Kieran Cooke: Levelling up cannot be all things to all people. Here are some of the challenges of turning soundbite into reality.

1 Jun

Kieran Cooke is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue. This article represents the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Bright Blue.

The Prime Minister announced last month that the Government will publish a white paper on levelling up later this year. Also, in the in the recent Queen’s Speech, the Government committed to “level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom”. However, is levelling up actually an ambition that can be achieved or will it remain simply a vote-winning slogan?

If the Government is going to actually “level up” the country, it needs to know what it is levelling up beyond the broad commitment of a transformative agenda of investment in infrastructure, research and development and skills training. Otherwise, we will end up with a scattergun approach with disconnected policies and initiatives that will not collectively result in improved outcomes. It is also only by knowing what you are trying to level up that clear targets can be developed. As we all know, what gets measured gets delivered on in government.

In deciding what it will level up, the Government first needs to be clear on the distinction between levelling up places versus levelling up people. Investing in places does not necessarily improve the outcomes of those living in those areas. By investing in places only, for example through the Freeports initiative announced by the Government last October, there is a risk that jobs created are filled by those commuting in from other areas rather than benefitting local people.

Conversely, a skill development programme may benefit local people but without jobs within the local area, those people are likely to commute to other areas for work, undermining the increased prosperity of the local area. To truly level up, the Government not only needs to be clear on what it is levelling up but also have a dual focus on investing in places and people.

The ambition of the Government to level up is commendable, however, the scale of the challenge is significant. The fact that a baby boy born in Blackpool in 2018 is expected to live 10 years less than if he was born in Westminster (Office of National Statistics) demonstrates how deep rooted and complex the current regional inequalities are.

The prize in addressing these underlying factors of regional inequality that previous governments have failed to reverse is significant. However, sadly the political challenge of tackling these factors is less glamorous and will require more radical thinking than launching “vanity” infrastructure projects which are more likely to be short-term vote winners but which – like all others before it – will likely fail to get to the root of the problem.

With an 80-seat majority, and a divided opposition, you could argue that now more than ever is the Government’s chance to focus on the systemic issues causing these regional inequalities. However, with small majorities in many of the seats they won in 2019 and the Conservatives already have an eye on the ticking clock towards the next election in 2024, the allure of short term wins rather than the Government holding its nerve in addressing the root causes of regional inequalities is understandably strong.

If the Government is going to really level up the country, it will require a focused and targeted approach. Levelling up cannot be all things to all people. An overall level playing field in terms of outcomes would require all places to have the same skill composition and be of a similar size. This is not realistic nor is it economically feasible.

Instead, the levelling-up agenda should be focused on those areas with the strongest potential to have high productivity and economic growth. Analysis from the Centre for Cities found that these are the largest cities. However, many of the “red wall” seats are in those small- and medium-sized towns and cities where closing the output gap is going to be less effective. Therefore, the Government faces a difficult dilemma on where to focus on levelling up and it is yet unclear whether the evidence or political calculation will prevail.

Finally, if the Government is to really level up the country, it needs to level up not only investment but also power. This shift of power out to those areas left behind needs to be more than cosmetic changes of moving the Conservative’s headquarters to Leeds or as announced in the Spending Review, relocating 22,000 civil servants out of London.

Overall, the concept of levelling up is an appealing soundbite to voters. However, achieving it is much more complex and challenging. It remains to be seen if MPs are in it for the long haul and have the country’s best interests at heart or whether they are looking for quick political wins in areas where they need electoral favours in 2024. And thus, leaving the country no further forward than where other governments have got to in addressing regional inequalities.

Chris Skidmore: Student finance? It’s the interest rate, stupid.

17 May

Chris Skidmore was Universities Minister twice between 2018-2020, and is Co-Chair of the All Party Group on Universities and Chair of the Res Publica Lifelong Education Commission. He is MP for Kingswood.

News that there is to be a consultation on the fee level for university suggests that proposals in the Augar Review to reduce the annual fee level for university courses to £7,500 are back on.

Ever since the Office for National Statistics judgement in 2018 that student debt would need to be classified as part of the Government’s debt, the move to reduce the amount owed by students has been viewed as an attractive means of reducing this eye-watering burden in the future – especially with the student loan book estimated to rise from £140 billion in 2020 to £560 billion by the middle of the century.

Yet for every policy change, there are both winners and losers. Effective government is about ensuring the losses do not counteract the perceived gains. Reducing fees and, in turn, the total amount that universities can spend on course provision will place the sustainability of many university courses under scrutiny.

Science degrees cost more than the current £9,250 a year to provide, with most being subsidised by arts, humanities and social science degrees. Unless careful thought is given to the impact of the unit of resource, what seems an attractive headline offer might in fact backfire – especially if it results in a loss of opportunity for future students in regions of the country who find that their local university is no longer able to provide the course provision they wish, not only in the arts and humanities, but in science degrees, too.

In addition, out of the current fee level, universities themselves invest around over £800 million a year in improving access and participation from some of the lowest socio-economic groups to attend university. With a reduction in fees, there is also a risk that the ability to reach out to the most disadvantaged in society is also reduced.

This is not to say that a rebalancing of fees, especially if we want to create an effective tertiary ecosystem which allows learners to move between further and higher education, cannot work. Indeed universities should be preparing for this realignment and in addition should work with the government to help deliver more Level Four and Five course provision and Higher Technical Education, which I believe they are well placed to do as anchor institutions in their local communities. Just look at the work of Nottingham Trent University and their partnership with Mansfield College, or London Southbank University’s work on apprenticeships and skills.

But if we are to reduce university fees, then there is also an important policy lever which the Government should also be looking to change, which I believe would have far greater impact on individual lives— and in turn far greater support. To paraphrase James Carville, when it comes to higher education funding, it’s the interest rate, stupid. We need to look again at the interest rate charged on student loans, which any student or parent will tell you is out of all proportion to the reality of current interest rates.

Particularly there is to be an expansion of student finance into wider post-18 education, involving not only university but further education and modular flexible courses, the issue of the interest rate on student ‘loans’ must be looked at. At 5.6 per cent, even with the taper, it remains out of all proportion with the current 0.25 per cent rate.

Now, with this debt placed on the Government’s balance sheet following the ONS decision, a revaluation of the interest rate for student loans would seem sensible, for the Government’s twin goals of improving access to education and to address the actual size of the debt owed itself.

The current situation is also entrenching unfairness, preventing students from low-income backgrounds from ever getting out of their debt trap. Yes, they may not have to pay their student loan back until they earn more than £26,500, yet this in itself is a cap on aspiration – potentially trapping these students in median earning jobs for the rest of their lives, for the fear of paying back their student debt.

Even if students begin to pay off their debt, the interest rate, as it currently stands, results in them either never paying off their loan, or ending up paying back over double what their actual degree cost.

Currently, for an individual in higher education on Plan Two with £50,000 worth of debt, even with a graduate starting salary of £28,500, rising to £56,900 over 30 years, they will never pay off their loan – with the eventual interest rate of 5.6 per cent accruing eventual debt of £113,000.

Never mind that they would never pay off their debt, having seen it cancelled after reaching the repayment threshold of 30 years: the eye-watering fact is that interest itself becomes 68 per cent of the total debt.

This begins to kick in even as the student is studying and unable to make repayments: last year, a third-year student will have had £1680 added to their existing debt through the application of interest alone. By contrast, students from wealthy backgrounds can pay off their loan immediately, with no debt interest repayments to face, resulting in the wealthier getting a cheaper university degree.

Further to this, the Sutton Trust has demonstrated that for the most deprived 40 per cent of students, average debt is nearly £52,000, compared to £38,400 for the top 20 per cent, driven by access to maintenance loans. Maintenance loans now make up £7 billion of the £17 billion borrowed each year, up from £5 billion four years ago.

Returning to a system of means-tested grants rather than loans accruing further debt would help encourage learners to access post-18 education, particularly for those from backgrounds for which debt, regardless of how it actually accrues and whether it is paid off, will be viewed as a disincentive and a barrier to reskill.

At the same time, we should be investigating new methods of funding reskilling and upskilling. The success of research and development tax credits in generating this activity points to an opportunity for how companies could be rewarded for investing in the human capital of their employers, especially given the opportunity to close the productivity gap that lifelong learning might offer.

I am currently investigating all of these issues as part of the Lifelong Education Commission, which I have established with Phillip Blond at Res Publica, which will be producing a series of reports on how we can reform our education system to remove barriers to learning.

Just as we need to look again at what barriers within the learning system, whether legislative or regulatory, qualification based, or institutional, are preventing increased access to educational opportunity, or the need to look again at the opportunities for change that technology and remote learning can provide, so too we will need to address what is, and always will be, the greatest barrier to uptake: finance.

Taking the opportunity to address interest rates now, what is one of the greatest perceived injustices in the student finance system, could be a potential game changer, delivering fairer education provision and achieving universal support.

Cem Kemahli: Vaccination would be even more of a success were it not for problems with data

5 Apr

Cllr Cem Kemahli is the Lead Member for Adult Social Care and Public Health on Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council.

The UK vaccination drive has been a success. Over 30 million doses of vaccines which didn’t exist a year ago have now been administered. It is only through, sadly, seeing other nations struggling that we can understand the sheer logistical human endeavour which has gone into getting this right in the UK.

The vaccines provide a way to protect our most vulnerable and therefore help protect our economy and the livelihoods of our residents.  But they have also highlighted an issue in the way that the Office for National Statistics, the NHS and local GPs manage data and patient records.

As a local authority we have been caught between a data rock and a media hard place.

London, in general, sits below much of the rest of the country. This is a fact frequently reported by the national and local press, often highlighting particular boroughs without a firm understanding of the cause of the statistics.

We receive criticism in the papers for a rollout that we are merely supporting. “Low vaccine uptake in Kensington” reads better than “Low vaccine uptake in the West London Clinical Commissioning Group, encompassing Kensington and Chelsea as well as GPs in Westminster”.

The common media reasoning for lower take-up has been the ethnicity differences apparent on any London street – each bringing their own cultural quirks and often intrinsic hesitations of state-provided healthcare.  This issue is even more acute, given the propensity for Covid to impact these communities most virulently.

A fairer though somewhat less quantifiable or journalistically appealing reason is one of data management.

Our vaccination uptake is measured against out-of-date but best guess ONS population figures, as it is for every borough in London. The census will hopefully address these figures, although we in Central London have hesitations –  because our Capital is a transient city, our borough especially so, and this fact feeds through into the ONS data.

So, whilst our overall population might remain the same, the actual people accounting for these figures, and thus their NHS numbers, change frequently.

Lockdowns have provided some solace for GPs, in that everyone, bar a few exceptions, are where they say they are, and available at short notice to receive their jab.  That is, if they are in the country.

We know anecdotally that our borough has somewhat emptied out over the last year. We usually have 1.2 parking permits issued for every available space, and parking is always hard to come by.  But during the pandemic we have been able to accommodate over 4,000 key workers who wished to drive into the borough. These cars have had to go somewhere – and they have simply taken the spaces of those who have left.

The negative side of a transient population for GPs is that they have lists of patients that are constantly falling out of date. Usually, this is no problem: the data is cleansed often, and records updated as people move around or fall off their lists. GP practices work hard to manage their patient numbers and offer excellent services to our residents. But they can only work with those who engage with them, and update their information.

We are, along with our neighbouring borough of Westminster City Council, also home to an exceptionally high number of international residents, dual and indeed triple nationals who may not necessarily be eligible for NHS treatment.

In ordinary times, this is not a cause for concern: they are able to return home, go privately for treatment or use international insurance. But now we have a single point of access for vaccines this is bringing to light the inherent consequences of travel bans and access to healthcare.  Many of our residents simply aren’t eligible for the vaccine through the NHS.

This trifecta of residents out of town, residents not entitled to vaccination and residents who no longer reside here, but who remain on GPs’ lists, has caused the overall figures we see today. Whilst I have not seen the minutiae for other boroughs, I suspect this is true for most inner London authorities.

As a local authority, our role is not to carry out the vaccination drive, but it is to assist the NHS and local GPs in engaging with our harder to reach communities; the digitally excluded, non-English speaking and those not familiar with accessing healthcare have been our main target.

We have put on successful community pop-ups in faith settings, and reached out through digital and physical signage, as well as offering advice in a variety of languages to offer support to those willing, eligible, but not knowing how a vaccine can be obtained.

Thankfully, we see little anti-vax sentiment: far more pervasive is vaccine hesitancy. A wait and see approach which we can help to overcome with evidence-based sessions and information from trusted sources.

We have also been working with GPs by helping them to call their patients and take admin out of their hands, so that they can focus on vaccine delivery. Through this work, we have found profound issues with the NHS database. Deceased residents, residents already vaccinated, and residents who have left the borough years ago are all still showing as eligible for a vaccine. Each one pulls down the overall uptake – through either being a numerator which should be counted or as a denominator which should be excluded.

When you appreciate the inability to vaccinate the deceased, you start to understand the underlying problems with a vaccination drive that aims to reach 100 per cent of the adult population, but uses somewhat faulty databases on which to base success.

And a success it remains: we have reached well over 75 per cent of our residents over 70 years old, but when you factor in the dead, ineligible, abroad or already vaccinated we are more likely reaching 85 per cent. Much more in line with national figures. We have thankfully not had a single confirmed case in anyone over the age of 75 since the 11th March – a testament to a successful vaccination drive.

We have worked constructively with the NHS and local GPs so far, but the underlying issue remains one of data sharing. We have council tax lists of residents in the borough; we know where people live. GPs know who is registered with them, and the NHS knows who holds an NHS number. These three systems rarely need to work alongside one another but with contact tracing, self-isolation and now vaccination, knowing where a resident with an NHS number is residing is all the more important.

Our local council has stood up a team in our “hub” to ring residents, and we have had great success in reaching those that have been missed.  We are imploring the NHS to give us more people to ring, we have the resource funded by government to make these calls, but we need to feed the system with the information, and make sure we find everyone willing and able to be vaccinated.

The borough knows the figures are wrong. The GPs know they are wrong. And the NHS knows they are wrong. But without someone to clean the information or update the systems, we will struggle to lift ourselves off the comparative bottom.

I fear the overall national success will mean not enough focus is brought back on ours and other residents who are being missed due to data issues putting themselves and their families at risk.

Radical: Have you been following the ONS census sex question fiasco? If not, here’s what you need to know.

19 Mar

Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical. She and Victoria Hewson, her co-founder, alternate authorship of its column on trans, sex and gender issues, and are co-authors of the article below.

Have you been following the census ‘sex question’ fiasco? If not, then you’ve been missing out on one of the most important political stories of recent years — and my use of the term ‘political’ signifies a justification for this grandiose claim.

The census, after all, should be an apolitical matter, you might think. Surely, you’d say, it’s a matter reserved for data geeks analysing information collected directly from the person in the street (or wherever the person happens to be on Census Day). But, aside from the fact that, within a political society, no matter of public business is fully apolitical, this year’s census has become very much politicised. And this is something that should concern us all.

At Radical, we first wrote at length on the topic of the ‘sex question’ back in October, when we issued the following warning:

“Gender ideology has penetrated our institutions so deeply that, even without self-identification becoming a matter of law, the insidious idea that one’s sex is solely a matter of personal demand is seeping into policy and practice, almost unnoticed. Yet the damaging effects of this will be far-reaching, and one of the most worrying examples regards the case of the upcoming census.”

Back then, we reported that social scientists and statisticians were concerned about the guidance that was being produced to accompany the 2021 census. In a Sunday Times letter, almost 100 academics noted that this guidance would “effectively transform the sex question into one about gender identity”; they highlighted their fear that this would “undermine data reliability on a key demographic variable”.

As one social scientist, whom I spoke with this week, emphasises:

“Political changes to the census do not provide evidence for the claims activists wish to make, but they do impact on the quality of the research tools depended on by genuine social scientists. Changing census questions reduces its comparability over time, for instance. It should also be pointed out that advocacy groups use statistics, often misuse them, in order to justify their own incomes.”

Some important progress has been made on the sex question, however. Following a recent successful legal challenge by the campaign organisation Fair Play for Women (FPW), the Office for National Statistics, which is in charge of the census in England and Wales, has, as reported by FPW, now ‘conceded that the proper meaning of Sex in the Census means sex as recognised by law’.

An urgent change, to this effect, has been made to the guidance that the ONS had already issued. However, many questions remain. Here are three, to begin with:

1) How did the ONS settle on its initial 2021 guidance?

This is a question not only about the particular wording of the guidance, but also about how that wording was determined. As we discussed in October, questions remain about the formation of the ONS’s 2011 guidance on the sex question.

The approach that the ONS took appears not to have been subject to consultation; according to the ONS, it was done “at the request of the LGBT community”. Of course, input to the deliberative process of public business should always be welcome, but consultation should be wide-ranging, and the opportunity to respond should be open. Contentious questions of sex and gender are not the preserve of groups whose work is particularly focused on these matters — they are of relevance and importance to everyone.

The policy analysis organisation MBM has raised similar questions about the approach of the National Records of Scotland to the upcoming Scottish census (which will take place in 2022), reporting that

[d]uring the question development phase for the sex question in the [2022] census, NRS met only with LGBT advocacy bodies. There is no evidence of consultation with independent statisticians or census data users in this period (see FOI correspondence)”. 

Conflicting statements and rapid shifts of approach from the ONS on their 2021 sex question guidance haven’t helped, either. Having confirmed in January that the question would relate ‘very simply to your legal sex’, it became clear the following month that one’s passport would be included in the exemplar documents, listed in the guidance, which respondents would be recommended to use to inform their answer.

And, as FPW emphasised, passports do not record legal sex — in that you can change the sex recorded on your passport, as you see fit, without having obtained a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). Now, why did the ONS change its approach? And what is being done to address serious concerns about institutional capture?

2) What is the purpose of the sex question?

While it is good news that the ONS has corrected its guidance, it should be noted that one’s legal sex and one’s biological sex are not identical.

The 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA) allows people, on having met certain conditions, to obtain a GRC, which entitles them to be treated as belonging to the opposite sex set for (almost all) legal purposes. This does not mean, however, that it is possible to change one’s biological sex. It is unfashionable (to put it mildly) to state this so baldly, but it is the truth, nonetheless.

And if it is the case that reliable census data is required regarding the membership of the two biological sex sets, not least for the purposes of UK public policy — including the allocation of vital medical resources — then being asked to record one’s legal sex, rather than one’s biological sex, is, at least superficially, a peculiar choice.

Now, this is not to suggest that legal sex, or other descriptors, should not also be recorded. Indeed, this year, the ONS has also included an optional census question pertaining to gender identity, and there are good reasons for including such questions. But conflating these matters is the kind of bad practice that leads to unfortunate unintended consequences — in this case, not least regarding public respect for biological truth. And, again, the process for determining what questions are asked in the census, and how these questions are worded, should be transparent and open.

3) What about other forms of data collection?

As we’ve discussed previously, census data is extremely important. But the census is neither the only means of collecting public data, nor arguably the most important for some of the kinds of public-policy-making typically referred to in discussion of these matters.

Rather, that accolade could be afforded to the Labour Force Survey (LFS), which is also run by the ONS. This is because the census, whilst crucial for geographical and long-term historical purposes, goes out of date extremely quickly, and isn’t as helpful for analysing short-term trends over time, or addressing pressing matters such as evidencing discrimination patterns. This is not to undermine the census’s importance.

But the LFS reports quarterly, and, as the ONS explains, ‘provides data at a level of precision not matched by any other regular household survey’. Now, it’s unsurprising that there are many differences between the ways in which the LFS and the census are designed and carried out. But when the ONS makes significant changes to census categories, it’s naive to think this won’t have a significant impact on its other forms of data collection. So, what might this year’s census debacle mean for the LFS, and for vital work depending on reliable data sets, more generally?

Radical: Despite lockdown, the gender wars rage on. Here’s our round up of the biggest issues of the week.

3 Mar

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. Together they founded Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate.

With so many stories from the sex and gender debate vying for attention this week, we’ve put together a quick briefing on just a few of them: 

Sex and the Census

Last autumn, we wrote about the battle over the ‘sex question’ in this March’s census. After much obfuscation, the ONS announced in February that its guidance for completing the question ‘what is your sex’ would advise people that they can ‘use the sex recorded on one of your legal documents such as a birth certificate, Gender Recognition Certificate, or passport.’

Now, since it is possible to change the sex marker on documents like passports and driving licences on request, without any formal process, this means in effect that trans people are being told that they do not need to include their biological sex, and can answer with the sex they self-identify as, instead.

Moves towards recording self-identified gender instead of biological sex have been strongly criticised by leading academics in the field. The campaign group Fair Play for Women is bringing a judicial review of the ONS guidance. Remarkably, when it received notice of the legal challenge, the ONS expedited the release of the online census, which means that people are already completing it, making the guidance harder to overturn.

Readers can support the judicial review crowd fund here. Readers might also consider joining the campaign by organisations including the Safe Schools Alliance and Conservatives for Women, to register opposition to the ONS approach, by requesting a paper copy of the census and returning it with a letter asking to have their sex recorded as ‘registered at birth’. 

Maternity leave

Our second dispatch from beyond the looking glass comes from the parliamentary debate on the bill to allow Cabinet ministers to take maternity leave. Following a rebellion in the House of Lords, the Government relented, and will allow the law to refer to ‘mother’ instead of ‘pregnant person’.

The bill had been drafted in ‘gender neutral’ terms, in the mistaken belief that this is what drafting protocols require. In fact, gender-neutral language is only required when it is not necessary to refer to one sex or the other. The Equality Act, for example, is very clear in its references to women in the context of pregnancy discrimination (though it dates from 2010, when clearly much more backward views on gender identity were prevalent!).

It is therefore puzzling that the minister in the Commons, Penny Mordaunt, claimed that using the word ‘woman’ would have caused legal difficulties. Equally misguided were the claims that the change made in the Lords would introduce discrimination against transmen who fall pregnant. It is established in case law that a transman who gives birth is still the mother of the child for legal purposes.

The debate in the House of Lords was refreshingly open and well informed, illustrating by contrast how poor the discourse on this matter is in other forums, where activists pushing misinformation have been able to dominate and silence people who do not feel as able to speak freely as their Lordships. Mordaunt herself used the opportunity at the dispatch box to repeat, without explanation, that ‘transwomen are women and transmen are men’.

Children’s rights

Our third relevant news-story pertains to the appointment of a new Children’s Commissioner for England. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner was established in 2005, in accordance with the Children Act 2004, and following the recommendation of the Victoria Climbié Inquiry, and the previous establishment of similar roles in the other UK nations. The role was extended following the Dunford Review, and in accordance with the Children and Families Act 2014.

Its current focus, according to the office’s website, is to “promote and protect the rights of children, especially the most vulnerable”. It is promising, therefore, to note that the new commissioner, Dame Rachel De Souza, spoke, in her opening message, of the importance of the “sense of adults really taking responsibility for the future of children”. Too often today it feels as if adults in power are purposefully oblivious of the fact that children’s powers of reasoning are in development: that there are decisions they are simply unable to make for themselves.

In the time we have spent at Radical considering matters of sex and gender, we have come across many disturbing matters. But there’s no question that the most disturbing of these relate to what’s been happening to many of the vulnerable children who have been referred to UK professionals for help with gender-related issues — claimedly in the ‘interests’ of these children, according their own ‘wishes’.

As we have reported many times, and recent court cases have documented, the mental-health problems of these children have, too often, been overlooked, and they have been medicalised in ways they simply cannot understand, never mind give consent to. These children have been treated as political footballs, quickly dropped by self-serving ‘gender-identity’ activists — who manipulated them and their parents into seeing these irreversible experimental ‘treatments’ as an exciting nirvana — if they step out of line, as in the case of the increasing numbers of ‘detransitioners’.

These children urgently need a proper protector, who understands what it means to be a child, and why it is so deeply wrong that these children have been let down and harmed in this way. Indeed, this protection is their right — not only under the recent pieces of aforementioned legislation, but fundamentally.

De Souza has a track record as a champion fighting for the highest-standards of education for all: even a Guardian article, focused on criticising De Souza’s links to the Conservative Party, stated that “[e]ven critics acknowledge her success as a headteacher who has improved schools in deprived areas serving disadvantaged children”. 

She also has a keen interest in philosophy and theology. We’re hopeful, therefore, that she will be the protector these vulnerable children so badly require. We also note that her part of her role is “gathering evidence”, so we shall write to her soon, to share our findings. 

Prison policy

Our final item of the week is news of the commencement, yesterday, of the Judicial Review of the Ministry of Justice’s transgender prisoner policy. This review was granted to a female prisoner, and addresses her claim of indirect sex-based discrimination. You can follow the hashtag #prisonJR on Twitter for up-to-date commentary on the case — not least from Fair Play for Women, which is live-tweeting the proceedings. 

Regardless of whether current and upcoming court cases following the emerging trend — and the gender-identity activists continue, finally, to be held to account — proper formal publicity about what’s been going on can only be for the good.

James Somerville-Meikle: Sunak should make supporting families a priority in his Budget

25 Feb

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union.

The economic cost of this pandemic is all too clear for many. But personal finances and household budgets are not the only things feeling the strain.

For some people, this past year has pushed relationships to their limits – with more time spent at home, greater stresses and anxieties, and an emotional cost impossible to calculate.

Among the alarming reports and grim statistics of the past year, the increase in people seeking divorce guidance from Citizens Advice and law firms reporting an increase in divorce applications should be some of the most worrying signs of the long-term impact of this virus.

As the Chancellor prepares to deliver his Budget next month, the state of people’s marriages might not be foremost on his mind, but there are good reasons why Rishi Sunak should make supporting families a priority.

In 2016, the Relationships Foundation estimated that the cost of family breakdown to the taxpayer – the various extra costs of supporting single parents and managing the fallout from relationship breakdown – was £48 billion. A figure that is sadly likely to be even higher in the wake of the pandemic.

While money alone cannot and should not be enough to keep a marriage together, a greater focus on how the tax and benefit system can support families is long overdue and is needed now more than ever.

Government spending has tended to focus on picking up the pieces from relationship breakdown, rather than supporting the family unit in the first place. If the Chancellor wants to avoid spiralling welfare spending as a legacy of the pandemic, then the Treasury needs to look more closely at the tax burden faced by families not just individuals.

One of the most pressing questions facing the Chancellor is the future of the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit and tax credits. The policy has helped millions through the pandemic, but it has cost billions – £6.1 billion according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

The temporary change has meant that someone on the basic rate of Universal Credit over the past year has received an extra £1,040 than they would have done without the uplift (an increase of 29 per cent on the pre-pandemic rate).

It’s a testament to the extraordinary times we live in that this hike in payments barely made the news when it was announced in March last year, but it is certainly making headlines now that the end of the year-long extension is in sight.

In some ways perhaps this was inevitable. Once something is given – no matter how temporary – it is hard to take away. People who have felt the benefit of the higher rate of payments will also feel the loss if and when they come to an end.

The challenge facing the Chancellor is how to avoid one of the biggest and most generous changes to social security in our history ending up looking like daylight robbery.

The £20 uplift has undoubtedly helped to get more money to some of the people most in need during the pandemic. But the problem with making changes to the basic rate of Universal Credit and tax credits is that everyone is treated the same, regardless of who they are or their circumstances. A working mum with three children gets the same benefit from an extra £20 a week through tax credits as a single man with no children.

If the Chancellor is looking for a way to rebalance welfare spending in the wake of the pandemic, then a more targeted approach, focusing on support for families and those with childcare responsibilities seems like an obvious solution. It would also be a big step towards delivering the manifesto commitment of making Britain the greatest place in the world to start a family.

There are oven-ready policies that the Chancellor could introduce in his Budget that would help families, and arguably be a greater help to children in the long term than the £20 uplift.

Perhaps the most obvious option would be to scrap the two-child cap on the childcare element of Universal Credit and tax credits. The policy was introduced in the Budget in 2015 and meant that from April 2017, support provided to families through Universal Credit or tax credits would be limited to the first two children.

The Child Poverty Action Group estimated in April 2020 that 230,000 families had been affected by the policy, and that an additional 60,000 families could be affected as a result of the pandemic. The policy has been roundly criticised by faith groups, including the Catholic Church, The Muslim Council of Britain, and Board of Deputies of British Jews, on account of its discriminatory approach to larger families.

The justification for the policy was that parents claiming Universal Credit or tax credits should face the same choices about the number of children they can afford as those supporting themselves solely through work. But the economic crisis caused by the pandemic has shown how quickly families can fall into difficulty. Even in normal times, no parent can be sure that their financial security will withstand unpredictable events such as illness, death, or redundancy.

Another possible source of inspiration for the Chancellor could be moving towards fully transferable personal allowances. Currently, 10 per cent of the current personal allowance of £12,500 is transferable between couples. Going further and making personal allowances fully transferable would remove the tax penalty suffered by single earner couples and help families keep more of the money they earn.

A fully transferable personal allowance would not be cheap. David Goodhart estimated in 2016 that the cost to the Treasury would be in the region of £5 billion – a significant amount of money, but still less expensive than the £6 billion cost of maintaining the uplift in Universal Credit and tax credits.

The Chancellor could also look at increasing child benefit, which has been largely frozen since 2010. The Child Poverty Action Group has estimated that increasing child benefit by just £10 per week would reduce child poverty by 450,000 as well as helping to stimulate the economy to recover from the pandemic.

There are options available to the Chancellor for this Budget and the rest of this Parliament to create a tax and benefit system that finally supports the family unit. The pandemic has shown the importance of having strong families alongside a social security system for those who need it.

Helping families keep more of the money they earn will not solve all of their problems, but it would certainly help. Let’s use this moment to build back better for families.

Caroline Johnson: Tiers are a tough but necessary step for the country. We must hold our nerve over winter.

26 Nov

Dr Caroline Johnson is the MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham.

Today the Government will announce the new tiers that will apply across different areas of the country, after analysis of the latest ONS data out yesterday.

The Prime Minister was clear that after this second period of lockdown we would return to a three-tier local and regional approach. We know that the new tiering system will be tougher than before we went into national restrictions, and I know many colleagues have expressed concerns about their constituents and local businesses facing further restrictive measures.

I share their concerns, however the scientific advice has been clear that, while the previous tiers did reduce the R rate, they were not quite enough to bring R below 1, and therefore it is right that the tiers have had to be toughened in some ways as we head into colder winter months, so that we can protect the NHS and save lives.

While it is completely understandable that people want to avoid the toughest restrictions if possible, adherence to these tiers is how we will avoid another national lockdown and the only way we will get through the tough winter months that still lie ahead.

As sorely tempting as it is to get back to some normality of life, especially over the festive season, whether that be heading to the pub or meeting friends and family, it would be wrong to risk lives and overwhelming the NHS when the real prospect of ending restrictions with vaccines and mass testing is now within reach.

And I believe the public understands this. A recent poll by ComRes showed that in England, adults are three times as likely to support moving to a tiered approach than oppose.

To its credit, the Government has listened to concerns and learned lessons from the original tiered system, and made important changes. Sensibly, the 10pm closing time for hospitality has been shifted to 11pm with a 10pm last orders, to allow for more staggered departures. Across all tiers, non-essential retail will be able to remain open and operate in a Covid secure way, in a vital boost for small businesses over the Christmas period.

As a doctor, I am particularly pleased that gyms will be reopening and outdoor sports – like tennis and golf – can resume across all tiers, so people can keep fit. Spectator sports can also resume outside in some tiers with capacity limits and social distancing, and collective worship and weddings can resume.

And as before, the Government will continue to provide financial support to areas, including cash grants for closed businesses and extra funding for local authorities.

The principle of targeting the toughest measures in areas where the virus is most prevalent remains the right one. Crucially, the Government has published clear indicators which will determine the tier each area will go into on December 2 and how areas then move between tiers thereafter. Those indicators will include case detection rates in all age groups, case detection rates in the over 60s, the rate at which cases are rising or falling, positivity rate, and pressure on local NHS services.

Tiers will be reviewed every 14 days against these indicators, providing much needed clarity and a route out of restrictions. These tiers are designed to keep the R below 1 and therefore allow areas to move down the tiers, rather than simply escalate as the epidemic grows.

I know there are some areas of the country that have been under some form of restrictions since the summer, which is why it is right that those areas in Tier 3 restrictions will be being prioritised for community testing rollouts.

There is at last some light at the end of what has been a long tunnel. All the indications are that through the collective effort of the people of Liverpool, the community testing trial has been a success and is ready to be rolled out much further, to 13 million people before Christmas, including NHS staff and care homes.

Community testing is not the silver bullet, but it is a powerful tool at our disposal – one that offers us new and exciting possibilities. There will be a clear incentive for everyone in areas where the virus prevalence is high to get a test, to help reduce the spread of the virus and eventually minimise the restrictions in your area.

We have also had a slew of positive news on vaccines over the last week and thanks to the work of the Vaccine Taskforce we have secured more than 350 million doses of vaccines of all kinds. The development of vaccines has been hugely impressive work at an unprecedented speed.

However, even if these vaccines are approved – we still have some road ahead of us before all those who need a vaccine have been inoculated. That is why it is so important that we hold firm and return to the tiered system so that we can get through the next few months.

It would be fatal now to become complacent. We must hold our nerve, reluctantly but resolutely re-enter the regional tiers and get through the winter. If we can continue to show the discipline and resolve that has characterised the entire country’s steadfast response to this crisis, then next spring we can build back better from Coronavirus and it could truly be a season of renewal like no other.

James Heywood: The case for public sector pay restraint is founded on fairness

21 Nov

James Heywood is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.

We may be eight months into this pandemic, but we have barely begun to see its full impact on the labour market. The unemployment rate, which has already risen from 3.9 to 4.8 per cent compared to a year ago, is expected by the Bank of England to rise as high as 7.5 per cent, and other forecasts put it much higher still. Wages fell over the summer and wage growth is expected to remain subdued for some time.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show the worst month for wages was June, with a decline across the economy as a whole of 1.6 per cent compared to 12 months before. Within those June figures, however, there is a huge disparity between the public and private sectors; earnings in the private sector were down nearly 3 per cent, while the public sector actually saw growth of 4.5 per cent.

In fact, pay growth in the public sector is now higher than it has been for over a decade. Private sector wages have improved a little since June, but even that bounce back in the late summer as restrictions were lifted was far outpaced by earnings growth in the public sector. A recent survey of employers found that more than half of private sector employers expect to freeze pay over the next 12 months, compared to average expected rises in basic pay of two per cent by public sector employers.

The setting of public sector wage rates has to take into account what is going on in the rest of the labour market. With the labour market tightening in recent years and wages picking up, the Government has found it necessary to ease up on public pay policy to keep pace with the private sector and prevent problems with recruitment and retention. It is right that pay policy should reflect what is happening elsewhere in the labour market. Now that the private sector is suffering a sudden shock, it is reasonable, fair and prudent to adjust pay policy in the public sector.

Public sector workers, on average, receive a pay premium compared to their private sector counterparts, even once factors such as types of role and levels of qualification have been accounted for. This gap is wider still once the generosity of pension provision in the public sector is factored in. In the public sector 86 per cent of workers receive implicit employer pension contributions worth 10 per cent of earnings or more, compared to just 10 per cent of private sector workers. Employees in many areas of the public sector also benefit from incremental pay rises in addition to the uprating of basic pay levels, meaning their pay increases automatically unless they are already at the top of their pay band.

The ONS have modelled the differential in earnings taking all these factors into account, including pensions. While public sector pay restraint after 2010 has narrowed the gap somewhat, the ONS estimate that the public sector earnings premium in 2019 was still seven per cent. This gap has only narrowed by three percentage points since 2011, and has been rising since 2017. Now that private sector earnings are stagnating, it may quickly widen again significantly unless the Government alters pay policy.

The Centre for Policy Studies published a paper yesterday which looks at comparisons of pay in the public and private sectors and explores the Chancellor’s options for pay restraint. Limiting average pay uprating to one per cent each year for the next three years could deliver a reduction in annual expenditure of nearly £6 billion and ensure private sector workers are not being left behind unfairly. Not only is it unfair on workers facing pay cuts and the threat of redundancy to continue widening the gap between public and private sector remuneration, it also distorts the labour market.

We should be clear: this is not a simple argument about public sector ‘fat cats’ or top civil servants with gold-plated pensions, and we should not pretend otherwise. Most of the public sector workers we are talking about, including no doubt some of the people reading this, do not earn huge salaries, and some work in high pressure or dangerous jobs.

The Government will need to think carefully about how any change to pay policy is presented, and the approach should be nuanced and flexible. Pay restraint is not about a political assault on the public sector – not only would that be unfair, especially after the year our NHS has experienced, it would also be terrible politics. It is simply about making a reasoned case that pay policy should reflect developments in the wider labour market and should be fair to all workers and all taxpayers across the UK.

School reopenings. Public attitudes are more relaxed this time. But the battle is not over for the Government.

12 Nov

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, one of the most difficult issues the Government has had to face is whether to keep schools open or not. During the first wave, a combination of backlash from teaching unions and parents hurriedly removing their children from classrooms arguably forced ministers’ hands into ordering closures around the country.

In September, after a summer in which the Department of Education was lambasted over an A Level grading system designed by Ofqual, millions of children finally made it back to school, albeit they were subjected to new measures with a view to stopping the spread of Coronavirus.

In spite of all the guidance – from staggered times to one-way systems to children having to socially distance – there are signs of more trouble to come. The National Education Union (NEU) is already pushing for schools to close during lockdown, a demand which has been endorsed by Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester Mayor.

Labour, too, although currently supportive of keeping schools open, has indicated that schools should be at the front of the queue for mass testing after NHS and social care staff. It remains to be seen how much of an issue it will be if the Government does not go along with that idea.

Then there’s the Welsh Labour government, which has recently cancelled exams for 2021 – in a move that has prompted questions to be asked about why Number 10 has not done the same in anticipation of difficulties next year.

In short, in spite of the fact that schools are now open, it would be wrong to assume that the issue of closures has now been settled for good. Things might change very quickly, as we’ve seen happen during this crisis.

How concerned should the Government be about being pressured into fresh calls for a second round of school closures? What should it do in the interim by way of preparing a response to mounting demands of this nature?

The first thing to say is that public confidence in school openings seems to have changed considerably since the start of the year. As of November 2, the Children’s Commissioner found the attendance rate in England had gone from 17.5 per cent in July (the post-lockdown peak), to 80 per cent in September, with nine out of ten children now back, indicating that parents are relatively content with the current direction.

Tom Hunt, the MP for Ipswich and a member of the Education Select Committee, agrees that something has shifted, and believes unions are “going to struggle in their argument”, adding that “I think there’s much more of a sense that we should keep schools open” among the public.

Teachers, too – at least, by and large – appear to support reopenings. A survey from Teacher Tapp suggests that 46 per cent believe that schools should stay open.

But here comes the more troublesome part; 39 per cent supported closures for this lockdown, and that’s a sufficient constituency for the unions to be able to argue that they have a mandate to insist upon change. Given that there have been teaching strikes in France and elsewhere, the DfE cannot afford to be complacent.

One fear is that the unions will move away from the idea of closing schools, to suggesting a more nuanced approach, but one that would equally prove disruptive to students’ education.

The NEU, for example, has proposed for schools to move to a rota scheme, whereby students spend one week at school, followed by one week at home – hardly the easiest arrangement to roll out. Yet, it may have legs. According to the Teacher Tapp’s survey, this is a strategy teachers would prefer to be adopted should the current Covid outlook not improve.

Of course, if the current lockdown does not lead to better Covid statistics, it will be that much easier for unions to make the case that schools should no longer be fully open, but should close or move into rota systems, or something different.

There are other matters on which the unions might agitate. The possibility of a vaccine soon arriving has prompted questions to be asked as to why teachers are not being prioritised. Until then, unions might argue that schools should remain subject to tough restrictions.

The DfE has already made contingency plans – lest there be a move to more homeschooling. For instance, it has been working with mobile operators to provide temporary access for free additional data, which will give families the ability to use online educational resources at no cost. In normal times, of course, the cost of data could be prohibitively expensive.

The perennial problem has been that of communication. The Government, and in particular Gavin Williamson, has not been a forceful enough advocate of the case for keeping schools open. They have been on the defence throughout. 

The shame is that there is plenty of data to use to show why it matters to keep schools open. Some points to note:

  • The Office for National Statistics’ found that there were no differences in the rates of positive cases between teachers and other professionals working outside of the home between September 2 and October 16 (in which case, why should teachers be prioritised for mass testing above, say, a delivery driver?)
  • The Children’s Commissioner reports that “confirmed Covid cases at school remain very rare. There are just 8,000 (0.1%) pupils reported to be off school with a confirmed Covid case out of a total school population of 8.2 million”.
  • A recent study suggests that schools should have never shut in the first place. No doubt this criticism will get stronger as we get to see the impact that the original closures had on children.

Furthermore, the Children’s Commissioner points out that the average school sends home 62 pupils for every child who tests positive for Covid. Because of overreactions of this sort, it can lead to outbreaks at schools looking worse than they are.

In essence, it is crucial that the Government and DfE keep making the argument as strongly as possible that there should be no further closures at schools, nor any tinkering which might in any way disrupt children’s further future education. 

One possibility is that the Government sets up a task force, led by somebody like Kate Bingham, who can make the case for schools remaining open. 

Whichever way, the Government cannot afford to be complacent about this area. It needs to be proactive, on the offence and as noisy as the unions in its push for reopenings; everything it hasn’t been so far. Or else further trouble will be inevitable.

Alex Morton: How Sunak can save £30 billion a year

21 Oct

Alex Morton Head of Policy at the CPS and a former Number Ten Policy Unit Member.

Today, the Office for National Statistics will announce the provisional figures of Government borrowing for the first six months for 2020/21. They will be truly dire. We know because borrowing in the first five months alone were bigger than the previous annual total, and by August this year the national debt was larger than the UK economy, rising by over 10 per cent from 2019/20’s total.

Putting aside the ongoing – and crucial – debate about the nature of lockdown restrictions, it is clear even on the most optimistic forecasts, and with the best decisions, the UK will end the pandemic with a serious debt and deficit problem. Even assuming higher borrowing for years, something must give.

For that reason, the Centre for Policy Studies today publishes the paper Saving £30 billion: Nine Simple Steps, which discusses, on rough but plausible estimates, nine savings to cut £30 billion a year from the Government’s spending without jeopardising frontline services, or asking the politically impossible.

The Government is in the middle of a Spending Review, and we believe that now is the time for proposals to stop the threat of tax rises which will both hit growth and hard-pressed workers, companies and families. None of the savings would impact frontline delivery and none of them ask for MPs to vote through what would be political suicide.

Government efficiency

Despite the arguments made that austerity means no further reduction in spend is possible, we find significant potential savings across a wide range of areas, none of which impact frontline delivery. The first group of savings are thus about making the state more efficient.

  • We analyse the number of Government administrative staff versus the private sector and find initial convergence but significant disparities in reductions in recent years, with the private sector slimming down this group more effectively. We therefore propose benchmarking Government administrative staff totals to the private sector and reducing these in the public sector once a post-Covid recovery gets underway.

We also propose –

  • To abolish some quangos and to bring all quangos under the control of a relevant department. Each department should create a single body to manage HR, marketing, and other administrative functions for all quangos it oversees. This should also make bureaucracies more accountable and improve public sector productivity.
  • Pushing toward greater use of back office function sharing in local government, as occurs between Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea. There is no need for 350 councils to have distinct IT or press or procurement teams. The Housing and Local Government Department should publish data on the administrative costs for each council to push forward action. This should enable many of the savings around unitarisation without the massive political rows.
  • Improving e-procurement and data sharing, noting that other countries such as South Korea or Estonia have significantly improved productivity and reduced costs through this route, and agreeing with critics of the existing Government procurement systems.
  • Since the state owns land and property worth a staggering £1 trillion, we call for an inventory of all non-operational land followed by a sale and leaseback model across all this non-operational land, rather than past Spending Review’s top down land targets for each department. Just selling off the Network Rail arches gained £1.4 billion while boosting growth, and Covid-19 has changed office work patterns, so this should raise serious sums.

Ensuring a fair state

The second group of savings are about ensuring that the state does not give excessively to one or other group, and create a state focused on the core tasks of government. We propose:

  • Replacing the triple lock with a dual lock, which still gives pensioners the best of inflation or wage growth, and removing the tax anomaly of the Winter Fuel Payment and just treating as taxable income like other benefits.
  • Sell and replace high-value council properties when they fall vacant with a less expensive nearby equivalent. It is deeply unfair there are million-pound council properties in many parts of London and this is not what making sure people have a roof over their heads is about. This doesn’t even mean anyone has to move – just no more new expensive tenancies.
  • Roll child benefit into the child tax credit system with a further taper that reduces the top 10 per cent or so of households (essentially capturing those with two fairly high earners to bring them into line with a single high earner household).
  • Cut overseas aid to 0.5 per cent, still placing the UK in the top 10 donor countries and moving on from 2005 when this target was set at 0.7 per cent at a time when India and even China were legitimate UK aid recipients, not emerging economic superpowers. It would be both immoral and politically toxic to make the other savings while protecting a budget overseas that has nearly doubled in recent years.

Taken together, these savings would help bring down the deficit to an acceptable level. They involve some hard decisions and confrontation of vested interests, but not impossible ones, and all should pass through the Commons, even in its new rebellious state. The alternative, ever higher borrowing, or even worse, ever higher taxes, is unthinkable if we are to achieve what the CPS believes the number one priority post-pandemic must be – restoring sustained economic growth. We call on the Government to investigate and takes forward these ideas as part of the Spending Review process.