Georgia L Gilholy: Conservatives must comprehensively reject the latest anti-smoker crusade

17 Jun

Georgia L Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.

If I were to collect caricatures of nanny-state health proposals, the likes of which the Daily Mail‘s worst noughties nightmares could only dream of parodying, I imagine it would look something like last week’s independent smoking review.

Dr Javed Khan’s paper, commissioned by health secretary Sajid Javid, contains a series of questionable ideas to make England “smoke-free by 2030”.

Naturally, the most headline-grabbing proposal of them all was Khan’s support for raising the age at which it is legal to purchase cigarettes by a year each year until no one in the UK can legally buy them.

Do we really want to see swathes of British adults once again condemned to their adolescent lingering in the vicinity of an off-licence, hoping to pluck up the courage to ask someone a year their senior to buy them a pack of cigarettes? Surely it is unjust that adults expected to burden so many other responsibilities are robbed of their liberty to light up the occasional fag?

It is also notable that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the latter of which openly support the legalisation of cannabis – the psychological risks of which are undoubtedly more dangerous than cigarettes – have maintained a stony silence since the publication of Khan’s review.

Given the chunk of free-market policy wonks and Conservative backbenchers also campaigning for cannabis legalisation, could it soon could become perfectly legal to purchase cannabis, while risking arrest or eviction from social housing for lighting up a cigarette?

Indeed, Khan aims to ban smoking from most new social housing developments, complaining that:

“People who rent with local authorities or are with a housing association are nearly three times more likely to smoke than those who have a mortgage.”

Translation: people more likely to be on lower incomes are more likely to smoke and should be banned from doing so by the state, even if it is in their own homes.

Khan also dreams of swiftly hiking the cost of tobacco duties by upwards of 30 per cent across all tobacco products. This would substantially increase the price at a time when the price of a 20-pack has already climbed to around £14. No doubt this policy would function as nothing short of a blessing for Britain’s already roaring tobacco black market.

It must too be noted that the contrast in our attitude to alcohol and cigarettes is striking. It is currently impossible to think of a government review seriously recommending such dramatic restrictions on alcohol.

In 2017, 28 per cent of UK men and 14 per cent of UK women aged 16 years and over drank more than 14 units of alcohol per week. In 2017, 36 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women between the ages of 55 to 64 most commonly drank over 14 units in a week. Unsurprisingly, this rose over the pandemic.

Alcohol is also quite clearly more of an immediate danger, but it is so ingrained in our way of life that its risks are rarely given a second thought.

How many of us have heard of a person crashing their car, getting lost in the middle of the night, or beating up their partner after smoking a packet of Silk Cuts? How many of us know people who have done such things, or been victims of them, because of alcohol consumption?

While some utilitarians may complain that a clampdown on cigarettes is necessary to relieve pressure on an already-beleaguered NHS, it is worth noting that, unlike alcohol, tobacco duties have long outstripped the health cost to the NHS from their use.

Furthermore, if we are to accept the premise, as so many did during Covid, that potential impact to the NHS is deserving of tyrannical mandates, why stop at cigarettes? By this logic, why not allow the state to ban alcohol, junk food, sedentary lifestyles, or types of sexual activity more at a heightened risk of disease transmission?

Even caffeine could fall under the remit of Khan’s urge to ban “addictions”.

Another of Dr Khan’s more ludicrous suggestions is that:

“…all films, TV shows and online media that contain tobacco imagery on screen should be classified as unsuitable for viewing by persons aged under 18 years, and television programmes that include tobacco imagery to be broadcast after the 9pm watershed. [The aforementioned media] be required to display an on-screen health warning while such imagery is visible.”

This amounts to little more than cultural vandalism under the excuse of safeguarding the young, many of whom have already inherited the increased social taboo surrounding smoking.

Vast catalogues of 20th-century films and television contain “tobacco imagery” simply because smoking was more commonplace then, not least because its health impacts were poorly understood until the 1960s. I pray I do not live to see the day when we have to endure the flashing up of a public health warning if Bette Davis or Bet Lynch so much as reach for a lighter.

Why even stop at the visual arts? Is the mention of Sherlock’s nicotine addiction or Gandalf’s puffing on “pipe-weed” enough to provoke Khan’s lust for censorship?

Just as his idea to interfere in media would could prove yet another hindrance to an already struggling entertainment industry, Khan’s plot to bar smoking from beer gardens could be the final blow to the pub sector after years of lamentable struggles.

This decline has already been exacerbated by Tony Blair’s indoor smoking ban, the proliferation of cheaper shop-sold booze, and the pandemic’s sledgehammer to the hospitality sector. It would be irresponsible to throw yet another obstacle at businesses as inflation soars and the threat of a recession looms.

Khan’s paper also complains that: “During the pandemic, the proportion of young adults aged 18 to 24 who smoke rose from one in four to one in three.”

Could this possibly be because so many young people were told to stay in their houses regardless of the risk of social isolation, depression, anxiety and physical degeneration, on the advice of the very same public health officials cheerleading this review?

Shut down social venues, schools, and gyms, and send CCTV drones to shame people walking in the middle of the countryside, but god forbid an adult seeks to take the edge off their day by buying a packet of cigarettes.

While any civilised society requires a balance between liberty and responsibility, Dr Khan’s crackpot plans to phase out smoking entirely risk obliterating any sense of a measured equilibrium altogether. After years of being told to sit inside and stay away from friends and family for the sake of safety, let’s leave Brits alone to enjoy a cigarette if they happen to fancy one.

The post Georgia L Gilholy: Conservatives must comprehensively reject the latest anti-smoker crusade first appeared on Conservative Home.

Emily Carver: Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP bungles schools, ferries, drugs, rail – and now minimum alcohol pricie

8 Jun

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

While Westminster reels from the result of the Prime Minister’s vote of confidence, the SNP continues to add to its litany of shambolic policy failures north of the border.

Whether it’s the £150 million debacle over the Scottish census; the scrapping of the party’s flagship pledge to close the education attainment gap between rich and poor by 2026; the endless accusations of corruption and sleaze; the ferry fiasco and the chaos of the Scotrail nationalisation; the horrific drug death toll that shows no signs of easing; chilling legislation on hate crimes; and the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, which would make legal gender a matter of ‘self-identification’, the SNP has got the big things so terribly, terribly wrong.

One flagship policy the First Minister used to be oh so keen to shout about is minimum unit pricing – in her words, one of the “major achievements” of devolution, and an area in which Scotland has shown “leadership”. The World Health Organisation praised Scotland for its “promising” policy. Yesterday, however, Public Health Scotland published its final report evaluating its impact, and it made for sober reading.

The SNP first attempted to implement this nanny state policy in 2012. After several years of legal challenges, and a landmark legal victory in 2017, Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce this form of price controls.

At the time, the First Minister said she was “absolutely delighted” that minimum pricing was upheld by the Supreme Court; she noted that while “no doubt the policy will continue to have its critics…it is a bold and necessary move to improve public health”.

In 2019, it was looking good for Sturgeon, when it was reported that ‘Scottish alcohol sales at lowest level in 25 years after price controls’. Little was made of the fact that these figures were totally disingenuous – namely because they referred to 2018, when the policy had only been in forced for eight months. Of course, Nicola didn’t let this get in the way of a good headline, tweeting “this is an encouraging first indicator of the impact of minimum unit pricing”.

Subsequent evidence has not been so “encouraging”. In 2021, a report by the National Institute for Health Research for Public Health Scotland revealed a disturbing 17 per cent increase in alcohol deaths in 2020 on the previous year. There was also no evidence of reduced alcohol consumption.

Now, this week, Public Health Scotland has released its final report into the impact of Minimum Unit Pricing in Scotland on those drinking at harmful levels.

If minimum unit pricing was having its desired effect, you’d expect to see a drop in alcohol-related harms. Instead, you see no such thing. The official evaluation has found no evidence that harmful drinks have reduced their alcohol consumption or experienced any health benefits. Instead, many of them have switched from cider to spirits – vodka, in particular – and there are reports of increased levels of intoxication and violence from family members.

Even more damning, heavy drinkers have not turned away from the bottle as the public health lobby and the SNP suggested they would. Instead, they’ve chosen to cut down on essentials, including food and utilities, and borrow more money, than cut down on the booze. As the authors note, ‘reducing alcohol consumption was a last resort’

With inflation rising, it is highly likely that this policy will push vulnerable groups into further financial strain. Of course, for some, including the Liberal Democrats (liberal in name only), this is simply a reason to raise the rate from 50 to 65p as Willie Rennie MP told the First Minister last year – a policy the First Minister is yet to rule out.

As Alex Salmond accurately said, the First Minister likes to use independence as “political shield” to deflect voters’ attention from her government’s failures. So far, Sturgeon has chosen to remain silent on the bombshell evaluation of one of her flagship policies, but the catastrophic inadequacies of her administration are plain to see.

The post Emily Carver: Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP bungles schools, ferries, drugs, rail – and now minimum alcohol pricie first appeared on Conservative Home.

Jeremy Yallop: Home education has been a basic freedom for most of English history. Why is this Government placing it under threat?

30 May

Jeremy Yallop is a trustee of the Home Educators’ Qualifications Association (HEQA)

In the recent Queen’s Speech debate, Baroness Eaton praised the Government’s “listening mode”. Councils, inspectors, teachers’ unions and others have clamoured for years for home-educating families to be tracked, monitored, and regulated. The Children Not In School measures in the Schools Bill shows that the Government has listened to the lobbying.

But if the Government has also listened to those who will be affected, it has not shown it. Of the thousands of young people and parents who responded to its consultation, 85 per cent rejected proposals for compulsory registration. Home educators differ widely in background and motivation: some aim for a more varied education than schools offer; others focus on a safe learning environment for children who have been bullied out of school. Almost all home educators agree, however, that surveillance by officials will not improve their children’s lives.

In opposition, Conservatives shared this view and forced the Labour Government to abandon similar plans. Nick Gibb celebrated the defeat of Labour’s “draconian and excessive proposals”, predicting that “home educators across the country will be extremely relieved to be spared compulsory registration”. Michael Gove advised the Government to “work with people who want to home educate their children, rather than stigmatise them.”

Now both the proposals themselves and the stigma are back. “There’s no doubt in my mind” wrote the Education Secretary, introducing his new register, “that being in school is crucial to a child’s learning and development”. The implication of the register’s name – Children Not In School – is clear, then: something is wrong with these families, and they need watching closely.

The mechanics of the proposals are equally troubling. Two issues stand out.

First, the Education Secretary will have powers to decide key details later, without parliamentary oversight. One such detail is the sharing of children’s sensitive personal data. The Minister plans to share data with the police, at least, but he will be free to extend access as he sees fit.

Similarly, although the Bill itself only requires parents to register basic facts (names, dates of birth, addresses), it grants the Minister power to demand details about family life. The initial regulations will include at least ethnicity and other demographic information, reasons behind the parent’s decision to home educate, and information about the child’s welfare and general circumstances.

Second, the penalties for demurring are severe. If families delay disclosing these private details, whether through reluctance or a simple lapse, councils will respond by serving School Attendance Orders.

This is a fundamental change in the law. Home education, though only explicitly written into law in the 1944 Education Act, has been a basic freedom for most of English history. It has never before been contingent on entries in a register or on opening up family life to ongoing state scrutiny. It is unlikely that this change will improve relationships between councils and families.

At present, School Attendance Orders are a last resort, issued only where education is clearly unsuitable or absent; in a typical year, half of councils do not issue any at all. The Schools Bill makes them the first resort, so that every contact with the council carries the implicit threat that permission to home educate may be withdrawn.

A glance at the Bill’s other provisions reveals a more promising change: councils have a new duty to support home-educating families. As the consultation response explained, this duty is intended to signal Government recognition of and support for home education.

It is a disappointing signal so far. Despite the nominal duty, councils will not be obliged to offer any specific form of support. The Schools Minister has set out the same position in the past: when asked about help with accessing public exams, he reiterated the Government’s dislike of home education (“For most children … we are clear that school is the best place for their education”) and made clear that help will not be forthcoming.

In practice, most support for home-educating families comes from other home educators. Locally, sports and cultural activities are organised by dedicated volunteers. Nationally, internet groups with thousands of members share advice on pedagogy and on qualifications, from Key Skills to Oxbridge entrance exams.

It would be difficult to find a clearer example of the Big Society than these pluralist, cooperative, mutually-supportive communities. Council support cannot replace it, but there is an opportunity to strengthen it with guaranteed access to resources such as exam centres and sports facilities.

The Children Not In School measures are not intended to intrude into family life, or further damage relationships between families and councils; they are intended to help identify children who are missing education.

However, councils already have a mechanism for collecting information on children withdrawn from school, a duty to identify children missing education and powers to intervene where there is evidence of neglect. Registration provides nothing new, except a means of punishing home-educating families for administrative failures. Councils have already recognised this, and have called for the Bill “to be amended, to introduce adequate powers for local authorities to check on home-schooled children” which, in their view, requires a right of entry to people’s homes.

If it is clear that the Children Not In School measures will not help to identify children missing education, the councils’ response also makes clear that the measures will not satisfy the insistent calls for home education to be regulated. However, the measures will lead to unnecessary collection of sensitive personal data, to a further breakdown in trust between councils and families, and to home-educating families such as mine being forced to defend their educational provision in court.

It is regrettable that the Government has introduced these proposals without listening to those affected. The unstated aim of punishing home-educating families seems embedded so deeply in them that it is difficult to see how they could be usefully amended. There is, however, an opportunity to rebuild trust by withdrawing them and focusing instead on revising the similarly hostile Elective home education guidance in collaboration with the home educators that it affects.

Home education law, developed and refined over almost a century, is a distinctive strength of the English education system, as is the remarkable community that the law has allowed to flourish. Home-educating families share the Government’s aim for their children to have the best education possible. Strictures and stigma will not achieve that; the Government should instead work with the community to ensure that the resources needed to succeed are available to all.

Matt Hancock: Putin’s war is reminding us of a lasting truth – that our system and values are better than his

25 May

Matt Hancock is a former Secretary of State for Health, and is MP for West Suffolk.

The battles we see across Eastern Ukraine, for Mariupol, Donetsk, Severodonetsk and countless towns and villages, is not just a fight to protect European security against brutal, criminal, aggression. Of course, it is that – and, alone, that need to bring justice for the horrific crimes committed is enough to justify the war.

It is not even just a fight for the immutability of international borders, and the protection of all nations from strong offensive neighbours, vital as that is. It is not even just about protecting the food supplies to the poorest countries on earth, although that alone is an ethical imperative.

The battle for Ukraine is a fight for enlightenment values, of the liberty of people and the freedom of self-determination of nation states.

The brave soldiers fighting these battles for Ukraine are winning a fight for us all. In doing so, it is critical we support Ukraine in a fight to win. It is, as the inspirational Volodymyr Zelensky has said, for Ukraine and Ukraine alone to determine her future. That is what self-determination is all about.

The recent drive, apparently coordinated between Paris and Berlin, to push Ukraine for a compromise settlement must be resisted, as it would incentivise aggression, on the grounds that at least you might win some ground. Would you offer a wolf the sacrifice of just one limb?

On the contrary, Russia’s attack has so spectacularly failed in its bid to split NATO and undermine the West, and we must ensure that Ukraine alone decides her future. Giving up any ground now may appear to help in the short term, but it will undoubtedly cause far-reaching problems down the line.

If we fail to support Ukraine to win back her land, what’s stopping China, or any other dictatorship for that matter, doing exactly what Russia has done to Ukraine? Any such action would inevitably act as a green light – offering little to no deterrent.

While the war in Ukraine still rages on, we have seen some progress this week. Amid the bitter fighting, one border post was recaptured, painted in the now familiar yellow and blue that we see on flagpoles everywhere. In a highly symbolic manoeuvre, the Ukrainian army has pushed back the invaders to their border. Who are we to tell the Ukrainian people that some of them would have to live under the Russian yolk, with the dictatorial tyranny this brings?

For this war is bigger than being about security, or justice. It’s about our way of life.

Here, I see a glimmer of hope. For we can now see, with the clarity that comes from a shocking sight, that the drift to dictatorship in Russia and China has awful consequences.  Throughout my political life, support for democracy has waned, and those who see the cacophony of debate as a weakness have espoused their “strong man” theory of government.

I have long worried about the increasing numbers of people who have seemingly admired one party systems, and seen the long term horizons and lack of debate as a good thing, or at least, a price worth paying for prosperity and strength. In the wake of the economic crash, the expenses scandal, and growing social media noise over the past decade or so, it’s been harder to make the argument for the principles embedded in the enlightenment of the promotion of individual liberty and democratic institutions as the cornerstone of a good society.

If, like me, you think that everyone has a contribution to make, and that the role of society is to help everyone reach that potential, then the counterexample that the rights of the individual should be subordinate to the needs of the state seemed to be gaining ground. Open, liberal democracies support innovation and protect people from the overweening state.

Instead, over the past decade, the Russian invasion of Crimea, and President Xi’s removal of term limits should have told us clearly where this move away from supporting democracy would lead. But the case for democracy, especially among younger voters, has increasingly fell on deaf ears.

But democracy isn’t only morally superior but practically superior too. Dictatorship is not only bad but rubbish. Dictators and dictatorships suffocate innovation. By their very nature, they restrict freedom and don’t allow people to get on with whatever they choose to do without getting consent from any given dictatorial regime.

In a dictatorship, people tell you what they think you want to hear. I know from experience that, in liberal democracies like ours, plenty of people tell you what you don’t want to hear. It is essential we in the West don’t take this for granted and win again the case for democracy.

Now those of us who cherish democracy, with all of its noise and flaws, have two stark and real examples. China’s continued attempt at a Zero Covid policy is bringing misery.  Its refusal to use vaccines that work, like the Oxford vaccine, because they aren’t Chinese, is plunging their economy into freewill and driving up prices and harming prosperity everywhere. And just look at the shocking treatment by the Chinese dictatorship revealed by the Uyghur Police Files story this week.

China’s abuses of minorities and Russia’s horrific war are showing dictatorship up for what it is. Talking to the wonderful Ukrainian family I’m hosting in my home in West Suffolk makes me feel this particularly acutely.

No longer can democracy be seen as a soft alternative to bold and decisive regimes.  So yes, we must help Ukraine win its war, for the justice for people in Ukraine, and we must support them to win without concession to bolster security everywhere.

But even more than that, we must win once again the case for freedom, for the moral force of the democratic way of life, and win over another generation that this, in the words of Churchill, is the worst system, except all the others that have been tried. That, once more, is proving itself a timeless truth. That is what our brothers and sisters in Ukraine are fighting for – and we must be with them to the end.

Bryn Harris: Free Speech is an afterthought for the Online Safety Bill

22 Mar

Dr Bryn Harris is the Chief Legal Counsel of the Free Speech Union

The Online Safety Bill has been laid before Parliament. Ministers, including Nadine Dorries last week, have worked hard to persuade voters that the Bill contains important safeguards for free speech online. Are they right?

Even those being generous would resoundingly answer ‘no’. The Bill is informed by a desire to protect freedom of speech, but largely does the opposite.

We should give the government its due. The Bill imposes free speech obligations on online providers where previously there were none. The big social media platforms will no longer have wholly free hands. They will be under free-standing obligations to implement processes that protect political speech (or ‘content of democratic importance’) and journalistic content. If they do not, users can complain and Ofcom can take action. This is a considerable improvement.

This Bill, however, fundamentally concerns the prevention of ‘harm’, not the protection of free speech (hence the name). When the ‘safety’ duties are engaged alongside the free speech duties, the balancing exercise will skew decisively towards harm prevention – concrete action must be taken in relation to harmful or illegal content, but social media companies are only asked to ‘have regard’ for free speech, which is the weakest of the legal duties.

The Bill thus enshrines in statute the illiberal approach all too familiar to the Free Speech Union, with free speech treated as an afterthought. The liberal philosophy of the English common law, with a starting point of the presumption of liberty, unless a specific rule says otherwise, is reversed. Online platforms will start by asking whether a user has harmed someone,. Only much later will they ‘have regard’ to that user’s freedom of speech.

The Bill has also become worse during its journey from a White Paper three years ago. Whereas the previous draft required platforms to ‘minimise’ illegal content, they will now have to ‘prevent’ users from encountering illegal content, where necessary by removing it.

This tougher duty will likely result in over-removal by providers, because risk-savvy provider, fearful of potentially huge fines (10% of a company’s annual global turnover) will be cautious. In cases where a free speech duty and a safety duty are competing, removing content that might be harmful will be the safer option – the free speech duty is weak and easily complied with (even with removed content) whereas complying with the safety duties requires action. The box-ticking requirement to ‘have regard’ thus imposes no effective deterrent against over-removal.

The duty regarding ‘content that is harmful to adults’ has also worsened. Providers will have four options in dealing with such content: removal, restricting access, preventing promotion, or actively promoting it. The liberal option – leave it be and let adults make their own choices – isn’t available. The only option that isn’t censorious – ‘recommend or promote content that you believe to be harmful’ – is so undesirable that no platform will choose it.

Nevertheless, a new clause on ‘user empowerment duties’ is welcome. It allows adults to choose whether or not they wish to be exposed to harmful content on sites like Twitter. But the choice is illusory and the reality is paternalistic – an adult won’t be free to see everything unadulterated, including the ‘harmful’ stuff, because platforms are virtually certain to remove, restrict or downgrade harmful content. Users will be free to choose, so long as they choose not to be ‘harmed’.

However, users will have a right to sue for breach of contract if providers remove or restrict content contrary to their terms of service. This should allow users to resist providers that fail to ‘take into account’ the protections for political speech and journalistic content. It remains to be seen if these duties will genuinely restrain the instinct to over-remove content.

Also welcome are new restraints on the Secretary of State’s power to dictate what kinds of content providers must police. The categories of ‘priority’ illegal content are now stated baldly by the Bill, and are what one would expect. When it comes to content that is harmful to adults, the Secretary of State will have the power to lay a statutory instrument specifying what lawful speech social media companies will be forced to remove. It remains to be seen how censorious Nadine Dorries will be, but even if she is relatively restrained, this Bill is a hostage to fortune. It empowers a future Secretary of State at DCMS to come up with their own Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

All analysis of the Bill is speculation: we’ll only know its impact once it becomes law, and providers and Ofcom begin to implement it. What is unusual is that ministers seem to be aware of the pressures that are likely to turn the Bill into a censor’s charter.

The Culture Secretary accepts that a culture of censorship already exists among the platforms whom she proposes to essentially entrust with deciding what to remove. Ministers seem to be aware that a repeat of the Trump Twitter ban would be disastrous. They must also know that the huge fines and even criminal sanctions that could be imposed under the Bill are virtually certain to drive excessive risk-aversion. So why is the Government introducing a Bill so likely to thwart freedom of speech?

I suspect the answer lies in an unwillingness to address a very difficult but fundamental conceptual problem – a government cannot protect free expression while also trying to prohibit harmful speech. To govern is to choose: ministers and lawmakers must show leadership and tackle the question of whether we should prioritise liberty or paternalism, or we will continue to muddle through a mess of contradictions.

Free people do not live their lives under a rulebook’s control, still less one which vexatious political activists will be able to weaponise. This Conservative Government should be true to its convictions and use this Bill to force the social media companies to do more to protect free speech.

Nadine Dorries: How we will narrow the ground for barring harmful posts in the Online Safety Bill

15 Mar

Nadine Dorries is Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and is MP for Mid Bedfordshire.

On Thursday, the Government will introduce our much awaited Online Safety Bill, fulfilling our manifesto commitment to legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online – protecting children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online.

We published the draft bill in May last year. Since I became Culture Secretary, it has been strengthened and improved as a result of extensive Parliamentary scrutiny.

The Bill will introduce a duty of care on online companies – making them responsible for protecting children and tackling illegal content on their platforms. It will add strong safeguards and standards, and if companies fail in this duty of care, punishments include multi-billion pound fines up to 10 per cent of annual global turnover.

And yet a group of MPs and journalists have raised the horrifying spectre that the bill will give people like Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg unlimited power to decide what is and isn’t acceptable to say online. They say that MPs, campaigners, the media and the public face being silenced at the flip of a digital switch on the West Coast of America.

Well, if they’re worried about that, I’ve got news for them: we’re already there.

Last year, TalkRadio was forced offline by YouTube for an “unspecified” violation, without further explanation from the company. Facebook can sweepingly remove photos of the iconic “napalm girl” from the Vietnam War because they violate its nudity policy. And last week Big Brother Watch showed how a number of past comments by MPs when posted on social media by test accounts were censored by the platforms. It was a neat trick by the campaign group which is critical of our plans, but I’m not sure they quite realised the point they were actually demonstrating.

During the last two decades, the internet has slowly seeped into every part of our lives, in many cases making things quicker, cheaper and better. But during that period, ever-growing tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have been left to regulate themselves – to set their own rules and mark their own homework.

As a result, unelected Silicon Valley execs have become some of the most powerful people in the world. They decide who gets to speak online, and who is silenced or cancelled from public life. That prospect should concern anyone who truly cares about free speech.

That’s why our manifesto pledge had a crucial second part: to defend freedom of expression, and in particular recognise and defend the invaluable role of a free press. This Bill will make that happen.

And so the day this legislation comes into effect, there will be considerably stronger protections for free speech.

Right now, there is no official right to appeal when a post is taken down. Under this Bill, there will be.

Right now, there are no extra protections for journalists online. Under this Bill, there will be.

Right now, there are no specific protections in place for important democratic content – for example, when a person wants to tweet their thoughts about an MP or a political party during a general election. Under this Bill, there will be.

Platforms will be expected to process appeals quickly, and either give good reasons why content has been removed, or reverse their decision if it’s the wrong one. Contrast that to now, when a user who complains they’ve been treated unfairly is often faced with obstruction and opacity.

Journalists will have an expedited right to appeal if their content is removed. And I have every intention of further improving the requirements for platforms not to remove content from recognised media outlets during the passage of the bill.

Likewise, the Bill’s extra protections for democratic content should reassure someone like David Davis. In October, my colleague gave a speech to a Big Brother Watch event, arguing against domestic vaccine passports. Whether you agree with David or not, he was making a legitimate democratic contribution, and it was his right to do so. But his video was taken down by YouTube, who claimed he was spreading “medical disinformation”.

David has argued this Bill is “a censor’s charter”. But as he knows only too well, censorship is happening right now- and we’ve got no real recourse against it.

The day this legislation comes into effect, he and other users will be in a much stronger position. And if social media companies fail in their new duties to protect free speech and journalism, they’ll face huge fines and the prospect of criminal sanctions.

When I point out these important legal protections, free speech advocates – of which, by the way, I consider myself one – immediately move on to the “legal but harmful” section of the Bill. They claim that the Government wants to ban legal content if it “upsets” or “offends” someone. That’s a complete misunderstanding.

Companies will only be required to remove “legal but harmful” content if it is already banned in their own terms and conditions. This only applies to the biggest platforms carrying the highest risk, and we are updating the legislation to ensure platforms focus on priority categories of harm that are set out in secondary legislation.

This reduces the risk that platforms are incentivised to over-remove legal material through taking a wider interpretation of harm than is warranted or because they are put under pressure to do so by campaign groups or individuals who claim that controversial content causes them psychological harm.

Getting this balance right is important to me. I’m a writer and, before I became a Government Minister, I spent years as an extremely vocal backbencher. The Prime Minister t is a former journalist. We would never pursue legislation that threatens freedom of expression. Similarly, nor can we maintain the current status quo, where a handful of West Coast execs are the supreme arbiters of online speech.

Stewart Jackson: Why is a Tory Government risking criminalising professionals – and the health of young people too?

21 Feb

Stewart Jackson is a former Conservative MP and Special Adviser, and is the Founder and Director of UK Political Insight.

Given the precarious position that the Prime Minister finds himself in, one has to rank the Government’s commitment to legislate for the so-called Conversion Therapy Bill “in spring 2022” as particularly brave, foolhardy or tin-eared.

The need to engineer a rapprochement with the Conservative Parliamentary Party is inconsistent with such a divisive and unnecessary measure.

It appears to be driven by a desire to placate the shrill zealotry of Stonewall – now discredited by its absolutist stance on trans rights, and estranged from many former LGBT supporters with whom, along with other critics, it seems unwilling to engage.

Indeed, the Bill seems to be a solution looking for a problem. In a meeting with religious leaders, the Government Equalities Office, which is sponsoring the Bill, failed even to identify what the legal definition of “conversion therapy” actually is, according to one of those present.

Those advocating the changes are desperate to avoid scrutiny and rush through the legislation. Nonetheless, the Government extended the consultation on the Bill until earlier this month after threats of judicial review.  It takes a unique talent to unite the fractious Tory tribes against these proposals.

Those concerned by aspects of the Bill reportedly include Damian Green, Chairman of the Conservative One Nation Group; other former Ministers, such as Jackie Doyle-Price; such middle ground stalwarts as Pauline Latham and Sir Robert Syms; and social conservatives such as Miriam Cates, Sally-Ann Hart, and Tim Loughton. Not to mention peers, faith groups, charities, the Economist and, most recently, the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The ECHR has rightly highlighted  the need for proper pre-legislative scrutiny, and has warned against the unintended consequences of rushed legislation.  Supporters of the measure have also failed to take into account evolving research from the United States on paediatric and youth gender dysphoria, and that fact that the Government’s own Cass Review on gender identity services for children and young people will not be published until this summer.

In a nutshell, there is concern that rushed and poorly drafted legislation will threaten the basic tenets of fairness, freedom of speech, religious belief and tolerance, and the professionalism and autonomy of a number of caring sectors – such medicine, nursing, therapy, pastoral care and youth work and education.  Not to mention parents and guardians, all of whom risk being criminalised by poor legislation and activists with a narrow and extreme agenda.

For there is a real possibility that certain types of private consensual and routine conversations regarding sexual orientation and gender identity will become subject to criminal sanction.  And that it will not be possible for those charged with helping children and young people in particular to have open and explorative discussions about sexual identity and gender issues.

Thus, in the case of gender dysphoria, legitimate alternatives to radical and life changing pharmaceutical and surgical interventions could effectively become illegal. Do we want primary legislation that prevents clinicians from offering their patients the best treatment for their unique medical issues? As Baroness Jenkin has said: “when a child is suffering, it is crucial that they are allowed time, space and supportive therapy to discover why they feel the way they do.”

Such a bar would impact on young people with mental health problems and suicide ideation. Some of the alternatives would be irreversible. Government pledges of a “common sense” approach will count for very little if the legislation enacted is interpreted in a draconian manner.

These deeply flawed proposals arose from the well-meaning intentions of the May Government, and are now driven by a small claque of social liberals in 10 Downing Street – irrespective of the fact that there is already, and rightly, widespread opposition to physical and mental coercion based on both sexual orientation and gender identity, and tough legislation in place to combat it. In this respect, the UK has always been a pathfinder internationally. Who wouldn’t want to protect vulnerable people from bullying and coercion?

There is also real possibility that the Bill will fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights in regards to Article 8 (Respect for Private and Family Life) and Article 9 (Freedom of Thought, Belief and Religion).  And that the Government may find itself liable for punitive damages in future litigation arising from the practices sanctioned by the Bill.

Like other May Government landmines – think Stop and Search, Windrush and the Northern Ireland Protocol – ideas touted as common sense and the right thing to do can obscure intractable issues and bring about unintended consequences.

All in all, there is no compelling case for this new legislation, or even persuasive evidence that it is actually required.  And the Government’s failure to outline a proper case for it hasn’t helped to dispel fears of a fait accomplis, with MPs being railroaded to an arbitrary deadline.

The Prime Minister has enough on his plate already. He needs the courage to reject this proposal, and face down a tiny minority, most of whom would never vote for him and his party, not least for the health of his battered administration.

Georgia L.Gilholy: Ministers cannot lambast Russia while planning a trade deal with its biggest backer – China

15 Feb

Georgia L. Gilholy is a reporter for politics.co.uk but writes in a personal capacity.

Recent days have seen a slew of reports that Boris Johnson is eager to pursue closer economic ties with Beijing. Politico has even alleged that he has already authorised the resumption of the UK-China Joint Economic and Trade Committee.

Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak is said to have green-lighted the first China Economic and Financial Dialogue summit since 2019. If true, such moves represent a significant attempt to thaw relations at the highest echelons of UK-China relations, bringing us one step closer to the possibility of a trade deal.

Whatever Downing Street’s fantasies, a deal with Beijing would be a disastrous betrayal not just of the Government’s human rights commitments, but its vow to rebalance economic life following Brexit and Covid. The Foreign Secretary’s talk of an alliance of “freedom-loving democracies” to fence in China cannot remain words only. Cabinet ministers and all parliamentarians must do everything in their power to stop a deal from happening on their watch.

Since 2017, over a million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic Muslim minorities have disappeared into a vast network of ‘re-education’ camps in Northwest China, where detainees are subjected to forced labour and all manner of physical and psychological abuse.

Other political and religious minorities suffer similar plights across the regime. Chinese authorities were, too, responsible for mismanagement that led to the global spread of Covid-19, prompting and inspiring unprecedented lockdowns. While fully disentangling from China is unlikely, there is an urgent need to consider the moral and economic risk of any escalation in intimacy.

Last March, the Chinese government sanctioned five Conservative MPs and two peers who campaigned for the ‘genocide amendment’ to the Trade Bill. This clause would have permitted the UK High Court to make a preliminary ruling on whether genocide was occurring in a given place – the implication being that such a probe could consider China. For the UK to henceforth seek tighter bonds with such a nefarious actor will surely signal a failure to take its own parliamentarians seriously.

Pushing for a deal with Beijing would also represent a shameful backpedal from suggestions made during last year’s debate ron the amendment. In January 2021, the then trade minister, Greg Hands, told the Commons that passing such a motion would represent an “unprecedented erosion of the royal prerogative”, and stressed that the Government had no plans to sign a free trade deal with China.

Moreover, for a nation seeking to present a united front against tyranny as Putin’s tanks amass on Ukraine’s frontier, rumours of closer relations with Beijing are about as subtle as a distress flare. The Government cannot simultaneously lambast Russian expansionism while tiptoeing toward further reliance on its biggest backer and, arguably, the more significant threat to the global order.

These manoeuvres also further reveal the government’s lack of comprehensive strategy regarding China’s growing sphere of influence. At a time when the UK is currently reeling from the impact of major cyber attacks by suspected Chinese agents, and as the Government plans to back an EU trade case against China at the WTO, it seems bizarre to chase friendship rather than the utmost caution.

One British official has said that the Government wants a “… positive and constructive relationship with China but we will not sacrifice our values in doing so”. Yet should the “values” mentioned refer to inherent human dignity and liberties, anyone familiar with China’s tactics knows this is an impossible approach.

How can the UK expect to seek friendly trade links with Beijing and hold it to account on its abuses, when this has been its precise strategy for decades to no avail? How will the Government deliver on its pledge to tackle forced labour in supply chains when China’s economy is in part dependent on this crime?

While British voters overwhelmingly support placing human rights concerns at the forefront of our trade relationships, their priority at the ballot box will likely be what such deals mean for domestic policy. China is already the UK’s third-largest source of imports, because of its ability to source low-cost labour. Signs of pursuing closer ties with Beijing thus reveals the government’s unwillingness to confront reliance on cheap overseas supply chains. If free trade with the EU is tied up with too many ethical and financial compromises, what makes the government think a deal with China will prove more palatable?

Indeed, if manufacturing is to feature centrally in the Tories’ pledge to distribute opportunity across Britain, the incentive to create good jobs must be there. This will simply not materialise if we continue our addiction to the vulnerable and exploitative supply chains in China and beyond.

As the Chinese Communist Party continues to accelerate its program of global aggression and elimination of ethnic and religious freedoms, the UK must stand on the right side of history, rather than attempting to make a quick buck.

John Macdonald: The Porn Laws are naive, paternalistic, a blackmailer’s charter – and won’t work anyway

10 Feb

John Macdonald is the Head of Government Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

The Prime Minister is trying to reboot his political project. With major personnel replaced in Downing Street and a mini- cabinet reshuffle completed, you would hope that he was trying to return to the original promise of his electoral success in 2019; a Conservative Government that celebrated new opportunities and freer markets, rooted in a kind of common sense liberalism.

Unfortunately, the reboot seems to be more about doubling down on tax and spend, and embracing some of the worst authoritarian, petty nanny statism that pockmarked the earlier iterations of this Conservative tenure in government. A return to drab, condescending policies, in this case the so-called ‘porn laws’ that will force consumers to verify their age via credit card information to access explicit online content.

For those that don’t know the Conservative Government has been waging a war on porn since at least 2015, with the central idea being that people must use a credit card as age verification when trying to log into websites purveying explicit content.

Like many of the Conservatives’ most egregious flirtations with anti-liberal nannying (such as banning certain food advertising), age verification for access to pornographic websites has been beaten off many times, only to keep coming back without any real explanation as to how and why.

It’s not just on first principles that such a policy should be permanently abandoned. Let us accept for the sake of argument you accept the proposition that access to online porn is a societal ill, and that the state has a role in dissuading people from consuming it, or to protect the young from stumbling across it. You would have to have an outdated at best, and asinine at worst, understanding of the internet to genuinely believe that imposing online age verification would be in any way implementable.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a low cost, easily accessible and highly effective way of hiding your IP address, anonymising and protecting the user’s privacy in making it all but impossible to tell what sites they are visiting. Many popular VPN apps allow the user to connect to websites via another country, a popular feature given the way streaming rights work (i.e. US Netflix has a superior catalog to British Netflix). All one would need to do to access explicit content is hit a button on their device of choice, choose a country without such restrictions, and be good to go.

This isn’t something unbeknownst to a significant portion of the UK’s population, either. It is estimated that some 44 per cent of UK internet users have used a VPN at some point. It is somewhat entertaining to think that DCMS, a Government department whose intended purpose is to prepare the country for rapid technological advancement but instead wastes significant energy on censoriousness, could be thwarted by as little as £3 a month on an app available on all major mobile phone operating systems.

Perhaps, then, you might be inclined to think that if not practically possible, it is in principle proper to restrict access to explicit online content. Even if some degenerates skirt round the rules (bear in mind that some 26 million Brits watch online porn), people should still have to think twice about accessing it, and those under 18 should be guarded against easy or accidental access. You would still be blind to the fact that age verification mechanisms do more harm than good.

Big porn companies such as Mindgeek have argued that they will take measures to ensure no data would be collected to link credit card information and viewing habits, but whether or not this would be possible or probable is still a significant risk.

That is to say nothing of the massive target painted on their backs. With a huge repository of credit card information and the promise of ample blackmail material, you can be sure hackers will be coming after them hard and fast. Age verification mechanisms are also a scammer’s delight; the rush to access explicit content is bound to push concerns of website authenticity aside, and those who get caught out might be less inclined to report their woes to credit card companies.

The Porn Laws don’t just represent a failure of Government to understand that they cannot, and should not see itself as a protector against any all societal ills. Trying to justify them on the grounds that they protect the young betrays a naive and condescending paternalism, where greater education would serve them much better. Nearly a third of all internet content is porn, trying to stuff it away behind a verification barrier just won’t work. Instead, ensuring an honest conversation with teenagers about it, and about peer to peer pressure to send their own intimate content, would be of far more benefit.

Johnson’s Government appears to be reneging on the last of its post-May era promises. We’ve become used to the idea that he’d continue to be a tax and spend Conservative, or that after a brush with Covid and ill health, would look to stop us from having our cake and eating it by banning advertising of certain foods. But with the resurrection of the Porn Laws, any hope that Boris’ libertine spirit might seep into government has been dashed.

Imran Mulla: Religious freedom – and why French assimilation fails while British multiculturalism works

10 Jan

Imran Mulla is a student of history at Jesus College, Cambridge. He lives in Leicester.

Éric Zemmour, the most controversial candidate for the French presidency, believes that France is veering towards civil war.

The reason? Its growing Muslim population, too distinctive from the white majority for comfort. “Our elites have made the mistake, for the last 30 or 40 years,” Zemmour proclaimed in a recent interview with UnHerd, “of adopting the British method, which consists of excessive respect for the culture of origin, trying to allow different cultures to coexist side by side”. He paused, before adding pointedly, ‘I am against that.’

Zemmour’s polemic bears little resemblance to reality; France has never had anything like British multiculturalism. The French government refuses to so much as collect data based on religion, whereas here the word ‘multiculturalism’ denotes our politicians speaking of ‘communities’, visiting minority community centres and places of worship, and ritually giving well-wishes on different religious festivals.

It represents a heterogeneity unimaginable in France, where religion is forced out of the public sphere – thus French schoolgirls are unable to wear the headscarf, the Interior Minister is aghast at the spectacle of halal meat in supermarkets, and Muslim women are banned from covering their faces for religious reasons (though not for fear of the Coronavirus). The French have quite obviously not imitated the British method.

Accuracy aside, though, Zemmour’s point was that France has thus far been too permissive in its attitude to Muslim immigrants and French Muslim citizens. He believes that the growing tradition of Islam must be privatised, de-politicised and modernised – just as other religions have been.

His position is rooted in the legacy of the French Revolution, which was animated by an anti-clerical fervour that saw the forceful subjugation of the Catholic clergy and a requirement for French Jews to renounce the mosaic law. A century later, the Law of 1905 established laïcité by decisively separating church from state.

But France’s colonial exploits in Africa encouraged the migration of colonised Muslims to the metropole – France is now home to a significant Muslim minority. Zemmour, himself a descendant of Algerian Jews, celebrates France’s colonial history, yet exploits fears over its legacy: ethnic and religious diversity in France.

French elites have concealed the ‘reality of our replacement’, he declares ominously in his campaign announcement address, echoing the conspiracy theory of the esoteric fascist, Renaud Camus.

So, what is to be done? Firstly, Zemmour believes, immigration must be halted – but he also wishes to “re-establish French-style assimilation”: immigrants must be forced to “appropriate French history, customs, habits and traditions” (although the French in North Africa made no effort even at integration, let alone assimilation).

We in Britain should respond to Zemmour’s attack on British multiculturalism by standing up for ourselves; we have handled diversity far better than our neighbour.

For one thing, Britain’s secularism lacks the aversion to visible religion that defines French laïcité. Anglicanism is our state religion, the Queen is head of the Church, and all state schools are required to hold an act of communal worship everyday. Britain’s Christian heritage is embedded into our political system; this is largely why we have responded with far less hysteria than France to the growth of new religious communities on our shores.

Many British conservatives, of course, see multiculturalism as having eroded a sense of national identity. But the picture is more complicated than that. Consider the elderly white man in Bradford or Leicester who bemoans the fact that he does not recognise his neighbours, that the music on the radio is American, that his grandchildren hold values entirely different from his own, and that the local church is being used as a mosque.

He is reacting to globalisation, social atomisation, the decline of Christianity, and a host of other symptoms of ‘liquid modernity’. These are not the fault of immigrants or their descendants. That this country is ethnically and religiously diverse is fitting considering our history: Britain first became multicultural when it formed an empire, and today most British non-whites trace their ancestry to the colonies. Our first significant Muslim communities were formed from the arrival in the 1950s and ‘60s of migrants from former British India, encouraged to migrate by the British government.

Nor has our multiculturalism been any sort of disaster; Muslims here identify even more strongly with Britain than the population at large, and there is a positive correlation between British identification and higher religiosity. Islamic faith schools top the national charts in performance, with Muslim girls usually achieving higher than boys. Religious segregation, meanwhile, has consistently been declining, and Muslims are more likely than Brits in general to live in ethnically mixed areas.

Myths abound about Muslims, but these are generally false: ‘no-go zones’ for non-Muslims are non-existent, despite being believed in by almost half of Conservative Party members. Contrary to popular belief, moreover, Muslim and Pakistani-heritage men have no disproportionate presence in grooming gangs, as a two-year Home Office study concluded.

Nor does Muslim terrorism reflect a general problem with Muslims any more than far-right terrorism reflects a problem with white people (London’s Muslims, for example, are even less likely than the population at large to condone violence against civilians).

Integration, overall, is proceeding smoothly; the culture found among, say, Birmingham’s Pakistani-origin Muslim youth has little in common with youth culture in Pakistan.

The most self-segregating people in British society are the wealthiest. They move in their own social circles and maintain elite private schools such as Eton – culturally, they are removed from much of the country. But we do not attempt to suppress their way of life in the name of egalitarianism (although some activists would have us try), because to do so would be authoritarian. Britishness, traditionally understood, has always been a broad umbrella.

This is not to say that there are no problems with multiculturalism – there are, and this should be considered in light of the fact that half of British Muslims live in poverty. There is also pervasive discrimination: Muslims face significant penalties in the labour market (as evidenced by all the available data) and are singled out for digital strip searches at the airport.

But, overall, British multiculturalism has been a relative success. This is the irony of Zemmour’s rhetoric: the French situation, by contrast, is disastrous. While Muslims here feel comfortably British in the understanding that Britishness allows for the expression of different religious values and the intermingling of cultural practices, French Muslims are trapped in a zero-sum game: they must conceal their religious convictions to be respectable citizens.

But Zemmour’s comparison of the two countries should encourage us Brits to look in the mirror. We face an attack on our traditional multiculturalism from our own government, which is currently promoting a ‘muscular liberalism’ compelling people to either accept ‘British’ (read: liberal) values or be labelled an extremist.

This un-British attempt to coerce fealty to an ideology represents a departure from Lockean liberalism and multiculturalism. Religious liberty is being eroded – we now face the possibility of the Prevent ‘counter-extremism’ programme, which has proved extraordinarily ineffective at combating violence while targeting expressions of Islamic practice and suppressing Muslim free speech, being extended into the private sphere.

Religious institutions may be compelled to report people suspected of ‘extremism’ (defined by the government as vocal or active opposition to British values) to the authorities. This would mean the wholesale securitisation of religion – something one would expect to see in France, but not Britain. Old-fashioned multiculturalism might be messy and flawed, but it is less authoritarian than the assimilationist model currently being ramped up.

The spectacle of French politics, where every significant presidential candidate has an assimilationist stance towards French Muslims, should encourage us to assert ourselves in support of the British multiculturalism which Zemmour disdains and which is currently being threatened. We are not like France, and it should stay that way. Will Britain really be enriched by replacing multiculturalism in all its vibrancy and complexity with a secular monoculture?

This is Zemmour’s aim for the French – and the closer you look, the more incoherent his vision appears. France is ‘the country of the Notre Dame,’ he declares bombastically in his campaign announcement video, not considering the irony that the Virgin Mary, whose image adorns the cathedral’s stained-glass windows, would today be unable to step foot inside a French school; headscarves are banned. Zemmour also adulates the French Revolution’s legacy of liberté, but there is an obvious contradiction here: ‘freeing’ French Muslims from their religion requires extreme coercion, from deploying immensely authoritarian surveillance methods to banning women from putting on too many clothes.

Zemmour is right about one thing: the situation in France is certainly tragic. We in Britain should be thankful for what we have, and wary of allowing it to be lost.