Damian Flanagan: Manchester has a central role to play in preserving the UK

11 Feb

Damian Flanagan is Chair of Manchester Conservatives.

While we are all busy trying to make our way – maintaining life and livelihoods as best as we can – through the long ordeal of the Coronavirus pandemic, we might also be grimly aware that our very nation seems to be intractably moving apart.

Calls from the SNP for a second independence referendum – ignoring the understanding that the 2014 poll would be a “once in a generation” event – combine with opinion polls north of the border consistently showing a majority in favour of permanent separation. In Ireland meanwhile the possibility of holding a border poll in Northern Ireland is regularly discussed, inviting opinions ranging from glee at the prospect of long-cherished Irish unity for some, horror at the financial burden for others, and dogged determination to remain part of the UK from Unionists.

As things continue to pull apart, it might appear that our role here in Manchester is simply to act as by-standers to what might yet prove to be the beginning of an end game for the UK, watching London cope as best as it can with these forces of division.

But if you think about things differently, it is Manchester, not London, which stands at the geographical heart of the UK. Indeed, one of the key problems our relatively small nation faces is that, to people in Belfast and Glasgow, London feels distant and out of touch, lost in its own cultural bubble.

Indeed Manchester seems far better equipped than London to sympathise with the economic realities of what is going on in cities far closer to us and often with similar industrial histories and post-industrial problems.

Rather than seeing Manchester as “northern” – a profoundly London-centric view of the world – how about we start seeing Manchester instead as “central”? It is central both in terms of the position we occupy in the country we live in and to the prospects of that nation continuing for another 300 years.

We might ask a bolder question – why exactly does London, tucked away in the south east, have to remain the capital of the nation anyway? True, London has of course the overwhelming economic power and population, but plenty of nations – think Canada, the US, Australia – position their political capitals in places separate from the largest city. A nation’s capital should be placed to reach out to every part of the land. In the UK at the moment, London palpably fails to do that.

Looked at historically, one reason why London emerged as the nation’s capital was profoundly connected to the ruling elite – from the Romans to the Normans to the Tudors – maintaining land interests in continental Europe and needing to stay in close contact with them from a defendable position away from the coast. At the point where Henry VIII finally lost the last vestigial footing in France, the great age of sea trade and worldwide exploration began, making London, positioned on the estuary of the Thames, perfectly placed to be the engine of the nation’s success for another 400 years.

But in today’s new age of “Global Britain”, where we have just decisively cut our ties with the political arrangements of continental Europe and broken free to reach out to the rest of world, why is it necessary for London to remain the centre of UK politics, an arrangement which clearly does not appeal to large numbers of people in the other nations of the UK?

It’s time not for more federalism – the very thing which is driving the UK apart – but for a political reconfiguration that recognises where the centre of the nation we live in actually is. We want a *united* kingdom, with government agencies and institutions operating in Manchester – the second largest conurbation outside London – that help to keep the entire nation together.

Moving to Manchester a reformed upper chamber of Parliament – perhaps elected by proportional representation – would make a healthy start. It would also open the eyes of many of our London-centric legislators as to what the issues facing cities like Manchester, Belfast and Glasgow actually are.

This is our precious nation and we can not just sit on the sidelines while London allows it to drift apart. Manchester, at the heart of the nation, is ready to step up and play its part in its political destiny of holding the UK together.

Andrew Mitchell and Douglas Alexander: It’s time to ‘crack the crises’ on Covid, injustice and climate change at this year’s G7

1 Feb

Andrew Mitchell MP and Douglas Alexander are both former development secretaries (Mitchell: 2010-12, in David Cameron’s cabinet. Alexander: 2007-10, in Gordon Brown’s).

When President Biden comes to Britain it’s up to the Prime Minister to make sure he sees a country he can do business with. As the new president told the world in his inauguration address: any one of the “cascading crises” that the world now faces “would be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact that we face them all at once, presents this nation with the gravest of responsibilities.”

Yet we cannot, and should not, expect America to save the world. As the 2021 President of the G7, Boris Johnson will have to do more, in the words of a new campaign launching today, to “crack the crises” and bring all the other countries behind a shared plan to tackle Covid, injustice and climate change.

Without global leadership, the G7 has been paralysed since 2018. With Donald Trump signing up to a communique at the end of the Vancouver summit only to trash the agreement on Twitter on the flight back to Washington, the writing was on the wall. The following G7 summit in Biarritz didn’t even have a communique for leaders to sign up to, and the one due in Camp David was cancelled by the host: Trump.

So when Biden comes to Britain, and the eyes of the world alight on Carbis Bay in Cornwall in June, the stakes could not be higher. With half of the economies of the world in recession and the IMF describing the economic impact of Covid as the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, global growth this year will inevitably be driven by China and India. We need both to kick-start the global economy in the same way the G20 London Summit did in 2009 and tackle global poverty as the UK did by meeting the UN’s 0.7 per cent aid commitment at the G7 summit in Lough Erne in 2013.

With the World Bank predicting that 150 million people have been pushed back into poverty since the start of the crisis and will be living on less than £1.50 per day, now is not the time to cut aid and turn our backs to the world. The secondary impacts of Covid are hitting the poorest hardest, both at home and abroad. The role of leadership is to put first those who have fallen furthest behind.

It isn’t hard to see what is driving this new spirit of solidarity. From applauding NHS frontline workers while rejecting anti-vax disinformation and vaccine nationalism, to standing for racial justice and demanding a just transition to net zero, we have all had a year where we have had to act local but also think global. For this was the year that Britain answered the call of a 23-year-old footballer and a 100-year-old veteran. Amid the tragedy and the horror, of both the pandemic and the recession, Britain has found a new hope.

This new hope has brought together organisations representing more than 10 million people across the UK, uniting to demand concerted action on Covid, climate change and help for struggling communities at home and abroad. The new coalition, “Crack the Crises”, is calling on the UK government to demonstrate leadership on the global stage. The coalition unites nature, development, climate change and UK social justice groups with a shared strategy: urging a just and green recovery. Members range from 100-year-old global organisations to local start-ups.

Of the crises which Biden listed in his inaugural address, the one we have the most optimism about is “America’s role in the world.” The others: “a raging virus. Growing inequality. The sting of systemic racism. A climate in crisis,” will require a global response. His call to the citizens of his own country is a rallying call to the citizens of every country: “Will we rise to this occasion? Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world for our children?”

The answer starts in Carbis Bay, in Cornwall, England. But it also has to run through the COP climate summit, in Glasgow, Scotland. The eyes of the world are on the United Kingdom and the only way to Crack the Crises is with a unity of purpose which we must rediscover again.

The amazing story of Mohammad Sarwar shows how Sturgeon can be defeated

22 Jan

Global Britain need not wait to be conjured up by Boris Johnson. It already exists.

Mohammad Sarwar is not among its most fashionable manifestations. The British press, which has difficulty in attending to more than one thing at a time, does not hang on his every word.

Sarwar is described by one who knows him as “a very affable person”, but has never given a memorable speech. He lacks charisma and passed through the House of Commons without making his name.

And yet he has achieved something astounding. After spending 13 years as an MP, he went off and became Governor of Punjab, and now enjoys in the middle of Lahore, surrounded by 80 acres of gardens, an official residence which is said to make Buckingham Palace look like “a suburban villa”.

We have become accustomed to Cabinet ministers such as Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel and Kwasi Kwarteng whose parents moved to the United Kingdom from various parts of the Commonwealth, but in 2013 Sarwar travelled in the opposite direction, and became a senior figure in Pakistani politics.

The two-way traffic between the UK and the former British Empire, so routine in other fields that it attracts no notice, is being re-established in politics, or perhaps had never gone away, but just slipped from view.

In Sardar’s case, as perhaps in most others, he has not forsaken the UK. His younger son, Anas Sardar, is frontrunner to become the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

Here is a development which will rejoice the hearts of those of us who regard the hereditary principle not merely as inevitable  but as beneficial.

No need to distinguish between nature and nurture. If parents pass on their abilities to their children, society is enriched.

In 2010 Mohammad Sarwar passed on his parliamentary seat, Glasgow Central, to his younger son, Anas Sarwar, who could now be about to save the Scottish Labour Party from extinction.

No less a figure than Alan Cochrane, doyen of Unionist journalists, testifies to ConHome that Anas Sarwar is “very good”.

Here at last is a Scottish Labour politician who knows how to carry the fight to Nicola Sturgeon by exposing the grievous damage inflicted on Scotland by incompetent SNP ministers at Holyrood.

Egalitarians who protest at the flying start in Labour politics which young Sarwar got from old Sarwar might pause to consider not only the son’s ability, but the father’s courage.

He was born in 1952 in a village near Lyallpur, now known as Faisalabad, in the Pakistani province of Punjab. His parents had fled in 1947 from what became India. His grandparents and his eldest sister, who was a baby, died on that flight.

When Mohammad was four years old, his father left in search of a better life in Scotland, where he sold goods door to door. Mohammed followed 20 years later and himself became at first a travelling salesman, after which, in order to be considered fit to marry his cousin Perveen, like him a Pakistani Muslim, he took a shop on Maryhill Road, in Glasgow.

With his brother, Mohammad in due course set up a cash and carry business which prospered:

“People who come from Pakistan and from working-class families in other countries know what it means to be poor, and when they come here their priority is to earn some money and send back some to look after their families. They often work seven days a week to start up. Then you make money, and the money you make starts to make money. It is difficult to make the first million, but then the first million makes more.”

In 1984 Sarwar joined the Labour Party and in 1987 he was asked whether he would like to stand for Glasgow City Council in the hopeless ward of Pollokshields East. He ran, cut the Conservative majority from 700 to 70, and five years later won the seat.

While a councillor, he was told of two Glaswegian Asian girls who had been abducted while visiting Pakistan and subjected to forced marriages. A timid man might have reckoned this was a family matter in which it would be safer not to interfere. Sarwar went to Pakistan and secured the girls’ release.

In 1997, he fought the bitter Labour selection battle for the parliamentary seat of Glasgow Govan, with accusations of electoral malpractice flying to and fro.

Sarwar emerged victorious, and was later cleared of all the charges against him, but some observers thought the bloodletting had done such damage that Labour would lose the seat at the general election, especially as Sarwar, who suffered racist abuse and was somewhat wooden in manner, faced a personable young Scottish Nationalist candidate called Nicola Sturgeon.

He beat her by 2,914 votes, becoming the first Muslim MP at Westminster and the first to take the oath on the Koran. He upheld Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir, and the rights of Palestinians, but proved himself “very sound on the extremism issue”, as a Conservative observes.

When a white, 15-year-old boy was murdered in Glasgow by a Pakistani gang, Sarwar went to Pakistan and with great difficulty arranged the extradition of three of the culprits who had fled there.

While still a student in Faisalabad he had met Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1973 until overthrown in 1977 in a military coup. Sarwar’s first political campaign in Scotland, a vain one, was for Bhutto to be spared the death penalty, carried out in 1979.

Two decades later, Sarwar got to know Nawaz Sharif, a former and future Prime Minister of Pakistan, and his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif:

Sarwar got to know the Sharifs while they were living in exile in London after the 1999 coup in which they lost power. He is said to have won their gratitude by lobbying for them to remain in the UK.

“Yes, they had some problems when they were first on British soil, but they deserved to stay on merit, and I think they got it on merit,” he says. “I don’t think they are in debt to me, or I got this job because of that reason.”

The job to which he refers is the Governorship of Punjab, a grand ceremonial role which at moments of crisis can become of great political importance.

A previous Governor, Salman Taseer, was in 2011 assassinated by his own bodyguard for denouncing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Sarwar, who had to renounce his British citizenship in order to enter Pakistani politics, held the post of Governor of Punjab from 2013-15, when he fell out with the Sharifs and transferred his allegiance to Imran Khan.

In 2018 Khan became Prime Minister and Sarwar was reinstated as Governor.

Anas Sarwar had meanwhile lost his Westminster seat in the SNP landslide of 2015, had entered the Scottish Parliament in 2016, and in 2017 had failed to become leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

Various atrocious crimes were attributed to him. His parents had sent him to Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow, an independent school whose alumni include John Buchan and Derry Irvine.

And although Anas had read dentistry at Glasgow University, and had afterwards practised as a dentist for a few years, he was known, thanks to his father’s business career, to be a man of independent means, which was reckoned to be incompatible with being a socialist.

So Labour chose instead the Momentum candidate, the hapless English-sounding Richard Leonard, under whom its fortunes in Scotland continued to decline, with socialist Scots flocking instead to support the SNP.

Anas will not have long to get those voters back before the elections in May. But he is at once more local than Leonard, and more international than Sturgeon.

He will never be able to enter Pakistani politics, for unlike his father he has not spent the first 24 years of his life there. But he might just be able to make Sturgeon, with her desire to rejoin the European Union, look a bit limited, a bit parochial.

Neil O’Brien: The next algorithm disaster – coming to a Conservative constituency near you. This time, it’s housing growth.

24 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Algorithms have been in the news, not for good reasons. One lesson from the A-levels row is that principles which seem reasonable can lead to outcomes you don’t expect. Another algorithm’s coming down the tracks: the new formula for how many houses must be built in different places. There are few with higher stakes.

I wrote about the housing White Paper in my last column: it proposes not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time. In other words, if we don’t like the results of the new algorithm, we’ll have blocked off the emergency exits.

The new algorithm is set out here. It’s not particularly easy to read. For example, one of many factors is set out in bullet point 30:

Adjustment Factor = [( Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4 4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current yearr and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Clear enough for you?

I thought it might be a while before we saw what the new algorithm would produce in practice. But Lichfields, the planning consultancy, has translated the algorithm into what it would mean for local authorities.

The numbers that the formula spits out can be compared to the number of homes actually being delivered over recent years, or to the numbers in the current (optional) national formula. Whichever way you look at it, it’s controversial.

I’ve long argued we should concentrate more development in inner urban areas, for various reasons I’ll come back to below.  But this algorithm doesn’t do that – at least not outside London.  In the capital, the algorithm would indeed increase numbers substantially.

But in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.

Overall, the algorithm proposes a south-centric model of growth for Britain (with some growth in the midlands).

If we compare the algorithm to recent delivery, the South East has been delivering just over 39,000 homes a year, and will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000, a 57 per cent increase. The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase.

For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years. But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail.

The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas. Comparing the existing national formula to the proposal, we can see this for most large cities.

The number for Birmingham comes down 15 per cent, while the rest of the West Midlands goes up 52 per cent.

Numbers for Leicester go down 35 per cent. The rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent.

Nottingham goes down 22 per cent, the rest of Nottinghamshire goes up 48 per cent.

Southampton goes down 17 per cent, Portsmouth down 15 per cent and Basingstoke down 23 per cent, but the rest of Hampshire would go up 39 per cent.

Wealthy Bristol would see some growth (5 per cent) but much lower than the rest of Gloucester, Somerset and Wiltshire (47 per cent).

It’s the same story up north. Leeds down 14 per cent, Sheffield down 19 per cent, and Bradford down 29 per cent. But the East Riding up 34 per cent, North Yorkshire up 80 per cent, and North East Lincolnshire up 123 per cent.

In the north west the core cities of Manchester (-37 per cent) and Liverpool (-26 per cent) see huge falls, while the areas around them shoot up. In Greater Manchester, for example, the growth is shifted to the blue suburbs and shires. Outer parts go up: Wigan up 10 per cent, Bury, up 12 per cent, and Rochdale up 97 per cent. And areas to the south and north of the conurbation up much further: Cheshire up 108 per cent, while Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley and the Ribble Valley together go up 149 per cent.

But it isn’t just that the numbers in the new formula are lower than the old formula for urban areas. In many cases the new formula suggests a lower number than their recent rate of delivery. This is true of Sheffield (12 per cent below actual delivery), Leeds (16 per cent), Bradford (23 per cent), the entire North East (28 per cent), Nottingham (30 per cent), Manchester, (31 per cent), Leicester, (32 per cent) and Liverpool (59 per cent). The new formula seems to assume we are going to level down our cities, not level up.

It’s true that there’s another step between the Housing Need Assessment which this algorithm produces and the final housing target, which can be reduced a bit to account for delivery constraints like greenbelt.

But if we go with this algorithm unamended, outside London most Conservative MPs will be seeing large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced. Is this what we want?

Leaving aside the politics, I think not. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has much less dense cities.

Places like Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all had smaller populations in 2017 than 1981, while places like Birmingham and Manchester weren’t much bigger. Our cities have untapped potential, many went through a period of shrinkage and have space, and there are health and environmental reasons to prefer urban growth too.

In dense urban areas, people are more likely to walk or cycle – and in the UK, people in cities walk twice as far as those in villages each year. This reduces public transport costs and improves health.

Denser cities can sustain better public transport and so cut car congestion and time spent travelling. As well as reducing pollution from transport, denser cities reduce energy use and pollution because flats and terraced homes are much more energy efficient.

I’m not sure the draft algorithm is even doing what Ministers wanted it to. The document in which it is set out says that “the Government has heard powerful representations that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.”

But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite.

There may be technical reasons why things aren’t working out: there’s lots of ways to measure affordability… differences between residence-based and workplace-based income measures… there were certain caps in the old model, population projections have changed and so on.

However, the bigger issue is this.

There’s no “objective” way of calculating how many homes are “needed” in an area. While there are ways of carving up the numbers that are seen as more or less fair, ultimately a vision is required.

Projections of population growth are circular: the projected population growth for the farmland between Bletchley and Stony Stratford would’ve been pretty low before we built Milton Keynes there.

Likewise the forecast for the derelict Docklands of the early 1980s. While there are real economic constraints, the future need not resemble the past.

Though it took a huge effort, Germany raised East Germans from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent per cent below the national average income since reunification. That’s levelling up.

Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.

Neil O’Brien: Why closing the marriage gap between rich and poor is a vital mission for social justice

27 Jul

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Our daughter just had her last day at nursery. In the autumn she’s off to school. We’re sponging second-hand uniform from friends. It feels like just the other day I was driving home after her birth, flakes of snow streaking through the headlights.

Our baby son can suddenly crawl fast. He wants to climb the stairs, and chew any bits of cardboard he finds lying around.

My sister has unearthed a trove of old black and white family photos. There’s lots of things that catch the eye: Glasgow’s housing estates looking shiny and newly-built; the funny looking cars; the endless cigarettes. The bigger families too: my gran with her two children from before the war, and two after.

It set me thinking about family. Ten years ago we talked about it a lot. David Cameron’s criticism of “Broken Britain” highlighted work by the Centre for Social Justice on family breakdown and poverty. The most eye-catching pledge during his leadership campaign was a marriage tax break.

Over the last five years there’s been a lot of other things doing on, to say the least.  But as the new government starts to set out its domestic agenda, family should be part of it.

Politicians are nervous talking about family. It’s not just bad memories of the 1990s, when we screwed up and sounded like moralising hypocrites against a backdrop of sleaze.

It’s a deeper fear of sounding critical of friends and relations. We all have close friends who have been through everything: raising kids alone, divorce, abortion, bereavement and so on. I think of a friend who has raised two wonderful kids alone. Another single friend helped look after a young person when no-one else would. I don’t know how anyone manages to do it single-handed: they’re amazing people.

Some worry family policy will be about condemning them, or that politicians want to try and trap unhappy couples together. It mustn’t be about either. Instead, it has to be about two different things.

First, helping people with children financially, and with practical help, particularly during the difficult years with small children. Having no money on top of no sleep and endlessly crying babies makes it harder to sustain relationships.

Second, it should be about support and building up the social capital that many middle class people in politics take for granted. Indeed, it’s about healing a split in our society.

Let me explain.

Politicians who are serious about reducing poverty and spreading opportunity can’t avoid thinking about families and households.  Last year 23 per cent of children in couple households were below the fixed poverty line, after housing costs, compared to 38 per cent of children in lone parent households.

Controlling for other factors, A CSJ report found those who experience family breakdown when aged 18 or younger are twice as likely be in trouble with the police or spend time in prison, and almost twice as likely to underachieve educationally. They’re more likely to suffer mental health issues.

One part of family policy should be direct help families with children. I’d love to see us recognise children in the tax system, as we did until the 1970s: our tax system is unusually family-unfriendly. We should help working families with children on Universal Credit keep more what they earn before it gets tapered away. The CSJ has called for higher child benefit for parents of young children.

But we need to go deeper, and recognise that the links between family breakdown and low income run in both directions. Over recent decades a quiet revolution has taken place, and richer and poorer people now live in very different family structures.

Between 1979 and 2000, the proportion of households with dependent children which were lone parent households grew from 11 per cent to 25 per cent, then remained at that level, dipping a bit in recent years to 22 per cent in 2019. Since 1979, the proportion which are married couples fell from 89 per cent to 61 per cent.

There are few countries in Europe where children are less likely to live with both parents than Britain. It’s more likely that a teenager sitting their GCSEs will own a smartphone (about 95 per cent) than live with both parents (58 per cent).

But these headline stats conceal a massive social split, which starts at the point of birth and widens out.

For those in the top socioeconomic group, 75 per cent of children are born to parents who are married; another 22 per cent are jointly registered to parents cohabiting; 2 per cent are jointly registered to parents living apart, and just 1 per cent registered by one parent only.

At the bottom end of the scale, 35 per cent are born to married parents, 38 per cent to cohabiting parents, 21 per cent jointly to parents living apart and 6 per cent registered by just one parent.

These huge differences weren’t always there. For people at the top, family life looks similar to their parents’ generation. For people on lower incomes, society looks utterly different. A marriage gap has opened up, and society has been splitting apart into different family structures for rich and poor.

In the 1970s, mothers of pre-school children were equally likely to be married whether they had a degree or not, and 90 per cent plus were. By 2006 for mothers with a degree that was down to 86 per cent, but for non-graduate mothers it fell to 52 per cent.

Between 1988 and 2018 the proportion of jointly registered births which were to married parents fell from 90 per cent to about 77 per cent for the top socio-economic group. At the other end of the scale it fell from 70 per cent to 37 per cent.

Equally, it’s impossible to understand modern Britain without appreciating the different families people from different ethnic groups live in.

In 2011, among households with dependent children, for white households 53 per cent were married couples, 16 per cent cohabiting couples, 25 per cent lone parents, and 7 per cent other household types (mainly multigenerational households).

Among Indian households with dependent children, far more were married couples or multigenerational households.  68 per cent were married couples, 2 per cent cohabiting couples, 9 per cent lone parents and 21 per cent in multigenerational households.

Among black Caribbean households 28 per cent were married couples, 11 per cent cohabiting couples, 47 per cent were lone parents and 14 per cent in multigenerational households.

People of different ethnicities live in very different families, which influences everything else.

Most voters favour government taking action to support family life. But in Whitehall there’s scepticism: can the state do anything about these trends?

The truth is we don’t really know. As it happens, at the point when government stopped publishing its measure of family stability in 2016, the trend seemed to be moving back a little towards more children living with both parents.

Whitehall can be too pessimistic. Until Michael Howard, the consensus was that nothing could be done about rising crime. He proved the consensus wrong. Likewise, in the 1990s Whitehall had given up on helping lone parents into work. But successive reforms (under governments of all parties) doubled their rate of employment.

It’s not like there’s no ideas about how to help.  There’s masses and masses of recommendations gathering dust on think tank shelves, covering everything: tax, benefits, family hubs, relationship education in schools, birth registration, pre-and postnatal support…

My modest proposal is this: let’s do a major programme of controlled trials to test these ideas, and see what, if anything, makes a difference. Happily for the Treasury, experiments are cheaper than rolling things out nationally.

But we have to try. The costs are too high not to. They say the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, but the second best time is today. Let’s plant some seeds.