Damian Hinds: Raise the quality of technical education, and parity of esteem will naturally follow

It is utterly confusing to provide 12,000 course options at Level 3 or below. The system must be reformed.

Damian Hinds is Education Secretary and MP for East Hampshire.

You know how it goes. A politician starts talking about technical education and the clichés start – for too long we haven’t taken technical skills seriously enough… we’ve prioritised academic education over technical education… the problem is that there is an in-built snobbery in our education system that says thinking with your brain is good, but working with your hands isn’t.

Well – clichés are often clichés for a reason.

As Education Secretary, my ambition is to provide a world class education for every child, whatever their route, whatever their background. Whilst our young people have an excellent and clear academic route to follow – A Levels and then university – our vocational, technical routes tell another story.

There is not a simple path for young people choosing technical study at 16.

We are unique as a country by providing a confusing landscape of over 12,000 courses to young people at Level 3 – the equivalent of A Levels – and below, with multiple qualifications in the same subject areas available.

If a 16 year old wants to study history, they know they can take a History A Level which is understood and trusted by parents, universities and employers. But if a student wants to study an engineering qualification after GCSEs there are over 300 different options to choose from – leaving them at a loss as to which ones will give them the best chance of getting the skills they need and employers often with little clue as to which qualifications they should be looking for.

So – as part of our ongoing improvements to technical education which have seen the reform of apprenticeships to put quality at their heart and the development of T Levels, as the rigorous technical equivalent to A Levels – today we are launching a review of those technical qualifications that are Level 3 or below, to simplify the landscape and improve quality of what’s on offer to young people.

There are going to be some tough decisions as we think carefully about what we take away from the system. But I think we’d all agree – better to see young people with a smaller number of high quality choices rather than a plethora of often mediocre ones.

This is the next step in a long and necessary road of improving technical and vocational education. It follows Professor Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education in 2011 and Lord Sainsbury’s review of the quality of technical education in 2015. Both reviews had the question of quality at their heart and both have led to improvements in the system, including the development of new, tougher criteria for qualifications included in performance tables and the introduction of new gold standard T Levels from 2020.

We have already made great strides forward increasing the quality level of apprenticeships, with more of them at a higher level, longer and more intensive. T Levels are a major upgrade to the technical qualifications that will be available after GCSEs. They will give young people the opportunity to gain the skills they need to get a great job, go on to do a higher level apprenticeship or further study.

You can’t legislate for parity of esteem between academic and technical routes post-16. Quality has to come first. Get that right and esteem will follow. In order for technical education not simply to be something for “other people’s children”, it has to be something you want your child to do as well. That means it’s high quality and leads to a well-paid, rewarding skilled job.

The importance of getting technical education right does not just lie in making sure that every child, whatever their talent, has a high quality educational route – crucial though this is. The quality of skills is also vital for our productivity as a country. The productivity gap is the great unsolved issue of the last 50 years. We know that matching German productivity would mean significantly higher wages and allow government to spend tens of billions of pounds a year more on our public services – and skills underpins this.

I have previously spoken of the hourglass of skills in the country. At the top of the hourglass, we have a large number of well-educated people, often with degrees from good universities- they tend to be in the high skilled, high paid jobs.

But at the bottom of the hourglass, we have a large number of people who either never progressed beyond GCSEs or gained low level vocational qualifications. They are too often ending up in low skilled, low wage jobs.

If we’re ever going to close the productivity gap then we need more people getting into the top half of the hourglass, and ultimately we need to change the shape of the hourglass so it bulges out in the middle with more skilled jobs for people doing high quality training when they finish school.

To do this we need to make sure that the technical route in education is as clear and as high quality as the academic route. This goes beyond what happens at 16 and we are also looking at how to improve higher technical qualifications, Level 4 and 5, but it’s all connected and today’s consultation plays a part in that. A clear quality technical path to a skilled job. More young people gaining higher skills. A more productive economy.

In a decade’s time I want us to have a completely different perspective on technical education in this country. We should be able to look back on all the reforms we’ve made, and be able to say, yes, our young people now have the same – or ideally better – training opportunities than they do in Germany, or Holland, or Switzerland, or other leading systems.

Natasha Hausdorff: The proscription of Hezbollah is welcome – though overdue

It will be a significant step forward in keeping this heinous organisation from inciting hatred on our streets.

Natasha Hausdorff is a barrister and a Conservative activist.  She was recently a Pegasus Scholar and Fellow in the National Security Law Programme at Columbia Law School in New York. 

The Home Secretary’s decision today to proscribe the whole of the Lebanon based Hezbollah terrorist organisation is significant and long-overdue, not least because of the organisation’s antisemitic ideology and targeting of Israeli civilians. Once affirmed by Parliament, the UK’s approach to Hezbollah will be brought into line with that of the United States, Canada, Japan, Israel and the Netherlands.

Since July 2008, the so-called ‘military wing’ of Hezbollah has been on the list of proscribed organisations that are “concerned in terrorism”, pursuant to Section 3 and Schedule 2 of the Terrorism Act 2000. It is a criminal offence for a person to belong to, support or otherwise invite support for a proscribed organisation. However, until now, an arbitrary distinction between supposed political and military ‘wings’ left certain support for the group lawful in the UK.

Hezbollah has perpetrated atrocities around the world, from Buenos Aires to Bulgaria. Its terror activity has included hostage taking, airline hijacking, and bombing, including blowing up a US Marine barracks killing more than 300 US and French servicemen in Lebanon. The group has also assassinated diplomats and policy makers in the Middle East, the US and Asia. The original proscription in the UK coincided with the discovery that Hezbollah had been targeting British soldiers in Iraq. Acting as an Iranian proxy, it has killed thousands of innocents and continues its butchery in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, promoting Iran’s regime of terror in the region.

While some terror organisations feign non-violence, Hezbollah itself has never gone in for such a masquerade. The organisation makes no such distinction between its military and political affairs, because terror is its fundamental ideology and raison d’etre.  Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary General, explained in clear terms: “We don’t have a military wing and a political one; we don’t have Hezbollah on one hand and the resistance party on the other…every element of Hezbollah, from commanders to members as well as our various capabilities, is in the service of the resistance, and we have nothing but the resistance as a priority”.

This sentiment has been echoed by other top officials, including Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s current Secretary General, and Ibrahim Mussawi, its spokesman. And this unity of purpose is considered to be an essential component of the group’s perceived success; Qassem stressed to a Lebanese paper in 2000 the importance of “one leadership, with one administration”.

It is bizarre that we in the UK have sought to maintain a distinction which is at odds with the pretty straightforward position articulated by Hezbollah leaders.  The artificial division between ‘wings’ has also been a dangerous one. Exploitation of the loophole created by this approach has allowed Hezbollah flags to be flown with impunity on the streets of London. The organisation has one flag, which displays an image of a Kalachnikov rifle, combined with a Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifle, clenched in a raised fist. Individuals displaying the Hezbollah flag at the annual ‘Al Quds Day’ march in London have been shielded from prosecution under Section 13 of the Terrorism Act, under which it is an offence to carry or display an article “in such a way or in such circumstances as to arouse reasonable suspicion [of being] a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation”.

That the current legislation allows open support for this terrorist organisation on our streets has been raised repeatedly with the police and the Home Office by concerned community organisations. It would seem that these efforts have finally paid off. Undoubtably, full proscription ought also to affect the future approach of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. This move sends a clear message that we will no longer tolerate incitement and celebration of terror on the streets of the UK.

The news of full proscription is also to be welcomed as an indication of a toughened stance towards Iran, Hezbollah’s patron and financier. The Foreign Secretary seems to be taking a stronger line on Iran due to the continued imprisonment of British Iranian dual national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. In light of Iranian support for terror organisations across the Middle East, tougher action on Iran is to be supported and encouraged. Rejection of the untenable distinction between ‘wings’ of Hezbollah will also enable law enforcement agencies to crack down on financial support for one of the best funded terror organisations in the world.

Concerns have been mooted over full proscription in view of Hezbollah’s participation in the Lebanese government. It has been argued that the UK’s relationship with Lebanon may be unduly complicated by such a determination. That argument remains unconvincing in light of the relationship which the US, Canada and the Arab League maintain with Lebanon while being clear in their own acknowledgment that Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation in its entirety.

Indeed, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat, has further indicated that proscription of the ‘political wing’ would not conflict with the UK’s duty to speak to ministers in the Lebanese government. Notably, such MPs as Joan Ryan, Mike Gapes and Ian Austin, all of whom left Labour last week, have also previously called for the group to be banned in its entirety.

The Government and the Home Secretary should be congratulated on the decision to finally end the charade and proscribe Hezbollah in full. With Parliament’s approval, this will be a significant step forward in the proper approach to combatting terrorism and to keeping this heinous organisation from inciting hatred on the streets of the United Kingdom.

Alex Morton: Conservatives must be able to debate the future of their Party’s ideas as well as its future leader

Allowing everything to be dominated by questions of personalities undermines essential thinking about matters of policy.

Alex Morton is Director of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.

If there is one thing that can still unite the Conservative Party, it is the belief that Jeremy Corbyn should not – must not – become Prime Minister. But how to stop that?

We are now nine years into Conservative or Conservative-led government. In order to block Corbyn’s path to power, the next election would be the fourth in a row where the Tories would need to win, or at least be the largest party.

This year will be difficult even if Brexit is resolved

In meeting this challenge, there are two strategic problems the Tories face – one specific and one general.

The specific one is that the Tory voter base is currently largely being held together by Brexit. Polls show the party steady at just under 40 per cent – no mean feat. But once a particular version of Brexit is decided on, or perhaps just arrives, at least some of those voters, even if a minority, are likely to feel deflated. At that point the Tories risk slumping in the polls – either by a little or potentially by a lot.

This means that the Party will need to offer some positive reasons to be a Conservative voter and supporter – to unite around a future prospectus. Voters are, as all the polling history shows, less likely to support parties they see as divided. Already 69 per cent of people think that the Conservatives are a divided party, according to Opinium. They are now seen as more divided than Labour – despite the fact that Jeremy Corbyn has been directly voted against by the overwhelming majority of his MPs.

Labour will also find it easier to ride out the storm this year than the Conservatives, due to the simple fact that they are not in government. While there may be a few who will turn against Corbyn if he never backs a second referendum, Labour will continue to be able to largely pretend to be all things to all people. They have been able to hide their divisions, and somehow have got away with continually falling back on the line that “nothing should be off the table”. Labour may well eventually have to come down on one side or the other, but even if they do, the harm this will do to them will be far less than to the Tories – after all, the Tories are in power, and Governments are held responsible for whatever occurs in a way that is simply not true for Oppositions.

The centre-right is in severe difficulty across the West

There is also a more general problem. Across the West, centre-right parties are under severe pressure (as indeed are centre-left). In many countries we have seen their collapse (eg France and Italy). Even countries that have fairly high levels of economic growth (at least relative to others, if not historically), such as Sweden and Germany, are seeing their traditional centre-right parties struggle.

Only a small handful of leaders have managed to be successful, and lead their parties to electoral success, most notably Sebastian Kurz in Austria and Mark Rutte in Holland. Those who have succeeded have largely done so by reinventing their parties for the populist era while remaining within the boundaries of the mainstream.

What all this boils down to is that not only will the Tories have to try to revise and revive their policies and platform after a fairly long spell in Government, but do so at a time when the centre-right in general is struggling to win elections and carve out a successful niche.

Moreover, this is all happening against a revitalised left rather than the divided left that is seen in many places. Yes, Labour are struggling now over Brexit. But once it is over, things are likely to become easier for Corbyn, since Brexit is the one issue that fundamentally divides him from his base of adoring followers.

The Tories need to be able to talk about policy, not personality

If the Conservative Party wants to defeat Corbyn, then it needs to renew itself. The Government’s time and effort have – the NHS aside – been largely and increasingly consumed by Brexit.

Yet the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement to the 1922 Committee in December that she will not fight the next election raises a new problem: that everything becomes seen through the prism of the future leadership, rather than the future of the Party.

Obviously it is true that policy and personality are intertwined. But it is hard – for example – to have a frank discussion about what post-Brexit immigration policy might be, because if you take a position on how far we should prioritise non-EU high skilled immigration, or whether we should scrap or actually enforce the ‘tens of thousands’ figure, it is seen as being about whether you back Johnson or Javid or Hunt or Raab.

The media obviously plays into this. An easy way to write a story is to call up sufficient numbers of key people and goad them into saying something less than wonderful about their colleagues. If you can’t get something out of ministers, then their allies will do. There is always someone willing to answer a journalist’s call.

There needs to be space in British politics – and within the Conservative Party – to have a robust debate about the future of the country without it being seen as just as about positioning between potential prime ministerial candidates.

It is true that the political debate is becoming very bad tempered – and it is unlikely to become less so over the coming months. Brexit has already weakened the ties that bind the Conservative Party together. But the real crisis will occur if Conservatives, and those in the wider conservative movement, end up going into battle against Corbyn’s far-left ideas without a compelling policy vision of their own.

Nick Hargrave: If we join the EEA, others might follow – thus creating a Europe-wide, non-federalist alternative to the EU

As a bloc with heightened economic weight, with the UK as a key influence, it would have greater flexibility to negotiate over issues such as immigration and budgetary contributions.

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street Special adviser where he worked for both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works for Portland, the communications consultancy.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, once said that life can only be understood backwards but we must live it forwards. This maxim feels particularly relevant when we consider Brexit and the United Kingdom’s end destination.

The great limitation of the Brexit debate, no more so demonstrated than by the shadow boxing of the past week on the UK’s future relationship, is that it has obscured a wider lens on what is happening in the European Union. Over the next five to ten years, the project is likely to experience a number of faultlines on its overall direction.

Against this backdrop, the option of EEA membership – much derided as ‘Brexit in name only’ – can be viewed in a different light.

Rather than being an abject surrender that offers the worst of all worlds, it could actually end up being the smartest place for Britain as a multi-speed Europe emerges; delivering over time on the concerns that drove the vote to leave while avoiding significant economic disruption. It is an especially pertinent option for consideration given that it is an avenue for Brexit that could conceivably command a majority in the Commons next month.

Amidst the inevitable heat of negotiations on the UK’s exit from the EU, there has been a tendency to club all 27 remaining members together. But this is an over-simplification. In reality, the EU can be split into three broad churches.

There are the federalists; principally the French and Germans – mighty members that hold significant influence– who broadly agree that further political integration is the right direction of travel (although they disagree over some aspects). This is given added impetus by the professional bureaucracy of the European Commission.

There are the cautious protectors of sovereignty; including the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and Ireland who are not seriously considering leaving the EU because they feel its economic benefits. But they are uneasy about where political integration is going to end.

And then there is the Eastern bloc of accession countries. Many of these countries are proud defenders of the principles of the nation state as reflected in recent elections. But federalism quietly works for them because of the monetary transfers from West to East that the system implies. I suspect this will shift as their economies develop and they become cautious protectors of sovereignty too.

Predicting exact events and timings is a fool’s errand. But, structurally, it is inevitable that at some point these broad churches conflict, and there is a clarifying moment when the overall direction of travel to federalism is reassessed. Arguably, the loss of the UK’s influence around the table will make this happen sooner rather than later. Flashpoints are possible on issues bubbling away such as common consolidated corporate taxation, mandatory refugee settlement – and of course the development of the Eurozone.

The UK’s potential presence in the EEA could be a determining factor as to what happens next. At the moment, the three non-EU members of the bloc are Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein. They are wonderful countries but – with no offence intended whatsoever – they do not have the economic power or diplomatic muscle of the United Kingdom. We are a permanent member of the UN Security Council, one of the world’s largest economies and our history and heritage mean we are a formidable soft power.

If we were to retain membership of the European Economic Area next year then, for all the discussion of becoming a vassal-state, there is the converse point that the status and power of this outer circle of Europe will have markedly increased. Once a clarifying moment on federalism comes down the line, I suspect the attractiveness of joining this bloc will slowly increase for those cautious protectors of sovereignty.

Should a critical mass make the jump, the EEA-only bloc would then likely evolve to become less supplicant in its relationship with the rump EU. As a bloc with heightened economic weight, with the UK as a key influence, it would have greater flexibility to negotiate with the likes of France and Germany over issues such as immigration and budgetary contributions. This would certainly not be ‘Brexit in name only’.

There are of course challenges to this thesis which need to be addressed. First of all, there is the point that, given the UK’s considerable muscle that I have referred to, we could just brazen it out with No Deal or the ‘Canada Plus’ model. In short, these options don’t solve the problem of a hard border with Ireland, and both would be bad for the jobs in the UK economy that depend on frictionless trade.

The issue of free movement clearly needs to be addressed in some form upon our formal exit next year. It is under-remarked that the EEA Agreement gives member states the right to suspend free movement on the grounds of public policy or public security. The threshold for such a case is very high. But it is not beyond the wit of those negotiating such a deal to come up with an appropriate mechanism for the UK, especially if the alternative is years of grinding transition.

Next, there is the reality that under continued membership of the EEA, the United Kingdom would be unable to negotiate meaningful trade deals of its own. But I am strongly of the view that the reality of independent UK trade deals with the tiger economies of the Far East will come to be seen as deeply unattractive if the rubber were to ever hit the road. I am sure that the City of London would be fine. But the people of Sunderland and Port Talbot did not vote for lower tariffs on Chinese manufactured products. Free trade was also never a significant part of historic Tory Euroscepticism.

It is legitimate to question whether I am arguing that MPs should vote down Theresa May’s current negotiated deal in December so this EEA option can be pursued. The Government doesn’t currently have the numbers for its preferred option. But I think the more substantive argument is that, once you strip away all the bluster and political framing, our lengthy transition period with the EU is likely to end up as a form of ‘EEA minus’ existence anyway. On the Chequers version versus my preferred course, you are splitting hairs on the end destination and this is a much cleaner way of getting it done.

Finally, you can argue that this is all likely to take rather a long time – and people want Brexit to feel like Brexit now. To this, I would simply say that the warp and weft of history is clear: revolutions cause a lot of pain, whereas evolution can get you to similar ends without era defining disruption in between. This is a fundamental tenet of the Conservative Party too. We forget it at our peril.

Alexander Temerko: The relationship between business and government has never been as meaningless as under May

The key to a good Brexit is empowering UK entrepreneurs to talk to their European counterparts and become ambassadors for Downing Street’s plan.

Alexander Temerko is an industrialist and a Conservative Party donor and activist.

Never has the relationship between business and Number Ten been as meaningless or fruitless as under Theresa May. She continues to repeat the mantra that she is leading a pro-business government, but that is an exaggeration. Hers is not an anti-business government – that would be a more accurate way of putting it.

A pro-business government is what Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron led in their day; it’s what Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Angela Merkel are leading today. Despite her soft-spot for SMEs, our Prime Minister is undeniably afraid of global business.

Globalisation has shown that big business and public-private partnerships (something we hardly see in the UK anymore) are the real long-term drivers of a steadily growing modern economy. The presence of global business centres is what makes the difference between a country that’s prosperous and one that’s merely surviving. Indeed, such business is the powerful locomotive, pulling along SMEs and much of the socio-economic activity in the regions.

Business leaders have always been there to support May’s Government at the most critical times. Yet our “strong and stable” leader has repeatedly shunned any direct engagement with business in favour of sporadic consultations with the trade lobby, whose academic experts’ interests have long since been prioritised over representation of any actual economy sectors.

The Prime Minister has a presidential style of leadership. Her talent is for forming small, quasi-familial groups of trusted advisers. While David Cameron was comfortable working with big diversified teams, she seems reluctant to engage with the broad meritocratic audiences whose praises she so often sings. This desire to keep discussions tightly controlled has had a negative impact on almost every key policy decision taken to date. It is time to change.

Today, not only the country’s economy but also its integrity hinges on the UK business community backing the Brexit plans proposed by the Prime Minister and her Cabinet. No-one wants Brexit to be a disaster – but how to avoid it without break-through ideas and bold compromises?

The British economy will quickly lose its appeal should financial, industrial and services majors, driven by impending uncertainty and the fear of mounting responsibility to shareholders, relocate their headquarters and investment capital to more profitable jurisdictions with more predictable regulations. This could, in turn, trigger almost instant separatist rhetoric and action by the country’s subsidised regions.

Inside the eye of the Brexit storm, this outcome would be increasingly irreversible. People will start going by the saying “Better a painful ending than endless pain”. One person will certainly be delighted with a “painful ending”: his name is Vladimir Putin. Are we willing to afford him the pleasure? The answer is clear even to Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees-Mogg, both of whom have been aiding this “painful ending” by holding on to his very own wrong end of the stick.

Europe would suffer, too. Take just one example from my industry: 70 per cent of our utilities are owned by European firms. Machinery and metal products are another trade goldmine for European business. At a time of escalating conflict with the US and sanctions or restrictions in trade relations with China, Russia, Iran and others, this is key. Europe just cannot lose Britain with its import-oriented economy as well. If that happens, countries right at the heart of Europe – France, Germany, Portugal, and to some extent Belgium and Holland too – will feel the pain.

However, in these countries, business is much more influential and integrated with the operation of Government. European business wants to live and wants to live well – which makes it our best ally in promoting a sensible responsible Brexit.

Businesses talk best with other businesses. They will not waste time talking when they don’t know if they are being heard by the Government, though. Hence, the key to a good Brexit is empowering UK entrepreneurs to talk to their European counterparts and become official ambassadors for the Government’s Brexit plan.

The other key piece of the puzzle is for May to accept the Irish border backstop – provided that the EU undertakes to guarantee our country’s integrity. This would restrain any spontaneous separatist movements in the UK, at least for as long as the EU continues to exist. If accession to the EU is all but impossible for any breakaway state, withdrawal from the UK would be pointless.

What happens if our Government does not create the broad coalition of business it needs and push bold compromises through? Quite simply, if there is no deal hammered out by December, a new election will be the only option to avoid the catastrophe of no deal.

If the Chequers plan falls through, it clear to almost everyone today that Parliament will not accept any other plan – be it Canada-plus, Australia-minus or a No Deal. The European Commission for its part, will not consider any new proposals, since none of them could get a majority in the UK Parliament and Europe will itself be moving into EU Parliament elections.

All that’s left are two options. They are both domestic – either a new referendum or another snap election. It is up to Parliament and our political elites to choose. They have to choose between their two great fears: the fear of a new election which is highly likely to mean a coalition government, and the fear of a new referendum that goes against Brexit.