Amanda Milling: The Boundary Review will strengthen our democracy by ensuring that every vote counts the same

8 Jun

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

Our democracy allows eligible voters up and down the country the chance to have their voice heard by voting for a representative they believe will best make decisions on their behalf.

But crucially it gives everyone eligible to vote, 18 and over, an equal vote and an equal say. Or, at least, it should do.

However, the constituency boundaries as they presently stand fail to ensure that a vote counts the same in one area as it does in another, even just a few miles away.

This is because the present constituency boundaries are based on data that is already 20 years old. Without the changes to the boundaries, by the time of the next election this data would be a quarter of a century out of date and by the time the next government conducted a review and implementing boundary change, the information will be more than three decades out of date.

At the moment some constituencies have twice as many electors as others. Bristol, having over 100,000, whist the smallest, Stoke-on-Trent Central – has a little over 55,000. It is also true that after the 2017 election, our party would have won a significantly greater number of seats if constituency sizes were equalised and updated, removing the unfair bias in the outdated system.

There is almost unanimous acknowledgement that the status quo is neither fair, nor sustainable.

The Boundary Review that is being undertaken by the independent and judge-led Boundary Commissions, with extensive public consultation, is looking to reset all of this.

This review isn’t about the party building a power base in any part of the country, nor to make it harder for opposition parties to make gains, but about ensuring that Parliamentary boundaries are equally sized and based on up to date figures.

By making sure we have Parliamentary boundaries which finally take account of the huge population change which has taken place in parts of the country, we are ensuring that each constituent will know that their vote counts the same as their neighbour’s. It also delivers on our promise at the 2019 General Election to strengthen our democracy by ensuring every vote counts the same.

I know that for some this review could bring unexpected change. Representing a seat is a unique privilege, and often a very personal one. I have represented Cannock Chase for six years and still feel pride in the community each time my train from London pulls into the station.

Each of us who are MPs will know like the back of our hands every community hall and summer fête. We will see families in the supermarket who we have supported and we will have listened to campaign groups on whose behalf we have spoken out in the House of Commons.

No one wants to lose any constituent who they have been privileged to represent and who has been part of their community.

MPs are rightly proud, and fiercely defensive of their own patch where they have canvassed doors and worked hard for years, so the thought of change at a local level will raise concerns, even if we can all broadly agree to the concept of the changes.

Equally, for long-standing Conservative associations built on boundaries that have been in place for decades it will require some adjustment. Associations take pride in their area, in their membership, and many still operate active ward associations.

But I am confident that our hardworking and committed association officers have what it takes to adapt — and we are committed to supporting them along the way.

Over the course of this pandemic, I have seen fantastic examples of associations being at the forefront of adapting and improving, working together on events and fundraising. I have joined scores of Zoom quizzes, welcomed colleagues as guest speakers and met hundreds of members and activists at Q&As. And we will continue to adapt.

For some these proposed changes will be challenging and that’s why we will be listening and working with colleagues in Parliament and across the party to hear any of the concerns people may have.

As the consultation period begins on these initial proposals we need to come together to collectively work out how we can make the proposals work.  We will make formal submissions in response to the Boundary Commissions initial proposals. MPs, associations, organisations and individuals will also all be able to make representations during the consultation phases. I have no doubt there will be changes from the initial proposals as additional local concerns and counter proposals are taken into account.

These equal and updated boundaries are sensible and necessary. They are the consequence of a manifesto which was written with fairness and uniting the whole country written into every pledge. They make sure everyone’s vote from Cumbria to Canterbury, Dover to Darlington carries equal weight at a General Election.

The Conservative Party will now collectively engage with the independent Boundary Commissions’ extensive consultation process, to ensure all parts of the United Kingdom are fairly represented in the UK Parliament.

Iain Dale: The EU has no interest in Northern Ireland’s future prosperity. It just sees it as a mechanism to exert its power.

5 Mar

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Most budgets are curate’s eggs. Good in parts. This one was no different.

Politically, it was a triumph for Brand Rishi. It was well delivered. His post-Budget press conference was slick and smooth. He comes across as a transparently nice and competent individual. That’s because he is.

But was it a budget with a narrative? Was it a “reset” budget? Was it a transformational budget? No, it was not.

It is possible to argue that it couldn’t be anything else than be a budget for the short term, given we have no idea where we will be this time next year, but even if you accept that argument, it disappointed on a number of levels.

The super-deduction measure was innovative and will have a massive event on investment over the next two years. And then it ends. It’s too short term, and should have surely been tapered.

Did corporation tax really need to be increased in one go by six per cent in two years’ time? Wouldn’t a gradual approach have been better, even if you accept it needed to rise. Which I do not.

It’s a tax rise which will inevitably make this country less likely to attract the levels of foreign inward investment in the long term. You can’t argue one day that lowering business taxes is a good thing and makes us more competitive, and then argue that by putting up corporation tax by a quarter still means that we are just as competitive.

Leaving the EU certainly gave some companies pause for thought about locating here, or increasing their presence here. We are lucky that most decided to go ahead anyway, but we do not need to give any company an excuse not to do so.

We may still have the fifth lowest rate of corporation tax among G20 countries, and yes, as Sunak argues, our rate will still be lower than in American, Canada, France, Germany and Italy.

But I’m afraid that argument cuts little ice in a world where the last thing the British government needs to do is do anything to put off businesses considering building a presence here.

Having said all that, two snap opinion polls show that the public approve the Budget with only 11 or 12 per cent disapproving. So from a political point of view, it was job done for the Chancellor. But I still wonder whether a bit more long term, “reset” thinking was needed and that both Sunak and the Government might come to regret that it was largely absent.

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If the pandemic hadn’t happened, surely this Budget would have been all about the post Brexit economy. Brexit wasn’t mentioned directly once in the Chancellor’s speech, although towards the end we heard a few oblique references.

What we needed was a pathway to the future, not just over the next couple of years, but over the next couple of decades. We needed a vision.

Businesspeople needed to be reassured about the future of our trading patterns, not just with the rest of the world, but with the EU. Too many businesses seem to be finding that the so-called “free trade agreement” with the EU is nothing of the sort. The inevitable bureaucratic teething problems in trading with EU countries are still there, two months on.

OK, there are no queues at Dover, but the attitude of (particularly, but not exclusively) of French customs officials leaves something to be desired. I hear time and time again reports that countries deal perfectly happily and efficiently with the US, China or even Russia, yet find it that deliveries to European customers are being returned to them by couriers with no explanation and on multiple occasions. They feel powerless to do anything about it.

And don’t get me started on the Northern Ireland protocol, whose only effect so far as I can see has been to effectively annexe Northern Ireland to the EU. Just as Martin Selmayr threatened.

The EU has no interest in Northern Ireland’s future prosperity. It just sees it as a mechanism to exert its power. It is a constitutional outrage that British companies are not free to trade without restriction to all parts of the sovereign United Kingdom. The checks that are now being demanded by the EU are so disproportionate as to be totally unreasonable. The British government bent over backwards to make a compromise to meet EU concerns that the Single Market could be compromised, but its goodwill has been exploited at every turn.

At some point this has to stop, and the unilateral extension of the grace period is the inevitable consequence of EU inflexibility. It is not, as the Irish government unhelpfully says, a breach of international law. What it is, is a sign that Britain’s patience with the EU on this issue is about to expire.

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I’ve been watching a new documentary on how Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election called The Accidental President.

It’s made by the British film maker James Fletcher, who is now based in New York. Fletcher will be familiar to many for his work filming David Cameron for the WebCameron project back in the day.

It’s a fascinating account of Trump’s rise to the presidency. There was no narration, no voiceover, just 90 minutes of original campaign footage together with lots of testimony from political commentators, eye witnesses and vox pops.

The most powerful moment was when commentators were asked to name Trump’s campaign slogan. They all trotted out “Make America Great Again”. They were then asked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan. None of them could recall it, bar one, who recalled it was “Stronger Together”. He then followed it up with “whatever that means”.

If proof were needed that political slogans can be all powerful, then we now have it.

Doug Bannister: Dover is the right choice for business and consumers now more than ever

9 Oct

An open letter from Doug Bannister, CEO, Port of Dover. This is a sponsored post by Port of Dover.

The United Kingdom Major Ports Group (‘UKMPG’) has issued a ‘briefing paper’ intended to encourage businesses to transfer cargo away from the Short Straits, the UK’s most vital link to European markets.

The paper points out that the Short Straits, which includes ferry links between Dover and Calais, as well as the Channel Tunnel, has a 60 per cent market share of ‘British-Continental EU trade’. The Short Straits has achieved this market share because it is the right choice for business. Indeed, the paper acknowledges that the routes businesses use today are the right ones and the reason businesses choose the Short Straits is simple; it offers the most time efficient, cost effective and resilient access to international markets, delivering an estimated £3 billion saving for British businesses and consumers compared to alternative routes.

Our own independent analysis (Oxera 2018) has previously suggested that it would cost around £2.7 billion to take just 20 per cent of our existing traffic in order to pay for new ferries operating on longer and slower routes. Importantly, these new ferries do not exist today and need to be built. With shipyard capacities and construction lead times, delivering such a fleet of new ferries holds significant lead time.

The UKMPG paper suggests that other ports might have capacity to take up to 60 per cent of Short Straits traffic now, but acknowledges that this requires both Government and trader support for this offer of ‘resilience’ to be possible. Exponentially, this suggests that the cost to businesses and ultimately the consumer could be up to around £8 billion.

For Port of Dover, when looking at the overall UK Trade Resilience we take a systemic view – across ports, vessels, capacities, frequencies, operating models and traffic management schemes. To focus only on port capacity is terribly one-dimensional.

The geographic advantage that Port of Dover holds with the UK’s largest trading partner means that a single vessel can complete up to five round voyages in a single day, making our ferries hugely productive assets. Further, our operating model delivers an average inbound dwell time at our port of just five minutes, providing unparalleled port efficiency.

Other operating models, for example containers and unaccompanied trailers may have inbound dwell times from several hours to even several days, adding inefficiency to the system-wide supply chains. For those routes with longer sea voyages, a single vessel may only make a single round voyage in a day – meaning to replicate the capacities and frequencies offered via Port of Dover would require five times as many vessels.

The UKMPG paper admits that a ‘short term’ constraint might be the availability of additional ferries to handle the trucks being encouraged to divert to other routes, whilst also citing wider capacity issues on the southern North Sea corridor.

The report is right to focus on resilience as we approach the end of the Transition Period, but what resilience do you have if you are sending traffic to ports where the ferries do not exist? Neither is that a quick fix. The market dynamic is important here. In fact, rather than investing in new ferries, operators at some of the alternative ports have actually been closing these longer routes with tonnage moving back to the short routes as that is what the market wants – Dover has of course kept going throughout the pandemic. This dynamic applies to the European side too, with the majority of freight vehicles choosing to route through northern France to Calais and Dunkirk as it is simply closest.

All EU-facing UK ports will be under the same rules – there will be a standard process and transaction applied everywhere. We know from examples elsewhere, such as ‘Operation Wellington’ on the Humber, which anticipates using parts of the M62 and M180 as holding areas for HGVs, that if there is disruption it will be everywhere. The report itself admits that there is already a risk of disruption at these alternative ports due to new systems for HGVs. Therefore, on top of this, sending more traffic to ports that do not even have the ferry capacity will make the situation far worse and create far less resilience for UK trade.

In contrast, the traffic management regimes for the Short Straits are tested and proven – in short, we know they work. For example, the recent national security operation that affected all ports with additional screening and searches left around 4,500 lorries in Operation Stack. When the security operation ended, Dover had cleared all queuing traffic and was back to normal operations within just 12 hours. Nowhere else could do that. It would take weeks with the current vessel capacities and frequencies available elsewhere. For UK trade resilience, supply chains must have the confidence in managing periods of disruption, and crucially recovery and restoration of normal flows as swiftly as possible – both areas in which Port of Dover has excellent credentials.

As we all navigate the massive economic difficulties caused by COVID, and the uncertainties as we approach the End of Transition, it is right to showcase the incredible efforts of the maritime sector, and the excellent ports that we have across the nation towards ensuring supply chains are robust and functioning well.

Come what may, we will keep working to keep the nation supplied with the essential goods people need at this difficult time and give all businesses wherever they are the benefits of Dover’s unrivalled service. This is what we do all day, every day.

Indeed, as the Maritime Minister said on a panel discussion with us only the other day regarding the national trade network; ‘you have to have goods and people moving around freely. So if you are to have parts moving quickly and efficiently across the Channel, and through Dover, and through the country, you have a much easier opportunity for companies that might exist in the Midlands or in the North to get involved in whatever that industry is.’

The report says that the UK has not always been reliant on the Short Straits, harking back to pre-Single Market days. Equally, the UK has not always been reliant on the internet and same day/next day/just-in-time deliveries, but it is now.

A vision that takes the UK backwards is not the vision of the future we want to see. We need one that backs consumers and businesses everywhere for the challenges and opportunities ahead of us. We feel that we should celebrate our impressive, modern and efficient supply chains across all ports and modes throughout the nation.

For Dover, we fully appreciate the essential role that we conduct for the nation, and will continue to take our responsibility with all of the due care and attention the British people would expect of us, which is why Dover will remain the clear market choice.

Allowing illegal migrant boats to cross the Channel is false compassion

12 Aug

The media narrative, as so often, has portrayed the story as toughness versus tenderness. Those who are idealistic and caring are on the side of welcoming the beleaguered refugees crossing the Channel to Dover in precarious dinghies. They are cheered on by the BBC and The Guardian. Then we have those who sternly declare that the law must be upheld, our borders protected, national interest upheld. Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party leader, was ahead of the “mainstream media” in highlighting the sharp increase in the numbers coming over this summer. Thus he is a convenient stage villain.

The reality is a bit more complicated. There is an important debate to be had about how many refugees we could and should take in. Of course, this is a moral issue. But it is also a practical one. One of the arguments for ending free movement with the EU is that it should be easier to accept more refugees. It would also help ease the financial costs if the ban on asylum seekers was lifted and they could live in spare bedrooms rather than only self contained accommodation.

Some fail to back up “virtue signalling” rhetoric with action. David Cameron announced, in September 2015, the Syrian Vulnerable People’s Resettlement Scheme, with a target of 20,000. The Labour Party immediately complained it was too low – yet Labour (and Lib Dem) councils had a poor record of offering places for them.

Once we have decided how many to help, there is the question of which ones. The monitoring group Open Doors estimates 260 million Christians around the world face persecution. I would like to see us offer more of them sanctuary. Our special responsibility to Hong Kong is another priority that has been highlighted.

So far as the Syrians are concerned, should we be taking them from the overcrowded UN refugee camps – in a legal and (relatively safe) manner? Or should we just fill up the allocation by allowing those to stay who have jumped the queue and managed to make it here illegally? In the case of Syrians, for example, should we take them from the camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon? Or from Calais?

Last year it is estimated that at least 1,885 migrants died in the Mediterranean. Of course, it is impossible to know the full number. The UNHCR have put it at six a day. The greater the chance of being able to stay, the higher the numbers that will pay whatever they can to the criminal gangs of “people traffickers” and risk drowning to get to Europe.

Much the most effective method is to prevent the asylum seekers arriving in England in the first place. The Times reports:

“Ministers are considering using 42m-long Border Force cutters to stop boats from reaching Britain’s territorial waters. The French authorities would then be contacted to intercept them, with a focus on intelligence sharing.

“The government has moved away from a more aggressive Australian-style “push-back” approach, which would have involved Royal Navy and Border Force vessels intercepting boats as they left French waters.”

Critics of the proposal include Jack Straw who warns that amidst the confrontation the dinghies could capsize and its occupants drown. Then we have unnamed sources suggesting that it is impractical or disproportionate. Logistical considerations are important. If Border Force boats can do an effective job of escorting the asylum seekers back to France then I can see that might well be safer (and a lower cost to the taxpayer) than bringing in the vessels of the Royal Navy. It is also reasonable to note that the Channel is smaller that the Indian Ocean and so rather than duplicating Australian arrangements it would be sensible to have our bespoke version.

But whatever the operational details, the broad thrust of the Australian approach has been completely vindicated and it would be right for us to follow it. In 2013, Tony Abbott, the new Australian Prime Minister, ensured that illegal boats heading for his country were towed to an offshore centre. From there they were able to make a claim for asylum. But if it was rejected they could return home but not to Australia. Between 2008 to 2013 there were 877 asylum seekers who drowned en route to Australia. Since then none have.

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, says:

“The number of illegal small boat crossings is appalling. We are working to make this route unviable and arresting the criminals facilitating these crossings and making sure they are brought to justice.”

Naturally many on the Left will vilify her for taking a strong line – while most people will recognise that controlling who comes into our country is pretty basic to national security. So taking the necessary action is a patriotic duty. But it is also a moral duty. Allowing illegal crossings and rewarding those who survive them with residency is false compassion. By firmly putting a halt to the practice, Patel can save many lives and ensure that whatever sanctuary we can offer, is granted fairly to genuine cases in the greatest need.

Tony Smith: In over 40 years of Home Office experience, I can’t recall a time when our borders have been under so much pressure

17 Jul

Tony Smith is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

In 2017, Charlie Elphicke, then MP for Dover and Deal, posted in these pages about how Britain needed to be Ready on Day One to meet the Brexit borders challenge.

At that time, he expected Day One to fall in March 2019 – allowing us around 18 months to commence work on the biggest border transformation programme ever seen in this country. He advocated a range of measures, particularly in the port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel, which account for 40 per cent of our trade with the EU.

Many of Elphicke’s proposals for new investment in roads, lorry parks, port infrastructure and IT upgrades in Kent were foreseeable from the day Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016. I worked closely with him and others to develop a workable border transformation proposal at that time, which we submitted to Ministers and presented to an APPG in Parliament.

Yet four years have elapsed – and only now are we seeing any real commitment from government to invest to upgrade our ports and borders to cope with the huge challenges ahead. This week, Michael Gove announced a £705 million spending package to help manage Britain’s borders to prepare for Brexit as the transition period (and free movement) ends on 31 December this year.

It has been criticised by Labour as being “too little too late”. In response to industry concerns and COVID-19 delays, the Government has also announced that “full import controls” will be “phased in”, and not fully implemented until July 2021; prompting claims from Liz Truss that the UK could be left open to legal challenge and smuggling.

Meanwhile, we have seen a record daily total of irregular migrants crossing the channel from France, and Priti Patel has announced a new “points based” immigration system, which is set to commence on 1 January next year, requiring EU citizens to get permission to enter and remain in the UK for the first time in 40 years.

In over 40 years’ experience in the Home Office, I cannot recall a time when the UK Border has been under this degree of pressure on all fronts at the same time – immigration policy, customs infrastructure, and border security.

The only saving grace for the Border Force is the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced traffic at our ports to a trickle, at a time when we would simultaneously be facing up to new record volumes and the usual criticisms from ports and airports about queues and delays at the UK Border.

Even so, the hasty implementation of a quarantine measure at the UK Border – and the rapid relaxation of it to cater for the holiday season – has not inspired confidence, either from the transportation industry or from the Border Force officers themselves.

Brexit and the ending of free movement provides the Government with unparalleled opportunities to build the “world class” border that it aspires to. But border transformation programmes take time and require careful handling. We do not have a great track record of delivering major IT and infrastructure changes at the UK border.

Key factors identified in the past that have led to programme failures include a lack of clear vision and direction, inconsistent leadership, ineffective public/private sector engagement, and governance. It is vital that we learn these lessons now.

Of course, this commitment to fund new infrastructure at our major ports of entry is welcome; and better late than never. The opportunities available for turning our major ports into global trading hubs, building freeports, implementing “drive through” and “walk through” borders based on advanced data analytics and risk assessments are all within reach. But it would be wrong to underestimate the enormity of the challenge ahead.

Setting out a vision is one thing; turning it into an operational reality is another thing entirely. Having been Senior Responsible Owner for the UK Border Agency’s London 2012 Programme for over three years, I know that this will only work if the government can build a cross Whitehall Programme that actively engages with the myriad of Departments and Agencies with a stake in the UK Border, ranging from the Home Office and HMRC through to Transport, Health, DEFRA and the like.

Of course, there will be the familiar tensions between facilitation and control; people and goods; compliance and regulation. These were always there. But taking a narrow view that HMRC “does goods” and Home Office “does people” no longer works, especially in the UK where we have a joint Border Force doing both.

There are some encouraging signs that the Cabinet Office is taking greater control over border-related projects, rather than simply acting as a co-ordinator between departments. But the fact that HMRC has issued a “Border Operating Model” claiming to cover “all of the processes and systems, across all government departments, that will be used at the border”, without any cross reference to an announcement from the Home Office on the same day setting out the “Border of the Future” “with new processes, biometrics and technology” as part of the new points- based immigration system is a case in point.

If we are to retain a single UK Border Force to operate the new rules, then we need to consolidate the strategic, policy and programme arms behind them.

To succeed, Whitehall will need to galvanise the very best people, systems, and processes into a fully functional Border Transformation Programme. This means bringing the key contributors to economic revival including the ports, transportation companies, traders and the world class technology suppliers to the table; and uniting them behind a common purpose to end free movement and implement to build the world class border we all want.

And to expect to deliver all this against a specific “Day One” deadline set by politicians – be it in January or June 2021 – is prone to failure, as history has shown us.