Adrian Lee: Nord Stream 2. How Russia could turn off half Germany’s gas supply – and so threaten our collective security.

21 Jun

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Some political issues – such as Climate Change, female circumcision and African debt relief – become truly internationalised over the passage of time. Gatherings of world leaders see these subjects set high on the agenda for discussion and the press released closing statements at such events are dominated by worthy platitudes calling for greater global action.

By contrast, other matters with the potential to change the world order draw far less attention. One issue that has largely failed to focus the comment of the media pack is the imminent opening of the Nord Steam 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

On the Friday 11th June – ironically, the very day that the G7 leaders arrived in Cornwall – commissioning works to fill the pipeline with gas began. Whilst many have vaguely heard of the controversy, few realise the possible impact of Nord Stream 2 upon the defence of the United Kingdom.

Nord Steam 2 starts at Vyborg in Russia, threads its way through the Baltic Sea, passing Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and terminates in Griefswald, Germany.

Few would dispute that the project represents a triumph of modern engineering. Like its already operational predecessor, Nord Stream 1, this underwater marvel has the capacity to pump approximately 55 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year from Russia directly into Germany.

Even before the fuel starts pumping down the new line, Germany has already attained the status of the world’s largest user of natural gas, 94 per cent of which has to be imported, and 40 per cent of that total is supplied by Putin’s Russia.

Dependency upon this particular source is likely to increase significantly in the near future, as the so-called “Energiewende” policy announced in 2010 has already terminated most of Germany’s nuclear power, with the remaining six reactors scheduled to be phased out by 2022. When this plan was first trumpeted, the German government was confident that “renewables” would make up for the loss of nuclear power, but alas this has yet to transpire and consequently the wheels of German industry are more dependent on natural gas than ever before. No wonder then that Germany has some of the highest energy prices in the world and that the average German consumer has to pay double the cost of the equally average American.

Nord Stream 2 AG is owned by Gazprom, a Russian state-owned company, and its CEO is one Matthias Warnig, a former intelligence officer in the East German Stasi. The main source of the natural gas for the pipeline can be found in the Yuzhno-Russhoye field, located in Krasnoselkupsky, Tyumen Oblast. When one realises that oil and gas are responsible for more than 60 per cent of Russia’s exports and provide over 30% of the country’s GDP, you can understand why the Kremlin is so enthusiastic about this project. Russia certainly intends to make a lot of money out of wealthy Germany and is therefore not planning to suspend supplies, but should she feel the need to do so in the future, she faces no legal obstacle, as Russia is not a signatory to the 1991 Energy Charter Treaty, that provided safeguards to supply.

Why should Britain be concerned about this Russo-German oil deal? Well, mainly because of the military dimension. Sweden and Poland have voiced grave concerns about the Russian Navy using Nord Stream 2’s presence as a pretence for increased military intelligence gathering and intensified patrolling in the Baltic Sea. However, there is a much greater reason for worry.

NATO has been the cornerstone of the West’s defence for seven decades and, until the end of 1991, the main strategic opponent of NATO was the USSR. Following the collapse of Soviet Communism, the organisation changed its emphasis to the broad founding principle of collective security. In other words, an attack on one member is an attack on all – hence the participation of European NATO members in the Afghanistan theatre after 9/11.

The Russian war with Georgia in 2008, the protracted conflict over the Ukraine since 2014 and the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war refocused NATO’s attention on the increasing threat from the east. The 2016 NATO Summit, held in Warsaw, set the conditions for the establishment of an enhanced “Forward Presence” in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to strengthen the line against Russian forces.

There are currently 900 British military personnel in these states, along with allies from France and Denmark. There can be no doubt that Putin’s Russia is today the main threat to NATO on the European continent.

Since the inception of NATO, the involvement of Germany (originally West Germany) has been pivotal. Prior to 1989, Germany formed the frontline and prospective battlefield in any conflict, contributed an effective military force and provided a permanent base for US and British forces.

During recent decades ,it is arguable that Germany’s attention has turned towards the costly projects of re-building the old GDR territories and pushing for a federal Europe but, geographically, the country provides a vital link with the eastern NATO members in terms of supply. An effective NATO without wholehearted German participation remains unthinkable.

Unfortunately, Germany’s armed forces are currently in a pretty parlous state. Despite the pressure from the Trump Administration, Germany is yet to come close to contributing the two per cent of GDP agreed by all NATO countries in 2006. She only spent 1.2 per cent of GDP in 2019.

No surprise, then, that Germany’s arsenal is so decrepit. The main battle tank, the Leopard 2, entered service in 1979 and, of the 183 that the German state possesses, only 101 are estimated to be operational.

In 2014, it was reported that a significant number of German military aircraft were “unserviceable”. In terms of assault aircraft, Germany possesses 60 aging Tornados and 141 Eurofighters. However, it has been claimed that only half of these are airworthy, and one estimate states that just 12 of the Tornados are currently operational. Recently, Germany has ordered another 38 Eurofighters, but they are hardly likely to make the Russians quake in their flying boots.

By contrast, since 2012, Russian ground forces have received more than 15,500 pieces of weapons systems and equipment, twelve missile regiments have been rearmed with Yars ICBM’s and 10 missile brigades with Iskander tactical ballistic missile systems.

Overall, Russian has a million active-duty personnel in its armed forces, 2,300 modern battle tanks, 1,200 new helicopters and assault planes, 50 state of the art surface ships, 28 submarines and a 100 shiny new satellites for communication, command and control. Vladimir Putin spends 4.3 per cent of GDP on the Russian armed forces – in part thanks to the healthy financial contribution made by his trading partner Germany.

Under the circumstances, we are surely entitled to ask whether Germany’s commitment to NATO is likely to remain as wholehearted in the era of Nord Stream 2. Is Germany really going to go out on a limb for, say, the Baltic States and Poland when, at the turn of a tap Russia could cut off over half of her energy supply? Or is Germany gradually going to slide down the road to a slightly more neutralist position in the years ahead – to paraphrase William Hague “In NATO, but not run by NATO.”

One thing is for certain: in the absence of an effective backup plan for energy supply to Germany in the event of conflict with Russia, Angela Merkel’s government has handed Putin the ability to paralyse her country, and potentially the whole of western defence.

Rehman Chisti: Levelling up isn’t just about geography. It must be focused on education, skills and opportunity for all.

30 Apr

Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and previously served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2019-20).

In July 2019, the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street promising to “level up across Britain”. In short, his mission was to boost economic performance across the UK, with a particular focus on “left behind” areas, often outside of London and the South East.

As an MP in the South East, it is often assumed that I represent an affluent area that requires no extra help from government. However, this simply isn’t the case. Medway, the unitary authority for my constituency of Gillingham and Rainham, is in the top 22 per cent of the most deprived areas for education in England and in the top 10 per cent of most deprived areas with regards to crime.

Within Gillingham and Rainham itself there are stark differences. In Rainham Central, 6.1 per cent of children were recorded as living in poverty in 2018-19. Just a couple of miles away in Gillingham North, this figure is 39.3 per cent.

If the Government truly wants to level up the entire United Kingdom, it must not just focus on the areas traditionally seen as “left behind”. Good quality education for all must be the core component of our levelling up agenda, within an aspirational Conservative approach.

The phrase levelling up means different things to different people. To me, it represents opportunity. I came to this country at the age of six without being able to speak a word of English. I attended a failing secondary high school and a grammar school, and as I came from a modest background, I had to balance my A-Level studies with a part-time job, like many students do across the country.

I was the first in my family to go to university, where I read Law and subsequently qualified as a barrister at age 24, prior to being elected as a Conservative MP at 31.

In our great country, you should be able to be whatever you want through hard work, perseverance, and determination. We in politics must ensure the UK is a land of opportunity for all, where children have access to the finest possible education and can have the best opportunities in life.

As a product of grammar schools, I know the transformational impact these can have on students. From the age of 16 to 18, I attended Rainham Mark Grammar School and the Chatham Grammar School for Girls mixed sixth form. To those from modest backgrounds, a grammar school offers another opportunity to realise their full academic potential. This is true for children who already have good grades, but also for those who have not distinguished themselves academically.

In fact, Department for Education data shows that grammar schools improve educational results among all pupils, especially those who previously struggled and had low attainment. An astounding 93 per cent of pupils in grammar schools achieve a good “pass” in English and Maths at GCSE, more than double the average for state secondaries.

Not surprisingly, grammar schools are extremely popular, with two-thirds of schools at or over capacity as of 2019 – more than four times the average of state funded secondaries.

Levelling up starts with education, and I believe that a key part of this agenda must be to allow the creation of new grammar schools and expansion of existing ones across the country.

Making university accessible and fair for everyone will also play a vital role in levelling up the country. As the first in my family to go to university, I know just how important it is that everyone has the opportunity to do so. The previous Labour government’s target of 50 per cent of the population to go to university was misguided.

However, we must ensure that everyone who wants to go to university is able to do so regardless of financial means. At the same time, the abilities of all young people must be realised, whether that’s through university, or vocational qualifications and high-level apprenticeships in fields like hydrogen energy, as offered in my constituency. The increase in tuition fees last decade has not deterred people from applying to university. However, pupils from wealthier backgrounds are still more likely to go to university than those from poorer backgrounds.

While the average debt of those who graduated in 2019 was £40,000, most students are not expected to pay back their full student loan. Therefore, any reforms to higher education funding must be targeted and help those most in need. Simply lowering tuition fees or reducing interest rates across the board would in fact help the highest earning graduates the most.

Instead, the Government should look to reintroduce maintenance grants of up to £5,000 per year for those from low income backgrounds, with the amount awarded based on the family income of the student, so the lower the family income of the student, the more they would receive.

Having spoken with local university leaders, including Professor Jane Harrington, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Greenwich (which has a campus in Medway), the reintroduction of maintenance grants would provide vital financial security to low income students. It would allow them to focus further on their studies, rather than the part-time jobs that they currently must take to support themselves financially. This is especially important now considering the disruption to their learning that students have faced during Covid-19.

If we look at the Turing Scheme, for example, disadvantaged students can receive up to £490 per month in grants to support their costs when they study abroad. Over twelve months, this would amount to £5,880 in grants. If disadvantaged students can receive grants to help with costs studying abroad, it is only right that they are able to receive them when they study here in the UK.

If we use £5,000 as an average figure of the grant, this reform would reduce debt on those students after a three-year degree by around £15,000. Rewarding hard work is exactly what we as Conservatives should stand for.

Improving and widening access to foreign languages will help the UK level up, while at the same time promoting the Global Britain agenda. I believe that everyone in this country should learn at least one foreign language as a child. This principle was recognised by the Government in 2011 with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, a mandatory component of which is a foreign language.

At the moment, we are unfortunately still far from reaching that ambition: only 32 per cent of young people in the UK say they can read and write in more than one language, compared with 91 per cent in Germany and 80 per cent across the EU.

And, the situation is not improving; the number of pupils taking a language diminishes year-on-year. As a 2015 report from Cambridge University makes clear, this is no small issue: a lack of language skills not only threatens UK companies’ competitiveness abroad, but limits the UK’s soft power on the international stage.

With the introduction of T-Levels, now would be a brilliant time to integrate language learning into vocational and technical qualifications, ensuring more of our young people, regardless of their academic pathway and achievement, learn at least one other language.

In an increasingly digital economy, levelling up education also means giving all our young people technical skills that will allow them to participate and thrive in a digital world. Over the last year, we saw just how reliant we are on technology, which enabled many people to work from home during the pandemic. Now more than ever, it is critical that students are equipped with appropriate IT and coding skills, with a focus on new technologies such as artificial intelligence.

The Government has already taken major steps towards this, with the introduction of computing as a subject at all levels of schooling up to Key Stage 3, teaching children essential skills in computer science and coding.

However, much remains to be done as the number of pupils taking computing or ICT at GCSE level has been declining over the past five years, while a worrying gender gap has opened up, with only 21.4 per cent of GCSE computing entries are from women and girls. The problem is an urgent one: research by McKinsey & Company shows that by 2030, two thirds of the UK workforce (21 million people) could be lacking in basic digital skills, severely damaging UK business competitiveness.

We must look to expand the number of pupils that learn essential IT skills and coding, taking inspiration from successful international examples, from Estonia to Arkansas. As Asa Hutchinson, the Governor of Arkansas, put it: “Whether you’re looking at manufacturing and the use of robotics or the knowledge industries, they need computer programmers… If we can’t produce those workers, we’re not going to be able to attract and keep the industry we want.”

Alongside improving IT skills, equipping students with stronger critical thinking skills is key to allowing them to adapt to the challenging world we live in. Having seen the dangers that disinformation and misinformation can pose when intentionally spread by individuals, organisations or hostile states, as happened with the storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 or with misleading claims about the Covid-19 vaccination, it is vital that young people are equipped to spot false information online.

Finland, for example, has integrated information literacy and critical thinking across its national curriculum. The result has been that Finland is ranked first out of 35 European countries in its ability to resist fake news (the UK is currently ranked 10th).

At the moment, our schools already teach British values to help prevent radicalisation and extremism. However, countering the spread of dangerous disinformation and misinformation is one of the next big challenges that we as a country face to protect against social disorder which could also undermine our democratic institutions. It is vital that we teach these skills early in schools so that young people can help stop the spread of false information.

If we are to truly level up across the country, education must be at the centre of the Government’s strategy and areas like the South East and Medway must be taken into account. Prior to 2010, all three Medway constituencies were represented by Labour MPs. Since then, we have secured sizeable majorities. If the Conservatives are to continue representing areas such as this, the Government cannot forget them. We must not level down the South East in pursuit of levelling up other areas of the country.

With the Queen’s Speech next month and as we emerge from Covid-19 restrictions, now is the time for a bold agenda from Government which levels up the entire country and equips young people with the necessary tools to face the modern challenges in the world. Improving education is a vital part of this, whether through reforming student finance, expanding grammar schools, improving foreign language teaching, or a greater emphasis on critical thinking and IT skills in schools to help counter disinformation and misinformation.

Sajid Javid: Housing First. The scheme that can help us break the cycle of homelessness.

19 Feb

Sajid Javid is a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and is MP for Bromsgrove.

In the course of any political career there are certain moments that stick with you. The past few years have brought me more than my fair share, however one that will always stand out in my memory was when I first met Wayne.

Wayne has a complex backstory. After leaving the Armed Forces aged 22 he’d spent 30 years sleeping on the streets. Thirty years. On becoming homeless, he began drinking heavily to self-medicate his mental health problems and was soon addicted to heroin and crack.

Outreach teams approached him repeatedly over the years and he’s been in and out of the hostel system. He’s also been in and out of the criminal justice system, managing to accumulate a total of 50 custodial sentences.

The scale of Wayne’s personal crisis made the story he told me about what happened next all the more remarkable.

When we met, he described how he’d moved into a flat through one of the very few “Housing First” schemes available at the time, and sustained his tenancy for 20 months. He’d stopped using drugs, and given up the prolific shoplifting that funded his habit. He’d voted for the first time. He’d even adopted a cat.

The result, Wayne told me, was that he “felt like a part of society for the first time ever”.

Wayne’s background might be shocking, but it’s also tragically familiar. The lives of the most entrenched rough sleepers are frequently marked by early experiences of trauma as well as substance dependency, family breakdown, poor health and sometimes criminality. For this group, the path to stability is treacherous and steep.

“Familiar”, however, does not mean “acceptable”. Nobody should ever have to live on the streets, or feel that they’ve forfeited their place in society. That’s why the Conservative manifesto rightly committed to ending the blight of rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. This might be an ambitious target, but ambition spurs action and the past 12 months have bolstered my conviction that it can be done.

Right at the start of the pandemic, Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, instructed local authorities to bring everyone in off the streets. This led to more than 30,000 people being provided emergency accommodation in the space of a few weeks, saving hundreds of lives and demonstrating what government can do. For some, this has provided an opportunity to get back on their feet. For others, it’s a short-term solution.

If we want to build on this, we’ll need a comprehensive, long-term plan to turn the tide on rough sleeping. Difficult problems sometimes require drastic solutions, which is why as Housing Secretary I looked at replicating the Housing First model and rolling it out across the country.

The idea was to take the existing “treatment first” policy, and turn it on its head. The state would house rough sleepers facing the most serious challenges – such as mental health issues and addiction – without conditions, save for the willingness to maintain their tenancy. When they felt ready, we would then apply the intensive, personalised support needed to turn their lives around in a more stable environment.

Although this requires a significant investment upfront, similar schemes around the world have demonstrated that it works. I went to see this for myself in Finland, where Housing First is rolled out nationally and rough sleeping has been all but eradicated. Because participants have less contact with homelessness, health and criminal justice services, it saves the taxpayer money in the long run.

When I was Housing Secretary, I persuaded the Treasury to fund three large-scale Housing First pilots in Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands. These pilots have already helped more than 550 people off the streets and into permanent homes, with many more to follow. As many as 88 per cent of individuals supported by the pilots have sustained their tenancies, with an independent evaluation showing that those with a history of numerous failed tenancies are now staying put. Put simply, Housing First works.

We must now finish the job.

A national Housing First programme would build on the foundations of the regional pilots, as well as the Government’s efforts to provide accommodation during the pandemic. It’s an opportunity to give some of the most vulnerable people in our country a second chance, and to welcome them back into society.

That’s why I strongly welcome the Centre for Social Justice’s new report, Close to Home, setting out in detail how Housing First could be scaled up from 2,000 to 16,500 places to become a flagship policy for people whose homelessness is compounded by multiple disadvantage. I firmly believe this would be our best shot at breaking the cycle of homelessness by the end of the Parliament.

Four years on from meeting Wayne, I hear from his Housing First support workers that he’s made excellent progress, developing the skills he needs to live independently: “He’s come a long way, and is really proud of where he’s at now – as are we.”

We too have come a long way in addressing rough sleeping since 2017 and we have a great deal to be proud of. But there is still more to do. No one should be forced to sleep on the streets. With programmes like Housing First, they won’t have to.

Daniel Hannan: Sweden settled in for the long haul, and now doesn’t need to worry about a second surge

5 Aug

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

You know who isn’t worried about a second wave? Sweden. Covid cases may be rising worldwide but, in that stolid, sensible monarchy, they are down nearly 90 per cent from peak. “I think to a great extent it’s been a success,” says Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist. “We are now seeing rapidly falling cases, we have continuously had healthcare that has been working, there have been free beds at any given time, never any crowding in the hospitals, we have been able to keep schools open which we think is extremely important, and society fairly open.”

Uncomplicatedly good news, you might think. Yet the overseas media coverage of Sweden is brutal. Its fatality rate is endlessly compared to the lower rates in Norway and Finland (never the higher rates in Italy or Britain). Many commentators sound affronted, as though Sweden were deliberately mocking the harsher prohibitions imposed in most of the world.

The nature of their criticism is telling. To condemn Sweden for its relatively high number of deaths per capita suggests a worrying inability, even after five months, to grasp what “flattening the curve” means. In the absence of a cure or vaccine, an epidemic will end up reaching roughly the same number of people. That number may differ from country to country for all sorts of possible reasons: age profile, weather, family living patterns, openness to international travel, incidence of obesity, past exposure to different coronaviruses, differing levels of genetic immunity.

But it won’t be much affected by lockdown measures. To put it at its simplest, flattening the curve doesn’t alter the area underneath the curve. No country can immobilise its population indefinitely; so all we are doing, in the absence of a medical breakthrough, is buying time.

The UK lockdown was intended to string things out while we built our capacity. “It’s vital to slow the spread of the disease,” said the PM in his televised address of March 23. “Because that is the way we reduce the number of people needing hospital treatment at any one time, so we can protect the NHS’s ability to cope – and save more lives.”

Sweden judged that it could manage to keep its hospitals functioning with only relatively minor restrictions – and it was right. With hindsight, it seems likely that the UK could have got away with a similar approach. Not only did our Nightingale hospitals stand largely empty throughout; so did many of our existing hospital beds. The expected tidal wave, mercifully, did not come – probably because the rate of infection, worldwide, turned out to be lower than was first feared.

No one should blame public health officials for erring on the side of caution. Still, it ought to have been clear by late May that we could start easing restrictions. We knew, by then, that the infection rate had peaked on our around March 18 – that is, five days before the lockdown was imposed.

But, alarmingly, liberty turns out to be more easily taken than restored. The easing of the lockdown was achieved in the face of public opposition: British voters were global outliers in their backing for longer and stronger closures. The media, never having internalised what flattening the curve meant, failed to distinguish between preventable deaths and deaths per se.

In March, according to the official minute, “Sage was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress the spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak.” As far as I can tell, it has never rescinded that view. The question is not whether there will be some post-lockdown uptick in infection rates – releasing an entire population from house arrest is bound to lead to an increase in all sorts of medical problems, from common colds to car crashes. The question, rather, is still the one we faced in March, namely can we be certain that our healthcare capacity will not be overwhelmed.

Given what we can see in Sweden – and, indeed, in developing nations which lack the capacity to isolate their teeming populations – it seems pretty clear that we can.

Yet the original rationale for the closures has somehow got lost. Commentators now demand the “defeat” of the disease, and hold up league tables of fatality rates as if that were the only gauge by which to measure the performance of different countries. Covid, like everything else, has been dragged into our culture wars, so that one side revels in excessive caution, ticking people off for the tiniest lockdown infractions, while the other argues that lockdowns don’t work at all.

The case against the lockdown is not that it was useless, but that it was disproportionate and had served its purpose long before it was eased. Confining an entire population is bound to have some impact on slowing a disease – any disease. The question is how high a price we should be prepared to pay.

Sweden seems to have got it right. It banned large meetings and urged people to stay home where possible. But, beyond one or two targeted closures, it broadly trusted people to use their nous. Because it judged coolly at the outset that there would be no immediate vaccine, it never got into the ridiculous position of being unable to restore normality in the absence of one. It settled in for the long haul, understanding that the disease would be around for a while, and that acquired immunity would be part of the eventual solution.

The figures for Q2 growth are published later today. Yes, Sweden will have suffered. The distancing measures taken by most Swedes, and the global downturn, will have taken their toll. Still, my guess – judging from retail figures, credit card activity, employment rates and other extant data – is that Sweden will comfortably have outperformed most European countries, as well as avoiding the costs of furlough schemes and massive borrowing.

It may turn out, when all is said and done, that the international variable was not the eventual death toll so much as the price exacted from the survivors.