Ben Houchen: The Budget. On Wednesday, Sunak must hear the voice of the North – and kickstart a new era of job creation.

26 Feb

Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.

With spirits buoyed by the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of pandemic restrictions, and the light at the end of the Covid tunnel finally in sight, all eyes now turn to the Budget on March 3.

This could be one of the most influential Budgets, both for our nation and for the region I represent, in a generation. Crucial decisions need to be weighed and judged by the Chancellor to ensure that our comeback from Covid is powerful and that the light at the end of that tunnel proves to shine on a better future.

There is no doubt in my mind that the top priority for Rishi Sunak is jobs and rebuilding the economy – an economy battered by the necessary restrictions on lives and livelihoods. I know from talking to local businesses how many are fighting on the edge, and it’s to the Government’s credit that the furlough scheme and other financial support have kept so many businesses alive and people in employment.

The “Red Wall” communities in my area overwhelmingly backed Boris Johnson in the last election, and it’s essential that the faith they put in him is returned. The Prime Minister promised a new kind of government, free of Brussels blinkers and Whitehall hand-wringing, which would address ordinary people’s concerns.

The best way to prevent low incomes and low opportunities from blighting the lives and hopes of adults and children, especially in the UK’s left-behind communities, is to do all we can to create new, good quality, well-paid jobs, on an unprecedented scale.

However, for a jobs agenda to be effective, it needs to be directed with strategy and precision. This can’t be an illusory statistical employment growth driven by foreign workers on contracts in the south. At the last election, the country was promised better policymaking for towns, villages and rural areas, and a transformative levelling up programme which would see growth, prosperity, and potential finally realised in communities across the nation.

This is the moment for a step-change in that levelling up agenda, to drive a jobs revolution in areas like Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool. Only by marrying the levelling up agenda to the jobs agenda will we ensure that new growth is serious, sustained, and benefits everyone.

There are two key ways in which the Chancellor can kick-start the recovery, levelling up, and the creation of good quality, well-paid jobs in my area. I and my team have done the groundwork, and the question is: will the Government grasp these golden opportunities?

The first, and most essential, step needed is for the Chancellor to give the green light to my plans for the Teesside Freeport. With thousands of acres of developable land, the largest deep-water port on the east coast, a nation-leading focus on delivering net zero technology and clean growth, and a pathway to pioneering innovations to support the whole UK freeport ecosystem, I passionately believe that a Teesside Freeport can be a jobs dynamo, a roaring engine of economic growth, and a flag-bearing project for Global Britain.

There are huge opportunities for job creation here. The wide package of tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures and streamlined planning processes freeports will benefit from can bring in the investment needed to unlock Teesside’s latent economic power.

Sunak was an early supporter of freeports himself, so I know that he understands the enormous potential we have here. The Teesside Freeport could create more than 18,000 skilled, good-quality, well paid jobs over the next five years and boost the local economy by £3.2billion. It would also increase inward investment into Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool by over £1.4 billion.

Now the Chancellor needs to have the courage to overrule any official arguing to delay pressing ahead with this game-changing jobs catalyst. As soon as Sunak gives us the green light, I’ll be driving this forward, unleashing the potential of Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.

The second action I’m looking for from the Chancellor is another where I know he understands the opportunity, but where again he needs to cut down the unimaginative Sir Humphreys within his department.

The Government’s plan to relocate 22,000 senior Whitehall civil servants out of London by 2030 will see 800 civil servants moved from Sunak’s own department to a new northern economic campus, dubbed “Treasury North”.

The vast majority of people don’t live in metropolitan cities, they live in our towns, our villages, in the countryside and on the coast. By moving out of London these civil servants will be able to develop a greater understanding of the issues and opportunities people are confronted with on a daily basis and, ultimately, develop better policy that is anchored in real knowledge gained by living in the communities it will impact the most.

For decades, talented local people in my area, graduates of fantastic northern universities and people who should have played an important part in our communities, have been sucked away by over-centralised bureaucracy. Now this self-perpetuating cycle can be broken. More than 100 local business leaders, both Teesside and Durham Universities, and political leaders from across the political spectrum have backed my proposal to bring Treasury North to Teesside.

It would be tragic if the prospect of opportunity and in-tune government was dissolved into a cluster of London civil servants being flown to Manchester, Leeds, or Newcastle. Such an outcome would fail to deliver better policymaking for towns like Hartlepool or Darlington, villages like Stillington or Skinningrove, or rural areas far and wide, and it would fail to deliver the promised levelling up agenda.

On Wednesday, the Chancellor has the chance to set a defining roadmap for our economic recovery from Covid. As a northern MP himself, I believe that he will hear the voice of the North and kickstart a new era of job creation. The tools are in his hands. The nation is waiting for Sunak to equip us to get to work and create the jobs of tomorrow.

2021 and the race to normality. Post-vaccine hospitalisation and transmission data are key to reopening the economy.

2 Jan

With the advent of 2021 (happy new year!) and the Oxford vaccine finally receiving approval, many of us are wondering a simple – but difficult to answer – question: how soon until life gets back to normal?

Boris Johnson has said that Britain will “open up” by Easter. But many people want the Government to move much faster now that it has the tools to do so, and not least because of what’s happening in Israel.

The country has been administering its population with the first dose of the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine at the rate of 150,000 people per day, with it on track to have 10 per cent of its citizens covered by the weekend.

While the UK has some of the best figures in this regard, it looks comparatively slow next to those above. Take the stats for England in the week ending December 27, when 243,039 people received vaccinations, with the total number of recipients standing at 786,000 since December 8.

To add to the pressure for Matt Hancock, the Chief Executive of AstraZeneca said the company could supply two million vaccines per week, so all eyes are on the Government to see if it can distribute these – especially as pressure on the NHS continues to grow.

Can the Government do it? Clearly getting millions of vaccines out is no walk in the park, from arranging huge numbers of appointments at short notice with some of the oldest and most vulnerable members of the public, to having to monitor people afterwards for 15 minutes (to check for adverse reactions). But there are areas that the Government can quickly improve upon.

There are, for instance, huge bureaucratic barriers for vaccinator volunteers, who have had to provide 21 pieces of evidence, such as Prevent Radicalisation training, to help out with Coronavirus efforts. With over 25 million people on the priority list for a vaccine, there’s never been a better reason to cut the red tape.

The Government will also be expected to smooth over manufacturing inefficiencies, which have been blamed for a discrepancy in the number of Oxford University and AstraZeneca vaccines expected for the NHS this year (30 million doses) versus the reality (530,000) – a gap that need to be closed quickly to bring down hospital admissions.

To the Government’s credit, it has risen to enormous challenges throughout this pandemic. Ministers were able to ramp up Coronavirus tests from nothing to hundreds of thousands per day, in an achievement that is often overlooked, and there are signs of vital progress on the vaccine front.

British military medics have been put on standby to vaccinate up to 700,000 people per week, and the Government has also switched its inoculation plan. Originally, the idea was to give two doses 21 days apart, but now a two-dose vaccine will be administered as one jab initially – to give as many as possible of the vulnerable some protection (with a second dose administered four to 12 weeks later).

Although some GPs have been unhappy about this idea, the UK’s chief medical officers have defended the strategy, writing in a joint letter: “We have to follow public health principles and act at speed if we are to beat this pandemic, which is running rampant in our communities, and we believe the public will understand and thank us for this decisive action.”

It’s innovation, as much as speed, that the Government needs to speed up its vaccination programme. No idea is off limits, with many people already placing suggestions on Twitter – even that pubs could be used as vaccination hubs – to get the UK moving faster out of lockdown.

In order to ease restrictions, the Government is working towards two goals. First, it needs to rapidly cut down hospitalisations, so that the NHS is no longer overwhelmed, which will mean it’s far safer to lift measures.

The second is to achieve population immunity, meaning “the virus has nowhere left to run.” Scientists have predicted that we could need anything from 60 to 80 per cent of the population vaccinated to achieve this, although it ultimately depends on what the next few months tell us about transmission. The ideal scenario is that the vaccine not only protects vulnerable members of society, but quickly stops the spread of the virus. This could have a dramatic impact on when restrictions go.

In the mean time, it makes sense for the Government to hold Easter up as the date for reopening the economy, not least because it will be warmer then – with less scope for people mixing indoors (where the virus spreads more easily). The Government no doubt feels more confident, based on last year’s seasonal patterns, that it will be easier to open then, vaccine or not – and plans to phase out the furlough scheme in April. Until then, ministers will have one of the busiest new years on record trying to make “Operation Get Back to Normal” a reality.

Henry Hill: The public want UK-wide rules for Christmas, but we’re a long way from a ‘Four Nations’ approach

5 Nov

The ‘Four Nations’ approach to lockdown – where is it now?

As we noted earlier in the week when looking at the Government’s decision to pivot to a full lockdown, one of the casualties of this summer’s coronavirus confusion has been the ‘four nations’ approach to combating the pandemic. Instead of operating in lockstep, the different devolved governments are now all operating different restriction regimes – raising for the first time the prospect of ‘hard borders’ on the British mainland.

Polling suggests there are limits to the public’s appetite to this – a clear majority of Brits think that there should be uniform policies towards Christmas across the United Kingdom – but for now the Government is unlearning its reflexive deference to devolution too slowly to hope this will be acted on. So what is going on in other parts of the country?

Wales made national headlines with their ‘firebreak’ lockdown. Straying beyond the public health remit of coronavirus regulations (and thus perhaps opening themselves up to judicial challenge), Cardiff Bay ministers decided that ‘essential’ shops which stayed open would nonetheless be forbidden to sell ‘non-essential’ goods, in order to prevent supermarkets having an unfair advantage over smaller retailers.

Despite this, and a raft of other mishandled elements earlier in the pandemic such as priority food deliveries and coordinating volunteers, the latest polls suggest that opposition parties are not yet managing to capitalise (although more on those polls below).

In Scotland, the pandemic is giving the Scottish National Party a chance to give its authoritarian tendencies full vent. In recent weeks the Scottish Government has drawn fire over its puritanical approach towards banning alcohol, and the uneven-handed manner in which Nicola Sturgeon appears to have imposed regional lockdowns on different parts of the country.

This week, Sturgeon has been challenged over proposals to impose movement restrictions, limiting how far Scottish residents are allowed to stray from their homes. In response to suggestions that this might breach human rights legislation, the First Minister merely asserted that “it’s not respecting human rights to leave a virus to run unchecked”.

She has also warned Scots that a broader range of tough new restrictions may be in the offing, and picked a very favourable battle with the Treasury over furlough cash which only ended when the Government announced a full lockdown in England and turned the taps back on. The Scottish Parliament has also accused her administration of ‘disrespect’ over ” the way plans for scrutinising covid restrictions were announced”, according to the Daily Record.

(In other Holyrood news, MSPs have voted for the Scottish Government to publish its legal advice in the Alex Salmond row, with all the opposition parties including the Greens backing a Scottish Conservative move to force ministers’ hands.)

Over in Northern Ireland, there is growing unease amongst the Democratic Unionists about lockdown, mirroring that increasingly found on the Conservative benches in the Commons. Sammy Wilson, a DUP MP, has clashed very publicly with the local head of the BMA over the measures, and some of the party’s MLAs are also starting to voice concerns.

The News Letter reports that opposition MLAs (of which there are a tiny handful) are also increasingly angry that the NI Executive is preventing Stormont from debating its Covid-19 measures until only a few days before the current set of restrictions expires.

Poll suggests devosceptics could win seats in Wales

As mentioned above, there is new Welsh polling out: Professor Roger Awan-Scully has released the new Welsh Political Barometer. The top line is that Welsh Labour’s vote is holding up – if the results came through in a general election it might wipe out all but one of the Tories’ 2019 election gains. For the Senedd it would see the Tories rising from 11 seats to 16 but getting nowhere near a position to take power, which is the stated objective of the current Welsh Conservative leadership (although it would take Labour and the Lib Dems below the 30 MSs needed for a majority).

But as Awan-Scully points out, perhaps the most intriguing result is that Abolish the Assembly, the insurgent anti-devolution party, has matched its highest-ever polling showing. With seven per cent support, Abolish would pick up four regional list seats, giving organising devoscepticism a political voice for the first time since the advent of the system in the 1990s.

And their support could rise further still. The Barometer also shows the Brexit Party, which too has pivoted to a devosceptic position, picking up a further five per cent support (although no seats). If Abolish can poach this vote – and they recently poached Mark Reckless from the Brexit Party – then it would put them at the same vote share that delivered UKIP seven AMs in 2016.

Suffice to say that if Abolish can establish themselves as a permanent fixture on the unionist right of Welsh politics, there will almost certainly be no pathway to government for the Conservatives that doesn’t involve a deal with them.

Meanwhile one Tory MS is also having to fend off a deselection battle, according to Wales Online. Nick Ramsay, who has represented Monmouth since 2007, faces a fight for his seat after more than 50 members signed a petition calling for a meeting to ‘discuss his future’.

“This Government stood between the people and the danger and we always will.” Sunak’s Conference speech – full text.

5 Oct

Rishi Sunak MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking today at Conservative Party Virtual Conference

“Being appointed Chancellor in February this year was an immense honour.

Even though my first conference speech as Chancellor isn’t quite how I expected it to be, it remains a privilege to talk to you today.

And I am here today because of so many different people. My family, whose love sustains me. My colleagues in Government and in Parliament, whose backing has never wavered. My association in Richmond, North Yorkshire, who placed their trust in me, and gave me their loyalty, support and this opportunity to serve. And my party, whose members, councillors and activists worked tirelessly to deliver a Conservative government in December last year.

Politics is a team sport, and there is always a multitude of hardworking people behind any effort. So, I want to thank my ministerial team; Steve, Jessie, John, Kemi, Theo, Claire and James. I also want to thank my predecessors: George, Phillip and Sajid.

It is only because of ten years of sound Conservative management of our economy that this government has been able to act with the pace and scale we have in responding to Coronavirus. And I want to thank the Prime Minister, for entrusting me with this job and whose friendship has been invaluable.

I’ve seen up close the burden the Prime Minister carries. We all know he has an ability to connect with people in a way few politicians manage. It is a special and rare quality. But what the commentators don’t see, the thing I see, is the concern and care he feels, every day, for the wellbeing of the people of our country.

Yes, it’s been difficult, challenges are part of the job, but on the big calls, in the big moments, Boris Johnson has got it right and we need that leadership. Because we are only part way through this crisis.

What began in March as a health emergency has grown and now reaches deep into our economy and society. Not only does it endanger lives, but jobs and education. It separates friends and family.

This government has never been blind to the difficult trade-offs and decisions coronavirus has forced upon on us. If we had, we never would have deployed one of the most comprehensive and generous packages of support in the world. But more than the measures themselves, it is the values behind them that I want to impress upon you.

Conservatives believe in the importance of community and belonging. We believe in personal responsibility and pragmatism. We believe in the nobility of work and free enterprise. And we believe in the unbreakable bond of union that unites the four nations of our United Kingdom.

Our values are old and true and have withstood tests of strife, of terror, and even war. They are timeless because they are a wisdom earned over generations. And they are universal, because they are rooted in the fundamental belief that individual freedom enables both the greatest achievement and the gentlest kindness.

People looked at us last December and saw this Conservative party. They saw a party whose values and priorities were aligned with those of the British people. They saw a party prepared to act at a scale commensurate with the challenges our country faces and they were not wrong.

The SELF-EMPLOYED SUPPORT SCHEME

EAT OUT TO HELP OUT

Our PLAN FOR JOBS

The JOB SUPPORT SCHEME

A VAT cut for the tourism and hospitality sectors

The PAY AS YOU GROW SCHEME

A STAMP DUTY holiday

A £2 billion GREEN HOMES GRANT programme

The £2 billion KICKSTART SCHEME

Nearly 1million BUSINESS GRANTS

A 12-month BUSINESS RATES HOLIDAY

£35bn of BOUNCE BACK LOANS to over 1million small businesses

Over 60,000 CORONAVIRUS BUSINESS INTERRUPTION LOANS

The FUTURE FUND TAX DEFERRALS

Support for our brilliant CHARITIES

Over £8 billion of extra funding to SUPPORT OUR MOST VULNERABLE

A SIX-MONTH MORTGAGE HOLIDAY

And yes, THE FURLOUGH SCHEME, a first of it’s kind intervention in UK political history, delivered at scale, devised in rapid time, that protected millions of British families at the most acute stage of this crisis.

I could go on… all these measures and more… delivered by a Conservative government as part of our plan to support jobs and livelihoods. And whilst we would not have wished for this burden, it has been for many, for the first time in their lives, a moment in which government ceased to be distant and abstract, but became real, and felt, and something of which people could be proud. Action met words.

This Conservative government stood between the people and the danger and we always will.

But we haven’t done it alone. You, the people, have been with us. Wherever I look, I see acts of decency and bravery.

Barbara and Richard Wilson in Cumbria who furloughed the staff from their butchers’ shop but topped up their wages, so they didn’t have any extra worries about bills.

Kevin Butler, who used the self-employed support scheme to help meet the cost of living whilst his partner worked so he could home school their daughter.

John, Norma and Richard King who run the Bull’s Head Inn in Shropshire, who did the right thing when we asked, made their pub Covid compliant, and re-opened using Eat Out to Help Out in August.

Thank you to all those business owners, large and small, who are making the right decisions for workers and customers.

We are now seeing our economy go through changes as a result of coronavirus that can’t be ignored.

I have always said I couldn’t protect every job or every business. No chancellor could. And even though I have said it, the pain of knowing it, only grows with each passing day.

So, I am committing myself to a single priority – to create, support and extend opportunity to as many people as I can. Because even if this moment is more difficult than any you have ever faced, even if it feels like there is no hope, I am telling you that there is, and that the overwhelming might of the British state will be placed at your service.

We will not let talent wither, or waste, we will help all who want it, find new opportunity and develop new skills.

Through more apprenticeships, more training and a lifetime skills guarantee.

Our Kickstart Scheme will help hundreds of thousands of young people into good quality work. And we will help small businesses adapt.

That’s why we have delivered Government backed loans, tax deferrals and tax cuts.

In a free market economy it is the entrepreneur, who is critical. And we will make it easier for those with the ambition and appetite to take risks and be bold, to do what they do best and create jobs and growth. And we will protect the public finances. Over the medium term getting our borrowing and debt back under control.

We have a sacred responsibility to future generations to leave the public finances strong, and through careful management of our economy, this Conservative government will always balance the books.

If instead we argue there is no limit on what we can spend, that we can simply borrow our way out of any hole, what is the point in us?

I have never pretended there is some easy cost-free answer.

Hard choices are everywhere.

I won’t stop trying to find ways to support people and businesses. I will always be pragmatic.

The Winter Economy Plan announced only two weeks ago is but the latest stage of our planned economic response.

I will keep listening, keep striving to be creative in response to the challenges our economy faces, and where I can, I will act. I will not give up, no matter how difficult it is.

The British people and British businesses won’t give up. I know this because of what I said at the beginning.

We share the same values. The Conservative party and the country. And these values are not devoid of meaning to people.

They are about protecting that which is meaningful to them. Their family, their home, their job, their ability to choose for themselves what is best for them and those they love.

To create second chances, to see potential met, and to extend the awesome power of opportunity to all who seek it. To answer questions of character with action not rhetoric. To put the people first, their hopes and their aspirations.

And above all, to be worthy of the great trust they have placed in us.”

With the 10pm curfew starting tomorrow, Sunak’s “imaginative” measures will need to come within days

23 Sep

With the latest new rules imposed by the Government – from 10pm curfews for bars and restaurants, to the stipulation that they can now only offer table service – it’s clear that the economic toll on the hospitality industry is going to be astronomical. And so, the question everyone’s asking is: what will Rishi Sunak do next?

For months Labour has put pressure on the Chancellor to extend his furlough scheme (which is due to end on October 31) – a proposal which he has repeatedly rejected. But the calls have become even louder since Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England, called for him to have a “rethink”, despite previously supporting the scheme being brought to a close.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), too, has pleaded with Sunak to take action, warning that there could be millions of job losses coming from firms in city centres and in the hospitality sector. Carolyn Fairbairn, its director-general, said it was “desperately urgent” to have a successor to the furlough scheme”, and that whatever it was “need[ed] to be brought in within days or weeks.” CBI has suggested a subsidy scheme, and by all indications this is what Chancellor is contemplating. 

Indeed, The Guardian reports that Sunak is weighing-up a German-style wage scheme, having previously considered extending the availability of state-backed loans. As I have written for ConservativeHome before, there are several subsidised schemes which he could take inspiration from, another being France’s.

The German system – titled the Kurzabeit job subsidy – is different from the UK’s furlough scheme in that it encourages employees back to the workplace, albeit on reduced hours. Businesses then pay employees for the hours they’re needed, and the government subsidises any wages lost from (around 60 to 80 per cent) their typical hours.

The key advantage of the scheme is its flexibility, as it allows companies to adapt to increases, or decreases, in demand for their business; something that is greatly needed, given how difficult it is to predict the virus, and the subsequent actions the Government takes. It has also been suggested that the Treasury is considering a plan in which workers undertake education or training while they are away from their work – something that could tie in with Sunak’s investment in traineeships.

While the furlough scheme has no doubt been extremely expensive for the taxpayer, it’s clear that the latest set of measures could prove even more financially crippling in the long-term – wiping out large numbers of businesses. Moreover, hospitality closures are only going to exacerbate youth unemployment, which has already been one of the worst impacts of this crisis; a problem that will become even more troublesome given that many of these individuals will be required in the future to pay off the Covid-19 debt.

Whatever Sunak does, one thing is for certain: it will have to be in the next few days, as the CBI’s director-general points out. Not least because, along with the introduction of curfews tomorrow, next week many businesses are likely to announce job cuts in accordance with the furlough scheme (employers intending to make fewer than 100 redundancies need to run a 30-day consultation). In PMQs today, Johnson promised Britain would go “forward with further creative and imaginative schemes to keep [the] economy moving.” Let’s hope we see this imagination fast.

More testing woes for the Government – as laboratories are stretched to capacity

16 Sep

Over the last few days the Government has been attacked yet again over its Coronavirus testing regime. There have been repeated reports of doctors, nurses and others unable to access tests in parts of the UK.

Indeed,The Times found that 85 per cent of the population couldn’t get one at some point yesterday; BirminghamLive discovered  “hundreds” being sent to a mobile site for testing in Edgbaston, only to find an abandoned carpark, and The Sunday Times uncovered a backlog of 185,000 swabs – some of which had been sent to Germany and Italy for processing.

Given that Boris Johnson has previously called the country’s programme “world beating”, the Government is under huge pressure to explain what’s gone wrong.

The main problem seems to be that laboratory testing can’t keep up with current demand, thus testing centres have cut back on appointments to catch up. In the meantime, members of the public have been baffled by messages saying that the “service is currently very busy” when they try to use the online booking system.

From Labour’s perspective, the latest development is yet more evidence of testing being a “shambles”. Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Health Secretary, has suggested that the system has struggled because of an over-reliance on post-graduate science students to analyse lab results – who were only there over the summer. He said that this showed a failure of the Government to expand NHS capacity.

John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford and a senior government adviser, was equally scathing. He said that tests had run out because ministers had not been prepared enough for a second wave of infections, and “underestimated” how quickly cases would rise.

Matt Hancock, on the other hand, has blamed some of the shortages on a “sharp rise in people coming forward for a test, including those who are not eligible”. A Government source says that some of the groups that have asked for one include people with no symptoms who want a test before going on holiday, as well as schools who have a student with symptoms wanting tests for everyone else.

The Government is doing all it can to fix the issue. First of all, Hancock promised to not “shirk from decisions about prioritisation”, with NHS patients and staff given tests first, followed by care homes. The Government has also pleaded with people who don’t have symptoms not to use up the current tests. This is important not only so that those who need them can get them, but also because it could distort epidemiological figures – if scientists cannot detect real Covid-19 cases.

On Sky News, too, Robert Buckland said that the Government was seeking to open 100 more test centres, and there is also said to be a “mega lab” on the way to enhance capacity.

Although the testing has had difficulties, should be pointed out that the UK is still performing more tests than most countries.

Our World in Data, a research team based at the University of Oxford, estimates that the UK carries out 2.8 tests per 1,000 people (a seven-day average until 10 September), putting it above France (2.1), and Spain and Germany (1.8 both).

Of course, over the next few weeks the Government will have even more challenges in regards to testing, with NHS Test and Trace’s (England) increasingly expected to deliver its contact tracing app, which is critical to avoiding nationwide lockdowns.

Much of the focus has been on technical faults in the system, but the Government will also have to tackle the issue of compliance rates. How easy will it be to get the British public to download the thing? And that’s before we get to the roll out of vaccines, and what compliance looks like for them.

All in all, this latest testing setback is a sign of several other big ones down the road.

Simon Thomas: Curfews would be economically disastrous for casinos; the Government must have a rethink

16 Sep

Simon Thomas is chief executive of The Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square. This is a sponsored post by The Hippodrome Casino.

Boris Johnson opened the Hippodrome Casino in 2012, when he was still Mayor of London. It was therefore pretty ironic that he should be the one to effectively close our doors when, as Prime Minister, he announced the nationwide Covid lockdown in March.

We were glad to play our part at a time of national crisis, but were obviously delighted to finally be given the go-ahead to reopen again last month, along with casinos across England. It was recognition of all the hard work that had gone into making sure we were Covid-secure for the safe return of our staff and customers.

The measures we have put in place – from hand sanitisation stations and strict social distancing rules to Perspex screens sophisticated track and trace procedures – are the best in class among the whole entertainment, hospitality and leisure sector.

Opening our doors again meant that we have been able to make a contribution to the UK’s economic recovery, at a time when it has never been more vital. As Johnson showed when he cut the ribbon for us eight years ago, the Conservative Party understands that without businesses like ours providing good jobs and paying tax, there would simply be no economic recovery.

But while we are able to provide a top-class service for our customers again, things are definitely not back to normal. Across the casino sector, attendances since we re-opened varies between five and sixty per cent of pre-Covid levels. This is partly because of the 14-day quarantine rules, which have drastically reduced the number of tourists who come to these shores, and who make up a significant chunk of our traditional clientele. So clearly, our recovery is fragile.

That’s why talk of nationwide 10pm curfews for hospitality and leisure businesses as the number of Covid cases rises again has caused such alarm among our sector. Put simply, such a move would put our very existence – and the jobs of our 14,000 employees – at risk.

To understand why, you need to appreciate the unique nature of our business model. Unlike other sectors, we are hugely reliant on night-time trade. Casinos generate 50 to 70 per cent of their income after 10pm. If we were ordered to close our doors at that time, there would be no point in opening them at all. Such a curfew would be economically disastrous for casinos like mine, placing a huge question mark over our continued viability.

Given the high quality of our Covid security measures and the make-up of our customer base, such a move would be – in my opinion – utterly pointless. The average age of a casino visitor is 48, so if the purpose of a curfew is to halt the spread of the virus among the young, restrictions in our venues would seem illogical. In addition, most of our players are either on their own or in couples, well within the “Rule of 6” announced last week by the Prime Minister.

If ministers are still determined to go down the curfew path, night-time restrictions should only be imposed in parts of the country where Covid cases are high, rather than use the blunt instrument of a nationwide shutdown. Another possible approach could be to prevent us selling alcohol post-10pm. This would obviously be far from ideal, but certainly preferable to making us close our doors entirely.

However, if the Government did choose the nuclear option of a nationwide curfew, they would have to rethink their decision to end the furlough scheme next month, otherwise we would have no option but to authorise a wave of redundancies. Throughout lockdown, the furlough scheme was a vital lifeline, allowing us to continue employing thousands of men and women we would otherwise have had to let go.

Any further government-imposed restrictions on our ability to trade would need to be accompanied by some form of government support for the businesses affected. I fully appreciate that the taxpayer cannot continue to subsidise the wages of employees indefinitely, but the Chancellor should give consideration to sector-specific support to prevent the recession developing into something far, far worse.

The Hippodrome Casino is an iconic venue which has been around since 1900 and survived two world wars, the three-day week and other national crises. We now need the Government to respond in a positive way to ensure we are still trading after this one. If Johnson really is concerned about the health of our city centres, he simply cannot ignore our pleas for help.

Conservatives have always understood the importance of a healthy business sector creating the jobs and providing the tax revenue upon which the whole country relies. In these extraordinary times, we need the party to once again recognise our contribution to the economic – and physical – health of the nation, and do all it can to ensure our continued survival.

As youth unemployment grows, can Sunak come to the rescue (again)?

15 Sep

Another day, another onslaught of depressing news for the UK – this time around the unemployment rate. The latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the rate has grown to 4.1 per cent in the three months to July compared to 3.9 per cent before

While some analysts have pointed out that this is low by historic and international standards, Rishi Sunak will no doubt be having sleepless nights wondering what happens when the Government’s furlough scheme comes to a close; how much worse will the current figures get?

Moreover, Conservatives as a whole need to think critically about how to help young people, who have been worst affected by the economic turmoil. The ONS data showed that people aged 16 to 24 suffered the biggest drop in employment, a trend that has been consistent throughout this crisis, and others; in 2008, it was today’s millennials taking the brunt – hence why the “youth vote” has been so low (and will become more of an election stumbling block for the Tories as this demographic heads towards the 40s and 50s age bracket without home ownership, and the rest).

So what does Sunak do about all this? (Incidentally, he has not stipulated his next budget date, with rumours it could be in January). The first thing to say is that he has already released some enormous measures to support young people. These include a £2 billion “Kickstart Scheme”, whereby the government will pay for employers “to create new 6-month job placements for young people who are currently on Universal Credit” – in the hope that this can create hundreds thousands of new jobs.

The Government is also giving businesses £2,000 for each new apprentice hired under the age of 25, a £111 million investment to triple traineeships in 2020-21 and £17 million funding for sector-based work academy placements, among other measures. 

These are all steps in the right direction; for years it has been said that the UK is too focused on university degrees, while the economy demands more technical/ practical skills. The tech sector, particularly, is growing and needs young people to fill the gap. Perhaps it is the case that Sunak will expand these sorts of training schemes even further.

What many want to know is whether the Chancellor will extend furloughing, but he has repeatedly ruled this out, saying: “Indefinitely keeping people out of work is not the answer.” Given that the scheme has already cost the taxpayer an estimated £60 billion, one suspects many quietly want it to come to an end. Besides, it’ll be young people picking up the eventual bill – however much of a support it appears right now.

While ruling out further furloughing, Sunak did promise, however, that “we will be creative in order to find ways of effectively helping people.” He has certainly proven himself to be imaginative, winning hearts and stomachs with the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, so the question is what this next phase of creativity could look like.

One suggestion that has been made for the UK is that it adopts a model similar to that in Germany, to stave off huge job losses. Germany uses something called the Kurzarbeit job subsidy, which the country has had since the early 20th century, and is estimated to have saved around half a million jobs in the financial crisis. 

Whereas the UK’s furloughing scheme meant businesses asked their employees to stay home for months on end, Kurzarbeit invited them back to work – albeit on reduced hours. Using the scheme, German businesses can take employees on for the time they need, and the government then pays workers a percentage (around 60 to 80 per cent) of any lost hours.

The key advantage of the scheme is its flexibility – as it allows companies to respond to fluctuations in their business; they can reduce workers’ hours if they have a loss of trade, for instance, and up again for vice versa. It is also far less expensive than furlough, costing around 33.5 billion so far – with plans for it to be extended until the end of 2021.

France, too, has something similar to the German system, called “partial unemployment” or “partial activity”. Using this scheme, businesses can cut their employees’ hours by up to 40 per cent for up to three years, but they will still receive nearly all of their standard salary – which the government pays a percentage of.

While Sunak has offered a “jobs retention bonus” to get employers to bring staff back from furlough – whereby they received £1,000 for every staff member retained – it may be the case that the flexibility afforded by the German and French systems is what can help businesses feel more confident about hiring again.

There will be other radical proposals put forward as to how to tackle the issue, focussing on how to further incentivise employers to take on the young, whether that’s targetted changes to their National Insurance contributions, or something more inventive.

Another thing to add is that non-employment related measures can greatly help young people feel more secure in their lives. Things as basic as reducing council tax or travel would certainly improve matters for a generation of renters.

And lastly I would write that much of helping young people cannot be done with a budget. It ultimately relies on the Government – and society – realising that repeatedly opening and closing the economy means that this demographic will take the brunt; it requires us to have more difficult conversations about what price we will pay for knee-jerk responses to rising cases. As today’s data shows, the economic consequences are harsh indeed.