Mohit Lal: Come buy with me – Let’s onshore the benefits of duty-free shopping

10 May

Mohit Lal is Chairman & CEO of Pernod Ricard Global Travel Retail. This is a sponsored post by Pernod Ricard Global Travel Retail.

The careful reopening of international travel is a welcome step on the road back to normality. It’s also a valuable reminder that Global Britain is not just about the work of diplomats and top business executives – it is also built on Britons’ openness to the world and the conviviality that travel experiences bring to our lives.

In a normal year, a greater proportion of Britons travel abroad than almost any other nationality. European destinations are particularly keen to welcome Brits back, as friends and as lucrative customers. And while much of the debate has focused on holidaymakers, or reuniting us with loved ones abroad, international travel is also key to the livelihoods of many people at home.

The travel industry supports almost one million jobs and generates £8.5 billion for the economy. Beyond airlines and hotels, Britain’s airports and airport retailers are significant employers in their own right.

While many sectors face challenges to get back on their feet, the travel industry has been more severely impacted by Covid-19 than almost any other. With the number of flights at less than 10 per cent of normal levels, footfall and revenues have plunged to negligible levels.

Travel retail will play an integral role in the recovery of the travel ecosystem; it supports the financial viability of airports in every region and every nation of the UK, helping to protect our international connectivity. Shopping revenue represents up to 40 per cent of the income for our airports, helping to pay for infrastructure and keeping ticket prices lower, whether we’re flying from Cardiff.

Our duty-free halls are also an invaluable showcase for British produce – duty-free sales are the number one market for Scotch whisky worldwide, representing 22 per cent of the market for high value Scotch.

When travellers get back to UK airports, they will notice they can benefit from duty-free shopping when flying to EU destinations. This is a welcome reform that will benefit 72 million passengers annually.

The UK Government has also increased in-bound duty-free allowances on wine, beer and spirits, meaning passengers travelling to the UK can buy up to four litres of spirits duty-free. This is one of the most generous allowances in the world, and a testament to the Government’s efforts to liberalise trade.

While this is a boon for travellers, it is not – as it stands – as much of a boost as it could be for the UK economy and British jobs. The reforms mean someone flying from Paris, Dublin, Berlin or New York can buy four litres of spirits duty-free on departure and bring it back duty free to the UK, but they cannot currently buy any alcohol duty free on arrival in the UK. This places UK airports at a significant commercial disadvantage.

Thankfully, there is an easy way for the Government to onshore the benefits of this policy. By amending the rules to allow UK arrivals stores, travellers could purchase four litres of Scotch whisky on landing in the UK, instead of giving their money to airports and retailers elsewhere. A total of 60 countries already have arrivals stores in place, from Norway to Russia. Indeed, our Commonwealth friends such as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore have had arrivals stores for many years. This policy change would also not require a full Act of Parliament, so it won’t disrupt the Government’s busy legislative agenda, or its ongoing response to the pandemic.

Our experience suggests arrivals stores could boost UK airport passenger spending by between 20 and 30 per cent, creating jobs and supporting our airport infrastructure. York Aviation estimates that for every one million passenger journeys, arrival stores generate 155 jobs, £14 million in gross value added, and over £5 million in tax revenue (through corporation tax and national insurance, for instance). And on a practical level, it would make it easier for Britons and visitors to transport glass bottles at a time when airlines are continuing to crack down on on-board luggage allowances, and allow for lighter aircraft loadings and lower fuel requirements and carbon emissions.

The Government has already shown a willingness to innovate on duty-free shopping. By going a little further, we can secure more business for Britain’s airports, more sales for British producers, and ultimately more British jobs. This would be a win for consumers and would help the UK economy and our regional airports to really take off after Covid-19.

Iain Dale: Perhaps one day I’ll get involved in an election again. In the meantime, here are my predictions for Super Thursday’s results…

7 May

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

This is the first time for some years that I haven’t been able to host a live election night show on LBC. Because of Covid, many local authorities decided they wouldn’t count overnight. And since I don’t have a show on Friday or at the weekends, I feel as if I’m being silenced!

Like most of you, I suspect, I love elections. I well remember my first election day back in 1983 in Norwich. I was designated to be a teller and work in the Committee Room. I’ve always loved lists and can remember the thrill of crossing off all the people who had voted on the electoral roll boards.

Sitting outside the polling station was great fun, and was probably the thing I loved doing most. I enjoyed the banter with the tellers from the other parties and with people who were voting. The winks, the furtive smiles. Or growls. I’d have happily done it all day.

And then I remember when I was a candidate in various local elections, and then a general election, touring the polling stations and talking to the election officials. This was quite a challenge in North Norfolk in 2005, where there were, if I recall correctly, more than 100 polling stations.

Still, it kept me out of mischief on polling day, and took my mind off the disaster I knew was ahead of me at the count! The last time I was involved in an election day as a party activist was in 2009. I can hardly believe it was so long ago. Since then I’ve always been on the radio, or preparing for an overnight show. But I’ll always remember the thrill I got out of being involved. And who knows, one day I may be again.

– – – – – – – – – –

Second preferences are a weird thing. You’re voting for a candidate or a party you really don’t want to win, but they’re the least-worst option. By definition it’s a negative vote. In the PCC election I’m afraid I just could bring myself to tick a box at all.

– – – – – – – – – –

“You’ve broken the law, Iain,” said a Twitter follower. He had heard my For the Many podcast in which I revealed how I had voted (by post) in the local elections, both in Norfolk and Kent. “You can’t vote twice,” he maintained.

Luckily I know my electoral law better than he did. If you have properties in two different council areas you are, indeed, entitled to cast your vote in each of them in local elections. However, that does not apply in general elections. I patiently explained this to him.

His reply was amusing. “So you’re telling me I’ve missed out on voting twice for the 17 years I’ve had a second home?” Yup, I said. “Bugger,” he replied.

– – – – – – – – – –

So here are my predictions for the results of the various elections…

Scotland: SNP to get a majority of seats. Conservatives remain the main opposition. Greens gain an extra one or two MSPs. Alex Salmond is elected with one or two others.

Wales: Conservatives add seats, but Labour remains largest party. Plaid gain a few seats. Lib Dems disappear completely. Mark Drakeford to lose his seat.

London: Sadiq Khan walks it. Shaun Bailey gets 25-30 per cent of first preferences. Greens get around 10 per cent.

West Midlands: Andy Street wins.

Hartlepool by-election: Conservatives to take it.

English County & District Councils: Lib Dems do better in these than any of the other elections. Labour lose seats, Conservatives gains. Greens add to their seat count too. Minor parties squeezed.

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Jacqui Smith and I will be recording an Election Special For the Many podcast for release on Monday morning, analysing all the results.

Whatever they bring, there is bound to be a new bout of reshuffle speculation. However, if the results turn out as I predict above, if I were the PM I’d be tempted to leave any reshuffle until a bit later in the year – either before the summer recess or in the autumn.

The same is not true for Keir Starmer, though. Having had an impressive first eight months as leader of the Labour Party, 2021 has so far proved to be disastrous.

To be fair, it’s not all down to him, as few of his shadow cabinet have managed to cut through at all. Anneliese Dodds is copping a lot of criticism, but to be fair to her, she’s not alone in failing to make much of a mark. The consensus among pundits is he needs to bring Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn into his top team. But what if they don’t wish to return?

Cooper seems to enjoy chairing her select committee and Benn may well feel he’s done his bit. Do a search among other Labour MPs who have a bit of experience, and they’re pretty thin on the ground. Starmer’s position at the moment is far from enviable.

Jonathan Werran: Levelling up. A radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre.

6 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

Like a wild schoolyard football game, it will be a case of everyone’s eyes on the ball, with their legs enthusiastically following, as we throw our attention into the joyful pile-on of local and devolved election results.

We should certainly enjoy the spectacle of postponed local democracy restored, while voters in their millions flock to polling booths across England to vote in various district, county, unitary, London mayoral and regional mayoral combined authority elections.

But were we to zoom out and survey the whole frame, we’d see a tangled skein of pitches with different games being played out on fields of various sizes, to somewhat different sets of rules.

This is because, for many parts of England, a devolution destiny remains unfixed. This means, in certain cases, it remains doubtful whether there will be repeat polling business four years hence. The baked-in assumption is that in order to secure prized strategic devolution deals, parts of the country will submit themselves to the Whitehall meatgrinder of reorganisation.

The white paper and the problem of “place”

Today Localis has issued a place-based analysis of “Building Back Better” in a report entitled A Plan for Local Growth. The central thrust of our argument is that there should be a strict separation between short-term, community-led decision-making for town centre and high-street renewal – which boosts place prosperity – and long-term, high-value central government infrastructure strategies aimed at raising historic low-levels of productivity.

To this end, central government must get behind community control of high-street regeneration, accelerate devolved skills reforms and define a clear role for local authorities and their economic partners in driving economic development and meeting net zero targets.

On that vexed issue of local government reorganisation, our analysis questions the efficacy of driving economic recovery through changes of machinery to the local state. Localis firmly believes that national recovery through building back better and “levelling up” will only succeed through a grounded approach focused on place – melding the horizontal elements of place with the sector based vertical deals from the ancien regime’s industrial strategy.

However, the problem seemingly is that the definition of “place” can mean literally anything across separate Whitehall departments operating in the same place. This is often to the bewilderment of authorities seeking inward investment and businesses seeking to survive and thrive beyond Brexit and Covid.

This Whitehall disconnect also applies to public services. Anything from dedicated schools grant, migration to criminal justice reform can see individual departments taking on bit parts – research, funding, delivery. Perhaps whether the ambit of the Levelling Up White Paper can solve the perennial problem of un-joined-up government is a moot point. But a way is needed to integrate disparate cross-departmental central government agendas so that there is actual early proof these connect at the level of place, work in practice and inspire confidence to move onwards at speed.

This is where we must pin our hopes upon Neil O’Brien to ride to the rescue.

On account of the time, money, political capital and economic potential forever lost to the pandemic, we find ourselves at more of a crucial moment than we perhaps realise. The moment calls for urgently aligning the agenda for devolution and decentralisation with that of growth and recovery.

So it is a hopeful sign that O’Brien has been set the task of pulling together the disparate threads of the levelling up agenda into a forthcoming white paper, resurrecting a cause deflated by last autumn’s failure to launch the English Devolution and Economic Recovery White Paper amid the sudden ministerial departure of Simon Clarke.

The challenge demands a policy mind as sharp and political senses as keen as O’Brien possesses. The levelling up agenda currently risks a fate worse than “Big Society” – as a potentially hugely transformative agenda with popular appeal that dies from lack of rootedness in local daily life and concrete, plainly visible outcomes.

Joining the dots on levelling up

Devolution and growth must be seen as so intrinsically linked as for one to be as impossible to conceive of as existing without the presence of the other. There’s a fancy term from classical rhetoric for the occasion, “hendiadys” or literally “one through two”. In common parlance, think of “bread and butter” or “fish and chips” and try imagining in your mind one of these essential elements without the thought of the other arising.

In an earlier Localis contribution to ConHome on England’s place in the union, and taking our cue from George Orwell, we advocated that “England has got to assume its real shape”. A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome, it was argued. And as Paul Goodman instantly observed of the Plan for Growth in ConHome, “if it really wants to go for sustainable and more even growth, the Government will need to devolve more power”.

So on the basis that levelling up, a radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre, and that we must trust in the new mayors to use their convening powers to get the local political economy around the table, how might we suggest the Levelling Up White Paper create maximum benefit for minimum effort? To build on the foundations laid out in the Plan for Growth, Localis recommends that the Levelling Up White Paper should:

  • Create pathways to community autonomy as a vehicle for hyperlocal, small-scale and patient financing of regeneration;
  • build a framework for devolution to skills advisory panels to facilitate local collaboration between employers, providers and education authorities to further accelerate the push to improve skill levels;
  • create a clear role for the local state in driving towards the skills for net zero; and
  • clarify and codify the role for existing institutions of the local state particularly local authorities in LEPs – in driving economic development.
The political and economic imperative

Many Red Wall Conservative MPs will become if they are not already are acutely alert to the fact that they risk paying the political price for an unreformed, silo-fixated Whitehall’s disjointed and agonisingly slow local delivery at local level.

The test for Levelling Up White Paper will be its ability to work through connective administrative tissue of the “people’s priorities” – clean growth, whatever new badge is thrown over industrial strategy, as well as local skills training. A joined-up and fleshed-out levelling up can achieve a virtuous circle of devolution, leading to growth and recovery that inspires further trust and pride in place and place leadership.

Witness the electoral fortunes of Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the West Midlands. Their likely success is testament to the policy vision laid out for trusting men of “push and go”, charismatic regional leaders with energy and vision to champion their wide economic area. So on the basis that a combination of the vaccination bounce and whatever local political factors ensure a satisfactory set of local and regional results overnight, there should be both confidence and conviction to repay this trust with Whitehall ceding more powers to metro mayors in a deeper devolution settlement.

Otherwise, we risk the continuation of a lop-sided, centrally-led, interventionist growth policy which only serves to hamstring our localities from achieving anything like their fullest inherent economic and place potential.

Robert Halfon: Usually, my inbox is flooded with emails on every conceivable subject – just not John Lewis or wallpaper

5 May

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

The People’s Priorities

Usually, my inbox is flooded with emails on every conceivable subject, from animal rights to free school meals and Universal Credit. But, bar a few robotised missives, I have had barely a peep from Harlow residents about Lulu Lytle, John Lewis, wallpaper or sofas. Neither has interior design been mentioned on the doorsteps to our local council candidates.

Although this may be unfathomable to the Westminsterocacy, is this really that surprising? The country has been in a state of national emergency. We appear to be getting over the worst of the pandemic, the vaccination programme has exceeded all expectations and the gradual padlock removal from the lockdown gates is upon us.

In the run-up to local elections, much of the farrago is seen as political opportunism. Not least with the leader of the Labour Party posing in John Lewis with a wallpaper roll – an Ed Miliband “bacon roll” moment (although at least this went viral).

So, without counting chickens, I am relatively hopeful for these elections. Conservatives have run a gritty street campaign focusing on affordable housing, education and skills, and value for council taxpayers. Good Conservative councils cost you less.

Meanwhile, in a hangover from the Corbyn era, in my constituency of Harlow, a Labour Candidate has been campaigning and organising a petition against army Cadet course in a local school. Not quite the people’s priorities. Starmer has a lot of work to do if he is to change his party a la Blair.

In the meantime, every good wish to Conservative council candidates and to all campaigning volunteers activists, every good luck and success. You deserve it.

The Watchful Peace

Whatever happens tomorrow at the polling stations, it really does mean that, in terms of the pandemic here in the UK, the era of the “Watchful Peace” is upon us.

Unlike last summer, during which I dutifully munched holiday burgers to “Eat Out to Help Out” and naively imagined the worst was over, this time it really does feel a little different.

If we can keep various Covid strains from entering the country (or at least like South Korea, successfully knocking them on the head when they arrive), we could get back to the way things used to be, before March 2020.

The question is, of course, how back to normal will things ever be? Is everyone just going to crowd back on commuter trains, or spend hours in traffic driving to and from work on the M1, M4 and M11? Will the urban Pret a Mangers suddenly fill up once again? Can our larger office buildings in the City be rejuvenated as the worker-bees return?

For my part, I hope not. It is not that I want to stay at home – far from it. I am looking forward to the day when Parliament is back to its old self once again.

However, if there can be more balance between work and home life, surely that can only be a good thing? If people spend more time in their own communities, local economies, small businesses and employment all stand to benefit, not just those of large cities. If there is less commuting and travelling, that means less traffic, pollution and more importantly, a significant cut to the cost of living.

I believe that employers should decide where they need their employees to be, but many will be more imaginative than they have been in the past. There are huge savings in office costs to be had and potentially more productive workers.

With the advent of Microsoft Teams and Google, connections are that much easier. Of course, nothing will ever substitute human relationships and face-to-face meetings, especially networking and sealing the deal. However, I suspect under the watchful peace, it will be more quality over quantity.

Not forgetting the private sector workers who kept the show on the road during Covid

But in speaking of the above, I am just referring to those employees who have been able to work from home during the pandemic – predominantly, the so-called “professional classes”.

The other day, I was called by a national newspaper asking me if I would give a supportive quote to the idea of public sector workers getting a medal for all they have done during the pandemic. “Absolutely”, I said, “but what about all those millions of workers from the private sector who also kept the show on the road – the supermarket workers, delivery lorry drivers, couriers, pharmacy employees and many more besides?”

Unlike the employees I was referring to in the previous segment, not only don’t they have the luxury of even having the option of being able to work from home, but travail for long hours on low pay. There are no 38 Degree-style automated campaigns battling for their wage increases, or a proper pension.

Recognising the millions of people in the private sector who did so much during the Coronavirus can’t just be about a medal. I have long believed that the central purpose of levelling up must mean cutting the cost of living for those just about managing.

The Government should recognise their contribution by focusing on further tax cuts for the lower paid and strengthening their employment rights so that these workers can also enjoy a quality of life.

Andy Street: I’ve got a clear plan for the West Midlands, and I’m ready to go. Here’s what I’ll do in my first 100 days if re-elected.

4 May

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

On Thursday, when the people of the West Midlands go to the polls, they face a critical decision. Do they choose to reignite the progress of the last four years, or return to the stagnant, partisan politics of the last few decades, which saw our region fall into decline?

Before the pandemic struck, the West Midlands was finally shaking off that decline and reclaiming its place as an economic powerhouse. After decades of inertia, a Conservative mayor brought record numbers of new jobs, record house building, increased transport spending sevenfold and created the fastest growing economy anywhere outside of London.

My non-partisan approach – using my business background to bring in more than £3 billion in investment – swept away the local rivalries that had held us back for so long. As we face a tough recovery post-Covid, we cannot afford to return to that. Time is of the essence.

We need to move fast to get people back into work, help the economy recover, and make swift progress on our priorities like transport and housing. I’ve got a clear plan for the region, and I’m ready to go. I want to use this column to set out 12 things I will do in my first 100 days if re-elected.

Over the last four years, my working relationship with Number 10 and the rest of government has been a key factor in delivering investment, with securing the green light for HS2 probably the best example of success. My first task, once re-elected, would be to meet the Prime Minister to discuss how the Government can help deliver our priorities in the West Midlands.

Our region’s economy has been the worst hit by Covid, but is poised for recovery. Generating new jobs quickly will be key to this, so in my first 100 days I will double down on my Jobs Plan to deliver 100,000 new jobs to the region in the next two years. I will also roll out a series of local jobs, training and careers fairs for young people across the West Midlands over this summer.

I will back our pubs, restaurants and hospitality and tourism businesses with a campaign encouraging people to get out and spend after the pandemic – and set up an investment fund to help SMEs grow. I will also use my business experience to connect with potential investors into the battery Gigafactory in Coventry and possible new occupiers for the John Lewis store in Grand Central.

It will be full steam ahead on my transport plans, with detailed planning being done for the new Metro lines. Next Monday – on May 10 – work will start on Perry Barr railway station, with five more stations to follow quickly. I will complete the roll-out of 1500 bikes across every borough in our bike share scheme and begin detailed planning of new cycle routes.

We also need to encourage people back onto public transport as Covid restrictions ease. I will work with National Express to make the most of the major fare cuts and expanded fare capping planned for June 21, when social distancing restrictions should end. My first 100 days will get our region get moving again.

Housing has been another area where we have seen great success, and it has the potential not only to create the homes our region needs but also to unlock thousands of new jobs. London has agreed an Affordable Housing Deal with the Government worth hundreds of millions of pounds – I will push for our region to be the first to get one too, to fund the construction of thousands of new affordable homes to rent and to buy.

I want to see our City and Town centre regeneration plans rapidly progress, and will back our remaining towns fund bids like Bloxwich, Dudley and Walsall.

I will recruit 1,000 volunteers to take part in the Great West Midlands Clean Up campaign ahead of the Commonwealth Games. In my first 100 days will also put the West Midlands at the heart of the climate debate by hosting a conference for mayors and city leaders from across the UK, to agree ways we can work together to affect change.

We have taken significant steps to tackle rough sleeping, but in my first 100 days we will work even harder to eradicate it by “designing out” homelessness. We will launch a new Equalities Taskforce, to address the inequalities highlighted in the Health of the Region report commissioned under my leadership.

Finally, I will stand shoulder to shoulder with the new Police and Crime Commissioner to make things happen to get crime down, such as on public transport and through the joint Violence Reduction Unit.

Setting out all of this in the first 100 days after the election may seem like rhetoric, but I know just how much can be achieved directly after taking office. During the campaign for the first mayoral election in 2017 I set out 10 pledges for my first 100 days, all of which were delivered. In fact, when I think back to four years ago, I hit the ground running – attracting huge investment and cementing key decisions which lay the foundations for our future success.

In the few weeks after taking office in 2017, I met the Prime Minister and Transport Secretary, leading to more than £250 million funding for the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro extension which is now under construction. I set up the West Midlands Homelessness Taskforce which led the work in reducing rough sleeping in the region by 67 per cent, with over 400 homeless people now helped through the Housing First scheme. And I signed up 1,000 people to mentor young people, in a scheme which has helped over 10,000 young people in the last four years.

Now, it is even more important that results are delivered quickly. Our region faces huge challenges. However, I have a proven track record of bringing in billions of pounds in investment and uniting our region to unleash its potential. I have a strong, working relationship with the Government and the connections with business needed to kickstart the economy. I also have a detailed, ambitious but practical plan to deliver the jobs, homes and transport we will need to recover. It is ready to go.

I am ready to get straight to work, to get our region back on track, reignite the progress made over the last four years – and start delivering results within the first 100 days.

Rehman Chisti: Levelling up isn’t just about geography. It must be focused on education, skills and opportunity for all.

30 Apr

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

In July 2019, the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street promising to “level up across Britain”. In short, his mission was to boost economic performance across the UK, with a particular focus on “left behind” areas, often outside of London and the South East.

As an MP in the South East, it is often assumed that I represent an affluent area that requires no extra help from government. However, this simply isn’t the case. Medway, the unitary authority for my constituency of Gillingham and Rainham, is in the top 22 per cent of the most deprived areas for education in England and in the top 10 per cent of most deprived areas with regards to crime.

Within Gillingham and Rainham itself there are stark differences. In Rainham Central, 6.1 per cent of children were recorded as living in poverty in 2018-19. Just a couple of miles away in Gillingham North, this figure is 39.3 per cent.

If the Government truly wants to level up the entire United Kingdom, it must not just focus on the areas traditionally seen as “left behind”. Good quality education for all must be the core component of our levelling up agenda, within an aspirational Conservative approach.

The phrase levelling up means different things to different people. To me, it represents opportunity. I came to this country at the age of six without being able to speak a word of English. I attended a failing secondary high school and a grammar school, and as I came from a modest background, I had to balance my A-Level studies with a part-time job, like many students do across the country.

I was the first in my family to go to university, where I read Law and subsequently qualified as a barrister at age 24, prior to being elected as a Conservative MP at 31.

In our great country, you should be able to be whatever you want through hard work, perseverance, and determination. We in politics must ensure the UK is a land of opportunity for all, where children have access to the finest possible education and can have the best opportunities in life.

As a product of grammar schools, I know the transformational impact these can have on students. From the age of 16 to 18, I attended Rainham Mark Grammar School and the Chatham Grammar School for Girls mixed sixth form. To those from modest backgrounds, a grammar school offers another opportunity to realise their full academic potential. This is true for children who already have good grades, but also for those who have not distinguished themselves academically.

In fact, Department for Education data shows that grammar schools improve educational results among all pupils, especially those who previously struggled and had low attainment. An astounding 93 per cent of pupils in grammar schools achieve a good “pass” in English and Maths at GCSE, more than double the average for state secondaries.

Not surprisingly, grammar schools are extremely popular, with two-thirds of schools at or over capacity as of 2019 – more than four times the average of state funded secondaries.

Levelling up starts with education, and I believe that a key part of this agenda must be to allow the creation of new grammar schools and expansion of existing ones across the country.

Making university accessible and fair for everyone will also play a vital role in levelling up the country. As the first in my family to go to university, I know just how important it is that everyone has the opportunity to do so. The previous Labour government’s target of 50 per cent of the population to go to university was misguided.

However, we must ensure that everyone who wants to go to university is able to do so regardless of financial means. At the same time, the abilities of all young people must be realised, whether that’s through university, or vocational qualifications and high-level apprenticeships in fields like hydrogen energy, as offered in my constituency. The increase in tuition fees last decade has not deterred people from applying to university. However, pupils from wealthier backgrounds are still more likely to go to university than those from poorer backgrounds.

While the average debt of those who graduated in 2019 was £40,000, most students are not expected to pay back their full student loan. Therefore, any reforms to higher education funding must be targeted and help those most in need. Simply lowering tuition fees or reducing interest rates across the board would in fact help the highest earning graduates the most.

Instead, the Government should look to reintroduce maintenance grants of up to £5,000 per year for those from low income backgrounds, with the amount awarded based on the family income of the student, so the lower the family income of the student, the more they would receive.

Having spoken with local university leaders, including Professor Jane Harrington, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Greenwich (which has a campus in Medway), the reintroduction of maintenance grants would provide vital financial security to low income students. It would allow them to focus further on their studies, rather than the part-time jobs that they currently must take to support themselves financially. This is especially important now considering the disruption to their learning that students have faced during Covid-19.

If we look at the Turing Scheme, for example, disadvantaged students can receive up to £490 per month in grants to support their costs when they study abroad. Over twelve months, this would amount to £5,880 in grants. If disadvantaged students can receive grants to help with costs studying abroad, it is only right that they are able to receive them when they study here in the UK.

If we use £5,000 as an average figure of the grant, this reform would reduce debt on those students after a three-year degree by around £15,000. Rewarding hard work is exactly what we as Conservatives should stand for.

Improving and widening access to foreign languages will help the UK level up, while at the same time promoting the Global Britain agenda. I believe that everyone in this country should learn at least one foreign language as a child. This principle was recognised by the Government in 2011 with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, a mandatory component of which is a foreign language.

At the moment, we are unfortunately still far from reaching that ambition: only 32 per cent of young people in the UK say they can read and write in more than one language, compared with 91 per cent in Germany and 80 per cent across the EU.

And, the situation is not improving; the number of pupils taking a language diminishes year-on-year. As a 2015 report from Cambridge University makes clear, this is no small issue: a lack of language skills not only threatens UK companies’ competitiveness abroad, but limits the UK’s soft power on the international stage.

With the introduction of T-Levels, now would be a brilliant time to integrate language learning into vocational and technical qualifications, ensuring more of our young people, regardless of their academic pathway and achievement, learn at least one other language.

In an increasingly digital economy, levelling up education also means giving all our young people technical skills that will allow them to participate and thrive in a digital world. Over the last year, we saw just how reliant we are on technology, which enabled many people to work from home during the pandemic. Now more than ever, it is critical that students are equipped with appropriate IT and coding skills, with a focus on new technologies such as artificial intelligence.

The Government has already taken major steps towards this, with the introduction of computing as a subject at all levels of schooling up to Key Stage 3, teaching children essential skills in computer science and coding.

However, much remains to be done as the number of pupils taking computing or ICT at GCSE level has been declining over the past five years, while a worrying gender gap has opened up, with only 21.4 per cent of GCSE computing entries are from women and girls. The problem is an urgent one: research by McKinsey & Company shows that by 2030, two thirds of the UK workforce (21 million people) could be lacking in basic digital skills, severely damaging UK business competitiveness.

We must look to expand the number of pupils that learn essential IT skills and coding, taking inspiration from successful international examples, from Estonia to Arkansas. As Asa Hutchinson, the Governor of Arkansas, put it: “Whether you’re looking at manufacturing and the use of robotics or the knowledge industries, they need computer programmers… If we can’t produce those workers, we’re not going to be able to attract and keep the industry we want.”

Alongside improving IT skills, equipping students with stronger critical thinking skills is key to allowing them to adapt to the challenging world we live in. Having seen the dangers that disinformation and misinformation can pose when intentionally spread by individuals, organisations or hostile states, as happened with the storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 or with misleading claims about the Covid-19 vaccination, it is vital that young people are equipped to spot false information online.

Finland, for example, has integrated information literacy and critical thinking across its national curriculum. The result has been that Finland is ranked first out of 35 European countries in its ability to resist fake news (the UK is currently ranked 10th).

At the moment, our schools already teach British values to help prevent radicalisation and extremism. However, countering the spread of dangerous disinformation and misinformation is one of the next big challenges that we as a country face to protect against social disorder which could also undermine our democratic institutions. It is vital that we teach these skills early in schools so that young people can help stop the spread of false information.

If we are to truly level up across the country, education must be at the centre of the Government’s strategy and areas like the South East and Medway must be taken into account. Prior to 2010, all three Medway constituencies were represented by Labour MPs. Since then, we have secured sizeable majorities. If the Conservatives are to continue representing areas such as this, the Government cannot forget them. We must not level down the South East in pursuit of levelling up other areas of the country.

With the Queen’s Speech next month and as we emerge from Covid-19 restrictions, now is the time for a bold agenda from Government which levels up the entire country and equips young people with the necessary tools to face the modern challenges in the world. Improving education is a vital part of this, whether through reforming student finance, expanding grammar schools, improving foreign language teaching, or a greater emphasis on critical thinking and IT skills in schools to help counter disinformation and misinformation.

Nick Faith: The UK is well placed to emerge from the pandemic in a stronger position over time. Here’s how we do it.

28 Apr

Nick Faith is the Founder of WPI Strategy.

Over the past 10 months, my company has been working with a group of some of the highest profile business leaders from across the UK on a long-term plan to ensure we do not just recover from the pandemic but thrive in a post-Brexit Britain.

The National Prosperity Plan, published today by the Covid Recovery Commission, is the culmination of this work and includes input from over 100 public policy experts, academics and business groups.

It is overwhelmingly optimistic in its tone. By harnessing everything which is great about Britain – our leading universities, world-class innovation and R&D, our businesses and financial system, our democracy, our institutions and governance – the report makes it clear that the UK is well placed to emerge from the pandemic in a stronger position over time.

The report is also pragmatic. It acknowledges the deep-rooted challenges that we face as a nation; poor productivity levels, underinvestment in high-quality technical education and training, the inability of small businesses to access the finance they need to scale-up.

The plan that we are setting out today will not solve all these problems with the flick of a magic wand. It is, however, an attempt to set a framework that we hope will lead to a new compact between government, business and civic society to deliver on a set of shared national imperatives.

There are a number of elements to the report but five core areas are set out below:

1. For “levelling up” to be successful, it cannot be constrained to specific geographical regions and we must be able to measure progress

The inequality gap has only worsened as a result of the pandemic. Unemployment levels, mortality rates and mental health cases are rising fastest in the most deprived communities across the UK. These communities are found in every part of the UK, and often within some of the wealthiest local authorities. A one size fits all approach to “levelling up” simply won’t work.

A successful recovery will rely on having clearly defined objectives and metrics and using data to make decisions and monitor progress. We believe that this should be delivered through a National Prosperity Scorecard. This would be a list government would publish of how every locality in the country measured up against some key social and economic indicators, including employment and benefit dependency rates as well as health and educational outcomes.

2. Government needs to play an active role in creating the conditions for high value, globally competitive industries to flourish

Industrial strategy as a term may be confined to the store cupboard in the Department for Business, but there is a clear role for government to play in setting a national framework for growth. The Government’s Plan for Growth, published alongside the March Budget, is the industrial strategy’s successor. It has many strengths including a focus on growing existing and building new net zero industries and creating the conditions for high growth, innovative businesses.

Business stands behind these ambitions but needs more detail. We need to be honest about our existing industrial strengths and weaknesses. We need to develop a Great British Supply Chain to support our globally competitive industries, using the government’s purchasing power to create long-term certainty for businesses.

Were the government to commit to a 15 year National Deal for Net Zero Homes, for example, including publicly financing the retrofit of all council owned homes by 2030, it would act “pump prime” the energy efficiency market, providing the demand certainty needed for businesses to invest, innovate and deliver better and cheaper products at scale.

3. Local leaders must be given proper powers and funding to set their own plans for growth and prosperity

With poverty and inequality spread right across the UK, success will mean ensuring that prosperity rises in all parts of the country. However, the nature of the opportunities and challenges in different areas varies greatly between regions and communities, and policy responses will need to reflect these differences. This means that we need to understand these differences, build plans and track progress on delivering prosperity at a local level.

Local leaders should be given the power and funding to create their own Local Prosperity Plans, working with businesses and civic leaders to ensure their area can identify and seize upon the unique opportunities to develop high value industries in their area while supporting local people through tailored training programmes and financial and mental health support. Ben Houchen’s ambition for Teesside to become a global hub for clean energy development and deployment is a perfect example of what can be achieved when the centre devolves more power.

4. Retraining and upskilling our workforce is a non-negotiable if we are to create a more productive and a fairer society

The pandemic has caused significant economic disruption across the UK and, despite extensive government support, millions of people have lost their jobs. Digitisation and decarbonisation have the potential to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs but the transition to a tech enabled, greener economy could have an unequal impact on specific areas of the UK, for example those traditionally reliant on carbon intensive industries.

The Commission believes that lifelong learning will be key to supporting this transition to higher skilled, higher paid jobs. That is why our report proposes that every worker in the UK be given an individual pot of money – potentially as much as £10,000 – which can be used throughout their working lives to access accredited courses, for example, to improve their digital skills.

5. Businesses can no longer sit on the sidelines or be sidelined

Economic success in the next century calls for a more compassionate form of capitalism. More than ever, businesses must recognise that they have a broader role to play in supporting and driving the delivery of shared societal goals.

This means working more closely with central government, local policymakers and civic institutions to deliver real change in communities across the UK.  This could take the form of providing increased mental health support to workers or co-investing in social infrastructure projects, for example, supporting local technical colleges or investing in digital training courses for local residents.

The businesses on the Covid Recovery Commission are committed to working with others to build prosperity right across the UK: ensuring that individuals, families and communities can enjoy better economic, social and environmental outcomes. Let’s harness this energy and create a stronger, fairer and more resilient society.

Daniel Hannan: The epidemic, in Britain, is over. But are we ready to cry freedom?

28 Apr

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Would anyone, coming fresh to our current situation, propose a lockdown? The vulnerable have been shielded: around 95 per cent of people over 50, along with healthcare and care home workers, have had what turns out to be a highly effective vaccine. The inoculation programme is now reaching healthy people in their early forties – people for whom, in most cases, the virus would manifest as a cold. As I write, the latest daily death count is six. Not six per million. Six.

It is true that no vaccine is a 100 per cent effective. A return to sports matches, music festivals and crowded 747s will lead to an uptick in fatalities – just as it will lead to an uptick in colds and traffic accidents. But the epidemic, in Britain, is over. Deaths are lower than usual for the time of year, and 96.5 per cent of deaths are caused by something other than Covid-19.

The trouble is that lifting restrictions is an altogether tougher proposition than not imposing them in the first place. People tend to anchor to the status quo. Governments are reluctant to relinquish the powers they assumed on a supposedly contingent basis. Just as with post-war rationing, bureaucrats fear chaos if controls are lifted, and struggle to understand the (admittedly counter-intuitive) notion of spontaneous order. Freedoms, as always, need to be prised from the cold grip of the administrative state.

You might think it eccentric of me to raise this issue just as restrictions are being loosened. Schools and shops are open, and most of the remaining prohibitions seem almost certain to be lifted two weeks on Monday. Why bang on about the lockdown now, when it is being eased?

Well, for one thing, each of the next 19 days will cost us several hundred million pounds. Sums that would have horrified us a year ago have now become unremarkable; but they haven’t become any smaller. To say “just another couple of weeks” is much easier if you are a government official at home on full pay than if you are, say, a restaurateur or hotelier. Every day in lockdown is adding weeks to our recovery.

For another, there is a question of good faith. We were assured that the closures would not last a day longer than necessary, that they would be driven by “data not dates”. Yet on every metric, things have turned out better than expected. Infection rates, hospitalisation rates and death rates are all lower than had been projected; the take-up of vaccines has been higher, as has their efficacy, both in preventing serious illness and in reducing transmission. Sadly, though, the current political discourse makes it much harder to ease the restraints: the accusations against the PM make it almost impossible for him to accelerate the reopening.

Still, the vaccines are working. A mass inoculation programme was sold as the way to restore normality. It was reasonable enough to hold back until we knew that it was having the promised effect; but now we do know. Once vulnerable people have been offered protection, the case for remaining restrictions of any kind – masks, travel bans, vaccine passports – falls away. The justification for repressive measures was that the Coronavirus could cause mass fatalities, not that we needed to protect younger people from something that might knock them out for a few days.

Which brings us to the third and most important point. What we do next will establish a new baseline. There was much talk in March 2020 of whether the Coronavirus was “just ’flu”. Frankly I wonder whether people who talk about “just” ’flu have ever had ’flu. But leaving that aside, the danger is that, from now, ’flu will be treated like Covid. Lockdowns, utterly unthinkable 15 months ago, could easily become a standard response to new diseases.

So it is vital to understand their costs and benefits. Obviously, immobilising the entire population is bound to have some impact on slowing the transmission of a disease spread by human contact. But the correlation is weaker than you might think. As Noah Carl has shown, there are plenty of examples of countries that imposed strict lockdowns and then, while the restrictions were in full force, saw major surges.

The reverse is also true. It has for some reason become fashionable to argue that Sweden’s approach failed, because it had more infections than its Nordic neighbours. (Sweden, for these purposes, is only ever compared to other Scandinavian states, for reasons that no one explains.) But this is fundamentally to misunderstand what the original argument was about.

Supporters of the Swedish approach did not argue that it was exactly like Britain or, indeed, that it was doing everything perfectly. Their contention, rather, was that Sweden was the control in the global experiment. Back in March 2020, when the rest of the world locked down, closures were sold as the only way to halt exponential spread. Sweden disproved that contention as early as May 2020 when, without closing shops, schools or restaurants, it saw a decline in case numbers.

That should have been that. Plainly, a country could protect itself without a complete shutdown. Cases would peak with or without draconian measures. Indeed, Professor Simon Wood, a statistician at Edinburgh University, has shown that the rate of new infections had already started to decline before the imposition of each of the three British lockdowns.

That, though, is an unpopular message. It suggests that at least some of the suffering we have gone through over the past year – not just the economic losses, but everything from ruined education to poor mental health – could have been avoided. To repeat, the argument is not that lockdowns are wholly ineffective, but that their cost is disproportionate.

Why am I saying this now? Because it is sensible, immediately after an event, to write yourself a memo to which you can refer next time. There will be more pandemics – whether derived from the Coronavirus or from new sources. And, given the state of our media discourse, they will now be met by calls for new lockdowns. Yet gathering evidence suggests that our closures were wrongly targeted, excessively harsh and, above all, too long. That, surely, is the enquiry we need most urgently.

Lord Ashcroft: My survey of Scottish voters. The SNP maintains its lead for the Holyrood elections. But there are clouds on its horizon.

28 Apr

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

Events that change the world sometimes have little apparent effect on politics. At first glance, this is the case with the Covid pandemic and the scene in Scotland.

The independence debate continues to sit on a knife-edge. In my 2,000-sample survey, the 51-49 margin for staying in the UK amounts to a statistical dead heat. To the frustration of many voters on all sides who would rather talk about something else, the question still dominates the agenda: nearly as many people say they will use their votes next week to prevent a new referendum as to try and secure one.

Not only does the SNP maintain its clear lead in the Holyrood elections, but its support is more intense: those naming the nationalists as their most likely choice put their chances of actually turning out to vote for them higher than those of other parties’ potential backers.

Nicola Sturgeon herself is more dominant than ever. As her newly-appointed rivals (and the perennial Willie Rennie) struggle to make an impression, the First Minister’s handling of the pandemic has enhanced her standing even among her critics. Many praise the clarity of her daily briefings and draw a contrast with Boris Johnson (whom many Scots cannot quite believe has become Prime Minister), even if the more cynical praise “her commitment to being on TV every day,” as one focus group participant archly put it.

Her occasional digs at London’s approach have found a ready audience, and if she happens to be able to lift restrictions early in the run-up to an election, well, that’s politics, isn’t it? In our ever-revealing question on what animal each leader would be, the canny Sturgeon emerges as a fox, panther or lion. Alex Salmond, her supposed nemesis, is a warthog, toad, snake or wild boar; Johnson is a panda, sloth, orangutan or pigeon (“a lot of folk don’t like them but that doesn’t stop there being pigeons everywhere”). Keir Starmer is sleepy Bagpuss, or “a rabbit caught in the headlights”.

But the research reveals some other straws in the wind. While not necessarily ready to say they have yet changed their minds, we found some former Yes voters more nervous about independence. Though they think Sturgeon has outperformed the Prime Minister, they know that vaccine procurement was a UK effort, and doubt whether an independent Scotland could have sustained its own furlough scheme on anything like the scale seen over the past year. With oil revenues now offering a less reliable foundation for the Scottish economy, the thought grows that Edinburgh might become not just the architectural but the fiscal Athens of the North.

For many, Brexit is a powerful justification for a new independence referendum. But this, too, works both ways. Belief that the effects of Brexit have yet to play out adds to qualms about Scotland’s economic prospects, especially when combined with uncertainty about the post-Covid recovery. Those who would like an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU are far from certain that this could easily happen; they are unlikely to have their doubts assuaged before any new vote.

Northern Ireland’s experience leads to questions about the post-independence border between Scotland and England. And those who despaired at four years of Brexit negotiations will need to be convinced that Westminster will prove a more magnanimous negotiating partner than Brussels – a reversal of the nationalists’ standard demonology. Meanwhile, with questions like Scotland’s future currency unanswered, some who still favour independence at heart feel it would be more of a leap of faith now than in 2014.

Most feel Salmond’s motives for launching Alba have more to do with ego than independence. But the SNP has lost some of its lustre. Many question its record on health, education and poverty, and bungled schemes like Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children. Some openly say the SNP is the means to an end, believing the party to achieve Scottish independence may not be the right one to run an independent Scotland.

Many are nervous about the prospect of a new referendum without authorisation from London, and cite the example of Catalonia. But pro-independence voters take promises of further devolution with a large pinch of salt, and the current settlement seems to promise continued Tory rule from Westminster for much of the foreseeable future. There is a feeling that Scottish politics cannot move on until the question is settled. If it is in Sturgeon’s favour, she seems more likely to dislodge Downing Street’s current occupant than the official opposition.

Full details of Lord Ashcroft’s research can be found at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

Syed Kamall: The time is right for the UK to boost relations with India – but a trade deal will not be simple

23 Apr

Syed Kamall is Acting Academic and Research Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs and a member of the House of Lords.

Boris Johnson will be disappointed at having to postpone his visit to India, which was scheduled for next week. Not only was he reportedly keen to ensure that five million Covid vaccines would be delivered to the UK by an Indian supplier, but the current geopolitical environment made it an ideal time to strengthen the UK-India relationship.

Last month, the UK government published its snappily titled Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, outlining the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy. One of the main announcements was to prioritise building alliances with Indo-Pacific countries including India, to balance China’s increasing assertiveness in the region.

India has also been shifting its foreign policy priorities. In 2019, Vijay Gokhale, its Foreign Secretary, announced that “India has moved on from its non-aligned past. India is today an aligned state—but based on issues.”  More recently, India has also faced an increasingly hostile neighbour in the Chinese government. In June 2020, the Chinese army killed three Indian soldiers, the first military casualties along the disputed border for more than four decades. Despite subsequent diplomatic talks, there have been more clashes and, in the last few days, China has deployed a long-range rocket launcher “as a deterrent to India”.

These developments have pushed the Indian government to talk up its alliances with Western nations. In October 2020, the US and India signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA), allowing India access to US sensitive satellite data for military purposes. Earlier this year, Narendra Modi, India’s PM, joined the US President and the leaders of Japan and Australia for the first Quad summit (an informal strategic dialogue between these nations).

The UK has swiftly realised the time is right to boost relations with India. In February 2021, Liz Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade and Shri Piysuh Goyal, India’s Minister for Commerce and Industry, issued a joint agreement to deepen trade cooperation through an Enhanced Trade Partnership (ETP) and work towards a “potential comprehensive” Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

This will be no simple task. The EU started trade talks with India back in 2007, but suspended the talks in 2013, accusing India of a lack of ambition. However, in a briefing paper released this week by the Institute of Economic Affairs, Shanker Singham argues that outside the EU, the UK has the flexibility to sign a trade agreement with India that addresses both countries’ offensive interests (the markets or sectors they wish to gain access to) and defensive interests (markets they prefer to keep closed or minimise access to). He believes that the “contours” for a trade deal are already emerging.

The key UK demands will probably be better access for UK financial and legal services firms to the Indian market, as well as reductions to import tariffs on Scotch whisky. The key Indian demands will be on services movement of natural persons (so-called Mode 4, i.e. allowing skilled Indian workers into the UK) and the UK committing not to impose bans on Indian agriculture in violation of the World Trade Organisation’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary (WTO SPS) agreement, as the EU has done in the past.

Singham argues that there are both important commercial and geopolitical reasons for a UK-India trade agreement, writing that India could be brought into an alignment of nations including the countries signed up to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPPTP) as a bulwark against the negative impact of China’s market distortions and security policies. The UK has also applied to join the CPTPP.

However, the author does acknowledge that a number of obstacles to a UK-India deal persist. The Indian government has recently taken actions against the property rights of foreign investors, including ignoring the results of arbitration, which may scare away foreign investors and risk undermining the country’s global reputation and potential.

While free traders in both India and the UK would welcome a deal, there are other pitfalls to avoid. As India’s former colonial ruler, the UK government will need to approach the negotiations delicately, making clear the nations at the table are equals. As an emerging power, India is set to overtake the UK economy by 2024.

There are also doubts over India’s commitment to trade agreements. The joint statement on the ETP spoke of “a roadmap that would lead to a potential comprehensive FTA,” not exactly a firm commitment. Just after Modi’s re-election, the head of an Indian think tank with links to the Indian government told me that trade agreements were not a priority for Modi’s second term but might be for a third term.

Another concern is what trade experts call “beyond the border issues”. While trade negotiators may agree to liberalise a sector, the relevant government department or local states may be slow to implement the necessary changes. Some trade experts, for instance, point to the Indian states ruled by Marxist politicians, such as Kerala. Elsewhere, government departments may have good relations with industries wishing to be protected from foreign competition.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Modi is still committed to his Make in India initiative, launched in 2014 to transform India into a global design and manufacturing hub. While this is open to inward foreign direct investment, it suggests an economy that will prioritise domestic manufacturers over imported products.

And the UK government may also face some resistance. As the UK trade bill went through parliament earlier this year, a significant number of MPs and Peers expressed concerns over trade with nations with poor human rights records. In recent years, human rights activists and members of the Pakistani and Kashmiri diasporas have accused India of human rights violations in the disputed region of Kashmir and against Christians in Orissa. These concerns could be expressed whenever a future UK-India agreement is debated in the Westminster parliament – though it may not necessarily prevent a trade deal.

These are probably all obstacles that could be overcome, so the main determinant remains the attitude of the Indian government. In the 19th and early 20th century the UK was seen as playing a pivotal role in the balance of power in Europe. The challenge for Johnson and his ministers will be to convince India that signing up to the India-UK and CPTPP trade agreements will allow the country to play its role as a balancer of power in the Indo-Pacific region.