Thawing the benefits freeze

There is a strong case for altering the balance of welfare spending between working people and those retired.

The benefits freeze has at least three striking features.  First, there is timing. The best time to introduce it, in retrospect, would have been 2010, not 2014 – in other words, at the start of the Coalition’s term, when voters were relatively likely to give a fair wind to measures that would help to reduce the rate of public spending, such as the pay freeze.

Second, there is an oddity that has nothing to do with the Government and everything to do with Jeremy Corbyn.  It is not often grasped that he didn’t propose to lift it in his election manifesto two years ago.  Yes, Labour proposed to scrap benefit sanctions and the spare room subsidy.  But there was no promise to end the freeze.

Finally – and as with wage freezes – it’s easy in, not easy out.  The freeze was originally introduced for two years in 2014.  It was then doubled to four years in 2015.  Privately, Amber Rudd wants rid of the freeze and, publicly, says that it won’t be renewed in 2020.  But one never knows: in the now unlikely event of a No Deal Brexit, there may be additional need for public spending restraint.  Philip Hammond will make much of that when the Budget comes.

The deficit is now only 1.8 per cent of GDP – Osborne slowly ground it down during his terms as Chancellor – and, for all the Chancellor’s denials, ending it altogether is being pushed off into the never-never.  The question is that follows is whether Hammond should look to lift the cap early as the Work and Pensions Select Committee recommends.

Elsewhere on this site today, Mark Wallace writes about pressures on public spending over policing and crime.  That’s a reminder, were it needed, that there should never be a let-up on control.  But the long-term, relatively unaddressed challenge is in relation to health and pensions, which together consume roughly a third of public spending.

The point about the benefits freeze is that it covered payments for people of working age – including part of the employment and support allowance and, eventually, Universal Credit.  Iain Duncan Smith believed that the squeeze on working people had become disproportionate to that on retired people.  It was not the immediate cause of his resignation, but it was a factor.

This is not a good time for Rudd to be making a policy pitch, at least in terms of gathering party support, because her flouting of collective responsibility over Brexit sours her pushing of any other policy elsewhere.  However, it doesn’t follow that she is wrong in this case.  There is a strong case for altering the balance of welfare spending between working people and those retired.

Alan Mak: To be fit for the future, the health service must “axe the fax” – and the pager

These archaic machines cause NHS patients to miss appointments, hospitals to lose records, and cost millions of pounds in paper storage each year.

Alan Mak is the MP for Havant and is the Chairman of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. His NHS Fax Machines and Pagers Bill is presented in Parliament today.

Conservatives have a long and proud record of supporting and investing in our NHS. As Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said when launching the new NHS Long Term Plan last month, the Health Service is “one of our proudest achievements” as a nation, and for over 40 of the NHS’ 70 years it has been under the care of Conservative Ministers.

Our Party has nurtured the NHS to serve generations of patients and the £20.5 billion a year delivered by the Long Term Plan is the biggest ever cash injection in its history. This means more investment in our hospitals, more doctors and nurses, and more resources to tackle major diseases. But extra funding alone won’t secure the NHS’s future. To boost productivity and improve patient care and safety, Conservatives must ensure that the NHS seizes the opportunities presented by new technologies too.

We have a duty to prepare the NHS for radical technological change, and in so doing, an electoral opportunity to strengthen our Party’s standing on the NHS by being the patients’ champion – harnessing technology to drive up clinical standards and improve patient care. That was the argument I made in my NHS technology report published last year by the Centre for Policy Studies and launched by the then Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. By adopting the new technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in the Health Service we can put patients at the heart of a reformed digital-first NHS.

Rightly, the Long Term Plan shares this ambition and sets out the Government’s vision for a modern NHS that uses digital tools to improve patient care and safety. This means pushing forward with an unabashed desire to change the culture of a large public service organisation that has not always been the quickest to adapt to innovation. Decades of underinvestment in our digital health infrastructure has left the NHS at risk of being unable to take full advantage of the new waves of technological breakthroughs that are already revolutionising healthcare – and indeed other aspects of our society and economy. Fuelled by artificial intelligence, Big Data, wearable devices and personalised medicines, these 4IR innovations are set to turbocharge our fight against cancer, heart disease, dementia and other diseases and illnesses.

The Long Term Plan includes a welcome commitment for the NHS to become fully digital and paperless within the next decade. This digital-first NHS would see seamless interactions between GPs, hospitals, and community care; patients not having to wait for appointment confirmations in the post; and an end to health records being lost through human error. Embedding 4IR technologies into the NHS would also drive improvements in detection rates, pioneer new treatments and ultimately deliver better patient outcomes. Meanwhile, precision medicines, personalised for each patient and taking into account an individual’s genetic profile, can be at the forefront of treating disease in the years ahead, becoming a staple in the doctors’ toolbox. Put simply, the future of healthcare is exciting – and has the potential to catch-up with the smartphone era and patients’ digital expectations if we give the NHS the right tools.

But holding back the NHS from achieving these outcomes is a stubborn reliance, in some areas, on ageing technology such as pagers and fax machines. While the Long Term Plan clearly sets out a desire to “axe the fax”, there remain 8,000 of them in use across the NHS making the Health Service the largest consumer of fax machines worldwide. These archaic machines cause patients to miss appointments, hospitals to lose records, and cost NHS Trusts millions of pounds in paper storage each year, as well as being slow, unwieldy, and hard to maintain.

Meanwhile, the pager, which reached the height of its popularity in the mid-1990s, provides doctors and nurses with a limited amount of information, sometimes no more than a bleep, as they tackle a multitude of complex situations on hospital wards. This has led to 97 per cent of doctors admitting in a British Medical Journal survey that they use instant messaging services such as WhatsApp as an alternative, despite these being banned due to concerns over patient confidentiality. Of the one million pagers believed to be left in use worldwide, around ten per cent of them are used in our Health Service.

Yet there are cheap and easy-to-use alternatives available to NHS Trusts. As the Health Secretary has rightly pointed out, e-mail could be used as a way of communicating without the need for paper. And instead of relying on pagers, there are several specialist WhatsApp-style messaging systems available to the NHS. These include Medic Bleep, an app which when trialled at West Suffolk Hospital was found to save £4.5 million worth of staff time largely because doctors and nurses don’t have to wait by a landline phone to respond to pager bleeps. I visited the Hospital to see Medic Bleep in action first hand (see film above) and witnessed its obvious versatility when compared to old-fashioned pagers. If replicated across the 227 NHS Trusts in England new digital messenger systems that replace pagers could potentially save the Health Service more than £1 billion every year which can be redirected to frontline services.

The availability of modern replacements, and the need to rapidly upgrade the Health Service’s technology base, are the reasons I’m introducing new legislation in Parliament today that would ban fax machines and pagers in our NHS by 2021. My National Health Service (Prohibition of Fax Machines and Pagers) Bill can be a firm foundation on which to build a digital-first NHS that fully harnesses the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is taking place in healthcare, consigning fax machines and pagers to the scrapheap of history.

Equally importantly, I hope the Bill also sends a clear message that we Conservatives are serious about renewing our NHS for the future, coupling serious financial investment with determined renewal of the tools that our doctors and nurses use and the care patients receive. By investing in the best technology – and phasing out the worst – we can ensure our NHS continues to serve us well for the next 70 years and beyond.

Rachel Wolf: On policy, it’s not the Independent Group that’s driven to the margins. It’s the Conservative Right.

The new group’s platform is not very inspiring – if, like me, you still feel public services could do with improvement. But its biggest problem is it they won’t be very different from the Conservatives’.

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

Will the former Conservative and Labour Members of the Independent Group find it easy to come to a consistent policy platform? And will that platform be ‘centre left’ or ‘centre centre’? My answers, in turn, are “yes”, and “there is no longer a meaningful distinction in Westminster between these two”.

To explain why, it’s important to look at the wider policy background.  There’s not been much of policy discussion within the Conservative Party recently. It’s wholly unclear what its domestic agenda would be at the next general election. Brexit dominates.

That will have to change. Anyone who campaigned in the 2017 general election discovered – to their cost – that many voters cared less about Brexit than the Conservative Party did. Doorstep conversations were often focused on the NHS and school funding – where the Conservatives were repeatedly crushed.

People in Westminster are often process, politics, and personality geeks – but the public care more about issues. Miserably, Brexit has whittled the number of domestic policy discussions to almost zero. The environment has become a major policy focus because at least, under Michael Gove, the Conservatives have something – anything – to say (even if that anything now appears to include a strong support for protectionism and tariffs).

Vote Leave, of course, recognised all this. Their arguments focused on the concrete: NHS funding, immigration control. Ideas that would have a direct impact on voters.

So if the Independent Group are to survive – and grow – they will need to make a differentiated case to the electorate on issues that they care about. One of their challenges, in my view, is that the space open for them is not as wide as many think.

While Theresa May talks like a traditional Conservative, domestically her government is increasingly indivisible from one that would be run by a Soft Left (not even necessarily Blairite) Prime Minister. She may have talked about citizens of nowhere, and Gavin Williamson may engage in occasional sabre-rattling, but all the substance points in the opposite direction.

The Conservative Government has become increasingly paternalist (with bans created or looming on public health issues such as sugar; on environmental issues like plastic and ivory; and on activities like social media). Ministers no longer focus on market-based reforms of public services in health or education (many of the interventions made by, for example, Justine Greening on education were completely indistinguishable from those that Gordon Brown and Ed Balls might have made back in their day). The Tories’ commitment to fiscal conservatism remains greater than Labour, but the dividing line is increasingly narrow.

Policies that were once derided when floated by Ed Miliband – such as the energy price cap – are now pushed by the Conservatives. The toughest area of government reductions that can be felt by voters – welfare – is being softened by Amber Rudd and the toughest area of government restriction – immigration – is being softened by Sajid Javid. It is only because Jeremy Corbyn is so extreme (and because all we ever discuss is Brexit) that there remains much distance between the Government and the Opposition. Between TIG and the government? It’s not very obvious.

Let’s take an article written by Chuka Umunna in 2011 in which he makes an appeal for “One Nation Labour” and which includes the two following passages:

“there is no disagreement on the need to address the deficit – despite coalition claims to the contrary. Where the disputed terrain lies is around the speed and depth of reduction and what that means for growth and jobs. “

“What I call “bad capitalism” – unrestrained capital, highly speculative, obsessed with the short term, dismissive of the ties that bind – acts as a barrier to this notion of the good society; whereas “good capitalism” – one that is entrepreneurial and productive with good democratic corporate governance – can smooth the path to a better tomorrow.”

Both of these reflect current government policy.

Now let’s take the Conservative defectors. They themselves sit on the soft left, One Nation wing of the Conservative Party.  All three of the Conservative leavers are critical of grammar schools, and are likely to support a liberal immigration policy. Allen has been a long standing critic of the rollout of welfare reforms. Sarah Wollaston has argued for a long time for much more NHS funding. Soubry is the one who may be most uncomfortable in a centre-left party – she is clearly a supporter of almost everything the Coalition government did, including “austerity”, and she has been an active Conservative for a very long time.

Fundamentally, I don’t think that merging with former Labour members will be a challenge. They will all agree that more money should be spent by the state (including redistribution). They will share a widescale support for state interventionism. There will be mutual antagonism towards some traditional ‘Tory’ policies.

This isn’t a terrible platform for public support (other than on immigration). It’s certainly not very inspiring if, like me, you still feel public services could do with quite a lot of improvement. But its biggest problem is that it won’t be very different from the Conservatives’.

I began this article saying that policy matters. It does – to peoples’ lives and therefore what voters want to know about. The irony seems to me that, actually, the TIG won’t have much new and different to say from the current government (though they might say it in a better way with different sounding people). It is the traditional right, now criticised for driving out Conservatives over Brexit, that has no place in the current domestic policy debate.

Fabio Conti: A plea for Conservative unity in these fractious times – and how we must plan for the challenges of the future

It is rarely Brexit that people raise on the doorstep. It is concerns about the NHS; their local school; the difficulties faced by social care, or the rise in violent crime.

Fabio Conti is a GP in West London and a former Ealing councillor.  He contested Ealing Southall in the 2017 general election.

We are at a moment in which the tone of our national discourse has become so corrosive that, at times, it appears to be wearing through the very fabric that holds our nation together. The febrile nature of political debate, especially on social media, hasn’t been helped by the choice of language by some of our MPs, who have at times appeared to use increasing hyperbole in order to further their own agenda. There is division at every level of society – from within political parties to within families. This raises the question of how our nation can be brought together once we move beyond this chapter in our collective history.

Looking at our own Party, we’ve seen MPs, members and supporters express everything, during recent months, from unhappiness to despair at what others in the Party are saying and doing. People from all parts of it are feeling frustrated – and, at times, intolerant about the actions of others. It seems that we are often forgetting the common thread of values that unite all of us: opportunity; believing that not just government but people should be given the power to make decisions about their own lives; free enterprise and sound money, and the belief that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to get on in life. As we encounter some of the most testing times in our Party’s history, we should remember the values we share, and realise there is often more that binds us together than draws us apart.

At this challenging time, it is vital that members who feel disillusioned with the Party do not turn their backs on it. We need to debate ideas, and work together to renew and define ourselves beyond Brexit with a positive vision for the future of our country, rooted in our uniting common values.

If we do not, the appealing proposition to a weary electorate of Jeremy Corbyn’s easy answers to complex challenges will hand him the keys to Number Ten whenever the next election comes. It is our duty to prevent what this would inflict on our country from happening.

When speaking to people on the doorstep, or talking to colleagues or friends, it is rarely Brexit that people raise. It is concerns about the NHS; their local school; the difficulties faced by social care, or the rise in violent crime. Additionally, there are too many people in our country who feel that they have been left behind. For some, this may have been a driving force to voting Leave in 2016. Looking beyond Brexit, we need to tackle the barriers of poor mental health, generational unemployment and inequality of opportunity. When in our country today just five elite schools send more pupils to Oxbridge than two-thirds of all state secondaries, and one in four prisoners and 70 per cent of sex workers grew up in care, it shows that we have a lot work to do to improve life chances and unlock opportunity for all.

Tacking these issues could be the uniting mission that can help bring our party and the country back together. We need to set our country on a new course, healing the divisions of the last few years – and move on to dealing with the big domestic issues of our day.

Andy Street: The West Midlands Local Industrial Strategy ensures we are the workshop of the modern world

From transport tech and data-driven healthcare, to creative enterprises and the services sector, we are forging ahead.

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

As the cradle of the industrial revolution, the West Midlands left its mark on the globe. In the 19th and 20th centuries the factories and furnaces of Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country forged much of the modern world, exporting goods from ACME whistles to BSA motorcycles, from Cadbury’s chocolate to Bird’s Custard.

Even the ships that carried produce and people to far-flung new markets were anchored by huge chains wrought in our land-locked furnaces.

Now, as the first UK region to finalise a Local Industrial Strategy, we are once again leading the way.

The West Midlands has always been a hotbed of innovation and invention, driving advances in engineering, manufacturing, transport, marketing, social change and more. It was the workshop of the world.

Industrial decline began in the 1960s and, by the end of the last century, our region bore the scars of decay – empty, abandoned factories that once employed thousands. All of that has now started to change.

The West Midlands is undergoing a renaissance of growth and investment. New start-ups are choosing our region as the place to be. Nowhere else outside of London has seen the level of growth witnessed in the West Midlands. Output here has risen by 27 per cent in the last five years. Our productivity growth was twice the rate of the rest of the UK in 2017-18. The innovation and invention that once made us the workshop of the world is back.

Like other post-industrial regions in the UK, we must carve out a new strategy for the West Midlands in an increasingly global 21st century. With the uncertainty around Brexit, we need to think about how we build a globally-competitive economy.

That’s why the West Midlands agreed to be a trailblazer, creating the UK’s first Regional Industrial Strategy, leading the way for others to follow.

This strategy sets out the priorities we believe will enable local growth to continue, as well as ensuring that the success of our region is felt by all the communities within it. This success must be inclusive and accessible to all.

With this ground-breaking document now agreed within the region, we are awaiting the endorsement of Government so that, together, we can start turning strategy into action. With the uncertainty over Brexit, that endorsement would mean we can begin this important work soon – and share our message of confidence.

The West Midlands Combined Authority worked with our universities and the region’s three Local Enterprise Partnerships, from Greater Birmingham, the Black Country and Coventry and Warwickshire, to ensure the strategy not only provides a united vision, but that it also reflects the differing needs of our constituent members.

This spirit of inclusivity also included a wide-spread consultation, which asked regional networks, business groups and 350 different organisations for their input. They wanted a clearer definition of the West Midlands’ ‘unique selling points’, expanded opportunities for a broader cross-section of business sectors and more focus on the huge supply chains that link the conurbation.

Respondents also wanted our strategy to engage with all the different kinds of places where business flourishes in the region, from the big cities to the towns and more rural areas. By fully understanding the successes – and challenges – in our own backyard, we have created a strategy that will help sell the West Midlands to the rest of the world.

This meant identifying four major national and global strategic opportunities:

The UK centre for mobility: From driverless cars to light rail and aerospace, we have the supply chains and transport pedigree to steer huge investment to our region. We have a renowned automotive sector, ranging from world-famous brands like JLR and BMW to innovative smaller development firms. We also have the foundation industries that make the metals and materials that underpin vehicle manufacture at more than 20 sites. With our own transport system becoming more and more integrated, and the West Midlands pioneering the roll-out of the 5G network, mobility could bring billions of pounds.

Creative commerce: We have a wealth of nationally-important gaming, TV, film, VR and design firms. By connecting our universities and creative businesses we can design, develop and deploy new products and services. Evidence shows that Birmingham and Solihull alone have the potential to add nearly 4,000 new creative enterprises and 30,000 new related jobs, with the opportunity to scale this across the West Midlands as a whole.

Business services: As we move more towards a service-based economy, we expect to see large-scale growth across this sector. Business, financial and professional services already employ 400,000 people across the conurbation – with 125,000 more jobs forecast by 2030. Here in the West Midlands we have the full suite of services available, from huge international financial brands such as HSBC to an ambitious construction sector that is well placed to grow in strength with the building boom.

Data-driven healthcare: With our diverse and growing population, there are huge opportunities here for biomedical research, linking NHS patient records through 5G and enabling real-life testing of innovative new treatments. Our expertise and ability to work with patient data in an inclusive, collaborative way is a major UK and West Midlands strength. We have a growing cluster of both large and small firms and an associated supply chain, raising at least £35 million of investment in the last 12 months. Crucially, this innovation will be anchored in partnership with the NHS, translating directly into better health care for our citizens. Our diverse region has the research facilities and expertise. It has the population of Scotland and the genome of the world. It could be a global laboratory for data-driven translational medicine.

These four areas allow us to champion our specialist sectors in a way that will create growth and investment to benefit the entire regional economy.

Of course, all this industrial ambition requires a strong foundation in improved skills, transport, housing and land delivery. We are already making huge strides in all these areas but more remains to be done.

Our strategy lays out ideas to affect real change, from doubling the number of good-quality apprenticeships by 2030 to delivering £3.4 billion of investment in trams, road and rail over the next decade.

In housing, we will increase the rate of housing delivery with a £350 million housing plan, investing £250 million in land remediation and developing the skills required through the National Brownfield Institute in Wolverhampton. This is a great start – but more will be needed to serve our growing population.

The strategy will also push for post-EU growth funding to be targeted on the West Midlands and devolved to local decision makers. We must make the case for continuing to invest in us as a resilient and successful economy.

The former workshop of the world needs a world-class strategy to continue its remarkable economic renaissance. It needs to be distinctive to compete with likes of Berlin, Boston and Barcelona.

But in creating this new strategy, we have confirmed that this diverse, ambitious and inventive place still has an energetic, innovative outlook that makes it a powerhouse on the world stage, just as it did during the Industrial Revolution.

With this confident new vision, the West Midlands wants to lead the way in showing the Government’s Industrial Strategy can make a real difference.

Chris White: Time is getting extremely tight to pass all the required withdrawal legislation

With 45 days left, unless workarounds or extra time can be found, uncomfortable decisions may have to be made on which Brexit Bills to prioritise.

Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Managing Director of Newington Communications.

The clock is ticking. We’re running out of runway.  Whatever metaphor you wish to use, Parliament has an awful lot of legislating to do before 29th March if it wishes to complete the passage of the seven Brexit Bills, along with a large amount of secondary legislation.

Today, the Prime Minister will update the Commons, setting out the Government’s progress in negotiating with the EU following the passage of the two advisory amendments last month.  They instructed, though not mandated, the Government to seek to both remove the backstop (Brady) and avoid a No Deal scenario (Spelman/Dromey).

Since then, the negotiations have been less than productive, revealed in striking language in the Prime Minister’s letter to the Leader of the Opposition over the weekend.  In it, she stated that she was still seeking alternative arrangements to the backstop without specifying in detail what they were, and that negotiating a free trade deal as a third party outside of the Single Market was a “negotiating challenge”, which is somewhat of an understatement.

A month on from the meaningful vote on 15th January, whilst significant column inches are dedicated to the possibility of the Malthouse Compromise we are no closer to knowing if the EU is prepared to alter the existing deal.  Parliament is running out of time before 29th March, either to pass a Bill implementing an agreed deal, or to pass legislation ensuring the UK is ready for a No Deal Brexit.

The scale of the challenge

On 31st January, the Leader of the Commons quite rightly cancelled the February half-term recess, yet also scheduled a range of business in the Commons that, whilst important, didn’t progress No Deal legislation in any way.  This risk-averse programming is almost certainly down to the fact that, with negotiations ongoing with the EU, the Government doesn’t wish to give any opportunities in the House to amend legislation to include unhelpful and challenging amendments.  For example, there have been strong hints that amendments could be tabled to the Trade Bill in the Lords that would seek to keep the UK in a Customs Union.

If this is the case, and with reports suggesting that the next ‘meaningful vote’ is in around three weeks, in the week commencing 25th February, we may not see any more progress in the Commons on much needed No Deal legislation until a deal is reached that the House can agree on.

In terms of readiness, a number of No Deal preparation Bills have already received Royal Assent, including the Customs Act, the Nuclear Safeguards Act, the Road Haulage Act and the Sanctions Act.  However much more needs to be done. For a start, winning the meaningful vote is only the first step – the Government must then pass a European Union Withdrawal Agreement Implementation (EU WAIB) prior to 29th March to give legal effect to the Withdrawal Agreement.  However the Government must not put all its eggs in one basket, and in order to provide security in the event of No Deal should pass a further six Bills, and additional secondary legislation.

These Bills range from allowing the UK to enter into trade deals, creating a domestic agriculture and fisheries market, maintaining our healthcare agreements, giving powers to implement financial services regulations, to bringing EU citizens under UK law.

The current state of play is as follows:

As you can see from the above table, agriculture, fisheries, and immigration are well behind schedule and will need considerable work to pass before 29th March.  Equally, Trade has its own issues as outlined above.

The Government also has to pass around 600-700 statutory instruments, or secondary legislation, before 29th March to be ready, in addition to the above Bills.  The timetable for their consideration has increased in recent weeks and the Government might just be on track, but around 200 still have to be considered in the next few weeks. Certainly the SI committees are working overtime, and have significant reading ahead of them.  The Times’s Esther Webber reported one SI from BEIS was “636 pages long, weighs 2.54 kilos and covers 11 matters that would be expected to go in separate documents.”

Will the UK be ready in time?

There are 45 days left until 29th March, and Parliament will sit for 26 of them (not counting sitting Fridays), unless it chooses to add more sitting days to the calendar or change the business on Fridays from Private Members’ Bills to Government business.  If the deadline of 29th March remains in place, it is unlikely that the Government will be able to pass both the EU WAIB and the six remaining No Deal preparation Bills.

This will mean uncomfortable decisions about which Bills it has to prioritise, and whether workarounds can be found through alternative means.  The Trade Bill is probably the highest priority for the Government aside from the EU WAIB, but failing to set up domestic agriculture and fisheries markets prior to exit day, for example, will cause severe concerns and uncertainty in those sectors.  If Government, Parliament and the EU reach consensus about an amended deal, or agree to the existing deal, then it’s likely that there will need to be a short extension to Article 50 as passing the EU WAIB inside a month, whilst technically possible, would be extremely challenging.  However, the Government must continue to progress with the No Deal Bills over the next few weeks, or the UK faces running out of runway before 29th March.

“Minister, you must be in the story”

Mordaunt, Rudd and Hancock offer three examples in today’s papers of how British politics work now.

If you are not “in the stor”y, you’re not doing your job.  This is a fact of modern political life, and today’s papers offer three examples – variously displaying the futility, dangers, opportunities and necessities of so doing.

Example One comes from the Sunday Telegraph, which is now free, after a courtroom struggle, to report a medley of disgusting stories about Philip Green.  Penny Mordaunt must be in the story – she is Equalities Minister, after all – and take a view on non-disclosure agreements.

Frankly, she has little to say of any import. “The UK government will launch a consultation to hear from those affected and understand whether there should be more limitations on confidentiality clauses so that workers cannot be intimidated into silence and to find out what needs to be done to ensure that workers are clear about their rights.”  One can almost hear the groaning of Government lawyers as they square up to the task to seeking to define in law when workers do and don’t sign non-disclosure agreements of their own free will.

Example Two also comes from the Sunday Telegraph.  Up pops a piece from Amber Rudd about company directors who plunder their companies’ pensions funds.  The article is shy, indeed silent, about context, but this site notes that in 2017 Green came to a settlement with the Pensions Regulator under which he paid £363 million to aid the BHS pension scheme.

The Work and Pensions Secretary is at least proposing concrete measures.  “I am going to make ‘wilful or reckless behaviour’ relating to a pension scheme a criminal offence, with jail terms of up to seven years for the worst offenders,” she writes.  “We’ll also give the courts powers to levy unlimited – yes unlimited – fines.”  It isn’t clear how she has reached this decision, what caused it, what wider effects if any on pension fund such legislation might have, when it will introduced and whether it could pass this no-majority Commons.

Finally, we have example three from the Sun on Sunday.  Matt Hancock is at the eye of a kind of media Storm Erik.  The social media giants are huge, vastly-used and distrusted – all at once.  Not so long ago, the immediate cause of alarm was child pornography.  Then (and still), content from terrorists.  Now there is a spate of alarm over self-harm material and tragic teenage suicides.

The Health Secretary has threatened legislation, but must know the nightmares it would pose in this essentially hung Parliament, and the potential consequences for the Government if new laws went wrong.  It would be tricky to write laws that distinguish between content that promotes self-harm, seeks to explain the phenomenon, and tries to curb it.  No wonder, in his interview, he seeks a voluntary approach – “a handpicked cyber-squad to oversee the removal of self-harm pictures from Instagram”.

Of our three examples, Hancock’s is the most challenging, public-facing and sensitive, at least in terms of pure politics.  It is part of a wider story of a gradual shift in healthcare provision from physical to mental health, and the tech-savvy Health Secretary is striving to produce a policy response to a culture change that will work.

Rudd’s poses a lot of questions – there is a trade-off between a populist crackdown on unscrupulous directors and invoking the law of unexpected consequences – while Mordaunt’s is almost content-free.

But all three are faced with Ministers’ Dilemma.  Think calmly, move carefully, pause before acting – and you risk being labelled “out of touch”.  Rush in, take snap decisions, get in the story, and all you may achieve is bad decisions that will catch up with someone else later (if you’re lucky) or you sooner (if you’re not).

A run of cocked-up initiatives, and even plain bad luck, and the two Adjectives Of Death will be attached to you: “embattled” and, worse, “beleaguered”.  The media will haul you, Grayling-like, to the stocks.  This morning, our three ministers will be crossing their fingers.

Dan Watkins: Six reasons why the Conservatives deserved to win that no confidence vote yesterday

It’s not hard to find reasons to be frustrated with the Government, but we are still delivering for the British people.

Dan Watkins was a three-time Conservative Parliamentary Candidate in Tooting and now campaigns with Kent Conservatives.

Everything is dominated by Brexit at present, but behind the scenes the Government is still continuing to deliver the Conservative’s domestic policies, much to the benefit of the British people. So here are six reasons why the country should be positive that the Government survived the vote of no confidence.

Tackling the Deficit

We should never forget that when we came to power in 2010, the Government couldn’t afford to pay for its public services and was building up a colossal amount of debt which future generations would have to pay. Years of spending restraint, combined with healthy growth of the economy, mean that Britain’s deficit is less that a fifth of what it was and debt as a share of the economy is coming down every year.
While we remain in power, the public finances stay in balance, reducing debt and allowing us to spend less on interest and more on public services.

Improving School Standards

Through the past eight years we have been reforming teaching, boosting Academies and opening Free Schools. We know these reforms are working because school standards are getting better and better, as measured by Ofsted, as well as international league tables, which we are steadily climbing. This year will see more Free Schools open and more Academies created, ensuring more children go to outstanding schools and receive a world-class education.

Boosting NHS Funding

The NHS is a huge organisation with a huge budget. As the population gets older, the demands upon it increase and the only way we can continue to fund its expansion is by growing the economy and investing those extra tax receipts into it. We have just detailed our Long Term NHS Plan, but it requires an extra £20 billion pa and this is only possible to find if we keep growing the economy. Another Labour-led recession would stop this extra funding dead in its tracks.

Creating an Enterprise Economy

From the moment we took office in 2010, the Conservatives have been making Britain the most business-friendly economy in the world. We have made it easier to start a company and to employ staff, cut business taxes and invested in research and development to support our high growth sectors such as creative, life sciences, automotive and more. Britain has been assessed by Forbes as the best country in the world to start a business. Every year we remain in Government is another year when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour can’t undo our good work.

Protecting the Environment

Less heralded than other areas perhaps, but the results of our policies in energy and the environment have yielded excellent results. Renewal energy has expanded dramatically, carbon emissions have been slashed, plastic pollution is being tackled with radical action, and animals at home and abroad have won new protections. Michael Gove and DEFRA have more initiatives underway this year which will ensure that we continue to lead the international community on animal welfare and cleaning the environment.

Helping People into Work

Work is the bedrock of living a fulfilling life and this Government has done more than any other to give more people the opportunity to work. While welfare reforms have ensured that work always pays, the National Living Wage ensures that work pays even more.
Record numbers of people have been lifted out of the lowest paid work and the evidence shows that policies like Universal Credit help many more long-term unemployed into jobs. We need to have fully rolled out and bedded-in these initiatives before Labour get to power, so that it is much harder for them to reverse them.

At the present time, it’s not hard to find reasons to be frustrated with the Government, and indeed Parliament more generally, but when we’re out on the doorsteps campaigning, let’s be clear that the Conservatives are still delivering for the British people.

Robert Halfon: Now is the time for Common Market 2.0, and an EFTA-type plan for Brexit

Plus: We must be the Party for social housing as well as home ownership. And: why don’t we trumpet our history of social reform?

Common Market 2.0 deliver can Brexit before 29 March

Whilst I can understand that there are different views about the future of Europe, and that some prefer No Deal, I am mystified why some regard Common Market 2.0 as a retreat from Brexit. This is far from the case.

 For years, many Eurosceptics would have been very happy to see Britain in an EFTA-style relationship with Europe rather than be a member of the EU. Such an arrangement, advocated by Brexiteers in the past, would gets Britain out of the CAP and CFP.

Common Market 2.0 also means an end to Britain being subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court, and brings us out of political union. All these things were what many Leavers felt was most objectionable about membership of the EU.

The plan also safeguards jobs and ensures stability for business and our economy through membership of the Single Market. But members have far more powers to derogate from it (Norway obtained derogations from 55 proposed Single Market laws and Iceland from 349 legal acts).

It would also mean that we continue to be a part of an alliance of democracies – it would strengthen EFTA – which is important for geo-politics and would help to build up a useful counterweight to the EU.

On freedom of movement, under Common Market 2.0, there are significant safeguarding measures that place us in a far stronger position of power to stop freedom of movement in the event of “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectoral or regional nature liable to persist”.

Financial contributions to Common Market 2.0 would also be significantly lower than under our payments to EU budgets – well south of £5 billion per annum. We would simply pay for what we participate in – membership, joint programmes, schemes and agencies and, on a “goodwill” basis, the EEA Voluntary Grants scheme.

All this means that we could take back control of our finances and can afford to invest in what matters most domestically – the NHS, policing, schools and community. 

Significantly, unlike the other proposals, Common Market 2.0 would enable us to deliver on Brexit by the end of March. We would scrap the Political Declaration, instead outlining Common Market 2.0 as the basis for the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

The transition period would give us the time we need to finalise and implement the agreement with the EU and EFTA states. This would means that the UK would leave the EU on the 29th March – with no extension of Article 50 necessary.

Common Market 2.0 is an agreement that delivers on the vote of the people, takes back control of our key institutions, ensures a good, free trading agreement with the rest of Europe. All this can be achieved without the need for the Northern Ireland backstop to be activated or weakening the Union.

Bleak House

We have a housing crisis in this country. Whilst I am passionately in favour of the Right to Buy and Help to Buy schemes, there is so much more we must do to help families on low incomes.

It’s worth remembering that one in four families have less than £95 in savings, and that the idea of affording a deposit is just for the birds. 682,000 households live in overcrowded accommodation and 1.2 million households are currently on the waiting list for social housing.

Millions more are struggling with extortionately priced private-rented accommodation, with one in five private renters cutting back on food to pay the rent. Many of these families simply cannot afford rent on their wages, costing the taxpayer £23 billion to cover the 27 per cent of private renters receiving housing benefits.

If we want to both ensure a good quality of life for millions of our fellow countrymen and women ,and save the taxpayer billions on the housing benefit bill, we need as much radical action on social and affordable housing as we do for those who want to buy their first home.

This is why the reforms set out by Jim O’Neill in Shelter’s new social housing commission is something that Secretaries of State, such as James Brokenshire, should be listening to. They propose 3.1 million more social homes, costing £10.7 billion a year, but which in reality, would be reduced to £3.8 billion with savings in benefits, and returns to the Government arising from the knock-on economic benefits across the economy.

The housing situation in our country is bleak. We must be the Party of home ownership but we must also be the Party for affordable and social housing. Whether these proposals are adopted or not, the Government has got to come up with a solution that solves our social housing crisis in our country.

The Party of social good

There is an umbilical cord between the British people and the NHS. It was extraordinary and wonderful to see two days of wall-to-wall coverage showing Government financial support for our NHS and its Long-Term Plan. It is an important tribute to Matt Hancock and Jeremy Hunt.

Even better, Hancock reminded the House in his statement that it was a Conservative, the Sir Henry Willink, who first put forward proposals for a NHS and, whilst built by a Labour Government, it is clearly the Conservatives who pioneered the idea of health care free at the point of access.

Matt’s mention of a Conservative creating major social justice reform is something that all Conservatives should be doing all the time. Why on earth do Conservatives not do more in Parliament, speeches, articles and conversations, to remind the public that, so often, in the history of our country, it has been  Conservatives at the forefront of groundbreaking social reform in our country? Whether that was  Wilberforce and slavery, Disraeli and the condition of working people, Macmillan and affordable housing, Thatcher and the Right to Buy, Osborne and the National Living Wage.

Labour mention their historic record on social justice time and time again. It’s time we did so.