Catherine McBride: Truss must free our farmers and consumers from the EU’s shackles

19 Mar

Catherine McBride is an economist and a Fellow of the Centre for Brexit Policy.

The Department of International Trade’s (DIT’s) latest report on the benefits of trade for UK employment is reassuring. However, if trade is to benefit British consumers, then our markets must be open to import competition allowing the best value global products to be sold here.

While Liz Truss’ department has done a fantastic job signing trade agreements with non-EU countries, too often these deals have simply rolled over EU agreements, and continue to exclude or limit more competitive agricultural products. This means that the UK is still a captured market for EU farmers and food producers.

Use FTAs to facilitate farmers’ natural advantages

The UK is not large enough to supply all of its agricultural needs. It must therefore concentrate its agriculture on products where it has a natural advantage and improve its farm productivity with innovation previously prohibited by EU regulations. In parallel, DIT should be opening up two-way trade agreements with other agricultural producers, not just rolling over EU trade agreements designed to limit agricultural trade.

Meanwhile, British producers should be helping their own cause by developing higher value products and creating recognisable brands. For instance, the UK is a net exporter of milk but a net importer of dairy products. The UK could be processing its surplus milk into value-added dairy products such as butter, yogurt, kefir, lassi or cheese. These products have longer shelf lives and are easier to transport.

The UK could follow the example set by Denmark, Ireland, and New Zealand who export their dairy products globally. This may need some Government marketing assistance, in addition to some trade deals, if a British butter brand is to compete with Lukpak, Kerrygold or Anchor. But with a high quality British product, this would not be impossible.

Similarly Sweden’s ‘oat milk’ brand, Oatly, seems to be lacking competition even though the UK is a net exporter of raw oats. Oatly should be an inspiration to British agricultural entrepreneurs: a Malmo-based company that has capitalised on the growing international market for milk substitutes and is about to list publicly in the US with a value between $5 and $10 billion. The UK also exports a large amount of barley, but exporting Brtish barley, pre-brewed as beer or pre-distilled as whisky, would be a more profitable exercise.

Use most efficient suppliers for necessary imports

While Truss’ speech to the National Farmers Union Conference a few weeks ago was correct that the UK should be targeting the growing middle class Asian markets, Britain is unlikely to be selling these markets any commodity where it is itself a large net importer, such as pork and beef.

The UK is a net importer of roughly 20 per cent of its beef and 40 per cent of its pork – these are areas were the UK should be prepared to open its import markets to non-EU suppliers. According to DEFRA’s annual survey of UK agriculture 2019 , the UK imported a whopping 756,000 tonnes of pork from the EU in 2019, while exporting only 158,000 tonnes in return.

While there is obviously some potential for import substitution, where British farmers supply more of the UK’s consumption, we should also be considering if the huge amount of pork the UK is importing from the EU is the best value available, or if there are more efficient suppliers.

If British farmers demand protection from more efficient suppliers – having grown used to this protection under EU trade barriers – then fixing the total import quantity at the five-year average might quell their anxiety. That would give the UK a maximum import quantity of 530,000 tonnes of pork and 200,000 tonnes of beef, yet still benefit local consumers as imports would move from protected EU production to world prices.

But these import quota limits must be temporary and gradually increased to force British farmers to become competitive in the international marketplace through innovation and farm consolidation.

Furthermore, there will be some obvious two way trade with other agricultural producing countries. The US, for example, exported over 2.1 million tonnes of pork in 2020, increasing their production by over 300,000 tones to supply the increased demand from China after its Swine Flu outbreak. So the US could supply most of the UK’s pork requirements. Yet the US produced only 63 thousand tonnes of lamb in 2019, while importing 120 thousand tonnes of lamb from Australia and New Zealand.

This is good news for British farmers. Lamb is seasonal, so our lamb farmers won’t be competing directly with the antipodeans. And supplying lamb in the spring may suit US seasonal menus better than Australian and New Zealand lamb produced in the American autumn.

Does EU harmonisation serve our farmers?

Truss is right: there are real opportunities for British farmers outside of the EU. But these will also require that the UK is outside of the EU’s non-tariff trade barriers such as their sanitary and phytosanitary regulations.

There is currently an EU-rophile lobby pushing the UK to align with EU regulations by claiming that this will solve the problems created by the ill-thought through Northern Ireland Protocol. Giving in to this lobby would be a mistake. There are much larger markets and much better food suppliers outside of the EU – with both higher quality and lower prices. Trading with these markets would reduce British food bills, increase farm exports, and benefit the economy as a whole.

Any fears that British farmers would be unable to compete in international markets demeans them. If allowed to innovate outside of the EU’s precautionary principle, encouraged to consolidate their farms; and to focus their production on higher value products, our farmers should be able to compete with the best in the world. It is time that the Government let them do so.

Adrian Mason: Brexit offers Welsh farmers great opportunity

18 Mar

Adrian Mason is a lawyer and a former Deputy Chair Political of the North Wales Conservatives.

It is always pleasing to write about positive developments that are happening in troubled times. The opportunities that present themselves to Welsh farmers, now that we have left the European Union, are enormous.

Farmers care for around 80 per cent of Wales’s land area. Agriculture, along with tourism, is the economic lifeblood of the country. What happens to the farming industry will have a profound effect on the future of Wales in the post-Brexit era. If our farmers can prosper, then the benefits for Welsh communities will be significant.

We are at a crossroads. For the last 47 years, Welsh agriculture has been subject to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which allowed farmers to export their produce to the Eurozone tariff free and, in many cases, receive subsidies determined by Brussels. Since January 1st, this has all changed. The CAP no longer applies to the UK. Agricultural policy is now a national issue. The Basic Payment Scheme, the biggest of the rural grants and payments that provide help to the farming industry, will be maintained into 2021. Pleasingly, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) concluded by the UK Government with the EU will ensure the continuance of tariff-free access to the European market for our farmers.

However, whilst there is much to be positive about, there are some worries. Agriculture in Wales is a devolved matter, so the responsibility for the industry resides with the Welsh Government (WG). Setting out its policy in a White Paper for the Agriculture Bill, Wales’s Environment Minister, Lesley Griffiths, criticised the historical CAP payments for not adequately supporting efforts to protect the environment and enhance the Welsh countryside. The WG therefore proposes that future payments to farmers should be subject to additional environmental caveats, which are likely to prove onerous. These include satisfying economic, social, and cultural criteria. It is intended that such benefits be secured through the Sustainable Farming Scheme, which is primarily focussed on environmental outcomes.

The scheme is perhaps typical of Welsh Labour’s generally hostile approach to commercial activity, putting ideology before economic reality. At a time of change, the opportunities presented to Welsh farmers should not be constrained by further regulatory burdens of the type proposed by the WG. Indeed, one of the major criticisms of CAP was of the overburdening bureaucratic red tape taking up a disproportionate amount of farmers’ time. Whilst safeguarding the environment is of course important – and farmers are the first to recognise their responsibility for ethical husbandry – there needs to be a balance that does not damage their competitiveness in a world market at this pivotal moment of exciting change.

The WG White Paper comes at a time when there is renewed optimism in the Welsh farming industry. Now the fears and doubts of ‘no deal’ have disappeared, farmers can look forward to the future with certainty and confidence. However, whilst the WG is hatching its plans for burdensome regulation, the agri-industry is getting on with building the future.

Huw Thomas, Political Adviser to the National Farmers Union Wales, comments:

“Brexit uncertainty has meant that many farmers have delayed on-farm investment and development decisions; now that we know what sort of trading relationship we have with our largest export market, I very much hope that farmers will have the confidence to start investing on farm and growing their businesses.  I hope we will see new export opportunities open up for Wales’s farmers, and a return of confidence across all sectors allowing them to invest and plan for the future.”

There is evidence of this renewed optimism on farms all over Wales, though many are still cautious in their approach to the future. There are some shining examples of how the entrepreneurial spirit within the industry has reignited in recent times, and this can surely only increase now we have left the CAP.

Take, for example, the farmer from Corwen, in North Wales who exports 1,000 Welsh lambs to Norway every week and has opened up a supply line to the Middle East. Others are taking the opportunity to diversify from traditional farm produce and are producing quality cheese, yoghurts and butter.

Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales) (HCC) is keen to ensure that Wales’s premium lamb produce finds its way to non-EU countries. Currently, around 85 per cent of beef and 92 per cent of lamb goes to Europe. This is the legacy of 47 years of EU membership, which militated in favour of sales within its single market but did not encourage farmers to look elsewhere to export their produce.

However, now the UK Government is free to enter into free trade agreements with other countries, there are now real opportunities to export, tariff-free across the globe. The TCA gives our farmers the best of both worlds, maintaining access to the EU market whilst offering the prospect of new markets elsewhere in the world.

Kevin Roberts, the HCC chairman, said recently:

“We [also] look forward to building new trade relationships right across the world as we have been for the past few years – lamb exports to the Middle East are growing quickly, and there’s huge potential in North America, Asia and elsewhere.”

Indeed, exports to the Middle East, a market worth an estimated £7.8 billion in 2019, have increased ten-fold. Whilst still modest, the potential for Welsh farmers is enormous. Welsh lamb can now be found on the shelves of three supermarket chains in Qatar, for example, and is exported to Japan and Canada. And whilst Welsh farmers would find it difficult to compete with New Zealand on quantity, the USP for Welsh lamb is its premium quality. HCC is taking enormous strides in promoting Welsh meat into the global marketplace.

Whilst it is still very much early days in our post-Brexit journey, there are positive signs that this new era will bring with it fresh opportunities for Welsh farmers and others in the agricultural industry. The only caveat to that, as always, is the attitude of the Welsh Labour Government, who are seemingly hell-bent on replacing the EU’s onerous regulations with their own.

The WG should take the opportunity to deregulate the industry to allow our farmers the scope to engage in entrepreneurial schemes which will further diversify and expand Welsh agriculture. A ‘light touch’ approach, within reason, would free our farmers from non-productive paperwork, allowing them more time to use their expertise in positive ways. This will be good for, not just the Welsh economy and the land, but also the environment generally. Such an approach is more likely to achieve the objectives set out in the Agriculture Bill, rather than imposing a raft of rules and regulations.

George Freeman: The industrial strategy reforms I led helped to deliver Britain’s vaccine success. Now for the next phase.

1 Feb

George Freeman is a former Minister for Life Science and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (2016-18). He is co-author and editor of the 2020 Conservatives book Britain Beyond Brexit.

The combination of Covid-19 and the Crash of 2008 have left this country facing the most serious crisis in our public finances since 1776. Unless we make the post-Brexit, post-Covid recovery a transformational renaissance of enterprise & innovation on a par with that unlocked by Thatcher Governments of the 1980s, we risk a decade of high debts, rising interest rates and slow growth.

We have a truly unique opportunity before us. As a science and innovation superpower, with the City of London now outside the EU’s rules for the first time in nearly fifty years, we can unlock a New Elizabethan era of growth – with Britain a world-leader in global commercialisation of science, technology and innovation. It is what our entrepreneurs have been crying out for. Now is the moment to make it happen.

That’s why I’m delighted to have been asked by the Prime Minister to help set up the new Taskforce for Innovation and Growth through Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) with Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers.

Reporting directly to the Prime Minister & the Chancellor’s Cabinet Committee on deregulation, and supported by a secretariat in the Cabinet Office, the Taskforce will consider and recommend “quick wins” to use our new regulatory sovereignty to unlock high growth sectors of the economy to drive post-Brexit post-Covid recovery.

Rest assured: there will also be no big report or a thousand pages of footnotes to wade through. We will be crowd-sourcing the best ideas from the business community and the entrepreneurs and innovators who are the engine of our economy.

The Prime Minister has asked me to bring my career experience in business starting & financing high growth bioscience technology companies as well as my experience as Minister in Health, BEIS and Transport leading our groundbreaking Industrial Strategy for Life Science which has paid such dividends this year.

The reforms I led in our Industrial Strategy – launching Genomics England, the Early Access to Medicines Scheme, MHRA and NICE reform, Accelerated Access procurement have been fundamental to our ability to lead the world in developing a Covid vaccine.

We now need to make Brexit & Covid the catalyst for bold reforms to unlock big UK opportunities for recovery & GlobalBritain across a range of high-growth sectors such as those I have worked on extensively as both entrepreneur and Minister:?

  • LifeScience: harnessing the potential of the NHS as a research engine for new medicines, unlocking digital health & innovative approaches to Accelerated Access, clinical trials & value-based pricing.
  • Nutraceuticals: health-promoting “superfoods”, cannabis medicines.
  • AgriTech: smart clean green twenty-first farming technology like the blight resistant potato banned by the EU.
  • CleanTech: new biofuels, Carbon Capture & Storage & digital “smart grids” to reward households & businesses for generating more and using less.
  • BioSecurity: harnessing the potential of Porton Down and UK vaccine science for plant, animal & human biosecurity.
  • Digital: removing barriers to UK digital leadership outside the EU GDPR framework.
  • Hydrogen: using the full power of Gov to lead in this key sector as we did in genomics.
  • Mobility: making the UK a global test-bed for new mobility technologies,

Before being elected to Parliament, I spent 15 years working in life sciences around the Cambridge cluster, financing innovation. I saw time and time again how the best British entrepreneurs and their companies struggled to build business to scale here in the UK.

So often we have invented the technologies of the future and failed to commercialise them effectively.

After several years working as the Government Life Science Adviser, I published my report for the Fresh Start Group on The EU impact on Life Sciences: Avoiding the Global Slow Lane.

Three years before Brexit, the report was the first to highlight the growing hostility of the EU to ‘biotech’ and the increasing tide of ‘anti- biotech’ legislation – driven by a combination of the German Green Party, Catholic anti-science and lowest commons denominator regulation by the “precautionary principle” which was having a damaging effect on the Bioscience Economy and risked condemning the EU – and by extension the UK – to the global slow lane in biotechnology.

The report set out how the genomic revolution was beginning to offer untold opportunities across medicine and agriculture to help generate huge economic, social and political dividends for mankind. Billions of people were being liberated from the scourge of insufficient food, medicine and energy. The main threat to that? The EU’s hostile regulatory framework.

This was seen clearly in numerous case studies. At the time, the EU’s hostility to GM led German-based BASF and major U.S firm Monsanto to announce their withdrawal from Europe in agricultural research and development. My report argued that unless something was done soon, other companies would follow suit, with dire consequences for the UK Life Science sector.

The report recommended a shift away from the increasingly widely used risk-based ‘precautionary Principle’ and greater freedoms around data protection, using public healthcare systems to help accelerate early access to medical innovations, and for the UK to be able to ‘go it alone’ in designing appropriate regulatory frameworks for GM crops.

The UK’s departure from the laws and requirements of the EU provides us with a once-in-a-generation chance to redesign and improve our approach.

This new Taskforce, therefore, is emphatically not another long-term Whitehall de-regulation ‘initiative’. Neither is this is about cutting workers’ or environmental rights that we rightly guaranteed in the 2019 election manifesto.

It is of vital importance that the UK maintains the high regulatory standards that we have consistently championed. In some of the fastest growing new sectors like Digital Health, Nutraceuticals and Autonomous Vehicle Tech, clear global regulatory standards are key to investment confidence. By setting the new global standards here in the UK we can play a key role in leading whole new sectors.

But we must think innovatively about supporting businesses to start and grow, and make the most of the cutting-edge technologies and sectors we nurture in our universities for global impact. For example, why don’t we use our freedom to pioneer new disease and drought- resistant crops, and use our aid budget and variable tariffs to help create new global markets for UK Technology Transfer?

We won’t unlock a new era of the UK as an Innovation Nation generating the technologies and companies of tomorrow with technocratic tinkering. We need bold leadership, clear commercial vision and reforms to support innovation and enterprise. The two go hand in hand. We won’t unlock an innovation economy without an enterprise society. So we will need to look at tax and regulatory incentives for high risk start/ups like the “New Deal for New Businesses” I proposed back in 2010 to drive recovery after the Crash.

This is a once-in-a-generation moment. Together we must seize it.

John Stevenson: The Government’s obesity strategy risks punishing businesses – at a time they need help most

22 Jan

John Stevenson is the Conservative MP for Carlisle.

As a country, we are too fat. This is an inescapable fact. High obesity levels lead to many other problems and health complications, which cause misery to those affected. And the Government – rightly – wants to do something about this.

To my mind, this can only happen by working with the food and drink industry itself. The food and drink industry in our country is incredibly advanced – employing nearly half a million people and with a turnover of £105 billion.

It is the largest manufacturing industry in the country, accounting for almost 20 per cent of the sector’s turnover. Food and drink has a manufacturing footprint all over the country, and with Nestle, McVitie’s and other food plants in my own constituency, I know just how important it is.

As the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Food and Drink, I also know that the research and development departments in the UK’s food and drink industry are world leading. Reformulation and portion control efforts have led to some impressive innovations and have had a real effect on consumption.

However, it seems in looking for strategies to tackle the obesity crisis, the Government is going the way of banning, restricting, and prohibiting – and I was more than a little disappointed to the see its recent consultation and response on promotions of products “high in fat, sugar and salt.”

These proposals include a total ban on online advertising, which comes on the heels of other measures that will restrict or impose costs on industry, including restrictions on promotions and even where these foods (which would include the likes of sausage rolls and peanut butter) can be located in a shop.

These proposals are considered by the Government as a cornerstone of its obesity strategy announced earlier this year. But according to its own impact assessment would only reduce calorie intake by just 2.8 calories a day.

This will have a small impact on obesity, but a real impact on product innovation, the ability of new companies to compete in the market, the price of the weekly shop and – yes – informed consumer choice.

But worse of all, this all comes at probably the most terrible time possible for the industry – the end of the UK/EU transition period and in the middle of a global pandemic. At a time when some government Departments are rightly looking at measures to give business a much-needed boost, other parts of government are introducing restrictions. This doesn’t appear to be joined-up thinking.

It is evident that these proposals will stifle investment. Businesses in the UK will be deterred from developing and innovating new, healthier product ranges, while advertising and promotional restrictions will act as a barrier for businesses abroad from entering the UK market. With a food and drink industry keen to play its part to tackle obesity, shouldn’t the Government be working in collaboration with the UK’s largest manufacturing sector rather than penalising it?

It is marketing that helps shift consumer behaviour towards healthier choices over time and long-lasting habits to remove calories from diets. Without this, food and drink manufacturers have no tools to encourage consumers to switch to their products which they have been working hard to make healthier.

Indeed, introducing these measures would lead to the position where products that have been reformulated so that calories and sugar levels have been reduced cannot be advertised to consumers, or placed in certain positions in a supermarket. Scrapping years of hard work by industry to make healthier products surely cannot be the Government’s intention.

The food and drink industry and its advertisers already use sophisticated online tools to target advertisements to adult audiences, overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority. Existing rules and sanctions can be used and tightened, and this would raise UK standards further (which are already some of the strictest in the world). It is disappointing that the Government has disregarded this as a route forward.

As we all celebrated Christmas, albeit in a much more limited way than normal, it occurred to me just how amazing our food and drink industry is. Amid a global pandemic, national restrictions, and a tense and tight Brexit finish, our shop shelves remained stacked, the food we needed was produced, and the goods we rely on for our celebrations were on the tables – just as normal.

I know that this does not happen by accident. There is a tremendous amount of work that goes on behind the scenes for this to occur. I do think that the food and drink industry, and the workers who make up the industry, have been some of the unsung heroes of the past year.

It would be a shame, therefore, at these most difficult of times for the Government to take this blunt approach to the UK’s largest manufacturing industry and for consumers to be stripped of choice and information. Let’s ensure the Government and the industry continue to work together to fight the common enemy – obesity.

Ryan Bourne: First, Covid-19 lockdowns. Next, climate change ones – rationed car use, no red meat. Coming soon to a country near you?

9 Dec

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

We are at the beginning of the end. Provided vaccines prove as efficacious as trial results indicate, and absent unobserved side effects, the rollout to vulnerable groups should reduce Covid-19 death risks substantially and rapidly.

Inoculations down through the priority list will then put us within reach of a herd immunity robust to ordinary behaviour. Life, it seems, could be “back to normal” by the spring or summer of next year.

I’ve never been a “V-shaper” Panglossian on the economy. You can’t switch economic life on and off without causing permanent damage. But there is nevertheless reason to be optimistic of a robust recovery next year. What is more uncertain are the longer-term consequences of this experience on our collective psyche and politics.

American economists Julian Kozlowski, Laura Veldkamp, and Venky Venkateswaran have warned of a depressive “scarring” effect, as we use the experience to revise our assumptions on the probabilities of major shocks. If we collectively infer that tail-end risks such as global pandemics are larger, then investments become less attractive.

Think alone about the willingness of entrepreneurs to go into the travel, hospitality or leisure industries after this. Then think of the effect of the risk of having to pivot to home working again, generalised across other sectors.

Alongside that are the impacts on the role of the state. Economic historian Robert Higgs’ work has highlighted how crises generate a ratchet of government power. Wars, depressions, and emergencies see powers centralised, before receding again.

But the state never quite falls back to the same size and scope as before. After the Coronavirus, we will see more taxpayer funds for virus-related public health, vaccination research, and the subsidisation of PPE production capacity. Government will also be met with demands to maintain Covid-level welfare benefits and industry-specific stimulus as a tool for future downturns, a la Eat Out to Help Out.

Lockdowns are the obvious area where these two effects could come together most damagingly. Highly crude shutdowns had a strong logic in Spring, given the high uncertainty about the prevalence and risks of the virus, and with Italy highlighting the dangers of overburdened hospitals.

More recent national measures reflect instead an ongoing policy failure to institute better control of Covid-19, but may nevertheless have passed a cost-benefit test given the arrival of vaccines (a case that the Government did not adequately prove).

Whatever your position on the desirability or consequences of lockdowns in this particular crisis, however, it’s clear that suspending economic and social liberties today brings with it the temptation for politicians to utilise such powers again – and for businesses and individuals to suspect that they could.

Given the way that politicians throw around terms such as “emergency” or “epidemic,” it is not an intellectual leap to imagine future leaders demanding similar measures for other ambitions. And therein lies a source of economic discontent—an incalculable drag or doubt for a generation.

Already, the economist Mariana Mazzucato has pitched the idea of “climate lockdowns,” should governments not deliver the green revolution she desires. In the service of mitigating the “climate emergency,” the “state would limit private-vehicle use, ban consumption of red meat, and impose energy-saving measures, while fossil-fuel companies would have to stop drilling.”

Of course, we can avoid all that, she says, if we are willing to “reorient our energy system around renewable energy” and “evict fossil-fuel interests and short-termism from business, finance, and politics”—the goals Mazzucato wants to achieve with her threats warning of what might be needed otherwise.

Now, it might seem far-fetched to imagine a world where one could face fines or jail time for driving too much, or eating steak frites. But before this year, one could have said the same about meeting four households on Christmas Day, or not eating at least a scotch egg with your pint.

Madeleine Grant worries about how the example of this pandemic might normalise health surveillance or screening for colds or flu. But it’s the everyday lifestyle regulations that have been truly novel – including the forced closure of certain businesses and the bans on gatherings. The threat of repeats predicated on the ends justifying the means is what we should be most attentive to.

To mitigate this temptation requires a reaffirmation of the legitimate justifications for government interventions. From an economic perspective, there is a defensible consequentialist claim that governments should act where huge, dangerous externalities result from collective action problems. Yet in doing so they have a duty to both prove the case and to account for these externalities in the least harmful way possible, only reaching for the most extreme measures when the consequences of inaction are grave or imminent.

The climate lockdowns idea is so pernicious not just because the imminent threat is absent. The reasoning presumes that governments should go beyond accounting for the externality, say through carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes, instead using the “emergency” to justify actively ignoring market conceptions of value, threatening vast restrictions on how you live your life unless the planners’ vision of the world is achieved. Mazzucato’s argument is not just about reducing CO2, in other words, but about using the threat of lockdowns to push for abandoning consumer-led markets entirely.

We have seen this type of thinking proliferate during this crisis. Last week, Jenny Kleeman wrote for the Guardian about lab-grown meat, which many see as a useful pathway to reducing the environmental impact of farming and the ethical concerns many have with meat consumption. Rather than embrace these innovations as a way to work with consumer preferences to reduce the impacts of meat eating, Kleeman simply declared it would be preferable if we “simply stopped eating meat, or ate it far less often.” Her inspiration? The sacrifices of the Coronavirus in showing the massive behavioural changes we are “able to make” in extremis.

As we exit this crisis, we must not forget that underpinning a healthy market economy is the idea of the sovereign consumer, who knows what he or she wants, and whose welfare is enhanced by acting on those preferences. The bar for curbing activities that bring us joy or happiness should be very high indeed. And to the extent that economic or social problems do require government interventions, they should work with the preferences of consumers, not treat them with contempt, lest the economic welfare costs spiral.

Lockdowns were a panic button reaction to an acute emergency. Their re-use was a signal of the government’s dismal failure to mitigate the virus in less costly ways. But we must quell talk of them becoming a model for solving future economic and social challenges, or else the expectation of them could itself be economically corrupting today.

Robert Halfon: Who’s up for a Southern Research Group?

18 Nov

Political fusion

Is it really true, as has been suggested over the past few days, that Conservatives can only appeal to either blue-collar voters or the professional classes – but not both?

Those who know me will not doubt my commitment that the Conservative Party should be the party for workers; indeed, I’ve written that about the Workers Party many times on this website.

But, my passion for the Workers Party does not mean that we cannot, nor should not, appeal to the public in cities, as well as towns – the Putneys as well as the Pudseys.

It seems to me there is confusion about so-called metropolitan views. Of course, there is left-of-centre “wokeist metropolitanism” – a school of thought that is unlikely to ever vote Conservative, whatever policies the Government come up with.

But, protecting the NHS, cutting taxes for lower earners, freezing fuel duty, boosting skills and apprenticeships, helping small businesses, offering affordable housing (such as the £12.2 billion investment announced recently by Robert Jenrick) and Help to Buy schemes are policies that transcend the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’ divide, as noted by David Goodhart.

Even measures on environmental issues, for example, can have widespread appeal, so long as they are not balanced on the backs of the poor (such as ever-increasing energy bills due to “green” taxes) and are focused on a cleaner, greener Britain (including cleaning up our beaches, tackling litter and safeguarding our forests and countryside). Those who are more sceptical about Brexit might be a bit more optimistic if they could see the reduction in VAT once we’re out of the transition period and we control our own VAT rates.

Similarly, Overseas Aid. At a time when our public services at home are financially strained, spending huge amounts on international development is extremely frustrating to many voters. However, it could be made more palatable if taxpayers money was used to fund thousands of British apprentices to work overseas in developing countries, or even to support our armed forces in some of their peacekeeping roles.

It is dangerous if we are perceived to be identifying solely with one group of citizens or class over another. If the Conservatives are truly the One Nation Party, the Government needs to find political fusion. Whilst, thanks to Boris Johnson, the Conservatives have a solid majority, to be diminished as we are in the great cities like London is neither healthy nor desirable for our party in the long run. Yes, absolutely a Workers Party…but a Workers Party that represents young professionals as much as white van men and women.

Please don’t forget the Southern side of the Blue Wall either

I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t read the words “Red Wall” in a national newspaper. Don’t get me wrong, I am as delighted as any Conservative by how we won so many seats in the North. All the more extraordinary given the long-standing Labour MPs that were deposed. I would, of course, prefer it if the media wrote about the “Blue Wall” rather than red.

But, my point is a different one. Both the Government and the media classes should not forget the Southern side of the ‘blue wall’ either. The politicos and the press seem to be under the illusion that the South is paved with gold; that there are no road, rail and infrastructure issues; that every pothole is magically filled, and that no one lives in poverty.

What about the deprivation and lower educational attainment in the Southern New Towns, coastal communities, inner cities, rural coldspots?

The Centre for Education and Youth’s 2019 report, ‘Breaking the Link? Attainment, poverty and rural schools’, found that in areas designated as “countryside living” – a vast proportion of the South West – the correlation between the proportion of pupils on Free School Meals and their attainment 8 scores was 0.58 – the highest of all types of local authority area. In other words, “rural schools have particular difficulty breaking the link between poverty and low pupil attainment”.

Seaside village Jaywick, in Essex, was named the most deprived area overall for the third time in a row in 2019. We also know, from the Social Market Foundation’s 2019 research, Falling off a cliff, that average employee annual pay in coastal communities was about £4,700 lower than in the rest of Britain in 2018. These areas also saw “much weaker economic growth since the financial crisis than other parts of the country” which will demand urgent Government attention as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Does the South not feature in policy making? Perhaps if there was a Southern side-of-the-wall Research Group, then these MPs might be invited to breakfast at Number 10 and policy meetings with Ministers.  Anyone for another MP Whatsapp group? Perhaps we have enough already.

As I wrote in the first section of this article, we must be careful not to ‘politic’ or govern in silos. We should not Balkanise the Tory Party. Conservatives must genuinely be a One Nation party for all our country – not just parts of it.

Home education

Given the name of this website, I suspect many readers are fully in favour of home education if that is what a parent decides. Although personally I think a child is better off at school – not just for daily education, activities, wellbeing and socialisation with other pupils, I also believe in a free society by which we support parents’ decisions about educating their child. Clearly, many parents who teach their children at home give them a wonderful education. However, this is not always the case across the board.

The Department for Education has a duty to ensure that every child has a proper education – that doesn’t stop just because the child is learning from home. There should be a national register or regular inspections to ensure that these pupils are getting the education they need for their futures. Perhaps, each home educated child could be linked to a nearby school for this purpose. These are all matters that my Education Select Committee is considering as we begin an inquiry into home education.

Rightly, schools are held accountable for the learning and environment they provide, whether that be through Ofsted, local councils, the regional school commissioners or the Department for Education (DfE).  So, too, must there be transparency and accountability for parents providing an education to their children at home. The DfE should have a national register of all home educated children and gather data to assess levels of attainment.

In a recent report on home education, the Local Government Association stated:

“Using evidence provided by councils, school leaders and parents, the LGA estimates that in 2018/19, 282,000 children in England may have missed out on formal full-time education – around 2 per cent of the school age population – but this figure could be as high as 1.14 million depending on how ‘formal’ and ‘full-time’ is defined…. gaps in the coordination of policies and guidance around pupil registration, attendance, admissions, exclusions and non-school education is allowing children to slip through the net, with children with additional vulnerabilities – such as social, behavioural, medical or mental health needs – most at risk of doing so.”

Whilst many parents educate their home educated children to the best of their ability, and with much success, there are too many children falling through the cracks. It is right that there are changes.

Johnson’s capitulation to Rashford will further thin the ranks of his Commons loyalists

9 Nov

Following the Government’s latest capitulation to Marcus Rashford on the question of school meals – detailed in the weekend’s papers – the big question is surely what could possibly have delayed it for so long?

When Boris Johnson initially held firm again extending free school meals through the holidays, the expectation was that he must have some alternative in mind. But none was announced. Nor has one apparently been found in the month since this row broke out.

Thus we find the Prime Minister timing his call to Rashford for a moment when the news cycle is largely eclipsed by the result of the US presidential election (which is understandable, if not dignified), and the Government committing to an extra £170 million in spending for which it will get no credit whatsoever.

Yet whilst this latest surrender might have eased the immediate political pressure, it seems likely that it will store up future trouble for Johnson – not least because it is now more likely that Rashford, who insists that there is “much more to do”, will keep coming back. As Kipling famously wrote, once you have paid a danegeld – let alone paid it twice – you are seldom free of the Dane.

And by appearing to concede to the logic of the Government’s opponents, who branded it ‘Dickensian’, this makes all the arguments adduced in defence of Johnson’s approach look like they were made in bad faith.

But the Prime Minister has also burned the fingers of Tory MPs who rode out to defend the Government line on this. This mirrors David Cameron’s great u-turn over forestry sell-offs, which Paul Goodman raised with Jacob Rees-Mogg in the latest Moggcast (during which the Leader of the House insisted no reversal was in the offing).

That such behaviour has long-term consequences can be seen in who stepped up to defend Johnson’s position in the Commons debate on free school meals last month. Of the seven MPs whose contributions we quoted in our piece, five were of the 2019 intake. Older, and in the event perhaps wiser, heads gave the event a wide berth. For a Government which is already having trouble with a restive caucus, pulling the rug out from under the new intake will teach them unhelpful lessons. And for a Prime Minister short on ideological allies, embarrassing the group of MPs whom he helped elect will only help to thin the ranks of his loyalists.

Contrary to some cynical caricatures, politicians are quite often willing to risk public anger and take, or defend, unpopular decisions. But there are some important conditions. The first is the belief that the policy in question is a necessary step towards a worthwhile goal. The second is trust that their officers won’t abandon them in a foxhole when the going gets tough.

By folding in the manner he has, Johnson fails both tests. He’s not only let his troops hand their opponents ammunition which will be thrown back in their faces until the next election, but also sent a strong signal that there is no plan behind it all. The month delay in u-turning wasn’t to buy time for anything, it was simply indecision. The next time he tries to send ‘Boris’s Boys and Girls‘ over the top, he may find them much less willing.

Theresa Villiers: Ministers must ensure Britain’s trade partners meet our agricultural standards

4 Nov

Theresa Villiers is a former Environment Secretary, and is MP for Chipping Barnet.

The Agriculture Bill is due to complete its final Parliamentary stages today. This is a Bill which I introduced to the House of Commons when I was Environment Secretary. In putting the environment at the heart of our new system of farm support, it is one of the most important environmental reforms for decades.

Dismantling the Common Agricultural Policy is a key benefit of Brexit. But this legislation has been overshadowed by arguments over trade. I recognise the benefits of trade liberalisation, but applying purist Ricardian economic principle in an unconstrained way to agriculture would be wrong – which is why almost no country in the world treats food in the same way as other commodities when it comes to trade policy.

Exposing our farmers to unfettered competition from lower-cost, lower-welfare imports, such as intensively reared feedlot beef fed on soy (contributing to deforestation in the Amazon), would undermine our commitments on the environment and animal welfare, as well as damaging the rural economy.

That is why I voted for amendments to require food imports covered by new trade agreements to comply with environmental and animal welfare standards which are equivalent to our own.

These amendments were defeated, but the Government has responded to the concerns I and others have raised on trade and food. It has established a Trade and Agriculture Commission Trade to advise ministers on ensuring that our approach to trade does not undermine our animal welfare, food production, and environmental standards, and to identify new export opportunities for UK farmers.

At the weekend, Ministers gave a commitment to place the Commission on a statutory footing and tabled an amendment to the Agriculture Bill to place a duty on the Government to report to Parliament on whether commitments in new free trade deals relating to agricultural goods are consistent with maintaining UK levels of statutory protection in relation to human, animal and plant life and health; animal welfare; and environmental protection.

This is a significant step forward in the campaign to ensure UK farmers are not unfairly undercut by imported food produced to lower standards than would be lawful in this country.

But another key development came in the article written for the Mail on Sunday by George Eustice and Liz Truss, the Environment and Trade Secretaries, in which they said that “chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef are already banned in the UK and we will not negotiate to remove that ban in a trade deal”.

Ministers have frequently highlighted the bans on these controversial products, but up until that article, they had been equivocal on the question of whether the Government would ever ask Parliament to repeal them. Now we have confirmation that allowing food into the UK which violates these bans has been removed from the negotiating table, despite pressure on this from the US negotiators.

In the light of these important compromises, the Lords are unlikely to persist with the amendments they have adopted on food and trade, and I would expect the Agriculture Bill to complete its passage through Parliament this evening.

But whilst real progress has been made, the battle to ensure our trade policy goes in the right direction continues. There are other important restrictions on food imports which we need to defend, such as the ban on ractopamine in pork, bovine somatropin in dairy products, and excessive use of antibiotics.

Like the rules on hormones in beef and chicken washed in disinfectant, the primary purpose of these rules is to protect human health. But their effect is also to secure higher animal welfare. For example, deploying an “end of pipe” disinfectant treatment of chicken carcases is used to compensate for poor hygiene practices during the lifetime of the chicken, and facilitates more cramped and unhygienic conditions for rearing birds.

I would acknowledge that requirements which explicitly focus on animal welfare are rare in trade treaties.

But this is a Government which has been elected with stronger commitments on animal welfare than ever before. We should use our new status as an independent trading nation to build a global coalition for improved welfare. After all, the US frequently uses trade deals to impose conditions on its trading partners, for example on matters such as intellectual property. Indeed, the US has itself fought lengthy battles in the WTO to defend its rules on protecting animals such as turtles and dophins.

The debate on the Agriculture Bill may be about to draw to a close, but the task of scrutinising UK trade negotiations is only just starting, and will require continued vigilance by Parliament. Our negotiators should stand firm and refuse to remove restrictions or reduce tariffs on food unless it is produced to standards of animal welfare and environmental protection which are as good as our own.

The UK market for food and groceries is the third largest in the world. It is a massive prize for any country to be allowed greater access to it. We should not sell ourselves short.

Frank Young: Educational Long Covid. Why the collapse of schooling over lockdown will haunt the poor for years to come.

3 Nov

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice

If the Marcus Rashford affair has taught us anything, it is that the Government is in urgent need of a poverty strategy to plug the hole in thinking when emergency measures come in.

Until recently, being Education Secretary was the Cabinet job everyone wanted, and for good reason. Number crunchers at the Department for Work & Pensions worked out some years ago that, for a poor child, failing at school was the number one predictor of staying poor in adult life. It’s as simple as that.

Well before state schools were closed down last spring (with private schools moving almost entirely online), the so-called educational attainment gap persisted as an annual reminder of this particular pathway into future poverty. Disadvantaged pupils are particularly prone to low levels of literacy and numeracy – and this in turn leads to low pay, insecure jobs and unemployment.

If we really want to ‘build back better’ when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, we will need to tackle educational inequalities of outcome, in much the same way that we need to build houses.

More than half a billion school days have been missed since March, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds having less contact with their teachers and less work marked than wealthier children. In the first month of lockdown, private school children were twice as likely to take part in daily online lessons as those in state school.

The full impact of school closures on children’s outcomes is not yet known, but the closures are likely to have worsened the attainment gap. The exam fiasco over the summer will have further disrupted education for children at a critical time in their studies. This is a form educational Long Covid that will have an impact on already disadvantaged lives for many years to come.

We seemed to have stopped talking about the ‘root causes’ of disadvantage as we chase our tail to lockdown, bail out and subsidise our way out of the pandemic. Any poverty strategy will need to take a long hard look at where the educational disadvantage starts – and that is in the home. Between the ages of four to 16, a typical British child will spend only 15 per cent of their time at school. Damian Hinds got this when he described family life as the last educational “taboo”.

Home environments marked by multiple transitions, disrupted attachment to a parent and frequent conflict increase the likelihood of children displaying externalising behaviour problems, leading to poor engagement and attainment at school.

The experience of lockdown has only increased made the situation worse. In response to the escalating education crisis, we spend £26 on catch-up schemes for every £1 we spend on reducing conflict within families. That’s an argument for increasing the £1 – not decreasing the £26 that is desperately needed.

Our nursery sector is teetering on the brink following an extended, enforced shutdown. It is too soon to tell how many will shut their doors, unable to make running a nursery work but as ever this will hit the poorest hardest. At just 3 years old, disadvantaged children are almost 1.5 years behind their more affluent peers in their early language development.

Once attainment gaps arise, they are hard to close. Children who attend high-quality settings for two to three years are almost eight months ahead of children who attend none. This is exactly where we need to focus a renewed push to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

Schools are receptacles of disadvantage – whether it is a dysfunctional home life or a terrible start in life. We can now predict longer term educational underperformance from the earliest days: when Frank Field looked at this issue he found more than half of children in the bottom 20 per cent of attainment in school at school will remain at the bottom when they take their GCSEs.

As Robert Halfon has said on this website, we need a poverty strategy. The money set aside for catch-up should be rolled into the next spending review to give schools a permanent pot for focused, back-to-basics tuition in literacy and numeracy.

Small is beautiful when it comes to catch up – and we can lock this into our efforts to rebuild from the pandemic. Teachers make the difference, and getting the best teachers into schools with disadvantaged catchments should be a big priority. High-quality teaching is particularly transformative for disadvantaged pupils. Over a school year, these pupils get 1.5 years’ worth of learning with high-quality teachers; they lose half a year’s learning when taught by poorly performing teachers.

Don’t overlook family support, hidden away in the Department for Work & Pensions. The Reducing Parental Conflict programme now has three years of evidence based interventions to stabilise family life. It is much an education issue as it is a poverty issue for the department doleing out welfare payments. We need action now to tackle children going without – but we also need a plan that tackles disadvantage early on.

Andy Cook: To help reduce mass unemployment, back up Universal Credit with Universal Support

2 Nov

Andy Cook is Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Social Justice

In politics, as often in life, you seldom get praise for what doesn’t happen.

But when we look back on the recent history of this pandemic, we will recognise Universal Credit as a great success story. Had we still been operating the paper-based system of the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown era, we would have had unemployment queues snaking round city centres. It wouldn’t have needed an England footballer to point this out, it would (quite rightly) have shamed the country.

I remember that time well. Despite massive government spending, I founded a charity to tackle unemployment – because there were generations of kids who were being harmed because they didn’t see the benefits of work in their home life. We musn’t return to those days.

We are now facing the grim prospect of unemployment as high as 13 per cent – that’s around four million people without a job. In July, 5.6 million people were receiving welfare with almost half officially “searching for work.” One of the areas with the highest numbers of new Universal Credit claims is leafy Guildford in Surrey.

Britain faces the very real problem of mass, long-term unemployment. At the beginning of 2020, there were 3.1 million people in Britain who were not working, but wanted a job. This figure could grow by more than two million due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Benefit claimants are increasingly vulnerable, with more complex challenges, meaning that they need more support when navigating our welfare system. Inadequate support for some claimants has resulted in some falling in to a ‘state of crisis’ – increased financial insecurity, food bank usage, evictions, and homelessness as well as worsening mental health.

Unemployment can be disastrous for any individual. Unemployment is not just the loss of an income, but the loss of a sense of purpose, identity, and dignity. Poor health quickly follows.

If we want to get really serious about tackling poverty, we have to get serious about making sure people get into jobs. Financial pressures can lead to debt, housing problems, relationship strains, and in the most extreme cases, violence, homelessness, substance misuse and criminal activity.

This is the true cost of an unemployment crisis. Worklessness has a lasting impact on communities, and children growing up in a workless household are more likely to perform poorly at school, less likely to work themselves, and end up involved in the criminal justice system.

For all the winter eeconomic plans announced by the Chancellor, tackling the human toll of worklessness will be the biggest long term challenge. Long before the pandemic struck, the UK still had a long-term unemployment problem, with particular challenges from disability, and a disability employment gap that had hardly shifted in a decade.

Despite remarkable successes over the last ten years in halving the number of people unemployed for two years or more, the other half still exist, pandemic or no pandemic. The challenge will now be to make sure that our millions of newly unemployed (and their families) don’t join them as long term unemployment ‘stats’.

There are real human lives behind the statistics – which is why the Chancellor must look seriously at Universal Support.

Universal Support gets money to local charities to offer real personal support for jobseekers. Run by local authorities, Universal Support works alongside Universal Credit payments, with the aim of helping welfare claimants tackle the real barriers to sustained work.

Helping people who may be applying for Universal Credit, but who also need help in stabilising their housing situation, advice on dealing with burdensome debt, help in accessing opportunities to develop skills, or getting an appointment for a medical diagnosis – Universal Support commissions local charities who work with people rather than statistics.

A truly compassionate social security system should be about helping to support people fallen on hard times, not just a welfare check in the post. It is self-evidently not enough for programmes to get people work ready if there is no work. So it’s also time to channel our inner Reagan and go for some big tax cuts targeted at the regions to rebalance the UK and encourage the creation of jobs.

The recovery must be driven by the private sector, but the Government should seize the opportunity to direct this in a regionalist way with rebalancing as an explicit goal.

The Centre for Social Justice’s paper “The Future of Work: Regional Revolution” makes the case for enterprise zones in the UK’s most left behind towns and cities: tax breaks and financial incentives would be offered specifically to businesses operating in these regions. State loans to start-ups should have job creation in our poorest areas as an explicit objective.

We can’t just treat unemployment as a problem on a spreadsheet. There are real human lives behind the statistics, which is where Universal Support comes in. We need to see it in every town. Economic measures to rebuild our regional economies need to go alongside welfare support that stops the spiral of unemployment and offers a compassionate helping hand into newly-created jobs.