Matt Leach: Levelling up isn’t simply about infrastructure – it’s about community connection too. Here’s how the Government can improve matters.

26 May

Matt Leach is Chief Executive of Local Trust, a charity that delivers the Big Local programme; a long-term community-led approach to regeneration in 150 neighbourhoods across England.

When launching the legislative programme for the coming Parliament, the Prime Minister again declared his commitment to “unite and level up” the country – and announced plans to publish a Levelling Up White Paper later this year, setting out “bold new interventions to improve livelihoods and opportunities throughout the UK.”

To ensure these ideas translate into meaningful action, a new levelling up unit has been created at the heart of government, with Neil O’Brien responsible for helping drive the agenda across Whitehall. Within government departments, workstreams have already been initiated, as civil servants and advisers work up proposals to feed into both the White Paper and the autumn Spending Review.

But if levelling up is the only game in town, what exactly is it? And perhaps more importantly, what might it mean to residents of the “left behind” communities who should benefit most from it?

To date, levelling up has been interpreted as primarily about tackling regional economic divides, with initiatives such as the Towns Fund, the Future High Streets Fund and significant investment in infrastructure, such as roads and railways dominating headlines.

But recent government pronouncements have suggested a broader policy ambition aimed at “improving everyday life for communities…and ensuring everyone can succeed regardless of where they live”; enabling “people….[to be] proud of their local community, rather than feeling as though they need to leave it in order to reach their potential”; and as noted in the Queen’s speech briefing, “strengthening community and local leadership, restoring pride in place, and improving quality of life in ways that are not just about the economy”.

In many ways this reflects some of the priorities identified in Onward’s report on the nation’s social fabric. It also picks up on ideas included in Danny Kruger’s report to the Prime Minister on levelling up, which highlighted the importance of strengthening our shared sense of community, both locally and nationally.

Both reports, in different ways, respond to something very important about the mood of the country right now. Even before Covid, there was an anxiety that, in many places, the fabric of our shared social and civic life had been torn – with the loss in many places of local pubs, bingo halls, community centres and neighbourhood shops.

The places where we connect, make friends, build relationships, and cultivate a sense of neighbourliness. This phenomenon isn’t limited to our poorest places, but the impact is often most obvious in communities that have also suffered economic decline.

As human beings, we have a basic need for connection and a sense of belonging, and we gain this in large measure through institutions that reflect our collective local identities whether that be community centres, rugby clubs or pubs. This isn’t just anecdotal, there is research to back it up. In the United States, the American Enterprise Institute has demonstrated the importance of social connection and place.

Closer to home, Pro Bono Economics’ analysis suggests that the presence of community assets may be a better predictor of life satisfaction in an area than its GDP or household income. Polling by Survation indicates people feel the biggest funding deficit in “left behind” areas has been investment in provision of places where their local community can meet. Similar points can be found in a range of other recent reports, including from the Centre for Progressive Policy, the Covid Recovery Commission and the Bennett Institute at the University of Cambridge.

Indeed, it is now largely uncontested that high levels of trust and reciprocity and the bonding and bridging social capital they create underpin the success of any economy – whether national or local; one is a building block for the other. Local social and civic institutions are the fundamental engines of social capital and we know that individuals living in communities with higher levels of social capital have, on average, better outcomes across a range of indicators including employment and health and wellbeing.

Research by OCSI for Local Trust suggests the presence of places and spaces to meet in a neighbourhood, an active community life and good digital and transport connectivity contributes to improved socio-economic outcomes in the most deprived areas. People living in the most deprived areas lacking such provision have markedly worse employment and health outcomes, while overall educational attainment is lower.

But if the proposition that levelling up should be about investing in social and community as well as economic infrastructure is not controversial, what might it amount to in practice? Kruger’s report emphasised the need for investment in places to meet, alongside support for local community-based organisations to sustain them, providing resources to areas that need them most and giving communities as much power and control over decision making as possible.

And rather than being directly financed by the Treasury, his proposed “Levelling Up Communities Fund”, very similar in form to the proposal for a Community Wealth Fund championed by an Alliance of over 400 organisations, mostly from civil society, but including over 30 local and combined authorities, would be funded from dormant assets.

The legislation to release the new wave of dormant assets (from stocks, shares, bonds, insurance, and pension policies) is now before Parliament. It provides an early opportunity for government to commit funding to meeting its levelling up ambitions through support for social and community infrastructure.

Over time, dormant asset funding has the potential to generate several billion pounds to transform the social fabric of some of our most left behind places, over timeframes that extend significantly beyond Treasury timescales, at no cost to the public purse.

This may seem like a radical commitment for any government. But, as we emerge from a pandemic which has demonstrated the power of hyper-local community action, it’s an agenda that needs to be enthusiastically embraced if the this one’s levelling up ambitions are to be achieved.

Profile: Danny Kruger, defender of Christian conservatism and traditional ideas of virtue

31 Mar

Who now dares to talk about the virtues? Danny Kruger, MP since December 2019 for Devizes, is one of the few parliamentarians who ventures to do so.

In his latest declaration, jointly launched with Miriam Cates, who in 2019 took Penistone and Stocksbridge from Labour, Kruger begins by denouncing the facile assumption that we are all born good:

“What is the job of society? There is a modern delusion that we are born pure, and then corrupted by an unfair world. But surely the plain truth is that we are born greedy, narcissistic and violent. That’s why laissez-faire doesn’t work any more than big government. Left entirely to ourselves, individuals will exploit, slack off, rent-seek, and cheat.”

So we need to be educated:

“The job of society is to teach us to temper these impulses and to train us in a different set of habits. What habits are these? The old times called them the virtues: the practices that human beings are uniquely good at, like courage, temperance, fortitude, creativity, compassion and shrewdness. The virtues make us happy and great, and make life better for everyone else.”

Kruger calls for “a New Social Covenant”, under which “the family, the community and the nation” become our “schools of virtue”, and goes on to enunciate 12 propositions, including:

“The state should safeguard the customs of the country.”

“We need a new ‘economics of place’ instead of the failed doctrine of economic mobility.”

“Marriage is a public institution and essential to society.”

He proceeds to defend these propositions in a reasonable and erudite tone, for he has been working on this for a long time. Kruger was the author of David Cameron’s “Hug a Hoodie” speech, delivered in July 2006 to the Centre for Social Justice.

Cameron had become Leader of the Opposition in December 2005, and needed to show that after three general election defeats, the Conservatives were at last undertaking the fundamental changes that were required.

In April 2006 Cameron signalled the modernisation of environment policy by going to Norway to hug a husky, and three months later he proclaimed, at the Centre for Social Justice, founded by Iain Duncan Smith, his commitment to understanding rather than condemning young people who wore hoodies, an item of clothing which had recently been banned, with Tony Blair’s approval, by the Bluewater Shopping Centre.

Not everyone was impressed by this exercise in compassionate conservatism. According to Kruger, reminiscing in The Spectator in June 2008:

“The day of Boris’s election [as Mayor of London on 1st May 2008] was also the day I stopped work as David Cameron’s speechwriter to go full-time at the charity my wife and I founded two years ago to work with prisoners and ex-offenders. My main claim to distinction in my old job was drafting the speech in which David said something capable of the construction (though not the words, not the words themselves) that the public should all get out there and hug hoodies.

“This speech has gone down in Tory lore as a terrible blunder, but I am still rather proud of it. The nub of it was, that while we should certainly punish people who cross the line into criminality, on this side of the line we need ‘to show a lot more love’.

“Love is a neglected crime-fighting device. But the need for it is powerfully proved in Felicity de Zulueta’s important book From Pain to Violence: The Traumatic Roots of Destructiveness. She argues that violence and hatred are not motive forces of their own: they are the terrible expression of wrecked relationships, of thwarted love.

“Men and women seem to have a yearning for agency, for the ability to affect things. As de Zulueta puts it, the sense of helplessness is ‘a state tantamount to annihilation’; we will do anything to avoid it. Hence self-harm, and what youth workers call ‘self-sabotage’ — the apparently wilful screwing-up of opportunities, the no-show, the walking-away at the moment before achievement. People who feel incapable, feel the need to prove it: failure, at least, is something they can author.”

One sees that for Kruger, all this really matters. Cameron spoke about it as if he too cared deeply about it. But somehow the Big Society, as this strand in his programme became known (Steve Hilton is credited with inventing the name), never quite achieved lift-off.

There are, after all, serious difficulties in proclaiming a manifesto derived from Christian teaching. Fewer and fewer voters regard themselves as Christians.

Nor does any politician with half an ear for public sensitivities wish to adopt a holier-than-thou tone of voice. Piety would be insufferable. The present Prime Minister makes every effort, in his daily proclamations about the pandemic, to avoid sounding preachy.

And the Big Society, with its support for voluntary work in support of civil society, seemed to lack ideological content. Surely a socialist could believe as devoutly in it as a Conservative? Kruger himself suggested as much in an essay which appeared on ConservativeHome in October 2014, lamenting the dropping by Cameron of the idea:

“The Big Society elevated the national conversation to something approaching a moral discourse: what sort of society do we want? What are our own responsibilities, what are others’? What is the condition of my community, and what can we do about it?

“If these weren’t two ridiculous words for a Conservative leader to adopt I would have advised David Cameron to call himself a ‘new socialist’. Old socialism was about using the power of the state to advance the interests and wellbeing of the working class. New socialism is about using the power of society to protect minorities, defend and promote local communities, and create opportunities.”

Essay question for aspiring Conservative candidates: “Is Boris Johnson a new socialist? Discuss.”

Kruger is not a socialist. He is a politician with the moral courage to think for himself.

This he inherits from his father, Rayne Kruger, who rather than do the conventional thing, liked to back his own judgment, as the admirable and admiring obituary of him in The Times made clear.

The elder Kruger, who was born in South Africa and moved while still a young man to London, married first an actress 16 years older than himself – in Pygmalion she had played Eliza to his Professor Higgins – and secondly a young South African woman who had arrived in London intending to make her way as a Cordon Bleu cook.

She was called Prue Leith, and their son, Danny, was born in October 1975, three days after they married. She has since achieved fame and fortune as a restaurateur, with her husband running the business side of things; and is now yet better known as a presenter of The Great British Bake Off.

A friend says of Danny:

“He’s more like his mother than he thinks he is. She just gets stuff done by energy and determination. He’s turning out like that.”

He was educated at Eton, read history at Edinburgh, at Oxford wrote a doctorate about Edmund Burke, and was more inclined to lie in the bath thinking great thoughts than to do the washing up.

He was liberated from this perhaps rather stuffy, old-fashioned mode of life by falling in love with his future wife, Emma, a teacher. She was an evangelical Christian and prayed that he would be converted, which he was. For a time they lived on a council estate. They have three children.

Kruger became the guy who would do the washing up, and in 2005 (after early stints as director of studies at the Centre for Policy Studies, Conservative policy adviser, and chief leader writer on The Daily Telegraph) he and Emma set up Only Connect, a prison charity which they ran for ten years, and which concentrates on helping offenders not to reoffend.

Also in 2005, Kruger was obliged to stand down as the Conservative candidate in Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat) after The Guardian reported that he had declared: “We plan to introduce a period of creative destruction in the public services.”

He is a good friend of Dominic Cummings, and backed Vote Leave.

In the summer of 2019, Cummings brought Kruger to Downing Street as Johnson’s Political Secretary, charged with maintaining relations with Tory backbenchers during the exceptionally turbulent months when the new Prime Minister was striving to get Brexit through.

When I met Kruger in the Palace of Westminster on one night of high drama, he seemed in his imperturbable way to be enjoying himself.

In November 2019, Kruger won selection for the safe Conservative seat of Devizes, after CCHQ had intervened to cut the short list from six to only three candidates.

At the end of his maiden speech, delivered on 29 January 2020, he returned to the Christian roots of our politics:

“I finish on a more abstract issue, but it is one that we will find ourselves debating in many different forms in this Parliament. It is the issue of identity, of who we are both as individuals and in relation to each other. We traditionally had a sense of this: we are children of God, fallen but redeemed. Capable of great wrong but capable of great virtue. Even for those who did not believe in God, there was a sense that our country is rooted in Christianity and that our liberties derive from the Christian idea of absolute human dignity.

“Today those ideas are losing their purchase, so we are trying to find a new set of values to guide us, a new language of rights and wrongs, and a new idea of identity based not on our universal inner value or on our membership of a common culture but on our particular differences.

“I state this as neutrally as I can, because I know that good people are trying hard to make a better world and that Christianity and the western past are badly stained by violence and injustice, but I am not sure that we should so casually throw away the inheritance of our culture.”

On the morning of Saturday 23rd May, just after the story had broken of the visit during the first lockdown to County Durham by Cummings and his wife Mary Wakefield, Kruger leapt to their defence on Twitter:

“Dom and Mary’s journey was necessary and therefore within rules. What’s also necessary is not attacking a man and his family for decisions taken at a time of great stress and worry, the fear of death and concern for a child. This isn’t a story for the normal political shitkickery.”

In the days that followed, Kruger stuck to his guns, telling other newly elected MPs:

“No 10 won’t budge, so calling for DC to go is basically declaring no confidence in PM.”

To make this stand amid such a storm of protest showed fortitude. One of the advantages of believing in a moral tradition is that it may render one less liable to be swept hither and thither by one moral panic after another. Here is Kruger speaking a few days ago in a debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill:

“Our culture historically taught men that they had a duty to honour and protect women. It is a difficult thing to say, because it may appear that I want to turn back the clock to a time when men chivalrously protected the weaker sex, but of course, as I have said, that is not how it always was in the old days, and even if it had been, we do not accept the idea that women need protection by men; they just need men to behave themselves. So let me say emphatically that I do not want to turn back the clock; however, we do need to face the fact that our modern culture has not delivered all the progress it was supposed to. I wonder whether that is because our modern culture has a problem with telling people how to behave—it has a problem with society having a moral framework at all.”

Many voters, not all of them Conservative, will agree with that. Kruger’s arguments are sometimes described as communitarian, but that pallid label does not convey the force of the challenge he poses to an intellectual establishment which supposes it can dispense with traditional ideas of virtue.

Caroline Abrahams: Carers need a combination of support to fulfil their vital role – here’s how the Government can play its part

12 Mar

Caroline Abrahams is the Charity Director at Age UK.

In the week during which International Women’s Day falls I want to focus on an experience which, if not quite universal among older women, is extremely common, and that’s of being a carer. By this I mean taking on the role of looking after someone else, typically a partner or parent, on an unpaid basis. Some people are carers over a lifetime for their adult children with learning disabilities, while others, so called “sandwich carers”, find themselves caring both for younger and older relatives at the same time – an onerous responsibility indeed.

I am a carer myself, for my 92-year-old mum, who was fit and well until she had a tragic accident four years ago, robbing her of most of her mental capacity in an instant and making her dependent on others for all activities of daily living. I am now doing the “hardest yards” of caring, helping to care for her as she approaches the very end of her life. Like so many others, my caring role will come to an end when the person I am caring for dies. Then I will have to rebuild my life again.

I didn’t become a carer for my mum from a sense of duty, less still because of exhortations from some policymakers that “families must do more”, but because of a feeling of reciprocity. We have been the best of friends and my mum would have done anything to help me, whatever it took. Therefore, I wished and wish to do the same. It has been an amazing experience, one I took on willingly and with no regrets.

But I would also be the first to say that despite the tragedy that befell my mum I have been immensely fortunate to have been able to make the system work for her and for me, since I knew my way around it owing to my professional role. I have also been able to combine my caring responsibilities with continuing to work, because Age UK has been a marvellously sympathetic and flexible employer. Most people are not nearly so lucky in either respect.

What would most help older women, and men too, who care? Not one thing but a whole raft of measures. Above all a properly funded and effective system of social care would back up what unpaid carers do and make caring a less scary and lonely experience. I am thinking especially here of the legions of older people who care for a partner with dementia; something that is both extremely challenging and also often very isolating for them. Too many are left without the support they need, in the most heart-breaking of circumstances.

As Danny Kruger has observed in his recent report on the future of social care, produced with Demos, many people who need care get it from a combination of informal, unpaid support from family and sometimes friends, plus the input of formal care services. This is important because the debate about the future of social care often erroneously assumes it’s one or the other. This reality, that it’s both, reinforces the importance of formal services wanting and being able to work collaboratively with unpaid carers. From what we hear at Age UK, sometimes this happens but not always.

The same is also true of the local NHS. The vast majority of older people with care needs also have health needs, so if you are a carer for an older person you are highly likely to find yourself interacting extensively with GPs and their teams and district nurses and the like. Some health professionals are great at working with unpaid carers, but it’s not a given.

A more collaborative, properly funded approach between formal services and unpaid carers would also remove a disincentive to informal caring: that is the sadly legitimate fear that if you take on a caring responsibility you will be “dumped on” and formal services will back off, leaving you to it. We hear many examples of this at Age UK and while its wrong that it happens it is scarcely surprising, given that social services are stretched beyond endurance in trying to reach all those in need.

What I have just described is a form of “rationing” by formal services, something that manifestly happens in many other ways within social care too. Access to state-funded help with care is invariably a tortuous process, requiring resilience and staying power – often from the unpaid carer if the person needing care is unable to advocate for themselves, as was the case with my mum. Both NHS continuing healthcare and council care are underfunded and when applying for them it is not unusual to encounter barriers that may or may not seem fair or based in law – with few apparent opportunities to challenge them. This piles huge additional stress onto carers.

The fact is that the decisions about social care, or lack of them, in Whitehall eventually result in unpaid carers as well as the people for whom they are trying to do their best losing out financially as well as in terms of the quality of life they are able to lead while caring. The financial hit on unpaid carers who give up work to care is huge, often condemning older women to penny pinching in retirement. Capping very high care costs would help, but for full-time unpaid carers not enough on its own: the benefits paid for caring must go up too. They are currently below those for the unemployed – a travesty.

Then there’s flexible working. It is invariably in the best interests of a carer to stay in employment, both in terms of their quality of life and their finances. For older women like me, once caring ends you may be unable to get another job, leaving you in a real financial mess if you gave up work to care. The pandemic has seen a sea-change in attitudes towards and experiences of working from home and other forms of flexible working. I would like the Government to solidify this cultural change through amending the law to increase access to flexible working, from day one in a job.

When he entered office the Prime Minister promised to “fix social care” and he has repeated that pledge many times since. I sincerely hope we will see his promise bearing fruit later in the year and, if and when it does, that it fully factors in the need to support our carers, including our older women carers. And I believe most readers of this and other articles on ConHome would say they – we – deserve it.

Jonathan Werran: To build back, we need strong and empowered communities

17 Nov

Jonathan Werran is the chief executive of Localis.

At the outset of this crisis, on March 20th, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said:

“We want to look back on this time and remember how we thought first of others and acted with decency.”

Eight months on, the cumulative impact of the countless acts of local kindness made by myriad groups of individuals and communities who have risen to the challenges of the coronavirus year, simply can’t be overstated.

Showing a degree of courage, wisdom, and compassion for the people they love in the places they live, community groups have sprung into action and continued to exert themselves bravely and vigorously to serve the needs of others. The range of bottom-up initiatives has been truly inspiring in breadth of scope, innovation, and dedication. In this, we see the strong beating heart of genuine local self-government.

This should come as little or no surprise to ConHome readers. “To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections,” wrote Edmund Burke. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love of country and mankind.”

Not wishing to dwell too much on the courtier battles being played out in SW1, but we have surely now reached peak centralism. And the example of our communities in action holds up a mirror to the kind of society we want to be. Independent, family-focused, and resilient, while acting with an awareness of responsibilities and duties to serving neighbours in our midst. Confident of place and proud of identity, yet outward-looking and associative.

If Johnson’s government is looking to reset and pivot to the kinder and greener, exalting the role of community and family as much as ‘grands projets’ and levelling up growth schemes, then we need to think about the social infrastructure that needs to be laid in parallel tracks alongside the billion pound big ticket items.

At Localis, we agree with the findings of Danny Kruger’s ‘Levelling Up Our Communities’ report. Maximising the role played by community groups in the COVID-19 recovery and the government’s levelling up agenda thereafter suggests a space in which hyperlocal organisations should be given freedom to operate. Communities need both powers and resources to step up with a stand alone spirit if they are to create public value. We need to allow communities to self-organise, take back control locally of assets, and deliver unique local services where they have desire and capability.

So, in our report which is published today “Renewing Neighbourhood Democracy – Creating Powerful Communities”, we think back to the pandemic when communities mobilised around local rugby clubs and arts projects as much as in any predefined emergency response committees. And looking forward, we think ahead to what are now the best opportunities for giving our communities the chance to cohere, flourish, and renew our society and economy from the ground up. Here’s how we see it at Localis.

Firstly, the forthcoming Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper offers an immediate point of departure for reform. It should codify the role of councils in a facilitative local state by beginning the process of creating clear, statutory pathways to community autonomy. For example, the white paper should identify areas of service delivery that could be co-designed, run in partnership, or devolved entirely to the neighbourhood-level, particularly if the size of local authorities is to increase with reforms.

In doubling down on devolution, a statutory role should be created in local authorities for managing the process of subsidiarity and community relations, serving as a single point of contact and information for community groups looking to establish forms of local control.

How to glue this together? Firstly the ‘pop-up parish’ or Community Improvement District model should be extended as a statutory community right alongside the previous rights established in the Localism Act 2011. And pathways should be developed for communities to take control of non-core service spending at neighbourhood level through initiatives like the People’s Budget in Frome Town Council.

Secondly, to enshrine the principle of double devolution and expand upon the Localism Act’s establishment of Community Rights, the white paper should extend these rights to give the community greater power over local assets and social infrastructure.

In practical terms, all assets that qualify as having community value under the current system should be designated as social infrastructure. And if a community group decides to take on a community asset, they should be supported, both procedurally and financially, in their endeavours to do so.

The introduction of localised lockdowns has further emphasised the importance of front-line action from community groups. So thirdly, the government should urgently renew and extend financial support for voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations to respond to the pandemic, particularly as the reintroduction of lockdown measures escalates.

To ensure a fast and targeted response, a fund could be distributed to community organisations by local councils in lockdown areas in a manner similar to the distribution of the pandemic-related Small Business Grant Fund. As with the Small Business Grant Fund, the focus should be on rescue at any cost for the sake of national resilience, and the overall fund should be matched to need rather than to a specific cash limit.

Fourthly and finally, in order to strengthen social infrastructure, and properly resource endeavours to empower communities in a manner that is participatory and gets results, central government should commit to establishing a Community Wealth Fund – along the lines called for in Danny Kruger’s idea of a ‘Levelling Up Communties Fund’.

The fund would specifically target the social and civic infrastructure of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods across the country. It would be an independent endowment that would be distributed over the course of ten to 15 years, to include investment at the hyperlocal level, decision-making would be community-led, and, as part of the package, support would be provided to build and sustain the social capital of communities and their capacity to be involved.

In this way, we lay the foundations for strong and empowered communities and so build back and recover the right way up.

Please register for today’s joint Policy Exchange and ConservativeHome event on One Nation after Covid

15 Nov

The Editor of this site will today chair a joint Policy Exchange/ConservativeHome event on: One Nation conservatism: what does it look like after Covid-19?  The five panellists are:

  • Isaac Levido: 2019 General Election Conservative Campaign Director.
  • Arlene Foster: First Minister of Northern Ireland and Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.
  • Kirstene Hair: Senior Adviser to Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, and former MP for Angus
  • Danny Kruger: former Political Secretary to the Prime Minister and MP for Devizes.
  • Jane Stevenson: MP for Wolverhampton North East.

The event will take place via Zoom at noon today, Monday November 16.  You are welcome to register for it via this link here.

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.

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.