Syed Kamall: Rashford’s campaign calls for state action – but it equally highlights the power of individuals and community

29 Oct

Professor Syed Kamall is Academic and Research Director at the IEA. From May 2005 to June 2019, he was a Conservative MEP for London.

While Marcus Rashford’s campaign to provide free meals for children has gained much publicity and public support, it has also come under criticism for providing meals for children regardless of need and for even nationalising parental responsibility.

The campaign is built on the assumption that state intervention is necessary to solve societal problems but equally it has highlighted the power of private individuals to affect change, as well as the dedication of volunteers in our local communities.

The campaign perhaps should be seen in the context of our country’s long history of helping those in need. As far back as 1597-8, the Elizabethan Poor Laws were administered through parish overseers, who provided relief for the aged, sick, and infant poor, as well as work for the able-bodied in workhouses. The latter would of course be unacceptable today. In the late 18th century, this was supplemented by the Speenhamland system, providing allowances to workers with below subsistence wages.

By the nineteenth century, it is estimated that as much money passed through voluntary organisations to those in need as did through the poor law. Many adults belonged to an average of five or six voluntary organisations, such as trades unions and friendly societies, offering financial protection against sickness and unemployment as well as savings societies, literary and scientific institutes.

While charitable provision was diverse, it did not reach everyone in need, which led to calls for state intervention and the introduction of state pensions in 1908 and state social insurance in 1911. Voluntary organisations began to accept money from the state, becoming complementary or supplementary welfare providers, but no longer being seen as the first port of call for those in need.

The 1942 Beveridge Report recommended a single contribution and a single state benefit agency for social insurance. Beveridge wanted friendly societies to act as state benefit agencies offering additional services if funded voluntary contributions. However, this idea was rejected by the Government and led to the post-war welfare state.

Despite the growth of state welfare, the UK maintains a mixed welfare model with thousands of local civil society non-state projects in neighbourhoods across the country, providing support and signposting for families in need, long before we saw the inspiring help that volunteers have provided during the Covid-19 lockdown. However, even within these organisations, there are some who see their efforts as stepping in where the state should be acting, rather than as part of a rich tapestry of local civil society.

This bias towards state-intervention is one that sees multi-millionaire footballers become advocates for more government action, where local community groups may already exist and even do a better job than state agencies. When I was a politician, I was sometimes contacted by constituents asking me to find a taxpayer-funded local council or national government or EU grant or hoping I could pass a law to solve a local problem. When I offered to introduce them to a project that had solved a similar problem in their neighbourhood, some were inspired while others saw this as an example of state failure.

Poverty, especially child poverty, has a devastating impact and as a society we should do everything in our power to offer routes out of poverty. But government is not the answer to every problem, and in our rush to do something, we should not overlook or squeeze out alternative solutions.

While some critics may prefer that Rashford built a coalition of other millionaires and companies to support local civil society organisations or offer to pay more tax before calling for state intervention, they risk overlooking the incredible good this young working class man has done.

Whether he sees it or not, his campaign has demonstrated the power of local civil society non-state organisations to address problems in their neighbourhoods. He has also inspired others to – In the words of Gandhi – become the change they want to see.

He is also raised the issue of corporate welfare, which in some cases has also seen money given to companies who did not necessarily need it. Is it any wonder, that Rashford and others argue spending public money on school dinners would be a better use of the taxpayer’s money, especially when so much has been splashed around?

Finally, the campaign has reignited the debate over universal provision vs targeted help and whether a better way to help hungry families would be via Universal Credit, giving families in need the money directly to make the best use of it for their individual circumstances and not to assume that parents will use the money for non-essentials rather than food.

On such an emotive subject it is easy for the waters to get muddied, for political opponents to take polarised positions and to trade accusations of being uncaring or misguided. Maybe we should instead take a moment to applaud Rashford for his actions, for demonstrating that welfare beyond the state is very much alive and for igniting a debate on the effectiveness of the solutions he proposes.

Gerald Howarth: To ensure post-Brexit success, the Government must bolster Britain’s military posture

29 Oct

Sir Gerald Howarth was the MP for Aldershot from 1997-2017, and Minister for International Security Strategy 2010-2012.

As a former Minister for International Security Strategy, I warmly welcomed a review intended to place defence and security within a foreign policy strategic context.

Entirely correctly, the Government has made clear that it wants post-Brexit Britain to play a key role on the world stage. That vision alone calls for a strong military posture because, like it or not, military strength tends to command influence.

It is that strong posture, built over centuries, which has enabled the UK to deploy soft power to significant effect. Loan service officers, joint exercises, training overseas military personnel and the Royal College for Defence Studies all help promote British influence, but our ability to deploy soft power is founded on our hard power – the nuclear deterrent, state-of-the-art kit, and, above all, superbly professional armed forces personnel who have distinguished themselves in recent battles from the Falklands to Afghanistan.

Indeed, the successful Falklands campaign overnight transformed the world’s perception of the UK from a nation in terminal postwar decline to one which once again commanded international respect and propelled Margaret Thatcher onto the world stage.

Increasing global tensions also dictate that we need to increase our defence capabilities – and certainly not cut them. Since the 2010 review in which I was involved, and which was Treasury-driven as a consequence of the £160 billion budget deficit we inherited, much has happened. Take just two examples: in 2014 Russia annexed the Crimea. It did so with complete impunity notwithstanding the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by John Major, under which the US, UK and Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s borders in return for that country destroying its nuclear arsenal.

In the South China Sea, the Chinese Communist Party has persistently annexed uninhabited atolls, ownership of which is disputed with other nearby nations, and turned them into military bases. Again, it has done so with complete impunity, so it is hardly surprising China has taken advantage of Western paralysis to impose draconian new laws in Hong Kong. Britain has a locus: following our withdrawal from East of Suez in the 1960s, the UK drew up the Five Powers Defence Arrangement with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia to safeguard the interests of the latter two.

Our failure to strengthen our defence posture poses the real risk of further instability worldwide.

Britain has an impressive defence industry which a Conservative government should be keen to nurture. For over a century the UK has been a world leader in aerospace and continue to hold that position today through companies like BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce but sustained by a broad and innovative SME sector. We are the second largest exporter of defence equipment, after the United States, which not only earns us annual revenues of around £15 billion but enables us to offer tangible support to our friends and allies.

“Buying off the shelf” in reality means buying from the US which is our closest military ally but a formidable competitor in the defence market which has in the past blocked UK military exports containing US components through its application of ITAR (International Trading in Armaments Regulations) restrictions.

As Labour Lord Drayson’s 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy stated, the loss of sovereign capability leads inevitably to loss of operational sovereignty, to which add the loss of those defence exports. The UK is an equity partner in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme, yet the US continues to deny us access to the computer source codes.

Fortunately, the UK has recognised the danger. The Tempest aircraft programme, which is ITAR-free, will deliver a sixth generation optionally manned capability, exploiting new disruptive technologies essential to tomorrow’s battle-winning capability.

It is led by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, supported by Thales UK, Leonardo and missile manufacturer MBDA together with around 600 UK SMEs and institutions. It will generate valuable, new UK technology and employ tens of thousands of skilled people, many in the North of England and Scotland. It is a statement of national intent which also makes economic sense.

The special challenge today is how to maintain effective conventional forces (we cannot expose ourselves to the risk of being outmanoeuvred as a result of having neglected those forces) whilst also developing tomorrow’s technology. You do not win wars using old equipment so investing in future technology like cyber and AI is essential. Funding for defence research has endured a persistent decline in the last two decades; that must change.

[Through no fault of its own, apart from our excellent Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, this Government lacks senior ministers with knowledge of, or experience in, the military. This review must not be rushed and expert advice should be sought and heeded.]

Inevitably, Covid-19 has thrown government financial planning into chaos. Nevertheless, it would be folly, and damaging to the PM’s critical post-Brexit vision for the United Kingdom, if he fails to acknowledge the long-term requirements of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

Abandoning the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review will cause major problems for the MoD which manages an equipment programme stretching over several years. For example, the Tempest programme requires multi-year funding to maintain the confidence of our international partners that the UK remains committed to Tempest. It will also ensure the UK remains ahead of competitor programmes.

Conservatives hold that the first duty of government is defence of the Realm. Money has rightly been found to deal with the pandemic; it now needs to be found to ensure our national security and give credibility to that post-Brexit vision.

Gerald Howarth: To ensure post-Brexit success, the Government must bolster Britain’s military posture

29 Oct

Sir Gerald Howarth was the MP for Aldershot from 1997-2017, and Minister for International Security Strategy 2010-2012.

As a former Minister for International Security Strategy, I warmly welcomed a review intended to place defence and security within a foreign policy strategic context.

Entirely correctly, the Government has made clear that it wants post-Brexit Britain to play a key role on the world stage. That vision alone calls for a strong military posture because, like it or not, military strength tends to command influence.

It is that strong posture, built over centuries, which has enabled the UK to deploy soft power to significant effect. Loan service officers, joint exercises, training overseas military personnel and the Royal College for Defence Studies all help promote British influence, but our ability to deploy soft power is founded on our hard power – the nuclear deterrent, state-of-the-art kit, and, above all, superbly professional armed forces personnel who have distinguished themselves in recent battles from the Falklands to Afghanistan.

Indeed, the successful Falklands campaign overnight transformed the world’s perception of the UK from a nation in terminal postwar decline to one which once again commanded international respect and propelled Margaret Thatcher onto the world stage.

Increasing global tensions also dictate that we need to increase our defence capabilities – and certainly not cut them. Since the 2010 review in which I was involved, and which was Treasury-driven as a consequence of the £160 billion budget deficit we inherited, much has happened. Take just two examples: in 2014 Russia annexed the Crimea. It did so with complete impunity notwithstanding the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by John Major, under which the US, UK and Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s borders in return for that country destroying its nuclear arsenal.

In the South China Sea, the Chinese Communist Party has persistently annexed uninhabited atolls, ownership of which is disputed with other nearby nations, and turned them into military bases. Again, it has done so with complete impunity, so it is hardly surprising China has taken advantage of Western paralysis to impose draconian new laws in Hong Kong. Britain has a locus: following our withdrawal from East of Suez in the 1960s, the UK drew up the Five Powers Defence Arrangement with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia to safeguard the interests of the latter two.

Our failure to strengthen our defence posture poses the real risk of further instability worldwide.

Britain has an impressive defence industry which a Conservative government should be keen to nurture. For over a century the UK has been a world leader in aerospace and continue to hold that position today through companies like BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce but sustained by a broad and innovative SME sector. We are the second largest exporter of defence equipment, after the United States, which not only earns us annual revenues of around £15 billion but enables us to offer tangible support to our friends and allies.

“Buying off the shelf” in reality means buying from the US which is our closest military ally but a formidable competitor in the defence market which has in the past blocked UK military exports containing US components through its application of ITAR (International Trading in Armaments Regulations) restrictions.

As Labour Lord Drayson’s 2005 Defence Industrial Strategy stated, the loss of sovereign capability leads inevitably to loss of operational sovereignty, to which add the loss of those defence exports. The UK is an equity partner in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme, yet the US continues to deny us access to the computer source codes.

Fortunately, the UK has recognised the danger. The Tempest aircraft programme, which is ITAR-free, will deliver a sixth generation optionally manned capability, exploiting new disruptive technologies essential to tomorrow’s battle-winning capability.

It is led by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, supported by Thales UK, Leonardo and missile manufacturer MBDA together with around 600 UK SMEs and institutions. It will generate valuable, new UK technology and employ tens of thousands of skilled people, many in the North of England and Scotland. It is a statement of national intent which also makes economic sense.

The special challenge today is how to maintain effective conventional forces (we cannot expose ourselves to the risk of being outmanoeuvred as a result of having neglected those forces) whilst also developing tomorrow’s technology. You do not win wars using old equipment so investing in future technology like cyber and AI is essential. Funding for defence research has endured a persistent decline in the last two decades; that must change.

[Through no fault of its own, apart from our excellent Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, this Government lacks senior ministers with knowledge of, or experience in, the military. This review must not be rushed and expert advice should be sought and heeded.]

Inevitably, Covid-19 has thrown government financial planning into chaos. Nevertheless, it would be folly, and damaging to the PM’s critical post-Brexit vision for the United Kingdom, if he fails to acknowledge the long-term requirements of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

Abandoning the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review will cause major problems for the MoD which manages an equipment programme stretching over several years. For example, the Tempest programme requires multi-year funding to maintain the confidence of our international partners that the UK remains committed to Tempest. It will also ensure the UK remains ahead of competitor programmes.

Conservatives hold that the first duty of government is defence of the Realm. Money has rightly been found to deal with the pandemic; it now needs to be found to ensure our national security and give credibility to that post-Brexit vision.

Normal relations between the Conservative leader and Conservative MPs are breaking down

28 Oct

The poor bloody infantry are fed up. As Paul Waugh reports, Conservative backbenchers complain that on the question of free school meals during half term they were sent into action without either a clear objective or a proper plan.

The high command should have foreseen there would be a problem and worked out what to do about it.

Instead of which, those Tory MPs who were bold enough to go over the top, generally the younger and less experienced recruits, found themselves exposed to a hail of criticism.

The moral high ground is firmly in the hands of Marcus Rashford, who has 3.7 million followers on Twitter, to whom he declares in his Pinned Tweet: “It’s time we put party politics aside and worked together to find a long-term sustainable solution to child food poverty in the UK.”

The only practical response to such a statement is to agree with it. Rashford must be treated as an ally, not an adversary, and any accidental exchanges of fire with Rashford’s supporters must be replaced by whole-hearted co-operation in the great cause of feeding the nation’s children.

Instead of which, Downing Street failed to see there was a problem, let alone to grip it, and the Chief Whip, Mark Spencer, expressed the hope that Conservative MPs would have a great half term.

Backbenchers feel Downing Street does not take them seriously, and does not realise they can act as a valuable early warning system, exposed as they are to public opinion in their constituencies.

The letter to the Prime Minister on Monday from over 50 Conservative MPs in northern seats, expressing the fear that the Government’s levelling up agenda is being abandoned, is a further sign that normal methods of communication with Downing Street are reckoned to have broken down.

All Prime Ministers find themselves accused, from time to time, of failing to listen to their own backbenchers. One should not imagine that it is unusual for the leader to seem, especially to his or her own troops, to have become cut off in Downing Street, isolated from normal human emotions, unable any more to see how the poll tax will strike ordinary, sensible voters.

But it is a bit early for Boris Johnson to start suffering from this condition. Part of the trouble is that as long as the pandemic rages, he cannot play his natural game, which is to get out and meet people.

A second problem is that he has never taken the House of Commons seriously. He is by no means the only Tory leader of whom this could be said: neither Theresa May nor David Cameron was really a House of Commons person.

But it is still a pity that Johnson has never had the time or the inclination to get to know his fellow parliamentarians better.

Nor, so far as one can see, does anyone else in Downing Street really know them, or possess that awareness of shifts in parliamentary opinion which is the fruit of long experience.

This is, in fact, an inexperienced administration, containing few ministers or advisers who have been around for more than a few years.

Johnson himself, as I noted when writing my account of his early life, likes to learn how to do things by actually doing them. This was how he approached being Mayor of London, and it began to work once he had found immensely knowledgeable people like Sir Simon Milton who could do the bits he was never going to learn how to do.

There is a kind of high-minded commentator who implies that in the right hands, i.e. those of someone as gifted as the commentator, government can be an exact science. This rhetorical device serves to show in an even worse light the errors made by the present incumbent. We could have had perfection, and instead we have to put up with this.

The public is generally more charitable. It recognises that in coping with a crisis like the pandemic, an element of trial and error is unavoidable.

But there comes a point where it expects that lessons will have been learned from the errors. And it is on this capacity to learn from mistakes that the success of Johnson’s prime ministership will depend.

Robert Sutton: Conservatives have abandoned free market principles in the quest for environmentalism

27 Oct

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

A trend over the last decade in British politics has been a convergence of the major political parties towards near-consensus on environmental issues. Their thesis is that our current economic system will lead us towards environmental catastrophe; that the only way to avoid such catastrophe is radical innovation of that economic system; and that it must be the Government which leads this radical innovation.

Despite the impression given by media coverage and the doomsayers of the Twittersphere, these clauses are neither internally undisputed nor natural consequences of each other. Global warming is a generally accepted phenomenon, with a strong empirical basis in historic climate data and a convincing theoretical basis in our understanding of the physical chemistry of the atmosphere.

What is much less well understood is the future trajectory, the range of possible outcomes, and what policy positions might be inferred from those uncertain outcomes (for those unclear about the distinction between scientific models and reality, the current pandemic has given us some important lessons.)

That has not halted the political convergence on the necessity for urgent action. But for the Conservatives, the adoption of the rhetoric of climate catastrophism and the unquestioning call for an eco-friendly planned economy puts us in an internal ideological conflict with one of our most valued principles: that no central economic control can outperform the efficiency of the free market in exchanging resources, maximising returns on labour and assigning value to products and services. Government interventions invariably introduce inefficiencies. The best way to encourage innovation is for governments to cut regulations and generally stay out of the way.

Yet this principle seems to have taken a back seat as the proclamations of the most pessimistic of environmental oracles dominates the policy conversation. The proposals suggested in the 2019 Conservative manifesto pointed towards an economic intervention of a scale not attempted by any government since the Second World War. There is an assumption that the principle of the free market is flexible if the goal of the economic intervention is sufficiently noble.

One red flag was the apparent interchangeability of the major parties in their pledges for the 2019 general election. The Conservatives stood for “reaching Net Zero by 2050 with investment in clean energy solutions and green infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions and pollution” and “investing in R&D; decarbonisation schemes; new flood defences…; electric vehicle infrastructure…; and clean energy.” These enormous government spending plans were proposed despite the simultaneous claim that “we believe that free markets, innovation and prosperity can protect the planet.”

Labour had similar prescriptions: “More rewarding, well-paid jobs, lower energy bills and whole new industries to revive parts of our country,” while scalding Conservatives for “leav[ing] the fate of whole industries and communities at the mercy of market forces.” The Liberal Democrats predictably followed suit, but with the added promises to plant over 100 trees per minute for the foreseeable future and an entirely unenforceable “legally binding target” on emissions for future parliaments to promptly ignore.

None of these proposals recognises the true economic or human impact of such an artificial remodelling of our entire society. Nor have they provided concrete plans for how these radical transitions might be carried out (with job losses being strategically ignored.) And those new jobs which are flaunted are unlikely to be efficient or self-sustaining. Once government support is pulled, they have a habit of promptly drying up as the reality of weak demand sets in.

The Government has a moral obligation to take sensible steps to build a regulatory environment which supports the protection of our natural one. But there is no amount of cutting red tape which will make buying a Tesla instantly affordable to the masses or will allow electric vehicle charging points to pop up on every street corner overnight. The mass repurposing of territory for solar, wind and hydroelectric requires that land be taken from someone and kept for the foreseeable future.

These barriers cannot be lowered quickly through deregulation alone. There are considerable economic, technological and logistical problems. However much some argue for state intervention on an unprecedented scale to rebuild our economy as an eco-friendly arcadia, there is no way this can be done on a short time-scale without great pain and waste. The bloat of a government attempting to rebuild our entire economic machine in an idealist vision would be horrifying to anyone calling themselves a fiscal conservative.

Green conservatism’s flaws are tied to the ideological fragility of one-nationism. In trying to be all things to all people, we have sacrificed free market economics at the altar of environmental catastrophism. We have abandoned a basic principle of our ideology for a policy position which has yet to be clearly articulated. To embrace the radical goals of the environmental lobby would require imposing further market distortions at a time when the economy is already haemorrhaging from the self-inflicted wounds of the Government’s severe and unremitting Coronavirus response.

The current government has struggled to articulate a positive vision for environmental policy. As such, we are forced to act as a brake on the radical proposals of left-wing organisations who have the media and public rapt, slowing the movement but inevitably drawn in their direction.

Conservatism is about more than tempering the madness of the left. We need an honest and consistent position on this most pressing of policy issues. Facing up to the absurdity of our current inter-party arms race to see who can come up with the boldest pledge to save the planet would be a good place to start. Net zero by 2050 sounds nice but is conveniently beyond reproach or scrutiny for at least the next six parliamentary terms.

A transition to a low-carbon economy will happen at some point. The limit to the reserves of fossil fuels necessitates this. But it must happen organically. Using state aid to drive the transition is incompatible with innovation. The British automotive industry of the 1970s was an example of the stagnation which occurs when a government permits market distortions in order to achieve political means: the workers, consumers and companies each suffer.

Some would argue that the dichotomy between environmentally-motivated economic intervention and free markets is a false one and that we can, in some unspecified way, have our cake and eat it too. This implies a flexible understanding of at least one of these principles. Conservatives should advocate for a realistic and distinct stance on environmentalism, and one which does not require the sacrifice of our key principles.

Julian Brazier: Outdoor residential centres are of huge importance to young people – but they are near closure

26 Oct

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Daily, every organ of the media carries concerns about parts of our economy and wider society which are in desperate straits from Covid. One group which has been largely forgotten, however, are the outdoor residential centres. These provide an opportunity for adventure and outside activity for young people, through schools, scout, guide and other youth groups and summer camps.

As a trustee of the Summer Camps Trust, I have had a briefing from our membership organisations, some of which are household names in the youth adventure sector. The picture is not just bleak, it is dire. The current ruling from the Department for Education is that residential outdoor centres cannot accept overnight bookings. Without some movement on Covid restrictions, the majority of the sector is at risk of closure.

This matters. When so many young people live an indoor life based around social media, when obesity, loneliness and mental illness are increasing, it is surely obvious that giving children and adolescents the opportunity to test themselves in the rugged outdoors and to develop teamwork, leadership and build lasting friendships is important.

In its 2018 report, the CBI commented on: “the central importance of a positive attitude and broader skills such as resilience, communication, problem-solving and aiming high both at work and in life.”

These are all central aspects of what youngsters gain through structured outdoor adventure. Yet in a letter to the Prime Minister, UK Outdoors says:

“Nearly 3000 jobs have already been lost and many outdoor education facilities have permanently closed as over £500m of revenue has been lost… If there is no change before the Spring term, half of outdoor education capacity will be lost permanently alongside over 10,000 jobs.”

Like other industries, such centres have been able to benefit from furlough payments and the sector has tried hard to stay on the front foot, encouraging day visits where practicable, and getting representatives into schools and youth clubs to drum up support for the future.

But this cannot last. Even after making valuable skilled staff redundant, the wage bill for the core has to be paid. Maintenance of buildings, often in exposed locations, cannot stop. This is a sector where margins have always been tight – nobody grows rich in it – so there is little fat to fall back on. The same restrictions are wrecking the cadet movement, preventing them from using either those same residential centres or MoD property.

So why is this happening? The most recent letter from the Department for Education to those raising concerns quotes the following advice for schools on residential educational visits:

“Public Health England has advised that the resumption of residential visits will unnecessarily increase the risk of transmission of the virus due to a number of factors, some of which are listed below:

  • increased social interaction of groups of children and adults outside of their established bubbles;
  • increased contact time with others in an indoor setting;
  • sharing bedroom facilities;
  • sharing of accommodation more broadly and close living arrangements (including sharing facilities such as canteens, showers and toilets); and
  • additional travel across country and the interaction with others that the children and adults accompanying them would not otherwise encounter.”

In practice, such advice has to be treated by schools as an instruction unless they wish to open themselves up to the risk of litigation on several fronts.

It is worth unpicking the factors listed. First of all, school groups, (the largest category) are already in bubbles and – despite some valiant efforts by many schools, it is geographically inescapable that the children mix more widely in their schools. They share “canteens, showers and toilets”. Nevertheless few organisations are as flexible – and have as much experience in managing risk – as outdoor residential centres – and most of their activities are, as the name suggests, outdoor.

The whole operation is far less disruptive to anti-Covid measures than our universities which – alone of European countries – are based on a model in where the vast majority of students study away from home. Six times a year, hundreds of thousands of young people travel across Britain to random locations, breaking up home bubbles to travel between campuses and home.

Even as someone who has called for a smaller, more local, university sector on this site, I recognise that to depart from this model in a Big Bang (with no end in sight) would bring our universities to their knees. Few students would pay £9,000 a year for online courses, and none would pay for university accommodation barred to them.

Are we really saying that hundreds of thousands of young people can move six times a year randomly, and yet that school children, who are less likely to pass on infections, cannot travel together from their schools to get an opportunity which for many is the only affordable way they will experience outdoor adventure?

A closer parallel group are boarding schools. As a Conservative, the politics of envy is the last thing I wish to promote, but can it be right that the children of better-off families continue to enjoy all the benefits of private residential education but those of less well-off parents are denied an opportunity to go away even once to see what the great outdoors has to offer? In practice boarding schools are using sensible mitigation measures just as residential centres are doing on their (sadly rare) day parties.

Allowing school groups back to residential centres will save many of them, but I feel bound to make the wider case. Cadet, Scout and Guide groups give huge opportunities to youngsters and the best social mixing of all is the traditional summer camps model, bringing children together from across the country and a range of backgrounds.

If we are going to continue to allow universities and boarding schools to continue, it is time we allowed the same for the struggling residential outdoor sector. Access to natural spaces for the most disadvantaged, those from low socioeconomic and some minority ethnic groups, has reduced dramatically since lockdown and these groups often only gain access through school and youth trips. The mental health of a generation has been affected. We need to see these centres reopen up if this is not to worsen.

Two MPs have raised this issue, my good friend, James Gray – with his expertise in Polar adventure – and the Liberal Democrat, Tim Farron, whose Cumbria constituency is a national centre for outdoor adventure. It is good news that the Government has committed to reviewing the guidance in November. Let us hope for a change of heart.

Vaccine optimism has gripped the nation. But the Government’s reliance on it will fade away.

22 Oct

In recent months, there has been huge enthusiasm over the possibility of a Covid-19 vaccine. I know because I have experienced it myself, dreaming of the day I roll my sleeve up in the GP surgery; small pain, big gain, I might whisper to myself. Everyone wants a way out of this nightmare, and with every Government announcement of investment for vaccine studies, it was easy to get carried away – that this was the way out.

Over the weekend, the prospect of a vaccine became all the more palpable when The Mail on Sunday released photographs from inside US pharmaceutical company Pfizer’s Belgian factory, in which thousands of doses were whisked through the production line. That same day, The Sunday Times reported that Jonathan Van-Tam, one of the Government’s chief scientific advisors, has said that one version, manufactured by AstraZeneca, could be ready as early as December.

But why all the excitement? For shortly afterwards Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, delivered a crushing blow to the vaccine dream, telling those on the joint committee on National Security Strategy that the “notion of eliminating Covid is not right”. He added that the disease would “start to look like annual flu more than anything else and that may be the direction we end up going.”

Vallance’s words should remind us that while the Government initially placed a lot of political hope in a vaccine, ministers are actually moving in a different direction now – to a new testing programme entirely. As Paul Goodman wrote for ConservativeHome on Monday, this would involve rapid “lateral-flow” tests, which render a tracing programme obsolete, as well as the Government using LAMP tests – concentrated on testing asymptomatic NHS staff.

This is a sensible direction – for all the excitement around vaccines, the truth is that they’re just as likely to have major hiccups as test and trace. That much is obvious from both medical and political perspectives.

On the first front, what’s obvious is that it’s incredibly hard to completely vaccinate against a virus. Indeed, smallpox is the only disease that has ever been completely eradicated by a vaccine. Kate Bingham, the chairman of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, has said that a Coronavirus vaccine would probably have the same success rate as the flu jab (50 per cent). But even that could be optimistic. SARS and MERS come from the same Coronavirus family, and do not have vaccines (though there are candidates being developed for MERS).

Optimists will point out that the World Health Organisation is currently tracking 196 studies into Covid-19, which is a fantastic number. Even so, an expert in medical innovation tells me it’s quite hard to make predictions about which will be a success – because of the ways vaccines are created. They tell me that “the vast majority of majority of new drugs and vaccines that are developed fail. It’s not like a construction project, where you know it’s possible to build the building, but you can run into unforeseen issues.”

“It’s more like you don’t know if you’re taking the right approach to constructing the building in the first place, and it may never get built. There are multiple approaches to vaccine development and it’s not clear yet which may or may not succeed.”

If we do get a vaccine, the next big hurdle is making sure it passes rigorous safety assessments that could add a lot more time onto the process. It can be expected that some governments will try to bypass important regulatory processes (the Chinese government has allowed citizens to get a vaccine that hasn’t completed clinical trials, with people queueing up for it).

And then there’s the next question of who gets the vaccine. This is already causing a political headache, especially when (aforementioned) Bingham said that only 30 million of the 67 million people who live in Britain woud get a vaccine. Already MPs are getting ready for warfare; in the House of Commons yesterday, James Grundy, the Conservative MP for Leigh, asked the Government to prioritise areas which have lived with restrictions longest when and if the vaccine comes.

This is far too premature a question, incidentally; there is no vaccine, and when it arrives there’ll be a global response to who gets it (i.e. the UK will have to share it out with other countries). Yet Grundy’s words demonstrate some heated arguments to come – that the Government will no doubt want to avoid with its new testing strategy.

So it is no wonder that the Government is moving away from its initial idea. Ben Spencer, the Conservative MP for Runnymede and Weybridge and previously a psychiatrist, has recently written about the need for Plan B in the UK’s management of Covid-19. He tells me: “I really hope we are successful in inventing a vaccine that helps and saves lives, but we have to make plans on the basis that there won’t be one, or at least one which isn’t a game changer.”

“Although it’s difficult picking apart the figures for flu alone, it’s worth remembering that in 2019, 26,000 people died from influenza and pneumonia, despite having an effective vaccination programme in place for the flu in the UK.”

It seems that the need for another plan is what the Government has sensed, and that’s why it has gone for a new strategy, having had to navigate such difficult areas. It’s clear that the vaccine isn’t the silver bullet many of us imagined. The quickest way the Government can avoid the horrible political scramble that is about to emerge is spurring on its new programme. The pressure is on…

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson may have no right to feel confident, but for some reason he does

21 Oct

On one side of the Chamber, Candide, also known as Boris Johnson, conveying his unshakeable belief that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and in the United Kingdom we are additionally fortunate to have the best of all possible Prime Ministers.

On the other side of the Chamber, the anti-Candide, also known as Sir Keir Starmer, conveying his sorrowful conviction that Tier Three is, as he put it today, “the worst of all worlds”.

Optimism versus pessimism, hope versus fear, faith versus scepticism. Johnson sounded more trenchant than we have heard him at any point since his near-death experience in April.

The difficulties in his relationship with Manchester had not left him downcast. He loves going out in rough weather, feels himself braced by the rocking motion of the ship of state, had at his disposal the information he required and assured his passengers that together they will win through to happier and healthier days.

Sir Keir spoke for all those passengers who find that a frankly unbelievable promise. But somehow Sir Keir’s blows today did not land. He could not find some way to embarrass the curiously optimistic man at the helm.

Johnson said it was “a bit incoherent” of the Leader of the Opposition “to attack local lockdowns when he wants to plunge the whole country into lockdown”.

But the Prime Minister said this in a more magnanimous tone than he has employed in recent exchanges with Sir Keir. Johnson today presented himself as a unifying figure, respectful even towards those members of the Opposition who suggested, as several of them did, that he wants to grind the faces of the poor.

“I really think the Prime Minister’s crossed a Rubicon here,” Sir Keir protested, “not just with the miserly way he’s treated Greater Manchester, but the grubby take it or leave it way these local deals are being done. It’s corrosive to public trust to pit region against region, mayor against mayor, council against council.”

The Prime Minister refrained from pointing out, in the manner of a classical scholar, that there is only one Rubicon, and he has not crossed it. Nor did he insist he is not Julius Caesar.

Johnson instead ensured there was nothing miserly in his own demeanour. He came before the House as a unifying figure, “proud of the One Nation support we’ve given”, appreciative of the tremendous efforts being made in every part of the country, confident we shall together win through.

It was hard to see anything more Sir Keir could have done today. For he faced a Prime Minister who may have no right to feel confident, but for some reason does.

Lucy Winkett: Churches have played a vital role throughout Covid. But their buildings are increasingly under threat.

20 Oct

The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, a writer and broadcaster. 

The new House of Good report by the National Churches Trust confirmed in figures what I, as Rector of a central London church, see in everyday life. Church buildings, whether in urban or rural areas, can be and often are, hubs of community activity inspired by, but not constrained by, their central religious purpose on a Sunday.

The Covid-19 pandemic is causing isolation, loneliness, mental fragility and economic deprivation on a huge scale. Churches provide enormous value, far beyond what is often a small gathered congregation once a week or a couple of times a month.   

It may seem a strange thing for the church to do; to try to quantify in hard data, what the value of its work is. On one level, of course this is right; our main activity – prayer and worship – is almost by definition, immeasurable. But what the report calls the “Halo effect” is key. There are social, economic and cultural activities undertaken by churches in their local communities that can be measured.

The report, which for the first time evaluates the economic and social impact of churches, found them to be contributing services worth £12.4 billion: a combination of direct market value, volunteers’ time, the replacement cost of services and wellbeing value based on the wellbeing adjusted life year (WELLBY) measurement. 

Like many other churches, for years St James’s Church, Piccadilly has provided care and support for anyone who passes by, whether they are local workers, people going through homelessness or people in need of someone to talk to. Churches throughout the UK in every denomination are hosting food banks, addiction support services, mental health support and youth services. The need for these community-building initiatives is greater than ever.  

Although much has been written about church worship going digital as a result of Covid-19, much less attention has been paid to the way that churches have continued to provide help for people in need. While the pandemic closed church buildings for some time, the House of Good report has found that 89 per cent of church communities have continued to provide a range of help to local people, including a highly adaptive approach to the worship itself.

The need for this provision is bound to increase as businesses close and work across the hospitality, travel and cultural sectors dries up and more people are experiencing financial hardship. Families with one or two parents out of work, or in uncertain work, are increasingly resorting to food banks, the majority of which are housed in churches.

More people are now isolated or lonely, deprived of their usual social interactions and unable to meet up with loved ones. This has had a massive impact on mental health and on drug and alcohol abuse – and this will drive up the need for the counselling services and addiction support meetings which take place in church buildings. And the cheery socially distanced coffee morning, which might be the sole social contact for some, is taking on renewed importance as churches find the determination to adapt the old ways of gathering people together.  

But these buildings themselves are under threat, especially in the most deprived areas of the UK. These churches, often hundreds of years old, contend with crumbling roofs, deteriorating church halls, and inadequate kitchen and toilet facilities, which can make them unsuitable for the community help they provide and can lead to them being closed altogether.  

900 churches in the UK are currently on the Historic England “at risk” register and, on average, one Church of England church closes every fortnight. The National Churches Trust is approached by several hundred churches every year who are struggling to afford essential repairs and maintenance of their buildings, but they can only afford to fund one quarter of these applications. 

Many people think that church authorities or government pay for the upkeep of the UK’s church buildings. But it is actually up to parishes themselves to raise the money needed to repair a leaking roof or fix a crumbling spire. Very often, the sums needed are not large, but what this report shows is that the investment, however small, has an amplifier effect in terms of the good work that can be generated in a building that has a functioning toilet, a secure roof, a working boiler.

Because of their strategic importance, Government and the National Lottery Heritage Fund have an important role to play in helping to keep church buildings in good repair. 

Following on the successful “Taylor Pilots” run by Historic England, the NCT report shows that the Government could and should examine how best to establish a new repair and maintenance fund for places of worship. The social and economic benefit of doing so is now plain, and outlined in the data contained in this report.

Simple steps can be taken to increase the social and economic impact that church buildings can have on their localities. The Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme pays for the VAT incurred in works to listed buildings in use as places of worship. In October 2019 it was announced that the scheme is to be extended by the Treasury for a further year until March 2021. This scheme should be guaranteed for at least the next five years, to provide certainty for churches undertaking repair projects. 

The devolved administrations and local authorities also have a role to play in providing a strategic overview for church buildings. This could include imaginative funding schemes, such as the Community Facilities Programme in Wales, which has provided grants to a wide range of buildings, including places of worship. 

Church buildings are “key places” – a ready-made network of responsive hubs that look after the care and wellbeing of the local community.

Together, let’s make sure these Houses of Good remain at the heart of the communities for which they were built – and can continue to play an integral part in the building of community and strengthening of society among all of us, from all faiths and none.

Emma Revell: The triple-lock for state pensions is not a priority right now. Guaranteeing young people’s futures is.

20 Oct

Emma Revell is Head of Communications at the IEA.

Young people are having a rough year. They are at mercifully low risk from Coronavirus but they have nonetheless endured months at home with no schooling, isolated from friends, cared for by flustered parents juggling Zoom meetings and childcare, and wondering why they must wave at granny from across the road. Their older siblings may have had academic achievements thrown into jeopardy and university places removed then restored, only to find freshers week more like serving time.

18-24-year olds have witnessed jobs in hospitality and retail vanish. Some have “celebrated” virtual graduation ceremonies with little hope of a graduate position come the autumn. This is before we mention the financial burden of paying back the colossal government debt accrued over the past seven months or, perhaps more likely, the interest on that debt.

Who is fighting their corner? Where are the political leaders willing to stand up and advocate for young people, speaking out against the constant wedge being pushed between generations, that leaves each generation less likely to reach the level of personal attainment and comfort achieved by those that came before?

After a slow start, civil liberties campaigners found their voice in Parliament, with Steve Baker, then Graham Brady, then a slow trickle of others across the political spectrum beginning to speak out against Coronavirus measures, especially those imposed without parliamentary scrutiny. So why have young people not got the same attention?

Inter-generational inequality can be seen in almost every policy area – but nowhere more so than housing. It is one of the most pressing issues on the domestic policy agenda. But the failure of successive governments to build sufficient new housing stock means dreams of home ownership slip out of reach, or even imagination, for the children and grandchildren of baby boomers. The average UK house costs eight times an average salary, almost double the ratio in the early 1990s. In London it is thirteen times average wages.

Is this an issue the Prime Minister, the latest in a long line of political leaders to trot out the old saying “generation buy not generation rent”, is tackling head on? No. Instead Boris Johnson used his speech to party conference last week to suggest policies to facilitate 95 per cent mortgages, inflating demand yet again while refusing to tackle supply, replicating the problems created by Help to Buy.

He also recently pledged to protect 30 per cent of UK’s countryside by 2030 and his government is facing a backlash over a new algorithm to calculate where new homes should be built. Outrage focuses on the seeming desire of the Tory heartlands to protect the value of their house prices, with scant regard paid to the fact that this is yet another government that will fail to allow house building in sufficient numbers and condemn yet more people to a life living in rented, shared accommodation, unable to put down roots or start families.

At a time when the country is faced with pressure on the public purse, delaying fertility and the associated complications, including a lower birth rate, is something the Government should be seeking to prevent, not actively contributing to.

It is hard to over-state the catastrophic performance of the UK housing market in recent years. Between 1991 and 2016, the proportion of 25- to 39-year-olds who own their own home almost halved. For those under 24, it is now just 10 per cent. A report published by the Centre for Policy Studies last year showed that the increase in homes owned by private landlords between 205 and 2015 was higher than the number of new homes built in the same period. Effectively every new home built for a decade was bought to rent out, not sold to an individual or a couple looking to get on the housing ladder for themselves.

News of the Chancellor’s commitment to maintaining the triple-lock may have pleased pensioners, but it irked many others. Arguably the worst policy introduced under the Coalition government, it guarantees a state pension uplift every April of whichever is the highest: inflation, average earnings growth or 2.5 per cent. It means pensioners are guaranteed an annual increase in their state pension even if the rest of the taxpaying country is faced with wage freezes and unemployment, alongside a spiralling bill for public sector borrowing.

The young especially, who are more likely to be in insecure work, low paid work, or unemployed, will be languishing on Universal Credit, which incidentally could face a cut in April as the temporary uplift comes to an end.

This needn’t be the case. It isn’t difficult to imagine a vision for house building which rests on being able to provide decent, secure homes in which young people can start families, set up businesses, or stay close to their families. It is politically difficult but not impossible to tell granny and grandad that a slightly smaller increase, or a freeze, in their pensions allowance is necessary to set their grandchildren on the path to prosperity.

The voices of young people are always difficult to hear in British politics. They are often disengaged, much less likely to vote than their elders, and certainly less likely to vote for the party that has held the purse strings for the last decade. But none of this is an excuse for the inability of our political leaders to recognise, let alone act to mitigate, the damage their policies are doing to the youngest in society.