Penny Mordaunt: They said a US trade deal couldn’t be done. It can. We are doing it.

27 May

Penny Mordaunt is Minister of State for Trade Policy, and is MP for Portsmouth North.

Proper Conservatives are used to being shouted at by armchair lefties. Check the scenes below the line if you want a taste. Brexiteers are bigots. Conservatives are evil. Tory scum (ironic – given that the soft water areas of Yorkshire and Lancashire were where the Labour Party was so heavily defeated).

Still, we get used to it. They said we couldn’t revive the private sector during the Seventies. We did. They said we couldn’t retake the Falklands in the Eighties. We did. They said that the EU was an unstoppable enterprise in the Nineties. It wasn’t. They said we were finished as a party two decades ago. We weren’t. A decade ago they said Scottish independence was inevitable. It wasn’t.

We also get used to hearing how much more superior Labour would be in government, if only it had the chance. Perhaps it would intrude on the delusion to recall their track record? In 120 years of the Labour movement from Keir Hardie to the present day a Labour Leader has only been returned to office twice. We should be confident about what we stand for. We should remember that, more often than not, it is Conservatives that have been in tune with the British people. Part of the reason for that is our respect for those who step up and take responsibility, particularly those who create wealth and opportunity.

What comes from the liberal left is a unique combination of the deeply ignorant and the profoundly opinionated. It is half-baked certainty sitting on a thick base of groupthink. It’s the sort of certainty that can only come from over-educated under-achievers. People who have never done anything. Never created or built anything. People who don’t value others that do.

Since Brexit, it has become fashionable to say everything is an economic disaster. Well, that isn’t true either. We have record low unemployment and the country remains one of the largest recipient of foreign direct investment. Not despite Brexit. Because of it. Despite the challenges of the pandemic we are starting to realise the trading opportunities that come from our new freedoms.

The Left are at it again on the subject of a Free Trade Agreement with the US. They ignore that we have completed five rounds of negotiations at a federal level. They say of our state level efforts: “Individual states cannot sign trade agreements.”

They can. (California did so with Japan only in March this year in a deal to boost trade and tackle climate change. They say: “The Americans have sent us to the back of the queue.” They haven’t. Britain remains one of the largest foreign direct investors in America. They say: “US Federal officials just aren’t interested in UK all the time there are negotiations on the Northern Irish Protocol”.

Frankly, that’s irrelevant. Wherever I’ve been in the last year at the state and City level, I’ve been welcomed by open-minded, helpful and collaborative officials. They don’t care where I’m from. All they see is mutual opportunity. They say: “you should not just focus on the federal level.” In fact, 93 percent of all US economic growth will come from the metro areas. This makes Mayors as relevant as State Governors to nations and regions looking to forge partnerships and open up trade.

This week, we sign the first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with an American state, with almost half of the 50 Americans states to follow. The trailblazer states include: Indiana, Oklahoma, North and South Carolina. It is expected that Texas will be one of the first eight states to sign an MoU with the UK.

This first agreement, with Indiana, marks a milestone in UK’s trade with the US. It will help open the door to businesses looking to export or invest in the state. It will increase collaboration on clean tech to fuel sustainable economic growth. Above all else, it shows UK ‘state level strategy’ is securing results.

The MoU format creates a framework to remove barriers to trade and investment, paving the way for UK and local businesses to invest, export, expand and create jobs. The state of Indiana is an entrepreneurial powerhouse, offering UK firms significant opportunities in areas like renewable energy, advanced manufacturing and pharmaceuticals.

The UK is the seventh largest export market for Indiana, and the state buys $1.4 billion worth of goods from the UK. This agreement will accelerate and grow this even further. The agreement specifically will look to improve procurement processes and strengthen academic and research ties, enabling easier collaboration. It will support our professionals with provisions on diversity aligning with our levelling up agenda to ensure economic growth benefits all communities across the country.

It will help talented people from the UK and US to work in either country by clearing the way for their professional qualifications to be mutually recognised. We are focussing on four priority professions – architecture, engineering, legal services, audit and accountancy for mutual recognition of qualifications and processes.

The deepening of relationships at state level is leading to some interesting new opportunities. There are offers to swap officials in key government departments, so our respective teams can learn more about how we both operate. Agriculture Commissioners in the US and DEFRA officials have expressed an interest in participating. Some US states have offered to fund UK businesses and producers to visit the US and learn more about their market. In return, we are partnering up different parts of the UK with places we want to help level up in the UK. The whole process has created real momentum towards a federal deal too.

The state-level strategy is paying off and this is just the first of many agreements we’ll be signing in the future as we look to bolster our £200bn trading relationship with the US. Green trade will be at the heart of talks as both sides look to accelerate clean tech development, with a particular focus on electric cars and low emissions technology solutions. This agreement is just a beginning.

How has this happened? With flexibility, determination and imagination from our civil servants and economic staff. Despite the hammering that they get from media, our colleagues have worked wonders. With great ideas from organisations like the IEA focused on removing the barriers that bring people, ideas and capital together. With great business engagement and a determination from Government to deliver the opportunities Brexit promised.

Government can and is creating the infrastructure for enterprise. For many years business has been told to wait for government, for the rules to be established. It is time for business to assimilate a new enterprise culture. It is time we let it.

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.

John Redwood: It is past time the Government took seriously the opportunities of Brexit

18 Apr

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

It is good news that Jacob Rees Mogg has been appointed minister for ensuring we take advantage of the freedoms and opportunities of Brexit.

He is going to have a struggle to do so, as he faces a Whitehall with too many senior officials at best wanting us to mirror the EU as they like what it does, and at worse determined we get no wins so they can prove their pessimism justified about the whole policy adventure.

I have found it extraordinary just how much concerted pressure amongst the official and legal establishment and the House of Lords there is still against the whole idea of Brexit.

Let us begin with the Treasury. It was Treasury officials led by the Chancellor at the time of the referendum who came up with an embarrassingly bad set of forecasts of what would happen if we dared to vote for Brexit and leave.

We now know for sure their forecasts for rising unemployment, a mass loss of City jobs, a big increase in unemployment, and a collapse of house prices were all the reverse of what happened.

In the year after we finally left the single market even the pound rose against their forecast of a fall. It had been down and up in the period after the vote. Interest rates fell instead of rising as forecast.

One of the big opportunities from Brexit was to take VAT off items we did not want to tax, or to lower the rates where the EU ones were too high. The Treasury has stuck to EU VAT rates like glue. When it was eventually talked into the obvious move of taking VAT off green products, the EU moved to claim they now would allow that in an effort to deny a Brexit win.

The UK still refuses to suspend VAT on domestic fuel which should be a no brainer given what is happening to the price of gas and electricity. It should be suspended until gas and oil prices have fallen back again.

Some in the Civil Service also think the Northern Ireland Protocol prevents us changing VAT in Northern Ireland which is used as another excuse not to change it in Great Britain either. Instead it should be a stimulus to clarifying in UK legislation that of course we can control VAT everywhere in our country now we have left the EU.

Not content with trying to stop VAT changes, the Treasury has also been keen to block proper deregulatory and tax advantages in the programme of freeports. Again this should have been an obvious win.

The Treasury, now led by a Chancellor who championed freeports as a backbencher, should have had a generous freeport package ready and working for our first day out of the EU. Instead we are still awaiting full roll out and a comprehensive set of advantages.

Over at DEFRA there is also a marked reluctance to diverge and take the wins available. Our fishing industry still remains damaged by a further, needless, transition designed to help large predatory foreign vessels.

The Government should legislate for a British fishing policy that is kinder to our fish and fishermen and women. Our fishing grounds need respite from the mega trawlers, all foreign owned, that hoover up too much fish, which we could do by banning trawlers over 100 metres and damaging equipment.

The Department should have a more active policy to support the expansion of our domestic fishing fleets, with a larger UK quota whilst allowing the rebuilding of stocks. The funds to lend and grant for larger British fleets need increasing.

Defra too does not wish to put in place a good plan to grow more food at home. The Common Agricultural Policy slashed our domestic output and made us ever more dependent on continental fruit, vegetables, dairy, and meat.

Orchards disappeared with EU grants to root out the trees. We were the one country with a milk quota smaller than our domestic demand. Our beef industry was restricted for a long period. The Dutch flower and market gardening industries gained advantage over our own and took large chunks of market share.

Defra now needs to put that right. It should have loan and grant schemes for more and better food production and for productivity.

The Business Department has been wedded to the idea that the UK should exit the fossil fuel business in order to rely on increasing amounts of energy imported from the continent. This is a particularly dangerous policy as the continent is very short of fossil fuel energy whilst we have good reserves.

In due course, we should be able to resolve the issue of how to keep the lights on when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine through batteries, green hydrogen, pump storage and other technologies.

The reality is however that for this decade most people will still be heating their homes with gas or oil or solid fuel boilers and most people will be travelling by petrol or diesel car or van or truck. Most process industry will rely on gas.

In this circumstance it is madness to rely on imports when we can produce our own. Instead of the Energy Department being the department for importing energy, it should vigorously promote more British energy. Instead of being the ministry for more interconnectors to make us dependent on an energy-short continent, it should be the department of British energy opportunity, with pipes and cables for the domestic market linking home supply to demand.

The Business Department whilst it is about it should also become the department that promotes and helps more British industrial output instead of being the department to import more.

Importing our steel and aluminium, ceramics and cement does not save the planet by cutting world CO2 . It boosts world CO2 by the extra it takes to transport these products, and sometimes by the dirtier processes used abroad.

The economic shock of tariff free trade in the 1970s when we joined the EEC accelerated the decline of heavy industry in the UK under both Labour and Conservative governments. Now we can set our own corporation tax, carbon tax, energy taxes, rules and support schemes and the rest, BEIS should be pricing good UK-based industry back into the market.

In the wide-ranging area of regulatory standards and requirements the UK now regains her voice at the global high regulatory tables. We are in a good position to guide more world standards, and to choose standards for ourselves that protect us as needed but also allow us easier access to Asian and American markets.

We want high standards for employees, high safety standards, high standards for animal welfare. We also need to remove bad or over cumbersome regulation to allow enterprise, competition and innovation more scope to offer better deals. The Government could begin by producing a better and less bureaucratic regime for data.

The Northern Ireland Office needs to respond to the anger in Ulster over the way the EU has interpreted an ambiguous and sometimes contradictory Protocol to damage the British internal market. They need to take up the idea of mutual enforcement, offering the EU protection from non-compliant products from the UK in return for no restrictions on NI/GB trade above the checks and controls we have on trade within England or Scotland.

I could give many more wins from Brexit, but space does not allow. If you send your own on to me, I can send them on to Rees Mogg.

Profile: George Eustice, negotiating agriculture’s future between farmers, free traders, protectionionists and rewilders

7 Apr

George Eustice recently expressed the hope that a decade from now, the rest of the world will come to Britain to see how to run a successful, independent farm policy.

As Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he is in charge of the seven-year transition, begun at the end of 2020, from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy to new British policies for agriculture and the environment.

The invasion of Ukraine has prompted renewed fears about security of supply, and whether British farmers are now being paid to concentrate too much on rewilding and too little on food production.

Rewilding is not just fashionable, promoted by such figures as Isabella Tree and the Goldsmith brothers. It is official Government policy, as Eustice recently outlined at the Oxford Farming Conference:

“If we are to deliver the targets we’ve set ourselves for woodland creation in England – around 10,000 hectares of trees per year – and if we’re to deliver our objective of getting 300,000 hectares of land where habitat is restored, there is inevitably going to be a degree of land use change. I know that that causes some people some concern. But you have to look at the numbers we’re looking at in the overall context. Of the fact that we have some 9.3 million hectares of farmland in England, and so we are only looking at change taking place on a relatively small area of that land.”

The Government will pay subsidies in order to persuade landowners to enable it to reach its environmental targets. Eustice seeks with his usual tact to persuade sceptics that this is not just a way to hand out public money to the rich so they can pursue frivolous and faddish hobbies for which they should be happy to pay out of their own pockets.

Meanwhile the cost of living crisis has encouraged some Brexiteers to proclaim the virtues of free trade, as a way of cutting food prices, and to fulminate against agricultural protectionism.

Eustice himself is not much given to fulminating. He prefers to deliver careful, detailed speeches, stronger on pragmatism than on ideology, so in that respect profoundly conservative.

His recent addresses to the CLA  Conference and to the Conservative Spring Forum offer further examples of his style.

At the latter event, which occurred three weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine had raised worries about food supplies, he was at pains to deliver the reassuring message that “domestic food production gives us national resilience”.

He pointed out that while in the late 19th century Britain produced only 30 per cent of food consumed here, the figure now, for foods that can be produced in this country, is over 75 per cent:

“We are 86 per cent self sufficient in beef, fully self sufficient in liquid milk and produce more lamb than we consume. We are close to 100 per cent self-sufficient in poultry, eggs, carrots and swedes. Sectors like soft fruit have seen a trend towards greater self sufficiency in recent years with an extended UK season displacing imports.”

And he denied that there was any contradiction between food production and environmental protection: these “must go hand in hand” and “are two sides of the same coin”.

As for the free trade argument, Eustice has at least advocated opening new markets to British produce, looking at the topic from the point of view of farmers rather than consumers:

“For the livestock sector, maximising value can depend on carcass balance and on being able to get access to a higher price for some cuts in overseas markets. There are opportunities for British agriculture in many Asian markets including Japan and India; opportunities for the Dairy industry in Canada and the US; and opportunities for the sheep sector in both the US and the Middle East. We have been working with the AHDB [the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board] on opening access to these markets…”

In 2017 Policy Exchange brought out a report, Farming Tomorrow, which contended that this was a once in a lifetime chance to achieve cheaper food for consumers, by abolishing tariffs on food imports while scrapping agricultural subsidies, with any remaining subsidies instead devoted to protecting the environment.

One of the authors of that report, Warwick Lightfoot, who has advised three Chancellors of the Exchequer but speaks here in a personal capacity, told ConHome that while Michael Gove, Environment Secretary from 2017-19, had indeed switched subsidies in that way, this could be a means of “keeping protection via the back door”.

When ConHome pointed out that Eustice has a farming background, and has spoken with approval of his ruggedly independent forebears who refused to do what the man from the Ministry of Agriculture told them, Lightfoot retorted: “You’ve got to think about people who’ve got an eating background.”

He remarked that he does his shopping in Lidl and would like to be able to buy cheap meat from abroad. The Government must put consumers’ interests first, and not accept propaganda from the National Farmers’ Union about the dangers of, for example, chlorinated chicken from America:

“I’ve just spent a month in America. Do you think I was taking a risk when I had a chicken caesar salad?”

Daniel Hannan, ConHome columnist, reckons “there is a massive problem with DEFRA”, which is “prone to capture from every passing Green lobby group”.

Eustice plays the deadest of dead bats to attacks on either himself or DEFRA. He talks in a lucid, ungimmicky, commonsensical way, and was presumably appointed partly in order to avoid picking fights. His ministerial career has been spent entirely in his present department, where he started as Parliamentary Undersecretary in 2013 and became Secretary of State in February 2020.

His family have farmed for six generations near Camborne, in Cornwall, and as he told the CLA:

“Advice was passed down the generations. My great grandfather, George Henry Eustice, had an outlook forged during the difficult inter-war years. It led him to embrace an ethos very much rooted in self-reliance. He used to say, ‘When the man from the Ministry tells you he is going to pay you to produce something, it’s time to get out!'”

As Eustice went on to remark, now that he himself is “the man from the Ministry, the scepticism of my forefathers does weigh on me”. He is not, by either upbringing or instinct, a man who favours central control.

He instead believes in the ability of farmers, through hard work and attention to detail, and often in defiance of what the state is telling them, to work out what is best.

This Cornish sense of self-reliance is a cardinal point. Eustice was born in 1971, educated at Truro School, studied horticulture at Cornwall College and ran for Cornwall’s cross country team.

For nine years he worked in the family business, a fruit farm which today has a restaurant, a farm shop, a herd of South Devon cattle and the country’s oldest herd of a rare breed of pig, the British Lop, which is not as well known as it might be because it does not look strikingly old-fashioned.

In the European elections of 1999, Eustice stood unsuccessfully as a UKIP candidate in South West England. He afterwards got a job working for the campaign set up by Business for Sterling to stop Britain joining the Euro.

When ConHome asked one of his colleagues in this campaign about him she replied: “Can’t really remember. Sorry. Strawberry farmer.”

Eustice served from 2003 as Head of Press to two Conservative leaders, Michael Howard and David Cameron. Day after day, he toured the Commons press gallery, unfazed by the tough questions put to him, but unimpressed by some of Fleet Street’s behaviour – he was to back Lord Leveson’s proposals.

In 2010 he stood as the Conservative candidate for his local seat, Camborne and Redruth, and won it, after a recount, by 66 votes from Julia Goldsworthy, who had been, on different boundaries, the Liberal Democrat MP for Falmouth and Camborne.

When the European Referendum came, Eustice was, as might be expected, a Leaver. But even here, he was studiously moderate in tone: he recommended the Norway route to leaving the EU.

In February 2019 he resigned from his post as Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, having lost faith in Theresa May’s negotiating strategy, and in July of that year he was reappointed to his old post by Boris Johnson.

Eustice has laboured mightily to draw up the legislation needed to replace European governance of farming and fisheries. He was regarded as a safe pair of hands during the pandemic, during which the following dialogue took place between him and Nick Ferrari on LBC:

 Ferrari: “You can only serve alcohol with a substantial meal…what constitutes a substantial meal? Scotch egg?”

Eustice: “Um, I think this is a term that is understood very much by the restaurant trade.”

Ferrari: “Would a Scotch egg count as a substantial meal?”

Eustice: “I think a Scotch egg probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service.”

A much mocked ruling, but even here, Eustice himself was not remembered. He is now in charge of regulating an industry of great importance:

“There is a food manufacturer in every parliamentary constituency in the UK – except Westminster. The food industry is bigger than the automotive and aerospace industries combined and more evenly dispersed across our country.”

He does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, when farmers were told what to do. His inclination is not to order either rewilding or maximum food production.

Eustice contends that environmental measures, for example to protect the health of the soil, are also, in the long term, good for productivity, and make farming more resilient.

He recently warned that rises in the price of wheat and of energy are bound to lead to rises in the price of other foodstuffs. What he did not say is that higher prices will be good for farmers, with the most resourceful and enterprising of them doing best.

Higher prices are of no concern to the prosperous middle-class consumer who frequents farmers’ markets, buying delicious but amazingly expensive local produce. Higher prices will, on the other hand, be a body blow to the poor, who will soon notice whose side the Government is on.

In his maiden speech in the Commons, Eustice quoted some words from a letter written by Richard Trevithick, the famous inventor from Cornwall, who did not become rich from the steam engines he designed – rather the reverse – but who had no regrets:

“I have been branded with folly and madness for attempting what the world calls impossibilities, and even from the great engineer, the late Mr James Watt, who said to an eminent scientific character still living, that I deserved hanging for bringing into use the high-pressure engine. This so far has been my reward from the public; but should this be all, I shall be satisfied by the great secret pleasure and laudable pride that I feel in my own breast from having been the instrument of bringing forward and maturing new principles and new arrangements of boundless value to my country. However much I may be straitened in pecuniary circumstances, the great honour of being a useful subject can never be taken from me, which to me far exceeds riches.”

Eustice observed that the Government could not have all the answers: when one wants to attempt “what the world calls impossibilities”, brilliant individuals like Trevithick are indispensable.

Jane MacBean: Conservatives must prove we are the true environmentalists

11 Mar

Cllr Jane MacBean is a councillor on Buckinghamshire Council and chairman of the Council’s Health & Adult Social Care Select Committee

As Conservative councillors across the country stand for election this May, with many competing against the Lib Dems and Greens, let’s be clear about one thing: the environment is a political battleground and resident topic of choice. However, if handled properly, protecting, increasing, and enhancing, Green Infrastructure in your local area can be a real vote winner.

Green Infrastructure is the collective name for green spaces and natural features of all sizes in urban and rural settings, which can deliver quality of life as well as environmental benefits for communities. Everything from entire woodlands to window boxes on balconies in crowded city centres deliver GI value and form part of the green webs that we are striving to create. Why green webs and not green belts? Because webs integrate and fuse urban and rural areas to deliver better quality environments rather than setting clear boundaries that separate the two. Green webs bring built and natural spaces together in a way that enhances the value of both.

It is important to stress that the benefit delivered by Green Infrastructure is not solely environmental; it is also an intrinsic part of our social, economic, and health, agendas. GI delivers sustainable drainage, natural flood mitigation, insulation, carbon sequestration, and improves physical and mental health and wellbeing – as well as increasing property values.

Tree lined streets are a case in point. Not only do trees aid urban cooling, but also slow and reduce rainwater runoff, offer natural flood protection, and improve air quality. Studies have even shown that the presence of street trees can have a positive effect on drivers, showing a reduction in both speed and road rage.

Tree planting is exactly the kind of popular, nature-based project that Conservative councillors should be exploring at any point in the election cycle. A love of trees and strong climate concerns raised by residents were the inspiration and drive behind the Communi-Tree project in Chesham, our urban landscape planting project that is on track to put hundreds of trees back into our barren highway verges. Enthusiasm to participate has been strong from the start as we ask residents to nominate each site and invite them to play an active part in planting and caring for ‘their tree’. Streets that initially had a single Communi-Tree request have inspired interest from neighbours, and lone saplings are now part of tree lined avenues. Even our environmental projects can embrace healthy competitiveness with one re-populated street fuelling interest and enthusiasm in the next.

It is the universal popularity of nature that makes it a vote winner. The broad range of projects that can be defined under the umbrella of “Green Infrastructure” means that there is something for everyone. Whether you are campaigning in a bustling city or rural hamlet, there will be a project that simultaneously brings value to your residents, the wider community, and to the environment.

With such a wide array of rewards to be reaped, rather than shying away, Conservative councillors should recognise the vote-winning potential of nature and champion it in their upcoming campaigns. For any councillor or candidate looking to campaign on the environment this May, the Conservative Environment Network has put together a set of campaign ideas to provide you with inspiration.

Nature recovery is becoming an increasingly important responsibility for councils in England following the ground-breaking Environment Act passed late last year. It endows local councils with much greater responsibility for the environment, which will need to be evidence-based, locally led, and collaborative. County and unitary authorities will need to develop Local Nature Recovery Strategies, which will establish a network of shared plans that public, private, and voluntary sectors could and should all help to deliver. An LNRS will map existing and potential priority habitats and identify areas where nature can bounce back.

Although the Defra consultation is still underway to determine exactly what these strategies will look like, here in Buckinghamshire we are leading the charge as one of five areas in the country to trial the development of an LNRS. Councillors, officers, and partners representing a range of organisations have forged ahead with the creation and launch of our Biodiversity Action Plan, which sets out measures that will help to reverse current wildlife decline and help it to thrive. The plan serves as our interim Biodiversity Strategy as we convene our Nature Recovery Working Group that will focus on specific aspects of BAP delivery while our formal LNRS is finalised.

The Environment Act will also deliver changes in the planning process, with all new residential developments and infrastructure projects required to deliver a ten per cent uplift in biodiversity. As many of us wrestle with planning policy, work to build our Local Plans and resist speculative and often inappropriate and unpopular development, it will be essential to champion nature as an integral element of future local and national planning reform and policy.

Councillors who want to find out more about Green Infrastructure should look no further than the latest CEN briefing on this topic, which provides a detailed overview of the policy landscape as well as ideas on how to approach local GI projects. Natural England has also developed a Green Infrastructure Framework, an interactive mapping tool designed to support the greening of our towns and cities and their connections with the surrounding landscape.

Those standing for election this May should incorporate Green Infrastructure plans into their campaigns, and all councillors should make use of the wealth of resources provided by their own local authority, Natural England, and local wildlife groups, to spot opportunities and begin to map out their own nature recovery networks and projects.

Choosing to embrace Green Infrastructure in our fight back against the Lib Dems in the Chesham & Amersham constituency, and championing green initiatives as the majority group across Buckinghamshire, we are setting an agenda that is inclusive, engaging, financially sound, and popular, and shows voters that it is the Conservatives that can deliver solutions that are good for voters, public and private bank balances and, ultimately, the environment. A blue core fuelled by a green web that is woven through policy, campaigning, and workstreams, equals political and environmental gold.

John Redwood: My critique of the Chancellor’s Mais Lecture, and what the Government should do next

7 Mar

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

Amidst all the harrowing reports from Ukraine and the deaths and destruction wrought there by Russia, the Chancellor has sought to chart a course for the economy for the next couple of years.

In his Mais lecture he echoed his predecessor, Philip Hammond, in seeking a productivity breakthrough. He also reaffirmed the Maastricht rules approach to economic management, wanting tax rises to get the deficit down first. The Treasury should note that its role model the EU has abandoned these rules for the time being, and is pursuing monetary and fiscal expansion.

The lecture was wrong to deny that lower tax rates can bring in more revenues. The Republic of Ireland has been a shining example of this, boosting its per capita GDP far higher than ours or the lower level of the  EU by attracting huge investments through a 12.5 per cent Corporation Tax rate.

Their business taxes offer a higher percentage of total tax take than our higher rates. The Chancellor ignores the findings of Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson who he praises. They produced a surge in revenues from higher paid people by major cuts in income tax rates.

The Government should take the cost of living crisis more seriously. In accordance with the Mais lecture, it needs to create the conditions for private sector investment in creating more better-paid jobs and in producing more of the goods and services we need at home.

Levelling up needs to be private sector led, and offer people the chance to set up and run their own businesses, be trained for better paid employment, and find ladders of opportunity in the areas attracting the projects and businesses.

The Government should not take the fast growth rate of 2021 for granted. It was a one-off based on removing Covid restrictions and on an unprecedented injection of money by the Treasury and the Bank of England. In the end, they overdid it in scale and duration, triggering a nasty inflation. The new investment has to take place against a less supportive public sector background.

The rise of prices well above wages will cut growth, as people spend more of their money on such basics as food and energy. That will leave them with less to spend on leisure and pleasure – on items that are nice to have. The huge rise in energy bills alongside tax rises including National Insurance will sap spending power further. The economy will slow. The lecture did not tell us how the extra private sector investment will be attracted in these conditions, particularly with the planned rises in Corporation Tax to come.

These troubles will be compounded by the Government’s import promotion policies, which are most pronounced in the Business and Agriculture departments. Business is busy allowing the rundown of big energy using manufacture like steel, ceramics, aluminium, and glass in the name of Net Zero.

The trouble is that we then import the products from abroad, meaning that more C02 is created in their production and transport to us. The Business Department is busy reducing our oil and gas output so that we need to import more energy. Again, this adds to our CO2 production worldwide.The Environment Department is developing big subsidy incentives to remove land from food production and to encourage older farmers to give up. That will make us more dependent on imported food.

So why does the Government not like products made or grown at home? Why doesn’t it want more home output to boost jobs, incomes and lifestyles? Any sensible programme of levelling up should be cutting taxes and making it easier for local businesses and farms to set up and grow.

This year, revenues have come in much higher than the Budget forecast, thanks to higher growth – and way higher than the £12 billion that the Government says it needs for a tax rise. The Treasury did not put up rates of tax, so revenue grew. During the next financial year, higher tax rates and frozen starting levels will hit taxpayers hard. Revenue is likely to underperform as growth stutters.

An energy shortage is a big part of the problem. The government should ease the shortages of gas, oil and electricity. They should invite in the oil and gas producers in the U.K. and help them increase production straight away from current fields. They should offer licences for new production from all those new and extended fields that have already been discovered. That’s more jobs, better paid jobs, and plenty of extra tax revenue. It is also less CO2 generated globally, as our own gas produces under half the CO2 of imported LNG gas. We will have much more productive industry if we have cheap or competitive energy.

The Government should work with the electricity industry to keep the lights on. We  will need more capacity than is planned to cover the electric revolution. We need more power for when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. We should abandon the current policy of putting in more and more interconnectors to allow us to import more from an energy short continent.  They should produce schemes to promote more home-grown food.

Greg Smith: The Animal Welfare Bill is in danger of becoming a Trojan Horse for an extreme agenda

17 Feb

Greg Smith is the Conservative MP for Buckingham.

If the purpose of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was to attract glowing headlines, it has so far achieved anything but that. Rather, it has attracted widespread criticism and caused concern among rural groups, peers and fellow MPs over its worrying lack of detail. As I write this, the Bill currently before us risks handing the Labour Party ammunition which it can and will use to advance its own agenda.

Crucially, critique so far has not disputed whether animals have the capacity to feel pain. After all, the sentience of animals has long been recognised in UK law, as evidenced by the animal welfare legislation passed by parliaments over nearly 200 years. The concerns have centred on the Bill’s main danger posed by the creation of a new Animal Sentience Committee.

It remains unclear who will be on this Committee and what powers it will have. We know that the Committee will be given the power to report on any government policy – both past and present – and the role of the Committee will not be to scrutinise the substance of policy decisions, but the process by which those decisions were reached and whether all due regard had been given to animal welfare.

Alarmingly, however, the Bill’s draft Terms of Reference seem to suggest that the Committee could have a role in scrutinising policies. We also know that the Secretary of State for DEFRA will have the final sign off on its composition, but what mechanisms will be in place to ensure it is made up of genuine animal experts and not ideologically-driven animal rights activists with political agendas?

Passionate supporters of the Committee’s creation have talked publicly of it not excluding animal rights extremist groups like PETA and have written enthusiastically of its remit extending to scrutinise future infrastructure projects such as the creation of a new power plant. And what will become of future trade deals, farming and scientific research? As things stand, the Bill is in danger of clumsily becoming a Trojan Horse for an extreme agenda that this Government could likely regret in years to come.

As a Conservative MP, my concern about the committee comes not from its likely composition and activity under the current government, but from how it may be used by a future government hostile to rural interests.

After its Committee Stage last Thursday, we no longer need to speculate about the intentions of the most likely future hostile government – because the Opposition told us.

While the Minister continued to protest its benign proportionality, Daniel Zeichner, the Shadow Defra Minister, summed up Labour’s response:

“The Minister… has not been able to answer the question of where sentience currently stands, so the only conclusion we can come to is that the Bill needs to be beefed up and made much stronger. I can assure you, Sir Charles, that in a couple of years’ time, it will be.”

Kerry McCarthy, the vegan whose ethical opposition to livestock farming as a concept was felt by the previous Labour leader to be no impediment to her short-lived appointment as Shadow Defra Secretary, was even more explicit with her blatant attack on our sustainable game meat industry:

“It was disappointing that the first three Government Back Benchers to speak on Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill were very much against it and the doors it might open. Let us be frank: that was because they fear a cracking down on blood sports and hunting and shooting… If we did truly recognise sentience in law, we would be questioning driven grouse shooting and all the loopholes allowing foxhunting to proceed.”

That is what Labour sees as the logical conclusion to the process this Bill sets in train. That is the opportunity the Government risks handing to those who do not share its intentions.

Reflecting on the future of France that would follow the reign of her lover, King Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour is reputed to have said flippantly, “Après nous, le deluge.” We who appreciate the rural way of life might have hoped the current UK Government would act more responsibly.

It must recognise the long-term risks legislation such as this could have and how it could be weaponised against the interests of our hardworking farming community, those who undertake countryside management- including pest control to protect livestock – as well as the British public in the long term.

Julian Glover: To truly level up, the Government must ensure England’s landscapes are better protected

18 Jan

Julian Glover is a strategic adviser and author of Man of Iron. He recently led the Landscapes Review.

Climb to the top of Scafell Pike, England’s highest peak, and you’ll stand on rocks that are 450 million years old. Look down towards the distant hamlet of Wasdale Head and you might just see a church whose roof timbers are said to date back to the Vikings.

Time does not seem to hurry in such places. But the beauty that visitors flooded out of towns to enjoy after lockdown, the traditions that have shaped it, and the biodiversity that should thrive in wild places like these are in trouble.

If we can find better ways to run our finest landscapes, we will do more for nature and more for people too.

That was the point of the Landscapes Review, commissioned by Defra, which I led, alongside an expert panel with deep experience of the countryside. It reported not long before Covid hit. Now the department has responded with a promise to take action.

I’m pleased that George Eustice and his Lords Minister Richard Benyon have listened to much of what we said and now plan to put many of our ideas into action – and I hope that this important first step will be followed by more ambition, too. I am also pleased by the support and commitment of many Defra officials, and campaigners and organisations that care for our natural environment.

We need change because England’s landscapes can do more for our country and more for people who live and work in them too. A lot has gone well since our country made the brave decision to create National Parks in the years after the Second World War. They are more loved and more visited than ever. But even in the Peak District, where I live, much about nature is in deep decline. Farming is in trouble. Visitors escaping to green spaces after lockdown risk destroying the tranquility and beauty which draws them in the first place.

The Landscapes Review covered on the near-third of England’s green space which has been defined as a national park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the latter a confusing and underpowered form of protection which we would like to see strengthened. But our aims are national. We want to help these places do more for the country, and more for the people who live in them.

That balance between people and nature is key to it all. It is the central argument of the review. At times debate on rural debate can seem to pit one side against another – supporters of rewinding against farming, for instance, or of affordable housing against green spaces. But I think that’s the wrong way to see things. More for nature does not mean less for people, or the other way around.

Pride in our countryside can bring people together, and if we love more and understand it better, we will care for it well too. City life today is more cut off from the countryside and from the source of the food we eat than ever. Rebuilding those links – through understanding and access – is not just a morally good thing in itself but will make people happier and healthier. It should be a core part of what Michael Gove, the former Defra Secretary of State who commissioned the review, means by levelling up.

Some people worry that all this might mean more rules and bureaucracy. But in the review we have tried to break down barriers, not build them up. We are not trying to tell places how they should be run. But we do want to lift their ambition for what can be done.

That’s why, among our many proposals to help nature, local communities and visitors, our central recommendation is for more collective working. At the moment they are underfunded and underpowered. It is embarrassing that we spend such tiny sums on places such as Cornwall or the Cotswolds, although they are emblems of our country, admired around the world and an inheritance we should leave in a better condition for those who come after us. Government has a role in changing this.

But better run, more ambitious national landscapes will be able to find other sources of support too.

No one report can fix everything and we don’t pretend ours does. But, after working with a brilliant panel, and listening to those who live in, respect and visit our finest landscapes, I know we can do a lot better.  As I wrote of our great landscapes in the foreword of our review, “they really are England’s soul and we should care for them as such”.

Daniel Hannan: It’s time to recork the Gauke

18 Aug

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

I still do a double take whenever I remember that David Gauke is no longer in the Conservative Party. If you read his fortnightly column on ConHome, you’ll know that the former Justice Secretary is a Tory to his backbone.

I don’t just mean in the sense of being suspicious of big government, a supporter of open competition and so on. I mean that he has, for want of a better phrase, a conservative temperament. He is pragmatic, ironic, self-aware; clever but sceptical of intellectuals; a handy cricketer and a lifelong Ipswich Town supporter; an authentic champion of the quietly patriotic suburban communities he used to represent.

True, Gauke has a low opinion of the PM, and that prejudice sometimes leads him to put a needlessly negative construction on whatever the Government is doing. But what makes his column so readable is the tension between his dislike of our present leadership and his essential fair-mindedness.

I suppose I should declare an interest. Gauke and I were Conservative students together and, after we graduated, we both worked for Eurosceptic MPs – I for Michael Spicer, he for Barry Legg. We were later involved together in the European Research Group. Indeed, the Gawkster became our treasurer, a position to which he brought the same flinty fiscal conservatism that was to characterise his time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I consider him a friend – though I should add that he has no idea I am writing this column. (Had I mentioned it, he’d have modestly told me not to bother and perhaps secretly hoped that I’d ignore him. He is, as I say, very English.)

That Gauke should now be outside the Conservative Party is a reminder that the fevered and phantasmagorical events of 2018 and 2019 really happened. Already, it takes an effort of will to recall those days: the court challenges; the pretence that a referendum that everyone had promised to respect was meaningless; the horrible sight of a Commons Speaker bending the rules with partisan intent; the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations; the Supreme Court’s glib dismissal of the 1689 Bill of Rights; the spectacle of a government being kept in office by MPs who would not let carry through its business but would not agree to fresh elections either; and, in the end, what looked like a breakdown of the party system.

A number of Labour and Conservative MPs left their parties, to the delirious excitement of the broadcast media. But it turned out that years of soft questioning on Newsnight and the Today Programme did not translate into electoral support. Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, Luciana Berger, Sarah Wollaston, Dominic Grieve – all sank without trace.

Europhile MPs repeatedly sought to disable Brexit by ensuring that the pro-EU Commons majority would get to decide whether or not to accept the deal. The effect of their antics was to destroy the Government’s negotiating position and ensure that Britain got the worst possible terms. The punitive Northern Ireland Protocol was perhaps their supreme achievement.

In September 2019, 21 Conservative MPs lost the Whip after voting to switch control of the legislative process from the Government to the Commons. They had varying motives. Some were die-in-the-ditch Remainers; some didn’t like Boris Johnson; some (Anne Milton in Guildford, Steve Brine in Winchester) had peculiarly Europhile constituencies; some simply fell in with the wrong crowd.

When the election was called three months later, they scattered in all directions. Ten of the 21 had the Whip restored, of whom six stood down and four (Brine, Greg Clark, Stephen Hammond and Caroline Nokes) won their seats again as Conservatives. Of the 11 who remained outside the fold, six retired, two (Sam Gyimah and Antoinette Sandbach) stood unsuccessfully as Lib Dems and three (Milton, Dominic Grieve and Gauke himself) stood unsuccessfully as independents.

Johnson is temperamentally unable to bear grudges, and cheerfully put four of the 21 – Ken Clarke, Philip Hammond, Ed Vaizey and Richard Benyon – into the House of Lords. Indeed, I’m happy to say that Benyon, one of the most accomplished countrymen at Westminster, is back on the front bench as a DEFRA minister.

But not Gauke. If we can liken the événements of 2019 to a tectonic upheaval – and I think we can – then the Gawkster is a volcanic rock that has been hurled miles away by the blast. There he sits, a geological anomaly, reminding us that violent forces once altered the landscape.

At least, I hope he is an anomaly. Gawkie himself likes to write about the big-government turn that the Conservatives had taken even before the epidemic struck. A general realignment, he thinks, has left the party speaking to and for relatively protectionist, interventionist and dirigiste communities.

Such a party, runs the subtext, has less space for people like him: fiscal conservatives who are mildly Europhile. (I say “mildly” because Gauke never voted to block Brexit. He quit the party because he was convinced – quite wrongly, as it turned out – that the PM was planning to leave the EU without any trade deal.)

Such liberal-minded MPs dominated the pre-2015 party. We hear a lot less from them these days. Perhaps they have changed their minds. Perhaps they are keeping quiet, sensing that public opinion is going through an authoritarian spasm. Perhaps there has simply been a turnover in personnel.

Whatever the explanation, we need to remember that our party contains multitudes. We have had space, down the centuries, for protectionists and free-traders, for interventionists and privatisers, for Heathites and Thatcherites, for Europhiles and Eurosceptics (though this last division is, I hope, now as redundant as the arguments over Catholic emancipation or Rhodesian independence).

We are slipping in Gauke’s former constituency – and, indeed, across my old Home Counties patch. Yet our former voters – self-reliant, affluent, sceptical of state capacity and with little time for populism – are an indispensable part of our coalition. We need, not just their faute-de-mieux support, but their active enthusiasm. Finding a way to recork the Gauke might be a good start

Rob Mutimer: Ministers must back British farmers over trade with China

12 Aug

Rob Mutimer is Chair of the National Pig Association. This is a sponsored post by the National Pig Association.

Britain’s pig industry is the backbone of many small towns and rural communities across the country. Pig farming is worth £1.6 billion annually, and adding food retail and export values brings the total over £14 billion a year.

This essential sector is now in dire straits, however. More than 100,000 pigs were backed up on farms in the early months of this year due to a perfect storm of events, including Brexit restrictions on exports, labour shortages and pork plant closures due to Covid-19.

Against a tide of falling trade with the EU, our growing pork export market to China is a vital lifeline for many farming communities. China pays a premium for our pork, and exports have grown six-fold in value since 2015, creating new jobs and growth across the UK.

This trade is, however, being hamstrung by the loss of China export licences at three major pork processing sites: Ashton Under Lyne in Greater Manchester, Watton in Norfolk and Brechin in Scotland.

The export licences were voluntarily surrendered 10 months ago at the advice of DEFRA, after Coronavirus affected some of the sites’ workers. This is normal practice internationally, and the issues were swiftly resolved, but China has refused to reinstate the licences once the issues were resolved.

This is despite all reapproval documentation and site audits being in order and other sites with the same issues in other countries, like Denmark, having had their licenses reinstated. Our liaison with Beijing officials indicates that assurances from industry of the safety of our sites are not enough. The authorities are seeking representations from the UK Government itself.

The suspension of exports to China has had a dramatic effect on prices and many pig farmers, already operating at a loss due to the pandemic, want to exit the sector.

This is why we urgently need the Foreign Secretary to help unblock this. Last month, we wrote to him as part of a united industry call for assistance, including the National Farmers Union, Food and Drink Federation, National Pig Association and a host of others. We have had no response.

The direct losses at these three sites alone are amounting to around £50 million a year, but as these are major regional hubs, the impact is much wider. The Brechin site, for example, supports the entire Scottish pork industry. If the ban continues, it will put many tens of thousands of British jobs in farming, processing and retail at risk. This makes us more dependent on the EU, as British farmers currently only produce 40 per cent of the pork we consume.

So where do we go from here?

Ultimately, ministers must step up work with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to encourage China to re-list the processing plants as soon as possible. British farms and meat processing sites are among the safest in the world, and there is no reason for not relisting the affected sites.

In the meantime, ministers should also look at a compensation package for those in the industry that are most heavily impacted, similar to help that has been offered in other home nations, including Scotland and Northern Ireland.

If nothing is done, we fear the pig industry is heading towards collapse, which would affect tens of thousands of jobs in rural communities and small towns across the country. By acting now, we could prevent more pig farmers going out of business and leaving empty shelves in the supermarket.

There is a bigger prize here, too. The value of the pig industry’s trade with China runs to tens of millions a year, dwarfing the value of new trade won elsewhere, including the recent deal with Australia, for example. By reopening our market with China we would have the beginnings of a real success story for the UK’s post-Brexit trade, and for the livelihoods of many thousands of farmers and workers in our industry.