Michelle Donelan: How to crack down on low-quality higher education

21 Jan

Michelle Donelan MP is Minister of State for Higher and Further Education.

When I was first appointed Universities Minister in 2019 I saw it as a tremendous opportunity. Not only because we have some of the best universities in the world, which we rightly celebrate, but because it would allow me to properly tackle the pockets of low-quality teaching that are less good.

We have all read the headlines about “Mickey Mouse” courses, sky-high drop out rates and courses that offer only a couple of hours of contact time a week. And when students are paying £9,250 a year, that is simply not acceptable.

So, this week, with the Office for Students (OfS), I have taken serious steps to stamp out these low-quality courses. For the first time, we will be setting tough minimum requirements for drop-out rates and progression to graduate jobs – enforced by fines and, ultimately, withdrawal of student finance. We will also be clearly labelling universities that are not up to scratch as “Requires Improvement” – while ensuring that our institutions with the best teaching are properly celebrated.

If we want people to be able to seize the advantage of the opportunities this country has to offer then we must give them the skills they need to succeed. Report after report has been written about the UK’s historic underinvestment in technical and vocational skills, the declining graduate premium and the need to rebalance the emphasis we place on higher and further education. Since being appointed to my new role last year, as Minister for both Higher and Further Education, addressing these challenges has been at the heart of my mission since I was appointed.

Like many people who were the first in their family to go to university, for me, university was about more than learning. Breaking through the barriers of background and geography, it was an experience that gave me the confidence to go out into the world knowing I had a world-class, high-quality education under my belt.

This is not just my experience; it is the experience of millions of others, including hundreds of thousands this year. After all, Britain is home to four of the top 10 universities in the world.

But as I have said many times, we need to stop the obsession about whether more or fewer people are going to university, and instead focus on getting people on to high quality, worthwhile programmes that will genuinely give them the skills they need to succeed in life – whether that is at a university, a college or on an apprenticeship. Universities my be great, thumping engines of social mobility – but they are far from the only route.

This Government is offering a Lifetime Skills Guarantee to help people train and retrain – at any stage in their lives. Last year, we published our Skills for Jobs White Paper, putting employers at the heart of our education system. Whether it is a record investment in our Further Education Colleges, establishing 21 Institutes of Technology to deliver advanced technical STEM courses, doubling the spending on apprenticeships since 2010 or setting up bootcamps to train another 10,000 new HGV drivers, we are delivering on that promise.

Looking forward, our Lifelong Loan Entitlement will, from 2025, make it as easy to get a student loan to do a year of electrical engineering at an FE college as it is to get a loan to do a three year degree in politics, opening up retraining opportunities to millions.

I am also determined to tackle the weak spots in our universities. As we all know, there are pockets of poor quality – the so-called “Mickey Mouse” degrees – that if they continue to proliferate, risk undermining the huge progress in social mobility that we have already made. Right now, at 25 universities and other providers, less than half of students who begin a degree can expect to graduate and find professional employment or further study within 15 months.

This is not about any particular subject. Whether it is music or mathematics, film studies or philosophy, engineering or economics, courses can be taught well or badly. For example, many students and parents do not know that while many universities offer computing courses with a drop-out rate of less than 15 per cent, there are still eight universities offering computing courses with drop-out rates above 40 per cent. In fact, it is not just the general public who are unaware of this, even students enrolled on these courses often have no idea that they have signed up to a poor quality programme.

What message does that send to those students who, like me all those years ago, do not have a long line of family members who went to university to advise them? I know for certain that I would not want my children on that kind of course, and I have no doubt that most people would feel the same as me.

Last November, I rebooted our Access and Participation regime, to refocus it on real social mobility. Access shouldn’t be about just getting someone in the door, but on to a course that they complete and that is rigorous enough to give them the skills they need in succeed in life. Under their new access and participation plans, universities will be required to reduce drop-out rates, revolutionise their work with local schools and set new targets to increase the proportion of students on degree apprenticeships and higher technical provision.

This week, working with the universities regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), I have gone further. When consumers buy a product in a shop, they expect two things when it comes to quality: first, that the product has satisfied minimum standards and second, that the product has proper labelling to inform them of the quality of what goes into it. The quality assurance plan published this week follows exactly the same principles.

The OfS will now be setting stringent minimum requirements for completion rates and graduate outcomes for every course. For full-time students studying a first degree, these will be that at least 75 per cent of students complete their studies, and that 60 per cent go on to a highly skilled job or further study. No longer will it be possible for a provider to rip off students with courses that do not improve their lives after graduation. Students will be able to select their course knowing that, like the food in their fridge or the car on their driveway, their course has reached a minimum acceptable standard for quality and outcome.

Alongside this, we are re-vamping a clear labelling system called the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). This system will signal high quality to students and parents through a simple Gold, Silver or Bronze rating – celebrating all of the successes of our finest institutions.

For the first time ever, those universities with low-quality courses will receive a “Requires Improvement” rating, which clearly marks out those courses are being inadequate and allows students to make properly informed decisions about whether or not to take them. This brings our higher education sector in line with established best practice for schools, hospitals and elsewhere in the public sector.

As Conservatives, we believe that everybody regardless of background, deserves a genuine chance to improve their lives. In our universities, in our colleges and in our great apprenticeship providers we have much to be proud of. By taking the robust measures we have to improve quality and transparency, we can be confident that we will be ensuring that every student gets the higher education they deserve.

Grant Shapps: Labour’s solution to HGV driver shortages is simplistic and wrong. Here’s what the Government is doing.

25 Oct

Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.

Good news landed on my desk recently: the daily “SitRep” detailing petrol levels at filling stations across the country showed that they had finally returned to above normal after weeks of shortages caused by an injudicious and partial briefing which predictably led to scare stories and real shortages.

Of course, there was barely a murmur about the improving situation in the media. Good news rarely sells, and anyway, even as the fuel crisis began to abate, there was already another shortage story in the works, inspired by a single large container ship being diverted from Felixstowe, our biggest container port, to the Continent.

That this happens all the time – companies continually adjust port calls in the fluid world of international shipping – and that a handful of ships were waiting offshore to unload at Felixstowe and London Gateway, when the queue at Los Angeles was 60 or more, mattered not a jot. In the modern era of instant news, even the merest hint of shortage is enough to spark screaming headlines.

“Can you guarantee Christmas minister?” came the accusatory enquiry during a morning television and radio news round. Explaining that one is not Santa, but I’ll do my best was about the only reply I could muster. Even as I said it, a headline including the words “Grinch Shapps” passed through my mind – it goes with the territory.

But these scares – real enough when you are trying to get to work in the morning and having to queue at a forecourt – illustrate a genuine problem. The global supply chains are under considerable strain. As the world economy awakes from Covid-19, shipping rates and energy prices have soared.

We have experienced a prolonged period of economic dislocation due to the pandemic, with ships and containers in the wrong place and production racing to catch-up with resurgent demand, and it will take time for the world economy to right itself. In the meantime, the fragility of the trans-oceanic “just in time” supply chain model has been put under the spotlight.

Now add to the mix that the UK is the fastest growing of the G7 economies with vacancies as well as the number of people in work at record highs, and nowhere is the labour shortage more acute than in logistics.

So just how big is the lorry shortage?

One of the haulier associations reckons the shortage of HGV drivers in Britain is 100,000. However, detailed research finds the true figure is around 39,000. Nonetheless, this long-term deficit means we lack resilience in a sector responsible for some 90 per cent of UK domestic freight movements. It’s a structural problem that we must fix – and we are.

But first, here is what we won’t do. Labour’s solution is simplistic. This, says Keir Starmer, is all the fault of Brexit and we must therefore throw open the gates, issuing hundreds-of-thousands of long-term work visas to European HGV drivers in the hope of returning to the status quo ante. There are two problems with this solution.

First, there is nothing Anglocentric about this shortage – Germany and other EU countries are experiencing a similar driver famine. In fact, the shortfall in Poland is reckoned to be over 123,000 drivers.

Second, returning to a reliance on cheaper Eastern European drivers will only serve to “bake-in” poor wages and conditions. Precisely the low-wage recipe that led to our problems in the first place.

As Conservatives, we believe that effort and skill should be rewarded. And we believe this principle is best served through the mechanism of the market. Reliance on Eastern European HGV drivers has resulted in structural under-cutting of British drivers who, for too long, have been denied the rewards that their vital role deserves.

These men – they are 99 per cent men – have undergone rigorous training and must spend long hours at the wheel as they skilfully navigate their trucks weighing up to 44 tons to meet tight deadlines. Low wages have been compounded by spartan truck stops devoid of showers and other comforts. No wonder that the average age of HGV drivers is 55 and that many have retired in recent years.

So, what are we doing?

I have introduced 25 separate measures to encourage more Brits to drive HGVs; too many to describe here. But the gist is that we want to make driving an HGV as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.

For those who blame Brexit by conveniently ignoring the lorry driver shortages in Europe, it’s worth noting that some of the 25 solutions would not even have been possible had we still be in the EU. For example, I’ve been able to streamline the testing regime free from interference from Brussels. As a result, our HGV licences are every bit as safe but faster to obtain. This, together with 24 other measures, is having a real-world impact.

On Friday, I visited a major milk distribution depot in my Welwyn Hatfield constituency. My hosts are training new drivers and then offering up to £78,000 a year; albeit you would have to be prepared to tolerate fairly unsociable shifts. This may be a pleasing outlier, but wages are rising generally across the sector by some 15 to 20 per cent. And more money means more applications. We are now seeing some 1,000 new HGV provisional licence applications per day – three times the pre-pandemic level.

The day may come when automation helps to provide a solution to the HGV driver problem – experiments are taking place involving autonomous vehicles and “platooning” (electronic linking of lorries) – but that lies in the future.

For now, we rely deeply on our brilliant HGV drivers. They are the lifeblood of the nation. At the height of the pandemic they transported the medicines and protective equipment that kept us safe. And now they are a catalyst for economic recovery.

It is a skilled job, a profession that young people – male and female – should be encouraged to take up. We must respect them and reward them to a degree befitting their importance to this country. Unlike Labour, which would choose to undercut them again with 100,000 new EU driving visas, this government is delighted to see truck drivers being paid a proper wage in return for their hard work.

Emily Carver: Our nation’s biggest shortage may not be HGV drivers or turkeys, but optimism

13 Oct

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

We Brits love to catastrophise. If we’re not fretting over Christmas turkeys, we’re brawling at the petrol pumps. Meanwhile, Insulate Britain campaigners are gluing themselves to the motorway in fear of a climate Armageddon. Situation normal. We clearly like a good disaster – or, at least, the prospect of one.

Over the course of the pandemic, there’s been an insatiable appetite for bad news (not helped by large parts of the media who are incentivised to stoke panic). Indeed, our national state broadcaster continues to play on fears that children still aren’t safe in schools, despite vanishing evidence to the contrary – the risk of death from the virus is estimated to be one in 481,000 children.

Then there are those who, even now, can’t accept that we have left the European Union (and that the chances of us re-joining are even lower than Nicola Sturgeon giving up her dream of breaking up our own Union). In their view, our woes – from pandemic-induced HGV driver shortages to the energy crunch – are all down to Brexit. 

It seems that every problem we face is a “crisis”, but does the reality really warrant this level of angst? 

Doubtless the economy faces a multitude of challenges. Labour shortages, a rise in inflation, and a cost-of-living squeeze have all led to claims that we are heading for a “winter of discontent”.

Couple this with long-term, long-standing concerns, such as a healthcare system that is creaking at the seams, a social care system that desperately needs reform, and a record tax burden only seems to be heading in one directionit would be disingenuous to suggest we’ll sail through the next six months.

So, a dose of optimism: many of the ghastly predictions that have been splashed across our front pages, thankfully, have so far been proven incorrect. 

We were told by the Office for Budget Responsibility that the jobless rate could reach levels not seen since the 1980s. Even a cautious reading of yesterday’s strong employment data – which puts last month’s jobless rate at 4.5 per cent – show that is highly unlikely to come to pass.

It’s still early days, and many workers have just entered post-furlough limbo, but it looks as if we may have managed to see off the threat of mass unemployment.

Not all of those who lost jobs during the pandemic will become HGV drivers or baristas. But our flexible labour market should allow swift matching for many. As for the ongoing supply chain issues, we are far from Soviet-era bread shortages with the corresponding rationing.

This is not to deny a problem exists, but nor will Christmas dinner without pigs-in-blankets grind our economy to a halt. And it is a global issue, a predictable consequence of lockdowns and we’ve had an economic rebound far swifter than many foresaw.

Misery may sell newspapers, but after 18 months of stop-start-stop lockdown restrictions, perhaps the message should be that human ingenuity and the power of private enterprise have helped prevent economic collapse – indeed the vaccination can be seen to be, in many ways, a victory for capitalism.

While catastrophising may give some of us sleepless nights, it can do something far worse to politicians. Certainly, concern for the future of our planet is natural and worthy. We should consider ways in which behaviours can be adjusted to mitigate certain risks. But climate alarmism has left policymakers itching to do something and, partly as a result, our energy market has become an unholy mess.

We are now heading into COP26 against a backdrop of spiralling energy prices and accusations that government isn’t being honest with the public over the cost of Net Zero. The Chancellor himself admitted at Conservative Party Conference “You can’t put a figure on it”.

But insisting that our country is going to go to hell in a handcart leads to bad policy and forgets one crucial thing: the ingenuity of businesses and individuals to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

If we’ve learned anything from the past year and half, it’s that we have the capacity to overcome adversity – from scientists who speedily devised a vaccine that will likely save millions of lives, to supermarkets that corrected their disrupted supply chains in record time, to small business owners who adjusted their business models to survive lockdown.

While I’m not quite advocating the bombastic, it’ll-be-alright-on-the-night attitude of our Prime Minister, let’s stop panicking. The world isn’t going to end – even if we do end up having to swap our turkey for chicken come December.

Interview with Kwasi Kwarteng: “My job is to make us not lose sight of the fact that we are Conservatives”

1 Oct

Eloquent, ebullient and frequently bursting into laughter, Kwasi Kwarteng did not look as he gave this interview yesterday morning like a minister in the middle of a crisis.

He is confident the petrol supply situation is “getting better”. Britain, he says, is making the transition from a low-wage economy with high immigration to a high-wage economy, which is what people wanted when they voted for Brexit, and although various business associations are resisting this change, it will happen quite rapidly.

As Business Secretary, Kwarteng is opposed to tax rises: “I don’t believe we can tax our way to wealth.” He calls himself “a pragmatic Thatcherite”, outlines how that philosophy can meet present-day challenges, and expresses no sympathy for gas suppliers who have got into difficulties: “Why on earth did they enter the market?”

Kwarteng communicated the genial toughness which is evidently intended to characterise the Johnson Government’s approach to business, with those who merely want to preserve the status quo granted no sympathy.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS, pronounced “Bays”) is housed in a dreary modern building at the end of Victoria Street, but from Kwarteng’s office on the eighth floor enjoys a spectacular view of Westminster Abbey.

He said that unlike Angela Rayner, he would never use the word “scum” to describe political opponents, and neither would Boris Johnson. In Kwarteng’s view, it is sometimes best just to stand back and let the Labour Party argue with itself about subjects which are of no interest to most people:

“I think the best approach is for us just to simply allow the Left to have these incredible navel-gazing debates on identity politics, because actually Critical Race Theory is not something that comes up on the doorstep, it’s not something that’s going to put food on anyone’s table.”

Kwarteng, profiled on ConHome after his appointment in January, said his department is not there to act as “a cash dispenser”, but to enable private investment. He is heartened to have confounded the head of Goldman Sachs, who predicted that after Brexit no one would invest in Britain.

The Business Secretary began by discussing what should happen in the coming days in Manchester:

ConHome: “What’s the conference all about?”

Kwarteng: “The conference is about focussing us to win the next election. It’s only two and a half years, tops, until May ’24, and we’ve got to focus obviously on trying to consolidate our coalition, and that’s all about economic opportunity, that’s all about the Prime Minister’s phrase talent is everywhere but opportunity is still focussed in a few areas.

“And that’s the intuition behind the levelling up, that phrase, if you like.

“My job is to make us not lose sight of the fact that we are Conservatives. We believe in markets, we believe in individual responsibility, we believe in the ingenuity of the individual to come up with ideas that can transform society.

“It’s very difficult sometimes to make that voice heard, when we’ve had all the interventions that we’ve seen with respect to the Covid response.

“And just to illustrate that, I was elected in 2010 and the deficit then was £160 billion, something like that, and it seemed like a huge amount of money, we were talking about Greece, we were talking about bankruptcy.

“We’ve just spent in one year, ’20-’21, £350 billion on Covid support, well over twice what the deficit was. And no one batted an eyelid.

“And there’s that great phrase in one of my favourite books, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes, and he says that before the war we spent millions, after the war we spent hundreds of millions, and we discovered we were all so much richer, so [laughing] it was a completely different order of spending and nothing bad happened.

“And our job I think is to try to get back to some kind of – and I know the Chancellor’s very much on this – to try to get back to some sort of fiscal discipline.

“But it’s hard. There are lots of competing pressures. You saw David Davis say with the foreign aid cuts, their argument was we’ve spent hundreds of billions, what’s a few more million?

“The way I see BEIS, and I’ve talked about this a lot, we can’t see BEIS as a cash dispenser. Officials think of BEIS sometimes as if it’s DWP, or as if it’s the Health Service.

“But it’s an enabler. We should think about the money we spend as enabling private capital investment. If you speak to Michael Heseltine, he’s quite good on this stuff, he talks about his career and he says he was never in a big spending department, he always saw himself in departments which were driving private economic growth and investment.

“So he was Defence Secretary, he was sort of equivalent to Michael Gove, I mean he wouldn’t want me to say…”

ConHome: “Is it too late for you to bring Michael Heseltine back in some form, by the way?”

Kwarteng: “Look, I mean, we have differences over Brexit, I’m not going to bring him back in tomorrow. But he was a great minister, and I enjoy talking to him.”

ConHome: “Brexit was a vote for many things. It was in part a vote for lower migration of a sort, higher wages, a different economic model.

“Isn’t what’s going on with this difficulty with the petrol fundamentally about the sort of economy we want. The road haulage people, like some of the fruit pickers, like some meat processors, basically want to go back to the old ways.

“They want Government to issue hundreds of thousands of visas, and they’re trying to use public pressure to get you to change course.”

Kwarteng: “That’s absolutely right, and I’ve said this a number of times, certainly privately. The reason why constituencies like mine [Spelthorne] voted decisively for Brexit, 60 per cent to 40 per cent, was precisely this issue.

“I remember three weeks before the referendum in 2016, I came out of Staines station and someone came up to me and said ‘I’m voting for Brexit.’

“And I said, ‘Oh, why are you doing that?’

“And he said, ‘Well I haven’t had a wage increase in 15 years,’ and he was someone who worked in the building trade, lots of people do work, certainly in my constituency, in that kind of self-employed, small business, logistics, construction world.

“And that was in his mind what this was all about. And so, having rejected the low-wage, high-immigration model, we were always going to try to transition to something else.

“What we’re seeing now is part of that transition. You’re quite right to say people are resisting that, particularly employers that were benefiting from an influx of labour that could keep wages low.”

ConHome: “Aren’t you therefore in a very difficult political position, because they have a kind of weapon, which is the queue, the shortage.

“All you can do, other than take various emergency measures, is tough it out.”

Kwarteng: “I think this is a transition period. As economists would describe, between Equilibrium A and Equilibrium B there’s always going to be a transition period.

“I think it could be quite short. I think what we’re seeing already is quite a lot of investment in the UK. I’ve got a list on my board of lots of things we’ve announced, of investments.

“The head of Goldman Sachs said to me three years ago, ‘No one’s going to invest in the UK because of Brexit.’

“And then about three months ago I said to him, ‘Look at all the investment.’

“He said, ‘Ah, that’s because your assets are cheap [laughter].’ They can hop on the left foot and then hop on the right.

“And we’re seeing investment, we’re seeing success. You speak to investors around the world, they’re all very interested in Britain.

“Not just because of the success they saw with things like the vaccine rollout, great science base, great intellectual capital, but also they see us as a less highly regulated, if you can believe it, jurisdiction than many others around the world.”

ConHome: “How long will this transition take? Because a counter-argument would be it would take a few years to scale up…”

Kwarteng: “No, no, the whole issue of immigration into the UK was something that happened, this particular issue of immigration from the EU, was something that started in 2004, and completely transformed the way we did our economy.

“In fact, the Romanian extension was in 2013, I remember Mark Reckless and Keith Vaz, they were on the Home Affairs Select Committee, they went down to Luton and welcomed these people.

“And that was only eight years ago, and then three years after that we voted for Brexit. I think in terms of the global economy, I think you can see very rapid shifts.

“I think in a year we could be in a totally different place to where we are today.

“I’ve just been speaking to people in the steel industry and they’re saying there are high steel prices, they think they are going to sell lots of product, Liberty are going to do a financing deal that I’ve read about in the newspaper.

“Three months ago, these people were saying this is a disastrous situation.

“So in terms of the economy, I think things can turn round very very quickly, and in five years’ time I don’t think we’ll be talking about this. We’ll be talking about other things.”

ConHome: “Will petrol stations be back to normal by the…”

Kwarteng: “Yes, they are. I’ve got some data here.” [Cameron Brown, Kwarteng’s special adviser, quickly removed two sheets of paper bearing what look like coloured graphs.]

ConHome: “Is that the hand-out? Is that for us?”

Kwarteng: “I think things are stabilising, is the word we use. And I think it’s getting better. There’s been an intense period of anxiety and a lot of pressure.

“That was an extraordinary thing about the power of the media. If I look back on Monday 20th September, my two issues there were carbon dioxide, and the shortage of it, and the gap with the energy suppliers.

“Those were the two issues. This petrol forecourt thing literally flared up I think on the Thursday, there was a leaked conversation, the thing was splashed in the paper on the Thursday.

“There was a full-blown crisis by the weekend, which is now stabilising, and I am hopeful that it will recede, but let’s see.”

ConHome: “Are there any circumstances in which you could conceivably imagine referring to your political opponents as ‘scum’?”

Kwarteng: “No, never. I don’t know whether she was as they say under the influence, or tired and emotional. I don’t know what that was all about.

“Famously it was Aneurin Bevan who said ‘they are lower than vermin’, but he was sober and that was a deliberate piece of insult.

“I don’t think it’s helpful, talking about scum. I think she’s trying to speak to that visceral tribal anti-Tory thing, to shore up the base, but in terms of the wider electorate, I think that doesn’t really work in Britain, that kind of name-calling.

“I don’t think it’s very prime ministerial. The funny thing is, she tried to say the Prime Minister says these things.

“Boris never says things in anger. All of those phrases, they’re either dressed up in the fancy-dress costume of metaphor, or there’s an ironic thing.

“I can’t remember him at any time in 30 years saying ‘So and so is scum’. There’s no venom in the way he uses words. So I think equating that with the Prime Minister is completely inaccurate. He never abuses people in the way that Angela Rayner did.”

ConHome: “No, he doesn’t. Nor does he say, as you quote Margaret Thatcher saying on page four of your book, Thatcher’s Trial: ‘Moral qualities were the secret of our economic success.’ That’s another thing you can’t imagine Boris Johnson saying.”

Kwarteng: “The whole first part of that book is rooting her philosophy in a kind of Manichean Methodism. That’s intellectual history.”

ConHome: “So what are you? Are you a Thatcherite or a pragmatist?”

Kwarteng: “I’m a pragmatic Thatcherite.”

ConHome: “She was a pragmatic Thatcherite, actually.”

Kwarteng: “She sort of was. The thing that fascinated me about doing research about her is she did have this Manichean, you’re either with us or against us, good/bad, black/white, very binary way of thinking.

“But within that, you’re right, she was pragmatic, and she picked her battles when she could. I’m struck by the way in her first term, everyone says they only got going in the second term, in the first term they did some pretty radical things, like get rid of price controls, get rid of exchange controls – I mean, that was a big deal – and some of the privatisations.

“I think to be a Thatcherite in 1985, and to be a Thatcherite in 2021, are always going to be slightly different things. The context – and this is what I love about history – there’s always a context to these things.

“In 1985, you’re trying, essentially, to denationalise, because you’ve had 40 years of quite sclerotic, unimpressive growth, and a huge expansion of the public sector, that can’t respond to innovation.

“In 2021 we’ve got a triple whammy of Brexit, where we have to think about how we’re going to reorder our legal subsidy control, that sort of stuff; you’ve got Covid, which was an unprecedented situation in which the whole world reacted to a global pandemic in a way it never has done; and then you’ve got the whole Net Zero agenda, which whether I like or not, whether you like it or not, is part of the law of the land, we have a legal obligation to try to decarbonise our economy by 2050.

“So these three things frankly didn’t exist in 1985, and we’ve got to navigate them, and we’ve got to use our ideas, our brains, our philosophy if you like to deal with that situation.”

ConHome: “One of the issues that keeps coming back is tax. In the run-up to the Health and Care package you said ‘I don’t see how we could increase National Insurance’, though to be fair you then made some qualifying remarks after that, to suggest it might be possible.

“The point is, very plainly you really didn’t like it very much.”

“Do you think we’re near the point, with a pretty high tax burden as a percentage of GDP, that we’re basically running out of room to raise taxes?”

Kwarteng: “I will frame my answer to your question, or your thoughts, very broadly.

“I’ve never understood how we incentivise economic activity by increasing tax. I always come back to that. We can talk about raising taxes in the short term to deal with a short-term crisis.

“But broadly, higher tax is basically a tax on economic activity.”

ConHome: “What’s the first thought that comes into your mind when you hear the Chancellor say, ‘We’re going to put up corporation tax?”

Kwarteng: “He is I think doing a fantastic job. It was only just a little bit more than a year ago that people were saying there’s going to be massive unemployment, there’s going to be a huge kind of catastrophe.

“And I think he’s navigated that really nimbly. And that’s all I would say on that.

“But broadly, do I believe in higher taxes? No. I don’t believe we can tax our way to wealth.”

ConHome: “And you don’t think we’re near a point where having put up a number of taxes…”

Kwarteng: “You’re doing a really good job of getting me to stray outside my portfolio [laughter]. But I’m not going to go there. I am a low-tax, small-state, what’s the Gladstonian phrase, let…”

ConHome: “…money fructify in the pockets of the people.”

Kwarteng: “That was very clumsy.”

ConHome: “It’s memorable.”

Kwarteng: “Fructify in the pockets of the people. I’m a great believer in all of that. But you know, he didn’t have to deal with Covid. And actually he probably wouldn’t have bothered. I mean he would just have let the thing rip.”

ConHome: “The present Prime Minister is much more Disraelian, actually.”

Kwarteng: “He’s more like Disraeli arguably on public spending as well.”

ConHome: “Disraeli would have said Gladstone was worse than Covid.”

Kwarteng: “Absolutely.”

ConHome: “The wind sometimes doesn’t blow, though it does today, as we can see from the flag on the top of Westminster Abbey. And sometimes the sun don’t shine. Is there a risk that this drive to Net Zero will compromise security of supply?”

Kwarteng: “I think that’s a perfectly legitimate question, and when I answer these questions I pivot back to the Prime Minister’s ten-point plan, The New Decalogue as he calls it.”

ConHome: “That was a satire.”

Kwarteng: “He said it ironically and I’m saying it ironically. And in that, there’s a clear commitment to nuclear power.

“Now I think our nuclear power story has been a shame, because we had early advantage, we were very good on nuclear power, but we simply haven’t invested in it enough in my view over the last 40 years.

“And I think that’s a key missing piece of the puzzle, in terms of energy security.”

ConHome: “But what about security of supply, is that going to be all right?”

Kwarteng: “I saw Iain Martin today in the paper. This is not a supply issue, OK, it’s a distribution issue.”

ConHome: “At the moment, yes.”

Kwarteng: “It has never been a supply issue.”

ConHome: “And will not become a supply issue?”

Kwarteng: “I do not believe it will become a supply issue. It’s like an old-fashioned bank run. But actually, in terms of security of supply, that has never been an issue.

“The point is getting the supply distributed properly, and of course with the HGV driver issue that’s been more challenging.

“In terms of the energy issue, the gas suppliers essentially came into the market with a price cap and then they failed to see that if wholesale prices were significantly above the price cap they’d be out of pocket, and some of them didn’t even hedge for that.”

ConHome: “The price cap stops it being a proper market, doesn’t it?”

Kwarteng: “Yes, but why did they enter it?”

ConHome: “Why did the Government impose the price cap?”

Kwarteng: “That’s a very good question, but once it’s there, why on earth did they enter the market? They still thought they could make money.

“And then when the wholesale price was much higher than the price cap they complained, but I said, ‘The price cap was there when you entered the market, you should have sold oranges or something, or entered another business.’

“They knew what the situation was, and then some of them expected government bailouts, and thankfully that hasn’t really had any resonance, because people could see that they entered the market, they’ve been caught, the tide has revealed that they were wearing nothing, and I’m afraid some of them are going to have to exit the market.

“Having said all that, some of the smaller companies have really driven innovation in the market, so the price cap has allowed for greater competition, has allowed for new entrants, and now, some of those entrants who haven’t been as well-managed are having to leave the market.”

ConHome: “This is probably the moment to sneak in the fracking question. It comes up a lot. People on the Right say look, we have this shortage, why haven’t we fracked?”

Kwarteng: “So I was very pro-fracking. My first summer as Energy Minister, we had Cuadrilla fracking in Lancashire, and I remember speaking to the MP, and he was a pro-fracking person, and the limit I think was 0.5 on the Richter scale.

“This thing came in at about 2.9, and walls were shaking and plates were falling off them.

“And someone said we’d never have had the coal industry if we’d had that approach, which may or may not be true, but the coal industry started in whenever, 1650, and we’re talking about 2020 when we have a full democracy and all the rest of it.

“So we said that we would impose a moratorium and when we had new evidence that this could be done without too much disruption we would look at the moratorium again.

“And I think there were too many communities that were being disrupted. We’re a small country. The fact that it can work in the United States, and it works successfully, it’s what a thousand times bigger than England? Something like that.

“They would frack in a hundred places, and maybe one would be successful. But we don’t have that luxury here.

“There’s also geological questions. I know a firm that Tim Eggar was involved with, they fracked all over Poland and it didn’t work.

“So I get the whole fracking thing, but I don’t think it’s the answer. I think more nuclear is the answer. I think a wider range of renewable technology and things like tidal stream, those sort of things, can help us as well.”

ConHome: “The Government takes Critical Race Theory seriously enough to have a minister go to the Despatch Box and say it shouldn’t be taught in schools.

“Why is it that Kemi Badenoch seems to be the only Conservative among a mass of MPs who takes Critical Race Theory seriously?”

Kwarteng: “No one knows what Critical Race Theory is. If you ask 360 MPs what Critical Race Theory is, how many do you think on our benches would be able to give you a coherent answer?

“To be fair to Kemi Badenoch, that is part of her brief. She was Minister for Equalities even when she was in the Treasury.

“And she’s got a particular approach, I think a very robust approach to a lot of this sort of thing.

“I think the best approach is for us just to simply allow the Left to have these incredible navel-gazing debates on identity politics, because actually Critical Race Theory is not something that comes up on the doorstep, it’s not something that’s going to put food on anyone’s table.”

ConHome: “Are you saying it’s not a problem in any way?”

Kwarteng: “I’m saying I don’t see why we should engage with it. Even your readers, people who subscribe to ConservativeHome, I’d be amazed if more than about five or ten per cent know what Critical Race Theory is.

“I’m trying to run a business department that affects the whole of the UK economy. My views or otherwise on Critical Race Theory are singularly irrelevant to how I do my job.”

ConHome: “Can only women have a cervix?”

Kwarteng: “What did Sajid Javid say? I agree with him.”

ConHome: “I think he said it defies science.”

Kwarteng: “All these things, I know they’re very important to a minority of people, but they’re not really levelling up issues, they’re not about the prosperity of the UK, they don’t deliver jobs.

“It’s the worst kind of rabbit hole which I don’t think sheds any light on anything, it doesn’t improve people’s lives.”

ConHome: “Can you deliver levelling up, Net Zero, industrial strategy, skills, without more localism – without more elected mayors?”

Kwarteng: “Really good question. I think you’ve got to have more local involvement. I think the Prime Minister’s view, which I share, is we shouldn’t get into a theological debate about the structures and what the people are called.

“We’ve got to just deal with what we have. Because if you were very rationalistic and Napoleonic about it, dare I say, you would just spread the combined mayoral authorities across the UK.

“You’d divide the UK up into mayoralties and then you’d have a little mayor with a little badge.”

ConHome: “You’d have a Mairie.”

Kwarteng: “Exactly. We’re not going to do that, so we’ve got to work with the structures, and some of them do work very well, the mayoralties, some county councils work very well, we’ve got to work with the kind of patchwork that we have, we’re not going to rationalise things in a kind of centralised way.”

ConHome: “If Johnson wasn’t Prime Minister he’d be finishing his book about Shakespeare. What book would you be finishing?”

Kwarteng: “I’ve already got one on the stocks about the Congo called Masters of the World, and it’s been there since I’ve been made a minister. I’ve done the research, so it’s simply a question of cleaning up the text.”

Sarah Ingham: The Government could learn a thing or two from Britain’s panic buyers

1 Oct

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Who said Britain’s bureaucrats have had an irony-bypass?

The Cabinet Office’s deadline for evidence to formulate the Government’s new National Resilience Strategy was on Monday.

This was of course the day when the fuel crisis intensified and the Governor of the Bank of England suggested an interest rate rise might be on the cards before Christmas. He also confessed to having wondered if locusts might be another calamity to afflict the country.

Biblical plagues make a change from overworked Black Swans, those metaphors for malign events so rare they are only meant to happen once in a lifetime. Except, at present, Britain seems to be visited by a lamentation – an all-too-apt collective noun – of these supposedly rare birds.

Resilience is the ability to withstand or come back from difficulties. This week, ministers were quick to condemn the public for “panic-buying” its petrol, as if vehicle owners have been in a ditzy tizzy rather than acting out of rational self-interest.

For those of us not being swooshed around town in the back of chauffeur-driven Zil limousines – sorry, taxpayer-funded Jaguars – taking opportunities to diesel up cabs and white vans at a time of possible shortage is actually acting with prudence and foresight.

Filling up during a fuel crisis is “identifying, assessing, preparing for and responding to risks”, which, according to 2020 National Risk Register, is what the Government is meant to be doing. But isn’t.

Among the 38 possible threats identified in the Register, including earthquakes and a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear attack, is a pandemic. Covid-19 makes a brief appearance, although it is excluded from the Register’s Matrix of Risk: included, however, is “Undermining the Democratic Process”.

Unlike “Severe Space Weather” or the meteor strike mentioned in the Strategy’s evidence call, this risk actually came to pass, thanks to the Government’s hysterical over-reaction to an illness whose lethality in a historical context is comparatively minor.

Lockdown, which included putting the economy in deep-freeze and led to the greatest interference by the state in our personal liberty in the country’s history, has so far cost Britain an estimated £400 billion. No risk-benefit analysis was carried out before we were all put under house arrest and made poorer.

Trainee reporters used to be told to exercise their judgment. As the saying has it, “If someone says it’s raining, and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the ******* window and find out which is true.”

Labour shortages. Supply bottlenecks. A national debt of £2,225 billion (“V-shaped recovery”: what “V-shaped recovery”?). An energy crisis. Chaos in airport arrivals halls. Inflation. A dearth of doctors and critical care capacity in the NHS. The M25 repeatedly brought to a halt. Whatever next; a run on the pound?

Instead of designing matrixes and writing a Strategy to be published next March, those ministers and officials allegedly overseeing Britain’s resilience should start looking out of the ******* window right now. Ta-da! Evidence.

Last week there were calls for soldiers to man ambulances; this week, it’s fuel tankers. Next week, the Border Force? Next month, the Police? National resilience includes the Armed Forces playing their part; Military Aid to the Civilian Authorities.

Increasingly, it seems that expensively trained personnel are viewed by the Government as little more than uniformed agency staff, deployed at whim to fill the chasms in our civilian infrastructure. Britain is beginning to resemble some sub-Saharan nation like Guinea where the Army is about the only properly functioning arm of the state.

This summer, thousands of DVLA staff stopped pushing their pens and started downing tools as part of industrial action by the Public and Commercial Services Union.

Targeted was the Drivers Medical group, chosen “due to its strategic importance to the Agency and the fact that Ministers are assigning huge importance to backlogs in this area” according a post on the PCS website on July 21. Instead of solely blaming Brexit for the HGV driver shortage, should we also be factoring in shrewd Union tactics? Mark Serotkwa, the new Arthur Scargill, discuss.

Working From Home has had a corrosive impact on the efficiency of most workplaces, including the DVLA. Last week, a Permanent Secretary extolled the virtues of being out-of-office. 

Should she really wish to spend more time with her family as she claims, let her quit the public payroll. Otherwise she should be ordered off her Peloton, onto her bike and back into the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, now overseen by the refreshingly bracing Nadine Dorries.

Conservatives are supposed champion and celebrate the country’s business-folk. The Party used to applaud personal resilience and self-reliance, which can boil down to something as simple as having savings or a pension plan. Those waiting their turn on Britain’s fuel station forecourts are showing the sort of foresight that enables them perhaps to get to work or care for an elderly relative.

In anticipating possible difficulties and making a risk assessment, these “panic-buyers” are setting an example to the Government and its officials.

Dean Russell: My dad was an HGV driver. Here’s how Labour and Remainers stood by – while his and others’ wages were driven down.

28 Sep

Dean Russell is MP for Watford.

My dad was a HGV driver. He is long retired now but, 18 months ago during the general election, I found myself saying that I was the ‘son of a lorry driver’ because most people didn’t even know what a HGV (heavy goods vehicle) driver was. Recent weeks have changed all that – and finally HGV drivers are getting the recognition they deserve.

I can remember that for decades my dad would get up in the early hours of the morning, usually around 3am, to get to work, and then get home late exhausted from a truly long day – every day.

He did a job most people didn’t think about because it was often done during unsociable hours, like so many other HGV drivers that work in the early hours, as they keep the country fed and businesses fully stocked.

When growing up during the early 1980s, I recall wanting to be a HGV driver like my dad. I vividly remember the usual junior school question of: ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’? Other kids would put ‘astronaut’, ‘football player’ or even ‘Prime Minister’, but I always put ‘HGV driver’. When I was younger, I recall vividly how being HGV driver was a noble profession and respected widely.

Yet, over the past few decades, there has been a push to reduce costs, leading to many organisations taking advantage and exploiting EU workers, paying them poorly whilst driving down wages for everyone.

Over this time, Labour and pro-EU lobbyists didn’t care for the livelihoods of people like my dad. They didn’t care to notice the requirements getting tougher and the wages stagnating. The Left was happy to use the ‘working class’ as political pawns in speeches, whilst ignoring the reality that EU workers were being exploited to drive down wages for everyone, and also criticising those who raised concerns as xenophobic (or worse). This was plain wrong for all involved.

From friends I knew who worked in the profession, this backdrop created an underlying fear for many HGV drivers that, if they did something wrong, like dropping off a delivery late to a depot, that they could be replaced by someone cheaper in a heartbeat. It is no surprise to me now that I read that more than 230,000 HGV licence holders decided not to work in the commercial haulage sector. Why would they if they don’t have job security or a career ahead of them?

The job is a tough one, but also a rewarding one. I recall in summer holidays joining my dad at work (probably against every health and safety rule that exists today). Long before GPS, I would watch as my dad pull out the map  to work out the best route from depot one to depot two and so on.

Then when he arrived, he would  drag heavy pallets and trolleys off the vehicle via the tail lift. Once done, he would be greeted by clipboards and sign-off sheets to check everything had been delivered ok – then back out to the next drop. As a child it was a huge adventure seeing the country, stopping for fish and chips as we took a short break for lunch and the excitement of the battle against time to the next drop. Unfortunately, I also have the scars, too, since I once managed to get my hand trapped in the mechanism of the tail lift (a story for another day)!

Even so, I could see the appeal of being a HGV driver. The freedom of a life on the open road, the ability to manage your day, meet lots of new people and have a job away from the chains of an office chair and desk.  The reality for my dad and for drivers like him was that being a HGV driver was still a gruelling job. It is a role that requires focus: driving all day, planning, time management, physical and mental agility, whether that be parking huge vehicles in sometimes impossible spaces, or shifting heavy palettes on and off during each drop off.

In other words, being an HGV driver is as far as your can get from an ‘unskilled’ job and certainly deserves to be treated as such.

Finally, market forces are giving HGV drivers the spotlight, and wages, they deserve. For too long, experienced HGV drivers have seen their wages hit a ceiling that, for many, was akin to junior office-based roles with conditions slowly eroding over time.

As noted in analysis by The Grocer recently: ‘Better pay and conditions will be a major factor [in re-engaging the workforce]…and the crisis is already forcing change on this front. Driver wages have risen by an estimated 20 per cent since the shortages hit home, as companies compete for drivers.’

It went on to note that ‘there have been plenty of additional measures, too. Tesco, for example, has offered a £1,000 signing-on fee for drivers, and Poundland is paying for drivers to upgrade to HGV1 licences.’

The shortage of HGV drivers is not just limited to the UK. There has been a global shortage – so, for example, in Poland there is an approximate shortfall of 123,000 HGV drivers [according to TI Insight].

So the need to provide training skills and opportunity for new HGV drivers in the UK is essential, but so is the need to promote the profession as one that young people want to enter and former drivers want to return to. The Government has been ramping up the opportunities in recent months, increasing the number of HGV driving tests, improving apprenticeships and reducing bureaucracy, and we must ensure this continues. This is all essential – especially cutting  unnecessary bureaucracy – as we ramp up training and opportunity long term, showcasing the profession to school leavers to build a new generation of drivers.

Personally, I am proud of both my parents – more than they could ever realise. Politically, we must remember it is people like my parents that are the silent majority of conservative voters. They are the millions who work hard to get on in life and to support their family. As Conservatives, we need to continue to show we are on their side and ensure that these improvements will continue under Conservative rule. We have an opportunity to keep this show on the road, and deliver on that promise in the coming months and for years to come.

The current situation with short term visas for foreign HGV drivers is a necessary one, and exactly what visas should be used for, but must only be used to solve an immediate issue. The shortages won’t disappear overnight. In resolving the issue, we must ensure we never return to the time where we diminish the position of the very people that keep this country running.

At least today we know the importance of HGV drivers, and I can finally say proudly that I am the ‘son of a HGV driver’ without being asked ‘what is that?’. Finally, workers like my dad are once again getting both the recognition and pay they deserve.