David Gauke: It’s right that the civil service become more efficient, but I doubt that these plans to reform it will work

23 May

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.

Government Ministers want to reduce the size of the civil service. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Minister for Government Efficiency, has let it be known that he wants to reduce the civil service headcount by approximately 90,000 which would be a fall of 20 per cent and return the numbers to the levels of 2016. Sky News reported on Friday that departments have been asked to model headcount reductions of 20, 30 and 40 per cent.

There is plenty of politics in these announcements and I will get to that in a moment. There are also a large number of practical challenges which are worth highlighting. Having served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury as well as being the Minister responsible or relevant for the three biggest employers of civil servants (at the Department of Work and Pensions, HMRC and the Ministry of Justice), I have a few thoughts on that.

Before turning to those issues, however, it is worth acknowledging that seeking to ensure that public money is spent wisely and that public services are delivered efficiently is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Indeed, it would be irresponsible not to seek to do this. We spend taxpayers’ money on public services in order to serve the public. This requires the employment of public servants, but the employment of public servants is incidental to the Government’s purposes, it is not an objective in itself. This is an obvious point, but I can remember at least one meeting with civil service staff where this point had been lost.

Governments should seek to achieve more for less and, if it is possible, to deliver satisfactory public services whilst employing fewer people. This can result in savings for the taxpayer and release workers to make a contribution elsewhere in the economy. Jobs are a cost not a benefit.

Some will argue that reducing headcount results in a deterioration in public services. That is not inevitably so. To take HMRC, for example, this is a department that has grown in confidence and capability over the last twelve years at a time when the number of employees has fallen.

The reason it has been able to do this is that it has embraced technology which means that many clerical tasks which once had to be undertaken manually have been automated, whilst its sophisticated use of data has enabled it to deploy its skilled workforce more efficiently, significantly reducing the tax gap.  But this does not mean that the plan to reduce numbers by 90,000 is realistic.

It is worth analysing why civil service numbers have increased over the last six years and well worth looking at a paper by the Institute for Government on the topic.

The principal reason is that we have wanted the civil service to do more things. The obvious example of this is Brexit. We have returned certain responsibilities to the UK Government from the European Union, and we need to employ people to fulfil those responsibilities. We previously did not have (or need) a Department for International Trade; now we have one employing 2,000 people. We have increased the number of policy staff in the Environment and Culture departments because there is now more policy that needs to be done here. We also have new operational requirements, such as operating a new customs border with the EU, which will require civil servants to operate.

The employment of a few thousand extra civil servants as a consequence of leaving the EU is not a killer argument against Brexit (there are better arguments, but let us leave that for another day).  However, it is an undeniable consequence and it cannot be dismissed, nor is it just temporary. If policy for some matters is permanently going to be located in the UK, then we permanently need to maintain policy capability here.

There are other policy objectives that have risen up the political agenda. Levelling-up – ensuring that prosperity is more equally shared across the country (I think that is what it roughly means) – will not be achieved without a vast effort. This will require people – civil servants – to be employed to make the vast effort.

In some cases, the Government has observed what civil servants are doing and concluded that we would like more of it. Let us take DWP’s work coaches who provide holistic support for those looking to get into employment. Successive Work & Pensions Secretaries have been impressed by the contribution they have made to turning people’s lives round, solving problems ‘upstream’ and contributing to low levels of unemployment. So the number of work coaches has been expanded. For a Government that believes that work is the best way out of poverty, it would be very odd to reverse this.

Of course, some of the additional tasks have been pandemic-related and there are saving to be made. But Covid also raises questions about our overall resilience to future public health emergencies which will have ongoing implications for staffing.

Looking at the public sector as a whole, the Government has clearly concluded that job cuts went too far in some areas over the ‘austerity years’, hence the pledge to recruit 20,000 more police officers. If our intention is to reduce crime, there are other (arguably better) examples of where numbers fell by too much after 2010. The Government is rightly committed to offender rehabilitation. This means we need more probation officers. Probation officers, like work coaches and customs officers, are civil servants. As are those who work in DVLA, the Passport Office and the Courts where there are backlogs and delays that need to be addressed.

There is also something odd about a process which requires departments to come forward now with proposals which in aggregate sees a 90,000 headcount reduction. It is right that spending departments, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office work together to ensure that strategic and bold thinking is undertaken to identify possible savings, including by deprioritising some activities and identifying opportunities for automation. The problem is that there is a time at which this should happen – at the point at which the Comprehensive Spending Review is being determined – and that happened only seven months ago alongside the 2021 Budget.

At the time of the CSR, the Government set out plans which implied a reduction to the civil service headcount of 28,500. This, presumably, was part of the discussions within Government and provided a key assumption in the departmental spending settlements. Now, we have new numbers and a new process is being commenced. Spending departments are entitled to ask what is going on. Is the CSR being reopened or not?

The suspicion is that this is driven by political considerations as part of a desire to be more ‘ideologically Conservative’, appealing to those who think that civil servants are lazy and useless and spend all their time watching daytime television whilst claiming to be working from home.

Putting aside the unfairness of this observation (most current and former ministers would, I suspect, speak highly of the professionalism of the civil service), it is not an attitude that is likely to bring out the best from those upon whom the Government depends to get things done. Nor is it coherent with the big state conservatism that contributed to the 2019 general election victory.

Squeezing greater efficiency from the civil service is to be welcomed but I fear that these proposals have all too familiar characteristics – unrealistically optimistic, politically motivated and ideologically incoherent.

Is a scramble for popular announcements the right way to introduce football regulation?

29 Apr

Under pressure over Partygate, the Government sometimes gives the impression that it is flailing around for things to announce. This week’s gesture in the direction of bringing down childcare costs is one example. Are plans for football regulation another?

The immediate peg on which ministers are hanging the case for the move seems to be Roman Abramovich’s expulsion from ownership of Chelsea: this Financial Times report leads with the fact that the regulator will have “sweeping powers to block “unscrupulous” owners from buying clubs”.

But it also drawing on Tracey Crouch’s Fan-Led Review, which made a broader case for reform; Scott Benton limned its arguments on this site last month.

The key thrust is forcing the Premier League clubs to share more of the wealth with teams further down the table, and an emphasis on clubs as important community institutions rather than merely private companies such as any other.

But how much of a problem is that, really? As the IEA have pointed out, both in an article here and a full report, football clubs are already quite hardy beasts: “This industry is almost unique in that most businesses in operation a hundred years ago are still around today.”

The collapse of the European Super League under Government pressure also suggests ministers already wield quite a lot of power over the game.

However, it seems perfectly reasonable, in principle, for ministers to decide that they want to try and guide English football towards a different economic (and social?) model.

The current top-heavy emphasis on the Premier League has its advantages, in terms of producing some world-class football, but it’s not unreasonable to prefer a system where smaller teams get more of the pie. It isn’t difficult to see how parachute payments could entrench institutional advantage and distort the playing field.

And even if clubs do operate as private businesses, it’s hard to object to regulations which would prevent a repeat of something like Wimbledon FC quitting their borough to become MK Dons.

But even those minded to take that view should be very vigilant about what the Government is doing here. The IEA report, Red Card, sets out plenty of ways that regulation could backfire on the very clubs it is supposed to support.

Nor are such concerns confined to committed free-marketeers; the Financial Times report above-quoted notes that “officials stressed the scale and complexity of the reforms and risk to clubs if the framework is not calibrated properly.” And a Government scrambling for popular announcements under pressure – and in the shadow of a looming election – is more likely to make mistakes.

Even without that, we should always be very careful about giving any organisation, let alone a private, profit-making one, that it is too important to fail. That might have the counter-productive effect of encouraging reckless behaviour – and thus requiring an ever more active regulator.

Yesterday’s Red, White, and Blue column also led on two examples of how the SNP have got themselves into serious trouble propping up ‘important community institutions’ which were, in truth, failing businesses. Ministers should be wary of creating the conditions for similar scandals down here.

Bryn Harris: Free Speech is an afterthought for the Online Safety Bill

22 Mar

Dr Bryn Harris is the Chief Legal Counsel of the Free Speech Union

The Online Safety Bill has been laid before Parliament. Ministers, including Nadine Dorries last week, have worked hard to persuade voters that the Bill contains important safeguards for free speech online. Are they right?

Even those being generous would resoundingly answer ‘no’. The Bill is informed by a desire to protect freedom of speech, but largely does the opposite.

We should give the government its due. The Bill imposes free speech obligations on online providers where previously there were none. The big social media platforms will no longer have wholly free hands. They will be under free-standing obligations to implement processes that protect political speech (or ‘content of democratic importance’) and journalistic content. If they do not, users can complain and Ofcom can take action. This is a considerable improvement.

This Bill, however, fundamentally concerns the prevention of ‘harm’, not the protection of free speech (hence the name). When the ‘safety’ duties are engaged alongside the free speech duties, the balancing exercise will skew decisively towards harm prevention – concrete action must be taken in relation to harmful or illegal content, but social media companies are only asked to ‘have regard’ for free speech, which is the weakest of the legal duties.

The Bill thus enshrines in statute the illiberal approach all too familiar to the Free Speech Union, with free speech treated as an afterthought. The liberal philosophy of the English common law, with a starting point of the presumption of liberty, unless a specific rule says otherwise, is reversed. Online platforms will start by asking whether a user has harmed someone,. Only much later will they ‘have regard’ to that user’s freedom of speech.

The Bill has also become worse during its journey from a White Paper three years ago. Whereas the previous draft required platforms to ‘minimise’ illegal content, they will now have to ‘prevent’ users from encountering illegal content, where necessary by removing it.

This tougher duty will likely result in over-removal by providers, because risk-savvy provider, fearful of potentially huge fines (10% of a company’s annual global turnover) will be cautious. In cases where a free speech duty and a safety duty are competing, removing content that might be harmful will be the safer option – the free speech duty is weak and easily complied with (even with removed content) whereas complying with the safety duties requires action. The box-ticking requirement to ‘have regard’ thus imposes no effective deterrent against over-removal.

The duty regarding ‘content that is harmful to adults’ has also worsened. Providers will have four options in dealing with such content: removal, restricting access, preventing promotion, or actively promoting it. The liberal option – leave it be and let adults make their own choices – isn’t available. The only option that isn’t censorious – ‘recommend or promote content that you believe to be harmful’ – is so undesirable that no platform will choose it.

Nevertheless, a new clause on ‘user empowerment duties’ is welcome. It allows adults to choose whether or not they wish to be exposed to harmful content on sites like Twitter. But the choice is illusory and the reality is paternalistic – an adult won’t be free to see everything unadulterated, including the ‘harmful’ stuff, because platforms are virtually certain to remove, restrict or downgrade harmful content. Users will be free to choose, so long as they choose not to be ‘harmed’.

However, users will have a right to sue for breach of contract if providers remove or restrict content contrary to their terms of service. This should allow users to resist providers that fail to ‘take into account’ the protections for political speech and journalistic content. It remains to be seen if these duties will genuinely restrain the instinct to over-remove content.

Also welcome are new restraints on the Secretary of State’s power to dictate what kinds of content providers must police. The categories of ‘priority’ illegal content are now stated baldly by the Bill, and are what one would expect. When it comes to content that is harmful to adults, the Secretary of State will have the power to lay a statutory instrument specifying what lawful speech social media companies will be forced to remove. It remains to be seen how censorious Nadine Dorries will be, but even if she is relatively restrained, this Bill is a hostage to fortune. It empowers a future Secretary of State at DCMS to come up with their own Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

All analysis of the Bill is speculation: we’ll only know its impact once it becomes law, and providers and Ofcom begin to implement it. What is unusual is that ministers seem to be aware of the pressures that are likely to turn the Bill into a censor’s charter.

The Culture Secretary accepts that a culture of censorship already exists among the platforms whom she proposes to essentially entrust with deciding what to remove. Ministers seem to be aware that a repeat of the Trump Twitter ban would be disastrous. They must also know that the huge fines and even criminal sanctions that could be imposed under the Bill are virtually certain to drive excessive risk-aversion. So why is the Government introducing a Bill so likely to thwart freedom of speech?

I suspect the answer lies in an unwillingness to address a very difficult but fundamental conceptual problem – a government cannot protect free expression while also trying to prohibit harmful speech. To govern is to choose: ministers and lawmakers must show leadership and tackle the question of whether we should prioritise liberty or paternalism, or we will continue to muddle through a mess of contradictions.

Free people do not live their lives under a rulebook’s control, still less one which vexatious political activists will be able to weaponise. This Conservative Government should be true to its convictions and use this Bill to force the social media companies to do more to protect free speech.

John Macdonald: The Porn Laws are naive, paternalistic, a blackmailer’s charter – and won’t work anyway

10 Feb

John Macdonald is the Head of Government Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

The Prime Minister is trying to reboot his political project. With major personnel replaced in Downing Street and a mini- cabinet reshuffle completed, you would hope that he was trying to return to the original promise of his electoral success in 2019; a Conservative Government that celebrated new opportunities and freer markets, rooted in a kind of common sense liberalism.

Unfortunately, the reboot seems to be more about doubling down on tax and spend, and embracing some of the worst authoritarian, petty nanny statism that pockmarked the earlier iterations of this Conservative tenure in government. A return to drab, condescending policies, in this case the so-called ‘porn laws’ that will force consumers to verify their age via credit card information to access explicit online content.

For those that don’t know the Conservative Government has been waging a war on porn since at least 2015, with the central idea being that people must use a credit card as age verification when trying to log into websites purveying explicit content.

Like many of the Conservatives’ most egregious flirtations with anti-liberal nannying (such as banning certain food advertising), age verification for access to pornographic websites has been beaten off many times, only to keep coming back without any real explanation as to how and why.

It’s not just on first principles that such a policy should be permanently abandoned. Let us accept for the sake of argument you accept the proposition that access to online porn is a societal ill, and that the state has a role in dissuading people from consuming it, or to protect the young from stumbling across it. You would have to have an outdated at best, and asinine at worst, understanding of the internet to genuinely believe that imposing online age verification would be in any way implementable.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a low cost, easily accessible and highly effective way of hiding your IP address, anonymising and protecting the user’s privacy in making it all but impossible to tell what sites they are visiting. Many popular VPN apps allow the user to connect to websites via another country, a popular feature given the way streaming rights work (i.e. US Netflix has a superior catalog to British Netflix). All one would need to do to access explicit content is hit a button on their device of choice, choose a country without such restrictions, and be good to go.

This isn’t something unbeknownst to a significant portion of the UK’s population, either. It is estimated that some 44 per cent of UK internet users have used a VPN at some point. It is somewhat entertaining to think that DCMS, a Government department whose intended purpose is to prepare the country for rapid technological advancement but instead wastes significant energy on censoriousness, could be thwarted by as little as £3 a month on an app available on all major mobile phone operating systems.

Perhaps, then, you might be inclined to think that if not practically possible, it is in principle proper to restrict access to explicit online content. Even if some degenerates skirt round the rules (bear in mind that some 26 million Brits watch online porn), people should still have to think twice about accessing it, and those under 18 should be guarded against easy or accidental access. You would still be blind to the fact that age verification mechanisms do more harm than good.

Big porn companies such as Mindgeek have argued that they will take measures to ensure no data would be collected to link credit card information and viewing habits, but whether or not this would be possible or probable is still a significant risk.

That is to say nothing of the massive target painted on their backs. With a huge repository of credit card information and the promise of ample blackmail material, you can be sure hackers will be coming after them hard and fast. Age verification mechanisms are also a scammer’s delight; the rush to access explicit content is bound to push concerns of website authenticity aside, and those who get caught out might be less inclined to report their woes to credit card companies.

The Porn Laws don’t just represent a failure of Government to understand that they cannot, and should not see itself as a protector against any all societal ills. Trying to justify them on the grounds that they protect the young betrays a naive and condescending paternalism, where greater education would serve them much better. Nearly a third of all internet content is porn, trying to stuff it away behind a verification barrier just won’t work. Instead, ensuring an honest conversation with teenagers about it, and about peer to peer pressure to send their own intimate content, would be of far more benefit.

Johnson’s Government appears to be reneging on the last of its post-May era promises. We’ve become used to the idea that he’d continue to be a tax and spend Conservative, or that after a brush with Covid and ill health, would look to stop us from having our cake and eating it by banning advertising of certain foods. But with the resurrection of the Porn Laws, any hope that Boris’ libertine spirit might seep into government has been dashed.

Aaron Jacob: Only seamless connectivity will allow us to finally embrace the ‘Roaring Twenties’

10 Feb

Cllr Aaron Jacob is a District Councillor in St Albans representing Stephen’s Ward. He used to work in the telecommunications industry and is now training to be a solicitor.

We’ve all experienced it. That frisson of horror as you try to conduct calls via Zoom or Teams but your internet continues to fail you. Or when you’re trying to work from home but your family wish to watch the latest Netflix series and a battle ensues as to who should have digital priority. These aren’t tales from the distant past. They are the all too frequent experiences of people across the UK.

The Government has rightly recognised that connecting people and businesses is critical to future growth and prosperity. Indeed, ‘connectivity’ is perhaps the defining policy behind the idea of ‘levelling up’. The Government has sought to give practical expression to this idea with much-needed investment in infrastructure, and in particular, transport infrastructure. Investment in transport infrastructure is important, of course; a key determinant of supply-side reform and future growth. But, as alluded to above, if the pandemic has shown us anything (and it ought to have, by now), it is that seamless internet connection is critical for households and businesses in twenty-first century Britain.

Most of us, understandably, do not bother to think about how we connect to the internet when we’re at home. All we want is a fast, reliable, seamless connection to work, shop, talk to friends and game without disturbance. And yet the infrastructure which sits behind our broadband connection is incredibly important; it determines whether we do, in fact, get that fast, reliable, seamless connection. The UK is actually a digital laggard when it comes to home broadband. The overwhelming majority of household connectivity is still only of the superfast variety. Whilst this may sound acceptable, or even impressive, it is far from it. A good deal of superfast connectivity across the country is provided by legacy ‘fibre-to-the-cabinet’ (‘FTTC’) infrastructure. To put it simply: a substantial amount of home broadband is still provided by copper cables, mostly owned by BT’s infrastructure arm, Openreach. At the last count, only around eight million households in the UK had access to full-fibre broadband, so-called ‘Fibre-to-the-premises’ (‘FTTP’). This means that there are vast swathes of us still living antediluvian existences, trying to rely on ageing copper infrastructure. Providing a full-fibre connection, from the telephone exchange to our homes, is the principal means by which we future-proof our communications infrastructure. There are applications and services yet to be invented which will run on full-fibre. At present, it is like trying to kickstart the Industrial Revolution without steam power.

Not only does this feel and look bad. It is objectively bad, too. This is evidenced when the UK is compared with its peers. In 2021, it was reported that Spain had an FTTP coverage rate of 85 per cent, which could rise to 95 per cnet coverage in 2022. This performance, of course, has taken place in a country so scarred by the Eurozone crisis of the early 2010s. Even France, whose economy is not particularly known for dynamism or innovation, has over 28 million households able to access a full-fibre connection, as of September 2021. The UK continues to trail its European neighbours.

The Government’s ambitions seem, prima facie, to be, well, ambitious. The Government’s target is for at least 85 per cent of UK premises to have access to gigabit-broadband by 2025. It said it will ‘seek to accelerate roll-out further to get as close to a hundred per cent as possible’. The Government said in August 2021 that it was ‘increasingly confident’ that the 85 per cent target could be exceeded. Look at the detail, though, and there’s more that can be done. This is for two reasons. Firstly, even if one accepts that the stated target is met, it still means that 15 per cent of UK homes will be without ultrafast broadband by the middle of this decade. Many of these areas will be rural communities who, ironically, rely on seamless connectivity the most. This, too, is on the assumption that deployment goes smoothly, by no means given, because of seemingly intractable worldwide supply chain issues. Secondly, the nomenclature is important. Whilst ‘gigabit-capable’ may see us through the 2020s, full-fibre connectivity will be key in spurring industries of the future.

‘Levelling up’ requires a more rounded approach to connectivity. More utilitarianism will be needed to ensure that no community is left behind. Given that private industry will fund much of this digital infrastructure investment, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will need to evince that much more dirigisme and fund the rest, quickly. If we really do want that inclusive growth, which is critical for equality of opportunity, then we need Government and industry working in concert to achieve full-fibre infrastructure across the UK as soon as possible. It is only when we fully ‘fi(b)re up’ that we will be on our way to levelling up.

Johnson and Dorries are not quite so hostile to the BBC as they pretend

18 Jan

On Sunday, Nadine Dorries tweeted: “This licence fee announcement will be the last.” On Monday afternoon, her department put out a press release which declared: “No decision on the future of the licence fee has been made.”

At the same time, Dorries told the Commons over and over again that she just wants to start a debate about the future of the licence fee.

What is going on? The Prime Minister needs to shore up his support in the parliamentary party, and bashing the BBC is one way of doing that.

“Nadine clobbers ‘biased’ BBC with £2 billion funding cut,” The Mail on Sunday reported, and went on:

“The BBC was last night on the brink of a war with the Government after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries hit the Corporation with a two-year licence fee freeze – as her allies warned that ‘the days of state-run television are over’.”

Dorries duly announced that the licence fee has indeed been frozen at its current level of £159 for the next two years, and will then rise by the rate of inflation until the end of 2027.

If Boris Johnson were not in such trouble, the settlement would have been “more generous”, an insider confirmed. Things changed “very suddenly” a few days ago.

No plan exists for what happens after 2027. A source with comprehensive knowledge of thinking within the DCMS yesterday told ConHome it was “unrealistic” to suppose the BBC could move to a subscription model by then.

There are technical limitations: streaming services are only available if, no matter how old, poor and technologically ill-equipped one may be, one has some device on which to receive them, and the superfast broadband to deliver them.

Beyond that, decisions have to be made about what the BBC is going in future to provide. It is not difficult, unless one is among its most highly paid employees, to see faults in the Corporation, and to note the unseemly relish with which it joins in the ancient British sport of hunting down whoever happens to be Prime Minister.

What is more difficult is to determine which parts of the BBC should, indeed must, be preserved. The World Service, most people would say, at a time when the Chinese, the Russians and others are pumping out their malign and mendacious versions of events.

To destroy the rest of the Corporation’s news gathering abilities would seem to most of us like an act of vandalism. Various other parts of its output could likewise be agreed to come under the heading of public service broadcasting: coverage of state occasions, Parliament, some of the musical, educational and children’s programmes, a list which can be lengthened or shortened according to personal taste.

Much of what the BBC does, though anomalous, is not contemptible.

And then there is the question of the BBC’s role, comparable to that of the NHS, as a great unifying national institution, whatever objections may be raised to how it is actually run.

In the conservative view of the world, institutions which have existed for a long time usually deserve a degree of loyalty, and should be adapted to changing circumstance rather than abolished.

But how to adapt the BBC, when broadcasting is changing at such astonishing speed, with the rise of powerful new competitors such as Netflix and YouTube?

Many of the young find Netflix more diverse, and more representative of the world they know, than the BBC now is. They are accustomed to paying subscriptions, but averse to paying the licence fee.

John Whittingdale, a former Culture Secretary and Minister of State for Media, yesterday reminded the House that the number of television licences bought last year fell by 700,000.

At the start of the month, Whittingdale gave an interview to the in which he suggested:

“Is it not better to fund a core BBC package through a central government grant and taxation?

“Instead of £159 a year, it would be a reduced amount to pay for the things an insufficient amount of people would be willing to pay for – news, current affairs and arts programmes.

“On top of that, two-thirds of the current fee could be a voluntary subscription (for populist programming).You wouldn’t have to pay it.”

The former minister said this was a “progressive” solution, removing the inconsistency of a “flat rate, poll tax” compulsory licence fee, which could have cross-party appeal.

One rather doubts whether either the Prime Minister or the Culture Secretary wishes to go that far. They wish to show the Thatcherites in their ranks how bold they are, without actually destroying or even much diminishing the BBC.

Karen Bradley: The Government should think twice about privatising Channel 4

13 Jan

Karen Bradley is a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and is MP for Staffordshire Moorlands.

It may not be the highest-profile job in the cabinet but, in terms of the breadth of the issues it covers, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is one of the biggest.

From broadband to broadcasting, from print media to social media, from opera to football, from castles to libraries, DCMS has a role in some of the most important and life-enhancing elements of British life. Every incoming Secretary of State has to set their own priorities whilst also inheriting a huge set of pressing decisions from their predecessors. That was true for me when I was given the job in 2016, and it’s true for Nadine Dorries now.

One issue which was handed to me when I entered the department, and which has been left on Nadine’s plate too, is the future of Channel 4.

Then, as now, that was an open question, with privatisation a live option which I seriously considered. The case for privatisation of Channel 4 has been made repeatedly over the years, ever since its creation by Margaret Thatcher in 1982 as a publicly-owned but self-funding free-to-air public service broadcaster – a vital addition to the media landscape which has more than justified its existence over almost four decades.

It is a case that has to be listened to – and I did listen to it, as I know Nadine will. But in the end, I decided that while Channel 4 needed some quite significant changes to the way it was run, its ownership model was not part of the problem.

What is unique about Channel 4? Unlike other public service broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 5, and unlike paid-for streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime, Channel 4 produces none of its own programming: it is what is called a publisher-broadcaster.

This means that it relies more than anyone else on independent production companies for its content, therefore commissioning work from a wide range of UK businesses, large and small, and playing a crucial role in helping them get started and stay viable.

Indeed, around 15 independents a year get their first ever TV commission – their first break – from Channel 4. This makes Channel 4 perhaps the most important start-up incubator in the TV production industry.

That doesn’t mean that nothing ever needs to change. The media industry has always had a London-centric bias, and Channel 4 has been no exception. That’s why, along with deciding against privatisation, I encouraged Channel 4 to build a major presence outside London – and I’m delighted that its new Leeds HQ opened in September 2021.

Leeds represents not just a symbolic move, but a real shift in Channel 4’s focus, creating jobs and opportunities outside the capital and helping to make sure that a national broadcaster has a national mission that benefits the whole of the UK. Its new regional sales and creative hubs in Manchester, Glasgow and Bristol are making a major contribution to that too. Channel 4 has committed to commission at least 50 per cent of its content outside the M25 by 2023 – far more than the 35 per cent it is required to commission, and far further than any other public service broadcaster. That is levelling up in action.

I don’t believe that the move to Leeds – which Channel 4 initially resisted – could, or would, have happened under a private ownership model. I don’t believe that a private owner would freely choose to commission from as diverse a range of independents as Channel 4 does. The incentives for a new owner to move production – including out-of-London production that meets Channel 4’s Nations and Regions quota – to in-house studios, for the sake of economies of scale and rights retention, will be very strong, and I worry about the knock-on effect in terms of lost commissions for independents, especially small and regional ones.

Any conditions placed on a sale – such as a requirement to keep the HQ in Leeds, or imposing a higher regional quota on Channel 4 than on anyone else – would reduce the attractiveness and price to a potential buyer. A far simpler solution is to keep Channel 4 where it is.

As a Conservative, I have no instinctive preference for public ownership. However, when it comes to thinking about broadcasting and our world-leading creative industries as a whole, the Channel 4 ownership question has to be about the best way of supporting private enterprise and promoting Global Britain. It is also especially important to consider what is best for start-up companies in the TV and film production sector all around the UK. That was Margaret Thatcher’s vision, and I hope it will be Nadine Dorries’ vision too.

Profile: Nadine Dorries, Johnson loyalist. A splash of colour amidst a grey landscape. And promoted by him for precisely that reason.

14 Oct

Boris Johnson likes to disconcert his critics by doing things which fall outside their conception of what it would be fitting for him to do.

His appointment of Nadine Dorries as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is a signal example of this.

In all the reams of speculation about how he would reshuffle his Cabinet, nobody seems to have foreseen her promotion.

As David Gauke remarked earlier this week on ConHome,

“When Nadine entered Parliament as part of the 2005 intake (of which I was also part), it was not obvious that she would one day join the Cabinet.”

Other Conservatives treated her more rudely. Two Tories who have recently published their diaries, Sasha Swire and Alan Duncan, refer to her by her nickname, “Mad Nad”.

Like Johnson himself, she was until recently looked on with condescension as a vulgar and unserious person who had no idea how to behave. Dorries refused to show the respect for the Cameron-Osborne leadership which anyone intent on promotion was expected to show.

So when asked in April 2012 by the BBC whether David Cameron and George Osborne are “still, in your opinion, two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”, Dorries replied,

“not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk, but they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others – and that is their real crime.”

When Theresa May succeeded Cameron as Prime Minister, and made Philip Hammond Chancellor, Dorries was no more supportive of them.

And yet if the world had been paying attention, it would have seen that if and when Johnson became leader, her fortunes would in all likelihood be transformed, for she has long been one of his most loyal supporters.

In September 2012 she recalled on ConHome (for this site took her seriously and carried a considerable number of pieces by her) the origins of her support for Johnson:

“I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing, the first time I heard it suggested that Boris might one day be Prime Minister.

It was in Bournemouth, on the second evening of conference in 2004. I was in the company of a shadow secretary of state and a senior member of CCHQ, and we were sat in the window seat of a restaurant. It was evening, dark and pouring with rain.

The restaurant was bustling, packed with conference goers and smelt of wet wool, pensioners and politicians.

We were in a slight hurry as I had to get the shadow minister to a speech he was due to deliver at a conference fringe – but after a full day which had begun at 6am – we were starving and desperate for food. My job was to place the order quickly and as I sat back down into my seat, the conversation turned to the last tense conference we three had been at together the previous year, which had set the scene for the downfall of Iain Duncan Smith.

The conversation wandered onto the longevity of Michael Howard’s tenure in the role of leader, which I was informed with an authoritative voice, would be short.

My question was, ‘who could possibly replace him?’ The swift reply, which indicated that it wasn’t a spur of the moment revelation and perhaps something already pre-determined, shot straight back in one word ‘Boris’.

I laughed. Oh… how I laughed. I replied with one word, high on exaggeration, ‘Boris’? Followed by ‘are you serious’? They were, deadly…

It only took weeks of viewing Boris through the prism of potential leadership in order to shift my thoughts to exactly the same place as theirs.”

And here is Dorries at the most recent party conference, asked by Christopher Hope during the recording of Chopper’s Politics podcast who her mentor has been:

“It’s always been Boris… Someone like Boris who does it a bit differently gives you the confidence to be yourself in politics.”

When Hope asked why her appointment as Culture Secretary had been criticised by so many in the arts, she replied:

“Oh snobbishness, total pure left-wing snobbery.”

Nadine Bargery was born in 1957 in Breck Road, a deprived district of Liverpool. Her father, a bus driver who died at the age of 42, was an Irish Catholic, her mother an English Protestant.

Money was “very tight” and she left school at the age of 16 to train as a nurse. At the age of 17 she met Paul Dorries, to whom she got married, and with whom she had three daughters.

They spent a year in Zambia, she running a school, he working as a mining engineer. On returning to England, she set up a child care business.

In 2001, she stood as the Conservative candidate in Manchester, at Hazel Grove, then a safe Liberal Democrat seat, after which she spent three years as a special adviser to Oliver Letwin, who this week told ConHome:

“It isn’t often that someone with Nadine’s energy and chutzpah arrives on the political scene. When they do, one can expect all sorts of fireworks. And now she is in charge of a Department that will give her every chance to light up the sky. This is likely to be a spectacle worth watching.”

“I wanted to be an MP so badly it consumed me,” she wrote on ConHome soon after entering the Commons. She would have liked to represent one of the Liverpool seats, but none was remotely winnable for a Conservative, so she became the candidate for Mid Bedfordshire, which she has held since 2005.

In her maiden speech she said:

“I promise to be a voice for the family and to stand up for mothers who wish to stay at home and raise their children but feel voiceless and unworthy in such a career-oriented society, when raising the children of tomorrow’s society is the most worthy job of all.”

Here was an early sign of her social conservatism, perhaps most evident in her strenuous attempts to reduce the age at which women can obtain an abortion from 24 weeks to 20. She also spoke in favour of grammar schools. She and her husband separated in 2007.

In 2012 she came before a wider public by appearing on I’m a Celebrity, to the annoyance of the Conservative Whips, though she had asked for and been granted leave of absence without revealing where she was going.

The Whip was for a time withdrawn, but she remained well able to give as good as she got, as in this dialogue with Andrew Neil in December 2012:

Neil: “Do you think your political career’s effectively over?”

Dorries [amused rather than cowed]: “No, not at all. It might just be beginning.”

In 2016, she wept at St Ermin’s Hotel when Johnson announced to his followers that he was abandoning his leadership bid, and in 2018, after he had resigned from the post of Foreign Secretary, she leapt to his defence when he was under fire for his article about burkas. Early meetings in his new leadership campaign were held in her Commons office.

Her ministerial career began at the age of 62, in July 2019, when Johnson became Prime Minister and made her a junior minister at the Department of Health. The following May he promoted her to Minister of State in the same department.

And just under a month ago he made her Secretary of State at DCMS. This is nowadays a major economic department, with a heavy legislative programme including the Online Safety Bill, crucial measures to enhance Britain’s position as a world leader in data and tech, and significant though as yet unspecified media reforms.

Johnson has cleared out the previous ministerial team, led by Oliver Dowden, which was running this programme, and has put in a new team led by Dorries, with one fewer minister.

As Gauke observes,

“To some extent, she embodies the new Conservative voters – northern, working-class and socially conservative and is a natural culture warrior. It is surely likely that the Prime Minister, in making this appointment, looked forward to her upsetting all the right people. So far, she is doing exactly that.”

On the sports side of her brief, she declared her interest as a passionate supporter of Liverpool Football Club, and has pointed out that her great grandfather, George Bargery, was a founder member of Everton, where he played in goal.

On the literary side, she has herself enjoyed success as an author. In 2014, when the first of her novels came out, Ann Treneman of The Times went to Liverpool and did an interview with Dorries which is of absorbing interest.

The new Culture Secretary is aggressive and friendly, pugnacious and vulnerable, at one and the same time. In Chopper’s Politics podcast at the party conference, she recalled having to borrow shoes to go to school, mentioned with pride the achievements of several people who had been at her school, and said that today they would not have the same opportunities to make their way in the cultural field:

“If you want to do that today you need a double-barrelled name and you need to have gone to a private or a public school or your Mum needs to know someone or your Dad needs to know someone or you need to have a connection with the BBC…

“For me that’s what levelling up is about…it’s about people…who come from a background like mine who want to be the next grand slam champion but can’t afford private tennis lessons.”

She added that the BBC “have a kind of groupthink and their groupthink excludes working-class backgrounds”.

DCMS is responsible for more appointments to public bodies than any other department. It is hard to imagine a Labour Secretary of State could be more determined than Dorries to ensure that working-class applicants have a fair chance of getting those jobs.

Johnson has, in short, put in someone who is profoundly committed to her idea of levelling up, and may also prove rather good at catching her opponents off balance.

Never mind CCTV. A sign should greet Javid in his new office. Saying “Welcome to Hell”.

27 Jun

Some of Sajid Javid’s friends wanted him to return to the Government as Education Secretary.  This might have suited the meritocratic campaigner, whose leadership election pitch was: “I’m in this race because I want to level the playing field, to lower the ladder to everyone”.  And who also has a big interest in skills.

Others believed that he could come back as Foreign Secretary, thus completing an all-Asian line-up in the three great offices of state: Rishi Sunak at the Treasury, Priti Patel at the Home Office…and Javid.  It is just the sort of “eye-catching initiative” that might have found favour in Downing Street.

We wondered if a lower key, lower drama return might come at Work and Pensions, where Javid’s numeracy and Treasury experience would come in useful.  At any rate, there was no shortage of options for slotting The Saj back in – always likely, given the departure of Dominic Cummings, who doesn’t rate him, and the presence of Carrie Symonds, his former Special Adviser.

What neither he nor Boris Johnson may have anticipated was a recall to Health – a move necessitated by Matt Hancock’s defenestration, and the Prime Minister’s determination to keep Cabinet changes to a minimum.

Javid is becoming the John Reid of the Conservative Party, having now served at Cabinet level in the Treasury, the Home Office, the Business Department, Housing and Culture: the man one calls upon to fill a gap or fix a problem.

However, nothing will have prepared him for what he is about to experience.  The CCTV camera that doomed Matt Hancock has apparently been dismantled.  But never mind secret tape in the office – never likely to be a problem, in any event, for this most uxorious of politicians.  Rather, the new Health Secretary should be greeted by a three-word warning sign: “Welcome to Hell”.

Consider the challenges that confront him.

Housing produced the Grenfell horror; the Home Office, Shamima Begum; Business, Tata Steel.  All were one-offs – the equivalent of a jab with a sharpened stick.  The health job, by contrast, brings with it persistent pressure: like being squeezed tight by the coils of a giant python.

First of all, Javid has to establish a position on Covid.  His early hope that restrictions will be lifted “as soon and as quickly as possible” seems immediately to have been gutted by his department.

The odds are that the remaining elements of lockdown will end on July 19, only for pressure for shutdown to return in the autumn as Coronavirus and flu cases climb.  The new Health Secretary’s first task will be to get to grips with the issues.

But it’s after Covid that his problems really begin.  Whether or not Boris Johnson makes an early dash to the polls in the autumn of 2023, health is likely to dominate headlines in 2022, with over five million people waiting for treatment.  Labour won’t be able to help themselves trying to frame the next election as “a referendum on the NHS”.

Javid will find himself on the Today progamme, in the Commons, on the airwaves and in front of Andrew Marr on a regular rather than an occasional basis.  Even in his varied career, he won’t have experienced anything like it.  But making the case for the Conservative record on the NHS will be only the start of the new Health Secretary’s labours.

Read Robert Ede and Sean Philips’ recent piece on this site. (“The Government faces an election run-up monopolised by reports of NHS waiting times and delays”).  As if grappling with the Covid backlog were not enough, Javid faces no fewer than four other major policy challenges, at least three of which require legislation.

First, there is the plan to split up Public Health England into two new bodies – the UK Health Security Agency and the Office for Health Promotion.

Next, there is reform of the Mental Health Act, which will require a draft bill.

Penultimately, there is the NHS and Care Bill, due in this session, which “will provide the framework for a more integrated and joined-up healthcare system in England”.

And finally, there are the Government’s proposals for social care, whenever they emerge.

The third has the potential to rock Javid’s boat and the fourth to wreck it.  Competition and co-operation are the two main drivers of healthcare policy.  And there has been an apostolic succession of competition-based policy from Ken Clarke’s GP fundholding, through Alan Milburn’s partnership with private health care to create new capacity, to Andrew Lansley’s batttered reforms.

The right-wing think tanks will kick back against any attempt to water down competition, and there may be rumbling on the Conservative backbenches.  But if most Tory MPs are onside, as they can reasonably be expected to be, Javid can take opposition on the chin.

Social care is a horse of a different colour.  In opposition, Cameron’s Conservatives wrecked Labour’s potential reforms by labelling them a “death tax”.  In Government, Theresa May’s unprepared, unfloated policy did more than any other to lose her seats in 2017.

On the downside, Javid has no background in a health-related departments.  His recent areas of interests have included the economy after Covid, drawing on his Treasury experience; reducing child sexual abuse; raising the minimum marriage age to 18, and rough sleeping (see his ConservativeHome piece).

The last two campaigns were closely related to his experience at Housing, Communities and Local Government, and its to his credit that he kept going on both.

On the upside, the new Health Secretary knows his way round the Treasury – he is the first to be a former Chancellor, rather than the other way round – which will be invaluable during this testing period ahead.  And since Ministers are necessarily generalists, he is no more disadvantaged taking up the post than any other first-timer.

Javid is about to find himself the most publicised Health Secretary since Lansley.  He will hope that his tenure at health doesn’t end the same way.

Nick King: Levelling up. The challenge is less defining it than delivering it, for which Johnson will need the private sector.

25 May

Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies.

To level up or not to level up? That is certainly not the question. If theres one thing the Government has been admirably clear about, it is its determination to do it. But that begs rather a lot of other legitimate questions, such as: what does levelling up really mean? How will we level up? What level are we levelling up to? How will levelling up be measured? And if answers to these questions are not forthcoming, how can we ever really know whether weve levelled up or not?

Some of these points were recently put to ministers from the Business and Housing departments by the Business Select Committee. The answers forthcoming were clearly not to the (Labour) Chair of the Committees satisfaction. He suggested there was no clarity in terms of understanding what levelling up means or the policy which sits behind it.

But there’s actually a strong argument – although you wouldn’t expect the ministers themselves to make it – that the lack of specificity around levelling up, and the catch-all nature of the term, have added to its value as a concept.

The Conservative Partys last general election manifesto talked about levelling up every part of the UK, levelling up skills and levelling up through investment in infrastructure. Prior to that manifesto, I produced a report for the Centre for Policy Studies, which called for greater devolution, enhanced skills, increased infrastructure investment and new Opportunity Zones as the principal means of levelling up.

Since the election, various other think tanks have put their own spin on levelling up, with Onwards taskforce looking at levelling up the tax system and innovation, the Centre for Progressive Policy developing its own Levelling Up Outlook, the Institute for Public and Policy Research suggesting we level up health, and Bright Blue looking at levelling up in the context of deprivation.

This all-encompassing nature of the phrase, not yet defined by any mainstream dictionary, is surely more of a strength than a weakness. We saw this during the election. Then, across the former ‘Red Wall’ seats of the Midlands and the North, people voted in their millions for levelling up, without needing a detailed policy prospectus outlining which departments would take the lead and what metrics they would apply. Yes, they wanted to ‘get Brexit done’ – but getting Brexit done was just one half of the equation to making their lives better: levelling up was the improvement that would come afterwards.

For all of its lack of explicit definition, those of us who are who committed to the levelling up cause – and I include myself in that number – feel we know what it’s aiming at. We know that at its heart it is about addressing the long-standing inequalities which exist in the United Kingdom.

Levelling up is about the life chances of people, the prospects of places and about making sure our country is the United Kingdom it should be, not the divided realm it risks becoming. In that spirit, it can be seen as a continuation of One Nation Toryism, of efforts to extend social mobility and even of various Governments rebalancing efforts.

Perhaps that is why, when Boris Johnson returned to Downing Street, having won his crushing majority in the election, he stood on the steps of Number 10 and promised to unite and level up’ our country. There followed measures such as substantial increases in infrastructure investment, the creation of the Towns Fund and, more recently, the creation of the Levelling Up Fund and the Community Renewal Fund. These all suggested a centrally-driven, targeted approach, relying on the funding of specific projects to level up specific places.

But the ambition to level up goes much wider and deeper than that. Ever since the election, every Government department has been tasked with thinking about levelling up and how to deliver it. In education, that means better schools and improved skills outside London and the South-East. For the Transport and Culture departments, that means greater national transport and digital connectivity respectively. For the Department of International Trade, it means getting more investment into the regions and more companies around the country exporting.

Now, to bring coherence and strategic intent to the levelling up agenda, the Government has promised a Levelling Up White Paper. This White Paper is to be produced by ConHome columnist, Harborough MP and the Prime Minister’s Levelling Up adviser, Neil OBrien. He is, in many respects, the perfect man for the job, with a first class brain and a long history of considering these issues, raised in the North but representing a Midlands constituency, and someone who knows his way around Whitehall.

This last point is critical given the clear intention to make this a ‘whole of government’ exercise. Virtually every department has been instructed to play its part in levelling up; the Prime Minister and the Chancellor recently put it at the heart of their Plan for Growth, and OBriens White Paper is being run out of Cabinet Office, suggesting an ambition to reach into various Whitehall departments.

He will, no doubt, have received direct orders from the Prime Minister as to what he wants in the White Paper and perhaps the slight shift in language within the Queen’s Speech gives us a clue as to what to expect. That speech promised to level up opportunities’ and the accompanying Briefing Note – prepared by the Treasury – tied the levelling up agenda much more closely to public services, such as health, education and policing. 

This suggests the Government will be looking as much at the opportunities presented to people, and within places, as the outcomes which those opportunities might lead to.For my part, the most important factor I would urge the Government to remember, is that whether we want to improve opportunities, or outcomes, levelling up needs to be centred on the potential of the private sector. As I argued in my recent Centre for Policy Studies paper with Jake Berry on rejuvenating the North, only the private sector can offer the scale of investment, the jobs and the opportunities which can lead to long-term sustainable change.

Government, of course, has a pivotal role to play. It needs to think about where it invests, about the implications of the gravitational pull of London and the South East and how it can best break the trend of self-perpetuating economic failure in the least successful parts of our country. But, most importantly, it can help create the conditions in which private enterprise can thrive.

After all, to business-loving, capitalism-supporting types like me, levelling up can only really be delivered through the dynamism of the private sector. It is its agility, investment and innovation through which life-changing opportunities will be created. Absent of that, levelling up will mean very little at all.