Conservative MPs made a strong case against Labour’s free school meal plans in the Commons yesterday

22 Oct

To the surprise of those expecting a u-turn, the Government appears to have toughed out Marcus Rashford’s latest campaign to extend free school meals through the holidays.

Yesterday Labour held an Opposition Day debate on the subject, which was defeated by 322 votes to 261. Only five Conservatives (Caroline Ansell, Rob Halfon, Jason McCartney, Anne Marie Morris, and Holly Mumby-Croft) voted with the Opposition.

The result has outraged Twitter, with the usual, dastardly portrayals of Tory motivations getting bandied about. But to get a better idea of what motivated last night’s vote, we’ve been through Hansard and had a look at the arguments advanced on the day. These seem to fall into a few broad categories.

First comes the not unreasonable (if somewhat partisan) point that the policy being advanced by Labour is not one they chose to pursue during the 13 years they were in power. Brendan Clarke-Smith (Bassetlaw) asked: “why did colleagues on the Opposition Benches never implement any of them under the Labour Government?” Tom Randall (Gedling), further noted that “the proposal in the motion was rejected by the Labour Government when it was made in 2007.”

(Randall also called the Opposition out for improperly invoking the blessed name of Marcus Rashford: “But according to his tweet of 18 October, Mr Rashford is calling for school meal provision in all holidays. Is it that the Opposition motion does not agree with Mr Rashford but is attempting to catch his coat tails or do the Opposition secretly agree with him but are too coy to say it at the moment?”)

Several other MPs had reservations about the model being proposed. Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) set out the problem thus:

“The motion calls on the Government to extend free school meal provision throughout the school holidays until Easter next year. Although on the Order Paper this is a debate about free school meals, even if the motion passes, the result will not be more free school meals. To risk stating the obvious, during the holidays schools are closed, and they do not provide physical meals—free or otherwise—to any child. Let us be clear: what is really being called for here is an extension to the voucher scheme that would start in half-term next week by giving supermarket vouchers to parents of children who are eligible. That is not the same as providing a daily nutritious meal to a child in a school environment to help them get the most out of their education. It is important to recognise the difference between free school meals and what they are for, and supermarket vouchers.”

Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North), himself a former teacher, spelled out some of the consequences of this distinction:

” This is not a one-off extension—this is about free school meals being permanently provided outside of school time. First, who is going to fund that—the school or the state? Do schools provide the meals on-site, or do they have to deliver food parcels? If so, do they have to renegotiate their contracts? Have the unions supported that? Is there understanding of the voucher system, and are they being used in an appropriate and responsible manner? I have had supermarkets, parents and schools contact me directly to say that they have grave concerns about the way in which those vouchers have been used.”

And Danny Kruger explained that Labour were trying to force schools to shoulder a responsibility which was outside their remit:

“As we have heard from the shadow Secretary of State, there is a possibility of the proposal becoming permanent. That is not an appropriate use of schools. Now that schools are open again, it is not appropriate to make them welfare providers. That is a role for the welfare system.”

Beyond these technical questions, several MPs also challenged the underlying premise that the State should be further encroaching on the proper responsibilities of parents.

Clarke-Smith said: “When did it suddenly become controversial to suggest that the primary responsibility for a child’s welfare should lie with their parents, or to suggest that people do not always spend vouchers in the way they are intended?”, whilst Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) added:

“I listened very carefully to what the shadow Secretary of State said, and at one point she said—I hope I do not get this wrong—that it is the Government’s job to make sure children do not go hungry. I differ there, and I think lots of my constituents differ there too, because they would be appalled by the prospect of the Government interfering in their daily lives to make sure their children did not go hungry.”

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Clevelys), a former minister, put it slightly differently but touched on a similar theme: “I am not sure that it returns that sense of agency and autonomy that I seek. Politics is not something that we do to people; it is something that we do with people.”

Naturally many on the left – and indeed, some in the Party – will disagree with some or all of these arguments. But the cartoon-villain image of well-off, southern Tories dismissing concerns of which they have no personal experience does not survive contact with the actual debate. The Conservative caricature has fallen some way behind the state of the current Conservative Party.

Brooks Newmark: How to eradicate the blight of rough sleeping once and for all by the end of this Parliament

16 Sep

Brooks Newmark was the MP for Braintree (2005-15), Minister for Civil Society (2014) and currently sits on the Government’s Roughsleepers Advisory Panel.

The recent annual figures from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) make sober reading. They show that in our capital alone there were 10,726 people sleeping rough between April 2019 and March this year, up from 8,855 last year and an increase of 21 per cent.

But worse still during the first quarter of the pandemic, people newly rough sleeping between April and June 2020 rose by 77 per cent compared to the same period last year.

As Jon Sparkes, the Chief Executive Officer of Crisis, the homelessness charity, said: “these figures reveal that pre-pandemic we were seeing record levels of people sleeping rough in our capital…and shows just how dire the underlying situation was even before the Coronavirus outbreak.”

Following the appointment of Louise Casey as Homelessness Czar in late March, the Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, and Ministerial team acted swiftly, and offered 90 per cent of rough sleepers, that outreach workers had identified throughout the country, temporary housing, many in hotel rooms and other accommodation.

This was part of the Government’s ‘Everyone In’ strategy, and clearly saved lives by both protecting some of the most vulnerable in our society and preventing the further spread of the disease.

With night shelters closed and the generosity of friends providing housing for ‘sofa surfers’ no longer available, the Government housed almost 15,000 people in England within weeks. This was a massive achievement, and showed that it is possible with the right political will to tackle the blight of homelessness, especially rough sleeping.

However, with the Government emergency programme coming to an end, we risk seeing a massive resurgence of rough sleeping on our streets. One of the biggest threats has been the end of the eviction ban. The Government recently addressed this problem by extending the notice period given by landlords to tenants to six months through to March 2021.

Further, local councils, notwithstanding the duty of care explicit in Bob Blackman’s Homeless Reduction Bill, are beginning to re-enforce the three horses of the apocalypse when it comes to homelessness: people being told they either have no local connection to the area; no priority need for help because they are not ‘vulnerable’ enough; or, no recourse to public funds, even if they have lived and paid taxes in the UK for years. Again, the Government has sought in part to address this by providing an extra £105 million to councils.

But a bigger problem looms which is the end of the furlough program, which in the words of Crisis, could result in tens of thousands being pushed into homelessness. This at a time when winter is approaching and the spread of Coronavirus is on the upswing again. The Government have a duty of care to the homeless who are without doubt some of the most vulnerable in our society.

So what is the solution?

In the short run, the Government needs to rehouse the remaining rough sleepers who are currently in emergency accommodation. Further, there are a number of examples of councils and devolved governments who can provide best practices.

Liverpool City Council brought together all the housing associations that collectively are providing a central data base of housing availability, and giving a priority to rough sleepers and those who have found themselves homeless. As a result, Liverpool has all but eradicated rough sleeping in the City, and has closed its night shelter. The devolved Government in Wales has also shown the way by removing all legal restrictions from local councils and providing more funding per capita to address the problem. The result: Wales today literally only has a small handful of individuals, primarily those with complex needs who are still on the street.

If the Government is to prevent a tsunami of homelessness in 2021, it needs to have a robust homelessness prevention strategy in place before year-end, and should look to those parts of the United Kingdom where the issue is being addressed effectively.

This in essence means more money to councils to address the problem at the same time as more teeth to legislation to ensure councils do not revert to the bad old days of drawing on the arcane rules of intentionality, no local connection and priority need.

In the medium term, the Government should provide the support and funding to the Housing First Program. In 2017, I wrote a report at the Centre for Social Justice entitled Housing First: Housing led Solutions to Rough Sleeping and Homelessness’.

Its recommendations from twere adopted by the then Secretary of State for Housing, Sajid Javid, and Theresa May. There has now been a pilot of Housing First for the past three years in three city regions: West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Liverpool. The evidence is clear: for those rough sleepers and others who are homeless with complex needs, Housing First works, with recidivism almost negligible. In 2021, the Government should roll out 16,000 Housing First units nationwide.

In the longer term, the Government needs to roll out more social housing. While the Government should be applauded for its £12 billion Affordable Homes Programme which will provide up to 180,000 new homes across the country and a new Right to Shared Ownership, this is different than Social Housing, a point recently made by Polly Neate, the Chief Executive of Shelter and earlier made by the new MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger (who also worked in 10 Downing Street for Johnson) in an article on this site in July.

Kruger says the Government must “make a major new investment in building genuinely affordable social homes – not least for those millions of families living in poor private rented housing or temporary accommodation.”

The Prime Minister has a strong track record in seeking to address the blight of rough sleeping, especially when he was Mayor of London, with such schemes as ‘No Second Night Out.’ He has also shown a strong commitment to addressing the homelessness problem with his swift response to house over 15,000 rough sleepers and those in temporary accommodation at the start of the Covid crisis.

But if the Government is to maintain its momentum in this area, it needs to have a clear prevention strategy in place by year-end, provide a clear framework for local councils with more funding in place to provide housing for those most at risk of homelessness, and it needs to roll out the Housing First Programme nationally to provide both the homes and support for those with complex needs.

This Government has an immense opportunity to build on the good work of Johnson, Jenrick and Casey, until recently the Homelessness Czar, but it needs bold action and strong leadership now if it is to achieve its ambition to eradicate the blight of rough sleeping once and for all by the end of this Parliament.

Robert Halfon: Johnson delivers for the workers but Starmer could win back their votes

1 Jul

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

Blue-Collar Boris

I think readers of ConservativeHome will know my columns well enough by now that when I want the Conservative Government to be better, I am not afraid to say it. But it is also important to dance a jig or two, when they get it right.

Yesterday’s speech by the Prime Minister was a blue-collar speech in tooth and claw. When he said that he would focus on the people’s priorities, he really meant it.

For communities like mine in Harlow, and no doubt those in and around the blue wall, there will be a sigh of relief that there is no return to austerity, that the NHS is King, that schools and colleges will be better funded and housing and infrastructure will be built across our land.

Above all, we now have an extraordinary and exciting offering to our young people – an opportunity guarantee, comprising a choice between an apprenticeship or a work placement. This is a real policy that could make a difference to winning back younger voters as well.

The reason why this Boris Johnson speech was so important was not just the significant policy content, but because it set the direction of travel for the Conservative administration. After a few rocky weeks seemingly being bogged down in the Coronavirus mire, the Prime Minister is back on the front foot, setting out a Tory Workers’ agenda, that millions of lower income workers not only relate to, but can also get behind.

They have been reminded of why they voted for us again. Of course, saying that we are going to ‘build, build, build’ is easier than the building itself, but now the course/trajectory/path has been set, it is up to the rest of the Government to start constructing our New Jerusalem.

Starmer unstuffed

Patrick O’Flynn was one of the early media forefathers (and proponents) of blue-collar conservatism, way back in the days when Notting Hill was regarded as the preferred venue of the Tory éminence grise – a little unlike Dudley, where Johnson was yesterday. So, he is someone worth reading up on or listening to.

However, his recent article for The Spectator entitled, ‘Starmer is stuffed, filled me with absolute horror, because his line of argument, if accepted, would instill a large dollop of complacency in every Conservative.

In O’Flynn’s view, Starmer’s history and background, his inability to develop blue-collar policy, the cultural wars and the Tories’ reputation for economic competency, means everything will be alright on the night.

If we, as Conservatives, believe the above to be true, that way disaster lies; not only will we lose our majority at worst, or have a hung parliament at best, but our historic red wall gains in the North will crumble away.

Let me set out a few reasons why:

First, Keir Starmer is radically de-Corbynising the Labour Party – almost by stealth and under the cover of coronavirus. Almost all the way through the Shadow frontbench, from PPS’ to the Shadow Cabinet, moderates are being promoted. If you look at the calibre of Labour MPs – like Shadow Business Minister, Lucy Powell, or Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas Symonds – you know that the Labour leader is being serious when he wants to present an alternative Government. Meanwhile, the NEC and Labour General Secretary are passing into the hands of social democrats, rather than the far left.

Second, whilst Starmer may not have had his Clause IV with the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, it is certainly a Clause 0.4. In one fell swoop, Starmer has shown the British public that he will not tolerate the anti-semitism that has so infected his party over the past few years – and given a pretty sure signal that he wants to enter the doors of 10 Downing Street.

The idea that the public will care about Starmer’s past record as Director of Public Prosecutions is as fanciful as voters being negatively influenced by Johnson going to Eton, or his early and controversial newspaper columns.

Third, never underestimate the power of Labour. Their message of helping the underdog and the poor is enduring, still popular and extremely potent. They are not going to sit back and let the Tories rule for eternity. The psephological evidence shows that public opinion is leaning closer and closer towards Starmer for Prime Minister.

The latest Opinium poll shows that Starmer is preferred to lead the country by 37 per cent of voters, compared with 35 per cent who back Johnson. While the Conservatives remain four points ahead of their opposition on 43 per cent to Labour’s 39 per cent, the gap has closed from over 20 per cent in February and early March, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. Scaling the Tory wall is far from insurmountable.

Fourth, on policy: Just because Starmer is a ‘metropolitan’ does not mean that his policies will be ‘metropolitan’, too. His Policy Chief is Claire Ainsley, who wrote an important book, The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes.

If her views, alongside those of a more communitarian nature as proposed by thoughtful Labour thinkers like John Cruddas, MP for Dagenham (with whom Johnson’s former Political Secretary, my colleague Danny Kruger, is collaborating on big society policy development), or Maurice Glasman, then they could actually have an exciting message to the public, winning minds as well as hearts.

If Tories are busy painting flags on planes, or building Royal Yachts, or shooting ourselves in the foot as we are wont to do on a regular basis – whether it be on free school meals or the NHS surcharge – and Labour are focusing on the cost of living, skills and genuinely affordable housing, I think it is pretty clear voters are going to be looking at the Labour offering, once again.

Having said that, if we come up with more of the blue-collar narrative, I set out in the first part of this article, alongside significant tax cuts for the lower paid, then perhaps O’Flynn could be on to something.

I just wish he wouldn’t say it, nor any other right-thinking individual. Conservatives have to take the next few years as if we have a majority of one, and remember that the political left want the Tories gone, and will stop at nothing to kick them out of Downing Street.