John O’Connell: To ensure efficient government spending, we need a new Parliamentary Budget Committee

24 Nov

John O’Connell is the Chief Executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Although the Comprehensive Spending Review will only set out plans for one year, rather than three, it’s still an important moment for the Government. It was of course elected on a Conservative manifesto pledging to spend more money, so no one should be surprised by a big overall boost on Wednesday. All eyes will be on exactly what the Chancellor spends more money on, and where the benefits will accrue.

While there will be a deluge of important data, it will be quite difficult for taxpayers to gauge whether the relationship between spending and outcomes is as efficient as it could be. In one sense, that seems like an unfair barb – after all, spending data is pretty transparent these days. But one thing is missing: government spending plans are not robustly scrutinised for economy and efficiency. That’s why the TaxPayers’ Alliance supports the creation of a new Parliamentary Budget Committee. Parliament could and should play a greater role in focusing government attention on efficient spending.

The detailed reports of the OBR allow taxpayers to assess the big picture. The Treasury Select Committee also does admirable work scrutinising public sector spending in terms of fiscal aggregates. So for example, it may flag up the dire long-term spending implications of continued low productivity growth in the NHS, but it does not scrutinise the causes, or compare performance with alternative healthcare models. It has neither the mandate nor the expertise to conduct such scrutiny. Departmental select committees are preoccupied. The fantastic Public Accounts Committee only looks at spending after it happens, not before.

Far better than stretching the remits and resources of these bodies, we should instead accept the central recommendations of the Leigh-Pugh report and implement a dedicated committee focused on scrutinising the economy, effectiveness and efficiency aspects of future spending plans. Australia and New Zealand already have similar models to examine and take lessons from.

There is always a difficulty in measuring the value of public service outputs provided free at the point of use. But much work has already been done both within Whitehall and outside (for example the Office for National Statistics’ work on public sector productivity). And the committee’s key purpose would be less about coming up with a definitive single measure of overall efficiency, than focussing departmental attention on improving efficiency as part of the routine planning and budgeting process – with a long-term view, in place whoever is in government.

Getting maximum value for every pound of taxpayers’ money is always important, in and of itself. But the imperative is perhaps even greater now. Even before Covid, the pressure on public spending was intensifying. An ageing population meant that spending forecasts were already gloomy. The 2017 Fiscal Sustainability Report from the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that spending on healthcare would be £88 billion higher, in real terms, by 2066. The same report found that annual spending on the state pension would be 6.9 per cent of GDP by 2070.

Add to that the Conservatives’ manifesto pledges, such as 50,000 more nurses, maintenance of the pension triple lock and 250,000 extra childcare places, which will not come cheap. Then, pile on the enormous sums of money spent in response to the pandemic – the latest OBR estimate is that spending decisions will amount to almost £180 billion. It’s not hard to conclude that we face a serious fiscal crunch.

There is also a dangerous narrative developing, at least in Westminster and media circles. The culture of Covid seems to dictate that enormous sums of money are actually just “rounding errors”.

Well, as for these rounding errors, it was recently reported that the Government may reduce foreign aid spending such that it is 0.5 per cent of national income, down from 0.7 per cent. In pounds and pence, that is a saving of £4 billion. It was called a rounding error by some – but £4 billion is close to the equivalent of a 1p increase or decrease in the basic rate of tax; it is more than a quarter of the police budget; it’s 10 per cent of the tax hikes that the Resolution Foundation seems to have convinced the Government we must have

In other words, it’s a lot of money. What’s more, the logic suggests that we approve every single pet project or scheme that gets enough retweets – what does it matter, they’re all rounding errors.

We know Rishi Sunak is going to spend more money, Covid or no Covid. But for the long-term health of the public finances, our system must ensure that we work to get value for every single pound before it is spent. A Parliamentary Budget Committee can help root out waste before it happens.

David Gauke: If Johnson goes for a Brexit trade deal, as he should, he should also go for a further implementation period.

7 Nov

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

It is time to talk about Brexit again.

Understandably, the country’s attention has been focused upon the second wave of Covid-19 and the Government’s response to it. And in the past few days, many of us have welcomed the chance to change the subject and follow every twist and turn of the US Presidential election. But it is all too easy to miss the fact that the next week will be one of the most important in the protracted saga of the UK’s departure from the European Union. Just this afternoon, the Prime Minister is speaking to the President of the EU Commission.

We are so used to deadlines whooshing past with little or no practical consequence, there is a temptation to be complacent about the EU’s position that, for a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU to be ratified in time to take effect by the end of the transitional period, such agreement would need to be concluded by 15 November. After all, the Prime Minister has previously said that talks would need to conclude by 15 October in order to reach a deal and – save for a brief and rather unconvincing walk-out – the parties carried on talking.

This time, however, the difficulty is that we are not dealing with a deadline imposed for political reasons in order to focus the minds. We are now at the stage of running out of time to go through all the practical hurdles to ratify any agreement amongst member states and the European Parliament.

The stand-off remains as it has been for months. The two sides remain some way apart of the level playing field provisions, particularly on state aid, and how any agreement is enforced. In addition, the economically irrelevant issue of fish continues to be contentious.

Progress has been made on many of the technical issues, but on these fundamental points the talks have stalled. Both sides have given some ground, but will have to move further. And the side that is going to have to move the furthest will have to be the UK. If Boris Johnson wants a deal, at the very least he will have to accept something which recent leaders of the Conservative Party would consider to be desirable regardless of the EU implications – a robust and independent state aid regime.

I do not know whether the Prime Minister will decide to go for a deal. As far as I can see, it is not clear that he knows himself. Making decisions is not always a strong point for Johnson, and he made one big difficult decision a few days ago by re-imposing a lockdown. Now he has to make another.

At one level, the decision should be straightforward. The right to waste public money by subsidising loss-making businesses has never been a demand of most Eurosceptics, save for a few Bennites, and was a non-issue in the 2016 referendum campaign. (Johnson has praised the EU on this point.) He went to the country in 2019 promising he had a deal: failing to conclude an FTA looks like a failure of competence and a breach of trust. An already fragile economy will suffer a further blow.

However, it has been reported that the Prime Minister is ‘emotionally drawn’ towards a WTO Brexit. Why might that be? It is possible that he believes that any constraint on decision is an unacceptable suppression of sovereignty, but that suggests a purity of view that would make a free trade agreement with anyone impossible.

The politics and the Prime Minister’s perceptions of his own self-interest may tempt him to turn down a deal. Nigel Farage is relaunching himself (again) and is ready to cry betrayal (again) which will panic plenty of Conservative MPs (again). Johnson will also be aware that he has taken on many of his Parliamentary colleagues over the Government’s response to Covid-19 – he might not want to take on many of the same people on a second issue. And – a point I made back in February  – even a deal will cause economic disruption. If the Prime Minister agrees to a deal in the next few days, he will have to proclaim a triumph, but also explain to businesses that time is running out to prepare for it being much more difficult to trade with the EU.

The evidence that – even with the thin deal we may get – the end of the transition period will damage the economy is growing. On Thursday, the Bank of England pointed out that the UK’s trade and GDP will be adversely affected in the first half of 2021, even with a deal. On Friday, the National Audit Office published a report expressing concerns that UK business will face widespread disruption in 2021 because of failures to prepare for post-Brexit borders. A deal will help because it might provide an opportunity to ease rules in particular circumstances but the fundamental problems remain the same.

The approach of the Government has been to blame businesses for not being prepared. Some businesses may have been complacent about the consequences of the end of the transition period, but they can hardly be blamed when the Government, until relatively recently, has not been able to provide details of our future relationship and presented this moment as an opportunity. It simply is not. At a practical level, leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union only makes it harder to trade with the EU.

The Prime Minister might be tempted to try to escape responsibility for the predicament that he, more than anyone, has got us in. He could collapse the talks, and blame the EU for the consequences that the country will face in January. We saw how Brexiteers rather enjoyed the prospect of the talks collapsing in mid-October. A bitter dispute with the EU which could last for years would be truly thrilling to some. And quite a lot of the public would swallow mendacious claims for the reasons of the negotiations breaking down. In terms of the next few weeks, walking away from the talks might be the easier path to tread.

It would also be grossly irresponsible. In the medium term, it would not be possible for Boris Johnson to escape responsibility for a decision that will have a major impact on many people’s lives and livelihoods. The timing could not be worse with the economy already shrinking and businesses restricted in what they can do because of Covid restrictions for at least four of last nine weeks until the transition period ends.

If the Prime Minister wants a soft landing for Brexit, he will need to make concessions, but he needs to do more. Time has run out to prepare properly for 31 December. Even at this late stage, he should ensure that his deal has a further implementation period of another 12 months. A combination of Covid and the Government’s failure to prepare the nation for the realities of Brexit means that ending the transition period at the end of the year will cause even greater problems than necessary. A responsible Prime Minister should seek to prevent that from happening. He should get a deal that gives everyone time to implement it.

Daniel Hannan: We need the Government’s estimate of the cost of the lockdown to lives and livelihoods

28 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.

It often happens in politics that you have to choose between disagreeable alternatives. If you do X, bad things will happen, and if you do Y, bad things will happen. Whichever option you pick, the media will then point to those bad things as evidence that you should have taken the other path. Commentators make little allowance for the concept of the lesser evil.

When an epidemic hits a country, all its options are unappealing. The only real choice its leaders have is where the blow should fall hardest. How much poverty and suffering should the general population suffer to prolong each threatened life?

For a long time, it was not acceptable in polite company to acknowledge that such a trade-off existed. Anyone who tried to point out that we made precisely this calculation every time we assessed a new treatment – that there was even a generic measure for the value of medical intervention, the Quality-Adjusted Life Year (QALY) – was treated as some sort of granny-murderer.

And so, perhaps inevitably, governments around the world declared that they would protect their populations from the coronavirus “at any cost”, not stopping to consider what was implied by those three words. Even back in March, a handful of dissidents argued that, setting aside the cost to liberty and livelihood, a severe lockdown would also cost lives as other medical conditions went untreated.

But few wanted to listen. A bullying, moralising tone dominated the public debate. However gently critics tried to point out that the issue was not “lives versus the economy” but “lives versus lives”, they were portrayed as eugenicists.

The only real surprise was that a handful of places – Sweden, Brazil, Tanzania, some US states – defied the pressure. Almost everywhere else, governments did precisely what the early nineteenth-century economist Frédéric Bastiat would have predicted, prioritising “the seen” (the Covid fatality count) over “the unseen” (the other deaths, as well as the joblessness, the lost educational opportunities and so on).

But the unseen doesn’t remain unseen forever. The impact of the closures, initially muffled by a generous furlough scheme and a general sense of solidarity, is now being felt. Public opinion, hitherto solidly pro-lockdown is (you can feel it) about to shift. In such circumstances, refusing to quantify the costs is bad politics as well as bad policy.

In any case, “you all supported this at the time” never works as an excuse. Opinion polls showed support for ERM membership right up until our departure. They showed initial support for the invasion of Iraq. A fat lot of good that did John Major or Tony Blair after the event.

After an early over-reaction, the Government is now trying to be proportionate. Although Delingpole-level lockdown sceptics will never acknowledge it, most prohibitions were lifted on 4 July. Even in the most restricted parts of England, shops, schools and (with restrictions) pubs remain open. Contrast this to Wales – a snapshot of what the rest of the UK would look like if Labour were in office.

In the circumstances, ministers would be well-advised to take up the idea – pushed by ConservativeHome – of publishing estimates of the cost of the lockdown. Not just the direct costs. We need some sense of the impact on education, mental health and so on. “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers,” said the brilliant Ulster mathematician Lord Kelvin, “you know something about it”.

Necessarily, some of the calculations will be difficult, some speculative. We can put a figure easily enough on the furlough scheme. We can measure the decline in GDP. We can quantify the direct cost to the Exchequer (over £200 billion – a figure that makes the famous £350 million a week on the side of that bus look trivial).

But what about the impact of, say, lost education? What about the chance that other diseases might become more widespread because of fewer childhood vaccinations? What is the difference in impact between Tier 2 and Tier 3 restrictions?

These questions are hard to answer, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a go. One reads that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, wants the Government to assess them and to publish its findings. Let’s hope he gets his way.

Back in March, there was little time for such assessments: decisions were necessarily rushed, and schemes were put in place for what many imagined was a crisis that would be over by the summer. Nor, frankly, did anyone want to discuss the trade-offs. Simply to run the numbers would have been to invite the accusation that heartless Tories somehow cared more about an abstract thing called “the economy” than about people’s well-being.

That is no longer true. Now, it is Labour’s enthusiasm for lockdown – a position abandoned even by the WHO – that looks ideological. Publishing the figures will underline that the government is striving to be balanced. Never mind how it looks, though: better statistics will lead to better decisions. The only thing more callous than putting a value on human life is refusing to do so.

Stephen Booth: Why Stilton matters to the Japanese trade deal – and how talks can bring the UK closer to the CPTPP.

20 Aug

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

Global trade is the result of billions of individual decisions taken by businesses and consumers, but trade negotiations and agreements are inherently political. They not only require politicians and policymakers to haggle, in painstaking detail, over tariffs, quotas, rules and regulations; trade deals are also tools of foreign policy and in an increasingly unsettled, competitive and multi-polar world they can signify alliances between nations or groups of nations. Outside the EU, the UK’s trade agreements must therefore simultaneously address narrow economic and wider geopolitical interests.

Last week, we learnt that the UK-Japan trade talks had hit a roadblock over UK demands for greater market access for exports of Stilton cheese. The talks still seem likely to conclude successfully but the episode illustrates how seemingly small issues can play a disproportionate role in trade negotiations.

This would be a significant agreement for the UK. Japan is the third largest economy in the world and an increasingly important strategic ally for the UK post-Brexit. A UK-Japan trade deal is also an important step towards the UK’s accession to the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Total UK exports to Japan are already worth around £14 billion, just over half of which are in services, so increasing the market for UK blue cheese exports, which is currently worth around £100,000 in Japan, might appear a strange issue to potentially derail the talks. However, the UK’s demands on Stilton have not simply come out of the blue.

Growth in cheese exports is a recent UK success story, with the Department for International Trade (DIT) noting that the UK made it into the top ten cheese exporters worldwide in 2018, selling £665 million worth, almost half of which was cheddar. Growth in Asian markets in particular has been strong, with demand in China rising from £67,000 in 2013 to £6.5 million in 2018, so it is not unreasonable for the UK to seek greater opportunities for these products in Japan.

More significantly, the UK-Japan deal will replace the EU-Japan deal, which will cease to apply to the UK when the Brexit transition period ends on January 1, 2021. The goal, largely on the insistence of Japan, has been to seek a new agreement, rather than simply copy and paste the existing EU-Japan deal. Inevitably, however, with time tight, these talks have not departed significantly from the EU-Japan precedent with regard to trade in goods (services and data are likely to be the more innovative aspects of a UK-Japan deal).

“Automotive for agriculture” was a major feature of the EU-Japan negotiations and, in this case, Japan has been targeting an immediate removal of UK car tariffs, whereas the EU-Japan agreement only provides for phased reductions over several years. The UK has understandably countered that it cannot make the concession for nothing in return.

Under the EU-Japan deal, Japanese tariffs on hard cheeses such as cheddar would be phased out by 2033. But for blue cheeses, such as Stilton, there will only be duty-free access on an agreed quota. Reportedly, the UK has also targeted a faster reduction to Japanese tariffs on pork. If the UK is successful in increasing the quota or removing tariffs faster, it will have achieved concessions the EU did not, which would have obvious symbolic significance for Brexiteers.

We don’t yet know the full details of the eventual UK-Japan deal but the likely compromise is that neither side will get as much as they would like on cars or agriculture. Ultimately, this kind of tussle is part of the theatre of end-game trade negotiations, where both sides need to be seen by domestic audiences to be fighting hard over every inch. Indeed, given the importance of getting the agricultural lobby onboard in various UK trade negotiations to come, going into bat for British agriculture now is not a bad PR move for the Government.

Some commentators have questioned whether spending political capital on trade agreements is worth the candle since the estimated macroeconomic gains from them are relatively small. DIT estimates the increase to UK GDP from a Japan deal will be 0.07 per cent over the long run, while a deal with the United States would provide up to a 0.16 per cent boost.

Putting aside a valid debate about how accurately existing models capture all the facets of comprehensive modern trade agreements, these types of numbers are not unique to UK FTAs. The EU-Japan deal (the biggest ever completed by the EU) was estimated to boost EU GDP by 0.14 per cent, a figure regarded by independent researchers as “plausible, though at the high end of the range of past estimates”.

Ultimately, for advanced and open economies, trade agreements are rarely macroeconomically significant. They are opportunities to address microeconomic issues and require trade-offs to be made between them. These decisions can be hugely important for individual sectors, which is why they can be politically controversial.

Beyond any quantifiable economic benefits, closer economic and political cooperation via trade agreements presents an opportunity to build coalitions to help shape the course of regional or global developments. Successful conclusion of the Japan agreement and accession to the CPTPP will boost the economic and political relevance of the UK in the Indo-Pacific region, which is likely to host most of the world’s economic growth in the years ahead.

Similarly, Japan’s enthusiasm to reach a deal with the UK is not only about commerce. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi’s recent trip to London also provided a chance to discuss bilateral co-operation on security and defence, including the UK’s stronger stance towards China on issues such as Huawei and Hong Kong. A trade deal is another way to strengthen strategic bonds.

It is worth keeping this mind as another round of UK-EU talks – in this case to loosen ties – get underway this week. The Remain campaign had wanted the Brexit debate to be about trade above all else, but it was always primarily about politics. All trade agreements are political, but the level of economic and legal integration in the EU means it is as much, if not more, about politics than trade. Remain lost because it was unable, or unwilling, to make the intrinsic case for political union, or at least that it should be tolerated.

Indeed, the most significant macroeconomic consequences of Brexit – leaving the customs union and the single market – flow from the political desire to “take back control” of trade and regulatory policy. Continued dependence on Brussels in these fields without a vote in the EU’s political institutions was always likely to be untenable for the UK in the long-term.

Equally, sovereignty is never absolute. The more integration the UK seeks from trade agreements with the likes of the US and the CPTPP in the future, the more the UK will face difficult political trade-offs over its approaches to various issues from agricultural liberalisation to the regulation of data. Existing trade flows and geographical proximity to the EU will inevitably play some role in how the UK takes these decisions over the long-term.

However, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Brexit means treating the EU much more like any other trade partner. It’s the politics, stupid!

Stephen Booth: Why Stilton matters to the Japanese trade deal – and how talks can bring the UK closer to the CPTPP.

20 Aug

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

Global trade is the result of billions of individual decisions taken by businesses and consumers, but trade negotiations and agreements are inherently political. They not only require politicians and policymakers to haggle, in painstaking detail, over tariffs, quotas, rules and regulations; trade deals are also tools of foreign policy and in an increasingly unsettled, competitive and multi-polar world they can signify alliances between nations or groups of nations. Outside the EU, the UK’s trade agreements must therefore simultaneously address narrow economic and wider geopolitical interests.

Last week, we learnt that the UK-Japan trade talks had hit a roadblock over UK demands for greater market access for exports of Stilton cheese. The talks still seem likely to conclude successfully but the episode illustrates how seemingly small issues can play a disproportionate role in trade negotiations.

This would be a significant agreement for the UK. Japan is the third largest economy in the world and an increasingly important strategic ally for the UK post-Brexit. A UK-Japan trade deal is also an important step towards the UK’s accession to the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Total UK exports to Japan are already worth around £14 billion, just over half of which are in services, so increasing the market for UK blue cheese exports, which is currently worth around £100,000 in Japan, might appear a strange issue to potentially derail the talks. However, the UK’s demands on Stilton have not simply come out of the blue.

Growth in cheese exports is a recent UK success story, with the Department for International Trade (DIT) noting that the UK made it into the top ten cheese exporters worldwide in 2018, selling £665 million worth, almost half of which was cheddar. Growth in Asian markets in particular has been strong, with demand in China rising from £67,000 in 2013 to £6.5 million in 2018, so it is not unreasonable for the UK to seek greater opportunities for these products in Japan.

More significantly, the UK-Japan deal will replace the EU-Japan deal, which will cease to apply to the UK when the Brexit transition period ends on January 1, 2021. The goal, largely on the insistence of Japan, has been to seek a new agreement, rather than simply copy and paste the existing EU-Japan deal. Inevitably, however, with time tight, these talks have not departed significantly from the EU-Japan precedent with regard to trade in goods (services and data are likely to be the more innovative aspects of a UK-Japan deal).

“Automotive for agriculture” was a major feature of the EU-Japan negotiations and, in this case, Japan has been targeting an immediate removal of UK car tariffs, whereas the EU-Japan agreement only provides for phased reductions over several years. The UK has understandably countered that it cannot make the concession for nothing in return.

Under the EU-Japan deal, Japanese tariffs on hard cheeses such as cheddar would be phased out by 2033. But for blue cheeses, such as Stilton, there will only be duty-free access on an agreed quota. Reportedly, the UK has also targeted a faster reduction to Japanese tariffs on pork. If the UK is successful in increasing the quota or removing tariffs faster, it will have achieved concessions the EU did not, which would have obvious symbolic significance for Brexiteers.

We don’t yet know the full details of the eventual UK-Japan deal but the likely compromise is that neither side will get as much as they would like on cars or agriculture. Ultimately, this kind of tussle is part of the theatre of end-game trade negotiations, where both sides need to be seen by domestic audiences to be fighting hard over every inch. Indeed, given the importance of getting the agricultural lobby onboard in various UK trade negotiations to come, going into bat for British agriculture now is not a bad PR move for the Government.

Some commentators have questioned whether spending political capital on trade agreements is worth the candle since the estimated macroeconomic gains from them are relatively small. DIT estimates the increase to UK GDP from a Japan deal will be 0.07 per cent over the long run, while a deal with the United States would provide up to a 0.16 per cent boost.

Putting aside a valid debate about how accurately existing models capture all the facets of comprehensive modern trade agreements, these types of numbers are not unique to UK FTAs. The EU-Japan deal (the biggest ever completed by the EU) was estimated to boost EU GDP by 0.14 per cent, a figure regarded by independent researchers as “plausible, though at the high end of the range of past estimates”.

Ultimately, for advanced and open economies, trade agreements are rarely macroeconomically significant. They are opportunities to address microeconomic issues and require trade-offs to be made between them. These decisions can be hugely important for individual sectors, which is why they can be politically controversial.

Beyond any quantifiable economic benefits, closer economic and political cooperation via trade agreements presents an opportunity to build coalitions to help shape the course of regional or global developments. Successful conclusion of the Japan agreement and accession to the CPTPP will boost the economic and political relevance of the UK in the Indo-Pacific region, which is likely to host most of the world’s economic growth in the years ahead.

Similarly, Japan’s enthusiasm to reach a deal with the UK is not only about commerce. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi’s recent trip to London also provided a chance to discuss bilateral co-operation on security and defence, including the UK’s stronger stance towards China on issues such as Huawei and Hong Kong. A trade deal is another way to strengthen strategic bonds.

It is worth keeping this mind as another round of UK-EU talks – in this case to loosen ties – get underway this week. The Remain campaign had wanted the Brexit debate to be about trade above all else, but it was always primarily about politics. All trade agreements are political, but the level of economic and legal integration in the EU means it is as much, if not more, about politics than trade. Remain lost because it was unable, or unwilling, to make the intrinsic case for political union, or at least that it should be tolerated.

Indeed, the most significant macroeconomic consequences of Brexit – leaving the customs union and the single market – flow from the political desire to “take back control” of trade and regulatory policy. Continued dependence on Brussels in these fields without a vote in the EU’s political institutions was always likely to be untenable for the UK in the long-term.

Equally, sovereignty is never absolute. The more integration the UK seeks from trade agreements with the likes of the US and the CPTPP in the future, the more the UK will face difficult political trade-offs over its approaches to various issues from agricultural liberalisation to the regulation of data. Existing trade flows and geographical proximity to the EU will inevitably play some role in how the UK takes these decisions over the long-term.

However, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Brexit means treating the EU much more like any other trade partner. It’s the politics, stupid!

Emma Revell: Young people socialising made Sturgeon “want to cry”. If only she got as upset over their debt burden.

4 Aug

Emma Revell is Head of Communications at the IEA

It’s not often some millennials gathering on a beach on a blazing hot weekend is enough to move someone to tears but that was the case for Nicola Sturgeon this week. The Scottish First Minister told a press conference that the crowds of young people gathered, apparently without physical distancing, made her “want to cry”.

I understand the frustration governments might be feeling at people pushing the boundaries of social distancing recommendations but to be driven to tears? Not at the untold damage being wrought on young people’s careers, not for the unfathomable debt they have been saddled with for the rest of their lives and probably those of their children, not for the unsuitable conditions many have been forced to work in for the last five months – those who were lucky enough to have jobs which can be done from home at least. But the simple act of meeting one’s friends outside is enough for a national leader to condemn a generation.

How can this be allowed to stand? The chance of dying from Coronavirus for 15-24 year olds is 0.5 for every 100,00 people. For 25-44 year olds it is 2.9 for every 100,000. So even accounting for a very generous definition of what Nicola Sturgeon meant by young – stretching it to the second category to include myself at a mere 28 years old – the chances of dying from Coronavirus, assuming you did contract the disease, are vanishingly small. The burden of the measures introduced to combat the disease however will fall squarely on the shoulders of the young.

The UK’s debt as a percentage of GDP exceeded 100 per cent for the first time since 1963 in June and that is only likely to increase with unemployment likely to reach record highs.

Whether or not you consider a pivot to homeworking a joy or a disaster is likely to depend on your age. While upper management in their 50s and beyond have enjoyed the chance to skip the commute and take a leisurely lunchtime walk as a break from their kitted-out home office, young people are much more likely to have struggled to share the kitchen table with multiple housemates in private rented accommodation without the luxury of a decade chair, never mind a home office.

New research from the LSE found that young Londoners living in shared accommodation throughout lockdown had just 9.3sqm of private personal space and that 37 per cent of those were sleeping and working in their bedrooms. Nearly half of those surveyed reporting having no suitable place to work at all.

That is those young people who can work from home in the first place. A total of 22 per cent of workers between 22 and 25 in their first full-time job were in low-paying occupations in the hardest hit sectors: retail and hospitality.

For those lucky enough to hang on to work, long-term home working will severely damage the chances of progression and team cohesion in sectors where so much relies on making connections with colleagues and getting to know the rest of the team.

A Zoom pub quiz on a Thursday night organised by a frazzled HR manager will only get you so far. Reduced job opportunities will limit the chances of progression into higher paid positions even further.

And it is not all about money. What about our social lives, or our love lives? If you are in your late 20s like I am, the tick tock of the biological clock begins to edge ever closer. Lockdown has damaged countless relationships, ending many either through enforced separation or proximity. How long are we expected to put our social lives on hold?

Where are our champions? During the EU referendum both sides of the campaign played up the benefits of their side’s victory for young people. Remainers argued that membership of the EU was essential for safeguarding the rights of young people to live and work across the continent, while Leavers wanted the next generation to grow up in full control of the laws of the land. Where are those campaigners now?

It is, of course, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions who are suffering the worst health outcomes from the pandemic. If rumours from Whitehall are to be believed, over 50s are at risk of losing essential liberties if a second wave of the virus hits Britain and of course maybe in middle age have been balancing the twin burdens of childcare and home-schooling with supporting older relatives who have been told to shield themselves.

No generation has escaped Coronavirus’ effect, but the young are uniquely positioned to bare almost no health risk yet will be living with the impact on careers, bank balances, romances, and mental health for the rest of their lives. It is time for politicians to remember that.

Neil O’Brien: No, more economic prosperity doesn’t depend on more social liberalism

13 Jul

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Danny Finkelstein took issue with Boris Johnson’s idea of “levelling up” in the Times the other day. He reviewed the work of Richard Florida, a thinker dubbed the “patron saint of avocado toast” for highlighting the role of bohemian urbanites in driving economic regeneration.

Danny concludes from his work that, “Social liberalism and economic prosperity go together.” He argues that: “in order to match the success and power of metropolitan areas, non-metropolitan places need to become more… metropolitan.  The problem with the metropolitan “elite” isn’t that there is too much of it. It’s that there aren’t enough members of it, drawn from a wide enough background and living in enough places.”

I hesitate to disagree with one of the smartest columnists on the planet. But economic growth and social liberalism don’t always go together.

What about the Victorians, combining breakneck growth with a religious revival and tightened public morals? What about Japan during their postwar decades of blistering growth and conservative “salaryman” culture? Over the last 70 years, Britain has become more socially liberal as our growth rate has slowed.

Even in Britain today, it’s highly questionable. London is the richest and fastest growing part of the UK.  But where is opposition to homosexuality and pre-marital sex strongest? London. Where is support for censoring offensive speech highest? London.  The capital mixes liberal metropolitan graduates with religious immigrants. Its success is shaped by both.

Danny’s other argument has more important implications. Is it really the case other places must emulate London to succeed? Like other capital cities across Europe, London has grown faster than the rest of the country since the 1980s. The shift to an economy based on “office jobs” over has favoured the centres of larger cities.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away by the idea that hipster-powered megacities are sweeping all before them. For starters, there are successes elsewhere. Cheshire has high tech in a rural setting, with productivity and wages above the national average.  Milton Keynes likewise, because it’s easy to build there. Productivity in Preston has grown faster than average because it’s a transport hub with advanced manufacturing.

On the surface, large cities outside London have done well.  Since 1997, our 16 largest cities grew their GDP faster than their surrounding areas: Leeds grew faster than West Yorkshire, Manchester faster than Greater Manchester, and so on.

But on average, those cities saw also slower growth in income per head than their surrounding areas. In other words, people became more likely to work in city centres, but that growth was fuelled by people commuting in from smaller places around them. Their growth has been powered more by smalltown commuters than flat-cap wearing uber-boheminans.

It’s right that there are cities outside London that have things in common with it, and might benefit from similar investments. Lawyers in London will soon get Crossrail. So why have lawyers in Leeds waited 20 years for a tram?

But too often Richard Florida’s work leads politicians to focus on shiny cultural facilities. A cool art gallery in West Brom.  A national museum of pop music in Sheffield. It’s not just that these projects flop and close. It’s that they distract from two bigger issues.

First, most people aren’t graduates – so we need a plan to raise their productivity and wages too.

Second, places outside urban centres are perfectly capable of attracting high-skill, high income people – with the right policies.

Britain’s economy is unusually unbalanced compared to other countries.  Pre-tax incomes in Greater London are nearly 60 per cent higher than the national average, but more than 20 per cent below average in Yorkshire, the North East, Wales and Northern Ireland.  These imbalances mean our economy is overheating in some places and freezing cold in others, slowing growth overall. There are no major economies that are richer per head than Britain which have a more unbalanced economy.

But these imbalances don’t represent pure free market outcomes. It’s true that low-skill, low wages places can get stuck in a vicious circle. True that some places on the periphery have very deep problems. Nonetheless, the British state doesn’t do much to stop that – in fact it does a lot to unbalance growth.

Consider how we spend money. Capital spending on transport infrastructure in London is nearly three times the national average. Research funding per head is nearly twice the national average. Nearly half the core R&D budget is spent in Oxford, Cambridge and London. Spending on housing and culture per head in London is five times the national average. We’re “levelling up” the richest places.

We’ve rehearsed these problems for years, but not fixed them. Instead of chasing flat white drinkers, we need to find a cool £4 billion a year to level up R&D spending in other places to the levels London enjoys. Fancy coffee can come later.

Consider our tax system. Overall, the tax rate on business in the UK is about average.  But we combine the lowest headline rate in the G20 with the lowest capital allowances. The combined effect of this is a huge bias against capital intensive sectors, particularly manufacturing.

That in turn has a regional impact, hurting places more dependent on making things: manufacturing accounted for only five per cent of London’s productivity growth since 1997, but nearly 50 per cent in the north west. A hostile tax system is one reason Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country since 1990, and why manufacturing’s share of the economy is half that in Germany or Japan.

Manufacturing should be a key part of levelling up outside cities: it needs space, not city centre locations. In English regions outside London, wages in manufacturing are about nine per cent higher than in services, and manufacturing productivity grows faster than the economy as a whole.  But Britain’s excessive focus on professional services makes it harder to grow high-wage employment in non city-centre locations.

Consider where we put our key institutions. In Germany the political capital was Bonn, and is now Berlin. The financial capital is Frankfurt. The Supreme Court is in Karlsruhe. The richest place is Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen. There are major corporate HQs spread across the country. TV production is dispersed because central government is banned from running it.

In Britain, all these things happen in just one city. We’ve talked about this for years, but made little progress.  In recent years, we managed to move one chunk of Channel 4 to Leeds, and a bit of the BBC to Manchester. But that’s about it. Whitehall only wants to move low-end jobs.

The debate on levelling up is frustrating, because we know some things work, but we don’t do them. “Regional Selective Assistance” boosted investment in poor places with tax breaks and subsidies.  Thanks to evidence from natural experiments, we know it boosted growth. Yet it was allowed to wither.

I don’t want us to be just another government promising the world, then not delivering. Politically, it’s vital we deliver. Lots of people who haven’t voted Conservative before put their trust in us last year. It’s telling that the centre point of the seats we won is just outside Sheffield.

We won on a manifesto combining centrist economics, (50,000 more nurses) mild social conservatism, (ending auto early release) and national self-confidence (Getting Brexit Done).  Levelling up is central to all this. We promised voters steak and chips.  We could serve up avocado toast instead, but we shouldn’t be surprised if the voters don’t thank us.

Alan Mak: Reform capital allowances and R&D tax credits to fire up investment and create jobs

1 Jul

Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founder of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Improving Britain’s productivity is key to both our economic recovery after Coronavirus and enhancing our global competitiveness post-Brexit. The best lever for firing up Britain’s productivity is incentivising more investment in the latest IT and software, new plant and advanced machinery – all proven catalysts of growth and efficiency. Failure to direct billions of pounds into these fundamental building blocks of our economy will hold back our recovery.

The State cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting, especially given the Government’s substantial spending commitments to help the country through the lockdown and beyond. Instead, it must be businesses that take the lead, especially SMEs who have traditionally made up the “long tail” of unproductive companies.

Rather than a safety-first approach of hoarding cash, postponing investment and hunkering down, businesses must be incentivised to invest more in the coming months. This must be an economic recovery powered by bold investment decisions that create jobs, upgrade technology and boost productivity.

The dampening effect on capital expenditure (capex) and investment caused by Coronavirus is already large and destructive. One investment bank estimates that £23 billion has been slashed from this year’s capex budgets already, whilst the Bank of England predicts a 26 per cent drop in business investment for 2020. In 2009, as the financial crisis erupted, the fall was 16 per cent by comparison. Some of the country’s biggest employers such as BP and HSBC have already started cutting investment.

In practice this means IT systems and software – now at the heart of every business – being used for longer. Machines normally replaced every decade will have their life extended. Trucks and vans will be allowed to age. Outdated buildings that offer no room for new employees will be kept on. Research and development (R&D) could stall.

Reductions in investment not only have negative consequences for our country’s GDP, jobs and productivity, it also damages our capacity for R&D and our reputation as a nation that innovates for the future – key to our leadership of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Reforming and adapting two existing incentive schemes – the Annual Investment Allowance and the R&D Tax Credit – would have a major impact in reversing this decline in business investment and productivity.

Introduce a new Annual Investment Allowance ceiling for green or digital investments

Capital allowances enable a business to deduct the cost of qualifying items from their profits, lowering their corporation tax bill. This incentivises investment in key productive goods from machines to laptops.

The Annual Investment Allowance (AIA) is the annual cap on such deductions and its level has varied dramatically in recent years from £25,000 in 2012 to £500,000 in 2015. Until December 2018, the AIA was £200,000 but it was raised to its current £1M level from January 2019. The £1 million level is due to expire this December.

To encourage a green recovery and investments that focus on digitisation, the AIA could be allowed to fall back to the previous £200,000 ceiling, except for certain types of capital expenditure that achieve environmental or digital goals which would still benefit from the £1 million special ceiling. Replacing a diesel-powered machine on the factory floor with one powered by electricity, or digitising a production line by adding new software powered by artificial intelligence (AI), could be examples of investment that would be rewarded by the new special AIA ceiling.

Alongside the introduction of a special £1 million ceiling, the scope of what can be claimed through capital allowances should also be expanded to take account of the growing digital dimensions of every business. For example, digital tools purchased on a subscription basis (such as monthly website hosting costs) should benefit from relief not just one-off investments in physical goods (such as buying a new machine).

Increase R&D tax relief rates for SMEs and widen the scope of the reliefs

R&D tax reliefs support companies that work on innovative projects in science and technology, and enables the cost of qualifying projects to be reclaimed from HMRC. They’re especially effective for digital start-ups, who get a tax break and much needed cashflow back for critical work.

From April this year the relief rate is 13 per cent, but the lion’s share of R&D tax relief is claimed by large, research-intensive businesses. SMEs can currently claim up to 14.5 per cent in certain circumstances, but incremental increases such as this do not have a dramatic effect on investment appetite.

Often the most cutting-edge innovation, especially in the digital sphere, is carried out by small teams and growing start-ups – not just multinationals. To encourage more micro businesses and SMEs to pursue more R&D, new and much higher rates of relief should be introduced. For example, a rate of 25 per cent for SMEs with fewer than 150 employees, and 35 per cent for SMEs with fewer than 50 employees.

What qualifies for relief must also be broadened to include more of the digital tools that software developers use, including software testing tools and data analytics software. In addition, cloud storage fees, user experience development work and the cost of buying data sets needed to train algorithms for AI-driven start-ups should also be tax deductible.

Britain is currently 19th out of the 37 industrialised nations in the OECD when it comes to R&D investment, spending 1.7 per cent of GDP against the OECD average of 2.4 per cent. To match world leaders including Germany and Japan, who invest over three per cent, we must urgently update and expand our R&D tax relief regime.

This is the second in a three-part series on how to boost our economy after Coronavirus.

Peter Lampl: To build social justice and get the economy working, schools must open fully in September

1 Jul

Sir Peter Lampl is founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation.

Pubs, pubs, pubs. If you were to believe most of the ministerial and media rhetoric during these last few weeks, you would conclude that getting them open was the biggest priority to revive this country post-Coronavirus.

While no doubt there are many out there thirsty for a pint, this is a huge distraction. The fact is that the single best way to both kickstart the economy, and to fix the damage that has been done to our social fabric, is to guarantee that schools open in full this September.

There can be no ifs and buts. The damage that was done by the (quite understandable) decision to close down our education system is so wide-ranging it is almost inconceivable. The cost to both GDP and the life prospects of our children will take an age to recover.

And so we must be absolutely clear that, as ministerial focus pivots from the immediate emergency, the threat to the NHS and saving many thousands of lives, on to the economic crisis opening up before us, the education system must share equal top billing.

The damage done to educational outcomes and to social mobility is frightening. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – which I chair – has estimated that some ten years of progress closing the attainment gap between our most deprived young people and their wealthier classmates has been reversed by closing schools for three months.

The efforts of most heads and teachers has been heroic, but the provision of online teaching has been patchy, and the ability of school staff to reach those children most in need of their help has been stretched at best. A University College London study found that 20 per cent of pupils (two million) still do less than one hour of schoolwork a day at home, or none at all, while many private school students are doing six hours.

Research from the Sutton Trust, which I also chair, showed that of the work that is received back from pupils, 50 per cent of teachers in independent schools report they’re receiving more than three quarters of it.   This compares with only eight per cent in the least advantaged state schools.

And during this crisis, there have been too many people playing politics. The Government has said one thing, heads another, unions another, councils another. Parents have been left in the middle baffled – while their kids lose out to a frankly terrifying degree. Messages have been mixed and this has undermined confidence in the system.

No more.

The Department for Education, the Treasury and Downing Street must speak with one voice on this. The economic revival they so desperately seek goes hand in hand with nurseries, primaries, secondaries, colleges and universities reopening to the greatest degree possible.

We can’t get parents back to work without their kids being looked after in primary or nursery schools. And we can’t hope to achieve growth unless schools and colleges and universities are producing people ready to work. In the longer term, the cost of the damage to the country’s wider prospects of the education system misfiring will be in the billions.

The building blocks are starting to be put in place. The announcement last week of £1 billion to spend on tutoring, and on catch up support throughout the summer and into next year, is really welcome. Both the EEF and the Sutton Trust are excited to be working with the Government to make sure this money has the greatest possible impact.

And the announcement of a change in social distancing from two metres to one metre – although again, framed to allow pub, restaurants and hotels to open – creates a great opportunity for schools. No longer will heads be restricted to 15 kids in a classroom. At one metre social distancing – and recognising that, especially in primary schools, the risks are very low indeed – we can, and must, move towards having all or almost all children safely back into schools.

No-one – principals, lecturers, heads, teachers, students, parents – can be left in any doubt that the Government will be laser-like in its focus on this. The promise of support, funding, and clear, timely advice to all parties must be forthcoming.

Ministers must also be clear about the extent of their ambition: this must not be a half-way house. All schools must be open, all lessons taught by teachers, exams must be sat, sports fixtures played, uniforms worn, and extra-curricular activities enjoyed.

It is to be welcomed that we are going to have a detailed plan at the end of this week to achieve this ambition. We hear that the Prime Minister is “deeply frustrated” that we haven’t had as many kids back in yet. But government rhetoric must be matched by action, and steadiness of nerve.

There is a long time to go between now and September. The Government will experience many huge problems in the coming months. It will find itself fighting many economic and healthcare crises, and it will be forced to publish many more no doubt horrifying financial figures. There will continue to be vested interests arguing that we must remain on pause, or that we should focus on other areas instead.

The DfE must ensure that education does not get lost in all this noise. Where efforts are required across government, this must happen. Ministers and senior civil servants must fight for the attention of Downing Street and the Treasury. No one can be allowed to forget how much rides on getting school gates open at the end of the summer holidays.

I’ve spent the past 20 years working to improve social mobility and on transforming the life chances for young people. We cannot allow this virus to deflect us from this most important agenda. There is no time to waste: schools and their students need certainty about September now.

Neil Shastri-Hurst: Turkey and Hungary cannot be allowed to continue to contravene the principles of NATO

26 Jun

Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer, surgeon, barrister, and senior member of the Voluntary Conservative Party in the West Midlands.

Determined, bold, and ambitious. All adjectives that could be used to describe the vision NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, put forward in a speech at the beginning of June. And yet, barely a mention in the newspapers. But whilst Covid-19 continues to dominate the news agenda, Stoltenberg’s speech should not be dismissed. It has the potential to significantly alter the position from which NATO seeks to operate.

NATO has been a powerful military alliance since its inception. National and international threats have not diminished over the last 70 years or so; rather they have grown. The current pandemic should not lure us into a false sense of security. The importance of a strong and effective military alliance, through the auspices of NATO, is fundamental to upholding the democratic principles we hold so dear.

However, in setting out a roadmap for the organisation for the decade ahead, its Secretary General has fixed his sights beyond that. He aspires to something much more ambitious. A shift to focus upon diplomatic and economic levers. A shift to operating more globally; beyond its current North Atlantic milieu. In essence, a shift to operating more politically.

Stoltenberg’s words will have been warmly heard in Washington. It was precisely this type of refocusing that the United States’ administration was pressing for when the alliance leaders met for the 70th anniversary summit on the 4th December 2019. It clearly acknowledges the growing threat that China plays in the wider global security challenges. That said, achieving this ambition will prove much harder than articulating it.

Whilst the focus of the Secretary General’s speech concentrated on the construct of a more political NATO – a NATO “using a broader range of tools”; both military and non-military – this ambitious vision can only be looked at in conjunction with the broader challenges facing the Alliance. Such a paradigm shift would necessitate a change in mindset from its member states.

NATO’s burgeoning inbox is frequently inundated with concerns posed by Vladimir Putin and Russian adventurism. This threat has not retreated. Putin’s posturing and strongman rhetoric continues to present a substantial risk to the Alliance. However, in recent years, there has been the development of a fresh danger. A danger posed by member states themselves. From Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, there has been the emergence of a cohort of leaders who style themselves in the Putin mould.

The bedrock of NATO has always been its shared values. The alliance has been bound through a pledge of collective defence: each member state, a democracy that upholds the virtues of individual human rights. For the majority of the 29, this remains the case. However, a small, but vocal, minority within the alliance has strayed from this path. The principle of collective defence has diminished in importance for these nations.

The schism created by Erdoğan and his ever closer relationship with Russia are well documented. But Erdoğan is not the only leader who has chosen to pursue a more nationalistic political path. Casting one’s gaze to Hungary, we see a country that was once an exemplar of post-Cold War success; a former Communist regime that had succeeded in achieving a strong democracy.

But times have changed. Orbán has adopted an increasingly authoritarian domestic policy platform. However, from NATO’s perspective, it is Orbán’s adoption of a fragrantly pro-Russian foreign policy agenda that is even more worrying: one only has to consider Hungary’s attempts to progressively block and disrupt the cooperation between NATO and Ukraine in order to illustrate this. Whereas the sage heads sitting at the NATO top table recognise the malign influence of a Putin led Russia, Orbán and Erdoğan are amongst a powerful subset that willingly fail to do so.

It would be misleading to suggest that NATO, and its members, have always upheld its founding principles to the letter. Historically, member states have not always been governed under truly democratic principles. That said, the internal menace posed by the pro-Russian, authoritarian rule of some of its own members arguably presents the greatest threat to NATO’s integrity that it has suffered to date.

The importance of NATO cannot be underestimated. As recently as 2016, the Alliance set out its central mission: “to ensure that the Alliance remains an unparalleled community of freedom, peace, security, and shared values, including individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and rule of law”. However, such a shared set of values operates on trust.

This brings me back to Stoltenberg’s vision for NATO 2030. An ambitious vision must be coupled with a compelling argument that member states’ defence and procurement strategies must be centred upon NATO’s intended direction. In a post-pandemic world, with the global economy having taken a battering, putting forward a persuasive case may be all the harder. Maintaining the two per cent minimum of GDP contribution has historically been challenging for many members. The reality is that, with competing demands upon treasury departments, a not insignificant contingent will formally rescind upon their commitment.

But that may be the least of NATO’s problems. The majority need to stand up to the minority and challenge its offending behaviour. Nation states such as Turkey and Hungary cannot be allowed to continue to operate in contravention of the principles of the Alliance. The Washington Treaty contains no provision to suspend members who do not act within the democratic ideals of NATO. However, that should not deter action against those states that fail to adhere to these; political and economic sanctions, for example, may well have the desired effect in the long-term, if not short-term.

And so, I end where I started. This is a determined, bold, and ambitious vision of NATO in 2030. It will however require an even more determined, a bolder, a more ambitious argument to be put forward in order for it to succeed. To have any chance of success, NATO itself will need to reform. It will need to assure member states that the collective Alliance remains true to its founding principles. It must convince its members to stand up against those who show a disregard for human rights or seek to pursue a pro-Russian agenda.

There is a Russian bear sitting behind the desk of the Kremlin; for the survival of NATO we must not let its cubs play in our midst.