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

13 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin Millar: The Shared Prosperity Fund will unleash Wales’ potential – and take back control from unaccountable bureaucrats

3 Feb

Robin Millar is the MP for Aberconwy.

Welsh devolution began twenty years ago with a promise. We were told that it would bring power to a local level and empower us to fix the problems we saw around us. Fundamentally, it was about giving people in Wales the power to improve our communities.

The dream was a noble one – the Welsh dragon will roar! But the reality is rather different. Devolution in Wales means power pooled in Cardiff and funding funnelled through the Bay. The sad truth is that our home here in North Wales has been overlooked and underfunded by a Cardiff-centric Welsh government. It is an experience familiar to many in central and West Wales also. For many, the Welsh dragon has gone to sleep.

And as the people in North and Mid Wales suffer low levels of infrastructure investment, and as parts of Wales experience some of the worst educational outcomes and highest rates of poverty in the UK, people are asking why? Even their representatives are asking, is there another way?

My local council, Conwy, is crying out for the resources to do the things that local communities and businesses want to see delivered. Its essential public services – to an ageing population – are hampered by a funding calculation that favours young people. Sam Rowlands, the council leader, has plans to deliver growth and attract new business through an innovative, sector leading, multi-million-pound Tidal Lagoon scheme and an extensive programme of investment in digital, road and rail connections.

Local leaders, like Rowlands, do not lack ambition as much as opportunity. They can be given what they need to deal with the issues they see in their communities and unlock the goodwill we have seen burst out in the pandemic. To be clear, this is not an original idea – the Welsh Local Government Association agrees with us. Its new Manifesto for Localism puts “greater fiscal autonomy and flexibility” for councils at the centre of its plan for recovery from the pandemic.

But sadly, this is not the view of a controlling Cardiff where “we know best” saturates government thinking in the Senedd.

In two decades, Wales has become one of the most centralised states in Europe. Councils must make do with money measured in Cardiff for centrally dictated objectives; community groups are pitted against each other in a fight for favour and funding. Organisations which enjoy high degrees of autonomy in England – like schools and NHS trusts – have their policies set directly from desks in Cardiff. In North Wales we know only too well that this has been a recipe for stagnation and failure – Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board has spent five years in special measures.

The “enlightened bureaucracy” of the Welsh Labour government in Cardiff has not worked for Wales in its administration of EU Structural and Investment Fund money either. The EU has pumped more than £1 billion into the Welsh government to deal with regional inequality. The net result? A multi-million quid cable car which broke down over 250 times, a £300 million “Communities First” fund that closed after a fraud scandal, and a countryside littered with abandoned “innovation centres”’.

During the pandemic, the UK government has so far pumped more than £5 billion into Welsh government to support high streets, zoos, charities, businesses and more – but £1 billion is still languishing in Welsh government bank accounts, unspent. Businesses and community groups are refused grants, or offered loans – and the people who run them worry how they will survive or if they will ever open again.

It is hard to see how any council could have done worse.

But there is hope. People are wising up. After twenty years of micro-management from the centre, it only took a few hours for the lockdown ban on “non-essential purchases” to fall apart as the people of Wales disagreed – and raised the largest, fastest public petition in the history of Welsh government to complain. The pointing fingers are now following the money and the power – back to the Labour government in Cardiff.

For all these reasons and more, the announcement by the Secretary of State for Wales, that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) will work directly with councils is a ray of light piercing the gloom.

This is a game-changer. While over half of EU money has been diverted through Cardiff, just nine per cent has gone to councils in Wales – compare that with nearly 30 per cent that typically goes to councils in England. But the new SPF will bypass the Cardiff bureaucracy and organisations and go straight to people on the ground.

As Janet Finch-Saunders MS, our local Senedd representative, says, this is an exciting opportunity to work together in Aberconwy, in a way we have not been able to before; to see much needed investment channelled to the projects people want and into the places they care about.

And we won’t be the only local leaders to be stirred by the prospect of this community governance.

Up and down the country, Wales – like Aberconwy – is humming with the untapped energy of small businesses who are engaged and rooted in their community (95 per cent of businesses in Wales have less than ten employees). There are councillors, social entrepreneurs and volunteers, people of endeavour and vision in every town and village, eager to be trusted and empowered – and funded – so they can improve their communities.

There will no doubt be a fuss about working this way as an “attack on devolution”. It will come from those in Cardiff or who like things the way they are. But this is setting right what the Senedd has sucked upwards under Labour – powers and control from people and communities. And we have seen that is not working. Now it is time to deliver directly and do something different; to entrust the people who can be held accountable by their communities.

For most people, Cardiff feels as distant as Westminster. Unaccountable bureaucrats – who tell us which supermarket gifts we are permitted to buy or what we can drink – have not delivered. Give people the money to make a difference in their own communities. Unlock the potential that is waiting in Merthyr and Mumbles, from Llandudno to Llanelli.

And just maybe, the Welsh dragon will wake and walk our streets once more.

Howard Flight: Priority spending should go towards training the next generation

1 Feb

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

I submit that the most important territory to address when managing exposure to the pandemic is to ensure that the next generation is trained for worthwhile employment.

I question whether our reformed apprenticeship system is currently either achieving this or in the present context capable of achieving this. It is here that ongoing government management and funding are needed to finance and manage apprentices through their training courses.

My Livery company, the Carpenters, has for over a 100 years managed the Building Crafts College set up by Sir Banister Flight Fletcher. It has a leading reputation for the quality of its training. It has again just been closed due to the lockdown, although it is managing to continue with online teaching. Here I suggest pupils and staff might be empowered to hold their own vote on whether or not to stay open, with full protective clothing and gear provided. I could see an argument for government involvement in offering and financing apprenticeships.

Last August the Government set up a new online telephone support service for apprentices who have lost their jobs during the Covid-19 outbreak. The redundancy support service for apprentices should ensure they can access local and national services providing financial and other support to help them find a new job when they need this. Apprentices can also search and apply for other available apprenticeship opportunities across the country. I hope these support services are continuing during the lockdown.

Also, employers, large and small, have being encouraged to take advantage of generous new cash incentives designed to create more high-quality apprenticeship opportunities, so more people and especially the young can kick start a successful career. As part of the Government’s plan for jobs employers have being offered £2,000 for each new apprenticeship aged under 25 which they hire and £1,500 for each apprentice hired aged 25 or over up to January 31. This includes taking on an apprentice who has been made redundant.

For apprentices I submit government help and support should go further than this. It would be particularly positive if the Government could provide the finance for an apprenticeship and run a service placing young people seeking an apprenticeship – both those who have been made redundant and those new to the apprenticeship market.

The Government has been taking steps through its Plan for Jobs to both support and protect support jobs and to create jobs with a clear focus on ensuring people have the right skills to get into work. This includes creating more high-quality apprenticeship opportunities to help get our economy moving. The Redundancy Support Service for Apprentices should make sure those who have lost their jobs can get the help and support they need to get back on the path to a new career. These have now been damaged by the third lockdown.

Employers who have apprenticeship opportunities and who are willing to take on a redundant apprentice have also been encouraged to sign up to the new service and to advertise their vacancies. Apprentices who are looking for new opportunities can then see what is on offer.

The cash incentives for employers are in addition to the £1,000 payment for new 16-18 year old apprentices and those aged under 25 with an education, health and care plan. To support particularly young people affected by Covid-19, the Government introduced a portfolio of support covering £111 million cash boost to triple the number of traineeships available across England – the largest ever expansion of apprenticeships. The Government recognises we need to ensure more 16 to 24 year olds can get the skills and the experience they need to enter the world of work.

Mark Lehain: The Government has got it right on next year’s exams

3 Dec

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

In spite of the impression that the media may have given at the time, the exam mess this summer wasn’t unique to the UK – many other countries struggled to agree on what to do. This isn’t surprising as there are lots of different views on what qualifications are for and how best to award them.

So we can perhaps forgive making it up on the hoof this year, but there is no excuse for being like that in 2021. Giving advance notice of how things will work next summer is one of the most important steps politicians can take to make the whole situation less daunting.

However, making the right kind of decision is even more important. This is why today’s announcement by Gavin Williamson about exams going ahead in England is such good news for pupils, and why the choices made in Scotland and Wales are so disappointing.

Amid the Covid chaos, it’s vital we remember the reason why the UK has the kind of exam systems that it does. Bear with me for a minute, as it’s a bit geeky – but super important. Sadly it seems to have been forgotten by some nationalist politicians, and it’s the poorest kids who are going to get hurt the hardest as a result.

There are loads of different ways of testing people. No form of assessment is perfect. Whether we use teacher grades, interviews, open book tests, unseen exams, portfolios – they all have strengths and some major drawbacks.

Over time, though, we have come to understand that for the UK’s school systems standardised national assessments are the best and fairest way to measure what pupils have learnt, and how different schools or groups of pupils are performing.

This means we want our assessments to be as accurate as possible – that is to say, we want them to be the best reflection of what pupils know and can do. And for this, we need them to be as valid and reliable as possible.

By valid we mean the assessment actually measures the thing we want to know about, not something else. And by reliable we mean that it measures it consistently, so that the same pupil would get the same result over time, or two pupils with the same knowledge would get the same result as each other.

The big advantage that national standardised exams have is that we can make them more valid and more reliable than any other method of assessment. This is why sticking with exams as far as possible for 2021 is so important. It is a question of fairness.

With this in mind, the measures announced today for England’s GCSEs and A-levels are sensible moves to address the uncertainty and unavoidable disparities that Covid has created for schools and pupils.

As well as delaying exams to provide more teaching time, giving advance notice of some of the topics that will be covered will help kids that have missed more lessons and are struggling to catch up in time. Allowing more exam aids, like formulae sheets, will reduce the memorisation pressure for some. Having a set of additional exams as backup for pupils who miss the main papers due to illness or self-isolation is a simple but very reassuring measure that also maintains accuracy of assessment.

Even allowing some grade inflation like that we had this summer feels reasonable now – think of it as a sort of Quantitative Easing for exams: not ideal, but a necessary evil for now to get through things.

Overall then, next summer I think England’s 16 and 18 year olds will get the best deal possible given the unprecedented circumstances they’ll have been through.

But boy do I feel for pupils and teachers in Scotland and Wales, where politicians have abandoned exams and moved to teacher-assessment and other approaches. Not only are these much less valid and reliable, they’ll cause more interruptions to school life across the academic year, and create even more work for hard-pressed teachers already dealing with Covid disruptions.

However, we are where we are, and at least everyone knows what is going to happen. Now we need to get behind teachers, pupils, and their families, and support them through the rest of the academic year. High-stakes qualifications are stressful enough at the best of times, but in 2021 they’re going to be even more so, whatever steps are taken to mitigate things.

Hopefully by the time next summer’s results are awarded, life will be largely back to normal and we can get back to business-as-usual: bickering over discipline in schools, or why girls do better than boys. Bring it on!

Garvan Walshe: Gloomy Sturgeon projects competence. The Government doesn’t – and the Union may be the price it pays.

19 Nov

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

The Prime Minister’s reset has had immediate effects on Scotland. Out with “devolution is a disaster”, in with a “Union task force” (£). And in the Financial Times to boot, no longer boycotted by the No 10 media operation, but graced by a Prime Ministerial op-ed.

Details about the task force, which is to include English, Welsh and Scottish Tory MPs, are scarce. As the party with no Northern Irish MPs, it would be wise to add a Northern Irish peer, and David Trimble is an obvious candidate. Its mission to make the emotional and cultural case for the Union is welcome. Merely pointing to the fiscal benefits of Scottish membership of the Union is too easily spun as “we pay for you, so shut up” (a problem that scuppered Arthur Balfour’s unsuccessful “killing home rule with kindness” in relation to Ireland at the turn of the century).

The Scottish experience in the Union in the 100 years before the independence push has been a good deal better than the Irish (it’s only a decade since the last Scottish Prime Minister), but that hasn’t stopped the SNP dominating Scottish politics as Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond dominated the Irish scene.

Unlike Redmond and Parnell, the SNP doesn’t hold the balance of power at Westminster, but it has, because of the devolution, a platform to show how it would govern an independent Scotland.

Though it might irk unionists, who can point at failures in education, a self-inflicted wound over trans self-ID, the grubby mess involving Alex Salmond’s trial, and cruelty of anti-Covid measures applied to Scottish students, it’s a platform the SNP has made good use of.

It took maximum advantage of two events — Brexit and the Covid pandemic — to switch the balance of risk away from independence and convince Scots that leaving the Union had become the safer option. Brexit moved public opinion to give independence a slight edge. Covid has turned that slender lead into a solid advantage of around ten points.

The effect of Brexit will not be possible to address in the short term. There’s simply a difference of belief between the Government, which was elected to get Brexit done, after all, and Scottish public opinion, which is strongly against it, but safety and predictability are things the Government should, in principle, be able to get a handle on.

Number 10 has come in for heavy criticism for its management of the pandemic, which, however true it may be in an absolute sense, feels distinctly unfair when compared to Scotland.

England’s record has not been particularly good, but then neither has that of France, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, the United States, or most pointedly Scotland. All have had high death rates, found their test and trace systems overwhelmed, and struggled to gain acceptance for public health restrictions. These serious problems are common to almost all Western countries. An independent Scotland is just as likely to suffer from them.

What the SNP has been able to do has been to communicate stability (something that comes more naturally to Sturgeon than the bombastic Salmond). Unlike the Government in London, which has veered between seriousness and hope, Sturgeon has been consistently sober and gloomy. She has avoided overpromising on test and trace, and did not convert useful rapid antigen testing into a grossly over-the-top operation moonshot. This has allowed her to be perceived as far more competent despite having the same Western Standard Average performance in managing the disease.

There is, however, a useful lesson to be drawn from this. Projecting competence does not require achieving excellence. The public will react positively to a government that provides a realistic assessment of the difficulties faced. They understand that governing a country isn’t like pitching for investment in a start up, and would prefer a tolerably realistic assessment of the difficulties ahead then to endure an emotional rollercoaster of hopes raised only to be dashed.

This is not to rule out inspiration as a part of political rhetoric, but it is best for mobilising support for very long-term struggles, like the fight against climate change.

Scots go to the polls next May, and whether the SNP can get an overall majority at Holyrood will be a key test of their movement. Douglas Ross has an uphill battle to stop them, but reset towards realism from the Government could just convince wavering Scots that it’s safe to stay in.

Damian Green: Why a forced choice between a Brexity North and a Globalist South would be a false one – and damage our Party

16 Nov

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

2020 has brought many words to the forefront of our conversations: pandemic, lockdown, mask. Suddenly “reset” has become the latest addition to the thesaurus of 2020, as politicians and commentators ponder the future of the Government in the post-Dominic Cummings era. Is Boris Johnson about to head out in a new direction, or would any deviation from the path of 2019 be a politically unwise heresy?

We should start with the Prime Minister’s own favourite self-description. He always refers to himself as a One Nation Conservative. So I take it as a given that he wants to run a One Nation Government: one which seeks to unite, heal and provide opportunity for all. The interesting question is what does this mean for the coming decade, as the country seeks to recover from Covid-19 and make the best of Brexit.

The first change will need to be a simple change of tone. Crossing the road to pick a fight may be a rational strategy in the period of a campaign, especially one which you are not confident of winning, but it is a rotten way to run a government. There are absolutely battles that need to be fought and won, but any administration can only fight on so many fronts at once. If too many people are potential enemies to be denigrated and then crushed, then you rapidly run out of friends. Every government needs loyal friends.

This is a relatively easy reset. The deeper question is whether there also needs to be a significant change of substance. What will a One Nation Government concentrate on, and would that produce a more contented country, and therefore a platform for re-election in 2024?

The short answer is that the Government should re-read the manifesto on which it was elected, and concentrate its efforts on the big promises in it. Brexit has happened – so it should now move on very rapidly to making a reality of levelling up.

Every One Nation Conservative applauds the concept of giving particular help to parts of the country that have been left behind, but also thinks that there are national policies that allow us to do this without creating a competition between North and South.

Much better training and education, both for young people and older workers whose job skills have become obsolete, would benefit everyone, but would have particular effect in towns and cities where jobs have been harder to find.

In health policy, one lesson we have learned from Covid is that it is the co-morbidities that come from poverty and disadvantage that make people more likely to die. So meeting the manifesto commitment to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 can only be done through reducing health inequality. This in itself would be a One Nation priority, but its practical benefits would be most obvious in the Blue Wall seats.

I observe that there is a rearguard action from climate sceptics against this week’s environmental announcements from the Prime Minister. This takes the form of claiming that no one in the North cares about the environment, as they really want jobs and prosperity.

There are two answers to this. The first is that these policies contain vital measures to make sure that the jobs of the future come to this country rather than others. You can, as I do, want more power generated from wind, and want the people making wind turbines to do so in areas of the UK with traditional manufacturing skills. The second is that to assume that no one in the North cares about the future of the planet is patronising nonsense.

This attack on green policies that were also in the manifesto is a symptom of a wider misconception which is already beginning to spread: that the Conservative Party has to choose between the gritty Brexity immigration-sceptic North and the soft, affluent globalist South.

This is a counsel of despair, as it suggests that there is no way Conservatives can win a stable majority in the long term. More importantly it ignores the capacity of this Government to produce a raft of policies which unite large parts of the country. Strict immigration control (and indeed Brexit) are as popular in my Kent constituency as they are in Stoke, Wigan, or Darlington.

Crucially, though, so are policies which help people into jobs, which preserve a decent welfare system in a time of trouble, and which create the economic conditions that encourage the creation of new businesses. It is not northern or southern (or English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish) to want people to stand on their own and take their own decisions, while being entitled to help from society when they need it. This Conservative version of the welfare state is at the heart of modern One Nation thinking, and our longest period out of power was when Tony Blair and New Labour stole it.

Conservatism needs to be more than libertarianism, and more than small-statism. There are different traditions that come together in the Conservative Party, but what unites them is a respect for our country, out history and our institutions. We will never be “woke” because too much of what passes for progressive politics is transient and illiberal.

But if fighting a culture war from the right involves trashing our institutions, like Whitehall, the judiciary or the BBC, it is dangerously unconservative. A wise Conservative Government will always reform, but very rarely offer revolution. Above all, it should respect the rule of law.

A reset Government will double down on the many excellent promises it made the country last December, knowing that after the worst of Covid has passed it has three years to demonstrate to Conservative voters old and new some visible improvements in public services and communities. The One Nation Caucus is producing a series of policy papers to provide new ideas to help the Government on this course. Let’s hope the new word for 2021 is “recovery”.

Matt Smith: An unenforcable travel ban. No NHS transmission data. Thirty thousand lost jobs. But where is the media scrutiny of Labour in Wales?

21 Oct

Matt Smith was the Parliamentary candidate for Cardiff West in the 2017 General Election and has stood for the Welsh Assembly.

Sir Thomas Hopkinson, co-founder of Cardiff University’s Centre for Journalism Studies, said the media is the “The most watchful sentry of the state”, for a “‘yes’ press is fatal to good government”.

With Covid-19 generating 115 pieces of Welsh legislation in six months and laws drafted within “a couple of hours”, Wales needs its fourth estate more than ever.

There are years in which nothing happened and days in which years happen. The “disappointing” decision by Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, to impose a ‘hard Covid border’ preventing travel into Wales from ‘high Covid areas’ of England, Scotland’s central belt and Northern Ireland’ is in effect one of the latter.

Police Federation Wales has called the ban “unenforceable”.  Simon Hart deplores the suggestion West Walians are “on the lookout for people who shouldn’t be in those areas” for stirring ‘division and confusion’.  The ban triggered a round of competitive restrictions with Nicola Sturgeon eying up a Wales-style cross border travel ban for Scotland.

Drakeford told the Welsh Government’s press conference last Friday that his cabinet was still discussing the best way forward. Later that afternoon, Bubble Wales published a leaked letter from the Confederation for Public Transport’s Welsh lead revealing ‘behind closed doors meetings’with officials about a “circuit breaker” beginning at 18:00hrs on Friday 23 October through to 00:01hrs on Monday 9 November.

Leaking continued into Saturday, with The Prydain Review reporting discussions with Welsh business leaders over closing clothing retail.  Paul Davies, the Conservative leader, criticised confusion “handling of this announcement is causing… especially to the most lonely in our society and businesses who are struggling to recover”.

Monday saw the most dramatic divergence between the UK nations, with the announcement of a two-week ‘firebreak’ lockdown from this coming Friday until 9th November, known as a ‘circuit breaker’ everywhere else. Drakeford’s “short, sharp, shock” to civil society will see pubs, restaurants, hotels and non-essential shops closing. Years Seven and Eight can return to school after the half term break. Gatherings outside of households are banned.

Avoiding this malady was why exiting lockdown was slower in Wales. Many wonder why the Welsh Government hasn’t gone for hyper-local ward by ward lockdowns. If the Welsh ministers can “firebreak” for 17 days, what is to stop them extending this? They have already declined to rule out a New Year “firebreak”.

The WHO Europe, the UK Government’s SAGE and Dr Roland Salmon, a former head of Public Health Wales, have cast doubt on the merits of this approach. Public Health Wales admits it doesn’t hold or received data on transmission rates – which begs the question: how is the pandemic response measured? And with claims of critical care being at capacity and ICU units reaching breaking point unraveling, many question the proportionality and rationale of the firebreak.

In a classic Cardiff Bay gaffe, Vaughan Gething, the Health Minister, let on that firms may be eligible for UK Government support during lockdown. Welsh Government finances are better at locking down than helping businesses stay open. The Welsh firebreak seems like a lockdown made in Westminster.

Drakeford will now blame Downing Street for an economic crisis he has exacerbated. Wielding the visible hand of the state comes easily to the lockdown left, which believes that the gentleman in Cathays Park knows better. The First Minister also wants to consolidate the institutions of Welsh Government though “assertive devolution” – posturing to be different to Downing Street for the sake of it.

‘Devolve and forget’ renders devolved affairs into a province of the Welsh media. Yet BBC Wales is in the process of cutting 60 roles, while uncertainty hangs over dozens of posts at Media Wales, the publisher of the Western MailWales on Sunday and South Wales Echo heritage titles and WalesOnline.

‘Team Wales’ groupthink makes it harder to question to many Welsh establishment sacred cows. Yet this is no time for shrinking violets. At one point, nearly all media in Wales reported Bubble Wales’ leaky government special except BBC Wales. Welsh Conservative demands for a Senedd recall were overlooked. BBC Wales’ Politics Wales starmshow focused on Starmer and Gething, with only five minutes for Paul Davies.

Andrew RT Davies, the Shadow Health Minister, has called out the “down-right breathtaking arrogance” of Welsh ministers bypassing the Senedd. Welsh Labour MSs seem more interested in tweeting congratulations to Jacinda Ardern than scrutinising the liberticidal decisions of their own administration.

Daran Hill , a veteran Cardiff Bay Watcher, observed that Siambr-dodging ministers prefer government by briefing as it boosts the profiles and reach of hitherto unrecognisable politicians. Welsh ministers get soft-soaped while UK Government ministers face the full rigors of the national media.

They lack the openness or transparency to provide infection statistics on a ward-by-ward basis that are available in England. Only local authority figures are thought to be ‘sensibly used’, treating the public like children when information is important to sustain confidence  in rules.

Weak scrutiny lowers the bar. An anomaly in Welsh coronavirus law allows people from countries with high infection rates to visit low coronavirus parts of Wales (including via the Welsh Government-owned Cardiff Airport) while UK visitors are banned. Welsh students studying in England will be unable to return home and potentially miss Christmas.

Yet residents living near porous borders are not the playthings of politicians. Nor are livelihoods. The New Statesman has suggested ‘restrictions will only work if they are self-policed’. If the exhausted majority can’t afford to follow rules, compliance and civil obedience will become another casualty of the lockdown.

The hard man of devolution should savour the plaudits of the Cardiff condescendi and the nationalist comentariate. Drakeford now owns a legacy including 30,000 jobs lost in the first lockdown and the losses of those who will fall short before November.

A lacuna of scrutiny makes for bad policy. With power-gaming devocrats in control of the administrative state, governing by leak and pushing dodgy dossiers, Wales needs its ‘watchful sentries’ more than ever.

Radical: Gender ideology has penetrated our institutions – and now it’s the census that’s under threat

20 Oct

Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical.  She and Victoria Hewson, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.

If you thought self-ID was off the table, now the Gender Recognition Act battle has been won, you’d better think again. Gender ideology has penetrated our institutions so deeply that, even without self-identification becoming a matter of law, the insidious idea that one’s sex is a solely matter of personal demand is seeping into policy and practice, almost unnoticed. Yet the damaging effects of this will be far-reaching, and one of the most worrying examples regards the case of the upcoming census. 

Regular readers will know we believe that adults should be free to present themselves however they want (as long as this doesn’t harm others), and that such behaviour shouldn’t prevent anyone from being afforded equal respect. But this doesn’t equate to believing that the way someone presents themselves determines their biological sex — or that anyone should be mandated into accepting that to be the case!

Indeed, the activists pressing for such mandates endanger many people. We’ve charted the risks faced by vulnerable children, pressured into taking life-changing experimental drugs; the risks natal women face when forced to shared their single-sex spaces; and the risks we all face from attacks on societal commitment to truth.

National data collection is also under threat. And without trustworthy societal data, horrible problems go unnoticed, policy solutions go untested, and nobody is held to account. Sadly, one field that’s been heavily occupied by gender-identity activists is national statistics — in particular, they’ve targeted the censuses that are due to take place, soon.

The UK authorities in charge of censuses are the ONS in England and Wales, National Records of Scotland (NRS), and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). For the upcoming English, Welsh, and Northern Irish censuses in March 2021, and the Scottish census that’s been postponed to March 2022, they’ve confirmed that the wording of the compulsory-to-answer “sex question” will continue to offer only the standard answers “male” and “female”. Controversially, however, accompanying guidance will advise respondents to answer based on their self-declared gender identity.

This has raised serious concerns among social scientists and statisticians. In a letter to The Sunday Times, more than 80 academics noted that the guidance “will effectively transform the sex question into one about gender identity”, and highlighted their concern that “this will undermine data reliability on a key demographic variable”.

In an excellent Woman’s Place webinar on Sunday, one panellist summed up the situation: “How has this happened when everyone who knows about it, disagrees with it?”. Informed by the webinar, and our wider reading, including an important new paper by Dr Jane Clare Jones, here are some answers:

1) UCL’s Professor Alice Sullivan describes how the census has “collected data on sex since its inception in 1801. As a fundamental demographic variable, robust data on the number of male and female citizens is of vital importance to the planning and delivery of public services. Sex is a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act, therefore data on sex is clearly necessary for equalities monitoring”.

Yet, the aforementioned guidance will conflate the provable scientific concept of sex with the contested subjective concept of gender identity. This will make it unclear what’s being measured (violating the most basic principle of questionnaire design), and render the resulting data unreliable.

Now, it could be argued that the number of respondents who’ll answer the question with anything other than their biological sex will be very low, and that, therefore, this is relatively unimportant. But, aside from the principle of the matter, this neglects how most research using census data drills down deep, comparing findings relating to different variables and subgroups in different ways, making accuracy essential at all levels.

Of course the census covers sensitive matters, but regarding none of its other questions is it indicated that the respondent is not expected to give a truthful answer, but that they can instead choose to provide a response that makes them feel better, or that they wish were true.

UK census authorities have an obligation to maintain public trust in national statistical data. This poor guidance puts them in danger of losing their long-held ability to monitor differences between the sexes, and provide foundations for evidence-based policy.  

2) Until recently, the census “sex question” was thought self-explanatory. In 2011, however, guidance was provided advising transsexual and transgender people to respond based on their self-declared gender identity. This wasn’t subject to consultation, but, according to the ONS, was done “at the request of the LGBT community”. This doesn’t mean, however, that self-identified sex should be accepted as a necessary feature of the census. Professor Sullivan describes how: 

“it is not clear how data quality was affected [by the 2011 guidance], but it is likely that few respondents consulted the guidance. The shift to a “digital-first” census in 2021 means that any proposed guidance will be much more visible and accessible, compared to the 2011 census (which was predominantly paper based, with separate online guidance). It is also likely the number of respondents who might seek to answer the sex question in terms of their gender identity will be higher in 2021. Taken together, these factors introduce the potential for significant discontinuity with the 2011 and previous censuses”.   

Moreover, the 2021 census (in England and Wales, and Scotland) is in further danger of undermining the pursuit of good data collection, with the introduction of a voluntary question specifically pertaining to gender identity. This means respondents will first be asked their sex (but told to answer on the basis of their gender identity), and then asked about their gender identity (by reference to sex!).

Given increasing interest in gender identity, especially among young people, and the lack of reliable data on the number of UK trans people, there’s value to this question. However, that’s only if gender identity can be understood separately from sex: conflating these terms helps nobody, not least trans people, who we’re regularly informed are at risk of missing out on screening for medical conditions relating to their natal sex. Yet, gender-identity activists continue to press this dangerous and confusing conflation. 

3) The conflation of biological sex and gender identity — an astonishing failure of the census authorities — is but one example of the powerful institutional capture achieved by activists. Analysis by MBM tracks how the NSR was in regular and close correspondence with Stonewall. And much of the ONS’s output on the topic of the sex question betrays, through the use of tell-tale words and phrases, an uncritical absorption of post-modernist gender ideology.

4) It cannot be overstated how important the census is, not only to good public policy formation, but to good data collection and analysis, in general. A panellist on the Woman’s Place webinar referred to the census as “the mothership”. And anyone who’s ever done any research on any policy matter will be familiar with the use of census data; its methodological approach is, for everyone from academics to pollsters, a lodestar for survey design and so much more. Risking its standards, therefore, is tantamount to destroying a foundation post of our society.

5) The good news, however, is that it’s not too late — yet — to save the census! If you care about public policy, and believe that national statistics should be protected from gender ideology, then you’d better complain now. You’ve still got a small amount of time before the upcoming censuses to write to one or all of the following: the ONSNRSNISRA, your local MP, and the equalities minister, Liz Truss.

Simon Fell: Why there should be a permanent cut to business rates for retail

19 Oct

Simon Fell is MP for Barrow & Furness.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Our business rates regime assures both: as a tax it is one of the biggest contributors to the death of high streets up and down the UK.

I see the consequences of this first hand in my own constituency of Barrow & Furness. Where once the high street was the beating heart of Barrow, the life is seeping away. Dalton Road, the high street in Barrow, was where local residents met up to shop, gossip and laugh. My constituency surgeries are full of residents and business owners telling me that something must be done.

And we must do everything possible to turn the tide. Covid-19 has hit the high street hard. But even before the onset of the pandemic, retailers – large and small – were struggling to cope with the ever increasing rise in business rates.

It is a regressive tax which is not fit for purpose. Since 1990, business rates receipts have increased from £8.8 billion to £27.3 billion in 2017/18, an increase of 210 per cent compared with a 75 per cent increase in inflation. The UK now has the highest property taxes in Europe, nearly double the rate of the next nearest country, and business rates is a large reason why.

It is a tax which hits hard-working business owners, it is a tax which is a barrier to investment, and it is a tax which costs jobs.

It imposes a double whammy on the high street too: we haemorrhage ‘anchor’ stores like M&S and Topshop which makes it harder to attract shoppers to our independent stores. Those independents are the plucky heroes of Barrow’s street scene and they thrive against all odds. We can’t allow them to pulled into the same downwards spiral.

This tax also hits the north hardest. New research today by WPI Strategy categorically proves that the business rates burden is highest in northern towns such as Barrow and Leigh. Using store data from the thousands of Tesco stores across England and Wales, the paper shows 75 per cent of constituencies in the top 10 per cent of rates burden are in the North and Midlands, compared to just 26 per cent in London and the South. This is because the tax rate does not mirror economic performance, so for areas facing economic challenges the burden is much higher.

The research shows that shops in the top 50 constituencies most burdened by rates have four times the business rates burden of those in the bottom 50. If the top 50 constituencies faced the same burden as those in the bottom 50, they would save £50 million a year.

It is even more important for constituencies such as mine that the Government does all it can to ensure retailers can survive and thrive. Retail makes up 25 per cent more of the job market in the North, Midlands and Wales than it does in London

During Coronavirus, retailers such as the big grocers, took on tens of thousands more staff to help feed the nation. The sector is also a stepping stone into the world of work for many people, offering apprenticeships for youngsters up and down the UK.

But retail provides more than simply an economic boon to northern towns. Shops play an important psychological and social role within neighbourhoods. They are often the only touch points for some of the more vulnerable members of our community.

Encouragingly, the Chancellor recognises the value of retail to our social fabric and economic prospects. At the start of the pandemic he announced that retailers as well as businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors in England will not have to pay business rates for a year.

This was an extremely welcome move. There is further work going on here too: Town Deals and Future High Street Funds offer the chance to renew the high street and town centres like mine. But that renewal must be backed.

When the rates holiday comes to an end next year, we must continue to relieve the pressure on retailers. That is why I’m calling on the Government to introduce a permanent cut to business rates for retail. A 20 per cent reduction in the overall level of rates would make a huge difference to shop owners in towns like Barrow, Bury or Bolton. It would enable them to retain jobs, keep the doors open, and reduce the number of boarded up stores on our high streets.

Of all the low-hanging fruit available to the Government’s levelling up agenda, reducing business rates would be an easy win with an immediate positive impact.

Iain Dale: The number of people who tell me that they would ignore the rules of any new national lockdown is troubling

16 Oct

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

The number of people who tell me they would ignore the rules of any new national lockdown is troubling indeed. Despite YouGov reporting that 68 per cent of the nation support such an initiative, were to be in any way successful it would need the full co-operation of the British people, and I now wonder whether that would be forthcoming.

Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle back in the spring did an enormous amount of damage. It allowed people to say: “well, if it’s one rule for them and another for us, that’s it. I’ve done my bit’.

However ludicrous the logic might appear, it’s a view many people take. The story of Matt Hancock drinking in a bar after 10pm didn’t help either, no matter what the truth of it was.

It was a clever move by Keir Starmer to break with the Government and side with the scientists who want a circuit breaker lockdown. Clever politically – though perhaps not from any other standpoint.

For as Boris Johnson pointed out at PMQs, SAGE recognised, in the minutes of the meeting in September, that although it recommended a so-called ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown, it also that recognised the Prime Minister has to weigh this up with other considerations, not least economic and behavioural.

On the face of it, it seems more logical to adopt a regional and local approach to lockdowns. That’s the one that the Opposition leader wants to adopt on test and trace – yet otherwise he’s set on a national lockdown, even for areas with comparatively few cases.

No Labour spokesperson I have interviewed has been able to tell me how to explain to a business in North Norfolk why it should close, when in the whole of the area there are only 19 cases as I write.

Sometimes, we are led to believe that we’re the only country going through this. We hear very little in the media about what’s happening elsewhere in the world, apart from the United States.

Virtually every other country in Europe is introducing new restrictions and experiencing high rates of new infections – yes, even the sainted Germany.

As I write, France has hit 26,000 new infections. Emmanuel Macron has announced a curfew from 9pm to 6am in nine cities, including Paris. He has admitted that many of the country’s biggest hospitals are on the verge of being overwhelmed. Its test and trace system has been even more shambolic than ours, and has been largely abandoned. Where in the British media do you hear about that (apart from on my LBC show, natch)?

It’s as if every failing in the UK system is leapt upon as a further sign of both Johnson’s incompetence and deliberate spite towards a population that he clearly wants to die. It’s preposterous, of course. No one denies that there have been massive failings in all parts of the response to Coronavirus, but why is it that the failings in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland aren’t highlighted in the same way?

The figures in Scotland in many areas are worse than in England yet, because she does a press conference every day, Nicola Sturgeon is given a largely free pass by a supine Scottish media.

Holding a press conference in which you repeat yourself each day, but talk a good game, is no substitute for effective policy. And in most areas, Scottish government policy towards Coronavirus has been just as ineffective as that applied in other parts of the UK.

– – – – – – – – – –

On my Cross Question programme on Wednesday night, Richard Burgon’s answer to every question on Covid was to trot out a mantra of blaming Boris Johnson for every single failing.

Well, it’s a point of view, but to then rely on New Zealand as proof of the Prime Minister’s incompetence strikes one as incongruous to say the very least. He kept saying that New Zealand has done everything right, and if only we had followed its lead we’d have been OK.

Sometimes, you have to shake your head at the ignorance of some people. How is it possible to compare a country with a population density of 16 per square kilometre with another country which a density of 255 per square kilometre? How is it possible to compare a country whose biggest city’s population is 1.6 million, with one whose capital city has a population of nine million?

I could go on. The challenges of fighting a virus in a country like the UK is very different to that of New Zealand. Having said that, no one can deny the New Zealand government has done a brilliant job, and I am sure there are things we could learn from their experience.

Similarly, we can learn from other European countries, and you’d hope that there’s a lot of learning going on in the Department of Health. Sometimes, one has to wonder, though.

Take test and trace. Three months ago, I interviewed the Mayor of Blackburn. Because the National test and trace scheme was failing to trace people in Blackburn and the R rate was increasingly at a worrying pace, the Mayor and his local council decided to use its own public health people to set up a local test and trace system.

Contrary to some media outlets reported at the time, this was not set up in opposition to the Dido Harding system, it was designed to complement it. If the national system failed to trace someone in 48 hours, details were handed over to the local public health department. It worked like a dream.

‘This is the way forward,’ I thought to myself after the interview. And I assumed that arrangement this would be replicated across the country.

Not a bit of it. Only now is it beginning to happen – with the Department of Health, PHE and National Test and Trace finally working out that more local input is needed. Why has it taken so long for the penny to drop? Ask me another.

What we are seeing in so many areas is a failure of the machinery of government. This will be one of main areas for a public inquiry to delve into.

How can it be right for example, for Boston Consulting to be paid £7,340 per day for each of its consultants who have been hired to advise on test and trace? I do hope there’s a performance element to the contract…if so, they ought to be handing the money back

Obviously, a private company has to make a profit, but £7,340 per day equates to an annual rate of £1.8 million per consultant. There’s taking the piss, and taking the piss. And this qualifies on both counts. Whichever civil servant or minister signed this off has some very serious questions to answer.

And don’t get me started on the EU and the trade talks. I’d better leave that until next week, I think. If only for my own sanity and your blood pressure.