Zoltán Kovács: Let’s get the facts straight about Hungary’s pro-family policies

In his column, Walshe made some extraordinary claims about our proposals and our country. The reality is very different.

Zoltán Kovács is the Hungarian Minister of State for International Communication and Relations.

Earlier this month in his annual State of the Nation address Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister, revealed his government’s latest pro-family policy package, seven measures to ease the financial burdens on couples who would like to have children.

The package includes expanded subsidies for home and automobile ownership for families, increased child credits, mortgage relief for child-bearing families, income tax exemptions, more nursery places for expanded childcare, and expands maternity leave to grandparents so mums and dads can quickly get back to work if they choose.

Protection of the family has long been a priority for the Orbán Government. With these latest measures the government hopes that, by making it easier financially, Hungarian families will have more children.

Not surprisingly, these bold measures have attracted some international attention. Most of the responses have been quite positive, but others have attacked the policy with criticisms so odd it’s as if we have gone through the looking glass. It’s a peculiar day indeed when a writer at ConservativeHome claims a pro-family policy “is an attack on Hungarian women,” echoing a Guardian columnist who wrote that it undermines “women’s reproductive rights.”

It’s bizarre, and judging from the many comments below Garvan Walshe’s article, many of the ConservativeHome readers felt the same.

Reasonable people may disagree on the most effective ways that a government can support families, but we must have our facts straight if we’re going to have an intelligent conversation. Unfortunately Walshe, whose biased understanding of today’s Hungary may be influenced by his associations with Migrant Matters Trust and Unhack Democracy Europe, falls far short on the facts.

Let’s start with the argument that supporting childbearing actually “takes women out of the labour force” instead of “getting them to work” and therefore will aggravate the labour shortage. If you’re thinking in the short term, yes, women electing to have children will take breaks from active employment.

But family policy is not about the short run. One of the main reasons behind Europe’s alarming demographic trends is that many couples feel they cannot afford to have children because they need two incomes to make ends meet. As long as women feel they cannot afford to stop working to have children, Europe is destined for population loss.

And this is exactly what Hungary’s seven-point pro-family package hopes to reverse. Here’s the complete list:

  1. Every woman between the ages of 18 and 40 years living in her first marriage and in employment for a minimum of three years will be eligible for an interest-free, all-purpose loan up to 10 million HUF. The whole debt is forgiven upon the birth of a third child.
  2. Hungary’s family home ownership subsidy program, also known by its Hungarian acronym CSOK, will be expanded to include used homes as eligible for the financial subsidy. This means 10 and 15 million HUF grants for families with two and three children, respectively.
  3. The government will deduct one million HUF from the mortgages of young, married couples after the birth of a second child and four million for the third child. If the couple has more children, they will receive an additional deduction of one million HUF for each additional child.
  4. Women who have given birth to at least four children will be granted life-long exemption from personal income tax liability on income derived from work.
  5. Families with three children or more can now apply for a 2.5 million HUF, non-repayable grant toward the purchase of a new, seven-seater car.
  6. The Government will provide complete creche coverage through the construction of 21,000 nursery places over the next three years.
  7. Hungarian grandparents who are still active on the labour market will be eligible for childcare allowance.

Walshe attempts to depict this somehow as a “sinister” policy, and paints it against a backdrop shaded by the political narrative that freedom suffers in Hungary, comparing Orbán to the Taliban. Here, again, the author exhibits a poor grasp of the facts.

He claims that the Central European University has been “expelled” from Budapest. That’s false. In fact, it received accreditation for five more years in February 2018. What the author may have referred to is the relocation of several of CEU’s programs to Vienna, which would have continued to hand out American diplomas despite the current legislation. Yes, it may be detrimental to the university’s business model, but it’s a legal and administrative matter, not a political one.

On press freedom, Walshe claims that 80 percent of Hungarian media is controlled by one of Prime Minister Orbán’s “cronies”. Once again, not true. On the contrary, liberal media outlets in Hungary reach a much wider segment of the public. The online media, for example, is dominated by left-liberal giants: HVG, Népszava, Index.hu, 444.hu, Mérce, and átlátszó.hu, just to mention a few. On this front, it’s fair to say that those portals that are staunch critics of the government make up a clear majority.

Judicial independence and the construction of the new administrative court system have, of course, also made it to the author’s list of concerns. While Walshe suggests that administrative courts are being set up to limit the freedom of the judiciary, their establishment serves a rather practical purpose.

Under the new system, citizens and companies are enabled to have their administrative cases heard in front of a special court, dedicated to this particular field of law. This means, that the scope of judicial control has been, in fact, widened. There are many similar examples in Europe, including in Austria, Bulgaria, Finland, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, and to a certain extent in the Czech Republic, Belgium, Italy, and France.

The author writes of an opposition reinvigorated by all this bad government. Polls, however, show that the governing parties maintain a massive lead among voters, whereas attendance at the demonstrations highlighted by many in the British media remained very small.

The Hungarian Government has made family policy a priority and spends around three percent of GDP on such financial support, compared to the EU average of around two percent. We’ve already begun to see some positive results. Between 2010, when Prime Minister Orbán took office, and 2017, marriages increased by a striking 42 percent in Hungary. In the same period, the number of divorces fell from 24 thousand to 18 thousand, while the number of abortions dropped by more than a third.

That’s not the kind of behaviour typical of a population suffering under a dictatorship, and those are the kinds of results that most true conservatives would applaud.

David Burrowes and Nickie Aiken: Coming to you soon. The family hubs revolution.

This week’s National Family Hubs Fair and Conference brought together around 50 organisations that are committed to supporting families.

David Burrowes is Executive Director of the Manifesto to Strengthen Families and was MP for Enfield Southgate from 2005-2017. Cllr Nickie Aiken is the Leader of Westminster City Council.

This week in Westminster whilst MPs attention was on Brexit, a revolution began. It took place within the eight minute distance it takes to get to the division lobby in the Commons. But it was not about votes or Parliamentary plots – and certainly not about Brexit. It was the first National Family Hubs Fair and Conference. That does not sound too revolutionary, but these family hubs are transforming the lives of children and parents up and down the country, and are carrying the torch for the Government for when its attention returns to the domestic policy agenda.

The National Family Hubs Fair and Conference brought together around 50 organisations and family hub areas who are committed to supporting families. It was initiated by the Manifesto to Strengthen Families (led by Fiona Bruce and Lord Farmer in 2017 and signed by 60 MPs and several peers), which had a key recommendation: that the Government “encourage every Local Authority to work with voluntary and private sector partners to deliver Family Hubs, local ‘one stop shops’ offering families with children and young people, aged 0-19, early help to overcome difficulties and build stronger relationships…and put in place a transformation fund and national task force to encourage Local Authorities to move towards this model”.

Westminster Council did not need any encouragement, because it has been on the journey of service integration for many years. An integrated leadership team, consisting of statutory and voluntary organisations, oversees the development and work of the hub, and is committed to developing a shared approach through sharing of information, assessments, meeting processes and, importantly, their resources.

The significant funding challenges for children and family services mean that councils have to integrate, but in Westminster we have done it to improve and expand the reach of our services. We have shifted to a Family Hub model as a natural evolution from Sure Start Children’s Centres, realising that parents of older children (five plus) need and were asking for the same integrated support. We have launched the Bessborough Family hub as one of three hubs, supporting families with children across the age spectrum from under one to 19. As well as a physical building, the hubs will be a network of providers working across a given area.

All this sounds like management changes rather than a revolution but what we heard at our conference is that in Westminster and across the country in places like Chelmsford, the Isle of Wight and Rochdale, family hubs are tackling at source the biggest social problem which is relationship and family breakdown.

A lack of readily accessible early support for families with children aged from between under one to 19 who experience difficulties in their parenting and couple relationships and in their mental health threatens to undermine efforts to narrow the education attainment gap. It also fuels crises in social care services which are faced with unremittingly high numbers of children who are ‘in need’, on child protection plans, and coming into care.

Over half of referrals to children’s services come from the police, schools and health services, for whom the child or family’s presenting need was significant enough to require more help than they could offer. Yet without additional help many of these families will, sooner or later, require costly social services interventions.

The family hubs developing across the UK are key to tackling the “burning injustices” which the Prime Minister has identified as her mission – identifying families with complex needs as early as possible, no matter which service they come into contact with; preventing family breakdown; preventing children from going into care and from entering the criminal justice system; helping parents to gain employment; providing access to first-line mental health support to reduce referrals to higher level, more costly intervention.

Family Hubs are delivering significant outcomes: children and young people feeling safer; families being helped to improve parenting and children’s behaviour; better emotional wellbeing of mothers and children in the perinatal period and beyond; good lifestyle choices; more resilient families who can respond well to crises and cope with shocks; young people having strong attachment to at least one adult; and people being connected to and involved in their local community.

Nadhim Zahawi, Minister for Children and Families, opened the Family Hubs Fair and expressed his support for family hubs and highlighted the £8.5 million LGA fund to support delivery of best practice. He then poignantly went off script to talk about the Valentine’s Day card he had received from his daughter Mia, and those strong relationships between family or friends which we all want in life.

Andrea Leadsom later took time out of a busy Brexit day to deliver a speech outlining her work as Chair of the Inter Ministerial Group for the Early Years. She emphasised the progress being made in supporting the crucial attachment between parent and child in the perinatal period and beyond and the implementation of her 20 years of experience encapsulated here at www.1001criticaldays.co.uk.

The call for early intervention is not new, but now there is a clarion call for leadership nationally and locally so children and family services can not only survive but thrive through partnership working of innovative Councils such as Westminster developing family hubs. So look out for a family hub coming to you soon and join the family hubs revolution!

Charlotte Salomon: Introducing the childcare loan

Parents could choose to stretch childcare payments over time whilst they continue earning the salary they deserve.

Charlotte Salomon is Deputy Chairman Membership for Saffron Walden Conservatives.

They don’t do espresso martinis in Pizza Express: the workaround is to order wine and a coffee separately, together – and alternate. It was my first time out after having children; first time wearing proper outdoor clothes and Weetabix-free hair – and first time realising that the country had an unsolved problem.

Ok, I’ll concede the Government has pushed out well-meaning schemes; they’ve even introduced cosmetic grants to patch up the well-meaning schemes. However, nothing has really stuck to the wall. Try as they may, when it comes to childcare the Government has only tabled pacifier policies rather than practical ones.

My friends and I ate from a fixed menu, pretending we weren’t secretly resenting leaving the house whilst sleep remained a rare commodity – and, although it was difficult, we tried not to talk about our children. Scanning my brain for polite dinner conversation, I reached for normality. “When are you going back to work?”

I’d assumed it was an acceptable question to ask women who spoke openly about their careers pre-maternity leave. However, it struck an uncomfortable tone.

“What’s the point?” One mother replied. “My salary would barely cover nursery fees, along with extra travel expenses and possible late fees because y’know— trains. It doesn’t make sense.”

She was right. It doesn’t.

Many new parents are finding themselves in something called “pay-neutral” work. This means that their childcare and travel costs wipe out their entire net earnings. So when did returning to work after having children become a luxury only afforded to Britain’s wealthier parents?

The Government decided to switch out of childcare vouchers in 2017 for something called tax-free childcare. It gives parents up to £2000 per year per child, if eligible. This operates through an online Childcare account provided by National Savings & Investments (NS&I) in partnership with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Households on low incomes who qualify for Working Tax-Credits are entitled to claim ‘the childcare element’, giving them up to 70 per cent of approved childcare provider costs.

Not all are eligible for tax credits, and considering that a full-time childminder will charge an average weekly rate of £217.30, and that a nursery could charge £232.84, parents in full time employment need to budget £10,000 – £12,000 per child (- £2000 if eligible for Tax-Free Childcare) on top of their basic living expenses.

The median annual income in the UK, according to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, is £28,677 for full-time employees. If childcare isn’t affordable, is the Government really cutting the cost of living?

We encourage our young people to take out student loans, get an education, learn skills, build and climb the career ladder. We’ve built affordable homes and propped them up with help-to-buy schemes. This Government wants to see Generation Rent finally turn things around: this is the Government determined to see savings settling in millennial bank accounts. So why abandon them in parenthood?

According to research from the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), 29 per cent of women and 14 per cent of men have found that returning to work after having a child isn’t financially worthwhile. And it’s not as if the gods of good fortune are acting in new parents favour; one in four employers believe it’s fair to ask interviewees if they plan to have children, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) approximate that 54,000 women are losing their jobs each year after having children.

Three in five professional women returning to work after a break are likely to move into lower-skilled or lower-paid roles, experiencing earning reductions of up to a third (PWC reports); and according to the Fawcett Society, for each year a mother is absent from the workplace, her future earning potential will fall by four per cent.

Losing employees to parenthood isn’t free. If you underline the costs of hiring and training new staff, redundancy payouts and lost productivity, parents being pushed out the workplace are inflicting costs up to £280 million a year. And the echoing effect from the higher earnings and spending power lost could mean the economy is losing out on an extra £1.7 billion, according to PWC.

But there is a solution.

The Childcare Loan would possess the same skeletal model of the student loan, allowing parents affordable childcare up until the age of five when fulltime education kicks in (and beyond, if after-school childcare is required). Four years of fulltime childcare demanding £900+ in ongoing monthly payments – made bite size.

Giving parents the freedom to return to work quashes anxiety about potential lost earnings, missed pay rises and forfeiting promotions. Utilising the Childcare Loan, parents could choose to stretch childcare payments over time whilst they continue earning the salary they deserve.

Paid back over ten years (for example), fulltime childcare with the added 6.3 per cent interest could cost a family £4252 a year. Under the Tax Free Childcare Scheme, this would be almost double. Like the student loan, variants could be introduced to ensure that people on lower incomes pay a lower interest rate, and parents who become unemployed can ‘pause’ the loan until they return to work.

It would initially cost the Government over £2 billion to get those 54,000 women back into work by employing the Childcare Loan method, but when faced with the economic impact of losing workers to parenthood the Chancellors’ purse strings might loosen.  And there is that infamous rumour that we may have £39 billion up for reassignment.

Robert Halfon: Excluded children should be safe and secure – not left vulnerable on our streets.

With gangs on our streets and knives in our schools, this is too big a societal issue to look at purely through the lens of our education system.

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Exclusions

An average of 40 children are permanently excluded from our schools every single day. This has risen by 40 per cent over the past three years to a staggering total of 7,720 a year. Children with special educational needs account for around half of all permanent and temporary exclusions.

What’s worse, many more exclusions are happening under the radar. Back in June 2018, Ofsted identified 300 schools for ‘off-rolling’ – the practice of unofficially excluding their pupils. Between 2016 and 2017, over 19,000 pupils disappeared from the books and did not progress from year 10 to 11 in the same state-funded secondary school.

Our schools are more than just places of education; they are beacons of our communities. For many children, school is the only place with the promise of a hot meal and the stability that they are missing at home. Without the care and supervision of our schools, all of these children are infinitely more vulnerable.

Alternative Provision

With a postcode lottery of alternative provision for those who have been excluded, is it any wonder that many of our most vulnerable children end up on the streets being recruited or targeted by atrocious gangs? Post-16, there is barely any alternative provision, at all. How can we expect children, who were unable to cope in mainstream secondary schools, to rock up in a college of 15,000 students and settle in ‘just fine’?

Many excluded children end up being home-schooled or in unregistered provision. Once a child falls off the radar, there is no way of making sure that they are being looked after and educated as they should be.

Vulnerable children should be in safe, appropriate provision, not on our streets.

Crime

We know that pupils who are excluded from school are twice as likely to carry a knife, and 63 per cent of prisoners report having been excluded from schools in their youth. It is, therefore, unsurprising to read of Ofsted’s latest research on the rise in knife crime overflowing into our classrooms.

Gangs are targeting excluded pupils and exploiting schools’ behavioural policies to force their hands on exclusions. They are arming our children and encouraging them to take weapons to school to trigger their exclusion.

Zero-Tolerance Behavioural Policies

The Education Select Committee which I chaired we looked at how zero-tolerance behavioural policies may lead to a rise in exclusions in our report, Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions. Exclusion should always be a last resort. However, there is a difficult balance to be stuck between ensuring that our schools remain a safe place for staff and pupils, as well as being an inclusive and supportive environment for those students who need it most.

On this basis, we concluded that it is reasonable for schools to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to drugs and weapons; however, a school culture that is intolerant of minor infractions of school policies on haircuts or uniform will create an environment where pupils are punished needlessly and those who are most vulnerable are pushed out. There should be greater flexibility and a degree of discretion when implementing behavioural policies to ensure that, as far as possible, all students get the support they need to stay safe and reach their potential.

Alternative Solutions

That being said, there is more that our education system can do to protect pupils without compromising the safety of our schools. Aside from improving the quality of alternative provision when mainstream education is not a suitable option, schools must face this gang endemic head on. We should be educating our students about the dangers they face and working alongside local authorities, charities, and youth organisations on a collaborative approach to provide wrap-around care and interventions when students are in danger.

Queen Mary University of London has found that our children are most at risk of being knifed during ‘stabbing hour’ – as they make their way home after the school bell chimes at the end of the day. This is heartbreaking. Knife crime is an issue that surrounds and threatens our schools, but it does not stem from them.

With gangs on our streets and knives in our schools, this is too big a societal issue to look at purely through the lens of our education system. We need joined up thinking across government, across organisations and across our communities to mend our broken society.

David Burrowes: It’s time to really make work pay for low-income families

Cripplingly high effective marginal tax rates, and other imbalances, are skewing the tax system against the things we care about.

David Burrowes is the former MP for Enfield Southgate and Executive Director of the Manifesto to Strengthen Families, which is supported by over 60 MPs.

Political attention is no doubt elsewhere this week, but sadly for eight years of a Conservative-led Government family life has been largely ignored in the tax system. So much so, in fact, that low income families are being trapped in poverty.

This may come as a surprise, given a core tenet of Conservative policy during these years has been to make work pay. Since we got back into power in 2010, there has been a jobs creation miracle: there are now more jobs than ever before, and unemployment is at record low levels. Of course that has benefited families and now record numbers of children live in households who work.

But this is only one side of the coin. It’s no good creating thousands of new jobs if people don’t then feel the benefit of more money at the end of the month.

This issue of making work pay for low-income families prompted me to chair a panel of MPs – Fiona Bruce, Heidi Allen, and Chris Green – who conducted an inquiry in November and led to our report being published this week.

We found that work simply does not pay for many families in the bottom half of the income distribution. The UK’s unusually high effective marginal tax rates (EMTR) have stripped families of the incentive to work more hours or get a better paid job. EMTR is the amount of money someone loses from every additional pound they would earn above their current salary in tax, national insurance and lost benefits.

The UK is an outlier – it treats low-income families in the tax system worse than any other country in the developed world. The EMTR rate for a one-earner married couple with two children on 75 per cent average wage is the highest of all OECD countries and more than twice as high as the EU (22) average. If all these other countries can avoid the same astonishingly high EMTRs we have here, then clearly the problem is avoidable.

Research by the Tax and the Family shows that the EMTR for a single-earner family on £21,000 with three children, paying income tax and national insurance and entitled to tax credits, housing, and council tax benefit, is an eye-watering 96 per cent. This means for every extra £1 they earn, they keep only 4p. Under Universal Credit, this figure will fall slightly, but it will still likely be an 80 per cent rate.

All family types suffer under this current situation. It doesn’t matter whether you are a single parent, single-earner couple, or a dual-earner couple. One in three of all in-work families are likely to be facing high EMTRs. But it’s not just the very low paid who are affected. For example, a single income family with three children paying rent of £157 a week has in 2018/19 an EMTR of 96 per cent. This does not drop to 32 per cent until your income reaches £40,776 and where housing costs are greater, the 96 per cent rate reaches even higher. This means it is almost impossible for some families to escape poverty.

It was striking that during the inquiry, both Tax and the Family and the Iain Duncan Smith made mention of the fact that Lord Lawson, the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer who introduced a system of independent taxation, has gone on record to state that the option of joint taxation was implicit in his original proposals for independent taxation and was his preferred choice.

The case for tax reform to give more support for families is being made from across our Conservative political family. Last November the Centre for Policy Studies, in its report ‘Make Work Pay’, acknowledged that “the British tax system is, by international standards, rather ungenerous towards families”. The CPS report concludes that transferable allowances “recognise the fact that what matters most to people is often the family finances – not just their personal situation. From a moral standpoint, it seems right that the tax system should acknowledge this in some way”.

Earlier this month 21 Conservative MPs, who straddle the economic and social left and right of the Party, united to support an amendment to the Finance Bill, calling on the Chancellor to conduct a review to consider how family responsibility can be better recognised in the tax system and the high EMTRs mitigated. The Speaker chose not to select this amendment so, undeterred, a debate on the issue has been secured in Parliament today.

So we find ourselves in a situation which, for Conservatives, is completely contradictory. First, our eye-wateringly high EMTRs are anti-aspirational. We don’t recognise family responsibilities, which means families in poverty pay thousands in income tax but then have to be supported by inflated benefits, with our cripplingly high EMTRs kicking in when these benefits are withdrawn. This completely suffocates aspiration.

Secondly, it is illogical and philosophically incoherent. We celebrate families and the fact that the family is the bedrock of society, but we almost entirely ignore families in the tax system (apart from a token married couples allowance). At the moment, we tax families as if they are individuals even while we sustain a benefits system which views members of the family as a family. We send out a curious message in the tax system that if you are dependent on the State we recognise family responsibility, but if you are in work we don’t.

Thirdly, it is anti-choice. The best systems of independent taxation allow couples the choice of whether they want to be taxed independently or jointly. In the UK, families simply do not have that choice. The state has in effect decided that independence is the ultimate priority and this has been decided to the detriment of family life.

Fourthly, this arrangement is judgemental. It means that any family where the second earner is either not in work or earning less than their personal allowance will end up financially penalised for this arrangement. As IDS said during the inquiry, we are judgemental about couples who choose for only one spouse to work. To some extent, we are telling stay-at-home parents not to bother and to make grandparents or other carers provide the childcare.

It is clear the current status quo is unsustainable. If the Government are serious about making work pay then it must get real about what is happening in low income families, which means engaging with the issue of our absurdly high EMTRs. Rather than making it easy for families to aspire to increase their incomes, UK fiscal arrangements are effectively suffocating social mobility and trapping families in poverty.

The Conservative Party is at it’s best when it is a party of social mobility, social justice and the family. Unless the Government allocates family responsibility more equally between the benefits system and tax system in order to bring our effective marginal rates down, it will have fallen short.

“No-one voted for Brexit to become poorer.” Really? We vote to deny ourselves money all the time.

Security, cohesion, integration, solidarity: all are intangible. But we pay – literally – to gain them. Why single out self-government?

Philip Hammond may have coined the phrase – an appropriate use of the term, in this case.  “No-one voted to become poorer or less secure,” he told the Conservative Party Conference in 2016, less than six months after the Brexit referendum vote.  As others have taken those words up, the last three have tended to drop off it.  But was he right?

Obviously, even as senior a Minister as the Chancellor cannot have read the minds of all 17 million plus of those who backed Leave – the largest number of people who have ever voted for anything in a British poll.  But let us leave the point there, and turn to his own department’s forecasts.  The Treasury’s median long-term estimate is that a WTO-based outcome would reduce cumulative growth over 15 years from about 25 per cent to about 17 per cent.  In other words, GDP would, under this scenario, be eight per cent lower than it would otherwise be.  It would rise more slowly, not fall.

So even the Treasury, the high temple of Remain, doesn’t expect us to become poorer – but rather, less rich than we would otherwise be.  You may counter that this lost growth would mean lost wages and tax receipts, lower spending and higher tax.  Or that some short-term forecasts do suggest that we will become poorer this year in the event of No Deal.  (The CBI is pushing a very-worst-case scenario today.)

We could come back by pouring cold water on all such forecasts, starting with George Osborne’s referendum campaign projections of an “immediate” recession, half a million more people unemployed, and house prices 18 per cent lower than they would otherwise have been.  Instead, the economy grew, unemployment fell and house prices rose.  But rather than vanish into a statistical snowstorm, we ask our readers to view Hammond’s statement from a different angle – two angles, to be precise.

The first is from the Left.  Trident costs the taxpayer roughly £2 billion a year.  That money could instead be spent on tax cuts or public services.  Very many on the Left (and some on the Right) argue that it should be.  They say that we don’t use Trident, wouldn’t ever use it, shouldn’t ever use it.  The cash should go instead on schools or hospitals or benefits or childcare.

Next, mull an argument from the Right.  Overseas aid comes at a price of about £14 billion annually.  Again, that money could be spent on public services or tax cuts – or, the Right being the Right, on debt repayment.  A lot of people on it – and a sprinkling on the Left – hold that development aid is wasted or stolen and perverts incentives and is subject to the law of unintended consequences.

Now stand back from the fray, and ponder a stubborn fact.  Voters consistently back Trident and aid.  No, that’s not quite right.  Rather, put it this way: voters consistently return governments committed to both.  Then turn to another subject to illustrate the same point.

Pro-migration campaigners argue that it makes us richer – both overall and per head.  Others dispute that claim.  Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that those campaigners are right.  Even if every single voter could be persuaded of this, there is reason to doubt that all of them would come round to wanting higher rather than lower migration.  Very many would believe that there would still be costs in some places to higher immigration – in terms, for example, of pressure on housing.  And then there is the i-word: integration.

At which point, it is worth standing back from Hammond’s statement, and asking not whether he was right or wrong, but what he actually meant – or implied.  Who is the “no-one” in question?  Who are those to whom he glancingly refers?  Obviously, the British people.  But that’s a term which invites further thought.

In one sense, the British people is a single entity; in another, it is lots of groups of people, breaking down in turn into families and individuals.  Many of them help to pay for others.  Older people tend not to use schools, but they help to fund them.  Younger people use the NHS less than older ones, but they help to pay for it.  Londoners, some say, subsidise the rest of the UK.  And so on and so forth.

Readers will see where all this is going.  At each election, we vote to “make ourselves poorer”, in the sense of becoming less rich than we otherwise would be.  We plump for Trident because we worry about our security (to reprise the Chancellor’s word); or for lower migration because we think it will mean more cohesion, or for overseas aid because of solidarity with those who suffer. We vote to fund public services we don’t use and parts of the country we don’t live in.  Security, cohesion, solidarity: these are intangibles.  They can’t be touched or smelled or tasted – seen or heard.  They may lead to material gains, but they are not material themselves.  None comes with a price tag, but all have value.

Let’s end by illustrating the point.  John Hume was fond of quoting his anti-sectarian father, who used to say: “you can’t eat a flag”.  True – and anyone who has tried to do so has presumably been disappointed.  But the reverse also applies.  No-one, we suspect, has ever sung: “I vow to thee, my breakfast.”  Those intangibles – such as self-government, to cite another – matter.  From one point of view, the desire for the last is a form of solidarity or even for, to use a more EU-ish word, subsidiarity.

You can properly reply that self-government and patriotism aren’t the same thing, or even that they don’t overlap at all.  So be it.  What you can’t do, this site believes, is claim that Brexit alone, uniquely, exceptionally, will make us less rich than we otherwise would be (if it does so at all).  By commission, by omission, in the ballot booth and out of it, we opt to do this all the time – almost without noticing.

Robert Halfon: Why are white working class boys underachieving in our schools?

Rather than obsess about lack of aspiration, it is the lack of social capital that we should be focusing on.

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

The educational prospects of white disadvantaged boys make for uncomfortable reading, and the first chapter begins in the early years. Some can barely string a sentence together by the time they start primary school. The proportion of Year 1 pupils meeting the expected standard of phonic decoding is 13 per cent lower than it is for black disadvantaged boys, and 23 per cent lower than it is for Asian disadvantaged girls.

As they continue to stumble through the rest of their education, any outline of promise diminishes further still. At GCSE level, all disadvantaged ethnic groups outperform their disadvantaged white peers. For example, the average Attainment 8 score per pupil is just 29.5 for white boys eligible for free school meals, compared to 40.5 for Asian disadvantaged males.

Life chances become bleaker at the point of higher education. Disadvantaged white pupils are 40 per cent less likely to go to higher education than disadvantaged black peers and disadvantaged Asian students are twice as likely to attend the most selective institutions than disadvantaged white students.

There are many reasons for the underachievement of disadvantaged white boys. Some people like to talk about a lack of aspiration. I disagree. It is not that white disadvantaged boys themselves do not want to succeed. Who doesn’t want to prosper in life? Ask any young man, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ and I am sure that they have an idea, even if they do not have the confidence to voice it aloud. In fact, studies show that aspiration is unfailingly high in all social groups.

So rather than obsess about lack of aspiration, it is the lack of social capital that we should be focusing on. White disadvantaged boys cannot even play the game that is the competitive jobs market, whilst their wealthier peers win every time. They do not have access to the same know-how, extracurricular opportunities and social networks to build soft skills and boost their prospects in the jobs market.

One way to level the playing field is to provide comprehensive careers advice and meaningful work experience. At the moment, we are way off the mark. Around one in five schools do not even meet any of the eight Gatsby benchmarks – international markers of sound careers advice. Careers advice must be transformed into careers and skills advice; a one-stop-shop – a National Skills Service, with a UCAS for Further Education and Apprenticeships.

It is also important to understand what is driving disengagement with education. Disadvantaged white communities do not always make the link between educational success and getting a good job.

Professor Green, an award-winning rapper (and an unlikely reference I’ll admit), explored the lives of six young white men from deprived backgrounds in his documentary, Working Class White Men. Among those interviewed was 18-year-old Lewis Croney. Despite having defied his odds to secure a place to study Maths at Trinity College, Cambridge, Croney explained that he still faced scepticism from home, saying: “I’ve had people asking me why I’m going to Cambridge, why am I putting myself through three years or more of higher education when I could go straight into a job,” said Croney. Once this perception is embedded, it undermines educational performance.

One need only look at London to see how investment in good schooling can be transformative. Previously riddled with underperforming schools, our capital now proudly boasts an education landscape that is turning around many disadvantaged children’s’ lives. White boys in London who are eligible for free school meals perform better than those in other parts of the country.

There are so many things that can be done to stem underperformance for white disadvantaged children. But to do so, we need a proper, focused government strategy and it should start with the early years.

From a very young age, white working-class children have poor educational outcomes. Good quality childcare can help enormously. Children who attend high-quality settings for two to three years are almost eight months ahead of children who attend none. But, many families struggle with the cost of childcare. How can we justify giving major concessions, in the form of 30 hours of free childcare to 3-4-year-olds and tax-free childcare, to couples earning as much as £200,000 a year? We should reduce the current thresholds for 30 hours/tax-free childcare and redirect funding to help disadvantaged parents.

All schools in disadvantaged areas should be good. But good schools need good teachers and schools in many deprived areas struggle to attract good, experienced teachers and leaders, who are so instrumental in driving up quality. Instead, more experienced teachers tend to gravitate towards less disadvantaged schools.

£72 million is spent on opportunity areas, although we don’t really know exactly what impact they are having. How about using this money on things that are proven to improve failing schools, like great teachers and great training?

Finally, it is crucial that all educational routes – not just the traditional academic ones – are top notch. All children, regardless of background, should have access to easily accessible technical routes that will lead to good job opportunities. In other advanced economies, technical routes are a well-respected, well-oiled part of the educational machinery that exists. In Switzerland, for example, around 70 per cent of students undertake apprenticeships.

When done well, apprenticeships change lives – they allow people to grow their skills, increasing employability and earning potential. Degree apprenticeships could be the crown jewel in a revamped technical offering. Students earn as they learn, they do not incur mountains of debt, and they get good quality jobs at the end. I hope that one day, half of all university students are doing them. The Government should incentivise their growth and they could do this by drawing down on the Apprenticeships Levy.

However, this is not just an issue of supply. Few families are aware of degree apprenticeships. Both the existence of apprenticeships and their value should be hard-wired into careers advice.

So a fairer distribution of funding to boost access to quality early years provision; spending money more wisely to bring great quality teaching to all schools; revolutionising careers support and putting rocket boosters on technical learning – these should be the core pillars of government strategy.

The plight of white disadvantaged boys is a stain on all our consciences. People must have a good education to climb the ladder of opportunity, and it is well within our collective ability to make sure this happens.

Jonathan Clark: Is it time to sweep away our party system – and clear the decks for Leave v Remain?

The electorate are less and less convinced by such arguments about party identity and destiny. Far underground, the tectonic plates are moving.

Jonathan Clark was a Fellow of Peterhouse; at Oxford, he was a Fellow of All Souls College; latterly he has been Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His latest book is a study of Thomas Paine.

Nobody knows when the next Tokyo earthquake will happen. Nobody knows what, exactly, will cause it. All we know is that it is statistically overdue, that it is inevitable, and that it will cause major damage. How does the world economy prepare for this shock? It does nothing. Perhaps nothing can be done.

Similarly with the UK party system. Every 60 or 80 or a hundred years there is a fundamental crisis, a realignment, a radical recasting of the structure of parties in the face of new forces, new challenges, new problems.

The last time was when the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party in the years after the First World War. The previous occasion was when the Liberal Party split over the issue of free trade versus imperial preference. The time before that was when the Conservative Party split over Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corm Laws, that protectionist system designed to preserve the ascendancy of the landowners in the arable areas of England.

Now again we see a single unavoidable, fundamental, non-negotiable issue at the forefront of national life. Both the major parties are split on it, and in a state of rending, agonizing civil war. The Liberal Democrats are at one, but make little electoral capital out of their unanimity. These stresses seem unlikely to go away. Indeed, they are daily increasing.

Is it, then, time for a structural realignment of parties and party allegiances? Would the public interest be better served if there were just two major groups, a Leave Party and a Remain Party? Then the electorate would know what they were getting. They would no longer suspect that their representatives were saying one thing but about to do the opposite. Democratic participation would receive a massive boost. Consistent policies could be framed and carried through. We might even spell out when and how referenda could be held.

After all, it could hardly be said that the current parties do what it says on their tins. Whatever its origins, today’s Labour Party hardly dedicates itself to forwarding the interest of labourers, people who toil in productive employments to advance the interests of themselves and their families. It is no secret that the Labour movement is an alliance of trades unionists with public sector employees and welfare claimants. That alliance now dictates the ideological content of the party’s agenda more than the earlier attempt to boost the prosperity of labourers.

The Lib Dems fare no better. If Liberalism had a clear historic meaning, it revolved around free trade in the years when the merchants and manufacturers of the Manchesters and the Bradfords exported their products around the world. Now, Lib Dems instinctively side with the greatest international protectionist group, the EU. Once, Liberals campaigned for franchise extension and more frequent elections; today, they instinctively repudiate the result of the greatest ever popular vote in the UK; they endorse an EU in which the electorate cannot remove the executive from power, and representatives cannot initiate legislation.

The Conservatives are in little better shape. The National Trust, which conserves things, has five million members and rising; the Conservative Party, which conserves nothing, has a hundred thousand members and falling. Once, the Conservative Party conserved institutions, like the monarchy, the Lords, the Church of England, the armed forces, Oxford and Cambridge, the family. But all these are now embarrassing topics for many of its leaders, and the party is one of radical reform (even if it delivers much less of that than in the age of Margaret Thatcher).

The electorate may say: what, then, is the point of all of this? Why not sweep the career politicians away and begin again with a new set of faces, people with talent, ideas, principles, and candour? Why not have a spring cleaning of the Commons and the Lords in the manner of Macron? Electors could all list many honourable and able politicians who would deserve to survive such a cull; the problem is that the public increasingly thinks that that number is outweighed by others who would not.

What are the arguments against such a reconstruction? That the major parties are great stores of wisdom and experience. That their leaders are practical, prudent men and women who have taken moderate, feasible steps in policy. That public affairs are well administered. That the parties have big money behind them. That major change would cause uncertainty. Inertia.

The strongest argument in favour of the traditional parties’ divine right to continue in their present forms is that each of them embodies an essence, a set of ideas and ideals that is handed on from generation to generation and that inspire the living to complete the great work of their predecessors. Youthful politicians still sometimes write slim volumes attempting to outline that essence. As a matter of historical method, this task was always difficult; some people may now think it impossible.

The larger problem is that the electorate are less and less convinced by such arguments about party identity and destiny. Far underground, the tectonic plates are moving. There is a deep murmur rising from dark places. A suspicion is growing that public affairs are not well conducted, and that (in all the major parties) a Third Eleven is only shielding itself from insight and appraisal by the widespread use of non-disclosure agreements.

As a member of a political party, this intellectual hollowing out of parties distresses me. As a voter, what is happening in public policy formation and execution alarms me. Perhaps the show will be kept on the road after all; but, in that case, I would be reassured if it could be better shown what the rationale for the continuance of present party divisions is. But perhaps it will not.

Desmond Swayne: Weaning parents off disposable nappies

We must look at the benefits that reusable nappies can offer, and promote greater awareness so that people can make an informed choice.

Sir Desmond Swayne is a former International Development Minister, and is MP for New Forest West.

The message from the Budget is clear: consumers have made their views known on plastic packaging. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s empower people to cut down on other single-use plastics to benefit the environment, reduce waste and emissions in our over-stretched waste systems, and support household finances.

Both Defra and the Treasury have spent considerable departmental time and resource exploring how to influence consumer and industry behaviour when it comes to cutting plastic consumption, and rightly so.  For now, Philip Hammond says he is content to rely on industry to drive plastic use down rather than resort to taxation. Industry, especially hospitality and independent food retailers, have taken proactive steps over the last twelve months. I’m pleased to see that extraneous packaging has been banished from the majority of fruit and veg in our supermarkets, and plastic straws have been replaced by waxy paper ones in pubs and bars across the country.

But this is only the start. With a recent UN study finding that we have only twelve years to prevent irreversible damage to the climate, people are only now realising it is their own responsibility to limit their impact on the planet – and that they must do this by making real changes to their daily routine.

The good news is that changes can be made quickly and to good effect – and this is why I was pleased to see the subject of reusable nappies being raised by Michael Gove at Party Conference this year. We’ve targeted straws, cotton buds, balloon sticks and shrink-wrap. Disposables, which currently make up four to six per cent of household waste, are the obvious next step.

The average baby uses 4000 nappies up to potty training, the majority of which will go to landfill: eight million of them every day in the UK alone. As well as taking up a large proportion of limited landfill space and putting significant pressure on our waste-collection services, disposable nappies typically contain around 30 per cent plastic material which can end up polluting land or water resources.

Whilst it would not be a very Conservative measure to ban disposables, especially given the other pressures young families have to contend with, we must look at the benefits that reusable nappies can offer, and promote greater awareness so that people can make an informed choice. The time is right for Government to support this with practical and effective policy. Defra is consulting about how to end the use of single-life plastic straws and plastic-handled cotton buds which is important.

But it should also address two aspects of the use of disposable nappies. First, it should consider how to ensure that the plastics used in disposable nappies are as biodegradable and as harmless to the environment as possible. I understand that is something manufacturers are considering, but the development of a realistic disposable recycling system is still at a nascent stage.

Second, we need to look at how to share adequate information with consumers to enable them to make informed decisions – particularly about the impact that disposable nappies will have on the environment, even when they are responsibly removed to landfill. How long do disposable nappies take to biodegrade? What are the products of that process and what are their effects on the environment? What happens to nappies that are not responsibly disposed of, but end up in our watercourses and seas?

Parents should also know how modern reusable nappies work. I understand that nowadays reusables are light-weight and easy to wash – far removed from the heavy terry towelling models of days gone by. This is information that new parents could receive when they are given their Bounty packs during maternity care. Most importantly, parents need to know that it doesn’t have to be a case of all or nothing. An Environment Agency study found that, if parents swap to just one reusable a day, they can save using 800 nappies over the first 2-3 years of a child’s life, and make significant reductions to their own carbon footprint, not to mention savings to the household purse.

The Government has a tremendous opportunity here: better information for consumers; more biodegradable and safer plastics; less plastic going to landfill; reducing the emissions created through waste management; and a burnishing of the government’s green credentials. This policy initiative would be entirely consistent with the Environment Secretary’s record of green pragmatism and with his determination to make a difference to our environment; a small but impactful step that chimes with the growing traction of consumer responsibility.