Profile: Chris Philp, charged with the nightmarish task of seeing the Online Safety Bill through the Commons

15 Apr

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This, however, is the task to which Chris Philp will from next Tuesday have to apply himself as he strives to see the Online Safety Bill through the Commons.

It is expected to be the most amended Bill in history, for everyone who has had anything to do with the legislation admits that it is in an unsatisfactory state, with terms like “a bloody nightmare” often used.

The Online Safety Bill sets out to regulate the internet. This means anyone who has ever been annoyed by something which happened to them online has views about what it should ban or at least ameliorate, which in turn means virtually every MP and peer.

John Whittingdale, a former Culture Secretary, told ConHome it is quite wrong that only one day, Tuesday, has been allowed for the Second Reading, and observed that it really needs two.

Whittingdale pointed out that on Tuesday there are likely to be statements on Ukraine, Downing Street parties and energy, which means those who want to speak on “this hugely important and hideously complicated Bill will get about 30 seconds each”.

At the heart of the legislation is an unresolved struggle between free speech – the right, under the law, to publish whatever one wishes on the internet – and the proposal to remove “legal but harmful” content.

As the Bill goes through its Committee stage, Philp will be charged with the task of deciding which amendments the Government intends to accept, and which it opposes.

This will require a grasp of the detail, which he is universally agreed to possess, just as he did in his previous ministerial post at the Home Office, which included the vexed question of cross-Channel migration.

It will also, however, require the ability under pressure to shape incompatible elements into a coherent whole which can command parliamentary and public confidence, and here one simply does not know how he will get on.

His officials find he masters his brief with almost miraculous speed, but is deficient in social skills, and is not the kind of person who says at the end of an arduous day,  or to whom one might oneself feel able to say, “Shall we go for a drink?”

If Philp succeeds, he be marked out as a rising star. If he fails, and antagonises parliamentarians as he fails, the role of scapegoat awaits him, even though the whole venture was set in motion four years ago by Theresa May, along with various other pious aspirations which are easier said than done, such as the Net Zero target and the ban on conversion therapy.

When Nadine Dorries, since 15th September 2021 Culture Secretary, and her sidekick Philp, appointed the next day Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Tech and the Digital Economy, appeared in November before the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, the following exchange took place:

The Chair, Damian Collins: “Thank you very much. You say that you have been looking at progressing the Bill since you were appointed as Secretary of State. By that, would it be fair to assume that, as far as you and the department are concerned, the Bill as published in draft form earlier this year is not the Government’s final word on the legislation?”

Nadine Dorries: “No, it is not the Government’s final word. It is not my final word. I have been pushing on a number of areas, which I hope to be able to highlight this morning. It is not the final word because of the work that you have been undertaking. I want to reassure you that we are awaiting your recommendations as soon as possible, and we will be looking at them very seriously indeed. At the risk of saying too much, I want to reassure you that they will be very carefully and very seriously looked at. I see this as very much a joint effort on behalf of all of us.”

So the Government is open, or claims it is open, to being pushed around: an additional incentive for both the Commons and the Lords to try to push Philp around.

Insiders say the legislation is already festooned like a Christmas tree: “Nadine keeps hanging more and more things on it.”

Dorries says this is “the most important piece of legislation to pass through Parliament” in her 17 years in the House, and “has to be watertight”:

“In my previous role as Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention for two years, I made a point of meeting with the parents of children who had lost their lives, had taken their own lives. I cannot put into words how devastating it is to sit down with parents of children who have taken their own lives needlessly. It was not that they went online and looked for the means to do so, but because algorithms took them in that direction, whether it was to pro-anorexia sites, suicide chatrooms or self-harm sites.”

This is one of the harms which the giant tech companies will be required to take reasonable steps to prevent. So Philp has got to produce a Bill which will not only stand up to parliamentary scrutiny, but to the world’s top lawyers, employed by Facebook and Google.

One danger is that the big tech companies, which will be liable under the Act to fines of up to ten per cent of their global turnover, will err on the side of caution, and will censor anything which might conceivably cause harm. To some extent, this is already happening.

It is easy enough to agree that children should not be encouraged, by algorithms which guide them to the wrong sites, to commit suicide.

But what about adults who wish to discuss climate change, or the best way to treat a mysterious new virus which has just emerged in China? “Legal but harmful” could result in the censorship of various ideas which are regarded with horror in Silicon Valley, but which in Britain we wish to be free to discuss.

Are Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg to be the arbiters of thought in Sheffield and Swansea?

OFCOM will be given the task of implementing the Act. It will draw up a code of practice, which the tech companies will have a duty either to follow, or to show they have matched. “The point of bite is at the duty level,” Philp told the joint committee.

“We must also remember that we have given OFCOM teeth, some may say fangs,” Dorries added.

Dorries and Philp stand shoulder to shoulder. When John Nicolson (SNP, Ochil and South Perthshire) tried to rough up Dorries, Philp asked: “Are these questions designed to scrutinise the Bill or personally to attack the Secretary of State?”

And Dorries soon afterwards said of Philp: “I know he is very keen to give you the technical answer. I am so glad he is here.”

But to the condundrums posed by the Bill, there will not be technical answers.

Nor will Philp be able, as has been his inclination in his career so far, simply to follow with ostentatious fidelity the party line.

There is, as yet, no party line. On the one side are MPs like David Davis and Steve Baker who are vigilant defenders of free speech.

On the other are figures like Dorries who voice the desire of parents everywhere, and especially in seats captured from Labour in 2019, to have their children protected from perverts and pornographers, and their grandmothers from online fraudsters.

And there are other powerful interests which Philp will be under pressure to accommodate. Many Remainer MPs are obsessed with disinformation, to which they attribute their defeat in the 2016 referendum. The Home Office is keen, for reasons of national security, to end encrypted messaging.

British newspapers want to take revenge on the Californian tech giants which have stolen their advertising revenues.

In an attempt to conciliate the newspaper industry, the Bill includes special protections for journalism, a term which is hard to define in the age of the citizen journalist.

Nor is the Daily Mail easy to conciliate on a long-term basis. Last month Philp wrote a piece for it in which he said:

Social media sites currently operate under no one’s rules but their own.

This has led to an online world where teenagers’ lives can be ruined by cyberbullying, suicide is encouraged, vulnerable people are radicalised by terrorists, kids are exposed to pornography and racist bile is shared without consequence.

What’s worse – a lot of this vile stuff is actively promoted to huge audiences via algorithms simply because it makes social media firms more money.

The case for regulation couldn’t be clearer: We have a moral duty to make big tech take action and clean up the internet once and for all. As a father, nothing could be more important to me…

Trusted news sites such as MailOnline will be exempt from the Bill’s provisions, including its reader comment sections which inspire such lively debate.

Ofcom will hold tech giants to account with tough powers to issue multi-billion-pound fines and block them in the UK.

I cannot be alone (the style is infectious) in finding something repugnant in a Government minister, or even a regulator devised and perhaps leant upon by the minister, deciding which news sites are “trusted”.

Where do questions of good taste and manners end, and the “harms” which the Bill is supposed to avert begin? That is an impossible border to draw, especially as it is fluid.

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in part because of his genius for saying and writing things which were in poor taste, and for which the prigs wished to condemn him, but which most fair-minded people could see ought in a free society to be allowed.

How is Philp to make sense of that kind of provocation, and that kind of toleration? It is a matter more of instinct than of legal definition. The Bill is in danger of setting out to define the indefinable.

When the Daily Mail is angry with Philp, as assuredly it will be one day, it will turn him over. He will have arrived as a politician when that newspaper denounces him on its front page as an enemy of freedom.

Philp, born in 1976, was educated at St Olave’s Grammar School, in Orpington in Kent. He read physics at University College, Oxford, became a successful businessman, in 2006 took a council seat off the supposedly impregnable Camden Labour Party, but at the 2010 general election fell 42 votes short of defeating Glenda Jackson, the Labour incumbent, in Hampstead and Kilburn.

He had worked immensely hard to win the seat, but took defeat with good grace, and in 2015 was returned for Croydon South, after which he said in his maiden speech:

“People in Croydon South believe that hard work and enterprise are the best ways of combating poverty and promoting prosperity. Businesses such as the Wing Yip Chinese supermarket on Purley Way and BSW Heating in Kenley are the lifeblood not just of our economy but of our society. I share those values. Over the past 15 years, I have set up and run my own businesses in this country and overseas. I set up my first business when I was 24. I started by driving the delivery van myself, and eventually floated that company on the stock market. My grandfather also drove a delivery van and he grew up in Peckham. I think he would be very proud, if he were still with us, to see his grandson speaking on the Floor of the House today.”

All good stuff, but one detects a kind of compelled agreement which will not be available as he sets out to pilot the Online Safety Bill through the Commons.

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

27 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Chadlington: It’s time to make gambling safer and protect the vulnerable

7 Nov

Lord Chadlington is a businessman.

The recent tragic revelations about Sir David Tang underscores that gambling does not respect age, economic circumstance, or social status. Any incipient addictive behaviour can become uncontrollable but, unlike alcohol or drug misuse, gambling is often a secret, lonely addiction which can be pursued online with just a smartphone for company.

Secret, that is, until the gambling gets out of control. As Public Health England (PHE) recently reported, gambling often results in bankruptcy, family breakdown, higher mortality and, all too often, suicide – particularly amongst young people. PHE also reports that gambling harm costs £1.27 billion every year, adding further to the overwhelming weight of evidence that the eagerly anticipated Government review is urgent and must be far reaching in its proposed actions.

We have had enough talk about this subject. It really is time for action. Besides the recent PHE report, we have reports from the National Audit Office; the invaluable reviews of the APPG on Gambling Related Harm which have led to important steps in legislation, particularly over minimum stakes in FOBT’s; several select committee reports – not least the excellent report from the House of Lords Select Committee; and powerful media campaigns led by the Daily Mail.

There is also increasing evidence from elsewhere in the world – particularly Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, and in the relaxation of regulation in some states in the USA.

Simple desk research points to at least five key action points which will determine whether the Government review is a real step in addressing a national health problem which has been allowed to fester far too long.

First, the gambling companies must be responsible for funding the necessary change. There should be no demands on the public purse. Personally, I am quite content with a voluntary agreed levy – somewhere between one per cent and three per cent of gross gambling yield (GGY) – but failure of all the licensed gambling companies voluntarily to contribute must lead to legislation.

Second, good law must be based on solid research conducted independently of the gambling industry which must have no hand in its priorities, its subject matter, or its execution. We need independent longitudinal research and prevalence surveys as soon as possible.

But we also need specific work on such subjects as the link between gaming and gambling, the effects of gaming on children and whether this could lead to addictive gambling in later life. This work should be commissioned and reviewed by an independent body. As a Trustee of Action against Gambling Harms, I can confirm that many research organisations will not work in this industry unless the funding is “clean” and distanced from the industry itself.

Third, we need an end to gambling promotion – including all advertising – on and offline. This normalisation of gambling is insidious. When tobacco advertising and promotion was severely curtailed in 1965, many in the media and sport – remember the Benson and Hedges Cricket Cup? – believed that the financial impact on their businesses would be catastrophic.

But they soon found new ways to generate revenues. The gambling industry spends billions on advertising and promotion, so their research must show that these vast budgets encourage punters to spend more and more money? If not, why do they spend the money? And if the gambling companies are really interested in the wellbeing of the nation, why don’t they share their research on a strictly confidential basis with the Government?

Fourth, we need education in schools alongside the sensible programmes which help children and young people recognise the dangers of tobacco, smoking, drugs, and alcohol misuse. Gambling is certainly as big an issue amongst the young as any one of these other addictive activities.

Fifth, there will always be those who, despite best efforts, find they cannot beat the gambling habit. Only around three per cent of people with a gambling disorder seek treatment. Now that gambling is in the NHS long-term plan, we will, within a couple of years, have 15 clinics countrywide. Eighteen per cent of those in the UK with alcohol dependency issues are in treatment. We should set ourselves at least the same target for gambling dependency. However, always remember, there are 62,000 children with gambling problems and there is only one Young Peoples Gambling NHS Clinic.

The Government should welcome all these initiatives because they contribute to the levelling up agenda. The PHE report confirms that the biggest gambling problems are outside London and the South East with the highest prevalence in the North East and North West.

I support Peers for Gambling Reform, which is the largest interest group in the House of Lords, formed to see through the recommendations of the Gambling Industry Select Committee, although comments in this article are my own responsibility. I, like Peers for Gambling Reform, am not in favour of banning gambling, but I am in favour of making it safer and protecting the young and vulnerable.

And this is a unique moment – perhaps once in a lifetime – when the Government can act decisively working with the grain of political and public opinion.

Andrew Haldenby: GP shortages won’t be fixed any time soon. So Johnson must embrace doctors’ move to digital.

1 Oct

Andrew Haldenby is Director of Aiming for Health Success, a new health research body.

Speaking last week, Boris Johnson said that it is “only reasonable” that people can have a face-to-face appointment and that some patients will “suffer” otherwise.

The Prime Minister was responding to campaigns run by both The Mail and The Mail on Sunday. The Mail’s five-point manifesto calls for face-for-face appointments to be the default. Going further, The Mail on Sunday has demanded that “all patients are once again seen face-to-face by their GPs”.

Two days previously, Sajid Javid took a very different line. In a speech on the “power of technology”, the new Health Secretary said that while not everyone wants a virtual appointment, “some people do”. The benefits of this and other technologies are “enormous”. He concluded that “we need to give people choice, and take the opportunities that these new technologies provide”.

Javid followed the line taken by his predecessor. Last November Matt Hancock, the then Health Secretary praised GPs for updating their ways of working and allowing more telephone consultations which were convenient for many people. At that time 45 per cent of appointments were by telephone or video which, he said, “feels about right to me”.

The question has political interest because governments need consistent positions, especially on the most sensitive issues such as health. But more importantly than that, the Government’s support or opposition to change in the NHS will determine whether it can make any real progress on the backlog, without further tax rises, in the next few years.

The facts favour the Health Secretary over the Prime Minister. As the graph shows, face-to-face appointments have been the most common mode of consultation throughout the pandemic.

They have also been the most common mode in every month except for April, May and June last year, at the height of the first wave, when face-to-face and telephone appointments were equal. The Mail can call off its campaign – face-to-face remains the default mode of consultation.

Another key fact is the Government’s success or failure in recruiting new GPs. The Mail wants Ministers to honour the 2019 manifesto commitment to employ “6,000 more doctors in general practice”. It won’t happen.

In 2015 another Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, pledged to recruit 5,000 more GPs by 2020, on top of the then 27,500. Six years on, numbers have actually fallen to 26,800 as GPs have retired earlier or moved to part-time.

If the Prime Minister thinks that a small army of new GPs will soon arrive to take a new wave of face-to-face consultations, he is badly advised. The truth is that general practice is a limited resource that has to be used most effectively.

The very good news for Ministers is that general practice is in the process of taking a historic step forward in its ways of working. Traditional general practice had many strengths but also major weaknesses. GPs offered a ten-minute consultation regardless of patient need. Patients typically reported their medical history in the consultation which took up much of that time. GPs spent time with patients with relatively minor concerns who could have been better seen by nurses or other staff.

These barriers are being overcome. One key change is to use technology to capture a patient’s medical history in advance, over the internet. Patients now send two million of such “e-consults” to GP surgeries every month, up from around 100,000 before the pandemic.

This already makes much better use of GP’s time because they no longer have to spend time in consultations transcribing patient histories. In addition, current trials are using artificial intelligence to read that information and direct the patient to the right place – whether GP, another member of practice staff, pharmacy, A&E or self-care if that is appropriate. The realistic hope is that GPs can make significant clinical decisions on 12 or 15 patients per hour rather than six. This would solve the problems of delayed diagnosis that is a large part of the backlog problem.

Johnson may respond that this is all very well, but in the short term many people have been shocked by a shift in the GP offer that they weren’t expecting. In other circumstances, these new ideas would indeed would have been introduced over a longer time and with more reassurance. But if he lets these concerns become a veto on change, he will make it extremely hard for the Government to make progress on the backlog.

Javid has the right line. By far the best choice for the Government is to work together with GPs to reassure the public that face-to-face consultations are available and, crucially, that they want a different and better NHS to emerge post-pandemic rather than simply turning the clock back to December 2019. Making the case for change in public services is always a political challenge but in this case it is one well worth making.

Sarah Ingham: Fat is a lockdown issue

15 May

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

Thanks to the Daily Mail we know that today is not only 15th May 2021 but Day 418 of Lockdown. On Monday, the government is granting us another small sliver of liberty, but irksome restrictions will continue.

The panicked and disproportionate response by the State to the Covid-19 is the ultimate decades-in-the-making triumph for the health and safety culture which characterises the country’s public sector.

The elderly in months of solitary confinement in care homes, masked school children in playground bubbles, funeral mourners ordered to separate, police officers ruling that a takeaway tea constitutes a picnic…It’s all too reminiscent of a callous and irrational mindset that denies a last consoling cigarette to Death Row inmates about to be executed.

As a captive audience under house arrest for months since March 2020, the British public has been bombarded by Government health warnings. The country’s health honchos have bustled into our homes via our screens. Graphs, charts, statistics, variants, R-rates, two metres, tiers…but not obesity.

Given the relentless nagging over the years by state-backed quango queens on every facet of our health, their comparative silence over the links between weight and the world’s latest coronavirus has been deafening.

This time last year as Covid raged, we kept on hearing about ‘underlying health conditions’ which seemed to be further imperilling younger victims of the virus. These mysterious afflictions were never spelt out. Last month, The Lancet published a paper exploring the link between weight and Covid-19. The study, Associations between Body-Mass Index and Covid-19 Severity in 6.9 million people in England (Min Gao et al) states ‘obesity is a major risk factor for adverse outcomes after infection with SARS-CoV-19’.

In the context of the Covid crisis, the country’s corpulence has usually been the, er, elephant in Number 10’s briefing room. When the virus struck him last year, Boris Johnson acknowledged that it was his sizeable girth which landed him in hospital. Today, still more Falstaff than lean and hungry Cassius, the Prime Minister could be the ideal figurehead to lead the national charge, or waddle, back to health.

An episode of Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge asked whether anyone would trade five years of their lives for the perfect body. This provoked horror among those who are on a permanent trigger to denounce fat-shaming.

Today, we are hearing much less about the plus-size body positivity. Ministers, MPs and health officials might want to duck a difficult subject that affects that majority of voters, but the virus has highlighted the deadly consequences of being overweight.

Long before the Covid-19 arrived, the country had a hefty problem. According to the NHS’s 2020 Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, the majority of the country – 63 per cent – were overweight; 28 per cent of adults were classified as obese, along with one fifth of Year Six children. In 2018/19, there were 11,117 hospital admissions in England ‘with a primary diagnosis of obesity’ and 876,000 admissions where obesity was a factor in diagnosis.

The Government spent £184 million on Covid-related comms last year, according to Campaign, the ad industry’s bible. All this expensive messaging bossing us to follow its guidance to ‘Stay Home’ has actually worsened the nation’s collective weight problem. In turn, this will worsen the impact of Covid and other illnesses for many sufferers. The best way to ‘Protect the NHS’ and to save lives, and improve the quality of life, is for us to get off the couch, into our trainers and out of our front doors. Almost five million are now on NHS waiting lists for treatment. ‘Patient, heal thyself’ is however unlikely to be a State-backed message.

Pre-vaccine, the most vulnerable to the coronavirus were the elderly. Unlike being old and frail, being overweight is a matter of personal responsibility and active choice. Or rather inactive choice, involving too little movement and too much sugar, including alcohol. Many would like to go down a few sizes but are simply not prepared for the joyless slog.

Few are like Adele, who was in the news last year not for another album release or Grammy but for losing seven stone, calling for the sort of iron self-discipline that most of us are too lazy to summon up. And anyone who simply blames poverty for excess poundage has clearly never set foot in the Cobham branch of Waitrose, Surrey’s mothership of middle-class affluence.

Right now, we have the worst of all worlds. The State continues to restrict personal freedom in a bid, it claims, to save life, while at the same time trying to avoid spelling out the risks to life caused by excess weight.

For the past year, we have collectively sacrificed our freedom, mental health, children’s education and livelihoods to protect the vulnerable from the impact of Covid-19. How far the State continues restricting our freedom of movement will be demonstrated all too vividly later in the month as football fans travel, or not, to Porto for the Champions League final. It is surely now time for those who deliberately choose to make themselves vulnerable to illness, including Covid-19, to start reflecting on their choices and their responsibilities to wider society.

Lockdown was, in part, the sacrifice of liberty to gluttony. Fat is no longer just a feminist issue, as Susie Orbach identified back in 1978, but one that all of us must confront. Without sugar coating.

Adrian Pascu-Tulbure: As the recent US election showed, the minority vote is no longer automatically Democrat

11 Nov

Adrian Pascu-Tulbure is the Director at FTI Consulting.

The President-elect may well come to regret his offhand comment in a radio interview earlier in May, where he joked that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black”.

In one sense, he was right: black voters did overwhelmingly vote Democrat. And yet exit poll data shows that Donald Trump doubled his vote among black women. The number of black men who voted for him increased by 25 per cent. More Hispanic American men voted for him this time round; and Hispanic American women, and American Muslims, and white women. The influence of the Cuban vote in Florida has already been the subject of extensive coverage. In an ironic twist, the major demographic shift towards the Democrats came from the much-derided category of white men.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that the GOP has somehow morphed into the party of minorities. But, aside from being the highest Republican share of non-white voters in a presidential election since 1960 (quite the result for someone it’s long been fashionable to dismiss as a white supremacist), these results show that increasingly, the minority vote is no longer automatically Democrat.

The coming months will doubtless see much soul-searching about why the Democrats failed to make electoral inroads into these demographics. Some conclusions will be sensible and some will be ugly: already Twitter is full of depressingly predictable slurs about minorities being bamboozled by anti-socialist propaganda, attracted to the macho idea of the strongman, or desperately trying to assimilate into their new society by voting in a way their white neighbours would approve of.

The answer, I suspect, is simpler. It is that conservative values speak to minority communities in a way that the Left simply does not understand.

You cannot, of course, lump all “minorities” together. There is, for instance, a distinction to be drawn between recent migrants, such as those pesky Cubans and Mexicans that voted the “wrong” way, and communities that have been in America for centuries. And within ethnic groups there are also significant differences in culture, cohesion, and attainment. But there are also important similarities.

When we speak of “communities” this implies a group of people with shared values. And, to a lesser or greater extent, these values include patriotism (both where you originate from, and where you have settled), a belief in the family as the basic building block of society, self-advancement, education, thrift, religion, and a sense that rights also confer responsibilities.

These are, in other words, conservative values. To some they might appear as old-fashioned, even a little embarrassing. One could well make the point that there are many within those communities that have abandoned some (or all) of these values. But to many more, they are instantly recognisable as a decent set of values to live by – and to vote by.

For recent immigrants, the link is even stronger. These are often people who have taken significant personal risk to leave their old life, settle in a new place, start again from the beginning, often in lowly and glamorous jobs, and carve out a better life for themselves and their families. Many know the ugly side of repressive regimes and the evils of an all-powerful State; others have bitter and direct experience of what happens when anarchy is allowed to flourish. They have shown courage and determination to get this far, and want to succeed further. Is this not conservative?

We see much the same debate taking place in the UK. For a long time, the narrative has been allowed to develop that it is only the Left that can help immigrant and minority communities.

This is not just patronising but potentially dangerous. The implications of much of what the Left tells minorities – that we live in an endemically racist society, that we are doomed to underachieve, that we cannot meet our full potential without a great big helping hand – all of this, though often well meant, is grating at best, and at worst risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell a person they are second-rate often enough and they will eventually believe you.

It is also intellectually lazy. There are big problems existing in the UK to do with failures of integration, under-achievement in specific communities, genuine racism, ghettoisation, and the fact that a regrettable number of individuals come to the UK to do wrong. I arrived here from Romania with my family almost three decades ago, and, though I’ve been hugely lucky, I can’t claim it’s always been an easy ride.

But these problems cannot be allowed to become the entire story. Because – as in the US – the overwhelming objective, particularly for recent migrants, is to get on, make a success of your life, exercise personal responsibility, and reap the rewards in later years. And that’s what most of us have been trying to do.

There is a rich electoral seam to be explored here. For too long, Labour successfully claimed a monopoly on migrant and ethnic minority votes. Conservatives were smeared as golf-club racists, Little Englanders, or migrant-hating xenophobes. Genuine concerns about immigrant criminality, or the rate at which the UK could absorb new people, were caricatured as simply wanting to send everyone back. And, it has to be said, there was a small but vocal section within the Party whose rhetoric was hardly geared to win over ethnic minority voters.

What Labour excelled at was being offended on our behalf. When I was growing up, for instance, it was a left-wing trope to label The Daily Mail evil for daring to run stories of Romanian pickpockets. And the other Romanians I knew were, like me, furious about those stories: furious, that is, at the disgraceful behaviour of our fellow countrymen.

Beware of generalisations. But there are many, many in the UK, migrants, or the children of migrants, or from established ethnic minority backgrounds, who have a robust, common-sense approach to life that chimes exactly with conservative values.

They don’t want to be patted on the head; they’d far prefer lower taxes. They appreciate law and order being maintained, but distrust the hand of the State intruding too far into their private lives. For them, patriotism isn’t a dirty world, and they have an instinctive understanding of the importance of national sovereignty. They prize academic rigour and aren’t embarrassed by ambition or the pursuit of excellence. They would vigorously reject the notion that rising to the very top – say, by becoming Home Secretary or Chancellor – “isn’t for the likes of you”. They are natural conservatives. But, tragically, too many of them still don’t vote Conservative.

As in the US, there is some evidence of the dial beginning to turn. If upsetting The Guardian is a measure of success, then its article complaining about the “prominence” of British Indians in the Conservative Party is the most back-handed of compliments to the Party’s engagement programme. Similar efforts are gathering results with Jewish communities, which, at the last election, can only have been bolstered by the fact that we were fighting against Jeremy Corbyn.

Elsewhere, however, the “anyone but Tory” narrative still holds sway – and changing that offers an electoral prize well worth the effort. A good start would be a full-blooded programme of measures that incentivise economic growth, help the pursuit of educational excellence, reward aspiration – and challenge, at every opportunity, the toxic narrative that ethnic minorities are in any way second class.

Neil O’Brien: The virus and the lockdown. Let’s keep calm and carry on – for there’s reason to believe that a vaccine is coming soon.

2 Nov

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Sarah Thomas is a lunatic. And amazing. About a year ago, she became the first person to swim the Channel four times in a row without stopping. It took 54 hours.

Between booking her slot, and getting in the water, she survived cancer. Setting off, she was immediately stung in the face by a jellyfish. On her fourth crossing, strong tides pushed her off course, turning 83 miles of swimming into 134, forcing her to sprint-swim to break free from the current.

She’s inspiring. And swimming the channel isn’t a bad metaphor for our fight against coronavirus. Metaphorically, we’re somewhere in the middle, when you can’t see Britain, but can’t quite see France either.

The national restrictions announced by the Prime Minister on Saturday underlined that we will still be slogging through this for a while yet. Polls suggest the public strongly back his decision: given the alarming data, it is definitely the right one.

Yet everyone’s tired of the restrictions and not seeing loved ones and friends, and the good things we look forward to once this is over remain a way off.

As we go through this marathon ordeal, what can we learn from Sarah Thomas?

First, most top athletes are taught to visualise success.

Regarding Coronavirus, the finishing line is becoming more visible, with progress on vaccines looking good. The New York Times runs a Vaccine Checker which lets you follow progress.

Eleven different vaccines are in final-stage “Phase 3” clinical trials, with half a dozen or so now seeing limited use outside trials.

There were always reasons to be optimistic about a vaccine: when the whole world wants something really badly, it’s likely to get produced. Producing a vaccine for coronavirus isn’t like inventing the atom bomb or putting a man on the moon, which required oodles of new technologies. A Covid-19 vaccine is a sideways-step from existing technologies. Several categories of vaccines look like they will be ready to roll in the coming months:

  • The Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine is basically a weakened version of a common cold type virus, modified to carry a protein which Covid-19 also shows, so that your body can learn to seek and destroy it without exposure to the real thing. Trials found it produces a good immune response including among older people, and doesn’t have side effects. The UK, US and EU have signed for hundreds of millions of doses.
  • Other vaccines based on a similar approach in final stage tests include China’s CanSino vaccine, Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute and Johnson & Johnson in the US.
  • Another promising approach is based on the use of messenger RNA: a blueprint for making proteins. The Pfizer / Biontech vaccine works like this and may well be the first to go into non-trial use in the US. There was some speculation last week that we could start using it here in the UK before Christmas, which seems a bit soon, but it isn’t far off. Another similar vaccine from the Gamaleya Research Institute is also final stage trials.
  • Finally, there’s a bunch of traditional vaccines based on inactivated versions of Covid-19 (like the Hepatitis B vaccine, which has been around since the 1960s). China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac both offer vaccines like this – the Sinovac one is already being used outside clinical trials and you can buy it in some cities for $60. The Indian Council of Medical Research is also in final stage trials of an equivalent.

So the shore’s not so far away.

The other lesson from Sarah Thomas is about listening to the right people. She says she nearly quit halfway, but her team egged her on.

Contrast that with the British commentariat, large parts of which are dishing out terrible advice. If they’d been in Sarah Thomas’s support boat they’d have been telling her to give up, harping on about how cold it was. They’ve been hopeless throughout.

First, they dismissed the problem. Richard Littlejohn wrote in the Daily Mail on March 2nd/

“My default position on all these health scares is weary scepticism. We’ve been here before. Sars, Mers, Ebola, Bird Flu, Swine Flu… All passed in Britain, at least without the catastrophic death toll the so-called ‘experts’ confidently predicted”.

Wrong.

Then they declared the problem over. In the Daily Telegraph, Allison Pearson wrote in May that that, by June: “a scientist friend assures me the coronavirus will have petered out.” Sunetra Gupta, one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, (and who the media fawns over), predicted in May that “the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country”, which she said was “due to the build-up of immunity”.

Wrong.

The commentariat want to shout down wiser voices. In September, Sir Patrick Vallance faced a torrent of abuse for saying that there might be 200 deaths a day from Covid-19 by mid November. “Project fear,” thundered one Telegraph columnist. Piers Morgan blasted the Government’s “scaremongering.”

Wrong.

In fact we hit that grim milestone sooner, in late October, and hit 326 by the last day of October. We need to start listening to the right coaches – not hopeless people who get it wrong time and again, but face zero accountability.

Finally, top athletes learn from the best. In terms of Coronavirus, the best performers are Japan, Korea and New Zealand. France has had 19,800 cases per million people. The UK 14,800. Japan has had just 795, and Korea just 512 and New Zealand 325.

New Zealand is rural, but Japan and Korea are heavily urban. How did they do it?

Partly it’s about near-universal mask use. As the Lancet notes: “In Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, the habit of mask wearing by people with respiratory conditions was already widespread before the pandemic”. Part of it is that all these countries also have tough virus border controls.

There are other factors. Japan locked down Tokyo at a very early stage. South Korea’s super-duper test and trace system uses records of credit card transactions, mobile phone and global positioning system data, to fill in gaps in what coronavirus patients can remember in interviews.

The most important lesson from Asia is that success breeds success. A low rate of cases makes it easier for test and trace staff to isolate and shut down chains of infection, and contain local outbreaks. Too many cases and such approaches are overwhelmed.

To use an analogy, it took us a long time to work out how to conquer inflation. The key discovery was that the only way to have stable inflation is to have very low inflation.

The same’s true of coronavirus. Either you are beating coronavirus, or it is beating you. It doesn’t want to go in a straight line or rise gently, but to streak exponentially upward. Korea, Japan and New Zealand have got it pinned to the floor, so can get on with their lives. Instead of surrendering, as let-it-rippers in the commentariat advocate, they’ve decided to win.

Unlike Sarah Thomas we don’t have to swim for 54 hours. But we’re all enduring hardships. To get to the other side of this we need to keep thinking straight. It’s easy to be seduced by the idea that there’s some easy way out. There isn’t.

When she was far out to sea, her team called to her: “Just keep swimming.” At first, I thought that sounded really dumb. But when you are out in the middle of the Channel, it’s not such bad advice.

Pressure rises on Ministers to publish assessments of the impact of lockdowns, restrictions – and Covid itself

20 Oct

Last week, ConservativeHome called for the Government to broaden and deepen the national conversation about Covid-19 – or at least try to as best it can.

It is essential to see the disease in the round by understanding the consequences of lockdowns, restrictions and the virus itself on both lives and livelihoods.

For livelihoods, read what’s usually called the economy, a dry term, but is actually a human story of lost jobs, lower living standards, higher poverty, damaged schooling and vulnerable sectors, including hospitality and retail.

For lives, read healthcare outcomes other than Covid-related ones.  In other words, cancelled operations and fewer treatments, as well as (for example) worse heart disease, cancer, mental health and domestic abuse outcomes.

This is why we urged the Goverment to publish –

  • A regular Treasury report that calculates the economic cost of the lockdown.
  • A rolling Department of Health assessment of the human cost of the shutdown.
  • The creation of an economic counterweight to SAGE.

We also suggested that some think-tanks have the capacity to issue comprehensive reports.

This site originally urged this course during the spring, and is far from alone in having done so.  On which point, congratulations to the Daily Mail, which today publishes a four-page investigation into health outcomes. It finds –

  • 25,000 more people died at home during pandemic, since they didn’t go to hospital as it continued.
  • There is set to be a 20 per cent rise in cancer patient deaths because of treatment backlogs.
  • Organ transplant operations fell by two thirds while waiting list deaths doubled. More than 50,000 operations for children were cancelled.

It’s worth pointing out that some of these outcomes will have been a consequence of Covid-19 itself rather than restrictions – for example, people not going to A & E departments in order to reduce the risk of catching the virus.

The line Matt Hancock took yesterday in the Commons is that suppressing the virus is integral to better health outcomes, because the more NHS resources the virus demands the fewer there will be for other conditions.

But a question that obviously follows is whether or not the Government’s strategy, which is dependent at present on big lockdowns, is the best means of protecting the NHS.

It’s worth noting that a Department of Health analysis has said that “in the long-term, the health impacts of the two month lockdown and lockdown-induced recession are greater than those of the direct Covid-19 deaths”.

The Mail is not alone in trying to get its readers to look at the Coronavirus in a more full context.  Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph reported that the ‘Protect the NHS’ message led to 90 per cent drop in hospital admissions.

The Times last Friday urged the Government to be “more transparent about the economic and health costs – the same day that we took much the same view.

And a wide range of Conservative MPs are increasingly calling for the kind of action we have outlined.  Theresa May has called for more formal economic advice.  Steve Baker, writing on this site yesterday, urged Ministers to publish “serious analysis of the costs of the options they face”.

Downing Street will be reluctant to take this course, and thus indicate that the Government might change its strategy, while it is doubling down on the present one.

In political terms, that’s what our report yesterday about new LAMP and lateral flow tests signified.  Number Ten believes that these can deliver where track and trace has not (though it is not abandoning the latter).

So it is trying to persuade Tory backbenchers not to abandon the testing strategy, and transfer their support either to lockdowns and a permanent suppression plan, or to loosening and a more voluntarist approach.

We shall see whether this push pays off – and if this planned massive scaling-up of new tests works.  ConservativeHome’s understanding is that the Treasury hasn’t ruled out a big report on economic costs.

However, Government sources pointed out that much of the required data is already available (i.e: unemployment figures), and that it would be hard to disentangle the effects of restrictions from those of the virus more widely.

We also detect a concern about the consequences of publishing bad economic news: on the one hand, the Treasury has an interest in alerting voters to the scale of the economic challenge, but none in alarming them.

Iain Dale: We all want our city and town centres to return to normal. But that isn’t possible at present – so we must get used to it.

25 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

A sign of a Prime Minister in trouble is when journalists start writing articles about possible successors, and who might be the runners and riders in a leadership contest.

Given that Boris Johnson has only been the Conservative leader for just over a year, it comes as something of a surprise that he’s already being written off by some of his colleagues and commentators.

Some allege that it’s clear that he’s suffering from so-called “Long Covid”, and knows in his heart of hearts that he’s not performing on all six cylinders. Others reckon that if he gets a free trade agreement with the EU and the post- Coronavirus economy returns to something like normality, he might decide his work is done and he’ll be off to enjoy the fruits of a post Prime Ministerial career.

The truth is that no one knows. I find both these scenarios entirely plausible, if not wholly likely. It is very rare for a Prime Minister to give up office voluntarily, even when they might not be in the best of health. Tony Blair did – sort of, although a Gordon Brown shaped gun had been put to his temple. Harold Wilson did, but he knew his mental capacity was on the decline.

A party leader only serves at the pleasure of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Yes, there are rumblings of discontent but, again, this is nothing unusual. Margaret Thatcher experienced such tremors throughout her leadership, but it took the cowards 15 years to get rid of her.

I find it difficult to foresee that things would get so bad within the next twelve months that Tory MPs would get rid of the man who brought them an 80 seat majority only 10 months ago. But in politics, the unexpected often happens.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Matt Forde’s Political Party podcast this week, I recounted a tale from my schooldays which left him open- mouthed with horror.

Back in 1978, when I was 15  my school held an end of term fancy dress disco in the cavernous school hall at Saffron Walden County High. I decided to go as a gamekeeper, given I had all the gear.

I arrived at the do dressed up in proper ‘Seth Armstrong’ gear (if you aren’t an Emmerdale fan, you won’t get that reference), replete with flat cap and wellington boots.

But more to the point, I was also carrying a double barrel twelve-bore shotgun (my father’s) and a cartridge belt full of live cartridges. No one batted an eyelid. If I did that now, the Police would be called and I’d probably get a mention in the Daily Mail, and get an ASBO. Innocent times.

– – – – – – – – – –

I am starting a new series of 55 podcasts on each of our 55 Prime Minsters to accompany the book I am editing on the subject which comes out in November.

Yesterday, one of the contributors pulled out of recording the podcast, because his three meetings in London that were summarily cancelled and transferred to Zoom calls – so he didn’t want to come in just for one.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon had continued to urge people to work from home if they could, whereas in England we had all be encouraged to return to work outside it if we could from July onwards. In hindsight, that was wrong.

Of course, we all want to get our city and town centres back to normal, but policy cannot be guided by an understandable desire to keep sandwich shops in business. We are not yet ‘Pret a Manger’.

The thought that this could all go on for another six months is not one any of us relishes, yet I think it was quite right of the Prime Minister to say that.

In March, he was criticised for what some described as false optimism, when he intimated that everything would be back to normal by Christmas. Now he’s being criticised for being a doomster…Sometimes, as a politician, you just can’t win.

– – – – – – – – – –

There’s a new authorised biography of Diane Abbott out this week. In the index it says I get a mention on page 52. The only Dale mentioned on that page is Diane’s maternal grandmother, Dinah Dale. I wonder if we are by any chance related? Now there’s one for Who do you think you are?  It’s entirely possible we could be related, you know – I can’t count either.

John Bald: Ofqual needs a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education. If these can’t be found, we must start again.

20 Aug

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.

Ofqual’s A level grades could not stand. The standard for a judicial review – that no reasonable person, acting reasonably, could have reached the decision in question (Associated Provincial Picture Houses v Wednesbury Corporation, 1948) was met with ease.

Failing a person without even looking at their work can never be reasonable. It is equally clear that Ofsted’s Saturday night U-turn was the result of its Board, which not met since last September, deciding  that it was not going to go down with the Chief Regulator and Chairman. Ofqual should have spent the money it wasted on Public First on some decent legal advice. A first-year law student could have told them.

Last week’s dog’s dinner has been followed by a dog’s breakfast. As universities struggle with the flood of candidates deemed successful, while the smaller number who feel let down by their schools are left with no redress, schools and sixth forms are hit with a huge increase in top GCSE grades.

In fairness to Gavin Wilkinson, his instruction to Ofqual when the exams were cancelled in March, was “that these students should be issued with calculated results based on their exam centres’ judgements of their ability in the relevant subjects, supplemented by a range of other evidence.”Ofqual was legally required to do this, but instead overruled these calculations via a statistical rigmarole that took no notice of them, except where they had five or fewer candidates in a subject.

The Chief Regulator and Chairman decided to do it their way,  and so hit the rocks. To that extent, the Government is justified in saying that the mess is Ofqual’s fault, and its expression of confidence in the Chief Regulator would shame a football club chairman.  The DfE’s own failure lay in not following its instructions through to ensure that they were carried out.   The Daily Mail’s front page cartoon of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State as Laurel and Hardy sums it all up.

So, what now? First, we need to get rid of the idea that these grades are results. They are not, and cannot be relied on. Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that schools had given borderline candidates the benefit of the doubt, but this is not quite the case.

A university source from the North of England told me that many had given the most optimistic estimate of what might have been achieved with full teaching and revision, but that some had simply entered mock results, even if these had been lower than teachers’ estimates. No appeal was available, and university places had been lost as a result.

Barton’s view is more realistic than the corruption that took over GCSE school-based assessments, but the conflict of interest can’t be disguised.  When a school gives a pupil an A, it gives itself one too, and I’ve seen unjustified top grades lead to pupils struggling and failing in the next stage of education.

Ofqual itself is an odd fish. Devised by Labour in 2009 to counter well-founded suspicions of dumbing down and grade inflation, it is, like Ofsted, notionally independent, but must “have regard “ to government policy when publicly directed to do so.

This leaves the Chief Regulator very wide discretion, exemplified by Sally Collier’s statement, after lowering A level grade boundaries in 2017, that “I want the message to be that students have done fantastically well. All our kids are brilliant”.  If all are brilliant, all must have prizes.  In the end, Oqual’s Board meeting on Saturday simply obliged her to base judgements on Williamson’s instruction, rather than ignoring it. What the Board could not do was meet his instruction to take account of additional evidence, hence opening the floodgates.

The statute requires Ofqual to perform its functions “efficiently and effectively”. It has failed to do so, but it is unfair to judge an educational body on its handling of a pandemic. More important are its failure to ensure fair and equitable grading – leading to able pupils taking physics and languages receiving lower grades than in other subjects – and a structure that allows its chief regulator to base major decisions on personal views. Improving supervision by the Board, and appointing a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education may both help. Failing that, we need to start again.