own home or elsewhere.  It may not deal even partly, let alone wholly, with the problem it aims to address – namely, having to sell the family home to help pay for care.

This is because it’s more than likely, when the new Health and Social Care Levy kicks in during 2023, that the money raised from it will flow to health – that’s to say the NHS, the capacity of which to consume resources is inexhaustible – rather than social care.

None the less, we raise half a cheer for the Government for potentially ensuring that some people at least will no longer have to sell their houses to help fund care costs.  Even if the proposals that have been announced so far won’t deliver the Conservative Manifesto commitment of ensuring that “nobody needing care should be forced to sell their home to pay for it“.

Since the levy will be a form of national insurance, it will largely be paid by younger people.  So the generation that can’t afford to own their own home will have even less disposable income than they did before.

Which takes us to Ministers’ housing plans.  The Health and Social Care Levy scheme has been drawn up at short notice, and the Government is rushing it through Parliament speedily.  Neither condition applies to the housing measures.

The Planning Bill pledged in the Queen’s Speech hasn’t come to the Commons or Lords yet – and no wonder, since its terms are essentially being negotiated between Ministers and Conservative backbenchers (plus senior councillors).  Pre-election, any prospect of loosening Green Belt restrictions was seen off.  Post-election, Tory MPs did for the housing algorithm.

It is reported that the Government will now abandon the zoning system it had planned, plus targets for housebuilding.  One take is that such a retreat would damage Ministers’ aspiration to see more homes built.  Another is that is would make little difference.

This is because housebuilding numbers have been increasing during recent years: in 2019/20, 243,770 homes were delivered – the highest annual number in over 30 years, and the seventh year in a row that the number of homes delivered rose.  Furthermore, the Government has already persuaded Parliament to back an expansion of permitted development rights.

Developers will be able add two storeys to existing buildings without planning permission, and turn premises into homes.  There is a push for street votes to expand properties – see Bob Blackman’s recent piece on this site – as an alternative to concreting land.

Whatever happens next, any Minister who sought to solve all of Britain’s housing problems by building more would be the ultimate one-club golfer, since more homes wouldn’t address the other factors in the mix: limited space, smaller families, high immigration, powerful developers, a long tradition of property rights, a complex planning system, curtailed post-crash lending and new Net Zero requirements.

And if boosting home ownership is an aim of policy – as it should be – what we wrote in the ConservativeHome Manifesto, the best part of ten years ago, still applies.

“No matter how fast we can make land and construction capacity available, the money markets can always move faster – pumping cheap credit into property investments. Any government move to undermine sensible planning protections only serves to set off the feeding frenzy.”

Ministers have tried to help younger people get in on the act through Help to Buy (launched by the Coalition) and the 95 per cent mortgage guarantee (unveiled in the last Budget by the Chancellor).

But home ownership has only drifted up marginally in recent years – to 65 per cent in 2018 compared to its 71 per cent high in 2003.  And when one turns to who owns what, it’s a tale of two generations: last year, only nine per cent of owners were aged between 25 and 34; a whopping great 36 per cent were 65 or older.

One of the clubs that the Government wants to see used is long-term fixed rate mortgages. “We will encourage a new market in long-term fixed rate mortgages which slash the cost of deposits,” that 2019 manifesto said.

It doesn’t follow that, because some of its other commitments haven’t been honoured (such as the pledge not to raise national insurance), this one won’t be delivered.  However, the keys to making it happen lie not so much in the Treasury as in the Bank of England, and the new requirements that it placed on getting a mortgage in the wake of the financial crash.

The Government’s interest in long-term fixed rate mortgages owes much to the Centre for Policy Studies, and in particular to the case put forward in a report for the think tank by Graham Edwards.

He argues that, because of the certainty that these mortgages offer, they don’t need to be stress-tested – and so can be offered with the 95 per cent loan to value rates that were the norm before the financial crisis.

What about the danger of negative equity?  The counter-case is that, while this is always present, there was a minimal increase in default rates in the wake of the crash.  What if wages grew more slowly than the mortgage costs?  Edwards’ answer is that “there is still a lot of scope for borrowers to absorb the increase in housing cost before they reach a point of financial stress”.

It will be claimed that the Conservatives are fixated by home ownership – just as, returning to social care, the Prime Minister is concentrated on people selling their homes to help pay for it.

In theory, it is open to the Government to stress one Tory viewpoint, that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” to the exclusion of another, that “wealth should cascade down the generations”.  But in practice, Ministers can’t be indifferent to younger people’s desire to own their own homes, at least if they wants them to have a stake in the capitalist system that the Conservatives support.

Nor can it ignore the wish of older ones to pass on family homes – at least, if the Party’s experience in the 2017 election is anything to go by.

As we say, Ministers need to deploy different clubs if they are to negotiate the course of “building beautifully”: smaller developers, migration control, more supply, control on costs (including those emerging as a consequence of Net Zero).  But these won’t be enough to deliver higher home ownership, too.

For that, the Government will need to help rebalance the playing field between those who own property and those who don’t, which requires help from the Bank of England and the financial institutions.  Otherwise, younger people, bereft of alternatives, will have an growing interest in levelling-down, not levelling-up.  In other words, in a housing market crash.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: This canine Prime Minister bounded all over Starmer

8 Sep

Boris Johnson behaved today with greater than usual irrepressibility. He was like a strong, shaggy, affectionate, over-grown young dog, who is never happier than when bounding into your lap, getting hair all over your clothes and sweeping the tea cups off the table with his tail.

This canine Prime Minister supposes everyone will be pleased to see him, and will be cheered by his clever tricks. He loves to jump into a muddy pond, jump straight out again and shake himself all over the nearest people on the bank, to the amusement of those who, slightly further away, manage to remain dry.

Who will teach this beast some manners? Who will train him to walk at heel?

A long line of decent and determined people, including Michael Howard, David Cameron and Theresa May, have attempted to discipline him.

Howard sacked him, Cameron told him to run off and become Mayor of London and May locked him up in the Foreign Office, but none of these solutions lasted.

This week, Sir Keir Starmer has been trying to teach Johnson that breaking the rules, or in this case the Conservative manifesto, simply will not do.

But this is quite a tricky message to get across, for it is an act that distresses Conservatives more than it upsets Labour voters, who may even be quite pleased.

Sir Keir asked whether the guarantee “that nobody needing care has to sell their home to pay for it” still stands.

Johnson didn’t get where he is today by allowing himself to be pinned down by a question like that. He declared with a tremendous air of conviction that the plan for health and social care removes the fear “faced by millions of people…that they would face the loss of their home, their possessions, their ability to pass on anything”.

And he carried the attack to Sir Keir: “What is he going to do tonight? Silence from mission control.”

No silence in the House of Commons: how good it is to hear some noise, some audience participation, after the tepid exchanges conducted via video screen during the pandemic.

The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, intervened to restore order and issue a reminder: “I know the House has been away but it’s still Prime Minister’s Questions.”

In other words, Johnson should answer the questions, not ask them.

“His plan is to impose an unfair tax on working people,” Sir Keir said. “My plan is to ensure those with the broadest shoulders pay their fair share.”

Johnson wasn’t having that, and lobbed back some statistics approved by the Institute for Fiscal Studies: “The top 20 per cent of households by income will pay 40 times what the poorest 20 per cent pay.”

Sir Keir cited the sad case of Rosie and asked the jeering Tories, “What does the laughter say to Rosie?”

“I have every sympathy for Rosie,” Johnson replied, before launching into a riff about the inestimable benefits of “a strong and dynamic economy”, with Britain as “the fastest growing economy in the G7”, which it certainly wouldn’t be under Labour.

We found ourselves watching a contest between optimism and pessimism. Animal spirits took on puritanical prudence, and won.

Social care reform – and why we can’t simply tax our way to better public services

6 Sep

Congratulations to the Government.  That’s a sentence written less on ConservativeHome than you might imagine – and, when it comes to public service reform, scarcely at all.

For while the last Conservative Manifesto promised more nurses, GP appointments and police, it provided little explanation, if any, of how these new nurses would provide better care, doctors’ appointments would become quicker to book and extra police would catch more criminals.

And now that Dominic Cummings has left Downing Street, no reforming “hard rain” will drive down on the civil service.  Meanwhile, Tory backbenchers have left the government’s flagship housing plan holed below the waterline.

So it’s to Boris Johnson’s credit that he wants to overhaul social care, even if he hasn’t had a “prepared plan” for it since entering Downing Street, as he claimed at the time.  However, we fear that this is almost as far as the good news goes – because, of all the services in need of change, social care is among the most difficult to tackle.

Here’s why. For a start, many voters don’t understand the difference between how healthcare and social care is provided in in England and Wales.

Health care is funded free at the point of use but social care usually isn’t.  This confusion played a major part in the Conservative general election disaster of 2017.  Many voters hadn’t grasped that the value of their homes is taken into account for residential but not domiciliary care, and revolted when the Tory manifesto proposed to level the playing field.

The source of the muddle is doubtless what Tim Bale, in an agonising blog about the fate of his parents, rightly categorised as optimism bias: namely, the belief that disability and dementia, say, “won’t happen to you – I mean, what are the chances?”

Next comes the question of which problem the Government is trying to solve.  For not all social care goes on elderly people: half of the spending on it is consumed by working age adults.  Demand is rising; more people want social care but fewer are receiving it; council budgets have fared less well than the NHS’s, and local government is responsible for delivery.

And “there is a basic concern among the public about quality,” according to the Kings’ Fund, perhaps especially in care homes.  Then there’s the separate-though-related issue of selling one’s home to help meet the costs.

Penultimately in our list of problems, we turn to manifesto commitments.  The Tory manifesto not only promised more spending for public services; it also ruled out raising certain taxes to pay for it.  “We will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or national insurance,” it said baldly.  Finally, there is the matter of intergenerational justice.

Questionmarks over trust and fairness haunt the Government’s plan, which is concentrated on the final social care issue that we raise above – selling the family home to help meet costs.  (There will also be a big rise in the means-testing threshold for care homes.)

That means a floor beneath and a ceiling above which no-one will pay.  The higher the floor is, the more poorer people will be protected.  The lower the ceiling is, the less richer ones will pay. So there is an obvious north/south trade-off, broadly speaking, between the interests of, say, Batley & Spen, and those of, for example, Chesham and Amersham over where the ceiling and floor are set.

The Government’s plans are still being finalised, but it seems to be planning to raise national insurance to fund its plan.  Younger and poorer people would thus fork out to meet costs more often incurred by older and richer ones.  This would be unfair – especially in a country in which the latter hold an effective monopoly on capital.  Not to mention a breach of the manifesto.

How might Ministers respond to this formidable list of objections to their plan?  They might say one shouldn’t make the best the enemy of the good, and that even if only one of the main social care problems can be solved, the effort will be worthwhile.

And add that, since their proposals are based on the Dilnot Report, they at least command a degree of consensus.  They would doubtless say that older people tend to vote Conservative, and that it’s bad politics to alienate one’s base.  If Johnson also announces that the triple lock will be abandoned this year, they will claim that he has presented a package that “strikes the right balance”.

The Government’s model is the then Labour Government’s tax rise of the early 2000s to fund higher NHS spending.  Tony Blair got away with it, and the Prime Minister will hope that he does too.

Maybe Tory MPs will vote through a national insurance rise if Johnson, with his majority of 83, puts it to Parliament with the support of his Chancellor.  Downing Street will hope that the prospect of a reshuffle will keep Ministers in order – and that Labour opposition to the NI rise will minimise the Tory revolt.

None the less, we warn the Government that the cat of Conservative tax rises has fewer than nine lives.  Tory MPs won’t indefinitely nod hikes through.

Nor is the Blair precedent encouraging.  His national insurance rise failed to deliver the improvements he wanted.  Hence his later decision to support Alan Milburn as Health Secretary in delivering market-based reform.  Above all, governments can’t expect to break manifesto promises made in one election, and have those it makes at the next taken seriously.

It may be that Johnson will dress up any national insurance rise to pay for social care as a special levy, thus enabling him to claim that he’s not in breach of the pledge he made two years ago – technically, anyway.

But doing so wouldn’t ease this site’s wider concern: that just as government can’t tax its way to a more prosperous economy, it can’t tax its way to better public services.  And that once Ministers start reaching for tax increases to solve a problem, the reflex can become automatic.

At the heart of social care reform for any Conservative Government, two fundamentals conflict.  The first is: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  The second is: wealth must cascade down the generations.

In other words, someone must pay for social care – be it the user, the taxpayer, or someone else.  If so, wealth risks not so much cascading as trickling down, especially if the main form of saving, the family home, is sold off to meet social care bills.  At the one of the policy spectrum, Policy Exchange proposes rolling social care into the NHS, which would certainly require new taxpayer funding.

At the other end are a long succession of Tory plans for insurance-based schemes.  Peter Lilley’s set out a variant recently on this site, supporting a state-backed voluntary system.

There is no shortage of objections to such a plan – not least potential voter resistance to any Conservative health-related insurance scheme.  But if the aim of government is to protect homeowners from Bale’s “Russian roulette”, this type of proposal has merit.

It would be consistent with the Conservative manifesto, avoid tax rises and a backbench revolt, be generationally fairer, and represent evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, since no-one would be forced to join the scheme.  Instead, the Prime Minister is rushing in where angels, or at least politicians, have feared to tread.

He isn’t always associated with prizing courage over guile, or attempting today what can be put off until tomorrow.  Not for the first time, we’re learning something about Johnson that we didn’t know before.