WATCH: “The central assessment” suggested “it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year”, Raab tells the Foreign Affairs Select Committee

1 Sep

James Frayne: Polls suggest the Government will not face a backlash for the principal of withdrawal in Afghanistan

31 Aug

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

How will the disorganised exit from Afghanistan affect the reputation of the British Government?

Coverage in the media has rightly focused primarily on President Biden’s role – given the US is by far the biggest foreign player in Afghanistan – but the British Government – and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, particularly – have faced harsh scrutiny. What should we expect to follow politically?

Three interesting polls suggest the most fundamental answers. The first comes from YouGov in 2017, which asked the British public whether they thought it was right or wrong for Britain to have become involved in various wars and global conflicts since the Second World War.

While large majorities supported Britain declaring war on Germany in 1939 and engaging Argentina in 1982, significantly more opposed than supported British engagement in Afghanistan (43-25 opposed, with the rest saying “don’t know”). In addition, more people opposed than supported engagement in Libya (44-19), Iraq in 2003 (55-18) and Iraq in 1991 (35-30).

The second also comes from YouGov, a few weeks ago, which asked people about whether Britain should accept asylum seekers from Afghanistan – and also, crucially, whether Britain had a “moral duty” to accept those asylum seekers.

While the first question showed a majority support accepting Afghan refugees (52-29), perhaps surprisingly a majority could not be found to support the contention that Britain had a moral duty to accept refugees (48-36 agreed).

Third, another YouGov poll, from 2014 when Britain began scaling back operations in Helmand, which showed how the public had grown utterly weary of our engagement in Afghanistan several years ago.

They supported the withdrawal of troops from Helmand by a massive 83-5; they thought our whole engagement had not been worthwhile by 56-25; they doubted the Afghan security forces could maintain security by 67-13; and they thought the Taliban would return to power by 65-15.

These polls suggest a number of big things. First, and most importantly, that the Government will not face a backlash for the principal of withdrawal because people didn’t want troops to be there (or in the Middle East) in the first place. In fact, the public are generally sceptical about foreign intervention against states generally (as opposed to terrorist groups, which they tend to support).

Second, they show there’s a limit to the “mess” they think Britain specifically is responsible for (if people simultaneously think we should accept asylum seekers but don’t particularly consider it to be our moral duty).

Third, they show the public have long considered Afghanistan to have been a failure and that they long expected a return to the status quo ante.

While political and foreign policy commentators dwell on whether British and American withdrawal will make people think Afghanistan was a tragic waste of lives, or that it will make people question whether politicians can make the case for foreign intervention again, the truth is the public have already made up their mind on these – and did so long ago.

The deep sympathy the public feel for British troops and the sacrifices they made, the anger they feel on their behalf, as well as their general disappointment with how Afghanistan turned out, made themselves felt in the polls several years ago when other Prime Ministers were in power.

While the public are looking on at the Taliban’s advance with horror and sadness – with sympathy for Afghan civilians – they expected it and they doubt there is much that we can do, beyond extending a home for a small number of Afghans (along with other countries around the world).

This Government is therefore unlikely to be affected by those big, existential questions being played out in politics and the media. For this Government, its greatest vulnerabilities are around important but relatively narrow questions over whether it handled the logistics of withdrawal in the right way.

Did it act swiftly, competently and with good judgement as it helped British civilians, diplomats and Armed Forces out of the country – as well as those Afghans directly associated with the British and American operations in the country since 2001? (The questions in whether the Government is providing the right level of asylum support will emerge later).

In short, these are mostly questions of judgement and competence – although, certainly regarding the treatment of Afghans who directly helped Britain, there are also questions of fairness and decency.

It seems very likely that there will be enough horror stories of slow and poor decision-making from various Government Departments and agencies that the Government will take some blame. These stories will come out over the course of the next few weeks.

While unnamed Government sources are seeking to apportion blame to particular politicians (Raab, most obviously), the public don’t and won’t think along these lines; within reason, they think of the Government as an entity, rather than as being devolved in any meaningful way.

This means there’s a limit to what “damage control” the Government can do by throwing particular politicians and officials under a bus. It will all land at the door of the PM where public opinion is concerned.

Will there be enough stories, cumulatively, to provoke a general backlash against this Government at last? Time will tell (I have no idea what’s coming out) but I doubt it. Hard as it is for many commentators to understand or believe, for most of its supporters, this Government has a lot of credit in the bank on questions of judgement and competence.

In a world where politicians are seen endlessly to over-promise and under-deliver, this Government has delivered on two massive promises: to “get Brexit done” and to introduce new controls over immigration.

It has also delivered a world-class vaccination programme. These aren’t small things. Most of this Government’s supporters will not therefore be saying – as opponents will – “there they go again”. This again puts a limit on the negative effects the Government will see.

But competence is a strange question. Beyond extreme incidents that directly affect the lives of ordinary people – like the final days of our time in the ERM, when interest rates were raised, crippling many – most errors, even big ones, just gently chip away at a Government’s reputation.

This is not to suggest that competence isn’t a big deal – on the contrary, it’s vital, and I suspect it’ll be ultimately competence that does it in the end for this Government – but rather that it can take a surprising amount to lose it. We’re not there yet; Afghanistan won’t do it.

Philip Mitchell and Chris Goddard: 2020 was a reality check on China. Trade offers opportunities for the UK to assert its values.

15 Feb

Chris Goddard and Philip Mitchell are both members of Lewes Conservative Political Forum.

2020 provided a reality check in relation to China: no longer was it enough to promise, as the Cameron and May administrations had done, that Britain was “open for business” and that unpleasant features of Chinese nationalism could be overlooked because of trade. The scaling back of Huawei technology by Johnson provided a foretaste of a harder-edged response to growing Chinese influence throughout the world coupled with a realisation that, while trade normalises relations, it does not cure aggression or safeguard human rights.

Three events in particular have bought that reality into sharp focus. First, the introduction of the Hong Kong security law as an excuse to snuff out the remnants of democracy in that beleaguered territory has made plain that China regards any interference in its “internal affairs” as illegitimate and indeed worthy of denunciation – so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy”.

Second, as Nus Ghani has recently pointed out in these pages, there is increasing evidence that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity in its repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, prompting the US already to take punitive action in the form of its Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act.

The UK’s response has so far been limited to outbursts of righteous indignation from the Foreign Secretary. Ghani has (unsuccessfully) proposed that the current Trade Bill includes a provision whereby trade with nations can be restrained by the courts if genocide is adjudged to have taken place.

Third we have the widely reported news that Ofcom has revoked the broadcasting licence of the CGTN – the overseas division of Chinese Central Television – on the grounds that, contrary to the conditions of its licence, CGTN is not an independent entity but is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and echoes its political line (for instance on Hong Kong).

It’s ironical that this move emanates from a mere regulatory body rather than any grave political decision, and yet it is likely to cause the most damage in future relations. This is because China does not recognise that administrators can act independently of governments and a political motive is automatically attributed.

A crucial dilemma has thus arisen for UK policy makers: is it right to call out China for its alleged abuses, being prepared to countenance a period of diplomatic deep freeze of a sort currently existing with Putin’s Russia? Or do we have to accept that the Chinese are likely to respond actively to what they see as hostility, and likely damage the substantial trading relationship which the two countries currently enjoy?

Trade and Environment

As for UK-China trade, the UK imports £49 billion worth of Chinese goods while China imports from the UK £31 billion. While this is a substantial figure and the imbalance does not seem outrageous, it should be remembered that the population difference between the two countries means that the UK per capita amount is approximately £1,500 while for China it is only £25.

Ordinary consumers are not necessarily aware of this – and perhaps they don’t care – as although packaging will show the country of origin, there is no such requirement with online sales. At a time when the UK is urgently looking to improve its trading relationships with countries beyond the EU, is it sensible to risk this massive trade?

Also, if Britain is serious about net zero emissions, it must export pollution to manufacturing countries such as China to reach its targets. The choice is either to abandon those targets, unpalatable with COP26 imminent, or accept ever greater overseas dependence.

Recent Assertiveness

China has always needed overseas trade to sustain its double-digit annual growth but counterparties have become wary of sharp practices, such as appropriation of intellectual property and distortion of markets by selling at uneconomic prices. A current example is the sale unto the UK of MG electric cars. China now owns this former British brand and offers attractive models at prices with which other manufacturers could not reasonably compete.

Not only has it financed many infrastructure projects in developing counties with grants or loans at attractive rates, but China has increased its influence in organisations such as the UN and the WHO by agreeing to fund projects which increase its profile or directly benefit its Belt and Road programme .

This assertiveness has become increasingly political. The example of Hong Kong has already been given, for which the suppression of freedom in Tibet is the now-forgotten forerunner. Displays of military might in the South China Sea are of concern to its immediate neighbours. Australia and China are at serious loggerheads over various issues, with China openly faking pictures of Australian soldiers harming children in order to punish Canberra over trade embargo threats. There is no subtlety in its recent diplomacy.

Action Together

China is a proud country and is replacing Russia as a superpower. No country including the UK can afford to treat it as a pariah state. Yet the continuance of trade offers opportunities for criticism and negotiation provided the West stands together to call out abuses. With its economy faltering, the CCP will arguably not want to fight on too many fronts. While the UN, WHO and WTO are unlikely to be effective vehicles for moderation, the UK can utilise its post-Brexit freedoms and bilateral trade alliances to provide support to countries who want to stand up to Beijing. What it cannot do is act alone, a paper tiger in a post-Imperial world.

Benedict Rogers: The Government urgently needs an integration plan for those fleeing oppression in Hong Kong

27 Jan

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer and a former parliamentary candidate. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). 

On July 1 last year, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, announced one of the most courageous, generous and heroic expansions of immigration policy in post-Second World War history. With the backing of the Prime Minister and the leadership of the Home Secretary, both of whom deserve credit, he unveiled an offer to millions of Hong Kongers in their hour of need, telling them they could come to Britain, live, study and work here and be on a pathway to citizenship and security.

At the end of this month, in just a few days’ time, that offer becomes a reality. Covid-19 restrictions on our borders, quarantine and flightpaths may delay the flow, but without doubt a large number of Hong Kongers will take up the offer just as soon as they can. The expansion of the British National Overseas (BNO) passport right means that over five million Hong Kongers – those born before 1997 and their dependents – are eligible to come to the United Kingdom, to live here, buy or rent property here, find a job here and be on a “pathway to citizenship” that will enable them to settle here.

In the Home Office’s own terms, it’s a hybrid scheme – part humanitarian rescue, part migration. Those who qualify for BNO are not coming as refugees, but migrants and future British citizens. But some – those born after 1997, who include the most vulnerable young protesters in grave danger of political prosecution – are already coming to Britain too, in search of urgent sanctuary. We must be ready to support them.

The Government’s offer is generous and bold but for the potential of the scheme to be realised, we must now prioritise integration.

When thousands of Hong Kongers arrive at Heathrow and are waved through under the new scheme, what happens next? What preparations are in place for quarantine, how to help them find housing, jobs, schools for their kids, access to a GP? They have no recourse to public funds under the terms of the offer, but there is a need for a welcome pack and an integration plan.

A common misperception prevails that Hong Kongers are all wealthy, super-educated, entrepreneurial and speak great English: so no problem. I lived in Hong Kong for five years and have worked with Hong Kongers for almost 25 years, and I can tell you: most are dynamic, many are entrepreneurial, a good number are educated, but not all speak good English, some don’t have wealth and a few are very vulnerable. Helping them get up on their feet will not be onerous on the taxpayer, and the millions of pounds in capital which may arrive with them will doubtless be a boon, but those who choose to flee oppression in Hong Kong deserve a warm welcome and signposts to help them start their new lives.

We need a plan – from government and civil society. That’s why this week over ten civil society groups have signed a letter to Penny Mordaunt, the Paymaster General, who is coordinating the Government’s response, to call for one to be put in place.

This should draw on the extensive experience that civil society, churches, communities, families and individuals have of welcoming people to the UK: a society where people from around the world have found they can flourish. But government – in Whitehall and at local authority level – need a plan, and some resources, in place.

There should be an information hub for Hong Kongers when they arrive – for the immediate pandemic-related question of where they go for quarantine, and then the short-term question of what arrangements can be made for accommodation.

Then Government and civil society should work together to ensure that Hong Kongers are welcomed, and receive the advice they need to settle in – to find a doctor, a school, a job, a community and opportunities.

Given the chance, Hong Kongers will be a net gain for Britain’s economy and society. As a generalisation and in the long-run, they will be people with a “get up and go” spirit who will start businesses, create jobs and contribute to our professions. They will be doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants and teachers who will bring talent to our public sector, or small business people who will begin enterprises that will bring dynamism to our economy.

To those in Britain who fear that a migration influx will “steal” jobs, I say that on the contrary they will create them. Some might even be recruited to our foreign and defence apparatus to bring linguistic and intelligence expertise to enhance our national security. The idea of a “charter city” for Hong Kongers, perhaps in the north of England, advanced by Lord Skildelsky, Lord Alton and others, could be further explored. All in all, it’s a moral and humanitarian policy that will result in a net gain for Britain. But only if done well because if implemented poorly – or with no planning at all – it could foster resentment and even Sinophobia.

Whitehall, local government, civil society and communities all have a part to play in welcoming Hong Kongers to Britain. That needs a plan, co-ordination and resources. Mordaunt must call an emergency cross-departmental ministerial meeting immediately, to put a plan in place to ensure that an historic offer doesn’t become an historic disaster.

Luke de Pulford: The UK has failed to stand up to China – and Raab must ensure that it does

7 Jan

Luke de Pulford is Coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and sits on the Conservative party Human Rights Commission.

I like Dominic Raab – really, I do. In 18 months as Foreign Secretary he has delivered more legacy defining policies than most. A sanctions regime to punish human rights abusers. A generous immigration scheme for Hong Kongers. There’s a lot to admire, especially when you consider these policies had to be smashed through the famously resistant blob that is the Foreign Office.

Which is why I can’t understand what he seems to be doing now – especially given his background. According to Government insiders, Raab is blocking efforts to give UK courts the power to hear cases of genocide – something the Uyghur people desperately need and deserve.

Let me back up a bit. In December the House of Lords debated an all-party amendment which would stop the UK offering cushy trade deals to genocidal states. Though the amendment doesn’t mention any country, China’s anti-Uyghur atrocities were clearly the motivation. Truth be told, if this amendment were to become law, it won’t have much impact on trade at all. As the Government keeps saying, the UK has “no plans to commence free trade negotiations with China”. So a law saying we can’t offer Myanmar or China special tariffs isn’t much skin off the Government’s nose.

The big deal about this amendment is that it would allow UK courts to rule on whether or not a state had committed genocide. Until now this has been a privilege reserved to international courts, which take a ridiculously long time and which can’t act at all if someone brandishes their Security Council veto. Turkeys don’t tend to vote for Christmas, so the likelihood of China allowing themselves to be tried for their anti-Uyghur atrocities is…putting it generously…remote.

This obviously isn’t good enough. Aside from failing Uyghurs, it’s a far cry from the treaty we signed, forged in the shadow of the Holocaust: to “prevent and punish” a repeat of those horrors. Given that the UK refuses to use the word genocide, unless there has been a formal court ruling – and consequently refuses to engage with its duties under the Genocide Convention – this is a problem that needs solving. Actually, that’s too kind. It’s a completely inoperable, wrong-headed and immoral policy which cynics might speculate was designed to achieve precisely the inertia it has brought about.

The House of Lords agreed and passed the amendment with a whacking majority of 126, including a considerable Tory rebellion of former chief whips like David Maclean and former cabinet ministers like Lord Forsyth, Eric Pickles and others. “Lords say ‘No Deal’ to Genocide Countries” as a tabloid had it.

This clearly spooked the Government which is rallying hard in the Commons to kill off the proposal, deploying the usual excuses about how this isn’t the right bill, and isn’t the right time – the kind of parliamentary tactics which only work on those who haven’t been around long enough to have heard them many times before.

From Daniel Finkelstein’s piece yesterday in The Times you’d think nothing was wrong with the Government’s approach. Everything’s fine! Except our treaty promises to Hong Kong lie in tatters, no meaningful steps have been taken to help Uyghurs by engaging with our obligations under the Genocide Convention, no sanctions have been imposed on Xi Jinping’s enforcers after at least a year of asking (it took a week for Belarus), no economic sanctions have been imposed upon China, no commitment has been made to reduce Britain’s strategic dependency on China, no commitment to close Confucius Institutes, nothing about Tibet, no action on state-sponsored organ trafficking, nothing about Inner Mongolia, and so on and so on.

The weird thing is that the Government always knew it was going to be in for a rough time with this one. But ministers haven’t come to the table. Normally, when presented with trouble from the back benches, they negotiate. Sometimes they even take the proposal on themselves, which allows them to control and adapt it. In this case the government was having none of it. They whipped against heavily in the Lords, and are expected to do the same in the Lower House.

Why? Well, the obstruction is said to be Raab himself – apparently worried this will upset the UN, or something. Even weirder: Liz Truss is apparently in favour of the idea and it’s her bill. So here we have a Foreign Secretary – who really has been courageous on human rights – moving to block an amendment that would give Uyghurs their day in court on a bill that isn’t even his responsibility.

I hope you’re scratching your head, because those of us involved in the campaign can’t make sense of it. The most likely explanation is that the current Foreign Secretary used to be a Foreign Office lawyer – the standard bearers for the “computer says no” division of Whitehall. And, as I’ve hinted above and written about before, it is long-standing UK policy that “the question of whether or not genocide has occurred is a matter for the international judicial system”.

In policy terms, this is positively prehistoric – Douglas-Home was the first Foreign Secretary to deploy a version of the line in 1971. Perhaps old habits die hard, and overturning this deeply embedded piece of Foreign Office obfuscation is proving too much for a man whose fledgling career was weened on it.

Whatever the reason, it’s all a bit out of character. The UN genocide system is broken and needs a shot in the arm from a country willing to stand and be counted. It’s hard to imagine a foreign secretary better suited to doing it. If only he would.

The Conservative Party Conference programme – and which ministers are up and down

30 Sep

With only two days to go, the itinerary for this year’s Conservative Party Conference is upon us. Much has changed, thanks to Covid-19, not least the way events have been formatted. 

Without further ado, ConservativeHome takes a look at who’s doing what, and how events have been categorised – as well as what this could imply for ministers.

The first thing to note is that every MP in the Cabinet is making at least one appearance, albeit in different formats. The MPs taking part in two events are Amanda Milling, Elizabeth Truss and Matt Hancock. The Prime Minister will also be delivering a speech and being interviewed by Lord Sharpe of Epsom.

The events have been categorised broadly into keynote speeches, fireside chats, interactive interviews, panel discussions and training sessions. 

Clearly the most important is the keynote speech, which the following Cabinet ministers will be giving:

  • Dominic Raab (15:00 on Saturday)
  • Priti Patel (15:00 on Sunday)
  • Rishi Sunak (11:50 on Monday)
  • The Prime Minister (11:30 on Tuesday)

Milling will also be opening the conference at 11:30 on the first day.

Next up there’s the fireside chat. There are two versions of this, one involving being asked questions by an interviewer, the other by party members. The latter is arguably a more complex task; ministers are out on their own dealing with questions. The ministers doing this are:

  • Michael Gove (11:45 on Saturday)
  • Alok Sharma (14:30 on Monday)

Fireside chats involving an interviewer include:

  • Robert Buckland (16:00 on Sunday) – interviewed by Ken Clarke.
  • Gavin Williamson (11:00 on Monday) – interviewed by Peter Ashton, a headteacher and his former politics teacher.
  • Matt Hancock (16:30 on Monday) – interviewed by Patrick Stephenson, Director of Innovation and Healthcare at Fujitsu.

There’s also the “interactive interview”. It’s not obvious what makes this different from the “fireside chat”, but the ministers taking part in these are:

  • Liz Truss (14:30 on Saturday) – interviewed by Robert Colville, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.
  • Matt Hancock (14:00 on Sunday) – interviewed by Nimco Ali OBE, CEO and Founder of the Five Foundation.
  • Grant Shapps (15:00 on Monday) – although it does not say who will interview him yet.
  • Oliver Dowden (15:30 on Monday) – interviewed by Joy Morrissey, MP for Beaconsfield (this is labelled as simply an “interview”).

Then there are the panel discussions. More sceptical Conservative members may notice that a number of fairly high profile Cabinet ministers are taking part in these. They may ask why they have not been put forward for the fireside chat or an interview – instead being accompanied by ministerial teams.

These include:

  • Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence, who’s partaking in the Ministry of Defence Panel Discussion (12:15 on Saturday) with other ministers from the department.
  • Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who’s chairing a discussion (13:30 on Sunday) with party members and other ministers from the department.
  • Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions, who’s chairing the The Department for Work & Pensions Panel Discussion (11:30 on Monday) with other ministers from the department.
  • George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who’s holding a panel discussion (14:00 on Monday) with other ministers from the department.

It looks as though Downing Street has taken a decision to downgrade their profile.

Last up on the agenda are events focussed around increasing participation in Conservative campaigning. It’s clear, in particular, that CCHQ is keen to push for more female participation, with events on Female Entrepreneurs and Training, and Women and the 2021 Elections, alongside training support for young people.

Rob Sutton: Sir Philip Barton – a key player in Johnson’s quest for global Britain

5 Aug

Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Sir Philip Barton, the British High Commissioner to India, has been announced as the incoming Permanent Under-Secretary of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). He will take over from Sir Simon McDonald, who is stepping down at Johnson’s request, on September 1 and oversee the long-awaited merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID)

An FCO lifer, Barton will inherit complex internal dynamics and be vital to the success of Johnson’s mission to reshape Britain’s role on the world stage. He has been with the FCO since 1986, punctuated occasionally by secondments to the Cabinet Office. Early assignments included Caracas, Nicosia and Gibraltar, and he was Private Secretary to the Prime Minister under Major, then Blair.

From 2011 he was Deputy Head of Mission to the USA in Washington, D.C., from 2014 to 2016 he was High Commissioner to Pakistan, and he is currently serving as High Commissioner to India. He has been tested during political crises, as the Director General, Consular and Security at the time of the Salisbury poisonings and most recently as Director General of the Covid-19 Response at the Cabinet Office.

His appointment has thus far had a positive reception. Dominic Raab has called him an “outstanding public servant and diplomat” with “experience across all areas of foreign policy.” Sir Mark Sedwill said he “will bring to the role an understanding of overseas development funding together with experience of international relations.” Jeremy Hunt Tweeted that “he is one of the most thoughtful & diligent civil servants I worked with & carries great wisdom lightly.” Andrew Adonis described him as “an immensely able & experienced ambassador who is well equipped for the big challenge of heading the diplomatic service at this time of crisis.”

He is well-liked and trusted. It is important that he is perceived as a safe pair of hands and a natural choice within the civil service. With multiple high-profile civil servants stepping down since the 2019 general election, a controversial appointment to lead FCDO would have put No 10 on the back foot at a time when it should be looking to craft a positive vision for the future.

For Barton, the challenges are both internal and external. Within the FCDO, a new hierarchy must be built. Creating clear chains of command from two parallel organisations with competing interests will cause friction. Buzzwords like “coherence” and “integration” will seem premature if the new organisation is wrought with internal power struggles and turf wars. We should have some idea of Barton’s initial success by the end of September.

Long term, he will need to ensure the functions of the FCDO’s constituent departments can be executed. Tensions are an inevitability, and tailoring a unified mission will be difficult when commercial and political interests and poverty relief pull in different directions. All this as Britain seeks new trade deals across the globe and weighs its future relationship with Europe.

Barton appears to be an exceptionally good fit to take on these challenges. His background is less Eurocentric than his predecessors in the role. He looks away from Brussels and towards Commonwealth nations with whom Johnson will be eager to renew relationships.

His experiences will also help to ensure Britain continues to be a world leader in international development. Pakistan is one of the five biggest recipients of UK aid funding, and Barton’s time as High Commissioner will have given him a better understanding of the challenges of poverty relief than his peers appointed to industrialised European nations. This will go some way to settle the nerves of those who worry international development will be an afterthought for the new office.

Barton will take the helm at the FCDO at a time of internal upheaval and international uncertainty. His career path is typical enough to avoid controversy but his specific experiences may prove invaluable to performing the multiple tasks which his success will depend upon. The Government aims to complete the formation of FCDO by the end of September, so we will know soon enough whether he is up to the task.

Bella Wallersteiner: A “Work Out to Help Out” scheme could boost the nation’s health and save our struggling gyms

3 Aug

Bella Wallersteiner is Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Greg Smith MP.

The two most memorable images of lockdown are a panic stricken Dominic Raab informing the nation that the Prime Minister had been admitted into intensive care juxtaposed with Joe Wicks exuding his irrepressible optimism while exalting the nation to join his daily workout. Joe Wicks has faded from our screens but the Prime Minister has had a Dasmacene conversion to lose weight and become as “fit as a Butcher’s Dog”.

There is a clear correlation between obesity-related conditions (those who have a BMI over 25) and patients in hospitals who require intensive care and intubation. Never has it been more important for the nation to take responsibility for its own health and thereby protect the NHS before the onset of winter when outdoor exercise regimes become more difficult to manage. The country will not be heading to their local parks on a cold dark autumnal evening in November.

It is all too facile for me as a relatively fit and healthy 25 year old to preach the benefits and merits of exercise to those who do not have easy access to open spaces and gyms. While it is amazing how much can be achieved by a simple work out in your average living room, better still is to leave your home, join your local gym and create a new daily work out routine.

Gyms are often maligned as intimidating spaces whose denizens spend their time toning their perfectly sculpted bodies in front of mirrors to reach the beach-ready, Love Island physique. The reality is very different as they have worked hard to become welcoming and inclusive spaces which encourage people of every shape and size in a national effort to increase fitness and reduce weight.

On March 21, UK’s 7,000 gyms and leisure centres were closed for the duration of the lockdown and only reopened on July 25 as part of the Government’s third stage of the national recovery from Covid-19 restrictions. Will the one in seven of the population who used to have gym memberships continue to inject £5 billion on keeping fit?

If my experience of attending gyms in the fortnight since gyms reopened is anything to go by the public has yet to be convinced. Monthly direct debits to gyms are not being renewed and while I have enjoyed the luxury of an empty gym this is not sustainable. We will see a swathe of gyms and fitness centres closing; a permanent loss to local communities with thousands of jobs disappearing and more empty spaces in our towns and cities.

The Prime Minister wants to level up Britain’s left behind areas, he should also be urging us to get on our spin bikes and thereby providing a leg up to this struggling industry.

At a time when the Government has launched its Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, with a £10 voucher for every meal out, there should be a similar financial inducement to encourage people to renew long-lapsed gym memberships and to support their local gym and fitness centres. A 25 per cent Government-backed discount on monthly gym memberships would incentivise people to join their local gyms and shed surplus weight gained during lockdown.

Comprehensive Government guidelines have ensured that gyms, pools and leisure centres have reopened safely. Measures include timed bookings to limit the number of people using a facility at any one time so that social distancing can be maintained, enhanced cleaning regimes which ensure that all equipment satisfies Covid-19 hygiene protocols and one-way systems reducing unnecessary contact between gym users.

The challenge now is for people to overcome their understandable reluctance to step back into enclosed spaces which have been caricatured as feted petri dishes for the spread of the Coronavirus. If we are to beat the pandemic the nation needs to be match-ready for the much anticipated second wave which could come sooner than expected.