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

27 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the challenges that confront him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Gauke: Cameron’s values in government may be out of favour, but they are not wrong

13 Apr

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

The Government’s announcement that it is undertaking an independent enquiry of the Greensill Capital affair is unlikely to bring much cheer to David Cameron. He has endured weeks of bad publicity, and there is little chance that the story is imminently going to ‘move on’.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the former Prime Minister’s actions – and he has acknowledged making mistakes – the furore is all the more painful because his reputation as Prime Minister was already at a low ebb. Critics of his economic policy accuse him of inflicting austerity which, they argue, were unnecessary, stunted growth and damaged public services; he is castigated by Remainers for calling and losing the Brexit referendum and by Leavers for being a Remainer; some on both sides accuse him of deserting his post by resigning the morning after the poll; his electoral successes have been surpassed by Boris Johnson’s thumping majority in 2019. Not unrelated to this, neither the man nor his political values appears to have much influence on the modern Conservative Party.

Defending Cameron’s record in office is deeply unfashionable. So I will do so.

Let us start with the economy. There are few defenders of ‘austerity’ in today’s public debate. Labour still want to argue that the electorate got it wrong in 2010 and 2015, just as they tried to do in 2017 and 2019 (which, incidentally, suggests that this might not be a guaranteed route to success). Johnson, meanwhile, is not temperamentally an austerian and enjoys the opportunity to demonstrate that he is new and different from recent Conservative history.

The economic debate has also moved on. Governments have been able to borrow vast sums of money in the last year without much of a risk of a sovereign debt crisis. Central banks have played a more active role, debt servicing costs have fallen and international organisations have advocated expansionary fiscal policies. This may all go wrong at some point – there is more reason to worry about inflation than for many years – but it hasn’t gone wrong yet.

None of this means, however, that the concerns of fiscal conservatives back in 2010 should be dismissed. The global financial crisis had resulted in substantially higher spending and permanent damage to tax revenues. The risks of a sovereign debt crisis – with consequences for inflation, debt interest costs and consumer and business confidence – were not imaginary. The IMF and the OECD advocated that countries needed to have credible plans to put the public finances on a sound footing, and many countries did just that. In short, the balance of risks and the expectations of the markets in the years after 2010 were very different to where we are now.

Did fiscal consolidation significantly hamper our economic recovery? It is true that economic growth in 2011 and 2012 was disappointing (although not as bad as it appeared at the time when the ONS early estimates suggested that we had had a double dip recession), but it is worth remembering that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility put this down to the lasting effects of the banking crisis, higher commodity prices and the Eurozone – not fiscal consolidation.

Looked at in the round, over the 2010-2016 period, the UK had the joint highest growth for a G7 economy, level with the US. It was also a period of rapid jobs growth, with the highest employment rate in our history and income inequality falling. Had the Brexit referendum gone the other way, there is every reason to believe that the post-2016 UK economy would have been characterised by high economic growth, rapidly rising living standards and strong public finances, as opposed to us falling to the bottom of the G7 league table.

Were public services were unduly damaged? Difficult decisions had to be made, but many of them were unavoidable given that the spending plans that we inherited were based on an over-optimistic, pre-crash assessment of what was affordable. It was possible to drive greater efficiencies and find ways of getting more for less. The British state has been placed under enormous strain in the last year by Covid but there have been some real successes. Just looking at two areas where I have some familiarity through Ministerial experience, HMRC was able to introduce the furloughing system in a matter of weeks, and the Department for Work and Pensions was able to cope with an extraordinary surge in benefit claimants. Neither would have been possible without reforms undertaken by the Cameron Government.

Having said all that, we relied too heavily on spending cuts over tax rises. It was politically easier at the time to cut spending rather than raise taxes and, as time went on, we got the balance wrong. Some areas of government spending – justice, for example, or social care – were squeezed too hard. But a period of spending restraint was necessary and inevitable and too many of Cameron’s critics fail to acknowledge that.

It was the decision to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU and then lose it that hangs most heavily over Cameron’s reputation. It will, unfortunately, always be for what he is remembered and, for many Remainers, this will never be forgiven. The referendum result created huge uncertainty and will, in my view, inflict lasting damage to the UK. But we should not kid ourselves that had he adopted a different approach our membership of the EU would currently be assured.

The Conservative Party was moving in the direction of being a Vote Leave Party – in part because of the fear of UKIP peeling off Tory votes – and the decision to offer a referendum was motivated both by a desire to win the 2015 general election by winning back UKIP voters but also by a recognition that a post-Cameron Conservative opposition would, in all likelihood, favour Brexit.

The best chance of staying in the EU, Cameron concluded, was to settle the issue early with a decisive Remain victory – the longer the issue was left, the greater the chance we would leave the EU. As it turned out, he was wrong to believe that he could deliver a Remain victory but he may have been right that this was the best chance of defeating Brexit.

As for the criticism that he should not have resigned following the poll, one lesson of the last five years is that the referendum did not tell us what exactly ‘Leave’ meant. I do not believe it is plausible to think that the European Research Group would have allowed the leader of the Remain campaign to define the answer.

More broadly, much of his political approach has stood the test of time. In wanting more women and ethnic minority MPs, caring about climate change and the environment and introducing equal marriage he took positions that were controversial at the time but have aged well.

Yes, Johnson’s majority in 2019 – and continued strength in the polls – exceeds anything achieved by Cameron, but it is not clear that a political strategy based on white voters without post-16 academic qualifications is the right long-term strategy for an electorate that is becoming more diverse and better educated.

Cameron represented fiscal conservativism, social liberalism and internationalism. These values may be out of favour but they are not wrong. It is too early to say to what extent his personal reputation will – in time – recover but the dismissal of the achievements of his Government is undeserved.

Interview. Therese Coffey – “An element of a kinder politics is not calling other people bigots because you don’t agree with them.”

19 Mar

Thérèse Coffey runs a major front-line department yet is hardly ever seen on our television screens. As Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, she has administered one of the great successes in the official response to the pandemic, the extension of Universal Credit, coping at one point with an extra 100,000 claimants in a single day:

“I always think of that train scene in Wallace and Gromit, the one with the penguin, and Gromit’s on the front of the train laying down the track in front of it, and that’s how it felt like for a little while.”

In this interview she refuses to say there will be any further extension of the £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit, and instead indicates that she wishes to concentrate on promoting the DWP’s various schemes to help people get back into work:

“Big thanks to the Jabs Army, we are the Jobs Army, and I’m keen that you will see more of me, also more of my colleagues like Kwasi Kwarteng and Oliver Dowden.”

Coffey says there hasn’t been “as much interest as I would expect from local government” in the “flagship” Kickstart Scheme for placing young people in jobs.

She also discusses what it is like being a Catholic in politics, says one of her “proudest days” was when she voted against the Assisted Dying Bill, recalls seeing Tony Blair at Mass in Westminster Cathedral, and calls for an end to calling opponents “bigots”:

“People do talk about having a kinder politics. An element of a kinder politics is not calling other people with different views bigots because you don’t agree with them.

“People are bigots for calling other people bigots in a way, if that makes sense.

“It genuinely is about just accepting that other people may have different views to you. We seem to be candidly better at doing that in the Conservative Party than perhaps some of the other political parties.

“Being respectful to each other even if you completely disagree with their perspective or their viewpoints, and just accepting that people can have different views. I think politics could be a lot gentler.”

Coffey, MP since 2010 for Suffolk Coastal, is originally from Liverpool, and explains why the Conservatives have declined in that city. She remains an ardent supporter of Liverpool Football Club and ends by comparing Boris Johnson to Jurgen Klopp: “I’m a great fan of very visible leadership.”

ConHome: “What difference does your background as a scientist, your doctorate in chemistry, make to the way you operate as a politician, indeed as a senior minister? Most of your colleagues have a background in politics, economics, history, law, or, in one prominent case, the classics.”

Coffey: “I think just generally the approach of being pretty data-driven, evidence-based, analytical, good use of statistics, challenging sometimes things which people aren’t familiar with – perhaps I’m more confident, even though I don’t pretend to be a medical scientist or anything like that.

“But the ability to ask good questions is very helpful.”

ConHome: “Do you think there should be more people in the Cabinet who are scientifically literate?”

Coffey: “Well I think everybody has different strengths. You don’t need to be a scientist to be able to have that analytical ability. I’m just conscious that that’s led to a particular way of how sometimes I approach matters.

“I think it also helped, I really value my industrial experience and learning at one of the best companies in the world [Coffey worked for Mars].

“All that sort of experience we each bring as members of the Cabinet, and other people will have other life and work experiences too. So it’s the combination of strengths that help us.”

ConHome: “The uplift in Universal Credit is going to be extended for six months. Isn’t it absolutely inevitable that after that six months is over it’s going to be extended again?

“And if that’s so, why not cut out all the bother and just announce that now?”

Coffey: “I don’t think it is the case that we wanted to make sure, close discussions with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, undoubtedly the response at the time, like a lot of the responses, what could be done quickly and effectively to support people, particularly those who we think were very much impacted by the effects of the pandemic.

“And I do think that we are in a good place, that the economy will be opening up, we have to get confidence back into the economy, back into employers to create jobs, and the investment that’s already gone into DWP and across government more broadly for the Plan for Jobs means that we’re well-placed to encourage and get people taking up those vacancies as quickly as possible.

“This has been a long time now for quite a lot of people being out of work. The furlough has kept that link, and we need to encourage employers to make sure that those people still on furlough are now being prepared to be trained, to be refreshed to get back into their workplace as soon as possible, when conditions allow them to resume their normal activities.”

ConHome: “Do you think there will be a case for an extension at the end of six months? Given the fact that unemployment will be rising.”

Coffey: “Yes I’m conscious about that. And I think that we’ve been clear about the value of this extension. I think that the Chancellor’s always said that we’ll wrap our arms around, but we do believe genuinely in economic terms the large effects of the pandemic will be over, and the investment of people into skills, to get people working again, and that training I think will be important in order to take full advantage of the vacancies that arise.

“So the decision’s been made about the up to six months extension of a variety of schemes, and we’ve got the full six-month extension for people on Universal Credit.”

ConHome: “Can you say more about what your department’s broad plans are for dealing with the unemployment challenge as it will be when lockdown is lifted, particularly for younger people coming into the labour market as they hope, people who lost their jobs immediately before the first lockdown happened.”

Coffey: “Yes, well, already across the country we’ve nearly 27,000 work coaches, we’re not far off now, we’ll have recruited our extra 13,500 by the end of the month.

“And they’re already making interactions with people who’ve been looking for work. We reintroduced Claimant Commitments last year, which is our contract on behalf of the taxpayer with the people receiving benefits.

“People are already taking advantage of more tailored support through a variety of schemes under the Plan for Jobs. So for example probably our flagship scheme is the Kickstart Scheme focussed on young people, and the intention is to have a quarter of a million Kickstart placements by the end of this year.

“And we’ve already approved over 150,000. I don’t know when we’re publishing this information, just over 6,000 young people have now started that role, since November, and we have vacancies, I think there’s over 40,000 vacancies at the moment, which we’re now starting to process with employers and the young people, to get the start.

“I think it’s fair to say that some of the sectors and some of the areas it’s been challenging for them to get the start dates agreed, because they just want to make sure it’s in line with when their sectors can open up.

“But I’m also looking into the fact, I had hoped that more councils would take up the offer of programmes like that. We haven’t had as much interest as I would expect from local government and very few people have started in local government, so that’ll be an area of emphasis.

“But it’s not just about the young people. We’ve got schemes called SWAPs, sector work-based academy programmes, where there are vacancies, employers set these schemes up with us, they get some training, they get some work experience, and they get a guaranteed job interview.

“And that’s often important for people whose sectors aren’t particularly recovering in the way we would like, and we are focussing on some of the growth sectors, or sectors where there are well-known vacancies.

“So that can be a mixture of different levels, including health and social care. We’ve got some other opportunities. There’s something called JETs. This is where people have been unemployed for a while and they get more specialist support.

And indeed something called JFS, Job Finding Support, it’s very light touch, because quite a lot of the people who’ve turned to us for help are people who haven’t had to look for a job for the last 20, 25 years, may not have a LinkedIn profile, may not have their CV quite up to date, and some of that probably just needs some finessing, and an element of confidence and interview practice.

“So we’re trying a whole series of ways in order to get people back into the habit of this, getting them ready, and then steering them, as part of their Claimant Commitment, towards jobs that are available. And we need people to keep going for those vacancies.”

ConHome: “Were you as baffled as we were that you weren’t tasked with fronting any of the daily Government press conferences over the last year?”

Coffey: “Well it’s kind of you to say that. I think the way the process worked was largely if there were announcements to be made in particular areas, and then you had some of my other colleagues, like the First Secretary of State, or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, running the Cabinet Office, who would actually have a broader remit I suppose to make announcements on behalf of the Government.

“So I think that, I’ll be open with you, I’m quite happy to, we’ve got this enormous jobs army, as I call us now, at DWP, we’re growing to nearly 100,000 people, and you know we have the most connections with communities right around the country.

“We’re increasing the number of Job Centres by 200, so we’ll have well over 800 Job Centres. So we have enough to do, to actually deliver the day to day services that we need.

“And who knows in the future. We’ve got the press briefing starting, but the shift of the Government away hopefully from Covid and actually onto the jobs recovery.

“So big thanks to the Jabs Army, we are the Jobs Army, and I’m keen that you will see more of me, also more of my colleagues like Kwasi Kwarteng and Oliver Dowden, as we really push and bang the drum alongside the Chancellor and the Prime Minister for job creation.”

ConHome: “Last year has been full of Government successes, and frankly some Government failures. But one of the big successes has been Universal Credit.

“It’s stood up. It didn’t fall over. If it hadn’t been there, goodness knows what would have been done in terms of support. Why was it you weren’t allowed out at a press conference to talk about this?”

Coffey: “Well I think quite a lot of Government, quite rightly, citizens expect it to work. And I’m conscious that perhaps colleagues and dare I say it the commentariat might have been surprised that UC didn’t fall over.

“It took a lot of effort. I’m really proud of what our civil servants did. I have to say there was a particular day when over 100,000 claims were made and we had some really intensive work undertaken to increase the capacity of our IT, our servers.

“I always think of that train scene in Wallace and Gromit, the one with the penguin, and Gromit’s on the front of the train laying down the track in front of it, and that’s how it felt like for a little while.

“But we did cope, we did manage, we made some effective decisions, and we worked together very well, and how can I put it, it was a great success story in a way, that DWP was not in the news for it falling over.

“We’re happy to be the unsung heroes, but it’s nice to get some praise as well, and we’ve certainly been given that by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister in the last year.”

ConHome: “The manifesto commitment on the Winter Fuel Payment and the older person’s bus pass, that’s all very clear, but those payments have aroused controversy recently. Can you rule out the possibility of the age at which they’re received being raised?”

Coffey: “I haven’t been involved in any policy discussion about that. It’s not on the agenda, as far as I know.”

ConHome: “Do you think you were right, in retrospect, to vote both in 2013 and in 2019 against same-sex marriage?”

Coffey: “Well I’m a practising Catholic, we have a diversity of people and their views in Parliament, and think it’s fair to say, I’m a great believer in democracy, I’ve not sought to try and block anything further.

“But I will say the thing about the 2019 [vote], which is the Northern Ireland situation, I felt that was a devolved matter, to be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“As did I think you’ll find some other people who voted against that at the time, who actually support same-sex marriage, but respect devolution. I didn’t agree with the situation that forced that through, but again, I’m a democrat. The vote went through and it’s now been delivered.”

ConHome: “You’re part of the quite sizeable tribe of Tory politicians from Liverpool who don’t sit for Liverpool. Why do you think the Conservatives have basically been driven out as an electoral force, not only of Liverpool now, but the whole of Merseyside pretty much, with one exception.”

Coffey: “As you say, Southport was there, and we came close in Wirral West to regaining that in 2019. I wasn’t born there, but I grew up there, I was in a place called Formby from about six months old and then proper Liverpool if you like from the age of six, to the point that I actually had a Conservative Member of Parliament when I lived there, for a while.”

ConHome: “Who was that?”

Coffey: “I’m trying to think. Malcolm Thornton it was at one point. I know he then moved constituency to Crosby, but I don’t have entire recollection of that time.

“I think that what happened, especially when Militant took over, that’s when I got interested in politics, or I realised politics mattered, I think with the rule of Militant about 20 per cent of the population actually just left Liverpool.

“And I’m conscious that some of the economic impact there was pretty tough on the city. The issues that had happened earlier in that decade with the riots and so on.

“Candidly, other bits of the North West, like Manchester, instead of having a row with the Government, just got on with it and did better economically.

“There are several of us, as you say, from Liverpool who’ve ended up in other parts of the country. I didn’t go back after university, I got a job elsewhere in the country.

“But I’m still very fond of what I consider to be my home city, and very keen to try to make sure it does prosper, which is one of the reasons why earlier this week I was doing a fundraiser with Gillian Keegan for Jade Marsden, our candidate for the LIverpool City Region.”

ConHome: “Where are we on the Government review of women’s pensions?”

Coffey: “Well the Government’s policy has been consistent on women’s pensions. We won our latest court session, to keep the fact that we wanted to have the age of pensioners to be the same, whether a man or woman.

“However, we’re awaiting a legal process. A further appeal was made by others and we’re waiting to hear if the Supreme Court is going to take it on.”

ConHome: “Do you feel it’s tougher in any way for Catholics in politics than it was? Some Catholics say so though others disagree.”

Coffey: “I don’t know because I’ve only had ten years of experience. Probably the famous one was Alastair Campbell saying ‘we don’t do God’.

“Before I was an MP I actually remember, I think it’s the only time I’d seen Tony Blair in the flesh, I was at Mass at Westminster Cathedral and all of a sudden he appeared with his daughter, and it was quite amusing, at the shake of the hands of peace there were people clambering over the pews to shake his hand.”

ConHome: “That must have been before the Iraq War.”

Coffey: “I can’t remember when, but it can be a difficult balancing act, I appreciate that. And sometimes people of faith just have different views on certain matters.

“I’m a great believer in live and let live, and not condemning other people for choices they make or for approaches they take. I have very different views to some of my friends say on assisted suicide.

“That day, 11th September 2015, is one of the proudest days in my time as an MP, to stop that Second Reading [of the Assisted Dying Bill].

“And I’ve got friends who completely disagree with me, and that’s OK.

“People do talk about having a kinder politics. An element of a kinder politics is not calling other people with different views bigots because you don’t agree with them.

“People are bigots for calling other people bigots in a way, if that makes sense.

“It genuinely is about just accepting that other people may have different views to you. We seem to be candidly better at doing that in the Conservative Party than perhaps some of the other political parties.

“Being respectful to each other even if you completely disagree with their perspective or their viewpoints, and just accepting that people can have different views. I think politics could be a lot gentler in that way.

“How I explain it sometimes to members of the public or indeed schoolchildren is that in the Chamber, you tend to only discuss largely the things where you disagree.

“Frankly on most things, all the parties probably agree on about 70 per cent of matters.”

ConHome: “Do you have any advice for Jurgen Klopp? You’re a Liverpool supporter we believe.”

Coffey: “I’m a huge supporter of Liverpool Football Club. Clearly the impact of injuries on defenders, particularly Virgil van Diyk, has knocked confidence.

“But it’s about having self-belief, and recognising it’s only one match at a time. That’s all it takes, and I’m a great fan of Jurgen Klopp, and his enthusiasm, his visible leadership, and I’m a great fan of very visible leadership.

“And we’ve got that in bucket loads in Liverpool, and we’ve got it in bucket loads in our Prime Minister Boris Johnson as well.”

ConHome: “The Jurgen Klopp of politics.”

Coffey: “Well, you know, it’s the style that I really like.”

Frank Young: Educational Long Covid. Why the collapse of schooling over lockdown will haunt the poor for years to come.

3 Nov

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice

If the Marcus Rashford affair has taught us anything, it is that the Government is in urgent need of a poverty strategy to plug the hole in thinking when emergency measures come in.

Until recently, being Education Secretary was the Cabinet job everyone wanted, and for good reason. Number crunchers at the Department for Work & Pensions worked out some years ago that, for a poor child, failing at school was the number one predictor of staying poor in adult life. It’s as simple as that.

Well before state schools were closed down last spring (with private schools moving almost entirely online), the so-called educational attainment gap persisted as an annual reminder of this particular pathway into future poverty. Disadvantaged pupils are particularly prone to low levels of literacy and numeracy – and this in turn leads to low pay, insecure jobs and unemployment.

If we really want to ‘build back better’ when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, we will need to tackle educational inequalities of outcome, in much the same way that we need to build houses.

More than half a billion school days have been missed since March, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds having less contact with their teachers and less work marked than wealthier children. In the first month of lockdown, private school children were twice as likely to take part in daily online lessons as those in state school.

The full impact of school closures on children’s outcomes is not yet known, but the closures are likely to have worsened the attainment gap. The exam fiasco over the summer will have further disrupted education for children at a critical time in their studies. This is a form educational Long Covid that will have an impact on already disadvantaged lives for many years to come.

We seemed to have stopped talking about the ‘root causes’ of disadvantage as we chase our tail to lockdown, bail out and subsidise our way out of the pandemic. Any poverty strategy will need to take a long hard look at where the educational disadvantage starts – and that is in the home. Between the ages of four to 16, a typical British child will spend only 15 per cent of their time at school. Damian Hinds got this when he described family life as the last educational “taboo”.

Home environments marked by multiple transitions, disrupted attachment to a parent and frequent conflict increase the likelihood of children displaying externalising behaviour problems, leading to poor engagement and attainment at school.

The experience of lockdown has only increased made the situation worse. In response to the escalating education crisis, we spend £26 on catch-up schemes for every £1 we spend on reducing conflict within families. That’s an argument for increasing the £1 – not decreasing the £26 that is desperately needed.

Our nursery sector is teetering on the brink following an extended, enforced shutdown. It is too soon to tell how many will shut their doors, unable to make running a nursery work but as ever this will hit the poorest hardest. At just 3 years old, disadvantaged children are almost 1.5 years behind their more affluent peers in their early language development.

Once attainment gaps arise, they are hard to close. Children who attend high-quality settings for two to three years are almost eight months ahead of children who attend none. This is exactly where we need to focus a renewed push to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

Schools are receptacles of disadvantage – whether it is a dysfunctional home life or a terrible start in life. We can now predict longer term educational underperformance from the earliest days: when Frank Field looked at this issue he found more than half of children in the bottom 20 per cent of attainment in school at school will remain at the bottom when they take their GCSEs.

As Robert Halfon has said on this website, we need a poverty strategy. The money set aside for catch-up should be rolled into the next spending review to give schools a permanent pot for focused, back-to-basics tuition in literacy and numeracy.

Small is beautiful when it comes to catch up – and we can lock this into our efforts to rebuild from the pandemic. Teachers make the difference, and getting the best teachers into schools with disadvantaged catchments should be a big priority. High-quality teaching is particularly transformative for disadvantaged pupils. Over a school year, these pupils get 1.5 years’ worth of learning with high-quality teachers; they lose half a year’s learning when taught by poorly performing teachers.

Don’t overlook family support, hidden away in the Department for Work & Pensions. The Reducing Parental Conflict programme now has three years of evidence based interventions to stabilise family life. It is much an education issue as it is a poverty issue for the department doleing out welfare payments. We need action now to tackle children going without – but we also need a plan that tackles disadvantage early on.

Andy Street: Our experience in the West Midlands shows how skills drive economic success

7 Oct

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Covid-19 has hit the West Midlands hard. Livelihoods and life chances have been impacted by a pandemic that stopped our economy in its tracks – but we are determined to do what we can locally to get people back into work. Improving the skills of our people will be vital if we are to fill the new jobs we create.

The Conservatives have always been the party of opportunity – encouraging ambition and social mobility. We must return to that guiding principle and drive a revolution in skills and training to rebuild our economy.

I was encouraged last week when the Prime Minister put skills front and centre of the Government’s agenda, with a commitment to provide free courses for those without A-level or equivalent qualification. This commitment came alongside a package of other measures, including expanding the “digital bootcamp” concept pioneered here.

In the West Midlands, we know how improving skills can help build a strong economy. Before the pandemic struck, our economy was growing faster than any other part of the UK other than London. We had record jobs numbers and were setting records for housebuilding and productivity.

A significant part of this economic success was down to improving skill levels. Much work has been done to turn around a skills gap that, in 2007, branded us the worst qualified UK region. Back then, a fifth of young people here left school with no qualifications at all.

When I became Mayor of the West Midlands, this was an unacceptable situation I was determined to put right. As the work of the Social Mobility Commission has shown, an individual’s skills determine their long-term social mobility. What’s more, poor skill levels can lock families into disadvantage for generations. As someone who grew up here, this issue gnawed at me. I have tried to provide business-like leadership to tackle the problem head-on and deliver real results.

Our seven member boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton have worked together to address the skills issues we faced. While we still face challenges, the improvement has been marked.

By last year, more than 50 per cent of local people were qualified at level three. In the Black Country, where the gap had been the most pronounced, more residents are now educated to degree level or above than ever before. The percentage of people with no qualification continues to reduce.

As we work to create new opportunities and jobs in the wake of the pandemic, the UK must take a similar approach. Because as the economy resets, those new jobs will emerge – and they will often have new requirements in terms of skills.

Our digital bootcamp, now backed by a further £1.5 million of funding, provides twenty-first century skills for thousands of people. Launched in September, the free to all ‘School of Code’ bootcamp is full-time and takes a learner from novice to software developer in just 16 weeks – before helping them find their first role in tech.

In a similar way, we are determined to ensure local people have the skills to benefit from jobs created by major investments like HS2 and the Commonwealth Games. We have set up our “Construction Gateway” which is training people to build the transport infrastructure and homes needed for our region’s future. The Gateway provides recognised qualifications and work experience to join the construction workforce as we Build Back Better.

One of the most notable successes of the West Midlands’ skills resurgence has been apprenticeships. Here, we use unspent apprenticeship levy from big businesses like HSBC, Lloyds Bank and Enterprise Car Hire to fund apprentices at smaller businesses. This unique arrangement means instead of unspent levy disappearing back to London it stays in the West Midlands, growing businesses and helping them ‘skill up’ local people.

Young people are among the hardest hit by the economic effects of Covid-19, which is why we are also launching six youth hubs, working with the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions to link employment and training services to make sure they target young people. In just a few weeks, the first job placements for 16 to 24 year olds under the Kickstart Scheme are likely to begin. Kickstart, and our hubs, can provide direct and tangible help, providing work and teaching skills.

Of course, to deliver these skills, we need a properly equipped higher and further education sector. While our colleges have been backed by guaranteed funding throughout the pandemic, we have also pressed ahead with developments like the Institute of Technology in Dudley and Wolverhampton’s National Brownfield Institute.

Funding of almost £12 million will start to rejuvenate our existing college buildings too – but this represents only the first down payment of the five-year £1.5 billion capital investment announced by Gavin Williamson in March. I will be lobbying to ensure the West Midlands gets its share of this vital funding.

While our colleges work brilliantly together – and have been at their responsive best throughout the pandemic – the West Midlands is also lucky to have a remarkable higher education sector. Behind almost every economic success story lies one of our universities, which lead the way in all kinds of emerging sectors, from electric vehicles to life sciences. They will play their part too.

And, as we invest in the bricks and mortar of training and education, we are also embracing the lessons of lockdown – and the growing importance of online learning. We’ve teamed up with provider Coursera to offer 3,800 online courses, offering top class skills and qualifications to anyone who is unemployed, recently made redundant or furloughed.

The West Midlands Combined Authority has owned the devolved Adult Education Budget, ensuring every pound delivers more qualifications that employers actually want. Now we need to see more of these funds devolved. We have shown what we can do.

These are just some of the ideas that helped turn the West Midlands from the worst qualified area in the UK to the nation’s fastest-growing regional economy. When I was 18, this was a place that talented young adults often felt they needed to leave to realise their potential. Now, well qualified individuals want to move here. We are proof that better skills drive economic success.

Our focus, right now, must be on driving down the infection rate to defeat Covid-19. But as we plot our economic recovery, we must show we are the party of opportunity, and provide people with the skills needed to rebuild our economic fortunes.

Richard Walton: The Government must act to prevent Coronavirus fraud

12 Jul

Richard Walton is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a former Head of Counter-Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police.

In normal times, the NHS loses £1.27 billion a year to fraud, which is the equivalent of fulfilling the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledge of employing an additional 50,000 nurses. New research by Policy Exchange in a paper entitled Daylight Robbery – Uncovering the true cost of public sector fraud in the age of COVID-19 has found that fraud and error during the Coronavirus crisis will cost the Government an eye-watering sum about three and half times that – in the region of £4.6 billion.

Fraud is only exacerbated in a crisis, such as the pandemic we are facing now. It has been well documented that disasters are a magnet for fraud, as crisis management involves an outpouring of government aid, typically accompanied by low levels of due diligence to allow funds to reach recipients quickly.

In a foreword to the report, David Blunkett warns that criminals will use the Covid-19 crisis to “dip below the radar in order to be able to take advantage of unusual and unforeseen circumstances, and bank on attention and resources being focused elsewhere”.

Detecting and preventing fraud is a key element of sound public finances, and should therefore be a priority for this Government. It is not reasonable to expect the public to hand over a share of their income month after month if it’s not responsibly managed. Considering the pressure that will emerge after the Coronavirus crisis to keep costs down, reducing fraud will be one of the most equitable and achievable options available and will help the Government to achieve other objectives, such as levelling up the UK economy.

Unlike Covid-19, there is a dangerous perception that fraud does not have much impact on victims. There is a particular tendency to see public sector fraud – fraud committed against the government – as a crime that doesn’t affect ordinary people.

This is wrong. It affects the future of children when income tax is diverted from their education and is funnelled towards organised crime networks. It affects the most vulnerable in our society when they have to wait longer to receive benefits, because the Department of Work and Pensions is busy filtering through the almost one in five Universal Credit applications that are fraudulent.  It can even result in substandard treatments from an NHS doctor who lied about his qualifications on his CV. The Government believes that fraud and error cost the taxpayer anywhere between £2.8 billion and £22.6 billion in 2017-18 alone. This level of fraud is damaging to the fabric of society and cannot be allowed to continue.

While the Chancellor’s rapid action to save the economy has been a welcome necessity, the generosity and speed with which support schemes were introduced has left them open to exploitation by fraudsters. Furthermore, the increased use of third parties and digital channels have raised the opportunities for fraudsters to infiltrate the system.

For example, the speed with which Bounce Back Loans are approved (82 per cent of loans approved compared to 50 per cent for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme), and the potential to make multiple applications poses a particular fraud risk, which is compounded by the poor quality of Companies House data.

When face-to-face assessments for Universal Credit (UC) were suspended in July 2018, there was an almost 15,000 jump in the number of monthly referrals of suspected advances fraud over the course of the following year, costing up to £150 million. We can therefore expect the decision to suspend face-to-face assessments again due to Covid-19 to have a similar effect.

The Government has implemented a range of measures to try and tackle this, with the Cabinet Office forming a Covid-19 Counter Fraud Response Team and the NHS Counter Fraud Authority, the Home Office and the National Cyber Security Centre offering advice.

Nevertheless, over the course of the Coronavirus crisis, HMRC has already received 1,800 reports of furlough fraud and the NHS has been subject to numerous PPE scams. Last week, the HMRC Fraud investigation team arrested an individual in the Solihull area as part of an investigation into a suspected £495,000 fraud of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

The issue of tackling fraud is compounded by the difficulty of detecting it, and the complex nature of recording and reporting it. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, almost two thirds of fraud goes unreported, and the Government believes that it is currently detecting less than two per cent of public sector fraud. The services available to report fraud are linked to a complex web of organisations, which must be streamlined to become more effective. Even when fraud is eventually detected, it is underreported as unwittingly complicit employees fear the stigma around fraud, while government departments are wary of the negative media attention it attracts.

Fighting fraud effectively is expensive, but it is imperative that the Government continues to invest in this field, regardless of other fiscal pressures. It will be essential that the Government conducts thorough post event assurance in the wake of this crisis, a process that should be overseen by a new ‘Covid-19 Economic Crime Hub’, run by the National Economic Crime Centre, with a Minister for Economic Crime appointed and accountable for the outcomes.

According to Sajid Javid, who also backed the report, “now is a good time to join up counter fraud measures to keep it to an absolute minimum”. Technology will play a critical role in enabling investigators to operate at a sufficient scale and the Government must make use of the latest innovations in anti-fraud technologies, while ensuring the Covid-19 Economic Crime Hub has access to cross-government data.

Looking beyond the pandemic, it will be vital that the Government learns the lessons from this crisis, which has exposed weaknesses in the UK’s digital infrastructure. In particular, the limitations of public sector identity assurance systems has enabled fraud at a larger scale than necessary.

The Government should therefore accelerate the creation of digital identity solutions, such as the Departmet of Work and Pensions Confirm My Identity scheme. Furthermore, the use of AI and Document Review Technologies, which are the most promising counter-fraud measures available, should be encouraged. In one Serious Fraud Office case, these saved 80 per cent of the costs and time required for an investigation, which settled for £671 million.

However, these programmes rely on high-quality data to operate effectively and their success will also be dependent on improved public and private sector data-sharing practices. The constantly evolving nature of fraud will require continuous investment and commitment from the Government to fighting it.

Chris Greany, a former UK National Police Coordinator for Counter Fraud & Economic Crime described to Policy Exchange the scale of the challenge of public sector fraud as needing a joined up effort with “real bite”  to “recoup lost funds, prevent further crime and deter others from this unlawful and immoral behaviour”. The Government will need to act quickly to prevent fraud scandals emerging from the embers of the Coronavirus crisis.