Robert Halfon: Usually, my inbox is flooded with emails on every conceivable subject – just not John Lewis or wallpaper

5 May

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

The People’s Priorities

Usually, my inbox is flooded with emails on every conceivable subject, from animal rights to free school meals and Universal Credit. But, bar a few robotised missives, I have had barely a peep from Harlow residents about Lulu Lytle, John Lewis, wallpaper or sofas. Neither has interior design been mentioned on the doorsteps to our local council candidates.

Although this may be unfathomable to the Westminsterocacy, is this really that surprising? The country has been in a state of national emergency. We appear to be getting over the worst of the pandemic, the vaccination programme has exceeded all expectations and the gradual padlock removal from the lockdown gates is upon us.

In the run-up to local elections, much of the farrago is seen as political opportunism. Not least with the leader of the Labour Party posing in John Lewis with a wallpaper roll – an Ed Miliband “bacon roll” moment (although at least this went viral).

So, without counting chickens, I am relatively hopeful for these elections. Conservatives have run a gritty street campaign focusing on affordable housing, education and skills, and value for council taxpayers. Good Conservative councils cost you less.

Meanwhile, in a hangover from the Corbyn era, in my constituency of Harlow, a Labour Candidate has been campaigning and organising a petition against army Cadet course in a local school. Not quite the people’s priorities. Starmer has a lot of work to do if he is to change his party a la Blair.

In the meantime, every good wish to Conservative council candidates and to all campaigning volunteers activists, every good luck and success. You deserve it.

The Watchful Peace

Whatever happens tomorrow at the polling stations, it really does mean that, in terms of the pandemic here in the UK, the era of the “Watchful Peace” is upon us.

Unlike last summer, during which I dutifully munched holiday burgers to “Eat Out to Help Out” and naively imagined the worst was over, this time it really does feel a little different.

If we can keep various Covid strains from entering the country (or at least like South Korea, successfully knocking them on the head when they arrive), we could get back to the way things used to be, before March 2020.

The question is, of course, how back to normal will things ever be? Is everyone just going to crowd back on commuter trains, or spend hours in traffic driving to and from work on the M1, M4 and M11? Will the urban Pret a Mangers suddenly fill up once again? Can our larger office buildings in the City be rejuvenated as the worker-bees return?

For my part, I hope not. It is not that I want to stay at home – far from it. I am looking forward to the day when Parliament is back to its old self once again.

However, if there can be more balance between work and home life, surely that can only be a good thing? If people spend more time in their own communities, local economies, small businesses and employment all stand to benefit, not just those of large cities. If there is less commuting and travelling, that means less traffic, pollution and more importantly, a significant cut to the cost of living.

I believe that employers should decide where they need their employees to be, but many will be more imaginative than they have been in the past. There are huge savings in office costs to be had and potentially more productive workers.

With the advent of Microsoft Teams and Google, connections are that much easier. Of course, nothing will ever substitute human relationships and face-to-face meetings, especially networking and sealing the deal. However, I suspect under the watchful peace, it will be more quality over quantity.

Not forgetting the private sector workers who kept the show on the road during Covid

But in speaking of the above, I am just referring to those employees who have been able to work from home during the pandemic – predominantly, the so-called “professional classes”.

The other day, I was called by a national newspaper asking me if I would give a supportive quote to the idea of public sector workers getting a medal for all they have done during the pandemic. “Absolutely”, I said, “but what about all those millions of workers from the private sector who also kept the show on the road – the supermarket workers, delivery lorry drivers, couriers, pharmacy employees and many more besides?”

Unlike the employees I was referring to in the previous segment, not only don’t they have the luxury of even having the option of being able to work from home, but travail for long hours on low pay. There are no 38 Degree-style automated campaigns battling for their wage increases, or a proper pension.

Recognising the millions of people in the private sector who did so much during the Coronavirus can’t just be about a medal. I have long believed that the central purpose of levelling up must mean cutting the cost of living for those just about managing.

The Government should recognise their contribution by focusing on further tax cuts for the lower paid and strengthening their employment rights so that these workers can also enjoy a quality of life.

Michael Dugher: Covid-19 is a lesson in the three Rs for the government

7 Aug

Michael Dugher is CEO of the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC). This is a sponsored post by the BGC.

Regular readers of ConservativeHome may be surprised, even aghast, to see a former Labour MP, Shadow Secretary of State and adviser to Gordon Brown, writing in this forum. Corbynites, or the dregs of what is left of that calamitous project, will be less surprised, but certainly some of my former comrades on the Labour benches might raise an eyebrow too. But these are not normal times.

The Covid pandemic represents an unprecedented challenge for governments across the world. The human cost has been staggering, tragic and truly heartbreaking, with more than 18 million infected and 700,000 deaths worldwide.

The financial cost is still being calculated, but will likely have a bearing on the world’s economies for years to come.

To give the Government credit, its initial response to the economic challenges posed by Covid-19 was sure footed. The rescue package – from the furlough scheme to business rates support – was commensurate to the scale of the challenge. Not since the creation of the welfare state have we seen such an interventionist government – and a Conservative one at that. As I say, these are not normal times.

More recently, though, the Government has made a series of missteps that have begun to raise concerns in business circles like the one I represent now.

The latest example was the decision last week, announced at the last minute by the Prime Minister, to delay the piloting of certain live sport with attendances, plus reopening of some indoor entertainment venues such as casinos, bowling alleys and skating rinks that were due to open on August 1.

As someone who has worked at the heart of government, I know all too well that governing is a delicate balancing act, not least during a global pandemic that none of us have ever experienced. But there are certain core principles that should always inform government action – clarity and consistency. Both are in short supply.

Messages like “go on holiday”, “get back to work” and “eat out” have tangoed clumsily with parallel appeals to “avoid unnecessary travel”, “stay at home” and even “lose weight”.

The u-turn on casinos reopening is the latest example. The decision was all the more perplexing given that they had gone to extraordinary lengths and invested millions of pounds to ensure their venues were Covid-secure, with strict social distancing measures, hygiene protocols and sophisticated track and trace systems in place at venues across England.

The Government’s most senior health officials gave just over 100 casinos the green light, long after bingo halls and amusement arcades, never mind restaurants and 47,000 pubs, after their visit to a casino in London. The decision to reopen was announced by the Prime Minister on July 17.

The sense of relief was palpable across the industry. Staff, fearful of redundancy, were looking forward to returning to work for the first time in over four months and managers readied to give their businesses a go, even in the toughest of circumstances. Then, less than 12 hours before they were due to open their doors, England’s casinos were told they must remain shuttered in order to keep the virus under control.

We fully understand the Government’s determination to control the “R” infection rate, which is rising in parts of England. But public health officials and the Government’s scientific advisers have already confirmed that casinos pose what they described as a “negligible” risk to health, given their substantial investment in Covid safety protocols, and their relatively small number. What happened to “following the scientific advice?”

And a reminder again: there are 110 casinos in England, compared to 47,600 pubs. There are nearly nine times as many Wetherspoons alone as there are casinos.

In recent weeks, we have seen localised Covid spikes in parts of the North West of England and before that in Leicester. The right response was a localised lockdown, not a national shutdown. If there is a spike in Greater Manchester, why is it ok for pubs and restaurants to remain open in Greater Manchester but a casino in Bristol, where levels of Covid are low, must close?

In his July 17 statement, the Prime Minister ruled out the need for such a blanket national lockdown. Instead, the Government would control outbreaks of the virus through “targeted, local action.” By denying casinos the right to reopen, not for the first time, the Government is at odds with its own policy.

This illogical and inconsistent ruling will have a damaging – perhaps permanent – impact on casinos and the thousands of staff they employ. It couldn’t come at a worse time for an industry that is grappling with mounting and unsustainable costs.

A sector that contributes £140 million to the tourist economy and £300 million in taxes now stands on a cliff edge because of the Government’s decision to taper furlough payments and force employers to pay National Insurance and pension contributions, even though they remain closed. Some businesses may not survive. Around 6,000 workers – half of all casino industry jobs in England – are facing the dole.

While ministers are rightly focused on the health of the nation, no government can lose sight of the health economy. Remember when David Cameron and George Osborne used to say “a strong NHS depends on a strong economy?” The R infection rate has to be balanced against the two other Rs – recovery versus recession.

The consequences of getting this wrong are being felt in businesses across the country – stuck in a Covid no man’s land, forced to remain shuttered while bearing the everyday costs of business. What’s worse, it’s costing the Treasury around £5 million a week to keep casinos closed and their workers at home, when they could be raking in £5 million in much needed tax revenues.

Earlier this week, the decision to keep casinos closed was criticised by both Ed Miliband in the Guardian and Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. I know these are not normal times, but seemingly uniting Miliband and Littlejohn in one common purpose is taking things too far.