Robert Sutton: Levelling up and life expectancy. What the Government’s white paper means for health services.

14 Feb

Dr Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer.

Much discussion of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ (DLUHC) anticipated Levelling Up white paper has been regarding its sheer breadth of scope.

The all-encompassing character of the mission it sets out, a liability in the hands of a less capable Secretary of State, should prove an asset under Michael Gove, a reformer with an instinct for the big picture. But there is a risk, by folding so much into the levelling up narrative, particularly in this latter half of the Parliament, that DLUHC ends up overstretched.

How exactly does the paper connect to health services? Much discussion of levelling up has been in terms of infrastructure and investment, but as stated in the opening paragraphs, “Levelling up means giving everyone the opportunity to flourish. It means people everywhere living longer and more fulfilling lives, and benefitting from sustained rises in living standards and well-being.” It is under this definition that the paper makes the case that health policy is part of the broader levelling up project and should not escape its gravitational pull.

The specific “Levelling Up Missions” for health services are stated under the headings of “Health” and “Well-being”: “By 2030, the gap in Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE) between local areas … will have narrowed, and by 2035 HLE will rise by five years” and “By 2030, well-being will have improved in every area of the UK, with the gap between top performing and other areas closing,” respectively.

The cynic would point out that the most ambitious of these goals to achieve, the rise in HLE by five years, has a deadline which falls beyond any immediate political horizon. Those pledges to be achieved by 2030 should, sparing some catastrophe, be comfortably met. But rightly, the Government is saying that it has chosen to tackle some of the major disparities in health outcomes between the most affluent and the most deprived areas in the UK.

How will the levelling up deliver these objectives? And what does the white paper identify as the Government’s ambitions for the NHS? The policy programme is set out under three specific areas: public health, food and diet, and tackling the diagnostic backlog.

The first area, public health, is uncontroversial, if somewhat unambitious: smoking cessation, a new drugs strategy, and weight loss programmes. The disbanded Public Health England has been reconfigured as the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, with similar goals and leadership. Some of the more paternalistic aspects will grate with the libertarian faction of the Conservative party, but there isn’t much to be aggrieved or excited about either way.

The second point, food and diet, suggests that the Government has identified a major vulnerability, and is acting to remedy it. Food insecurity, particularly amongst children, is an area on which Labour managed to inflict damage during the current parliament. Marcus Rashford’s campaigns struck a chord with the public, and Conservative messaging on our strategy to tackle this appeared to have fallen flat. As cost-of-living pressures continue to gain prominence, it is an issue which isn’t going away.

The white paper sets out a sensible and coherent strategy: a “forthcoming Food Strategy White Paper,” a “new £200m per year Holiday Activities and Food Programme,” “assuring and supporting compliance with school food standards,” and “a Community Eatwell programme” are some of the headlines. A confident and measured approach which identifies and remedies genuine food insecurity will give activists and elected officials something positive to talk about on this sensitive area. This is a genuine opportunity to achieve social good while cutting off an effective avenue of attack from the opposition.

The final aspect of the programme addresses the diagnostic backlog. The public have been extremely understanding regarding the delays incurred by the response to Covid, but there is a growing awareness of the scale of the challenge which has been (necessarily) kicked down the line during the pandemic.

The extent of delayed diagnostic procedures over the course of the pandemic makes for worrying reading. There will be two aspects to tackling it: personnel and infrastructure. We obviously need the medical staff to perform and interpret diagnostic tests. I have recently written regarding the need to get doctors out of locum work and back into training. For the infrastructure, the paper sets out its vision in the form of diagnostic service hubs.

By choosing the location of these “Community Diagnostic Centres” (at least 100 of which will be in England by 2025) and other new healthcare infrastructure carefully, we might boost the standard of care in those deprived areas which have fallen behind in health outcomes. While there has been a trend towards centralisation of services over the last two decades, here we have a proposal for a fundamental shift in the relationship between health services and the communities they serve.

Centralising services is popular among policymakers and NHS management. But for the general public it erodes their sense of pride in place and leaves patients feeling like figures on a balance sheet rather than individuals. And controversial attempts at centralisation undermine this approach. Levelling up could see the vital infrastructure and personnel returning to the communities on the sharp end of the UK’s health disparities.

That is the real strength of this paper – it has taken existing policies, supplemented them with new ones, and pulled the strands together into a coherent overarching agenda. If Gove’s programme allows for the return of health services to left behind communities, then levelling up will have a significant and lasting effect on the delivery of health services.

Is racism in Britain increasing?

21 Jul

Lewis Hamilton became the target of racist abuse on social media on Sunday after winning the British Grand Prix, while a week earlier Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Sako were targetted following England’s defeat by Italy in the final of Euro 2020.

Such disgraceful incidents provoke the fear that racism is on the increase.

But it would be a great mistake to imagine that what happens in the lawless spaces of social media provides a true reflection of what is happening in wider society.

The letters column in a traditional newspaper has an editor, whose tasks include preventing that space from being infiltrated and taken over by racists, or other disgusting people, who set out to pollute debate and drive out reasonable contributors, the latter coming to feel they have better things to do than wrestle in the mud.

To work out whether racism is increasing or diminishing, it makes more sense to start with some polling carried out last summer:

“New research from Ipsos MORI shows that the British public have become avowedly more open-minded in their attitudes towards race since the mid-2000s. However, seven in ten still think there is at least a fair amount of tension in Britain between people of different races and nationalities, and there are concerns about inequalities in public services, the police and politics.

“The vast majority, 89%, claim they would be happy for their child to marry someone from another ethnic group, and 70% strongly agree. This is an improvement from January 2009, when 75% said they would be happy overall, and 41% strongly.

“Similarly, the vast majority (93%, nearly all of them strongly disagreeing at 84%) disagree with the statement that, “to be truly British you have to be White”. In October 2006, 82% disagreed,  55% strongly. The proportion who agree with the statement has fallen from 10% to 3% in the last 14 years.”

This encouraging picture was confirmed in March 2021 in the Sewell Report, issued by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which was chaired by Tony Sewell, pictured at the top of this article.

All but one of the ten members of the commission were from ethnic minority backgrounds, yet they found themselves accused of setting out “to whitewash the problems of racism in Britain”.

The row which blew up at the time of publication obscured the many astute observations in the actual report, too numerous to be summarised here, or indeed in the news coverage.

The Commission pointed to the “many instances of success among minority communities”, observed that family is often “the foundation stone” for this success, and went on to remark that family breakdown “is one of the main reasons for poor outcomes” in some communities:

“This Commission finds that the big challenge of our age is not overt racial prejudice, it is building on and advancing the progress won by the struggles of the past 50 years. This requires us to take a broader, dispassionate look at what has been holding some people back. We therefore cannot accept the accusatory tone of much of the current rhetoric on race, and the pessimism about what has been and what more can be achieved.”

As the Commission found,

“All the data tells us that the UK is far more open to minority advancement than 50 years ago. And while some doors at the top remain hard to lever open, people from some minority backgrounds are successfully taking up opportunities. In fact, as of 2019, the ethnicity pay gap – taking the median hourly earnings of all ethnic minority groups and the White group – is down to just 2.3% and the White Irish, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups are on average earning notably more than the White British average.”

But this should not be taken to mean that all is well:

“Overt and outright racism persists in the UK. Examples of it loom larger in our minds because we witness it not just as graffiti on our walls or abuse hurled across our streets, but also in the more private setting of our phones and tablets. The rise of social media platforms mean racist incidents can go viral in hours. What is too often dismissed as ‘trolling’ means many prominent ethnic minority people routinely receive racist abuse from people who cannot be traced and held to account.

“Making anonymous abuse harder online is a complex issue but should be a public policy priority. Speech resonates long after it is heard. Being made to feel that you do not belong, that no matter how patriotic, law-abiding and hard-working you are, you can be treated differently because of your skin colour, stands against everything this country holds dear. A multi-ethnic democracy like ours cannot function properly if people can denigrate their fellow citizens in such deplorable terms on the grounds of their race.”

It has become clear that social media platforms have to be held responsible for the material they publish. In the beginning, they abolished editors, which seemed like a liberation.

Editors, after all, were quite often excessively restrictive, and yielded to the temptation to spike letters which showed up the perfidy, or stupidity, or inaccuracy of whatever the newspaper had reported.

Then an aggrieved correspondent would have to try to get a hearing in some rival publication.

In those days racists could not just press a button on a keyboard and send direct to its target, under the cloak of anonymity, whatever vile abuse had just occurred to them.

The editorial function is now being rediscovered – with reluctance, for it costs money – by the providers of social media platforms.

So it seems likely that they will soon be able to prevent such easy distribution of racist slurs.

But that will not be the end of the matter. The question will remain of how far racism has been eradicated, and how far it has merely been suppressed, or driven underground.

It is possible that by purifying the internet, we shall create a perverse incentive, at least in yobbish minds which regard themselves as oppressed, and yearn to shock respectable opinion by somehow contriving to publish racist obscenities.

When I lived in Germany in the 1990s, there were a few marginalised thugs who knew the most shocking thing they could do was to declare their support for the Nazis, so duly did so.

And when I have reported on opinion in Britain’s pubs, I have sometimes found anger about unrestricted immigration, and restricted free speech, as in this piece for ConHome from 2014, attempting to account for the surge in support for UKIP.

If such concerns had been reported earlier and more prominently, it is possible that in 2004 Tony Blair would have decided not to risk allowing immediate, unrestricted immigration from newly acceded members of the European Union such Poland.

Racism should not be thought of as a problem that is worse in Britain than elsewhere. A study in 2019 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights on ‘Being Black in the EU’ revealed, the Sewell Report pointed out,

“the percentage of Black respondents who experienced racial harassment in the past 5 years. The figure was 63% in Finland, 52% in Luxemburg, 51% in Ireland, 48% in both Germany and Italy, and 41% in both Sweden and Denmark. In comparison, 21% of Black British respondents reported such harassment, the second-lowest result in the countries surveyed. The UK had the lowest figure for Black respondents who experienced discrimination in job-seeking, education (either themselves or as parents), health, housing, public administration or other public or private services such as restaurants, bars or shops within the past 12 months.”

After thanking the mainly young people behind the Black Lives Matter movement for “focussing our attention once again on these issues”, the authors of the Sewell Report went on:

“But most of us come from an older generation whose views were formed by growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. And our experience has taught us that you do not pass on the baton of progress by cleaving to a fatalistic account that insists nothing has changed.”

Much has changed for the better, and sometimes the obsessive urge to define people in racial terms seems all wrong, as Matthew Parris explained in a recent piece for The Spectator:

“The dream for which my family fought in what was then Rhodesia is now not so much unfashionable as forgotten. The ‘dream’, I mean, of multiracialism; a growing irrelevance of skin colour or ethnic origins; the gradual convergence of the world’s peoples; the building on our planet of a shared culture, shared values, a shared membership of our human race; and a slow but steady dissolving of our differences.”

Most of us can at least agree that being British is a political, not a racial characteristic; as I argued in my last, unmemorably tactful attempt to tackle this subject for ConHome.

Iain Dale: The Education Recovery Plan. Williamson has very little capital to expend. Will it be Marcus Rashford to the rescue?

4 Jun

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I must admit I did have a little chuckle when I saw that Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds had managed to get married without any member of Her Majesty’s Fourth Estate finding out about it. It just shows that it is possible, just about, to keep a secret in today’s gossip-filled society.

Naturally, though, some people couldn’t quite bring themselves to congratulate the happy couple on their day of joy. Plenty of commentators decided to indulge in a bit of Talleyrand-esque “what did they mean by that” speculation. Leading the charge was my good friend Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who Tweeted this:

I scratch my head and wonder to myself how an intelligent person could come up with a conspiracy theory like that. If Johnson really wanted to distract from anything, wouldn’t he have had an all guns blazing type of wedding, with peals of bells ringing out, TV cameras present and naked dwarves wearing nipple tassels at the reception? And while he’s at it, get a blind trust to pay for it. Now that really would be a distraction.

– – – – – – – – –

I’ve experienced a lot of Twitter pile-ons in my time, but this week has been something to behold. Now I generally make it a rule never to intervene in the burgeoning debate about self-gendering and trans rights. Mainly because no good ever comes of it.

On Monday I broke that rule and tweeted something which I thought was quite balanced.

What I had failed to comprehend is that you can as nuanced as you like and still fail in a quest to be balanced. The wrath of Hades immediately descended on me. The Tweet attracted more than 1,100 replies, with both sides of the argument professing to be outraged.

Next up was Darren Grimes who I invited on to my Cross Question panel on Tuesday evening. You’d have thought I’d invited the devil himself. We cover all sorts of subjects in the hour long programme, just like Question Time or Any Questions. I’ve always found Darren to be one the most articulate exponents of the arguments for Brexit, and the fact that he comes from a working-class background in the North East gives him a different perspective on all sorts of levelling up debates.

But the North London polenta-eating intelligentsia can’t cope with a North East accent challenging their preconceptions of what they think is best for the hoi-polloi. This was typified by a Matt cartoon in The Telegraph this week which should a Labour canvasser at a council house door holding a clipboard and asking: “So who are you racist fascists going to vote for then?”

The argument quickly descended from “Well you shouldn’t have him on, he’s not a virologist” (note: Paul Mason, Chris Green and Caroline Flint, the other panellists, aren’t either, but they escaped that one) to “You clearly want to sleep with him” and then ultimately “You just feel sorry for him because he’s got a small penis.”

Well, that’s a winning argument if ever I heard one. And they say people on the right are the nasty ones.

I’ll continue to invite who I damn well like onto my show, and hang the consequences. Just imagine what they’ll say when I invite David Starkey back on *opens contacts book*.

– – – – – – – – –

Yet another unforced error from the Government, this time over the Education Recovery Plan.

So far we haven’t had an intervention from Marcus Rashford, the Shadow Education Secretary, but it can surely be only a matter of time before he shames the Government into yet another u-turn.

It should never have been this way. If you appoint an expert to be your adviser and then he finds out you’re only taking 10 per cent of his advice, don’t be surprised if he then quits in high dudgeon. And that’s exactly what Sir Kevan Collins did on Wednesday.

It followed the Chancellor, backed by the Prime Minister, saying that schools could only have £1.5 billion to fund the Education Recovery plan. The IFS worked out that it amounts to £50 per pupil. Risible, compared to the Netherlands spending £2,200 per pupil or the US £1,600.

And the thought that just by adding an extra half an hour onto the end of the school day would do the trick is ridiculous. It seems that Collins was supported in his case by Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary. The trouble is that Williamson has very little capital to expend so the Chancellor found it quite easy to swat him away. Rishi Sunak may well come to regret that. Over to you, Rashford.

A letter from Screwtape to the Chairman of a Big Six football club

20 Apr

My Dear Chairman,

Fury, expostulation, rage – with even the Duke of Cambridge joining in.  Excellent!  You will remember that this is exactly what we expected, and a sign that everything is going to plan.

Will the Government move to restrict television rights to the games?  Let it try to get round your lawyers and the technology, with its web-based streaming options.  Might it seek to deploy competition rules?  But you’re scarcely going to risk breaching these by timetabling your games to clash with Premier League ones.  Work permit restrictions for players?  Bring on the ECHR.

Could it pass a law to force your club into fan ownership?  Again, let’s see what the lawyers make of that.  And what effect such theft – let’s not mince words here – would have on overseas investors.

Down here in the Lowerarchy, we watched Oliver Dowden’s Commons statement yesterday – and our laughter echoed, as the old saying has it, to hell and back.  I promise you that when a Minister says “we are examining every option”, “we are reviewing everything” and “we are working at pace”, it means that he hasn’t a clue what to do!

Let Dowden, who I look forward to meeting in due course, puff and bluster.  All he wants to do is get the other clubs, the football establishment, the Labour Party and, above all, Downing Street off his back.

Time, my dear Chairman, is our ally.  So Tracey Crouch, who I fear is in cahoots with the Enemy, is to lead a review into football governance.  (Talking of which, did you see Dowden tweet that he has “been left with no choice but to formally trigger the launch of our fan-led review of football”.  A strange way to speak of one’s own manifesto commitment!)

If Ministers want to walk willingly into the swamp of legal, political, fan and voter problems that will follow, that’s their business.  The Conservatives risk Labour trumping them at every turn.

The latter has already said that “no one should lose a much-loved football club just because of the pandemic” – paving the way for a taxpayer-funded baleout of any failing club.  Let Crouch, Dowden and the Conservatives try to compete with that!

True, one shouldn’t don’t rule out the possibility that they will somehow make a success of the review.  But either way, that’s none of your business – nor mine.  As far as the Football Superleague and your own club is concerned, those Ministers will be shutting the stable door long after the horse has bolted.

So what, you go on to ask, of the football authorities themselves? Might they not stop us? Which of these glittering paragons of moral rectitude do you have in mind?  FIFA, perhaps – the organisation under whose auspices the next World Cup was awarded to oil-rich Qatar? Which spawned Sepp Blatter and Michael Platini, whose accomodation down here is already booked?

Talking of Platini, is UEFA any better?  Which leaves the Premier League.  And as I say, my dear Chairman, time is our ally.  In the short-term, I grant you, your players may face bans from the World Cup and your club from the European Championship – and, indeed, from the Premier League itself.  But remember that, as discussed, we’re in it for the long-term.

Were I a Premier League bigwig this morning, I would be keeping my head down.  Obviously, I would go with the flow, denouncing your club and the other five – bell, book and candle.  I would not want to be on the wrong side of the left-wing football commentators, the frothing fans with their placards and petititons, the virtue-signalling politicians and newspapers: the whole pack of them.

But I would quietly be asking myself what to do in three, five, ten years’ time if the Superleague is a success: if you and your fellow five clubs in England, plus those involved abroad, buy a monopoly on the best players in the world.  Who then play for teams which your organisation has chosen to exclude from its competitions.

So I would go with the flow, issue a few bans – and wait and see.  Wait for Crouch and her report to gather dust, or be lost in token gestures.  Wait for Dowden to quieten down as the media thunderstorm blow itself out, or be reshuffled later this year to another department.  Wait for Johnson, in whom the Lowerarchy has a particular interest, to lose focus (which won’t take long).

What of the fans themselves, I hear you ask?  Perhaps the best answer is a question: which ones?  How much do fans of clubs other than those of the Six really care – particularly those in the lower leagues?

Closer to home, I’m well aware that your Twitter and Facebooks accounts are swamped by messages from incandescant fans, and that perhaps you, your fellow directors and club staff fear for your own safety.  Let the prating politicians take responsibility if anything untoward takes place!

(Though it may not have been wise of you to let it be known that you refer to your supporters as “legacy fans”: good manners, remember, cost nothing, and the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman.)

Will some fans tear up their season tickets?  Sure.  Boycott Superleague matches?  Doubtless.  But over time, the spectacle of seeing some of the worlds’ best players take on more of the world’s best players will lure others back – the younger, the less attached, the more mobile and, let’s never forget it, the longer-living!

What if enough don’t return?  You will remember that we discussed this possibility recently.  Why does Manchester United, say, need fans in Manchester?  (Oh, and by the way: where’s Marcus Rashford?)

There was once a time when fans and locality were one and the same, but that age has long gone.  All you are doing is moving football to the next stage.  How much does losing ten fans in Manchester matter if the club can gain ten thousand in Shenzen?  Which is where our preparations come in.

In due course, parts of the Superleague season can be moved to China or America.  In which context, imagination is useful.  Stand by for the rebranding.

Why not Shanghai Arsenal?  Chicago Tottenham Hotspur?  Let’s hear it – if we really want to get incendiary – for Wuhan Liverpool!  Then keep that going for five years or so, gradually squeezing the original club name from the branding.  And finally, drop it.  Or let it linger in some ameliorated form, as it the case already.  You’ll have heard of Milton Keynes Dons?

As for those weary old arguments about the community versus the market, let them wind their way on.  As you well know, modern football is about neither.

For if Manchester United doesn’t need a local community to sustain it, it doesn’t need a free market to do so either.  After all, a market requires rules, order, fair dealing to work.  It can cope with greed; it can’t cope with corruption.

I mean no disrespect to you or your five fellow clubs here in England, whose fellow owners and culture are morally irreproachable, but let’s call a spade a spade here.  Money isn’t the market.  It is simply – well, itself: money, the love of which, as someone once wrote somewhere, is the root of all evil.

Communist states have it no less than capitalist ones, as you will have noted recently, when scouting out China for your scheme.  On which point, remember, the devil is in the detail!  And finally: as for football losing its soul, we took possession of it long ago.

Your affectionate friend,

Screwtape

[With apologies to C.S.Lewis.]

Responding to Rashford

15 Jan

We argued yesterday that those losing out most during this pandemic are not those at the bottom of the poverty ladder, but those on the next rung up.  These include a mass of the “just-about-managing”.

Since policy options are necessarily limited, whoever is in goverment, and demand trade-offs between different interests, it isn’t hard to see what the consequences will be when the pandemic abates – and are already.

In sum, the Government can’t avoid making choices that most help those who remain the poorest, or else those who have recently become poorer.

At the moment, it is unsure which to do.  Explaining why this is so also explains why it is on the back foot against Marcus Rashford’s campaigning, and suggests a means of it getting back on the front foot.

New Labour’s original child poverty target in government was to reduce the number of children living in households with less than 60 per cent of median equivalised income.

This measure can have perverse outcomes: for example, if the average income goes up, but the incomes of people lower down the income scale stay as they were, then poverty will be officially recorded as having increased.

“Such a definition means there are more people in “poverty” now than in the 1970s despite decades of material progress,” our columnist, Neil O’Brien, argued in back in 2012 when he was heading up Policy Exchange.

He believed that Labour was conflating fighting poverty with boosting equality, and he was right. In 2015, that target was duly abolished.

Iain Duncan Smith, then Work and Pensions Secretary, wanted to replace it with a new measure – one that would, for example, assess whether poorer children were getting an improved education which would boost their life chances.

But there was none available at the time, so the Government settled for a new duty to report levels of educational attainment, worklessness and addiction.

Which brings us to his former Special Adviser, Philippa Stroud – now Chief Executive of the Legatum Institute, whose work underpinned our piece yesterday, and illustrates the choices that Boris Johnson must now make.

She believes that the Social Metrics Commission (SMC), which she helped to form after leaving government, has cracked the problem and found a definition that will work.

Were the Government to take it up, it would at least be clear what is trying to do when trying to help reduce poverty – which, as matters stand, it doesn’t.

This leaves it vulnerable to every lobby and interest group with its own definition, own campaign and own demand, which may once again seek to blur the difference between tackling poverty and equality.

Stroud has conceded on this site that some “will be nervous about a new measure of poverty, even one that has gained consensus across the political spectrum”.

That Ministers are apprehensive about giving their opponents a stick to beat them with explains the delay in taking up the SMC measure by developing experimental statistics.

But although they are damned if they do, they are also damned if they don’t – as we have seen.  Rashford is moving on from free school meals, and is now tweeting about the forthcoming Universal Credit uplift decision.

Stroud pointed out that maintaining the uplift would assist those on the first rung up of the poverty ladder rather than those at the very bottom.

That might well be the right action to take – but is it where the Government wants to concentrate its anti-poverty efforts?  What are the trade-offs?

Where else might the money go instead?  For example, could it be used exclusively to help to get people into work rather than to assist some people who are already in it?

It’s true that if Ministers have a settled direction in which to steer their ship, those on board will inevitably complain about it.  And the Treasury will want to muddle along.

But if they don’t, the passengers will effectively take control – shouting a mass of conflicting instructions, which those Ministers will then ignore, contradict and surrender to in conflicting measure (if Number Ten doesn’t do it for them).

This is bad for the Government, bad for the Conservative Party – and, above all, bad for those at the bottom end of the ladder, wherever they are situated on it.  Stroud’s advice should be taken without further delay.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: This highlight of the parliamentary week is dying from long-windedness

13 Jan

Brevity is the soul of wit. Shakespeare brilliantly gives this insight to the long-winded Polonius.

Today at Prime Minister’s Questions too many MPs channelled their inner Polonius.

Question after question was sententious and far too long, and the whole session lasted almost three-quarters of an hour, which is 50 per cent too much.

The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, did at one point cut Boris Johnson off, at a time when the Prime Minister had veered into a stream of abuse which had nothing to do with the question which had been put.

But reform has to start with the questioners. The briefer they are, the more conspicuous the Prime Minister’s evasions will be.

Sir Keir Starmer reminded the House of Johnson’s assurances at the last PMQs on 16th December that the measures then in force to deal with the pandemic were sufficient, and asked: “How did he get it so wrong?”

A good question, to which the Leader of the Opposition should have stuck, instead of which he began offering the House excessive quantities of evidence, of a kind which might be required at a criminal trial, or on some other parliamentary occasions, but which weighs PMQs down and runs the risk of making it unwatchable.

This half hour is, or should be, tabloid politics, with the accusations subbed down to witty headlines which demand witty replies.

“That just isn’t a good enough answer,” Sir Keir said at one point, but then changed the subject to food parcels, whereupon Johnson, with tabloid quickness and shamelessness, allied himself with Marcus Rashford, whom he praised for “doing quite an effective job” compared to the Leader of the Opposition.

Ian Blackford, for the SNP,  asked some good questions about Scottish fishermen who cannot get their catch to market, but again he was far too long, which made the irrelevance of the PM’s replies less embarrassing.

The Queen pleads with Polonius to get to the point. Anyone who values PMQs as a spectacle – something the public might actually want to watch – must enter the same plea.

U-turn of the year – A Level results and the Government abandoning the Ofqual algorithm for predicted grades

31 Dec

In a tight competition, A Level results were deemed U-turn of the year by our panel with 28.11 per cent of the vote. Many will remember the outcry in August after the Department of Education used an algorithm by Ofqual to predict grades, leading to huge disappointment among students. Gavin Williamson and the Ofqual soon apologised and decided that all A Level and GCSE results in England would be from then on be calculated by teacher assessments.

In at 25.87 per cent, our panelists felt that the Government’s position on free school meals was another big U-turn, followed by Sadiq Khan’s decision for London to have a lockdown and curfews, only to then fight for these to be avoided, and Keir Starmer in last place with his Brexit flip flopping. Either way, there was no stand out winner in this category, unlike some of our others.

Frank Young: Educational Long Covid. Why the collapse of schooling over lockdown will haunt the poor for years to come.

3 Nov

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice

If the Marcus Rashford affair has taught us anything, it is that the Government is in urgent need of a poverty strategy to plug the hole in thinking when emergency measures come in.

Until recently, being Education Secretary was the Cabinet job everyone wanted, and for good reason. Number crunchers at the Department for Work & Pensions worked out some years ago that, for a poor child, failing at school was the number one predictor of staying poor in adult life. It’s as simple as that.

Well before state schools were closed down last spring (with private schools moving almost entirely online), the so-called educational attainment gap persisted as an annual reminder of this particular pathway into future poverty. Disadvantaged pupils are particularly prone to low levels of literacy and numeracy – and this in turn leads to low pay, insecure jobs and unemployment.

If we really want to ‘build back better’ when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, we will need to tackle educational inequalities of outcome, in much the same way that we need to build houses.

More than half a billion school days have been missed since March, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds having less contact with their teachers and less work marked than wealthier children. In the first month of lockdown, private school children were twice as likely to take part in daily online lessons as those in state school.

The full impact of school closures on children’s outcomes is not yet known, but the closures are likely to have worsened the attainment gap. The exam fiasco over the summer will have further disrupted education for children at a critical time in their studies. This is a form educational Long Covid that will have an impact on already disadvantaged lives for many years to come.

We seemed to have stopped talking about the ‘root causes’ of disadvantage as we chase our tail to lockdown, bail out and subsidise our way out of the pandemic. Any poverty strategy will need to take a long hard look at where the educational disadvantage starts – and that is in the home. Between the ages of four to 16, a typical British child will spend only 15 per cent of their time at school. Damian Hinds got this when he described family life as the last educational “taboo”.

Home environments marked by multiple transitions, disrupted attachment to a parent and frequent conflict increase the likelihood of children displaying externalising behaviour problems, leading to poor engagement and attainment at school.

The experience of lockdown has only increased made the situation worse. In response to the escalating education crisis, we spend £26 on catch-up schemes for every £1 we spend on reducing conflict within families. That’s an argument for increasing the £1 – not decreasing the £26 that is desperately needed.

Our nursery sector is teetering on the brink following an extended, enforced shutdown. It is too soon to tell how many will shut their doors, unable to make running a nursery work but as ever this will hit the poorest hardest. At just 3 years old, disadvantaged children are almost 1.5 years behind their more affluent peers in their early language development.

Once attainment gaps arise, they are hard to close. Children who attend high-quality settings for two to three years are almost eight months ahead of children who attend none. This is exactly where we need to focus a renewed push to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

Schools are receptacles of disadvantage – whether it is a dysfunctional home life or a terrible start in life. We can now predict longer term educational underperformance from the earliest days: when Frank Field looked at this issue he found more than half of children in the bottom 20 per cent of attainment in school at school will remain at the bottom when they take their GCSEs.

As Robert Halfon has said on this website, we need a poverty strategy. The money set aside for catch-up should be rolled into the next spending review to give schools a permanent pot for focused, back-to-basics tuition in literacy and numeracy.

Small is beautiful when it comes to catch up – and we can lock this into our efforts to rebuild from the pandemic. Teachers make the difference, and getting the best teachers into schools with disadvantaged catchments should be a big priority. High-quality teaching is particularly transformative for disadvantaged pupils. Over a school year, these pupils get 1.5 years’ worth of learning with high-quality teachers; they lose half a year’s learning when taught by poorly performing teachers.

Don’t overlook family support, hidden away in the Department for Work & Pensions. The Reducing Parental Conflict programme now has three years of evidence based interventions to stabilise family life. It is much an education issue as it is a poverty issue for the department doleing out welfare payments. We need action now to tackle children going without – but we also need a plan that tackles disadvantage early on.

Syed Kamall: Rashford’s campaign calls for state action – but it equally highlights the power of individuals and community

29 Oct

Professor Syed Kamall is Academic and Research Director at the IEA. From May 2005 to June 2019, he was a Conservative MEP for London.

While Marcus Rashford’s campaign to provide free meals for children has gained much publicity and public support, it has also come under criticism for providing meals for children regardless of need and for even nationalising parental responsibility.

The campaign is built on the assumption that state intervention is necessary to solve societal problems but equally it has highlighted the power of private individuals to affect change, as well as the dedication of volunteers in our local communities.

The campaign perhaps should be seen in the context of our country’s long history of helping those in need. As far back as 1597-8, the Elizabethan Poor Laws were administered through parish overseers, who provided relief for the aged, sick, and infant poor, as well as work for the able-bodied in workhouses. The latter would of course be unacceptable today. In the late 18th century, this was supplemented by the Speenhamland system, providing allowances to workers with below subsistence wages.

By the nineteenth century, it is estimated that as much money passed through voluntary organisations to those in need as did through the poor law. Many adults belonged to an average of five or six voluntary organisations, such as trades unions and friendly societies, offering financial protection against sickness and unemployment as well as savings societies, literary and scientific institutes.

While charitable provision was diverse, it did not reach everyone in need, which led to calls for state intervention and the introduction of state pensions in 1908 and state social insurance in 1911. Voluntary organisations began to accept money from the state, becoming complementary or supplementary welfare providers, but no longer being seen as the first port of call for those in need.

The 1942 Beveridge Report recommended a single contribution and a single state benefit agency for social insurance. Beveridge wanted friendly societies to act as state benefit agencies offering additional services if funded voluntary contributions. However, this idea was rejected by the Government and led to the post-war welfare state.

Despite the growth of state welfare, the UK maintains a mixed welfare model with thousands of local civil society non-state projects in neighbourhoods across the country, providing support and signposting for families in need, long before we saw the inspiring help that volunteers have provided during the Covid-19 lockdown. However, even within these organisations, there are some who see their efforts as stepping in where the state should be acting, rather than as part of a rich tapestry of local civil society.

This bias towards state-intervention is one that sees multi-millionaire footballers become advocates for more government action, where local community groups may already exist and even do a better job than state agencies. When I was a politician, I was sometimes contacted by constituents asking me to find a taxpayer-funded local council or national government or EU grant or hoping I could pass a law to solve a local problem. When I offered to introduce them to a project that had solved a similar problem in their neighbourhood, some were inspired while others saw this as an example of state failure.

Poverty, especially child poverty, has a devastating impact and as a society we should do everything in our power to offer routes out of poverty. But government is not the answer to every problem, and in our rush to do something, we should not overlook or squeeze out alternative solutions.

While some critics may prefer that Rashford built a coalition of other millionaires and companies to support local civil society organisations or offer to pay more tax before calling for state intervention, they risk overlooking the incredible good this young working class man has done.

Whether he sees it or not, his campaign has demonstrated the power of local civil society non-state organisations to address problems in their neighbourhoods. He has also inspired others to – In the words of Gandhi – become the change they want to see.

He is also raised the issue of corporate welfare, which in some cases has also seen money given to companies who did not necessarily need it. Is it any wonder, that Rashford and others argue spending public money on school dinners would be a better use of the taxpayer’s money, especially when so much has been splashed around?

Finally, the campaign has reignited the debate over universal provision vs targeted help and whether a better way to help hungry families would be via Universal Credit, giving families in need the money directly to make the best use of it for their individual circumstances and not to assume that parents will use the money for non-essentials rather than food.

On such an emotive subject it is easy for the waters to get muddied, for political opponents to take polarised positions and to trade accusations of being uncaring or misguided. Maybe we should instead take a moment to applaud Rashford for his actions, for demonstrating that welfare beyond the state is very much alive and for igniting a debate on the effectiveness of the solutions he proposes.

Philippa Stroud: The Coalition stopped officially measuring poverty – which left its successor unsightedover free schools meals

28 Oct

Philippa Stroud is Chief Executive Officer of the Legatum Institute, and leads the Social Metrics Commission.

Marcus Rashford presents the Conservative Party with a problem. No Conservative believes that any child in this country should ever go hungry, but we also want to build a society in which parents are able to earn enough to support their own children and, where that is not the case, in which there is a welfare state that supports those in need. These are our long-term objectives.

So what happens at a moment of crisis when there is a short-term need, and why has the call for the expansion of holiday provision of food and activities to support an additional 1.1 million children in the short term gathered such momentum?

In 2016, the Government abolished the old measure of poverty as an official measure. This means since that year it has been walking blind. Policy decisions have been made in a vacuum without a tool that shines a spotlight on the needs of the most disadvantaged.

The Government has made some great decisions, but without the certainty that what they are doing is hitting the target. Has poverty gone up? Is it plateauing? Until there is an agreed metric that tracks this, who can say?

That is why I launched the Social Metrics Commission (SMC) in 2016, drawing from left and right, and have proposed a new set of poverty metrics: to end the war on poverty measurement so that we could put our energy into working towards an effective poverty reduction strategy.

By the SMC measure, until the start of Covid-19, Conservatives could rightly declare that work was the best route out of poverty and, with record high levels of employment, this strategy was clearly effective, with 90 per cent of households where both adults work full time being out of poverty.

But during this global pandemic, the SMC measure also tells us it is those in deep poverty who are being most significantly impacted by the virus. Two in three (65 per cent) of those employed and in deep poverty prior to the crisis have seen reduced hours or earnings, been furloughed, and/or lost their job.

Although these numbers are not tracked by the Government, the public instinctively feels this to be the case. Locally, Conservatives know this too and are responding with short-term fixes.

The London borough of Kensington and Chelsea for example has promised £15 food vouchers over half-term for its 3,300 local children eligible for free school meals. Councillor Josh Rendall, the lead member for family and children’s services, said: “This is not a long-term solution but this is an exceptional year and we know it has been a tough one for many families.”

Conservatives have a good story to tell. Number 10 and 11 have worked tirelessly to put the entire resources of Government behind protecting the British people from Covid-19, including in the short term with increased support in the benefit system, the Job Retention (and soon Support) Scheme and, in the long term, through improved services for mental health and education, tackling the costs of housing and driving forward the levelling up agenda.

But in the absence of an effective poverty measure, we are unable to quantify the positive impact of all of these choices, gain credit for a comprehensive strategy on poverty, or identify whether there are short term challenges that still need to be addressed.

We need to be able to say that no child in Britain will go hungry on our watch – but we can’t. And we are allowing others to create a narrative for us, and in the absence of an agreed poverty measure and subsequent strategy, we always will. This does not need to be the case.

Had we had the SMC measure already in place, we would have been monitoring the impact of Covid-19 on the most vulnerable during this time of crisis. Had we adopted the SMC measure, we would have known in May that although the pandemic is hitting everyone, it is hitting those in deepest poverty the most and that short term measures may be required to see the poorest through this time.

It was Will Quince, a Work and Pensions Minister, who first announced that the department was taking forward the SMC measure of poverty and developing Experimental Statistics, back in May 2019. But even now, when accurate and timely data is needed more than ever, the work has stalled.

I know there will be some who will be nervous about a new measure of poverty, even one that has gained consensus across the political spectrum and already won the Government much political capital. But the measure is in effect a framework. It is the best way of capturing the “who” is in poverty – the “who” we need to be concerned about and looking out for. The Government can then decide where it wants to place its effort – so at a time like this it would have focused on those most impacted.

The Government could decide to focus on those who are moving in and out of poverty and close to the labour market (the top seven million). That is in effect what the £20 uplift has done in Universal Credit.

Or, it could decide to focus energy and resources on those in deep poverty – those who are 50 per cent below the poverty line (bottom 4.5 million). This is the most vulnerable group and where I would put my energy and effort at a time of national crisis. This is who many of the public thinks of as being in poverty, which is why they are so concerned now and why Rashford has received so much support.

I know that many Conservatives, like myself, came into politics because we were concerned about the long-term drivers of poverty. We feel deeply concerned about the most vulnerable in the nation. We know that poverty is about money, but that it is also about family, education and skills, debt, housing, sickness and disability, and employment. It is about the support being there when you need it so that you can get up and onto your own two feet again and find your own way out of poverty for you and your family.

This is a moment to take action in the short term – as the Government has been doing and still needs to do – but it is also a moment to get our house in order for the long term: to adopt the SMC poverty measure and build a comprehensive poverty strategy so that now and in the future we can say hand on heart, on our watch: no child went hungry.