Will Holloway: The challenges awaiting Ministers and MPs as Parliament returns today

11 Jan

Will Holloway is the Deputy Director of the think tank Onward and a former Special Adviser.

This is not the New Year reset that the Government was hoping for. Parliament has returned not to slowing transmission and a gradual reopening of the economy, but to the worst elements of last year: a lockdown, surging infection rates and all the hardship both entail.

But as easy as it is to be depressed with the new start of term, we should recognise that we are entering the final furlong of this crisis. And now that Brexit negotiations will no longer absorb political oxygen, the Government has an opportunity to push ahead not just with vaccinations, but with delivering the promises made on doorsteps in 2019.

As the final months of 2020 have demonstrated, progress can be made at speed. Trade deals are renowned for taking years to negotiate – take for example, the EU-Canada trade deal that took seven years – but the recently agreed EU/UK agreement that covers everything from security to energy bucked the trend, and was finalised in less than a year. 

Even though it can sometimes take more than a decade to develop a new drug, vaccines for Covid were developed within the year. The UK is now fourth globally for doses of vaccine administered per 100 people. We have access to more than 350 million vaccine doses through a range of companies – the first of which have been approved by the independent regulator. Subsequent candidates will be submitted for approval in the near future.

Taken together, this means that enough vaccines have been procured to protect the whole of the UK population several times over. We have been fast to act while other European countries trail behind. Despite not having a major diagnostics manufacturing base in the UK, and at a time when countries around the world were competing for the same products, hundreds of thousands of Covid tests are now conducted every day.

Indeed, since the onset of the pandemic, less than a year ago, over 55 million tests have been carried out, and the UK is now testing more than any other advanced economy per 1,000 people.These are achievements that many would have regarded as impossible at the onset of the pandemic, and show what can be achieved with focus, resolve and urgency. It should be a lesson for the rest of the Parliament.

Already, we are a quarter of the way through this term and time is quickly running away. This year could be make or break for the Government’s new voter coalition. Not only will this year hold the first major test internationally of what the Government stands for globally post-Brexit, with the UK chairing the G7 and hosting of the COP26 climate summit, but it could face its first electoral test since the general election.

Should the elections go ahead, even if later in the year, the campaigns will inevitably be different, but the impact will be no less significant. While commentators are likely to focus on the Scottish Parliamentary elections, and the subsequent implications that they will have for the future of the Union, as well as the London mayoral elections, the results elsewhere may prove to be more of a bellwether for the behaviour of the 2019 general election coalition of Conservative voters.

As Onward’s landmark research before the election and a year on from it showed, the Prime Minister has a historic opportunity to build a new, lasting support base. The research found that Conservative voters – both “southern” and “Red Wall” conservatives – are more likely on balance to lean to the left, albeit marginally, on the economy and to the right on socio-economic issues.

Those who backed the Conservatives at the last general election are economically more interventionist, on balance supporting more regulation rather than less, as well as efforts to retrain workers, while at the same time backing a tough approach to crime and immigration.

With record levels of police recruitment, the launch of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee enabling adults to benefit from hundreds of fully-funded courses, and one of the biggest efforts to protect jobs and livelihoods in peacetime history, the government has a strong record of delivery on voters’ priorities.

But the biggest outstanding promise lies ahead. With Brexit done, the Prime Minister said that the Government’s focus will be to “level up and spread opportunity across the country”. A mission not without challenge, given the recent poll results to suggest that a third of voters had never heard of levelling up.

But terminology aside, increasing opportunities in communities that have for years seen prospects fail to be recognised is one of the great prizes available to the Government. To sustainably and successfully achieve that aim requires bold thinking and ruthless focus. We need to look ahead of the curve.

For example, Onward’s new research on Net Zero found that up to 10 million jobs may be affected as a result of the drive towards decarbonisation over the next 29 years, and the need to plan for and support the shift.  We need to ask challenging questions: what impact do taxes have on different parts of the country? How can innovation be spread beyond the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle?  And now that we have left the European Union, how can the UK attract more foreign direct investment outside of the usual areas?

Success will involve bending every area of policy to achieve the objective. It is by no means assured. With an unforeseen global pandemic throwing a spanner into the machinery of government, combined with commitments for new infrastructure projects and legislative changes that will take time to come into effect, the pressure is on.

And the stakes are high. It is instructive that only a 4.3 per cent swing to Labour would be needed to generate a hung parliament in 2024. Anything more could deliver an SNP-Labour coalition.  Failure to deliver in the next 12 months may result in the loss of the majority in Parliament, and a return to the stasis and acrimony that succeeded the 2017 result. Success will mean a lasting change, a political realignment across the country, and a consolidated base of support for the future.

Mark Shelford: Independent Police and Crime Commissioners are less accountable than party politicians

14 Dec

Mark Shelford is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for Avon and Somerset

Bristol-born merchant, philanthropist, and slave-trader, Edward Colston, is not the only public figure to have fallen dramatically in public estimation in the West of England in recent months. As his statue was toppled in June, Colston also brought crashing down with him the reputation of the Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner, Sue Mountstevens.

It is quite a fall for Mountstevens, who was re-elected to her post as an independent in 2016. She is one of only four remaining non-party PCCs across England and Wales. Interestingly, two of the other three are from the West. The police forces covering Gloucestershire and Dorset also have independents attempting to hold them to account.

The cry of “keep politics out of policing” resonated in parts of the country in 2012 but has been increasingly silent nationwide ever since. In 2016, seven independent PCCs were replaced by Conservatives and after the events of the last few weeks, attitudes here in the West of England are also shifting.

The limitations of Independent candidates are being increasingly exposed. An analysis of ONS statistics published earlier this year highlights areas with the lowest crime rates, across a wide range of offences. These overwhelmingly have Conservatives in charge. Avon and Somerset is listed just once as a good performer, under “miscellaneous crime”.

The idea that frontline policing should not be party political is beyond argument. The police must enforce the law, and keep order, without fear or favour. Ensuring police forces and their Chief Constables uphold this principle is an important part of the job for the 40 PCCs in England and Wales, plus the Mayors of London and Greater Manchester, who fulfil the same role.

But in the West of England, while there is sympathy with the general sentiments expressed by those demonstrating in Bristol last June, attitudes towards how the police acted, and have policed large unlawful public gatherings since, are much less nuanced. Most local people I speak to, from across the political spectrum, remain aghast at local police leaders’ chosen approach.

Many hoped that the relaxed attitude to keeping order taken by the force leadership would be at least questioned by the PCC. Sadly, “independent” Mountstevens not only took no such action, she wholeheartedly endorsed the police leadership approach. Not long after Colston’s fall, Mountstevens issued a rather extraordinary statement, which suggested that if there were enough protesters, if they appeared potentially violent, and if they were protesting against something deemed politically incorrect, the current Police and Crime Commissioner was more than happy for the police not to intervene. And, as an independent, for her, that was the end of the matter. Would a party politician have been able to make such a statement and then move on unchallenged?

Now Mountstevens’ newly-appointed deputy (and conveniently for her, her former chief executive, John Smith) is being lined up to stand for election as an independent to replace her when she steps down next May. In what appears an overly-cosy relationship between the Avon and Somerset operational and political police offices, Smith’s appointment as deputy PCC was endorsed in writing by the current Chief Constable – on the face of it a peculiar blurring of the lines between operational independence and political oversight.

What will “independent” John Smith’s views be on holding the police to account, and how will voters know? What guarantee can there be that his independent views, whatever they are, will remain consistent, were he to be elected? What checks will there be, and from whom, to ensure this independent sticks to his campaign promises? And can residents be sure he will exercise effective oversight of a Chief Constable who recommended him for his current job?

Contrast such an independent candidate with me, running as a Conservative. Voters know what they will get from me on law and order – effectiveness and efficiency, support for frontline officers and putting the victims of crime first. If there were any question of me deviating from that position, there would be plenty of people, not least in my own party, ready to haul me over the coals. There is a democratic party structure which delivers checks and balances and protects voters. Independents have none of this to worry about. Once elected, they can do as much, or as little, as they please.

In the past few months, I have met community groups, parish councils, MPs, and councillors of all parties and none, across this region. As a former councillor myself, I know how important this direct contact is. I have talked to hundreds of party members, alongside members of the general public and serving police officers. A key role of the PCC is to be the voice of the public. My political links and experience would mean I’d have no choice but to be accountable to the public. I couldn’t get away with avoiding public meetings or not responding to concerns raised by the public. There is no way I, as a party politician, could retreat to a cosy cabal of advisers and cronies, even if I wanted to.

An independent PCC like Mountstevens or her prospective replacement, John Smith, is indeed independent of the day-to-day scrutiny which any party politician has to deal with, and especially Conservative politicians when it comes to law and order. The public know we have to deliver. It’s a leap into the dark with independents.

Across the West of England, the notion that those overseeing the local police should be ‘independent’ is an idea whose time has gone. Roll on the PCC elections next May. From what local residents are telling me, they can’t come soon enough.

Benjamin Obese-Jecty: How to take back control of the narrative about foreign national offender deportations

8 Dec

Ben Obese-Jecty is a former British Army Infantry Officer and stood as the candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 2019 General Election.

In November 2014 Jermaine Stewart was jailed for six years for the rape of a woman who had fallen asleep on his sofa after meeting him on a night out in Liverpool and returning with him to his flat for an after-party. Stewart had removed the clothes of the victim whilst she was incapacitated and raped her. As a condition he will be required to sign the sex offenders register for life.

Last week, Stewart was among 37 Jamaican Foreign National Offenders removed from a Home Office deportation flight at the eleventh hour after a sustained campaign by lawyers, Labour MPs, and a number of black celebrities and activists who had written an open letter demanding that the flight be stopped.

The topic of deportation flights has become an increasingly contentious issue post-Windrush, with any action that can be linked to the scandal likely to see its name invoked and an immediate corollary with injustice, incompetence and institutional racism. The issue that the Government has faced stems from underestimating how those opposing the deportation would seize the opportunity to leverage the situation to their advantage.

Control of the narrative around foreign national offender deportations must be regained from the left. Gifting the left-leaning media the opportunity to convince sceptical members of the public that the rationale for these deportations is one based on persecution, rather than a matter of public safety (under legislation brought in by the Labour Party), could easily be avoided.

The open letter sent to Priti Patel by Detention Action, signed by celebrities and activists, was a prime example of how effective the tactics employed by those on the left can be. Amongst the 90 signatories were supermodel Naomi Campbell, actors Naomie Harris and Thandie Newton OBE, historian David Olusoga, journalist Afua Hirsch, and Sky News anchor Gillian Joseph.

The breadth of the letter’s signatories, and the individual platform and reach each enjoys, has allowed the narrative to be dictated by a small group with the media’s ear, glossing over the uncomfortable truth of those on the deportation flight because it is inconvenient to their cause and instead choosing to pitch the removal of serious and violent criminals as an injustice.

A further letter written by Clive Lewis MP, and signed by 70 opposition backbench MPs, made direct reference to the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment, intimating that these deportations were a direct consequence. This letter also made no reference to the criminal records or serious crimes perpetrated by those in scope for removal, nor of the duty to deport them as set out in the UK Borders Act 2007. Somewhat awkwardly for the Labour signatories to Lewis’s letter, eight of them had voted for the legislation in 2007, including Diane Abbott, Dawn Butler and Jeremy Corbyn.

Nine months ago, a YouGov poll commissioned following February’s deportation flight to Jamaica asked: under which circumstances foreign-born offenders should be deported? Whilst the majority of respondents were in favour of individuals who had committed a serious offence being deported if they had come to the UK as an adult, this fell to less than 50 per cent once other factors were considered; whether the individual had a partner or children, whether they came to the UK as a teenager or child, or whether they were at risk of violence or would lack access to healthcare.

The human-interest angle is thus where campaigners have focused their efforts, and where appeals are (often successfully) made under section 117C of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.

Allowing those on the left to control the narrative around Jamaican deportations specifically means little in isolation. However, with Twitter now a barometer of left-leaning outrage rather than national opinion, and a Change.org petition calling for a stop to deportation flights having raised in excess of 180,000 signatories, the lack of understanding feeds into the wider narrative that the Conservatives are a racist party and Government actions are part of a dastardly masterplan to oppress ethnic minorities. Its reputation risks death by a thousand cuts

With nearly a third of Labour MPs, including almost all members of the Socialist Campaign Group, having signed Lewis’s letter, the Government should reiterate Labour’s continued willingness to campaign on behalf of convicted rapists, murderers, and those convicted of child sexual offences, rather than the victims. February’s Jamaican deportation flight saw more than 170 MPs voice their opposition, with a number taking the additional step of joining protestors outside Downing Street.

Labour’s willingness to ignore the legislation that clearly states the duty of the Home Secretary to deport offenders where the conditions are met, further illustrates how little Labour can be trusted to enforce the law when the opportunity for ideological point-scoring regarding identity politics is a factor.

Additionally, during the last year of Labour’s Government there were more non-EU foreign national offenders deported than in any year since, and three times as many as in 2019. This hypocrisy should not go unnoticed.

As the party of law and order, the country has always relied upon the Conservatives to adopt a robust approach to crime and policing. The element of public confusion surrounding last week’s deportation flight has stemmed from the misinformation published by opposition MPs. This was further reiterated by Holly Lynch, the Shadow Immigration Minister, during the media round and written about in a slew of well-distributed opinion pieces online.

The public is almost entirely unaware of Operation Nexus and its success in the removal of over 30,000 foreign national offenders since 2012, and even more so that it’s application has been applied to the deportation of EU nationals more often than not: in 2019, 68 per cent of all those deported were from the EU. These figures could and should be made easily available, both reiterating the success of the Operation and deflecting criticism that the deportation flights are solely focused upon the country’s black population.

Increased focus upon racism and inequality shows little sign of abating. An Opinium poll this weekend has shown that the majority of those surveyed believed the Black Lives Matter movement has in fact increased racial tension within the UK. Much of the negative opinion expressed at the deportation flight focused on a mistaken perception of the deportations. Those criticising the flight placed a strong emphasis on the deportees being black British, a description that resonated with the view that the UK’s black population is being systematically targeted, despite none of those being deported being British-born, or British citizens.

It seems simplistic, but the Government would do well to make clear from the outset that those being deported are not British citizens and should strive to make clear the abhorrent nature of the crimes committed by those being deported.

The deportation of foreign national offenders should be an easy win for the Government. A robust approach that sees serious and violent offenders removed from the UK should set the tone that this Government will continue to take an uncompromising stance on those foreign citizens who enjoy the freedom and opportunity that this country offers but choose to abuse it by committing criminal acts.

At the same time, the Government should strive to get ahead of the inevitable left-wing backlash that will ensue by proactively communicating both the intent and the detail. By allowing news to leak out slowly the perception that the deportation is underhanded will only fester and grow.

Keeping the public informed of the measures the Government is taking to keep its citizens safe, and why, will expose those who wish to champion murderers, rapists and child sexual offenders and make it harder for them to marshal support.

Cristina Odone: Domestic Abuse isn’t a ‘women’s issue’: it affects far more children than women

7 Nov

Cristina Odone is Head of Family Policy at the Centre for Social Justice

Domestic abuse affects almost twice as many women as men – 7.9 per cent of women survived domestic abuse in 2018, while 4.2 per cent of men did – but in terms of numbers and proportions, the single biggest group affected by domestic abuse is children: one in five will experience it in the home. Last year, half of the children who were assessed as in need of being looked after by their local authority had experienced domestic abuse. More than 60 per cent of women in refuge in 2017 had a child under 18.

This crime has spiralled during the pandemic and attendant lockdowns. Helplines recorded huge spikes in calls – in June alone, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline recorded a 77 per cent surge. SafeLives, the national charity, surveyed front line workers who said their caseload had increased by more than a quarter. Between April and September calls to the NSPCC almost doubled, reflecting the huge increase in the number of children impacted.

Covid-19 also has made supporting victims more difficult: domestic abuse services are struggling under the increased caseloads; refuges no longer feel like safe havens because of fear of infection; schools’ closure during lockdown deprived many children of much-needed support from teachers and counsellors; and some of the domestic abuse charities in the Centre for Social Justice’s nationwide charity Alliance have found that Covid has compounded mental health issues among parents: staff at Cheshire Without Abuse, a small charity in Crewe, have experienced two victims’ suicides and many more attempted suicides since lockdown began.

These developments will have a significant impact, over many generations. Psychologists and educationalists are beginning to adopt adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) as a framework for identifying those children most vulnerable to recruitment by gangs and county lines, and to ending up in care or as NEET. Domestic violence is one of these ACEs, and risks compromising a child’s future – from their cognitive development to their substance abuse. Research shows that living with domestic abuse between parents is as psychologically harmful to children as when they are direct victims of physical abuse themselves. Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, has found an overlap between children’s experience of domestic abuse and their offending behaviour.

The trauma continues beyond the “domestic” and into the courtroom, where the child may become the bone of contention between the perpetrator, who demands access, and the victim, who fears for their child’s welfare and longs to sever all connection with their tormentor. In many cases, domestic abuse may cause a child to lose their home and contact with grandparents and other relatives; it may also mean starting a new life in a refuge and a new school.

The new Domestic Abuse Bill, now in the Lords for its third reading, acknowledges the horrific trauma that this crime causes in children. For the first time the legislation explicitly refers to children as victims, not just witnesses, of domestic violence.

This is welcome, as are the establishment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner and Office, and the recognition that abuse takes many forms, including economic, emotional, manipulative, and controlling behaviour.

More can be done, however. We would urge the Government to adopt the whole-family approach to address domestic abuse that is being delivered by Safe Lives charity with its One Front Door programme. This brings together multi-agency specialist teams of statutory and voluntary sector partners to identify the needs of every family member at the same time. “Every” family member means engaging with the perpetrators as well as the adult and child victims. For too long many organisations have argued that funding should not be taken from supporting the victim for the purpose of engaging with the perpetrator.

For this reason, interventions that deal with the perpetrator have received a minimal proportion of government funding. Fewer than one per cent of perpetrators, including repeat offenders, receive any kind of specialist intervention. Survivors overwhelmingly agree that there can be no solution to abuse without engaging with perpetrators, yet those working in the sector continue to balk at focusing efforts on offenders.

This has proved short-sighted. The level of re-offending is high – a quarter of high-harm perpetrators are repeat offenders, and some have at least six different victims. Yet the evidence is mounting to show that those interventions working with perpetrators significantly reduce the risk of re-offending.

A study by the University of Northumbria found that these sorts of interventions resulted in a 65 per cent reduction in future offences with a huge social return on investment of £14 for every £1 spent.

A new, family-centred approach would recognise the relational context in which abuse takes place, engaging with perpetrators and children as well as victims. Domestic abuse is not a gender issue. It is a social reform issue – one that the pandemic and its aftermath have made more urgent than ever. Addressing it offers a route out of disadvantage – for children as well as their parents.

Andy Cook: To help reduce mass unemployment, back up Universal Credit with Universal Support

2 Nov

Andy Cook is Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Social Justice

In politics, as often in life, you seldom get praise for what doesn’t happen.

But when we look back on the recent history of this pandemic, we will recognise Universal Credit as a great success story. Had we still been operating the paper-based system of the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown era, we would have had unemployment queues snaking round city centres. It wouldn’t have needed an England footballer to point this out, it would (quite rightly) have shamed the country.

I remember that time well. Despite massive government spending, I founded a charity to tackle unemployment – because there were generations of kids who were being harmed because they didn’t see the benefits of work in their home life. We musn’t return to those days.

We are now facing the grim prospect of unemployment as high as 13 per cent – that’s around four million people without a job. In July, 5.6 million people were receiving welfare with almost half officially “searching for work.” One of the areas with the highest numbers of new Universal Credit claims is leafy Guildford in Surrey.

Britain faces the very real problem of mass, long-term unemployment. At the beginning of 2020, there were 3.1 million people in Britain who were not working, but wanted a job. This figure could grow by more than two million due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Benefit claimants are increasingly vulnerable, with more complex challenges, meaning that they need more support when navigating our welfare system. Inadequate support for some claimants has resulted in some falling in to a ‘state of crisis’ – increased financial insecurity, food bank usage, evictions, and homelessness as well as worsening mental health.

Unemployment can be disastrous for any individual. Unemployment is not just the loss of an income, but the loss of a sense of purpose, identity, and dignity. Poor health quickly follows.

If we want to get really serious about tackling poverty, we have to get serious about making sure people get into jobs. Financial pressures can lead to debt, housing problems, relationship strains, and in the most extreme cases, violence, homelessness, substance misuse and criminal activity.

This is the true cost of an unemployment crisis. Worklessness has a lasting impact on communities, and children growing up in a workless household are more likely to perform poorly at school, less likely to work themselves, and end up involved in the criminal justice system.

For all the winter eeconomic plans announced by the Chancellor, tackling the human toll of worklessness will be the biggest long term challenge. Long before the pandemic struck, the UK still had a long-term unemployment problem, with particular challenges from disability, and a disability employment gap that had hardly shifted in a decade.

Despite remarkable successes over the last ten years in halving the number of people unemployed for two years or more, the other half still exist, pandemic or no pandemic. The challenge will now be to make sure that our millions of newly unemployed (and their families) don’t join them as long term unemployment ‘stats’.

There are real human lives behind the statistics – which is why the Chancellor must look seriously at Universal Support.

Universal Support gets money to local charities to offer real personal support for jobseekers. Run by local authorities, Universal Support works alongside Universal Credit payments, with the aim of helping welfare claimants tackle the real barriers to sustained work.

Helping people who may be applying for Universal Credit, but who also need help in stabilising their housing situation, advice on dealing with burdensome debt, help in accessing opportunities to develop skills, or getting an appointment for a medical diagnosis – Universal Support commissions local charities who work with people rather than statistics.

A truly compassionate social security system should be about helping to support people fallen on hard times, not just a welfare check in the post. It is self-evidently not enough for programmes to get people work ready if there is no work. So it’s also time to channel our inner Reagan and go for some big tax cuts targeted at the regions to rebalance the UK and encourage the creation of jobs.

The recovery must be driven by the private sector, but the Government should seize the opportunity to direct this in a regionalist way with rebalancing as an explicit goal.

The Centre for Social Justice’s paper “The Future of Work: Regional Revolution” makes the case for enterprise zones in the UK’s most left behind towns and cities: tax breaks and financial incentives would be offered specifically to businesses operating in these regions. State loans to start-ups should have job creation in our poorest areas as an explicit objective.

We can’t just treat unemployment as a problem on a spreadsheet. There are real human lives behind the statistics, which is where Universal Support comes in. We need to see it in every town. Economic measures to rebuild our regional economies need to go alongside welfare support that stops the spiral of unemployment and offers a compassionate helping hand into newly-created jobs.

Ryan Bourne: If you want to feed hungry children, don’t target food poverty. Aim to reduce poverty as a whole.

28 Oct

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Covid-19’s initial economic impact fell disproportionately on those least able to mitigate it. An Institute for Fiscal Studies paper in July found that single parents, low educated poor households, and ethnic minority groups suffered the worst relative hit. Since then, workers in low-wage services industries such as hospitality, transport, and retail, have faced both the worst of unexpected job losses and uncertainty about their income.

With this unique shock, it is unsurprising that a welfare state built around previous experiences has exhibited failures in protecting against hardship. Falling incomes, especially for those without savings or access to government benefits, have consequences. The Food Standards Agency reports greater food bank use, self-reported hunger, and families eating out-of-date produce.

That context is why the Government faces intense pressure over extending free school meals during school holidays through Easter 2021. Given the uncertainty around the efficacy of other government support, you can see the temptation to follow the advice of Iain Martin, who proposes caving to Marcus Rashford’s campaign again. Give the “£20m, handshake with Marcus R on steps of Number 10 on Monday and Royal Commission into child poverty,” Martin tweeted.

That defeat might seem a small price to pay to end the optics of opposing meals for hungry children, regardless of any questions you might have about the realities, or the desirability of extending the government scheme. As Isabel Hardman writes, the belief that Conservatives are insensitive to “food poverty,” coming first in righteous anger over food bank use in 2010-2015 and now “free” school meals, has hung around the Conservatives for a decade, whether fair or not.

Martin’s short-term solution, however, neglects that campaigners won’t be satiated by extending out-of-term meal vouchers to Easter 2021. Rashford’s campaign’s ultimate aim, remember, is to implement the Dimbleby Review, which would double the number of kids on benefit-triggered free school meals by extending eligibility to every child from a Universal Credit household (an extra 1.5 million kids.)

Crossbench peer Baroness D’Souza is already pushing for out-of-term meal vouchers to become a permanent feature. Combined, that would be billions of pounds, year on year, not tens of millions.

Come next year, no matter the labour market’s health, the Government will face the same criticism. If much of austerity taught us anything, it’s that even when acute need passes, wrapping up programmess will renew accusations that Conservatives “want to starve kids” by “snatching” their lunches.

Milton Friedman’s warning that “there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary government programme,” in part stems from recipients’ aversion to losses. A Royal Commission packed with do-gooders who examine food poverty in isolation will bring further demands for spending and diet control.

That is why, I suspect, some Conservative MPs vociferously oppose the Rashford campaign. It’s not heartlessness, or even this specific extension they oppose, but the precedent and direction of travel. They can foresee the vision of government this type of reflexive policymaking and its paternalistic particulars end with.

The problem for them is that they are on a hiding to nothing in claiming this specific measure risks creating longer-term “dependency” or “nationalising children” if the public think today’s needs are real. Conservatives who believe in a small, limited state have to have answers —about what responsibility the Government should have in dealing with hardship, what tools it should use, and what its role should be for those falling through gaps.

After ten years in government and riding cycles of support for the welfare state, there’s a lack of clarity in the Party’s position, with a mix of preferences among its MPs for income support, service provision, civil society solutions, and combinations of the three. There is a clear, principled alternative vision of how to deal with poverty if the Tories want it. But it requires getting off the fence.

That alternative would say that “food poverty” is not distinct from poverty. Free school meal campaigners are broadly right that hunger is not usually caused by parental fecklessness.

Therefore, logically, food poverty largely results from insufficient disposable income for some families. If widespread hunger is evidenced, the debate should therefore be about whether benefit levels or eligibility are sufficient to meet basic needs—the goal of a safety net welfare state.

This type of limited support that trusts people to use top-ups for the betterment of their families is vastly preferable to a paternalistic state stripping us of responsibility, through demeaning out-of-term food vouchers akin to U.S. style food stamps.

In deep unexpected crises, the case for additional emergency income relief is greater. But if there really is a more structural problem of hunger, then it demands examining why wages plus benefits are insufficient to deliver acceptable living standards. Rather than just look at benefits then, we should examine living costs, too—the poor spend disproportionately high amounts on housing, energy, food, clothing and footwear, and transport.

My former colleague Kristian Niemietz wrote a free-market anti-poverty agenda back in 2011, which I’ve pushed MPs to adopt since. He showed that market-friendly policies on housing (planning reform), food and clothes (free trade), energy (ending high-cost green regulations), childcare (reversing the credentialism and stringent ratios), and cutting sin taxes to economically-justified levels could shrink poverty by slashing the cost of living for the poor, so reducing food hardship, homelessness and more.

Most of this agenda would require no extra spending or busybodying from government paternalists; some of the policies would bring the double-dividend of raising wages .

The Government has ambitious policies in a number of these areas. But why are they never linked to the poverty discussions? As they press for planning liberalisation, why is nobody highlighting how cheaper housing would lessen these tales of distress? Why is nobody identifying the discrepancy of some campaigning about food poverty while opposing trade deals that would make food, clothes, and manufactured goods cheaper, to the huge relative betterment of poor consumers?

Sure, there would be families who make bad decisions and find themselves in trouble, even in a world of cheap and abundant housing and an effective safety net.

But instances of poverty owing to lack of resources would be much lower and these thornier challenges (often stemming from addictions, loss, ill-health, criminality and more) are much better identified by local charities and civil society groups anyway, as Danny Kruger argued in the Commons last week in relation to hinger. Giving nearly three million kids “free” school meals year-round would be an absolute sledgehammer to crack any remaining nut.

In today’s emotive debates, it’s not enough to just oppose proposals when the need is perceived as urgent. Conservatives must be better at re-setting the debate on their terms—a task much easier if they held a clear vision of the role and limits of state action.

Matthew Barber: A new approach to defeat drug crime

27 Oct

Matthew Barber is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley. He is currently the Deputy PCC for that area.

Many people have declared that the war on drugs has failed. Instead of criminalising the use of certain psychoactive substances, some people argue they should be regulated. There are many challenges in this very emotive debate, not least the fact that many proponents of legalisation advocate a system where the state effectively subsidises and supplies substances known to be damaging to certain sections of the population.

One area where I do agree that our system has failed, is in dealing effectively with drug users in a way that makes them stop. There has been a focus – not unreasonably – over decades to focus on the suppliers and dealers of the narcotics that sadly ruin the lives of thousands every year. The recent emphasis on tackling county lines gangs is a great example of this. While the National Crime Agency tackles drug importation, police forces have been making arrests and breaking up gangs that move drugs around the country and exploit the most vulnerable along the way. This is admirable work and in the most recent national week of action, Thames Valley Police topped the league tables with 91 arrests and the seizure of 27 weapons, 91 mobile phones, as well as drugs and £50,000 in cash.

Dealing with those serious criminals higher up the food chain is of course vital, but tackling one gang and reducing the supply for a short while can often simply drive up the price and cause more harm and criminality along the way. There has been little effort to tackle the market. The real harm is to individuals, and those around them, who consume drugs either recreationally or habitually. The acceptance by many parts of society of what is known as “casual drug use” is no more than tacit acknowledgment of “casually breaking the law”.

Many people feel that the police already turn a blind eye to drug users, and police officers get frustrated by the lack of sanctions and the cycle of the criminal justice system that simply goes through the motions without ever seeking to fix the problem.

So I am delighted that in Thames Valley, as part of the work of the PCC’s Violence Reduction Unit, a new approach is being rolled out. Thames Valley Police are working with partners on a new scheme to reduce drug use and tackle those who are consuming the drugs as well as those who supply them.

The Drugs Diversions Scheme uses Out of Court Disposals (OOCDs) to direct young people under 18 who are caught in possession of drugs to a rapid assessment and education programme run by drug service professionals locally. The intention is to actually deal with the underlying problem, rather than simply pushing children through the courts, often ruining their life chances and pushing them further into drug use and crime.

There are additional sanctions in place for those who refuse to take up the offer of help, or refuse to attend; they can still be arrested and prosecuted. As will anyone who is suspected of supplying drugs to others. This approach makes it more likely that those taking drugs will receive sanction from the police and also means that, with help education and support, they are less likely to both reoffend and to commit other drug related crime.

We must, of course, continue to tackle the supply of drugs and while others may continue the debate about legalisation and regulation there is a much more urgent job to be done and that is stopping people, particularly young people, from embarking on a course that can ruin their health, lead them irreversibly into the criminal justice system and sadly all too often cost them their lives.

This new approach from Thames Valley Police has already been piloted and has had notable success in getting people to engage with the programme and therefore reduce drug use and reoffending. Some people have described this as a “soft touch”, but they are mistaken. Criminal sanctions remain available for those who do not take the help that is offered. But sadly in the past, we have seen the system failing to the extent that those prosecuted for minor offences find themselves on a one way street to greater addiction and criminality. This approach seeks to reduce the harm of drugs to the individual, but just as importantly to reduce the harm to society. Getting people to stop taking drugs means less crime, less addiction, and less of a market for those who seek to push their poisons on our streets.

Festus Akinbusoye: What serving as a Special Constable taught me about 21st-century policing

23 Oct

Festus Akinbusoye is the Conservative candidate for Bedfordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner election.

After working over 200 frontline hours in two months as a Special Constable, and almost 200 hours of training, I am stepping aside from this eye-opening role to now focus my attention on campaigning for the role of Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Bedfordshire at the May 2021 election.

Though I applied to become a volunteer Police Officer long before I knew the incumbent was not going to be seeking re-election, having the opportunity to get stuck in and working alongside our truly remarkable police officers has revealed things I could not have known otherwise. The training was intense, the pass/fail assessments were more intense, and the actual job of working as a police officer was beyond intense.

Nonetheless, I would highly recommend this to anyone who genuinely cares about making a positive impact on the lives of others, protecting the most vulnerable and being at the forefront of fighting crime.

Policing is not for the faint-hearted, and the challenges of safeguarding our communities in the 21st Century is something many do not fully appreciate. So, when I read of uninformed people using the pejorative ‘ACAB’ epithet or talk about ‘defunding the police’, I wince, having had the experience of the last few months.

The truth is, we do not need to defund the police. We do, however, need to defund the serious organised crime gangs who prey on our young and most vulnerable. We need to defund the organisations who aim to sow seeds of discord and anarchy within our communities. We need to defund groups and ideologies that exist purely to terrorise us. Instead of defunding the police, we need to re-fund the police so that they have the tools, resources and backing to do their job.

For when it’s all said and done, and speaking from first-hand experience after being on the frontline dealing with mind-boggling crimes, the police are often the first and last line of defending those things which we all value the most – our life and liberty.

Of course, I see more clearly now than ever the reasons why accountability, constant learning, and effective oversight are essential. With any power must come commensurate accountability for the exercise of such powers. No group or body should possess powers as do our law enforcement officers without there being a transparent and effective check on those powers. This is good for policing and the policed.

With that caveat, I can attest to only seeing officers demonstrate impeccable empathy towards victims of the most awful domestic abuse incidents, or exceptional duty of care for someone who was under arrest for causing bodily harm to another while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. On other occasions, I saw officers show kindness in dealing with parents whose loved one had gone missing or was having a mental health episode. All these were done, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity.

Invariably, I and the officers I worked alongside filled roles of medical practitioners, parents, social workers, arbitrators (very often) and on occasions, road sweepers. Far removed from what you might see on TV, policing in the 21st Century is not primarily about blue-lighting it or foot chases after gun-toting criminals. Much of policing is trying to deal with mental health, alcohol/drugs related cases, domestic incidents, missing persons, and concern for welfare. Also contrary to what some might have us believe, I suspect most officers do not spend much of their shifts doing Stop and Search. Instead, they’re being called to cases such as the ones above.

But this is not getting easier, and is why we must have a more joined-up, multi-agency approach to policing. It is also another reason why a greater focus on prevention and addressing reoffending is so crucial.

It is my view that there may never be enough police officers around to adequately deal with the societal impact of drugs and alcohol abuse, or weaknesses in the core pillars of society such as family and parenting. There aren’t enough prison spaces to address these issues, so we must simply do better at preventing those at risk of sliding off the rails from doing so, while supporting those who are off the rails to get back on track. There is no other viable option.

This is why I hope the Home Office will continue to fund programmes like the very successful Violence and Exploitation Reduction Unit we have established in Bedfordshire.

I am very heartened to see the level of investment now being returned to frontline policing by this Conservative Government. More officers are coming through, and it has been my pleasure to work alongside some of these over the last few months. However, retention remains a cause for concern and a review of the police funding formula is needed to ensure that our police forces are able to deliver 21st-century policing to our communities.

Our police officers are ordinary men and women, who are being asked to do extraordinary things under extraordinary circumstances – with great success. We should salute each and everyone one of them. I certainly do.

Gary Sambrook: The Government is delivering on its promises to reform Britain’s broken immigration system

22 Oct

Gary Sambrook is the Conservative MP for Birmingham Northfield.

For many years, members of the public have repeatedly asked politicians to reform our broken immigration system and introduce an Australian-style points based one. In constituencies like mine people were tired of MPs talking tough, and delivering little change. But from January 1 we will have that new points-based system, which will be firm but fair. Today the Home Secretary has set out new measures which will introduce new tougher rules for EU citizens at the border, in line with existing rules for non-EU citizens.

This parity will send a clear message to British people that this Home Secretary means business.

When I talk to people in my constituency, which returned a Conservative MP last year for the first time in 27 years, they are concerned about crime and safety in their communities. That’s why replacing these softer EU rules with stronger border controls will make the UK a safer place and fulfil our pledge to deliver on the people’s priorities.

EU rules currently require the Home Office to demonstrate that EU criminals present a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat affecting one of the fundamental interests of society (these include social harm, maintaining public order, and extremism) in order to restrict their free movement rights. This decision cannot be based solely on the criminal conviction, even if it was for murder or rape.

These new rules will mean:

  • Foreign criminals sentenced to at least a year in jail will be banned from entering the UK.
  • Foreign criminals sentenced to less than a year in jail could still be banned, with the Home Office considering on a case-by-case basis their full criminal history and whether they have ties to the UK such as family members.
  • Foreign criminals who haven’t received a prison sentence could also be banned from entering the UK if they have committed persistent sexual offences, or committed a crime and want to enter the UK for the first time

It is absolutely right that we take these tough measures to help keep our streets safe, reduce crime and bring trust back into the immigration system.

EU rules have forced us to allow dangerous foreign criminals, who abuse our values and threaten our way of life, onto our streets for far too long, and people have had enough.

Regardless of nationality these rules will mean the UK is safer thanks to firmer and fairer border controls where foreign criminals will be treated the same, no matter what country they originate from.

An example of where these tough new rules will help keep the UK safe. Person A is a non-resident EU citizen with a conviction for rape in 2010 where they were sentenced to eight years in prison. Today, they could be admitted to the UK because they have not offended since and it can’t be demonstrated that they currently pose a present and sufficiently serious threat to society as required under EU law. However, next year, they can be refused entry to the UK because they have had a custodial sentence of at least a year.

Or another example: Person B is a non-EU citizen with numerous convictions for low-level offending over a period of years. Under the current rules, discretion can be exercised to grant them entry, but under the new rules, as a persistent offender, they would be refused entry to from the UK.

Not only is the Government making the UK border safer and more secure, it is providing the police with more powers to protect the public in new powers granted by the Extradition Act. It gives them the power to detain international criminals without having to apply for a UK arrest warrant first.

As Parliament nears the end of its scrutiny of the Immigration Bill, it is crucial that we remember why we are introducing this new system. Last year the people of the United Kingdom gave us a clear, and substantial, mandate for change. Leaving the European Union, as many of us have made the case before, will give us an opportunity to do things differently and there is no clearer example than immigration.

The British public can be assured that this Prime Minister, and Home Secretary, get it. And are delivering on those promises.

Frank Young: What drug dealers really think about legalising drugs

22 Oct

Frank Young is a Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice.

Drugs legalisation is a cockroach policy that is almost impossible to kill. Even now, as the country tries to contain a pandemic, there are calls in the press from Left and Right to legalise cannabis: rather like the arguments over grammar schools, it is a debate that seemingly will never die.

Dealers themselves are dismissive of calls to legalise drugs – as we found out when we spoke to some about arguments put up by political types for and against legalisation.  Today, we publish an account of what they told us: A raw deal: drug-dealing discussed with lived experience.

Our ex-pushers told us, very clearly, that like any entrepreneur they would simply undercut the (heavily taxed) market in any newly legal drugs. One former dealer told us that if high street chemists started selling legal cannabis, they would “either match that price or do better than that price”.

The supply of “recreational” drugs is immune to lockdowns, as a recent study of drug supply found. Ordering recreational drugs is now as easy as ordering a pizza. This isn’t just an issue that is happening somewhere else. The chances are that there will be drugs whizzing around a street near you, impervious to class or any other sort of social stratification.

One ex-dealer told us about dealing Xanax, a common anti-anxiety drug, to university students: “a lot of these people that I was selling drugs to in university, I was just their doctor”.

We were told about, in their words, “middle-class” students, who didn’t think they were buying drugs because they were getting brand name PfizerXanax at a fraction of the price of a high street pharmacist. These are the sons and daughters of our “ethical” consumers of ‘Cali’ cocaine.

What our conversations really taught us is how our debate in this area is increasingly out of date: the political class will forever discuss laws they can tinker with, but what we need to really talk about is how we provide support to help guide people away from the dangerous temptations of criminal activity. Our ex-dealers were caught in a trap just as bad as any poverty trap.

When you speak to young men ‘trapped’ in a cycle of drug dealing and violent offending, the idea of parallel societies is a constant theme. Our conversations with ex-drug dealers shed a spotlight on career routes in gang life and the drug trade.

They were drawn in by the easy cash, which then hooked them into a lifestyle of small-time dealing. Tougher policing through newly announced Serious Violence Reduction Orders will help, giving the police the chance to step in when they can see drugs all around them, making dealing in the spotlight a much less attractive proposition. But good ol’ Tory tough-on-crime is not enough by itself.

The solution to these problems is not endless debate over regulation, but to get serious about engaging early and scaling up tried and tested programmes focused on young people heading for the clink.

Take Josh Babarinde, who was awarded the OBE recently. Josh set up Cracked It: he literally went door to door to encourage young people to join his social enterprise mending phone screens and supporting ex-offenders into work.

For those much further down the path, charities like Key4Life who work with offenders stuck in prison and through mentoring and education put them on a path tolegitimate employment. A year after release,14 per cent of those who went through the Key4Life programme have re-offended, compared to a national proven re-offending rate of 64 per cent. There are plenty of charities stepping in to do this work: what we could do with now is a national effort to scale up what they do, bottle it and do more.

If you want to kill supply, you have to kill demand, so get in early with young users – if you’re found with small quantities, you should be sent on a drug awareness course, like a speed awareness course, to learn about the damage you are doing.

This should be used as a funnel to scale up these charities – and pick out the young people heading to the clink,  or worse. Police Commissioners should be given a proper role to step in and deliver these programmes, and an innovation fund for commissioners should be set up, making them proper laboratories for fighting crime.

The next time someone tries to peddle legalisation to you, just say no – and ask them what they would do instead about the young men caught up in ‘the trap’, from tougher street policing to backing charities stepping in to change lives for good.