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.

Kristy Adams: Without Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services getting more funding, we are storing up trouble

23 Jul

Kristy Adams is a company director. She is leading the Health & Happiness lessons for six to 16 year olds for the online catchup school @InvictaAcademy.

The Government invested an extra £1.4 billion in children’s mental health services from 2015-2020 after the recommendations of the Future in Mind report of 2015. CAMHS currently accounts for 0.7 per cent of NHS spending and around 6.4 per cent of mental health spending.

CAMHS is the child and adolescent mental health services. If your child is having serious mental health problems and is self-harming or suicidal, their school or GP will contact the CAMHS team for an assessment and help for your child.

In the UK we have 14 million children of a total population of just over 68 million, so children make up around 20 per cent of the population – yet CAMHS only receives 6.4 per cent of mental health spending. The numbers don’t add up. The UK is not alone in this fact.

Katie Gibbons wrote in The Times this week about research published in the Evidence-Based Mental Health journal. “The researchers accused high-income nations of failing vulnerable children and said that they could ‘afford to do better’.

“The authors analysed data from 14 studies in 11 countries – the US, Australia, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Britain, Israel, Lithuania, Norway, South Korea and Taiwan – published between 2003 and 2020.”

The studies involved 61,545 children. The authors from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver said, “Only 44.2 per cent of children with mental disorders received any services.” The findings showed “robust services are in place for child physical health problems such as cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases in most of these countries.” The research showed “an invisible crisis in children’s mental health.”

Two families I know well have teenagers who have sought help from the UK CAMHS teams in their area. The service in both cases was superb; highly-skilled experts treated both students, who have gone on not only to survive but thrive. For those that qualify for help the service is first class, but what of the children who don’t meet the threshold for treatment?

Christmas tree twinkling, December 2020, mulled wine on the hob and after such a long time in face masks, lockdowns and fear of losing jobs – the peace seemed a chink of light in my friend Josie’s house. Only for it to be shattered hours later when her 15-year-old daughter found her sister trying to kill herself.

No warning, no run up, ambulance called. The elder daughter is 18. Maisy (not her real name) was admitted to hospital. Neither of her parents was allowed to accompany her and she was released next morning at 7am. One phone call to follow up and that was the end of the mental health support. Gareth Southgate did a better job of supporting his footballers than the mental health team did with a suicidal teenager. The suicidal teenager had undiagnosed autism.

Another friend, Katie, has a 14-year-old daughter Bella, who went into a meltdown over the Government’s communication of how she would gain her GCSEs. Was she taking them? If her teachers were assessing, would she gain the grades needed to gain a college place?

Poor communication from the Government meant teachers and schools hadn’t got a clue what was happening. Bella’s anxiety and fear became more serious as she considered the move from school to a new sixth form. Bella was self harming, wasn’t sleeping and she refused to leave her room. Katie listened to her daughter and contacted school to ask for help. Bella was refused help by CAMHS; she didn’t qualify as she wasn’t trying to take her own life.

Katie took her daughter’s concerns seriously and found a private counsellor and clinician. Bella was diagnosed with autism and, through the help of professionals and her family, she is now doing well. Katie says she was able to get Bella help because they used the money that would have been spent on a holiday, but what about the families in identical circumstances who can’t afford to pay?

Prior to the pandemic I visited a primary school where I led an assembly on democracy. I met the super-efficient head teacher before my talk. Having completed hundreds of school visits over the years – as a director of a learning board trust – I can spot a well-run school at 20 paces.

This one was all singing, all dancing with a buzz of learning and a joy to be in. I asked the Head my killer question. ‘What would you like the Government to do differently to most improve the lives of your students?’ Her reply was instant: fund CAMHS properly.

The previous week one of her students had been self harming with a compass. Because the girl hadn’t broken the skin, she didn’t qualify for CAMHS help. The issue stemmed from the girl’s struggle with undiagnosed dyslexia. Her parents had to pay privately for a professional counsellor.

This began a research project for me. I found three charities that could help schools with trained children’s counsellors and funding. The charities have partnered with churches and faith groups to provide money and resources. I communicated this information to schools and political leaders at a local council.

I believe in personal responsibility, I’m a Conservative and I believe in resourcing all organisations/charities to solve problems. But here’s the crux of the matter – currently CAMHS doesn’t have enough resources to help children in crisis who are not suicidal (and it doesn’t have the money for preventative work) and that’s just not good enough.

It makes sense to invest in mental health for young people because they are valuable, our country’s future and the problems won’t go away. Indeed, the things they are struggling with will be carried into their adult life. One in three adult mental health conditions relate directly to adverse childhood experiences and the NHS will continue to need to give individuals care in adulthood, which involves cost.

If we want to save money, let’s treat the patients while they are children. It makes so much sense to invest in CAMHS so it can offer a broader service including preventative care. Part of the children’s mental health service should include identifying autism in under 18s (and as girls are often failed to be helped, targeting identifying girls.). 50 per cent of the clinical commissioning groups couldn’t give an account of the additional money the Government gave them from 2015-2020 and how it was spent. Greater accountability is required.

The Simon Fraser University in Vancouver researchers concluded governments would “need to substantially increase the spending on children’s mental health budgets.” This is particularly urgent given documented increases in children’s mental health needs since Covid-19.”

Here’s my call to action: identify dyslexia and autism more accurately and earlier to produce better outcomes, and increase the budget for CAHMS – so that services are proportional to the percentage of children in the total population. Both of these will provide a better service to our children and cost the country less money in the long term.

(Names have been changed to protect identities).

Bob Blackman: Sizewell C is key to taking control of the UK’s energy production – and achieving Net Zero

9 Jul

Bob Blackman is the MP for Harrow East.

This week, tens of millions of people tuned in to England’s Semi Final match against Denmark. At this point, millions of TVs would have been switched on, kettles boiled and pints poured. We all assumed that everything would work perfectly, and we would be able to enjoy the football without anything going wrong.

For our national grid, however, it is at times like this when it truly earns its stripes. Despite a sudden spike in demand for thousands of extra MW of electricity, we will not need to worry about our TVs turning off, drinking a cold tea or forcing down a warm pint.

Over many decades now, we have had a reliable source of electricity that has enabled us to get on with our daily lives. The Three Day Week of 1974 is a distant memory for most and unheard of for others. However, over the next few decades, our electricity usage is set to rise exponentially and thousands of green, clean jobs will be created as we pursue getting to Net Zero by 2050. But, as we electrify more and more of what we use, our grid will come under increasing pressure.

Having a plan to deal with this transition is critical. Many countries around the world are now setting out their ambitions for this change ahead of COP26 later this year.

Now we need to map out a clear pathway for how we get there.

While recent years have seen us invest significantly in forms of renewable energy such as offshore wind, the importance of having a reliable baseload of firm power remains essential to the energy mix. Investing in renewables such as solar and wind is essential to the energy mix, but when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, where do we turn?

One essential answer is gigawatt nuclear: a zero carbon, continuous, reliable source of firm power. If we are to get to Net Zero it has to be not just a part of, but central to, the energy mix.

However, over the next decade all but one of the UK’s currently operating nuclear power plants will shut down. This is a frightening prospect. Hinkley Point C is the only other under construction, while the Government is in discussions over Sizewell C, the proposed new nuclear plant in Suffolk. If we are serious about getting to Net Zero, it is essential that Sizewell C is built, and that construction starts soon.

New nuclear will allow the UK to take further control of our energy production, reducing our reliance on imports from overseas. While interconnectors, which import this energy, play a vital role in keeping our power switched on, we should be looking at what we can do domestically to build our own firm power supply of clean energy. As we saw with French power supply threats in the Jersey fishing row, it’s important we have control over our power supply.

Moving forward with Sizewell C quickly is the essential next step in the resurgence of an industry that Hinkley Point C has revitalised over the last five years. As a former nuclear supply chain worker, I can testify to the value of the 70,000 highly skilled job opportunities it supports across the UK. The heart of its supply chain will be based in the North West where 65 years ago this year the Queen opened the UK’s first nuclear plant in Calder Hall. The industry is the blueprint for levelling up the UK and for showing British industry at its best.

Not only this but investing in new nuclear has the power to support our Net Zero ambitions. Surplus power and heat can be used to produce hydrogen and power carbon capture. The recent successful Freeport East bid to secure £250,000 of government funding will support a Direct Air Capture project which will help demonstrate the exciting potential of this technology. These projects will also all lay the groundwork for Small Modular Reactors and Advanced Modular Reactors as the supply chain continues to be established, enabling the UK to become a world leading exporter of nuclear technology.

After overwhelming backing not just in the last General Election but at the recent local elections, voters are now expecting to see delivery. Words put into action. Sizewell C is ready to showcase the best of what Britain has to offer – highly skilled jobs across the country which will power us forward on the road to Net Zero and give us control of our own energy.

So, while it won’t have been the first thought in everyone’s minds as they switched on their TVs to watch the footie, we should remain thankful to have an energy system which we don’t even need to think about.

By the way, I rightly guessed 2-0 to us last week when we went head-to-head with Germany so my prediction now? It’s coming home.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. A run down of the developments across Europe extreme caution takes hold.

15 Mar

Over the past few months, there have been lots of issues across Europe with the vaccine roll out. From the EU’s difficulties in acquiring vaccines, culminating in its attempt to control exports across the Irish border, to Emmanuel Macron casually deriding the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab (AZ) and causing vaccine hesitancy, it’s been problem after problem. Today there was more trouble on the AZ front, with leaders concerned about whether it leads to blood clots. Without further ado, here’s a round up of some of the developments:

  • Germany has made the headlines today for two reasons. For one, Angela Merkel’s centre-right party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), suffered its worst ever results in two regions it once considered strongholds. The drop in support has been attributed to Germany’s problems obtaining vaccines, and will have huge implications for the CDU’s fate in September’s election. To complicate matters, this afternoon it was revealed that Germany has suspended use of the AZ jab, citing fears that it could lead to blood clots.

  • Soon after Germany’s decision, it was reported that France had also suspended the AZ vaccine. Macron already has one of the most dreadful records in regards to vaccination strategy. He claimed the AZ vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in over 65s – based on no evidence. With reports of intensive care units filling up in Paris and with France having the world’s sixth-highest total of Covid-19 cases, it is extremely troubling that European leaders are planting more doubt about the vaccine. On Twitter, political pundits did not hold back when speculating about the reasons for Merkel and Macron’s decision to suspend the vaccine.

 

  • But Germany and France are not the first to suspend the AZ vaccine. The Netherlands has paused roll out until at least March 29 for the same reasons (worries about blood clots). In the meantime, the country has had some of the most extreme lockdown protests. Over the weekend, the Dutch police used a water cannon and other shocking methods to control protesters (see the video below). So who knows how much worse this will get with the vaccine roll out being so slow. All of this has happened three days before the country’s election, in which Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister, will stand for a fourth term in office. Unlike the CDU, his party is expected to do well – and build even more seats than it did in 2017.

  • One big surprise is that Italy’s Piedmont region has stopped using the AZ vaccine. This is in spite of the terrible time Italy is having, with it recording 27,000 new cases and 380 deaths on Friday, and going into lockdown. Luigi Genesio Icardi, head of regional health services, stood by Piedmont’s decision, suggesting that suspending AZ roll out was “an act of extreme prudence, while we verify whether there is a connection”. After a teacher died from a vaccination shot, authorities have been trying to find the batch responsible to examine it.
  • Lastly, Austria has suspended the use of a batch of AZ vaccines after a 49-year-old nurse died of “severe blood coagulation problems”, and four other European countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Luxembourg) have stopped using vaccines from the same batch. It was sent to 17 European countries and consists of one million jabs.

So all in all, there is still huge scepticism about the AZ vaccine. Are leaders right to stop the AZ roll out? The European Medicines Agency and World Health Organization have both said there’s no evidence of a link between the jab and blood clots, although the EMA is apparently going to advise further tomorrow. In the UK there have been 37 reports of blood clots among 17 million people (and there is no strong biological explanation of why the vaccine would cause a clot). So it all looks slightly strange.

Leaders are using what is known as the “precautionary principle”; a scientific method that means you pause and review something if you’re unsure about it. It’s the ideal thing to do, of course, but the consensus from scientists elsewhere seems to be that leaders need to press ahead given the urgency of the pandemic situation. Suspending AZ can mean that many more lives are lost from the direct impact of the virus. Either way, you get a sense that “extreme prudence” may not have been the right move.

David Gauke: Ten years for lying on a form. Misguided, disproportionate – and characteristic of our cavalier approach to sentencing.

13 Feb

No one is going to be sentenced to ten years imprisonment for lying about where they have travelled from. Such behaviour might be reprehensible and, in the current circumstances, it may be justifiable to make it a criminal offence which, on occasion, may need to be punishable by imprisonment. But ten years – on a par with threats to kill, non-fatal poisoning or indecent assault – is evidently disproportionate. Even Michael Ellis, the Solicitor-General, who is not exactly a signed-up member of the awkward squad, has let it be known that he questions the “credibility” of the sanction.

I make this point not as a sceptic of measures to control the spread of the virus nor as a critic of Matt Hancock. Some of his Parliamentary colleagues appear to take out their frustration at the existence of Covid-19 and all that this entails on our way of life on the Health Secretary. Implicit in some of the criticisms he receives is the view that, if only someone else was in charge, we would all be going about our business unimpeded by lockdown restrictions. This is obviously nonsense.

On the big issue about the need to suppress the virus until a vaccine became available, Hancock got it right. Not everyone in Government can make that claim.

Nonetheless, the proposed maximum sentence is far too long. It also revealed an attribute that is not unique to one Minister or one government but which has been prevalent in our politics for nearly 30 years – a cavalier approach to sentencing policy.

Before making my case, let me set out some data. When I was Justice Secretary, I asked for information as to how large our prison population was compared to other European countries. For every 100,000 people in in the Netherlands, 61 were behind bars. In Denmark it was 63, in Germany it was 76, in Italy it was 99 and in France it was 104. In England and Wales it was 139.

This high prison population is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1993, we had approximately 45,000 people behind bars. Fifteen years later, we had reached 83,000, which is roughly where we have been since (the current exceptional circumstances has resulted in a fall to 78,000, but is forecast to rise rapidly over the next few years).

The increase in numbers has not been driven by higher levels of criminality, but by tougher sentences. Speak to experienced judges, and they will tell you of how someone who would have been sentenced to five or ten years in the 1980s would now get ten or 20 years. Our prison population has risen not because there are more criminals or that more criminals are getting caught, but because our criminals are locked up for longer.

Quite right too, many will say. Longer sentences tend to be very popular. Even this week’s announcement polled well – 51 per cent thought it ‘about right’ and 13 per cent thought it ‘not harsh enough’, according to YouGov. That does not make it a good policy.

We have to ask ourselves, when it comes to increasing the time people are imprisoned for any offence, why we are doing it. The first argument is deterrence, but there is little or no evidence to suggest that, say, the threat of ten years in jail is more of a deterrent than five years.

The second argument is about incarceration protecting society from reoffending. But, again, the evidence tends to be weak to support this (and, by and large, the more serious the offence, the less likely the chances of reoffending).

The third argument is about society articulating its feelings of repugnance at particular behaviour by the severity of the punishment. I certainly do not dismiss the need for our criminal justice system to reflect our shared sense of outrage over particular crimes. This is a legitimate factor in determining sentencing policy. However, as a society, in recent decades we have become noticeably keener to articulate our feelings of repugnance.

This process often starts with a targeted announcement that applies to only a small number of criminals. To give an example, a minimum sentence of 30 years for murder involving firearms or explosives was imposed in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act. This applies, thankfully, to very few cases but it made the minimum sentence for knife murders look low, so that increased from 15 years to 25 years in 2009, after a high-profile case. And then when it comes to determining the appropriate sentence for other offences – such as attempted murder, or grievous bodily harm, or possession of a weapon – judges will take that minimum sentence for a more serious crime as a reference point.

Consequently, we have a ratchet effect. There is a high-profile crime; there is tabloid outrage over the leniency of a sentence, the Government increases the maximum or minimum sentence for that specific crime, sentences for lesser crimes increase accordingly – by which time many offenders face a longer stretch and the prison population rises yet further.

I am acutely aware that trying to step off this escalator is enormously difficult. In my own time as Justice Secretary, I tried to resist routinely inflating sentences for serious offences, rather than going as far as trying to reverse the trend for the previous 30 years.

Instead, I focused on trying to keep minor offenders out of prison. These are people who are frequent offenders where the focus has to be rehabilitation. Prison – with the inevitable disruption to family life, accommodation and employment – makes that much more difficult. The evidence points to non-custodial sentences being much more effective in reducing reoffending. Politically, there is widespread support for such an agenda and – although my policy of scrapping most short prison sentences has been dropped – there is very good work being done by my successor, Robert Buckland, and prisons minister, Lucy Frazer on this front.

Nonetheless, the Government’s Sentencing White Paper, published in September, as well as containing many excellent policies on matters like Community Sentence Treatment Orders, also contains a long list of measures that will mean sentences become even longer.

No doubt these poll well – even better than locking people up for ten years for giving inaccurate information as to their recent holiday travels – and those who will face lengthy imprisonment are deeply unsympathetic individuals.

There is a constant pressure on Ministers to be seen to do something, to demonstrate their abhorrence at criminality and to take the side of the victim. But where does this end? If – when faced with an individual crime that cuts through to the public or a crisis that requires the creation of a new criminal offence – the reaction of Ministers is always to impose a yet more draconian prison sentence as a form of virtue signalling, or to win a political arms race, sentences will become disproportionate, our prison population even more of an outlier and the burdens on the taxpayer (assuming we want a secure and humane system, which we should) unsustainable.

Yes: ten years for lying on a form is a bad policy. But this is not the first time that a misguided and disproportionate sentencing policy has been set out in order to liven up an announcement and show that the Government is being tough. And it certainly will not be the last.

Vaccine passports for travel get the go ahead. But there will be concerns about where else they could be applied.

5 Feb

This time last year, the concept of a “vaccine passport” would have sounded utterly bizarre to most people; dystopian, even.

And yet, here we are. Today The Times reports that the Government is developing “Covid vaccine passports to allow foreign holidays”. 

Currently anyone who has been vaccinated is given a rather primitive record card.

But all of this is set to change as the Foreign Office, Department for Transport and Department of Health and Social Care are putting together documentation to help travellers reach countries that might demand vaccine verification upon entry.

Already there are complaints about this proposal, not least because Nadhim Zahawi, who’s in charge of the vaccine roll out, Tweeted on January 12 that the Government has “no plans to introduce vaccine passports.”

To add to the confusion, in December last year he suggested that restaurants, bars and cinemas could use an immunity passport system, only for Michael Gove to say “I certainly am not planning to introduce any vaccine passports, and I don’t know anyone else in government who is.” 

Overall, the Government has sent out very mixed messages on vaccine passports/ identification, which are poorly defined. So the news today will invite more questions and concerns about what activities they are applied to.

People naturally have fears about a vaccine passport for many reasons, some of which I detailed in December for ConservativeHome.

For instance, it could lead to a two-tier society in which one’s health status is a determinant of freedom, and raises lots of questions about the sharing of health data.

That being said, the Government’s pursuit of vaccine passports is only really directed at travel currently – and largely a result of other countries insistence on having such a system in place.

Already Denmark and Sweden have said they’ll introduce digital vaccine “passports” for travel; Estonia and the UN’s health agency have been creating e-vaccination certificates; and the list goes on.

Corporations, too, are getting tough on proof of vaccine. Saga, which provides holidays for people over 50, says passengers on its future trips must have had their jabs.

Qantas, the Australian airline, has also said the same for its flights.

So the Government is ultimately at the whim of market/ international forces, doing its utmost to make sure Brits have the tools to travel where they want to in the summer.

The move is also about boosting tourism in countries such as Greece, where two million Britons visit Greece every year, spending over €10 billion.

The country is preparing to waive its quarantine rules for tourists who can prove they’ve been inoculated against Coronavirus, and government officials have been speaking to the Greek Ministry of Tourism to get this system finalised.

The challenge for the Government is determining other parts of policy.

For instance, would the vaccine passport mean that older generations get to travel this summer while young people (who will be vaccinated last) stay at home?

What happens to vaccine passports if the virus mutates?

And will the passports vary to take into account the different efficacy levels of vaccines?

There are also signs of employers wanting workers to be vaccinated, but it’s not obvious what government policy is in regards to which occupations should have jabs (if anyone should be mandated at all).

In short, choosing to have a vaccine passport is the easy part.

Given the lack of unified communications so far, the Government’s messaging on the fine details of vaccine passports will be interesting to say the least.

The proposed foreign aid cut. Many Tories are against it. But Sunak has limited options as he tries to salvage the economy.

18 Nov

Given the Coronavirus crisis is estimated to have cost the UK £210 billion and counting, the Government is under enormous pressure to explain how it will pay its debt back. One of the ways Rishi Sunak is reportedly planning to do this is by cutting foreign aid, which he is expected to announce in a spending review next week.

Currently, the UK spends 0.7 per cent of gross national income on foreign aid, a target that is recommended by the United Nations and was written into law when David Cameron was in office. But the Chancellor apparently wants to bring this down to 0.5 per cent. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said of the idea: “we are looking at how the aid budget is spent, ensuring it serves the UK’s priorities and represents value for money. It is legitimate to consider where savings can be made when the public finances are under huge strain.” 

Several prominent Conservatives have opposed the move. Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee, said: “The damage would be we are retreating from the global stage at the very time when we should be doing exactly the opposite.” Jeremy Hunt and Bob Neill are also against it, as is Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, apparently, who previously dismissed reports it would be cut as “tittle tattle”. Cameron’s disapproval has been made known in several newspapers.

One concern is that a reduction would harm international relations. Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary, said: “It would be an extraordinary decision at the very point at which Britain is about to take over the chairmanship of the G7, with a new administration in the White House which will strongly champion the international system”, and Anthony Mangnall, the Tory MP for Totnes, echoed these concerns.

Others point out the moral case for keeping foreign aid as it is, given that the pandemic is when the world’s poorest people need help the most. Even before the cut was suggested, the Government was due to spend less than its anticipated £15.8 billion this year, due to a contraction in the economy. When Conservatives have spent tremendous sums on the flawed contact tracing app, PPE, and other Covid projects, some might call foreign aid a drop in the ocean.

And yet, others will say the cut is necessary at a time of intense national need. Given the Conservatives won last year’s election with a manifesto based on “levelling up” the UK, by way of domestic investment and infrastructure, the Government no doubt believes voters want this to be reflected when the Chancellor plans the economic recovery.

If there is a cut to 0.5 per cent, it’s also worth remembering that the UK will still be one of the biggest global contributors to foreign aid. In 2019 and 2018, it was one of only five countries to hit the UN’s 0.7 per cent aid target (level with Denmark, but below Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden), and there’s an argument that other countries need to increase their spending. New Zealand, Canada, Japan and the USA have not reached 0.5 per cent, never mind 0.7 per cent. 

Furthermore, it is understood that Boris Johnson wants this to be a time-limited measure, with a return to 0.7 per cent. In the interim, the UK can make a sizeable difference is by helping to facilitate the global supply of vaccines.

Either way, this is just the beginning of Sunak having to make some incredibly unpopular decisions about how to salvage the economy. Having become one of the most popular politicians in a staggeringly short period of time, he is now going to deliver policies that illicit completely the opposite response to Eat Out to Help Out. There is no painless way out of this. The next few months are going to be testing for the Chancellor to say the least.

Rehman Chishti and Knox Thames: Freedom of religion is under threat. Trans-Atlantic efforts can combat that.

12 Oct

Rehman Chishti is an MP and the former UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on FoRB. Knox Thames served as the US Special Advisor on Religious Minorities at the State Department for both the Obama and Trump administrations.  

The United States and the United Kingdom have worked closely on joint efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) worldwide. It’s a reflection of our shared values, and the partnership presents a unique opportunity for joint action. And the time to act is now.

Religious repression is at all-time highs, with the Pew Forum reporting 84 per cent of the global community lives in countries with high or very high restrictions on faith practices. That’s not to say everyone is persecuted, but that the space for freedom of conscience is shrinking. People of all faiths and worldviews are affected by these trends, which have implications beyond human rights, including international security and the growth of violent religious extremism.

Solving a problem this large requires diverse coalitions. Through our work, we recognised the substantial advantages of partnerships with like-minded governments. Thankfully, there is unprecedented interest in a new trans-Atlantic effort to promote this fundamental freedom.

In the UK, the Truro report, launched the day after Christmas in 2018 by Jeremy Hunt, the then UK Foreign Secretary, specifically examined persecuted Christians. The report found troubling examples of Christian persecution, but noted that other communities also suffer, and recommended Her Majesty’s government do more to assist all persons persecuted for their beliefs. I (Chishti) was tasked with setting the 22 recommendations into policy, getting 17 into place before leaving office.

In the US, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 created a special ambassador at large on the issue and office, as well as required the annual reporting on religious freedom conditions worldwide. During the Trump administration, the State Department convened two ministerial-level summits that elevated the issue and launched a new Alliance to bring together the most committed countries on advancing religious freedom for all.

We both believe that holistically advocating for everyone’s right, as opposed to singularly focused on just one community, is the best approach. We grounded our activities in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of conscience, the right to change faith or have no faith, meet alone or with others for worship, and share one’s religious views. While, of course, we should speak out when individual groups face persecution, we must do so in the context of advocating for the right of religious freedom for all. A balanced approach focused on the right will ensure space for all beliefs.

Why? We’ve seen that it’s the most durable path to guaranteeing the right over the long haul. Environments where every individual is free to seek truth as their conscience leads is one where every community can thrive. In contrast, narrowly focused efforts, such as Christian persecution by Hungary or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s concentration on Muslim persecution, will most likely fall short of their long-term goals. It’s not that Christian and Muslim persecution isn’t happening – it most definitely is, and we must speak out.

But an environment providing freedom of conscience for all will ensure that individual communities can survive in the future. Otherwise, we risk creating religious Bantustans of special exemptions or carve-outs benefiting specific groups.

Working closely with Sam Brownback, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, we instilled this approach into the new International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and its founding charter. Alongside our Dutch and Brazilian counterparts, the UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed, and key civil society experts, we helped build an organisation of 30+ nations from different regional, political, and religious backgrounds. Of course, none of these countries are perfect, but they all agreed to uphold their Article 18 commitments at home and abroad, including contentious issues like conversion and free speech.

Working together with those committed to the same principles can meet the challenges of today. For instance, the Alliance devised new strategies to advocate for all, such as a statement on Covid to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t become a pretext to limit religious freedom. Another vital network we participated in with Canada – the International Contact Group for FoRB – was also grounded in this religious-freedom-for-all approach.

In the face of new challenges and opportunities, progress will depend on North American and European leadership. The challenges facing religious freedom are beyond the capabilities or influence of any one government or organisation. Fortunately, our common understanding creates a platform for coordinated and elevated activity. Now, in addition to the US and UK envoys, others exist in several countries and organisations: Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, EU, the Netherlands, Norway, OSCE, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the United Nations.

The time is right for a more assertive trans-Atlantic approach, but parliamentarians and governments must demonstrate a lasting commitment to the right. Freedom of thought, conscience, and belief isn’t a conservative or liberal value or some sideshow to other issues, but a fundamental human right relevant to people of all faiths and none worldwide. It deserves the full attention of the international community.

Pressing repressive governments toward reform will not be easy or costless. China is playing hardball, with its persecution of UighursTibetansChristians, and the pressuring of countries daring to speak out. Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy law is in overdrive, while India is taking a wrong turn against minorities. Burma’s genocide against the Rohingya grinds on, while Christians in Nigeria suffer from Boko Haram.

In response, networking efforts among like-minded allies can share the burden and multiply the effectiveness of bilateral engagements. For instance, sanctions and other corrective measures like the Magnitsky act, which our countries have implemented, can create political leverage to encourage change. Hopefully, others in Europe will follow. Speaking out on specific cases is another example, such as on Yemen or blasphemy laws. To further elevate, our countries can use our UN Security Council seats to press for reforms. We can share data and train diplomats. All European and North American countries can immediately response to atrocity crimes, including genocide, or establish early warning systems.

More action is desperately needed. Governments must take this human right seriously and incorporate concerns across their policies. People of faith must speak up for persecuted believers (and non-believers) from other communities, to stand in solidarity with the repressed. Religious leaders should tackle this issue head-on, using their pulpits to advocate for soul freedom of all.

Everyone speaking up for everyone, even outside their belief system, is most impactful for the global effort. By working together, as rights-respecting communities on each side of the Atlantic, we can make a difference.

Alexander Stafford: Renewables – not just providers of green energy, but enablers of levelling up

15 Jul

Alexander Stafford is MP for Rother Valley.

In every conversation around the clean recovery there is, rightfully, a tendency of NGOs and commentators to look at how we can take the steps needed to achieve our net zero ambition. Job-rich initiatives such as energy efficiency and EV charging development are particularly alluring. The development of green hydrogen is promoted as strongly for its regional growth benefits as much as its importance for decarbonising heat.

The potential role of renewables in the green recovery is celebrated, but often overlooked. But it is these that are already driving jobs in the North of England and would help with this Government’s “levelling-up agenda”, as well as being the most publicly popular.

The Government has an ambitious target of 40GW of offshore wind by 2030, which will bring over £50 billion of investment into the UK over the next decade. The industry is already transforming ports across the country such as Grimsby, Great Yarmouth and Tyneside, employing thousands in high-wage high-value jobs and supporting our levelling up ambitions.

What’s more, as the cheapest large-scale new power source, the offshore wind that the UK will be building in the coming years, and indeed the onshore wind and solar, will be helping the British economy stay competitive.

Our competitive market framework of Contract of Difference auctions has ensured consumers get the lowest cost renewables, whilst supporting the development of a world-leading supply chain. New companies like Tekmar in Sedgefield have emerged as world-leaders in cables. Traditional oil and gas companies such as James Fisher, headquartered in Barrow-in-Furness, have found new contracts servicing offshore wind farms. However, we could be doing much more to support the development of the UK’s supply chain.

The Prime Minister is looking for infrastructure investment which will unlock future regional growth. The next generation of offshore wind turbines will be almost as tall as the Shard, so it is essential that we re-develop our ports so that they’re able to handle these incredible machines and their component parts.

Similarly, our manifesto rightly saw the opportunity of floating offshore wind, and the Government is looking at the CfD reform needed to develop it. We are well placed to become world leaders, with an established wind industry supply chain, expertise, and great wind resources. There’s the potential to power millions of homes by developing floating offshore wind in the Celtic Sea and deep in the North Sea, but we need to invest in ports like Milford Haven and Nigg to do so – vitally, to maximise the development of the UK supply chain in the process.

We know proactive industrial strategy works in renewables. It was a mixture of market opportunity and Government support that unlocked £310 milliom of private investment in the Siemens Gamesa blade factory in Hull, which now employs over a thousand people, 96 per cent of whom live within a 30 mile radius of the factory.

We need to reignite bilateral conversations with major supply chain companies, and set up a policy environment that better supports the vast number of UK SMEs. Test facilities like the ORE Catapult in Blyth are fantastic in allowing UK innovators to trial new products on wind turbines but, once they’re proven, we will need to ensure the grants, tax relief or financial de-risking schemes are in place which help these innovators to scale-up their businesses.

Increasing our research and development funding to the levels of competitor countries like Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Japan will ultimately ensure UK’s companies are at the forefront of innovation and remain competitive in the global market.

When the global market in offshore wind is set to increase to at least £30 billion a year by 2030, we should be increasing our export ambitions and the support that government gives companies in entering these global markets.

Just as Denmark has an ecosystem of multiple agencies working to boost renewable exports, we too should work across Government. We’re rightly levering our role as COP President and world leadership in offshore wind to encourage countries such as Brazil, Mexico and India to take advantage of their vast wind and seabed resources too. We do so for the future of the world’s climate. But we should also acknowledge that, in doing so, we’re developing markets for our supply chain companies, and departments should act accordingly.

Finally, and most importantly,  the Government shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of also ensuring that people are re-skilled so they can take advantage of the jobs we create through the nurture of our renewables sector. We need to manage the transition.