Neil O’Brien: I can laugh off China sanctioning me, but we can’t shrug off the threat it poses

5 Apr

Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

Typical, isn’t it?  You’re trying to get the kids off to school and nursery, running late as you hunt around for your son’s snuggly giraffe. You have a busy day planned, meeting the local paper and a café owner threatened with eviction.

The next thing you know, a communist superpower declares war on you personally.

I’m one of nine people sanctioned by China. It’s tempting to laugh it off. After all, seizing my assets in China will leave the Communists no richer. And after they kidnapped two prominent Canadians, I wasn’t planning to go there anyway.

The next morning, the Chinese embassy still sent me their regular propaganda email to MPs, which began: “Dear friends…”  It seems joined-up government is impossible – even under dictatorship.

But it’s no laughing matter. The goal isn’t really to intimidate me or the other MPs, but business people, academics, and others. To create uncertainty, fear and self-censorship – memorably described as the “Anaconda in the chandelier” strategy.

More and more businesses are having to grapple with it: Beijing’s currently threatening to destroy Nike and H&M in China for raising concerns about slave labour.

It’s now coming up on a year since we launched the China Research Group.  Over the last 12 months, things have changed in lots of ways.

First, there’s growing global awareness of China’s human rights abuses: particularly against the Uighur people, but also in Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and across China as a whole. Human Rights Watch says it’s the worst period for human rights since Tiananmen.

The brutal crackdown in Hong Kong and Beijing’s decision to tear up the Sino-British declaration and end “one country, two systems” showed how much Beijing will sacrifice to keep absolute control. All leading pro-democracy activists there are now in exile, in jail or on trial.

At least the world has started to notice and act.  Indeed, we were targeted by Beijing in response to coordinated sanctions on human rights abusers in Xinjiang, recently put in place by 30 democratic countries.

MPs around Europe and MEPs from all the European Parliament’s main political groups were sanctioned along with us, with various US politicians already sanctioned last year.

So we’re all in it together, and it was great to get strong support from the Prime Minister – and through him the US President – and also from friends around Europe.

The sanctions aren’t like-for-like of course. MPs like me are being sanctioned simply for writing articles like this. By contrast, the democracies are sanctioning Xinjiang officials for presiding over a regime forcing sterilisation of Uighur women on an industrial scale; using rape as a weapon to break dissenters in its vast network of detention camps; rolling out an AI-powered surveillance state that to identify and control minority groups; and physically erasing the Uighur culture and religion from the face of the earth.

Our sanctions are to protest against human rights abuses. Theirs to silence such protests.

What Beijing’s doing is at least as bad as Apartheid South Africa.  But by comparison, the international response has been more muted so far. Partly because China makes it hard for reporters to get access. But also because China is more powerful than South Africa was.

International pressure on South Africa grew over decades and became a huge cultural movement. It loomed large in the pop music of my 80s childhood: “Free Nelson Mandela”, “Something Inside So Strong”, “Silver and Gold”, “Gimme hope Jo’anna” were all hits.

These days Hollywood studios make sure that their films have the thumbs up from Beijing: they think it’s too big a market to risk losing.

I’ve written about China’s growing global censorship. Nonetheless, the truth is seeping out, and the global criticism getting louder.

That points to a second positive change over the year: new opportunities for democracies to coordinate in the Biden era.

Coodination is essential: China’s economic and political strategy relies on divide and rule.  Each free country fears losing out if it alone stands up to Beijing.

The communist regime singles out countries who challenge it like Australia, Sweden and Canada. Like all bullies, they are really trying to teach others to keep their heads down.

But while Trump had scratchy relations with other leaders, Biden’s election makes cooperation much easier.

It’s not just that we need to get the band back together again, and make the G7 work (though that’s important), but bringing together a wider group of democracies including India, South Korea, Australia and South Africa. The Prime Minister is right to push the “D11” concept.

The third big change is changing western attitudes on economic policy regarding China.

The single best thing about the recent Integrated Review was the clear-eyed understanding of the competition for technological advantage now underway between nations.

In the sunny utopianism of the 1990s, the world was going to be flat, borderless, and competition was between companies not countries. Technology was cool, but not a national issue: the UK could just specialise in professional services. Awesome new global supply chains meant you didn’t need to worry about where your supplies were coming from, whether it was vaccines; ventilators, PPE, silicon chips or telecoms equipment.

Beijing has a very different vision, and its rise means we must change our thinking  It promotes “Civil-military fusion”, and its imports have slowed dramatically as its import substitution policies develop.

Xi Jinping says he is “building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.” He explains that China must “enhance our superiority across the entire production chain… and we must tighten international production chains’ dependence on China.”

The US has woken up to this, and in Washington as well as Beijing there’s a shared understanding that the two superpowers are fighting to dominate the technologies of the future. Joe Biden talks about “winning the future”.

Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have long seen tech competition as a shared national endeavour, and have policies to match.  No wonder: meeting politicians from these countries through the China Research Group, I’ve come to understand the level of constant threat they have to live under.

We too must adapt to this more national world.

First, we need to build a powerful innovation system. During the 1960s and 1970s the US and UK invested similar amounts in R&D.  But Reagan grew federal support while we let it wither, and we have been operating on different levels since.  I’ve banged on before about how to make government funding do more for our economy.

Second, we need to protect ourselves from the Beijing’s hoovering up of technology.  More help for business to resist cyberattack from the National Cyber Force.  Somewhere to get advice on not losing your intellectual property if you do business in China.

And as well as the very welcome National Security and Investment Bill we need to make sure that the new Investment Security Unit has the same resourcing and input from the security services that CFIUS enjoys in the US – and we need to be prepared to use the new powers.

Likewise, Jo Johnson’s recent report highlights the risks to our universities from poorly-thought-through partnerships with China. Investigations by Civitas and the Daily Telegraph revealed that UK universities are actually helping Beijing with new weapons technologies. We must get a firm grip of all such partnerships and where universities’ money is coming from.

Over the last year we’ve learned a lot.  The UK and governments across the west have started to act.  But we’re still just starting to figure out how to respond to a more aggressive China.

Matt Kilcoyne: The pluses and minuses of vaccine passports – and the discrimination that comes with them

4 Apr

Matt Kilcoyne is Head Of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.

Vaccine passporting is not a clear-cut issue, and those that say that it is are doing our public discourse a disservice. Honest debate leads to the best policy outcomes, and we need it on an issue of such importance as the potential introduction of a new, lawful discrimination.

What is actually being proposed is this: that you should be able to show your vaccinated status; that employers or government and firms should be able to request you to show that status, and then use it to determine whether to discriminate for or against you in accepting or fulfilling a contract. To do it, we’ll need a new discriminatory characteristic to be assignable and recognised in law.

Discrimination comes with costs and benefits. The benefit to those that choose to exercise it is that they know that their staff or those on their premises cannot fall sick or (as evidence increasingly suggests) make others sick from this virus. Lower liabilities and lower risks could be coupled with the benefits of potentially removing social distancing requirements.

Around 20 per cent of publicans say they want to access punters and staff for proof of vaccines to ensure their staff’s and all of their families’ health. Polling by Ipsos Mori shows 78 per cent of those surveyed think you should have one to travel abroad, and the same amount to visit a relative in a care home. Over half would have it to let people go to pubs and restaurants that are opening outdoors in just over a week.

Insurers may want passports to provide future policy cover for venues, or places in East Asia that have been proven to be capable of causing super-spreader events. Trade Unions or individual employees want to be able to refuse work in unsafe conditions. Passports may help employers know they can provide it, and get back to full capacity as quickly as possible.

But vaccination discrimination comes with obvious costs, too. Punters at the pub or restaurant goers that are asked to show their status face another annoyance when going out. While it would be a minor inconvenience for many to get out their phones, any increase in friction could mean people heading home rather than staying for a bite to eat – or else not leaving home in the first place.

Ministers have let mistrust seep in over the truthful nature of their intentions. Trade associations and prominent publicans have been quick to pour scorn on the idea of vaccine passports, because they’ve been burned by quickly implemented decisions over the past year, with huge financial implications.

Increased costs might seem minor to Ministers, but they add up, and non-compliance even more so. Businesses fear being pushed out of profitability after a year of doing the right thing, and their staff facing increased public ire while actual risk recedes.

Reports this week suggesting that Ministers are going to trial vaccination, antibody or negative antigen tests for access to events at the Brit Awards will fuel fears of a cascade right down through the entertainment industry.

Lawful discrimination is not a decision to be taken lightly. The young have lost out this year but, for some, the discrimination against them and their families has been decades and centuries old. The vaccine’s take-up has been lower in some ethnic groups, first generation migrants, and the undocumented.

So MPs voting on the issue should know that, whatever we end up with, they will face accusations of active discrimination that hits ethnic minorities, migrants, the disabled, or asylum seekers. Indeed, we have seen some of this in warnings from the Editor of the Spectator this weekend.

In America, the debate is going nearly 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Florida has said it will ban vaccine passports altogether, because of the demographic breakdown of vaccine takeup. This comes with enormous costs to the confidence and safety of citizens and sides against the silent majority, and the ability of consenting adults to contract privately – and with an outspoken minority leaning into angry identity politics.

Think about how employers such as Care UK say they’ll mandate their staff to be vaccinated to allow them to continue or sign up as a new employee with the company. Vaccinations reassure their patients and their families that they will provide care with no undue extra risk to those hit hardest by the virus.

Now if we agree with the right of relatives and patients to want to be cared for by those that are vaccinated, then we’ve got to a point where we think vaccination should be allowed to be mandated in private contracts between consenting adults.

Government’s role, then, is to allow and facilitate the accreditation of data it safeguards, and enforce the safety of transfer and storage of medical data held by any third party, and your rights to access it.

Given that we know international flights will almost certainly require them, a workable system is needed. But backbenchers will be wary of any pan-European system, and the fact that Tony Blair’s think tank has shouted about the issue loudest, and has met with Ministers, will expose Conservative fractures on law and order and civil liberties.

Making mandatory a system reliant on a single private company would risk issues with a business possibly going bust; but making everyone sign up to the NHS app would risk throwing away innovations in remote healthcare access made during this pandemic. And inaction would means a hotchpotch of people asking their GP for a copy of records that can cost up to £30 each, with no uniformity and no guarantee of acceptance abroad.

The hospitality industry has said that the Government could rebuild trust by being explicit on mandatory vaccination only for international travel. This could be coupled by saying that visitors should only have to show their vaccinated status at the borders.

The Government could require vaccination of those of front-line clinical workers, but rule out in law that requirement for anyone seeking medical services from the NHS. They should make clear the exemptions for those medically unable to have access, and be honest about an acceptable level of fraud risk given there will be some that conscientiously object to taking a vaccine, and our tolerance level given the mass take-up so far.

ime limits to the laws and six-month or yearly review on the requirements could ease tensions over hits to employment, and to those sections of society that haven’t been able to be jabbed yet or won’t, for whatever reason.

Finally, and because after a long year he deserves it, Boris Johnson should take some Cabinet Ministers to a pub on the 12th April for an outdoor pint – and make it very apparent that no-one is checking their vaccination status upon arrival.

Steve Baker and Dominic Grieve: Saturday’s vigil, its mishandling – and why we should be wary of this plan for more police powers

16 Mar

Steve Baker was a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Wycombe.  Dominic Grieve is a former Attorney General and MP for Beaconsfield.

Sarah Everard’s killing and the subsequent charging of a police officer with her murder are horrors which will have struck us all. Men need to relearn the basic courtesies that enable women to feel safe in public – including challenging those who continue to ignore them – and heed the message that so many women have tried to convey over the last few days.

In its aftermath, Saturday’s events on Clapham Common were a disaster for the image of policing by consent and a vivid illustration of the consequences of the enactment of bad law. Policymakers and lawmakers must learn the right lessons from this as we consider the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The police have been put in an invidious position by poorly enacted Coronavirus law. The police may consider that protests are banned, but as a briefing by Big Brother Watch explains that “whether or not protests are legally prohibited remains unclear.”

While the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020 contain a specific exemption on gathering for protests in Tiers 1-3, in Tier Four this exemption has been removed.

However, there is a credible argument that silent protest is still allowed as a common law right which has not been specifically banned. That has created an ambiguity which inevitably undermines Dame Cressida Dick’s claim in relation to the Clapham Common events that “unlawful gatherings are unlawful gatherings”.

Given the testimony to Parliament that there is very little evidence of outdoor transmission and no outbreaks linked to crowded beaches, it is hard to see how it was a good policing decision at this stage in the pandemic to break up a vigil for Sarah Everard by force – a vigil attended privately earlier by the Duchess of Cambridge for very good reasons.

This serious fiasco has also become the context for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but it is not necessarily the right context through which to consider all the public order powers in the Bill. The willingness of contemporary protestors to use non-violent mass law breaking to pursue political ends by bringing our cities to a halt and by placing massive pressure on policing resources cannot just be ignored.

In January, Brandon Lewis clarified in the Commons that the Government did not consider Extinction Rebellion an extremist group. But others have suggested that some within it may aspire to undermine liberal democracy by mass protest of this kind, although it must be rather doubtful that this is the agenda of most of its supporters.

If the powers available to deal with such improbable radicalism in practice are really insufficient at present, then this may justify changing the law. But in doing so MPs must uphold the fundamental right to protest along with the rights and freedoms of those whose lives may be seriously disrupted by such demonstrations.

The problem is that there is much in Part Three of the Bill to raise concerns that it may create uncertainty by giving far too much discretion to the police in determining this balance, and far too much power to the executive to change the law by decree if it chooses – a practice of which our experience over Coronavirus ought to make us very wary.

In a free and democratic society, the right to protest in public is fundamental, and the presumption in favour of maintaining that right, even at the risk of its being occasionally abused, is paramount. The criticisms of this part of the Bill from many quarters should not be ignored, even as we ask critics to face up to new policing challenges.

The Bill, being so wide in its scope, also deals with many other issues unrelated to public order and demonstrations. Those voting against it at Second Reading, as the Official Opposition apparently intends to do, must explain and justify their doing so when there will be much in it that their constituents will want. South Buckinghamshire residents will want to deter unlawful encampments, for example.

Conversely, those MPs voting for the principle of the Bill today, because they wish to see parts of it enacted, must make clear their intent to improve it at later stages and address the fundamental matters that go the heart of our civil liberties. Meanwhile, at this stage in the pandemic and the vaccination programme, the Government should proceed immediately to repeal all Covid-related restrictions on the right to protest, and remove the possibility of a recurrence of Saturday’s events.

Christopher Snowdon: To reduce problem gambling effectively, use targeted measures – not blanket bans

11 Mar

Christopher Snowdon is Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is the author of A safer bet: Gambling and the risks of over-regulation, published this week.

The Government launched a public consultation on gambling regulation in December, saying that it wanted to make Britain’s gambling laws ‘fit for the digital age’.

Now that fixed-odds betting terminals have been banished from bookmakers, online gambling has become the main target of anti-gambling activists. They have a wish list of things they want banned, including gambling advertising and sponsorship, VIP schemes and high stake games. Some have even suggested a legal limit on how much gamblers can spend each month.

These prohibitions are designed to tackle Britain’s supposed gambling epidemic, and yet a close look at the data shows that there has been no rise in the number of people gambling in the UK in recent years, and the amount spent on gambling was in decline even before the pandemic.

Fewer children are gambling than a decade ago and, whilst there is no doubt that pathological gambling can have serious consequences, rates of problem gambling have not risen in twenty years. At around 0.6 per cent of the adult population, our problem gambling rate is lower than in many countries which have stiffer regulation, and it is notable that the number of problem gamblers has not risen despite the growth of online gambling and the proliferation of gambling advertising.

The existence of problem gambling should not be used as an excuse for an endless crusade against an activity which provides harmless fun to the majority of consumers. A mental health problem that affects a small minority requires a targeted response. The NHS has opened a number of problem gambling clinics in recent years, and more are due to open by 2023/24. Offering help to those who need it is a far more constructive and effective approach than hitting all gamblers with bans and restrictions.

The measures proposed by some activists, such as slowing down games and limiting prize money, are not so much designed to help problem gamblers as deter anyone from gambling by sucking the fun out of it. That is not what regulation is supposed to do, and it carries risks of its own.

To operate and advertise in the UK, gambling companies have to abide by UK regulation and pay tax to the British government. Most gamblers are happy to use licensed websites, but that could change if games are made tedious and unexciting by over-zealous politicians. Recent research found that 4.5 per cent of UK online gamblers had used an unlicensed operator in the past twelve months, and 44 per cent were aware of at least one unlicensed gambling website. If the government makes the regulated sector less appealing, demand for the unregulated sector is likely to grow. The Government will get less tax revenue and punters will get less protection.

A smarter approach would be to use technology to our advantage. In the past, gambling companies often didn’t know who their customers were. Today, they not only know their customer’s name and address (which they cross-check with credit agency databases), but how much they spend, what they play and how they play. They know if a person has self-excluded from any other regulated website.

The ability of ‘Big Data’ to identify problem gamblers and prevent harm is unlike anything we have seen before. Players can set deposit limits, set playing times and opt out of receiving inducements, such as free bets. Algorithms are used to identify ‘markers of harm’, such as chasing losses, switching between products and playing late at night.

These red flags trigger interventions. A gambler who displays unusual behaviour might receive an e-mail reminding them about deposit limits, or be taken off mailing lists offering bonuses and inducements. Those deemed to be at higher risk will receive a phone call or be given a spending cap or have their account suspended, sometimes permanently.

Regulated online operators have a range of practical harm reduction measures available to them which target problem gamblers without infringing the rights of the average punter. Not every company uses their technology to prevent harm in the same way, but they could. Best practice could be made standard. It is these practical, sophisticated solutions, not the blunderbuss approach of anti-gambling activists, that should be the focus of the Government’s review.

Benedict Rogers: It seems plausible that this brazen assault on democracy in Myanmar is driven by one man’s ambition

1 Feb

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is Senior Analyst for East Asia at CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, author of three books on Myanmar (Burma), including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”, and a former parliamentary candidate.

Today’s coup in Myanmar (Burma) is a devastating blow to a decade of fragile democratization, and a major setback for a beautiful but benighted country that has already suffered decades of war, poverty and repression.

Although Myanmar has a long history of military rule, this latest move comes as a surprise. Despite a transition to a civilian-led democratic government under Aung San Suu Kyi five years ago, the military has in any case retained real power.

Under the constitution which it wrote, Myanmar’s military has direct control of three key government ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence – as well as a quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for the armed forces. It controls its budget, and many enterprises. Aung San Suu Kyi has bent over backwards to compromise with the military, even defending them in The Hague on charges of genocide. So why would the army move against her now?

One theory is that the military is driven by power and is incapable of relinquishing it. Ever since General Ne Win’s first takeover in 1958, the military has been the dominant political force in Myanmar. His caretaker regime handed over to a democratically elected government in 1960, only to seize power in a coup in 1962.

For over 50 years the army ruled Myanmar directly, rejected Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)’s first election victory in 1990 and transitioned to a ‘civilian’ government led by former generals dressed in suits rather than military uniforms in 2010. Only after the NLD’s overwhelming win in 2015 did the military move from centre stage to the wings of politics, but even then it continued to exercise overwhelming influence. But perhaps it wasn’t satisfied with that, and wanted to play a starring role again.

Another theory, however, is more plausible, and it is that this coup is not so much driven by the military as a whole, but by the personal ambitions of one man – the Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing.

He wants to be President and was dissatisfied that the military-backed party, the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), did not do well in last November’s election. Knowing that he has to retire from his current post in June this year, he appears to have decided that if he can’t be President using legitimate, constitutional means, he would seize power anyway.

The pretext for the coup – the army’s claim of voter fraud in last year’s election – is risible. An institution that for decades has defrauded the electorate has no right to make such an allegation. While there are concerns that some of the country’s ethnic minorities were disenfranchised in the election, there is no evidence of voter fraud at the ballot box and no legitimate reason to doubt the NLD’s victory.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the President Win Myint, government ministers, regional chief ministers and a number of pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and a state of emergency imposed for a year. This is truly an outrage, and the international community must not stand for it. Britain, the United States, the European Union and others invested significantly in the reform period that began a decade ago, and so cannot allow this coup to pass without consequences.

Reaction has been swift – but so far only rhetorical. Anthony Blinken, the new US Secretary of State, called on the military to reverse their actions “immediately” and “to release all government officials and civil society leaders and respect the will of the people of Burma as expressed in democratic elections on November 8.”

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, issued a statement in which he described the developments as “a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar.”

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, condemned the coup in a tweet, calling for the military to release all those who have been detained unlawfully and for the restoration of the democratic process.

And Boris Johnson condemned the coup and the unlawful imprisonment of civilians.

Now the free world must set out what it will do if the military do not back down – and the United Kingdom should take a lead. We should impose co-ordinated, targeted sanctions – not broad-based sanctions against the country, which would hurt the people, but sanctions specifically against the military’s enterprises and assets.

In July 2020, the United Kingdom announced sanctions against two high ranking members of the Burmese military under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime – otherwise known as “Magnitsky” sanctions – for human rights violations, but what is needed now is measures against military companies and the economic interests of the military as a whole.

The United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, the European Union, Japan and other allies must work together on this, though if a unified approach cannot be reached, those that are willing to go down the sanctions path should do so anyway, and work with allies on other measures they can agree on.

If it is the case that this coup is more about Min Aung Hlaing’s personal ambitions, then it may be possible to cause a split in the military if international pressure is perceived to hit its economic interests. If that happens, perhaps wiser, cooler heads in the military may prevail and force the Commander-in-Chief to back down.

Certainly one thing is clear: if the Myanmar army is allowed to get away with this brazen assault on a fragile democracy, not only will Myanmar’s development and progress be set back, but it will send an unwelcome green light to others in South-East Asia and beyond, that unconstitutional seizures of power will be allowed to go unchecked. And that – in a world where the cause of freedom and democracy is already on the back foot – would be devastating.

Toby Young: O’Brien is wrong – censorship is never the answer

12 Jan

Toby Young is the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union and the Editor of

I was disappointed to read Neil O’Brien’s column on this site yesterday (‘Trumpism in Britain. It’s time to call out those in the media who cynically feed the cranks, rioters and conspiracists’), and not just because I’m the only person in the media whom he actually “calls out”.

He didn’t say outright that he supports the Donald Trump Twitter ban, or the censorship of cranks and conspiracists on social media, but he came close. Indeed, he called for newspapers to no platform some of the people who challenge the official narrative about Coronavirus, dismissing them as “professional contrarians” who are poisoning the well of public discourse. “We need people in positions of power in the media to practice some basic hygiene about whose views they are promoting,” he wrote.

That a Conservative MP and the Co-Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board should set so little store by free speech is alarming. No one is suggesting that the right to it should extend to inciting violence, and some of the things that Trump said in the lead-up to the attack on the U.S. Capital last week and on the day itself crossed that line.

But couldn’t Twitter have simply deleted anything it regarded as dangerously inflammatory rather than banned Trump outright? He is the President of the United States, after all, elected by 63 million people in 2016. Who elected Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter?

O’Brien says he’s concerned that British politics will become as polarised and venomous as American politics if the media doesn’t behave more responsibly, by which he means excluding people express views he considers false and dangerous.

However, there are numerous problems with this censorious attitude, starting with the first question that defenders of free speech always ask: who decides? After all, one man’s conspiracy theory is another man’s inconvenient truth. It’s all very well saying we should ban ‘misinformation’, but these days that’s just a euphemism for ‘a point of view I disagree with’.

Sometimes, the would-be Lord Chamberlains use the phrase ‘hate speech’ to describe the views they think should be censored, but defining which opinions are ‘hateful’ and which merely controversial is notoriously difficult. Last year, I started an organisation called the Free Speech Union, and many of our members have been kicked off social media platforms for breaching anti-hate speech rules, even though their views would be considered perfectly reasonable by ConservativeHome readers.

To give just one example” a trans activist started a petition on last year demanding that the OED change its definition of woman from “adult human female” to something less “exclusionary” – i.e. delete the word “female”. The feminist campaigner Posie Parker responded by launching a counter-petition on the same platform, asking the OED to retain its definition. took it down, explaining to Posie that defining a woman as an “adult human female” was “hate speech”.

But even if there was a consensus among right-thinking people about which points are beyond the pale, would that be a good reason for banning them? I’m not talking about stirring up racial hatred, which I would never defend, although the bar needs to be set a lot higher than it was by the police in the Darren Grimes/David Starkey case.

But what about the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Washington is run by a cabal of devil-worshipping paedophiles? If you’re concerned that people’s belief in this theory may lead to their estrangement from civil society – or worse – isn’t it better to let its proponents set out their case in the public square, where it can be rebutted with reason and evidence? If you suppress it, not only will you deprive people of the opportunity to hear these rebuttals, you will probably convince some fence-sitters that it’s true. After all, if it is obviously and transparently false, why hush it up?

As the Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, said: “if there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence”.

Which brings me to Neil O’Brien’s disapproval of lockdown sceptics. In his article, he smears me and the contributors to the sceptical website I run as cranks and conspiracy theorists, lumping us together with Covid-deniers and anti-vaxxers. He even puts inverted commas around the word “scientists”, as if no respectable scientist could be anything other than four square behind the lockdown policy.

This is plainly ludicrous. There are plenty of mainstream scientists, not to mention psychologists, sociologists, economists, historians, philosophers, statisticians, actuaries, financial analysts and novelists – even some Conservative MPs – who believe the harm caused by the lockdowns outweighs the harms they prevent.

They’re not Covid deniers or anti-vaxxers – just people who are sceptical about prioritising saving people from Covid-19 at the expense of everything else, including other deadly diseases, mental health, children’s education, the economy and our civil liberties. Many of them are contributors to Lockdown Sceptics.

O’Brien is perfectly entitled to think this is a dangerous, irrational point of view, just as most of us think his fanatical support for lockdowns is dangerous and irrational. The difference is that we don’t think he should be kicked off Twitter or no-platformed by the mainstream media. We believe in free speech, which means we think the best way to determine when the current restrictions should be lifted – and weigh up the costs and benefits of the lockdown approach more generally – is through vigorous, open debate.

Robert Sutton: The protection of civil liberties must be placed at the heart of a reformed Public Health Act

1 Jan

Dr Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer.

Since the passage of the Coronavirus Act 2020, we have seen an unprecedented restriction of civil liberties in this country. The powers assumed by the government have allowed ministerial decree to circumvent parliamentary scrutiny and to regulate the minutiae of our everyday lives to a degree unimaginable just one year ago.

Yet the basis of these powers drawn from the Act is dubious. Notable legal scholars, particularly Jonathan Sumption, the former Supreme Court Justice, have argued that the legislation is unsuitable for the executive powers which have been carried out in its name. Parliamentarians are similarly frustrated by the way the Act has been used to evade parliamentary scrutiny while some of the most consequential restrictions are rolled out on ministerial whim. Steve Baker, in his duties as Deputy Chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, has repeatedly called for reform in this area.

Certainly, any legislation which is being used for such a constitutional distortion must be entirely unambiguous in its scope. The Act draws its authority in part from the Public Health Act 1984 (PHA). The PHA provides powers to restrict the movement of individuals known to have a communicable disease and to control spaces which are known to be contributing to contagion. Yet the current Covid-19 restrictions are far broader in their application that just to those individuals who are known to be infected, and this is where the Act treads into murky waters.

While the PHA is clear in putting forward what restrictions might be applied to individuals and premises known to be contagious (and these restrictions are entirely sensible), it is far less clear what the scope of its powers are with regards to individuals who are not infected with a communicable disease – the vast majority of citizens. The legal precedent on such issues is that, where there is ambiguous or general wording, such vagueness must not be used to curtail constitutional freedoms. Else, we would be able to take justify drastic actions using whatever legislation is unclear in its scope. But the Government seems uninterested in such precedent.

The primary piece of legislation which gives government powers to curtail civil liberties is the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (CCA). The CCA is a remarkable piece of legislation which allows a government to wield extraordinary powers in an emergency. As such, its use is strictly bound by ongoing Parliamentary scrutiny of those powers. It is clear that these powers are lent to the government by Parliament, and for a limited period at a time. They can also be withdrawn by Parliament as it sees fit. The fear that an emergency might be exploited to evade the House of Commons by a power-hungry executive was precisely what the drafters had in mind when including such safeguards.

The necessity for Parliamentary scrutiny intrinsic to the CCA is why MPs have argued that the executive should be using it as the basis for coronavirus restrictions instead of the PHA, or that the PHA itself should be reformed to make clear the limits of its powers. Yet Boris Johnson has made clear that he has no intention of using the CCA as the legal basis of lockdown powers, so we return to the PHA to define that scope.

The current PHA certainly was not developed with the current situation in mind. So, as it stands, we find ourselves trapped in a middle ground, in which the legislation being used as the basis for lockdown is unsuitable for that purpose and incapable of giving such provisions as to ensure ongoing Parliamentary scrutiny. This gives the rather uncomfortable impression that the Government intentionally chose a legal basis which it could use knowing that it would be subject to a lower standard of Parliamentary scrutiny than that which would be required under the CCA.

Yet to try to circumvent Parliament in the exercise of executive power is extremely myopic. Whether the Government currently realises it or not, it is within their best interests to ensure that further restrictions are brought before Parliament. Parliament is not some constitutional inconvenience. It is the basis for our liberal democracy, the means by which legislation is given its moral authority and an exceptionally useful political tool to measure public perceptions of government plans.

By directly reforming the PHA to explicitly limit its scope, and to allow legislation carried in its name to face full scrutiny by Parliament, the Government would certainly face a short-term inconvenience of restricting the executive powers it has used lavishly thus far. But there would be an overwhelming long-term gain in ensuring that those measures passed have the direct consent of MPs and the indirect consent of their constituents. This would without doubt make for better and more resilient legislation and ensure that any further restrictions are more surely footed in both law and public opinion.

Richard Holden: The age at which National Lottery games can be played should be raised to 18

9 Nov

Castleside Old Church Yard, Consett, County Durham

For me as a new Member of Parliament, my first Remembrance Sunday is certainly not a day that I’ll ever forget.

The knowledge that there’s a strong possibility that, at some point, I may be called upon to vote about sending British troops into conflict becomes very real when you see names carved in stone or cast in bronze above where you lay your wreath to remember the fallen on behalf of your constituents.

War or no war is clearly the biggest decision that a state can make. For MPs though, decisions and votes in Parliament extend to everything between these momentous calls to voting on much more every-day matters – and everything between. It is a responsibility that no MP I know, from any party, takes lightly.

The Conservative Manifesto I was elected on touched on many areas, but one of those somewhere between war and the mundane was a pledge that, if elected, we would launch a review of the regulation of gambling laws.

Back in July, James Wild and I led the Public Accounts Committee investigation into the role of the Gambling Commission, the industry regulator and did a joint piece for ConservativeHome on our thoughts then.

Since that point, things have moved at pace. The House of Lords has done a superb and wide-ranging report into all aspects of gambling – and has now signed up 150 peers to champion it from across the House.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Gambling Related Harm has launched its own report hitting at many areas of concern, including advertising and sport.

And our Public Accounts Committee report has been published and been responded to (generally favourably) by the Government. These moves, alongside increasing interest from the media and, rumour has it, a will from inside Government point to a review into the regulation of gambling, which, when it comes, will be wide-ranging, which is very welcome.

Like many readers, my desire to go out and about and meet friends has been dramatically curtailed by the latest national restrictions and I have found myself, late of an evening in front of the TV much more than I normally would.

The preponderance of gambling adverts has really struck me and, as I’ve flicked between channels and, ahead of the wide-ranging review, I have become more convinced that swift action is necessary, and think there is one move that the Government should make before others. This is to tackle under-18 gambling.

One of the biggest loopholes – and easiest to close – it appears to me is the ‘Lottery Loophole’. This was re-enforced to me this week in an APPG evidence session from the National Lottery.

Currently, lotteries are regulated differently to other aspects of the gambling market because, traditionally, they’ve been very different beasts. Small stakes, long-odds, and a time delay of days between the bet and the result. However, I’m afraid things have changed a lot since the launch of the weekly draw in 1994.

It could be you! was the lottery’s slogan then. Most people remember paying £1 for a pink piece of paper that got put in a wallet, purse, drawer or pocket and then was madly searched for when it was headline news that someone hadn’t claimed the jackpot.

And back in 1994, the weekly draw lottery had an age limit of 16. It has clearly raised vast fortunes for various good causes, and ensured a healthy profit for its operator throughout, Camelot. Since then, however, things have changed dramatically.

The advent of instant win games has not just turned up the dial, it has flipped the lottery into becoming a different beast altogether. First, scratchcards and now instant win online games have moved the dial far from the ‘bit of fun’ to more than a bit of a problem. Together, scratchcards and online instant win now make up almost as much in revenue terms as the four weekly (two lottery and two Euromillions) draws combined.

The Lottery tried to skirt around the subject, but scratchcards and online instant win are fixed odds gambling. And for clarity, the term instant win is clearly a misnomer as, with returns of c.50 per cent, even if you do win, keep playing and it’s essentially instant loss.

The Lottery says that it has very small numbers of 16 and 17-year-old players, but the truth is that they really don’t know, because there is no real age breakdown from retail sales of scratchcards. More important still is that all Lottery players, of whatever age, are able to spend £350 a week online.

It seems clear to me that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds (who we now require to be in education at least part time until they’re 18) to lose £350/week in fixed odds online gambling – and obviously unlimited sums in retailers – is madness. We’ve raised the age at which you do everything from buy cigarettes to the age at which you can serve on the front line to 18, and therefore it appears perverse that we allow the spending of such large amounts by 16 and 17-year-olds.

Given that the Lottery doesn’t seem to understand that continuing to allow this is seriously tarnishing its brand and its reputation as “a bit of fun that raises cash for good causes”, and is unwilling to call for it’s licence to be changed itself, it’s time for MPs to act to save the good from the bad.

The Government has already had a call for evidence on under-18 gambling and we’re awaiting it to publish its plans. Without needing to be part of the broader review of gambling, I believe that the case is clear for raising the age at which you can play National Lottery games to 18. Ahead of launching the review, it’s time for the Government to crack-on with measures that crack-down on this sort of instant-loss gambling which exposes young people to the potential of losing hundreds of pounds a week.

“When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do?” – as has been said. Well, facts about the Lottery have changed substantially since it came into being more than a quarter of a century ago. Instant win and online has replaced the sedate once-weekly draw.

The Lottery’s defence is that this all means more cash for good causes but where – or more specifically who – you’re getting that cash from really does matter. I don’t think it should be from the pockets of 16 and 17-year-olds gambling up to £350 a week on instant win games.

This quick and relatively easy change to the licence of the Lottery could happen within a matter of weeks. It has already got plans in place if it does. All it needs now is for the Government to act to protect under-18s from potentially serious gambling harm. This is one decision I think the Government can be guaranteed overwhelming support for and one I’m very happy to help them make.

Nick Fletcher: Ministers must do more to strike the right balance between health and happiness

30 Oct

Nick Fletcher is MP for Don Valley.

I heard some time ago from a constituent of mine that the Government’s role, above everything else, was to keep its people safe and happy.

I can understand the view that the Government has a duty to keep people safe. After all, for most people, the very reason for the state is to ensure that life is not, as the saying goes, “nasty, brutish and short”.

In many ways, this is still one of the top priorities of the state. Keeping us safe from war, safe from starvation, safe when on the roads, streets and in our homes. We take this as a given, and rightly so.

More difficult a question is whether the Government has to ensure that people are kept happy. With human nature being so complex, the ability for a government to successfully pursue such a policy will always be questionable. In my view, and in the view of most ordinary people, ensuring happiness is usually the role of the individual.

Yet as the Covid-19 pandemic lingers on, it is clear that the belief that the state must also ensure the happiness of individuals has now crept into our public discourse.

I don’t believe in reliance on luck for happiness. Instead, I think that individuals must forge their own paths. They must make decisions and take ownership of their own futures. There are various ways in which any government can help remove obstacles for people and make some aspects of life smoother. Yet as happiness is such a subjective feeling, it may only be made possible by ensuring liberty and giving people choice.

If one of the roles of Government is to make people happy, the best (and arguably only way) this can be achieved is through preserving liberty so people can take charge of their own lives and make their own decisions.

During the pandemic, my views on this issue have only been reaffirmed. Currently, my constituents are roughly split into two camps: those who wish to open the country up again for their mental wellbeing, and those who are concerned about the increasing numbers of Covid cases. Half in the people of Don Valley want the Government to maintain or even reintroduce previous restrictions. The other half, meanwhile, want to have their freedom restored so they can do things which make them happy.

In these circumstances, the Government faces a significant dilemma. Yet it must not become a nanny state and appeal to only one faction – those who wish to be safe. Instead, there is another strategy which I believe the Government should pursue. It should introduce flexible measures which both keep people safe and allow others to pursue what they want to do. If we allow the vulnerable to shield and continue working from home, and the non-vulnerable to go about their business, then we will both save lives and preserve people’s liberties.

It is so essential both that those who want to be kept safe from the virus do not spoil the freedom of others, and those who want to go out respect the concerns of those shielding. This ensures that the vulnerable are safe, but by preserving liberty, it also allows other individuals to pursue activities which make them happy.

Would such a strategy be complicated? Perhaps. Yet those who felt threatened by the virus would feel safe, while those who felt that their liberty was threatened would feel reassured. In other words, both sides would be satisfied, and the Government could carry out the duties my constituent believes it should: keeping us all safe and happy.

Daniel Hannan: Overstretched – that’s how our police see themselves. So how have they found time to hound a young Geordie journalist?

14 Oct

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.

Which of the following do you reckon constitutes a public order offence? Holding a demonstration in defiance of lockdown rules; vandalising a statue; recording an interview with a well-known Cambridge historian in which he makes a racist remark.

If you picked the third option, you could have a glittering career in the Metropolitan Police. London’s coppers, who switched from heavy-handed enforcement of the lockdown to indulgence of Leftist demonstrators, who literally dropped to their knees during violent protests, and one of whose commanders went so far as to issue a video asking BLM agitators to break the law considerately, has decided to investigate Darren Grimes over his interview with David Starkey.

Grimes, a Eurosceptic commentator, has been interviewed under caution in connection with Section 22 of the 1986 Public Order Act which makes the producer of a broadcast containing abusive or threatening language liable if “(a) he intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or (b) having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby.

No one, as far as I can tell, has defended Starkey’s assertion that, had the transatlantic slave trade constituted a genocide, “there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks”. Indeed, the dyspeptic doctor himself has issued a (for him) exceptional apology.

We can all agree that his remarks were intemperate, inaccurate and impolite. More than that, they were racist – a word that has been cheapened throughoveruse, but which applies in this case. A racist remark, though, does not in itself constitute a crime. The test is whether anyone hearing it would be stirred to racial hatred. In this instance, it seems vanishingly improbable. The common reaction, as we have seen, was a shudder of distaste at the speaker.

There used to be a clearly understood distinction between opinion (“Why are there so many damn Archenlanders in Narnia?”) and incitement (“Are you just going to stand there and let these Archenlanders violate our Marshwiggles?”) But that distinction has been systematically demolished, partly through legislation, partly through judicial activism and partly through over-eager policing.

It seems highly unlikely that the action against Grimes will result in a prosecution, let alone a conviction. But that doesn’t make it OK. For one thing, every investigation of this kind diminishes civil liberties and undermines the police. For another, there is a human cost even in cases that don’t reach court. As Mark Steyn (himself a victim of frivolous and malicious hate crimes accusations) puts it, “the process is the punishment”.

Grimes spent the better part of four years fighting off vexatious charges brought by people who resented the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum. Although he was completely exonerated in the end, nothing could undo the stress, the financial cost and the damaging media reports. Now, he faces going through another such ordeal. And the poor chap is still only 27.

Hate crimes are one of the places where we hear screeching gears as our politico-legal class pulls one way and public opinion the other. It is incomprehensible to most people that a police force that claims to be overstretched and underfunded can find time to chase a young Geordie journalist (“investigate crimes, not Grimes”, as one wag put it).

There is also a strong suspicion of partiality. Had David Starkey made his remarks in, say, a Guardian interview, does anyone seriously imagine that that paper’s editor would find herself under investigation? Yet, as the public looks on in bewildered alarm, the Law Commission is plugging ahead with its attempts to extend hate crimes legislation even further – this time to include misogyny.

Labour MPs have piled in against Grimes. Karl Turner, a shadow law minister, came out with a singular definition of free speech when he declared: “Of course everyone has the right to freedom of expression. But that doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences from what they have said. As I understand it, the police are investigating complaints. And it is right that they should investigate racist behaviour.”

Got that? You have absolute freedom of expression, but you may end up getting your collar felt if you exercise it in the wrong way.

Keir Starmer agrees. “I think it does sometimes have to involve the police,” he said on Monday. “There has got to be a level of tolerance of course, but there is a line which can be crossed, and it’s very important that it is investigated, and that in some cases there are prosecutions.”

Starmer has what coppers call “previous” here. When he was Director of Public Prosecutions, he reportedly overruled his staff to insist on pushing ahead with a case against someone who had made a joke on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood airport.

If Boris Johnson moves to reverse the spread in these illiberal laws, he will be in the happy position of having the electorate with him but Labour against him. That, though, is not why he should act. He should act because, until he does, there will be many more travesties: more wasted resources, more ruined lives, more tarnished liberty. “It’s a free country”, we used to tell one another. Let’s make it one.