Daniel Hannan: Super Thursday’s results weren’t a victory for conservatism, but for our leader: Brexity Jezza

12 May

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

It was, as every pundit rushed to explain, an incumbency vote. The Conservatives held England, Labour held Wales and the SNP held Scotland. In a crisis, people rallied to the regime.

Yes. But let’s spell out, in full depressing detail, precisely what kind of regimes they were rallying to. They were rallying to free stuff. They were voting gratefully for administrations that were ladling out grants, subsidies and interest-free loans. They were cheerfully endorsing the idea of being paid to stay at home.

Indeed, they had little option but to vote for these things. Who was offering an alternative? What politician, in the current mood, wants to be the gloomster reminding everyone that accounts must be settled? Who feels like being a Cassandra, droning on about how the debts of the past 14 months will drag us down for years to come? I mean, look what happened to Cassandra.

The rise of big government is paradoxically bad news for Labour. Boris Johnson has always had a thing about bridges, airports and other grands projets. Even before the pandemic hit, the man who once described himself as a “Brexity Hezza” was starting to unscrew the spending taps. But the lockdowns altered the fiscal terms of trade utterly and irretrievably. Not so much Brexity Hezza now as Brexity Jezza.

Corbynistas are claiming belated vindication. “You see? There was a magic money tree after all! Your guy is spending more than our guy ever promised!” Yes, he is. And that is precisely Labour’s problem. How can Keir Starmer – how can anyone – criticise the government for not spending enough? The usual Labour line, namely that they’d be more open-handed than those heartless Tories, is redundant.

If it can’t attack the Government on fiscal policy, what else can Labour go for? Sleaze? Yeah, right, good luck with that. The country decided early on that it was fond of the PM. Sure, he might be seen as a bit chaotic, but he is doing things that people like. At a time when he is leading the UK through a world-beating vaccination programme, moaning about a redecoration that is not alleged to have cost taxpayers a penny is not just pointless, but self-defeating. Labour has made itself look unutterably small during a crisis. Wallpaper for Boris, curtains for Keir.

Green issues, then? Again, forget it. The PM has embraced the eco-agenda as wholeheartedly as any head of government on the planet. Labour would, as voters correctly perceive, pursue the same agenda, but in a less cost-effective and market-friendly way.

With economics, sleaze and environmentalism off the table, Labour is left only with the culture war. Oddly, this is one of the few issues that unites Corbynites and Starmerites. The trouble is, it doesn’t unite them with anyone else. The two Labour factions squabble furiously on Twitter, but both are leagues away from the patriotic working people who used to be their party’s mainstay.

As Khalid Mahmood, the Birmingham MP, put it after the result: “A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party”. Mahmood was the first British Muslim MP, and is generally happy to take up causes for his co-religionists outside Birmingham. But he has little time for identity politics – at least, not in the deranged form that the British Left seems hell-bent on importing from the United States. In common with most Brits of all ethnic backgrounds, Mahmood a patriot, proud of having had ancestors in the Merchant Navy in both world wars. That his love of country should set him at odds with the Labour leadership is telling.

The culture war is where Labour is weakest. Corbyn was more or less openly anti-British, siding automatically with any nation against his own, regardless of the issue. Starmer at least sees why this is unpopular, and does his best to be photographed from time to time with flags. But, coming late and awkwardly to patriotism, he offers a slightly cringe-making version. The country at large – not just Labour’s old base, but the 80-plus per cent of us who think that, with all its faults, Britain has been a benign force down the years – senses his inauthenticity. As I write, opinion polls suggest an 11-point Conservative lead.

The combination of social liberalism and extreme internationalism that Corbynites and Stamerites share is, outside a few cities with big universities, unpopular. That may change over time, of course. The historian Ed West, rarely a man to look on the bright side, believes that demographic change will eventually align the electorate with Labour’s purse-lipped culture warriors. The population, he glumly notes, “is going to be more diverse, more urban, more single, more university-educated and more impoverished by rental prices” – all trends that help Labour.

Perhaps so. Indeed, as Henry Hill noted on this site yesterday, the one region of England where the Conservatives have started slipping is my old patch, the South East. Local election results saw reverses in Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Oxfordshire and (by extrapolation from the new boundaries) Buckinghamshire. But, to be brutally frank, it makes little difference. Under the first-past-the-post system, the Tories can slide a lot further in the Home Counties without endangering more than three or four MPs. For the next couple of election cycles, at least, the Long Awokening won’t much matter.

No, far more alarming is the way in which fiscal conservatism has simply disappeared, an early casualty of the lockdowns. Even as the country reopens, there is almost no talk of cutting spending back to where it was, let alone of starting to repay our debts. Just as after 1945, a collective threat has made us more collectivist. We crave big government. We feel we have earned a pay rise, and we vote accordingly. The Labour Party may have had it; but so, alas, has the free market.

David Skelton: Why we should properly celebrate Saint George’s Day

23 Apr

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.

Every St George’s Day, I have a bit of a ritual, which goes beyond the celebratory pint. I try to read Orwell’s ‘Lion and the Unicorn’, possibly one of the finest essays in the English language and almost certainly the finest essay ever written about England.

For Orwell, Englishness was a profoundly positive force and something to be celebrated. He argued that, “there is something distinctive and recognisable about English civilisation… it has a flavour of its own… it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past… And above all, it is your civilisation, it is you… The suet puddings and the red pillar boxes have entered into your soul.”

His Englishness was very much of the left. The essay is, after all, subtitled “Socialism and the English Genius”, but he was very much aware that elements of the left were deeply hostile to Englishness and deeply antagonistic to patriotism.

For him, the English intelligentsia represented an “island of dissident thought”, with England being the “only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.” In some left-wing circles, there was “a duty to snigger at every English institution”, bemoaning the fact that throughout “the critical years” many left-wingers “were chipping away at English morale”, trying to “spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist… but always anti-British.”

That brings me to another annual St George’s Day ritual. Each year, without fail, various elements of the smug left-wing Twitterati remind us that “St George wasn’t actually English” and expect this information to act as a blinding revelation. Other elements of left wing social media either snigger at any mention of St George’s Day or seem appalled at any kind of patriotism.

We’ve all seen the Twitter accounts that treat the English or the British flag as something to be ashamed about and complain about “flag waving” and “jingoism”. These are often the same people who merrily waved Palestinian flags at the Labour Party conference and have European, Palestinian (and almost every flag other than their own) festooned across their Twitter account. They’re often sensitive souls too. One, with the inevitable EU flag on their social media profile, complained that Morrison’s use of the Union Flag on their porridge was “unpleasant and intimidating.”

The problem for Sir Keir Starmer is that such hostility to Englishness and patriotism isn’t just a fringe element in the modern left. In many ways it is the modern left. Despite the good work of the likes of Jon Cruddas and John Denham, a snobbery that looks down on working class patriotism has become the norm.

Little wonder that so many patriotic former Labour heartlands fell to the Conservatives in 2019. As Maurice Glasman argued, Labour became out of touch “with its history, traditions and the communities that cherished and created it. So out of touch that it couldn’t see the rejection coming.”

The new snobs of the left are completely wrong when they argue that Englishness and St George’s Day are somehow divisive. The truth is that Englishness is very much an inclusive identity, and that many of the recent events that brought us together as a country were based around Englishness. Who could forget the incredible feeling throughout the country when Gareth Southgate’s multi-racial England team made it to the World Cup semi finals in 2018? The only people who weren’t surfing the wave of patriotism seemed to be the Guardian columnists who were seemingly happy to support anyone but England.

Polls show that people from every background see Englishness as an inclusive and unifying concept. A poll for British Future showed that 61 per cent of people think that the St George’s flag should be flown more often and  a majority of ethic minority voters think St George’s Day parties should be held; 54 per cent of voters believe that paying more attention to Englishness would unite communities.  Nor is celebrating Englishness something that should detract from our precious union: 70 per cent of people in England regard themselves as both British and English.

The vast majority of people see England, its complex history and traditions with a sense of real pride. Centuries of freedom, expressed through our Parliament, is a central part of this pride. Today also marks Shakespeare’s birthday and it’s a reminder of the power of the English language, from the Authorised Version through to Byron and Blake. It has helped to define a culture that has made such a profound difference to the world. A uniquely English use of language is still very clear in the lyrics of people like Alex Turner, Ray Davies, Joe Strummer and Pete Doherty.

There’s so much to celebrate in English music, architecture and culture, which has spread English identity globally; and more locally, in the English pub, English humour, the beauty of the English countryside, and the great games of football and cricket.

Celebrating Englishness is something that will help to strengthen a sense of community. We have all seen local communities come together during lockdown and we should do what we can to maintain these new bonds.

Strengthening community is, of course, a key goal of the Government and Danny Kruger set out a number of sensible proposals in his excellent Levelling Up Our Communities report. Many of the ‘Red Wall’ towns that drove Brexit are also towns that have seen community facilities and “social infrastructure” damaged by deindustrialisation, austerity and economic decline.  Marking important occasions, like St George’s Day, isn’t going to revive community spirit single-handedly (that needs genuine empowerment of local people and renewal of local facilities), but it will be a step in helping restore community spirit.

Community will not be strengthened by an identity-obsessed left or by economically reductionist libertarians. As conservatives, we instinctively understand the importance of place, community and continuity and doing more to mark St George’s Day will strengthen all three. We should make a much bigger deal of St George’s Day and make it a day for everyone to share our pride in England and Englishness. Why not make St George’s Day a bank holiday in England as St Andrew’s Day is in Scotland or St Patrick’s Day in Northern Ireland?

As James Frayne argued on these pages a few months ago, bringing back local events is an important way of restoring local pride and a sense of community and the revival of St George’s Day events in 2022 and beyond would be a great way of bringing communities together.

When he was Mayor of London, Boris Johnson was right to push back against the lunacy of London spending millions on St Patrick’s Day parades but doing nothing for St George’s Day. He introduced free events and celebrations so that the day was no longer ignored in London and correctly argued that “St George’s Day is a time to celebrate the best of everything English.”

Just as London started to celebrate St George’s Day properly when Boris was Mayor, hopefully from next year onwards the rest of England can be encouraged to mark the day as well. This year, we can mark the occasion in a beer garden, in a socially distanced way. Next year, when the nightmare of Covid is behind us, hopefully people in villages, towns and cities around England will be able to come together to celebrate our Englishness and raise a glass to St George.

Radical: The ideology of gender identity has been adopted at UK prisons, putting biological women at serious risk

14 Apr

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and co-founder of Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate. She and Rebecca Lowe, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.

Transgender prisoners hit the US headlines last week, after it was revealed that hundreds of male prisoners in California have applied to transfer to women’s prisons under a law that came into force at the start of the year.

Under the new law, The Los Angeles Times reports: “all inmates will be asked upon admission about their gender identity, their pronouns, whether they prefer the female or male search policy, and if they want to be housed in an institution that aligns with their gender identity”.

It has been disclosed that 261 prisoners have requested to be transferred, of which only six wanted to be moved to a men’s prison. Twenty one requests have already been granted (and none have yet been refused) to trans-identifying male prisoners, meaning they will be moved to women’s correctional facilities, to the horror of many female prisoners and officers.

You may think this is just an example of the “woke” agenda being pursued by Democrats under the Biden administration. But regardless of your views on American politics, you should be aware that the UK has had such policies in operation for several years.

In England and Wales, under the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service’s policy, set out in The Care and Management of Individuals who are Transgender, prisoners are accommodated by default in accordance with their “legal gender”.

This means that biologically male offenders who have a gender recognition certificate (GRC) — and are, therefore, legally regarded as female (for almost all purposes) — are automatically housed in the women’s prison estate. In theory, if these prisoners are determined to pose a high risk to other prisoners, then they could be moved to the male estate. But owing to the policy’s extreme interpretation of the Equality Act (EA), the prison service is only meant to do this if they would take the same step in respect of a high-risk natal female prisoner — to avoid the risk of discrimination on the basis of gender reassignment.

However, male prisoners who do not have a GRC, and are, therefore, still legally regarded as male regardless of how they “self-identify”, may also request a transfer to a women’s prison, if they “express a consistent desire to live permanently in the gender with which they identify, and which is opposite to the biological sex assigned to them at birth”. In these cases, the matter is considered by a specialist board. If the members of the board find strong evidence that the prisoner is “living in the gender they identify as”, they may decide that a male prisoner should be accommodated in a women’s prison.

In Scotland, the policy is even more permissive. The Scottish Prison Service 2014 policy document Gender Identity and Gender Reassignment Policy for those in our Custody is proudly emblazoned with the logos of trans pressure groups Stonewall and the Scottish Trans Alliance. It states that “the accommodation provided […] should reflect the gender in which the person in custody is currently living”. There is no requirement for a GRC.

Both policies bear all-too-familiar hallmarks of regulatory capture: they refer to a person’s sex as “assigned at birth”, and uncritically adopt the ideology of gender identity. Both also purport to treat prisoners in accordance with the requirements of the EA. The England and Wales approach, for instance, proceeds on the basis that “[w]here individuals have gained legal recognition, they must be treated in accordance with their legally recognised gender in every respect” — citing the EA.

But this is, at best, a contestable assertion. Gender reassignment is a protected characteristic under the EA, and discriminating against a transgender person on that basis is indeed generally unlawful. This kind of discrimination is legally permitted, though, where it is a proportionate way of achieving a legitimate goal. Yet there is no evidence in either policy that the prison authorities considered whether excluding biologically-male prisoners from women’s prisons might be a proportionate way of protecting female prisoners and prison officers from the general risk posed to them from male offenders.

Fears about such risk are clearly not just a matter of abstract principle. Nor is it fair to claim, as one often hears, that they must simply be based in transphobic hostility towards transwomen. Rather, these fears stem from the unarguable position that women are at general risk from men owing to biological differences and patterns of offending. It is also important to note that the data on transgender prisoners in the UK prison systems is of poor quality — partly because of the recording of legal gender instead of sex — but that such information that has been pieced together shows that up to half of transwomen prisoners are sex offenders. Moreover, there have been horrifying documented instances of male prisoners who identify as female assaulting the women with whom they have been imprisoned.

On topic, you may have heard the news that a female prisoner who was sexually assaulted by a transwoman prisoner (who was serving a sentence for serious sexual offences against women and a child) has applied for a judicial review of the policy in England and Wales. The case derives from the claim that the policy indirectly discriminates against women, and violates their human rights, such as the right not to be subject to torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The application was heard in early March this year. The transwoman prisoner concerned was still at that time being held in the general population of a women’s prison.

The issue is complex, not least because there are clear risks for transwomen prisoners in men’s prisons. But what is not clear is why those prisoners’ interests should be (seemingly unquestioningly) prioritised over the interests of the vulnerable women in women’s prisons.

The MoJ argues that a legitimate aim of its policy includes “facilitating the rights of transgender people to live in and as their acquired gender (and) protecting transgender people’s mental and physical health”. This is may well be a legitimate aim — but it cannot be the only legitimate aim of the policy. Why have the MoJ, and UK prison services, defaulted to the assumption that biological women prisoners must be placed at any level of increased risk, in order to protect a certain category of male prisoners, many of whom have been convicted of violent or sexual offences, without even considering the exceptions available under the EA that allow for separate provision by sex?

In light of all of this, it is extremely disappointing that the chair of the Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee takes such a flippant and ill-informed view on the issue, claiming that concerns about transgender prisoners reduce to one isolated case.

It is also interesting to reflect on how recently overturned demands to introduce self-ID — both in relation to the Gender Recognition Act, and to the collection of Census sex data — would have played out in this context. The current “prisoners dilemma” exemplifies how distorted sex data, the GRA’s poor drafting, and questionable interpretations of the GRA and the EA by authorities, are already placing biological women at serious risk.  

Jeremy Quin: The Government’s defence investment ensures a modern, persistent and effective approach to future threats

31 Mar

Jeremy Quin is the MP for Horsham and Minister for Defence Procurement.

It has been an important two weeks for the UK’s foreign, defence and security policy. The Prime Minister set out through the Integrated Review the most significant reappraisal of UK foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, including a commitment to sustaining our strategic advantage through science and technology.

Last week’s Defence in a Competitive Age backs this up, signalling the biggest shift in defence policy in a generation. The Government’s vital investment in defence, amounting to an extra £24 billion over four years from today’s levels, ensures we will equip our Armed Forces to be modern, persistent and effective in deterring the threats of the future.

The following day through DSIS (the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy) we announced further reforms to ensure that this investment supports not just the Armed Forces, to which we owe so much, but invests in those who support them. The £85 billion we are investing in defence equipment and support over the next four years will drive not only the success of our Armed Forces but opportunity, capability and prosperity throughout the UK. 

Our defence sector is already world-renowned. Directly and indirectly it employs more than 200,000 across the UK. It is the world’s second largest global exporter of defence goods and services, helping support our allies and partners overseas. It generates valuable skills and technology, and is one of the many binding forces of our successful Union. Frigates are made in Scotland, satellites in Belfast, our next generation Ajax armoured vehicles in Wales and fighter aircraft in the north of England.

But we must do more to unlock the vast potential of this sector and drive the research, the skills and investment that will enhance prosperity, keep us secure and help us thrive as a science superpower.

To do so we have ended the policy of “global competition by default’ to better deliver our strategic goals. Of course competition has an important role to play, as will international collaboration. There will also be occasions when, to meet critical needs, purchases will be made from our friends and allies.

However we will be adopting a nuanced and sophisticated approach to procurement with a focus on on-shore capabilities and asking key questions. What more can we secure from this investment? How will this contribute to our science superpower status, level up the whole UK and deliver on skills, capability and export success? We will continue to welcome companies based overseas who are prepared to invest in maintaining the industrial capability we need onshore.

In the future you can expect greater integration between government, industry and academia. Our approach to combat air shows what this can achieve. A £2 billion investment, leveraging further industrial contributions, driving world-leading research and capabilities – and creating 2,500 apprenticeships – will deliver the future of combat air

We are investing £6.6 billion into R&D to support next-generation capabilities, from space satellites and automation to artificial intelligence and novel weapons. A clear signal to our industrial partners.

We will be more focussed on exports. For the first time in a generation we are working with our close friends in Australia and Canada on highly sophisticated UK warships. Our multipurpose Type 31 frigate has been designed with export in mind. We are determined to spark a renaissance in British shipbuilding, underpinned by UK orders but focussed on the huge export potential in maritime. Similar export opportunities across the waterfront of defence.

Lastly, DSIS will make procurement more agile, pulling through technology fast to the frontline. By driving improvements inside MOD and reforming our approach to suppliers, we will shift the dial. We are introducing “social value” to our procurements and will be doing more to help our imaginative SMEs – the lifeblood of defence – to continue their record of securing more of our defence spend.

So DSIS will make a huge difference to our country. It will ensure our people continue to have the right kit. It will contribute to the advanced skills and capabilities our nation requires as a science superpower. And it will fire up the engines of prosperity in every corner of our United Kingdom.

The Armed Forces always deliver for our country. DSIS will ensure that our investment not only secures our peace and security; its benefits will also be felt in our industrial heartlands, building greater prosperity in every part of the Union.

New and old reasons for flying the flag

25 Mar

Come with ConservativeHome for a stroll along Whitehall.  Do you see that Union flag above the Treasury, and do you know why it’s there?  Because of Gordon Brown.

In his first Commons statement as Prime Minister, Brown declared that he would lift the restrictions that barred the Union flag from flying above government buildings for more than 18 days a year.  The date explains his decision.  That statement was made on July 5 2007.  Five days earlier, Islamist terrorists had attempted a mass atrocity at Glasgow airport.

Brown’s initiative was an aspect of the focus in Westminster and Whitehall at the time on integration: flying the flag would help to unite the country.  It is worth pondering what he did in the wake of last week’s consequential BBC interview of Robert Jenrick.

“Your flag is not up to the size of Government interview measurements,” Charlie Stayt, a BBC Breakfast presenter, said to the Housing Secretary as an interview ended.  “We’ve seen it every day, haven’t we?” he added to his co-presenter, Naga Munchetty, who was interjecting “always a flag”.

There was a rumpus, and now comes the news that whereas Brown allowed government buildings to fly the flag each day, Oliver Dowden will require them to.  It’s remarkable what a single interview can achieve.

One might react to the Culture Secretary’s decision by wondering if the presenters had a point.  Englishness and understatedness are bound up together, and seldom more so than when it comes to patriotism.  There’s no need to make an exhibition of it in order to show that we have it, and that Ministers are now seldom filmed at work without a Union flag is cynical and exploitative.

Our view is that, whatever may be said of this take, it neglects the context: the way in which Munchetty turned her head away in scorn, for example, as she added: “there’s a picture of the Queen there as well”.

But do you see what we did there?  Englishness and understatement, we wrote.  But the point Brown was making was about Britishness.  The sum of his argument was that amidst a new terrorist threat, much of it from people who had been born or raised here, we needed to rally round what the flag is – a symbol of our common nationhood and identity.

Both now face a new though democratically pursued, non-violent threat: Scottish nationalism.  Flying the Union flag above a building is a response to it.  So would be putting it on a plaque in a facility in Scotland financed by the Shared Prosperity Fund.

That the BBC is the British Broadcasting Corporation has been said often enough for us not to repeat it at length, but one would hope that its presenters understand it.  If enough of them don’t, and show it, their disdain will be self-defeating.  Public support for the Corporation will fall and the licence fee will end sooner.

There is a bigger context.  It is easy for the part of the the UK that has over 80 per cent of the population to assume that it’s the whole – to bask, as it were, in the superiority of numbers, get complacent, and take our country for granted.

Broadly speaking, this is what has been happening (Northern Ireland’s peculiar circumstances aside) since Margo MacDonald won the Glasgow Govan by-election for the SNP in 1973.  There is a case for the devolution settlement in Scotland that Brown co-crafted and one against, but it is incontrovertible that, if one’s measure is the stability of the Union, it has failed.

And if Ministers sit down for broadcasts with the Union flag, don’t worry about them using it for advantage.  The British people are wonderfully knowing, and can sniff out insincerity in a moment.

If Boris Johnson does so, for example, they will make a judgement about him and his party.  Ditto Keir Starmer.  Given the adolescent state of the left, in auto-protest against Britain’s history as a whole, the comparison is unlikely to be his advantage.  That may be rough justice on Starmer himself, but there you go.

Ultimately, the Jenrick saga is a reminder that patriotrism is not only a matter of duty but also one of taste.  If he had appeared in that interview wearing a small Union Flag badge on his lapel, even the most left-wing BBC presenter would be unlikely to have said a word.

If, on the other hand, he had appeared in the full Union Flag three-piece suit, complete with red white and blue top hat, even the most right-wing ConHome commenter would have assumed that he had either a) gone mad or b) was making a leadership bid, or both.  Or was preparing to fly himself from the bows of a warship.

Whether English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, we should get used to that taste being a bit broader, a bit more transatlantic-flavoured, than it used to be.  There are good reasons for it.

Interview with Douglas Ross: Sturgeon is not in the clear, and is part of a “conspiracy against getting out the truth”

24 Mar

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin.” So says Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, at the start of this interview.

He goes on to condemn “the conspiracy against getting out the truth” which runs through the Sturgeon-Salmond feud, with the SNP Government promoting “a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability”.

Ross discusses how the Scottish Nationalists can be beaten in the forthcoming Holyrood elections, the need for the Union to be defended “as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border”, and the case for devolution from Holyrood to local councils.

He says he is looking forward to campaigning with Boris Johnson in the Holyrood elections, but points out that contrary to the Nationalists’ propaganda, he, not Johnson, is the Conservative leader in Scotland.

ConHome: “James Hamilton has cleared the First Minister of breaking the ministerial code, but the Salmond Inquiry Committee says its work was severely hindered by the Scottish Government’s reluctance to produce key documents. What’s your reaction to these verdicts?”

Ross: “James Hamilton has expressed frustration that redacted information risked an ‘incomplete and at times misleading version of what happened’.

“And the Salmond Inquiry Committee confirms that Nicola Sturgeon’s government hindered their work by withholding key documents and only willingly giving documents ‘that would advance a particular position’.

“This idea that Sturgeon is in the clear is shameless SNP spin. The findings of this parliamentary committee are damning of her and her government and expose a contemptuous culture of secrecy, cover up and lack of any accountability.  And at the heart of this, women who came forward with serious allegations have been completely let down by the whole process.

“The thought that no one should take any responsibility for the many failings in this process is unbelievable.”

ConHome: “The Salmond-Sturgeon quarrel is surely unintelligible to many people who don’t follow politics. Their sense will be of a row about the former’s private life and who knew what when. Why is it important?”

Ross: “Well first of all it is really difficult for people to follow. It’s been ongoing now for several years, since the allegations first arose.

“Then there was the launch of the Scottish Government’s harassment procedure, and then the response from Alex Salmond, who challenged that.

“And since then we’ve had accusation and counter-accusation from Team Salmond and Team Sturgeon.

“And I’m not supporting one over the other. I’m just trying to get to the truth in all this.

“And it’s very difficult to get through to the truth when an inquiry that Nicola Sturgeon agreed would be set up, a cross-party inquiry, chaired by an SNP MSP, where the Scottish Government agreed the remit, the membership, and all aspects of how the committee could go about their business.

“It has been baulked on I think now more than 50 occasions by the Scottish Government, in terms of getting crucial information out there.

“And I think where we’ve got to now is a committee report that’s published, that believes Nicola Sturgeon did mislead Parliament. I believe on numerous occasions she’s misled the Scottish Parliament and Scottish people.

“At the heart of this, two women have been let down by a procedure that did not allow their complaints to be fully investigated and heard.

“The people of Scotland have been let down by a First Minister who’s not been truthful.

“And the people of Scotland have also been let down by a First Minister who has continued with action against the advice of her own lawyers that has cost in excess of half a million pounds.

“So these are all reasons why Scottish Conservatives believe Nicola Sturgeon’s position is untenable.”

ConHome: “Just leaving aside the money, the denial of information to MSPs, the Scottish Government going after publications like The Spectator that put up the reports, do you believe Salmond’s claim that there’s a conspiracy against him in which Sturgeon is implicated?”

Ross: “No I don’t. I believe there’s a conspiracy against getting out the truth. Everything seems to revolve around secrecy. The Scottish Government have been forced, after votes in Parliament which they ignored, with other measures we forced them to release some of the legal advice they’d received, but my conspiracy is more focussed on why can’t we just get the truth, rather than Salmond saying he was stitched up, or Sturgeon saying don’t believe him.”

ConHome: “Like many others, we’re concerned that the SNP may win a majority in this year’s Holyrood elections. How likely do you think this is to happen?”

Ross: “Well I’ve said since August, since I became Scottish Conservative leader, I didn’t think an SNP majority was inevitable, and I didn’t think another independence referendum was inevitable.

“I don’t underestimate the challenge we face in Scotland. The SNP have significant support among those who will vote for the party they think has the best chance to deliver them independence.

“We know back in 2014 45 per cent of Scotland wanted to separate from the rest of the UK. Therefore they see the SNP, for all their other failures, as being the party that could best deliver that.

“So it’s always going to be a challenge against them. But we have seen in recent weeks a shift away from the SNP.

“This image of them being no better than any other political party, having been in government for too long, and being shrouded in secrecy and sleaze, is having an impact.

“And I think at a time, particularly during a global pandemic, when we still need the trust of the public to follow the advice the Government are issuing, it not only is so damaging for Scottish politics as a whole, it could have an impact on our recovery out of this pandemic, if people don’t feel they can trust the First Minister.”

ConHome: “We’re not only worried the SNP may win a majority. We’re also worried about what will happen if they don’t. Down here in London, in Westminster, the UK Government will go ‘Phew, that’s all right then! They haven’t won a majority – we can stop worrying about the Union and think about something else.’

“Are we right to be worried?”

Ross: “I think it’s a genuine concern. I think there’s been a real shift in the emphasis from the UK Government. We’ve seen it in recent weeks and months – more focus on the Union, and Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.

“I again have been beating this drum since I became leader. I gave the controversial speech at my first Scottish fringe event at the party conference, saying you know, we really had to wake up to the challenges.

“And when I say we, I mean the Conservative MPs, supporters and people across the rest of the United Kingdom who in some form or other didn’t think that Scotland leaving the UK would have a big impact on them.

“Of course it would. It would affect the whole of the United Kingdom. That fabric of our Union weaves through us all whether we’re Scots, English, Welsh or Northern Irish.

“But I do think the case for remaining a strong part of the United Kingdom has to be made as strongly south of the border as it is north of the border, and I’m seeing promising signs with that, in terms of the Government wanting to invest directly into Scotland through local councils.

“The SNP throw up their arms and say this is disrespecting devolution. But devolution is having two Parliaments, and both Parliaments and both Governments should work together to improve the lives of people in Scotland.

“It’s typical of the SNP, who claim to speak for the whole of Scotland, which they absolutely don’t, to decry any attempt of the UK Government to show where they invest in Scotland, and I just want to see more of that, and certainly from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and everyone in the Cabinet I get the reassurance that they’re up for this fight.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that the Conservatives, the Conservative and Unionist Party, can’t save the Union on its own. It’s going to have to work with other Unionist parties, in particular with Labour.

“Is that right, and how easy is it to work with Labour given their difference on what the political solution should be?”

Ross: “Well I think it’s absolutely right. We saw in the 2014 referendum that the parties put down their political differences and worked together to achieve success, with 55 per cent of the population voting to remain in the United Kingdom.

“However, since then we’ve seen a Labour Party in Scotland that’s been decimated, that’s a shadow of its former self. And sadly I think their response has been to out-Nat the Scottish Nationalists.

“And that is never going to win them back the support they need. So I’ve made the offer and I made the offer to Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader at the time, that I would work with him if we could kick the SNP out of power.

“And he turned that offer down. When his replacements were standing as the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party I said to Monica Lennon and Anas Sarwar, would they work with me to get rid of this tired and failing SNP Government, and they both turned that down within 30 seconds.

“So I’ll continue to hold out that olive branch. I think it is a way forward, I think it is what people want in Scottish politics, for the parties to work together, get away from this division of the past and focus on our recovery in Scotland.

“I’ll continue to make that offer and I hope at some point the Labour Party wake up to their responsibilities and accept it.”

ConHome: “In your speech on 3rd October to the virtual Conservative Party conference you said that

“far too many members in England…do not value the importance of the Union to their own British identity… They too often see Britishness and Englishness as one and the same. These attitudes extend to how we govern our country.”

“Are those attitudes improved now that Dominic Cummings has left Downing Street?”

Ross: “Well I always said those comments were not directed at any one individual. And indeed they weren’t just directed at the Conservative Party.

“I think we saw from the Labour Party, who oversaw devolution with the referendum in Scotland in 1997, that obviously led to the first Scottish Parliament in 1999, from Whitehall almost a view of ‘devolve and forget’.

“As if we could just provide funding to Scotland and not worry about how that was spent.

“And what we’ve seen over the last few years of SNP control in Holyrood is significant financial support going to the Scottish Government, the latest budget this year is the highest budget ever delivered to the devolved Scottish Parliament.

“But we’re seeing our standards in education falling. We’re seeing hospitals being built that can’t take any patients. We’re seeing our economy, pre-Covid, more sluggish than other parts of the United Kingdom.

“So it was a wake-up call to those within Government and outwith that we have to get rid of this devolve and forget attitude.

“Somehow a narrative that the English don’t care what happens to Scotland or the Welsh don’t care or those in Northern Ireland don’t care actually only aids the Nationalists.”

ConHome: “Some questions about the way the devolution settlement is working in Scotland.

“First of all, do you agree that Parliament should in some respects have more powers – for example, that MSPs should be covered by parliamentary privilege?”

Ross: “Yes. So I believe there are – I set out in a speech I did to Onward recently – some suggestions for strengthening the accountability within the Scottish Parliament.

“This should be done on a cross-party basis, I’m not saying the Conservatives have all the answers to this issue.

“But I think it was particularly revealing, to people across the country, that it took a Member of Parliament standing up in the UK House of Commons to reveal information that was not able to be revealed to MSPs sitting on an inquiry looking into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints and the procedure they set up.

“I’ve already raised issues about the Lord Advocate in Scotland being the head of the prosecution service, and also a political appointment sitting round the Scottish Government Cabinet table.

“I also think we could learn from the UK Parliament in terms of electing select committee chairs. I’ve sat in both Parliaments and been on committees in both, and I think we have far more rigour in our investigations and our questioning with select committee chairs who are elected by the whole House rather than party appointments that we have in the Scottish Parliament.”

ConHome: “Do you agree that a central problem with the devolution settlement in Scotland is not that there’s too much devolution but that there hasn’t been enough.

“And on that theme, you’ve called for local councils to have more powers, the power to set business-rate-free zones and to build more railways, deliver universal broadband. Could you expand on that?”

Ross: “Yes, so first of all I’m not advocating for more powers to go to Holyrood. I don’t think people suggesting now just devolve some extra powers and that’ll stop people wanting independence is credible.

“And I also say to the SNP, if you continue to call for more powers for the Scottish Parliament, just start using the ones you’ve got.

“In terms of devolution, what I want to see is more devolution from the Scottish Parliament to local councils.

“I do believe that local councils are better at delivering many of these policies. I was a councillor for ten years.

“For many people now in Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood seem as distant as the UK Government and the UK Parliament did in London prior to 1997 when there were calls for devolution.”

ConHome: “Aberdeen Council is reported to be applying for grants directly from the Shared Prosperity Fund. Do you know how that’s going?”

Ross: “There’s been an awful lot of positive discussion. I’m in regular contact with Douglas Lumsden, Co-Leader of Aberdeen City Council, he’s one of our excellent candidates on the North East list for the election in May, and with Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, who sees this as a way forward.

“He can see the frustration of councils in Scotland, particularly those outwith the central belt.”

ConHome: “Do you believe that Westminster should deploy the powers it has: for example, the Political and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee could launch an inquiry into the conduct of the civil service in Scotland, over why laws seem to have been crafted especially to investigate Alex Salmond, even after the Head of Propriety and Ethics in Whitehall expressed discomfort.”

Ross: “I think we have to look very closely at how the Scottish Government civil service worked throughout this process, and obviously the head of the Scottish civil service is answerable to the head of the UK civil service.

“I also think there’s an opportunity for the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, which I sit on, to look into it. It’s chaired by an SNP member, so we may have some challenges in getting that into our future work programme, but absolutely, I think there is a clear role for scrutiny within the UK select committee system, following on from the report of the Scottish Parliament committee.”

ConHome: “Should the UK Government here do more to involve the Governments of the devolved administrations in their decision-making, over immigration, say, or trade deals?”

Ross: “Well I mentioned that in my Policy Exchange speech, and it was more just about more dialogue, it’s not saying direct decision making.”

ConHome: “At one point last year, Michael Gove was reported to think that just occasionally, there’d be a case for inviting Nicola Sturgeon and the leaders of the devolved administrations to sit in at Cabinet meetings. What do you think?”

Ross: “No I don’t think that would be particularly helpful. Clear, distinct subject matters which affect the whole of the UK such as travel arrangements, quarantine arrangements, restrictions that may differ north or south of the border or into Wales, are right to be focussed on a small committee, and I’ve sat in on a number of these committees when I was a Scotland Office minister, so I can see the value of them.

“I think inviting devolved leaders to actual Cabinet meetings is a step too far, and I’m not sure it would be reciprocated by offers of the Prime Minister to go to the Scottish Government Cabinet meetings or the Welsh Assembly Cabinet meetings.”

ConHome: “How substantial a problem for your election campaign this year is Boris Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland?”

Ross: “I don’t see it as a problem. I see it as an opportunity for me to continue to show that I’m the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. I am the leader standing for election to Holyrood.

“NIcola Sturgeon and the SNP are already using this in their leaflets, saying ‘vote for the SNP or vote for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party’.

“But the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. His policies are having a positive impact in Scotland, such as the vaccine rollout; the levelling up funding will see investment into Scotland.

“But in terms of the running of the party here, our manifesto, our team, it’s led by me. I think that’s right for the Scottish Conservatives and it’s certainly the approach I’m taking into the election.”

ConHome: “Are you looking forward to Boris joining you on the campaign trail?”

Ross: “Yeah. It’ll be a very different campaign trail, so let’s be honest, he’s not going to be popping up every couple of days to do visits, and we’re all trying to get our head round exactly what this campaign’s going to look like.

“But I was at Political Cabinet last week, we had a good discussion on the election in Scotland, and obviously in Wales, and there’s big elections in England, we’ve got by-elections coming up as well, so the Prime Minister’s going to be busy all over the country.

“But we’re probably going to do an awful lot of it like this. It’ll be Zoom meetings. We’ll see how it all pans out.”

ConHome: “Do you know Oliver Lewis?”

Ross: “Yes.”

ConHome: “What was your take on him?”

Ross: “Yeah, I worked well with Oliver, first of all he was always extremely engaged with Scottish MPs during the Brexit negotiations, and then when for a short time he was the head of the Union Unit I spoke to him a number of times, and I think he had some really good things to offer.

“Clearly it didn’t work out, but he is someone I will still look at what he says and listen to what he says.”

ConHome: “It doesn’t make a difference that the Unit’s no longer there?”

Ross: “I don’t think so. Clearly the change in personnel was something that attracted quite a lot of media attention. I actually think the move to the Cabinet committee system, with senior members of the Cabinet, is a good thing, having the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Minister of the Cabinet Office, the Secretaries of State like Alister Jack, it’s a powerful committee.”

ConHome: “One of the things people know about you is that you’re a great football referee. What help is that to you in your present role? Because your role now is partisan, you’re on the pitch, you’re trying to wipe the floor with the opposition.”

Ross: “Well I don’t quite get onto the pitch, because I’m an assistant referee, just from the sidelines, and I’m not even doing that at the moment, I’ve got a hamstring injury.

“But I do think for political leadership it’s a good thing, because you’ve got to take instant decisions, based on what you see in front of you, knowing that that decision will not please everyone, in many cases my decision will please no one, and you’ve got to have a pretty tough skin to do it in the first place and to defend and stick by your decisions.”

Emily Carver: Making misogyny a hate crime would be a big mistake

24 Mar

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Calls to make misogyny a hate crime are not new. But it is only now, following the Sarah Everard tragedy, that the Government has ceded to what were hitherto pretty leftfield demands.

From autumn 2021, police in England and Wales will be required “on an experimental basis” to record crimes of violence motivated by a person’s sex or gender. This has been heralded by feminist groups and prominent politicians such as Labour MP Stella Creasy as a “campaign win”. In their view, we are now one step closer to keeping women and girls safe from male-perpetrated violence.

While the law remains unchanged (for now the police will only be asked to collect data on such incidents), the Law Commission – whose review into current hate crime legislation is yet to be published – has already recommended that sex or gender-based “hostility” be added to the existing five characteristics protected in hate crime laws.

Given the emotionally-charged reporting and outpouring of public emotion we have seen in recent weeks, it seems likely that a government under immense pressure to “do something” will press ahead with expanding the definition of a hate crime into law.

Such a knee-jerk reaction would simply represent yet another example of ministers using legislation to appease single-issue activist groups without considering the possible unintended consequences.

It should worry us all that a Conservative government is even on board with the concept of a hate crime. Assault, criminal damage, harassment, murder and many other grievous offences are already crimes. Adding the complexity of motivation – which is often wholly subjective – means the law is no longer even-handed. Any person from a protected minority group can automatically demand a higher penalty purely based on their perception of motivation, which may or may not be accurate.

Furthermore, as we have seen with recent and increasing attempts to clamp down on offensive speech in Scotland, hate crime legislation creates a scenario in which thoughts and ideas are subject to the criminal law – an Orwellian overreach of state power that has no place in our liberal democracy.

And it won’t stop here – it never does. Demands that we expand the definition are growing: consider how the Greater Manchester Police reportedly include “alternative subculture groups” like goths, emos and punks in that increasingly nebulous group, “protected minorities”. Should verbally abusing someone who dresses as an emo really carry a higher penalty than abusing someone with no visible minority status?

Will it create a more tolerant society, one that shields those who someone, somewhere, believe need protection? Did anyone ask the punks what they think? Or are there simply no limits to increasing the burden on our police offers and criminal justice system?

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the water muddies further when it comes to including sex or gender in hate crime legislation. One would assume that hate crimes are there to protect minorities, but if an offence can be registered as a hate crime on the basis person’s sex or gender, in theory, any crime could be argued to be motivated by hate.

One has to ask whether the Stella Creasy’s of this world have considered that heterosexual white males could, in future, be victims of a hate crime. But if, as is likely, this legislation is designed to solely target misogyny, is it really a win for feminists? After all, giving women protected status would mean men and women are no longer deemed equal before law – a move that few would regard as progressive.

Despite years of campaigning for equality between the sexes, the direction of travel is moving firmly towards more policing of male and female interactions rather than less. The Prime Minister has already advocated such measures as the introduction of plain clothes police in bars and clubs to “protect women”, while madcap proposals to introduce a curfew for men were taken far more seriously than they ever should have been.

There is also a sad irony that many of those on the progressive left who have demanded that misogyny become a hate crime often have so little to say when it comes to less politically expedient issues, such as gender self-identification and the systematic abuse of under-aged girls at the hands of grooming gangs. They’re fixated on fashionable, woke causes that set women in reverse and the real frustration is that often these feminist warriors are in a position to influence and move the dial on the very real challenges we still face.

In the past year, we have grown accustomed to state involvement in almost every aspect of our lives. If the Government is serious about protecting women from male-perpetrated assault, they should concentrate on enforcing existing laws and making sure our criminal justice system is fit for purpose –  last year just 3.6 per cent of reported sexual offences resulted in prosecution – rather than legislating according to whichever activist group shouts the loudest.

Grant Shapps: Our plan to supercharge the Union’s transport links can help make us Europe’s biggest economy by 2050

15 Mar

Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.

When the Union with England Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1707, creating “One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain”, it could take ten days to travel the 400 miles from Edinburgh to London in the summertime, and a dozen in the muddy winter. Coaches lurched their way along the rutted track that was the Great North Road for hour upon unforgiving hour, their less prosperous passengers sitting up top, exposed to the merciless elements.

By the end of the eighteenth century, macadamized roads and more refined vehicle design had more than halved the journey time. Royal Mail coaches, introduced in 1784 and representing the high technology land transport of the day, were capable of nine miles per hour.

Things have improved somewhat in the ensuing centuries, but there are still hurdles to overcome. The A1, descendant of the Great North Road and the longest numbered carriageway in the United Kingdom, is still single lane in stretches, an enduring reproach to our national transport infrastructure.

There are other bottlenecks impeding travel between the four nations of our Union, such as the A75 which runs through the south west of Scotland, carrying traffic to and from Northern Ireland via the port of Cairnryan. A strategic route, heavily used by HGVs, it is single lane for most of its length. Congested roads impede access to north and south Wales, too. And trains between Scotland and the rest of Great Britain are slower than they could or should be.

This is not good enough if we are to remain in the top ten, the premier league, of economic powers in the twenty-first century. Faced with competitors counting their populations in hundreds of millions, the United Kingdom must work hard to maintain its place at the top table, maximising resources, human and physical, in all its constituent nations. We are 68 million facing competition from China (1.44 billion), India (1.38 billion) the United States (330 million) and Indonesia (270 million).

So we cannot afford to waste the talents and productivity of anyone, be they in Coleraine or Kirkcaldy, Caernarfon or Carlisle. Placing all our economic eggs in one basket – South East England – is not an option if we are to continue punching above our weight. A risk-averse infrastructure investment model that simply reinforces success, pumping money into projects serving London and her hinterland, will consign us to mediocrity. We must take a leap of faith, investing in transport links and new industries across the Union to mobilise our full national potential.

That is why the preliminary Union Connectivity Review, published by the Prime Minister last week, is so important. Its key recommendation is the establishment of a strategic transport network binding the UK into one closely integrated whole. Routes that serve this aim – be they the A75, the A55 in north Wales or the air corridors to Northern Ireland – will be accorded favoured status.

That means widening roads, extending high-speed rail and reducing Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights. It could – could – also mean a fixed link from Scotland to Northern Ireland, and a feasibility study into a tunnel or bridge is being carried out. Madness, say some. The most natural thing in the world for an ingenious and enterprising people to consider, say I.

If this Government has a motif then it is surely an open-minded pragmatism, a willingness to experiment with varying mixtures of private and public investment to produce the desired outcome. As Conservatives, we don’t believe in governments trying to pick winners – we leave that to business.

But we can help build the racetrack, providing the transport, telecommunications and green energy infrastructure firms need to compete successfully. Government in this country should never again seek to dominate the commanding heights of the economy through traditional nationalisation – that way lies failure – but it can incentivise, incubate and facilitate business.

Willingness to experiment requires self-confidence. We British have lost some of ours over the past decades, maybe due to our psychological dependence on the European Union. In our post-imperial malaise, we sub-contracted our destiny to a supranational entity for almost half a century, and it is scary for some of us to be going it alone once again. Britain is not capable of independent greatness, argue the naysayers.

I beg to differ. Stand-alone countries like South Korea (population 51 million) and Israel (nine million) do not fear to chart their own course, and we are a much bigger player than either. They nurture native industries, cultivate partnerships across the globe and trust their own judgement in terms of national self-interest. This despite chaotic or threatening neighbours.

A true Tory should never learn his or her place. We believe in the individual’s power to mould their own destiny, to realise their ambition. So it should be with our country. Let’s stop agonising about our place in the world or fixating on the past and head towards the future with a spring in our step.

Following the long dark winter of Covid, the shoots of future success are appearing. The tremendous success of the vaccine programme shows what this United Kingdom can do when it abandons self-doubt, rolls up its sleeve – literally – and gets on with it. We succeeded precisely because we were prepared to act swiftly and unilaterally – and were legally free to do so. How would an independent Scotland be faring now with vaccination if it were hitched to the EU, as the SNP desires?

Those who believe Brexit will condemn the UK to stagnation and decline should look at the latest survey of 5000 company chief executives by accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers. These hard-headed businessmen, not given to flights of unjustified optimism, now rate the UK fourth in the world – behind only the USA, China and Germany – as a preferred destination for investment. This is up one place on last year, the UK having overtaken India. American and German companies look favourably on investing here. So let’s stop doubting ourselves.

I’ll stick my neck out. I believe the UK will be the largest economy in Europe by 2050. What was once the workshop of the world can be its laboratory – a scientific superpower, as the Prime Minister puts it.

Certainly, we can retain our position among the top 10 economies, even as rising living standards in populous emerging economies like Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico propel them into this club. Free of euro-sclerosis, we among the current four G7 economies in Europe have the best chance of remaining in this top tier.

So long, that is, as we stick together as one United Kingdom. Our four nations, the most successful joint venture in history, are so much stronger together, sharing our talents, supporting and protecting each other. We know this to be true because we have been through so much together in our long island story, and not only survived but triumphed.

Tradition is a wonderful thing and we Brits do it so well. But here’s one tradition I suggest we ditch as we trade the status of stately old nation for disruptive economic streetfighter. Let’s stop making a virtue out of losing gracefully. And win.

The Budget. Sunak’s strong message that operation “level up” is under way.

4 Mar

There were all sorts of striking announcements in Rishi Sunak’s Budget yesterday, from the £5 billion grant scheme to help hospitality businesses in England recover from the pandemic to the less welcome news that the Government will raise the rate of corporation tax to 25 per cent.

The Government will be told it spent too much/ too little; that it shouldn’t have gone for corporations, and so forth. But one thing you cannot accuse it of is forgetting its commitment to “level up” the country, which was a big theme in the Budget.

The Conservatives were elected on this promise – to spread “opportunity across the whole United Kingdom” and move away from being South/ London centric – and Sunak’s speech did not disappoint in this regard.

“If we are serious about wanting to level up, that starts with the institutions of economic power”, he said firmly, before announcing that there will be a new economic campus for the Treasury in Darlington. This means that 750 employees will move from the Capital to that area.

In another interesting development, Sunak announced eight freeport locations in England for East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe and Harwich, Humber, Liverpool City Region, Plymouth, Solent, Thames and Teesside.

While it quickly became obvious (on Twitter, at least) that some people don’t know what a freeport is, let alone have a view on whether they’re a good idea, many councils have been working hard to put in bids for these.

All five council areas in Tees Valley worked together in developing one for Teesside, and it has paid off. Its freeport will be the largest in the UK, spanning 4,5000 acres (2,550 football pitches).

The freeport is expected to increase investment to Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool by over £1.4 billion and create around 18,000 skilled, good quality jobs within five years. The Government will also be hoping it can boost the chances of Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, to get re-elected at the end of this year.

Speaking about his vision for Teesside, Sunak said: “Now, when I look to the future of Teesside I see old industrial sites being used to capture and store carbon. Vaccines being manufactured. Offshore wind turbines creating clean energy for the rest of the country. All located within a Freeport with the Treasury just down the road and the UK Infrastructure Bank only an hour away” (the bank will be in Leeds).

In another part of the Budget, Sunak singled out Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, where the Government is also increasing public investment.

It is putting £225 million into rail stations and the reopening of old railway lines. Government support will also go towards a major housing and commercial development scheme around the upcoming HS2 Solihull Interachange, along with other regeneration efforts.

Responding to these developments, Street said: “The Chancellor has done exactly what we asked for him, and set out clear and wide-ranging support to help West Midlands businesses and the self-employed through the end of the roadmap and into the recovery stage.”

So you can see that, while covering off lots of areas, yesterday’s Budget sent out a strong political message that the Government can hear people outside Westminster (now literally moving departments to other parts of the country).

The Budget may even have an appeal to Generation Rent throughout the UK, as through trying to correct regional disparities, the Government can also help shift demand for housing, which is overly focussed in the South East.

But overall, it was a show that now the Government’s got “Brexit done”, operation “level up” is well and truly under way.

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.