Bim Afolami: After the reshuffle, back to the future – NHS queues, rising energy bills, and higher prices

20 Sep

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

As the Prime Minister said at Cabinet on Friday morning, it is “half time” in this Parliament. We have two more years to deliver on our election pledges before shaping up for the next election. Covid has basically taken up the vast majority of this Parliament so far, not only preventing us from focusing on our wider domestic agenda (though, very importantly, we have delivered Brexit), but also creating new problems, such as lan extra £350 billion in public debt and huge NHS waiting lists.

By two years from now, levelling -p needs to be noticed on the ground, people need more money in their pockets, and public services need to be consistently improving. Is this going to be straightforward to deliver? In a word, no.

The Government reshuffle was a significant start on moving forwards. Much has rightly been made of the importance of Michael Gove’s new beefed-up MHCLG – now LUHC: the department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – with responsibility for housing, local government, devolution and the Union.

Education has severe challenges, from the difficulties of our exam system to the need to rebalance public spending from our universities towards the further education sector. Both Michael Gove (LUHC Secretary) and Nadhim Zahawi (Education Secretary) are extremely capable, with very good new junior ministers in their departments – in particular Neil O’Brien in LUHC and Alex Burghart in Education. But the stakes are high. If these departments fail over the next two years, the Government will fail too. We don’t have long to start delivering.

However, the most important domestic department for the next two years is the Department of Health. The public has gradually grown to trust us with the NHS, ignoring the propaganda from the Labour Party and the doctors’ and nurses’ unions. The most significant aspect of the Health and Social Care Levy which passed the Commons last week was the implicit realisation that the political risk of potential NHS failure is even worse than the risk of being seen as a Conservative Party who broke a manifesto commitment not to raise taxes. (Even though a pandemic was not in the manifesto!)

The NHS’s problems are of acute public and political importance. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of people waiting for NHS treatment in England has grown by a fifth. Some 5.3 million people were waiting for treatment in May 2021, up from 4.4 million in February 2020. There has been a particularly sharp increase in the number of people waiting for longer than a year.

Yet the number of people on the waiting list is expected to rise much further. Sajid Javid has warned that it is ‘going to get a lot worse before it gets better’, and could grow to 13 million.

The challenge here is monumental, and the department is also pushing through the Health and Care bill, which it seeks to remove barriers to integrating services to improve health outcomes and reduce health inequalities.

On top of all of this, we are not fully out of the woods on Covid yet, and doctors warn of a difficult winter with significant flu and RSV cases. This is a Department that may hold the fate of the Government in its hands.

The economy is facing its own headwinds too. Yes, we are bouncing back after Covid – according to the International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook report, the UK economy will expand seven per cent this year, a sharp increase from the 5.3 per cent predicted in the Fund’s previous report in April. This is fastest in the G7.

However, the ghost of inflation past stalks us. I wrote about this here (in June, and worries about rising prices and costs of living are growing. One key aspect of inflation is energy prices, especially in the winter. Household energy bills are to rise after prices on the UK’s wholesale electricity market soared to a record high last month. The average market price reached £107.50/MWh – up 14 per cent on July, and well above the previous record of £96/MWh recorded in the run-up to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Last month, the industry regulator Ofgem announced it would lift the maximum price cap on energy deals by more than 12 per cent, after a sharp rise in the market price for gas and electricity. This increase is driven by a rise of over 50 per cent in energy costs over the last six months, with gas prices hitting a record high as the world emerges from lockdown. Coupled with rapidly rising costs for many foodstuffs, cars, and consumer goods (largely due to a combination of global macroeconomic factors), it is likely that most voters will feel a real pinch this autumn.

The Just About Managings (remember them!) will have a much tougher time. This will be especially the case if the Bank of England seeks to spike the rise in inflation in the coming months with a rise in interest rates (though at the moment I think this is unlikely). Shortages of certain foods and other key goods, largely due to damaged supply chains after Covid and not enough HGV drivers, are growing in the short term. This not only likely to put up prices, but also become a very visible and real problem for ordinary people who just go about their daily lives without thinking much about politics: i.e. most voters. This will come at political cost, particularly if the press builds up public anxiety about Christmas shopping which leads to a degree of stockpiling.

The difficulties with rising prices and energy bills will coincide with the much awaited Net Zero strategy (expected in mid-October) followed by COP26 in November. The net zero strategy will have to answer the knottiest questions on the environmental agenda such as: how are we going to replace boilers in millions of homes or better insulate buildings? How are we going to manage the shift away from petrol and diesel cars?

Whilst I am confident that there are huge economic opportunities over the medium term, in the short term there will be certain costs. Though these costs are a necessary part of implementing this critically important task of getting to net zero, being seen to impose greater costs at a time of rising prices will be politically challenging.

The next year brings rising prices, higher energy bills, and NHS difficulties. This will not be an easy atmosphere for the Government, and the Party, to operate in.

David Orr: The pandemic has shown that now is the time to bring England’s homes up to scratch

16 Sep

David Orr CBE chaired the Good Home Inquiry, an independent inquiry to determine solutions to the poor quality of England’s housing.

We have known for a long time that the quality of England’s existing housing stock simply isn’t fit for purpose. Today, four million homes don’t meet basic standards of decency – and half of these (one in ten homes overall) contain a category one hazard, meaning they pose a serious risk to their inhabitants’ health or safety.

Successive governments have tried, through various interventions, to tackle the problem – but none has taken the action needed to address the scale of the challenge. Now, we face a unique set of circumstances which make this the time for action.

First, the pandemic has highlighted the profound impact that poor-quality housing can have on our physical and mental wellbeing. Our research with the King’s Fund last year found that those most at risk of Covid, including older people, those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and people with pre-existing conditions, were also more likely to be living in non-decent homes.

During the lockdowns, when our homes became our refuge, we discovered that for millions of us they were not only unsafe but could even harm our prospects of survival. The link between our health and our home is undeniable. To narrow health inequalities, we need to look to the state of our homes.

At the same time, we are reaching a crunch point for driving down our carbon emissions – and it is becoming increasingly clear that our energy-inefficient homes are a major stumbling block in doing this. Without decarbonising our homes, we simply will not be able to fulfil our commitments to reaching net zero.

There is huge potential for job creation here. The Construction Industry Leadership Council have suggested thousands of skilled jobs could be created in retrofit and the opportunity of related home improvement work.

And finally, we must prepare for the reality of an ageing population. By 2041, one in four people in England will be aged 65 or over with the fastest increase in the 85+ group. We know that the vast majority of older people live in mainstream houses and flats – and would prefer to stay living independently in our homes and communities.

We need a transformation of our housing stock so that more people are able to stay safe and independent in their homes for longer, and to avoid placing additional strain on the NHS and social care system – poor housing currently costs the NHS an estimated £1.4 billion a year. With government grappling with the question of funding social care, we should not overlook this huge opportunity to make savings.

There is a great deal to be gained by tackling the crisis in poor-quality housing. Over the past year, the Good Home Inquiry has gathered evidence and examined the problem, looking at the causes of the crisis, what interventions have and haven’t worked, and what policies could make a real difference.

This isn’t an issue that national government can or should try and fix alone but it is an area where national leadership is needed. We recommend that government set out a cross-government housing strategy with a ministerial champion to implement it, and empowers Homes England with a clear mission to improve existing homes. And we need to see low-cost government-backed lending and grants to improve homes.

At a local level, Good Home Agencies should bring together in one place information and advice including on trusted traders, finance, home repairs, adaptations, and energy retrofit services.

The last 18 months have taught us that we can no longer stand back and do nothing. We have both an opportunity and an obligation to come up with a plan of action which gives the best possible chance for us all to live in homes that are safe, warm, affordable and energy efficient. By doing so, we can improve the quality of life for millions while reducing demands on our health service and helping to tackle the existential threat of global warming.

Tim Montgomerie: Don’t write off GB News. The channel’s naysayers should put their champagne back in the fridge.

15 Sep

Tim Montgomerie is the founder of ConservativeHome and is a contributor to Reaction.

‘Your beard needs a trim’ (it often does). ‘Are you wearing the same shirt as last week on Sky?’ (yeah, but I do wash it!). ‘Your glasses are a bit small for your head’ (fair comment, but they’re cheap from Poundland).

Normally, I get just one or two texts or WhatsApp messages after a media appearance and – as often as not – they are about my appearance rather than my, er, brilliant commentary. It helps keep me humble.

Last Wednesday, however, I ‘talked pints’ with Nigel Farage on his new prime time show for GB News. I had a lager whilst we discussed God and politics; the centrality of national defence to conservatism; disagreed about the foreign aid budget; worried about Boris Johnson’s increasing opportunism; and wondered whether or not I’m likely to be on the Prime Minister’s Christmas card list. Spoiler alert… I think it unlikely!

But even more interesting than our 15 minute chat (not typical of our soundbite TV age) was the scale of reaction. Over the next day or so, I received about 50 messages. Not only was this way in excess of my normal experience, but the messages were largely about what we actually discussed.

Notably, nearly every person who contacted me was a conservative. They were fellow pundits, a handful of MPs, a few think tank folk, readers of this wonderful site and assorted friends from home in Salisbury.

And this, I’m sure, is the importance and potential of GB News. Its audience may not yet be huge, and it definitely still needs to overcome some considerable teething problems, but there are clear signs that it is already building a considerable following within ‘our big and small ‘C’ conservative family’.

While it needs to become weightier and avoid being Farage-dominated TV (as good as he is at it), it is succeeding in its mission of addressing topics that other broadcasters ignore or marginalise.

So, yes, it is disappointing that Andrew Neil resigned as its Chairman on Monday, and that his 8pm show has been cancelled. But the channel’s many naysayers should put their expensive champagne back in their fridges.

Some shows are really beginning to work, new stars are in the making and the station’s YouTube videos are beginning to go gangbusters. More importantly, GB News’ CEO. Angelos Frangopoulos, is ready to overhaul individual programmes and schedules until he is as successful with this latest venture as he was with Sky News Australia. Like any good businessman, he doesn’t try to cover up failures, he corrects them.

Moreover, the channel’s funders aren’t quitters. I know a few of them well. They will succeed, and the Tory leadership should take note. Many of the Conservative Party’s core activists and voters are consuming GB News in reasonable numbers already. The Party will shape and heed this new kid on the media block, or it’ll become the home for opposition and disgruntlement.

– – –

Talking of Farage and right-of-centre opposition to the government, I interviewed Richard Tice yesterday.

Tice is the leader of the Reform Party – the successor to the Brexit Party. In place of Europe as a defining issue, he is offering a menu of low taxes, NHS reform, lockdown-scepticism, market-orientated environmental policies and – to a much lesser extent than Farage – a tough approach to immigration.

On the face of it, Tice’s Reform is more of a Thatcherite party than a populist one. More orientated to the young than to the old. It’s far from clear to me that it yet has the recipe or personnel to help keep the Conservative Party honest and, well, a bit more Conservative! But Tice intends to field a candidate in every seat at the next general election and if Johnson keeps playing fast and loose with Conservative principles, he could yet make a difference in many marginal seats.

Emily Carver: Why ministers were wrong to overrule official advice on vaccinating school pupils

15 Sep

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Decision-making throughout the pandemic has been inconsistent, confused and often illogical. We’ve had a patchwork of ever-changing regulations, from ‘scotch egg gate’ and unevidenced alcohol bans, to the confused and unworkable traffic light system, school closures and work from home mandates.

This erratic approach may have been understandable at the start of the pandemic; 18 months on, it’s intolerable.

The Government’s latest announcement of a Covid winter plan will see the continuation of sweeping public health powers, including mass asymptomatic testing, contact tracing, and the possibility of mandatory vaccine passports – which were only days ago rejected publicly by the Health Secretary. At the same time, the threat of lockdown measures remains, with the Public Health Act, under which restrictions were legally enforced, still firmly on the statute book.

This week’s news that the Government has chosen to go ahead with the roll-out of vaccinations to children aged between 12 and 15, against the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), is troubling for many reasons.

The JCVI released a statement only days ago that explained that while the benefits from vaccination are “marginally greater than the potential known harms”, there is “considerable uncertainty” regarding the magnitude of these potential harms – and therefore the Government should not go ahead with a mass roll-out of vaccinations for children in this age group.

The argument has been made many times that inoculating teenagers will prevent transmission in schools – to the benefit of both the schoolchildren themselves, staff, and the wider community. The JCVI, however, noted that there remains the impact of vaccination on peer-to-peer transmission as well as transmission in the wider (highly vaccinated) population is far from sure; any impact on transmission would be, if anything, relatively small.

However, despite this recommendation, ministers, determined to push ahead with the roll-out deferred to Chris Whitty. Perhaps other factors, besides medical reasons, might tip the balance?

Chief Medical Officers swiftly recommended the jabs, not on strictly medical grounds, but as an “important and useful tool” in reducing school disruption in the coming months and thus minimising the harms to children’s mental health. To put it bluntly, the Government is overruling the JCVI scientific advice and concerns to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds on the grounds of preventing the disruption of school closures – which was always and remains a political decision.

The messaging is clear: have the vaccine, or risk not being able to go to school. Sounds suspiciously like coercion to me.

In any case, it’s certainly not clear cut that jabbing children will avoid loss of school time. `The JCVI flagged that delivery of a Covid-19 vaccine programme for children and young people is likely to be disruptive to education and that some children may have to miss schooling due to adverse reactions to the vaccination.

According to calculations by Professor David Paton of Nottingham University Business School, based on the Government’s own figures, the decision to authorise vaccinating this cohort was based on modelling that the programme will avoid the loss of only 15 minutes of schooling per pupil over a six-month period. That’s assuming no vaccinated children have been previously infected, that no time would be lost administering the vaccination, and that no school time would be lost from pupils suffering side effects from the vaccine.

More pressing is why this is the first time other factors, including the impact of lost education and the mental well-being of children, are being considered by the Government in their decision-making? Why were the deleterious effects on children’s mental health not taken into account when schools were locked down for weeks and months on end? The decision to close schools, like this decision to roll-out the vaccine to children, is a political one – surely it warranted a similar assessment of the various, and largely predictable, impacts on children’s wellbeing?

The case has been made by some that the Government is simply making the jab available. Why shouldn’t parents and children be given the choice? The state surely shouldn’t stand in their way.

However, the idea that the Government is just making it available is naïve – we know state action won’t be limited to letting young people and parents know the jab is there if they want it. Schools will be used as vaccination sites and the threat of further school closures and lockdowns will act as indirect coercion, possibly causing distress and placing undue pressure on children to get jabbed. And while many parents will be understandably concerned that this vaccination is still technically on trial and only approved on an emergency basis, children will have the final say; the Government has itself conceded this.

Remember when Matt Hancock said that restrictions would end once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated? Now, several months on, it looks like freedom will be conditional on the continued inoculation of the population, including children – a reality that is not only ethically reprehensible but firmly at odds with the values of individual liberty and personal autonomy.

It may be that for those of a libertarian disposition, where you come down on this argument hinges on how benevolent you believe government to be. Sadly, nothing during this pandemic has given me hope that the Government won’t continue to use coercion to control our response to this, now endemic, virus.

“We have prepared a Plan B”. The Health Secretary’s Commons statement – full text

14 Sep

“Mr Speaker, before I make my statement today, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in offering our condolences to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my noble Friend Baron Johnson of Marylebone on the loss of their mother who sadly passed away yesterday. Our thoughts are with them and their whole family at this most difficult of times.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the pandemic and our autumn and winter plan to manage the risk of covid-19.

Over the past few months, we have been making progress down the road to recovery, carefully and cautiously moving closer to normal life. As we do this, we have been working hard to strengthen our defences against this deadly virus. We have been continuing the roll-out of our vaccination programme, with 81% of people over the age of 16 having had the protection of both doses. We have expanded our testing capacity yet further, opening a new mega-lab in Leamington Spa, and we have continued supporting research into long covid, taking our total investment to £50 million.

Thanks to that determined effort, we have made some major steps forward. The link between cases, hospitalisations and death has weakened significantly since the start of the pandemic and deaths from covid-19 have been mercifully low compared with previous waves. None the less, we must be vigilant as autumn and winter are favourable conditions for covid-19 and other seasonal viruses. Children have returned to school. More and more people are returning to work. The changing weather means that there will be more people spending time indoors, and there is likely to be a lot of non-covid demand on the NHS, including flu and norovirus.

Today, keeping our commitment to this House, I would like to provide an update on our review of preparedness for autumn and winter. The plan shows how we will give this nation the best possible chance of living with covid without the need for stringent social and economic restrictions.

There are five pillars to this plan. The first is further strengthening our pharmaceutical defences such as vaccines. The latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that almost 99% of covid-19 deaths in the first half of this year were people who had not received both doses of a covid-19 vaccine. This shows the importance of our vaccination programme, and, by extending the programme further, we can protect even more people. Almost 6 million people over the age of 16 remain unvaccinated in the UK, and the more people there are who are unvaccinated the larger the holes in our collective defences. We will renew our efforts to maximise uptake among those who are eligible but who have not yet, for whatever reason, taken up the offer.

Next, we have been planning our booster doses, too. As with many other vaccines, there is evidence that the protection offered by covid-19 vaccines reduces over time, particularly for older people who are at greater risk. Booster doses are an important way of keeping the virus under control for the long term.

This morning, we published the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on a booster programme. It recommended that people who were vaccinated in phase 1—priority groups 1 to 9—should be offered a booster vaccine; that this vaccine should be offered no earlier than six months after the completion of the primary vaccine course; and that, as far as possible, the booster programme should be deployed in the same order as phase 1. I can confirm that I have accepted the JCVI’s advice and that the NHS is preparing to offer booster doses from next week. The NHS will contact people at the right time and nobody needs to come forward at this point. This booster programme will protect the most vulnerable through the winter months and strengthen our wall of defence even further.

As well as that, we will be extending the offer of a covid-19 vaccine to even more people, as the Minister for covid-19 vaccine deployment announced yesterday in the House—thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing him to make that statement yesterday. All young people aged 16 to 17 in England have already been offered a dose of a covid-19 vaccine to give them the protection as they return to school. Yesterday, the UK’s chief medical officers unanimously recommended making a universal offer of a first dose of a vaccine to people between the ages of 12 and 15. The Government have accepted that recommendation, too, and will move with urgency to put this into action. We are also seeing great advances in the use of antivirals and therapeutics. Several covid-19 treatments are already available through the NHS and our antivirals taskforce is leading the search for breakthroughs in antivirals, which have so much more potential to offer.

Secondly, testing, tracing and self-isolation have been another vital defence. Over the autumn and winter, PCR testing for those with covid-19 symptoms and contacts of confirmed cases will continue to be available free of charge. Regular asymptomatic testing, which currently identifies about a quarter of all reported cases, will also continue in the coming months, with a focus on those who are not fully vaccinated: perhaps those in education or other higher-risk settings. Contact tracing will continue through the NHS Test and Trace system. We do not want people to face hardship as they carry out their duty to self-isolate, so we will keep offering practical and financial support for those who are eligible and need assistance who are still required to self-isolate. We will review the regulations and support by the end of March 2022.

The third pillar is that we are supporting the NHS and social care. Last week, I announced a £5.4 billion injection for the NHS to support the covid-19 response over the next six months, including £1 billion extra to tackle the elective backlog caused by covid-19. We have also launched a consultation on protecting vulnerable patients by making covid-19 and flu vaccinations a condition of deployment for frontline healthcare staff and wider social care workers in England. We are already making this a condition of employment in Care Quality Commission-registered adult care homes. Although we are keeping an open mind and will not be making a final decision until we fully consider the results of the consultation, it is highly likely that frontline NHS staff and those working in wider social care settings will also have to be vaccinated to protect those around them, and that this will be an important step in protecting those at greatest risk.

Fourthly, we will keep encouraging people to take steps to keep seasonal illnesses, including flu and covid-19, at bay. The best step we can all take is to get vaccinations for covid-19 and flu if we are eligible, so along with our covid-19 vaccination programme the next few months will see the largest flu vaccination campaign that the country has ever seen. Our plan also sets out a number of changes that we can all make to our daily routines, such as: meeting outdoors where possible; trying to let in fresh air if we need to be indoors; and wearing a face mask in crowded and enclosed spaces where we come into contact with people who we do not normally meet.

Our fifth pillar is how we will look beyond our shores and pursue an international approach. Last week, I attended the G20 Health Ministers’ Meeting, where I met counterparts from across the world and talked about the part that we will be playing to lead the global effort to accelerate access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. As we do this, we will maintain our strong defences at the border, allowing us to identify and respond to variants of concern. It is these defences, and the progress of vaccination campaigns both here and abroad, that have allowed us to manage the risks and to start carefully reopening international travel once again. We have already relaxed the rules for fully vaccinated travellers and I asked the Competition and Markets Authority to review the issue of exploitative behaviour in the private testing market. The review reported last week and I am looking into what further action we can take. On top of those measures, we will be publishing a new framework for international travel. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will be announcing more details ahead of the formal review point on 1 October.

Thanks to the defences that we have built, we have been able to remove many of the regulations that have governed our daily lives—rules that were unprecedented yet necessary. Our plan shows how we will be removing more of these powers while maintaining those that are essential for our response. This includes expiring more of the powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020, such as the powers directing the temporary closure of educational institutions. The remaining provisions will be those that are critical to the Government’s response to the pandemic—for example, ensuring that the NHS is properly resourced, and supporting statutory sick pay for those who are self-isolating.

The plan before the House today is our plan A—a comprehensive plan to steer this country through the autumn and winter. But we have seen how quickly this virus can adapt and change, so we have prepared a plan B of contingency measures, which we can call upon only if they are needed and supported by the data, to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS. These measures would be: communicating clearly and urgently to the public the need for caution; legally mandating face coverings in certain settings; and, while we are not going ahead with mandatory vaccine-only covid status certification now, holding that power in reserve. As well as those three steps, we would consider a further measure of asking people to work from home if they can for a limited time if that is supported by the data. Any responsible Government must prepare for all eventualities. Although these measures are not an outcome that anyone wants, it is one that we need to be ready for just in case.

Ever since we published our road map to recovery seven months ago, we have been carefully but cautiously getting this nation closer to normal life. Now we have come so far and achieved so much, we must stay vigilant as we approach this critical chapter, so that we can protect the progress that we have all made together. I commend this statement to the House.”

Stephen Greenhalgh: The pandemic has shown faith groups helped those in need. We aim to foster that spirit.

14 Sep

Lord Greenhalgh is the Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire and Communities.

Over the past year and a half, the response of faith communities to the pandemic has been remarkable and I have been extremely proud of being the Faith Minister during this time.

Up and down the country, faith communities have risen to the challenges created by the pandemic, offering solace to so many people, not only for their spiritual wellbeing, but also by providing a multitude of support services.

Faith groups have been a lynchpin for many, providing pastoral care, support networks for older or vulnerable people, and continuing informal education and enriching cultural activities online.

Faith groups have also been at the forefront of the vaccine roll out, promoting and supporting people to take up the vaccine as well as countering the spread of misinformation – with many vaccines being given in places of worship up and down the country.

I am therefore delighted to share the steps I have taken to ensure we can build on the work witnessed over the past 18 months and strengthen the nature of engagement between national government, local government, and faith groups.

The Faith New Deal Pilot Fund has two elements:

  • £1,000,000 (including £25,000 to aid capacity building in the faith community sector) available through a competitive Grant Fund to support Faith groups to deliver innovative partnership projects
  • Development of a Faith Compact which will set out key principles to aid engagement between faith groups, national government, and local government.

Each element aims to bring in the underutilised capacity of the faith sector to work alongside local public services. I am also seeking to reduce the number of initiatives taking place in silo, and make best use of national, local and philanthropic funding.

It is important to acknowledge two reports from parliamentarians / parliamentary groups that have helped to shape this new policy. Danny Kruger’s report for government, ‘Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant‘  and the APPG on Faith and Society’s report, ‘Keeping the Faith – Partnerships between faith groups and local authorities during and beyond the pandemic’.

Both reports set out the ability of faith groups to provide innovative solutions to complex problems to make valuable contributions to all parts of society.  I also expect the independent advisor Colin Bloom’s report on the Government’s engagement with faith communities to help me further form this policy – specifically the Faith Compact.

The £1m Faith New Deal Pilot Fund

The pilot fund is a new, competitive grant programme to test and strengthen relationships between public bodies and Faith groups. My intention is for this fund to explore how we build on the way faith groups have partnered with national and local government throughout the pandemic to see how we can forge a ‘new deal’ between government and faith communities to galvanise our energy in the national COVID-19 recovery effort.

The Fund has been designed to provide proof of concept that faith groups can play a significant and effective role in supporting wider communities to solve local problems, levering in additional philanthropic resources and providing match funding from their own resources. The intention for the funded projects is that they support capacity building efforts to develop learning and good practice, documenting the impact of their programmes and their unique role and contribution to civil society.

Faith Compact

The Faith New Deal Pilot Fund will also inform the development of a Faith Compact, a set of partnership principles, to strengthen existing collaboration and inform future relationships. The Compact will seek to promote open working at all levels to give faith groups the opportunity to continue to work constructively and effectively as part of civil society. We will work closely with the APPG on Faith and Society, Danny Kruger MP, and Colin Bloom to determine the most effective way to inform this work.

The time is right to announce this new policy in response to recommendations made from our colleagues in parliament and the exceptional work we have witnessed over the last 18 months. The Faith New Deal will continue to build on the tenets of common understanding and collaboration and the fundamental proposition that by working together, we will achieve more through our common endeavours.

Iain Duncan Smith: The Universal Credit uplift is an opportunity, not a problem. Keeping it would help save taxpayers’ money and improve lives.

13 Sep

Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.

This year has tested many of our institutions to the limit but one, Universal Credit (UC), has been the quiet ship in the fleet, rising to the challenge, and delivering – despite the huge increase in claims as the Coronavirus struck, providing a lifeline for millions up and down the country.

Even the Labour Party has acknowledged the triumph of UC. Despite its to scrap it, Stephen Timms, the Labour Chair of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee and former self-confessed critic, now calls UC “…a national asset which we should make the most of” and rightly stated that through the pandemic “Universal Credit has delivered”.

An astonishing million new claims were made in a fortnight in March 2020 but, despite this unprecedented influx, 96 per cent of claims made during the first months were paid in full and on time, a figure which is now at 98 per cent.

The five million claims made since the beginning of the pandemic represent two-fifths of all claims made since UCs creation in April 2013 – a figure that would just not have been possible under the paper based legacy system that UC replaced.

It is also worth reminding ourselves that, under the previous system, many claimants would have had to go in person to the Job Centre to make their claims, thus increasing the risk of catching Covid: instead, they were able to avoid that and claim online.

In the face of this unprecedented challenge, the Chancellor made the right decision to increase the amount that UC claimants received. This meant families on UC had an extra £20 a week in their pockets and, over the winter of 2020, 600,000 people were insulated from poverty.

I and five of my successor Secretaries of State at the Department for Work and Pensions have since made it clear that we believe the Chancellor should seize the opportunity to protect more families from poverty and make the £20 uplift permanent.

Importantly, the £20 returned to UC some of the original investment that was in my design, but which was removed by the then Chancellor, George Osborne. The additional money shouldn’t be seen as an exceptional uplift, but as a means of restoring UC to its rightful level. Removing it now would hit one third of working age families with children across the country.

As Conservatives, we believe in a welfare system that supports aspiration and allows people to live with dignity. UC is designed to support people and move them into work, which ultimately is the best route out of poverty. Those on UC who take on extra work hours are supported through the flexible taper rate, meaning that no one is penalised for securing extra work.

The furlough scheme has a fraud and error rate as high as 10 per cent and, although it was needed through the critical phase of the pandemic, the Chancellor is right to now bring to an end.

The Treasury must understand that, since UC gives a true picture of the need of each household, it can be better targeted and more efficient, thus resulting in significant further savings. UC has, more than any other form of Government spending, the greatest capacity to tackle poverty as it is hugely targeted meaning every pound spent on UC goes in the pockets of those who need it most. Research by the Resolution Foundation has shown that increases to UC, and in particular raising the UC work allowance, is a notably much more efficient way of improving the incomes of the poorest than raising the personal income tax allowance.

As our economy fully re-opens, there may be bumps along the way and the flexible design of UC allows the system to adjust nimbly to these changes. As the jobs market begins to expand, the taper rate of UC could, for example, be lowered. This would leave low hours workers with more money, helping accelerate them into full-time work and off benefits. This in turn would reduce the total amount of money spent on UC, as people move on into work and start to pay tax.

That’s why, instead of seeing this £20 uplift to UC as a problem to be solved, we should see it as a dynamic investment in a system that can turn people’s prospects around, in turn saving taxpayers’ money whilst improving lives.

As the economy reopens, UC won’t just be critical in building social cohesion, but will be seen as an investment in people who have too often been left behind. After all, you can’t advocate levelling up if you first level down.

Bim Afolami: Working from home means a radical culture shift – and it’s here to stay. Here are some of the consequences.

6 Sep

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

Holidaying in Cornwall this summer, I was struck by how many people I met who had relocated there (or elsewhere in the South West) permanently.

They all wanted a change of pace of life, a larger home in a cheaper area, and could work from home more often than not. Speaking to my constituents over the break, in a sear in which there are a large number of commuters to central London, the overwhelming feedback is that most former daily commuters are trying to restrict themselves to working only two or three days a week in the office, and working from home as much as they can (though some firms are resisting this change). Things have changed a lot in a very short period of time.

I believe that this is a trend that we will have to contend with, because people want more choice about how and where they work. This will have some significant political consequences in the shorter term, and over the longer term may have quite profound economic consequences that we should be wary of.

First, the number of working parents who are more involved with home life is palpable. Many more professional commuter dads (and mums) are more present in the local community – people who previously only saw their local area at weekends (they left early and came back late during the week) are now much more engaged with local issues, and noticing improvements they want to make to their area.

In my experience, many of these voters are highly intelligent and informed about a wide range of issues. But they used typically to consider political issues on a national, macro level. I am willing to wager that these voters are now going to be a little more localised in their perspectives: what their local MP does, and says, will matter more and more to them.

This does not necessarily make these voters more parochial – many people value their MP if they have a high profile and speak sensibly about national issues. Yet overall, I think the impact will be more variation in voting patterns seat by seat, as local issues and the reputation of individual MPs will increasingly drive voting patterns.

Second, with less commuting, there is a certain amount of spending that is not going to return to cities, and will instead be spent in affluent commuter towns in the Home Counties. Towns such as Hitchin, Tunbridge Wells, Ascot and Sevenoaks will thrive even more, and the propensity of local people to spend more of their money locally has increased, is increasing, and will continue to do so. People feel more connected with their local areas, and they are spending less money in London and other major cities.

What will be the political impact of these changes? In the short term, I fear that they may strengthen the existing divide between affluent areas and less affluent ones. Major cities will be a small net economic loser. This will perhaps slow or even reverse the rise in property values in our cities, which will perhaps lead to more young people, and more people in lower earning professions being able to live in the centre of cities like London.

Third, the environment will continue to grow in importance as a critical issue. The voters will increasingly focus on their own experience of the green spaces near where they live and reducing local air pollution; for most voters, the environment will not primarily be considered in an abstract sense about getting to net zero or reducing carbon emissions.

New large housing developments or new major roads over green fields will become even more unpopular. This is why the Government’s policy of introducing “biodiversity net gain” is so important. It is an opportunity to show the public, particularly in the Home Counties and in other areas outside major cities, that we can actually improve the provision of nature in their local area.

When the policy starts to bear fruit, people will know that we are serious about the environment in a way that directly matters to them. I think that the implementation of this policy should be sped up, and by doing so we can demonstrate our environmental credentials faster and in a more impactful way. I wrote about this a few months ago on this site.

As a Conservative politician, I instinctively take the view that the Government’s job is to support people’s aspirations and aims for themselves, their families, and their local areas. Many millions of white collar workers prefer to work a lot more from home; especially commuters who previously used to dread their commutes, whether by train or car; and there is mounting evidence that this shift is particularly pronounced amongst women.

However, we must be careful about the impact of this over the longer term. If accountants, solicitors, marketing executives, or insurance underwriters demand to work from home in Hitchin or Oxted, why can’t the firm hire someone with similar skills on half the pay in Hyderabad or Odessa? Even in situations where having a high standard of written English is fundamental to the job, technology for real time translation services is developing extremely quickly.

We know from the 1980s and 1990s how societally and economically difficult it was to lose millions of manufacturing jobs – let us beware of inadvertently accelerating the same process for services jobs, which would have an even more widespread and profound impact. Also, as my friends and colleagues Claire Coutinho and David Johnston have argued, younger workers lose out from the shift to home working – since they frequently don’t just lack space at home but also lack connections to help them develop the employability skills and social capital they need for the workplace.

We need to support the aspirations of all those who want more control over when and where they work – and more home working is inevitably here to stay. Yet in responding to this trend, our policies also need to take the interests of everybody fully into account, and bear in mind the longer term interests of the country as a whole.