Ben Bradley: Our next leader needs to refocus the Government on getting the basics right

14 Aug

Cllr Ben Bradley is the MP for Mansfield and the Leader of Nottinghamshire County Council.

I’ve always argued that a conversation about culture and values is central to everything; not just to my constituents, but across all parts of Government.

Everything comes back to those values; be it finances and how government chooses to prioritise taxpayers’ money, or our nation’s immigration policy or what we choose to teach children in our schools.

Too often over the past few years, government has not been robust in pursuing a common-sense approach on the cultural issues that my constituents care about.

That’s also led us down a path of ‘meddling’, or prioritising areas that are not central to what the state is for. It’s lead us to spend more on superfluous things, to the detriment of core public services.

Mansfield voted heavily to leave the EU, and one of the big reasons for this was undoubtedly a feeling that we should have more control over comings and goings across our borders.

Under Boris Johnson, the Government has listened to these concerns and taken steps, but certainly not managed to sort it out. He sought to implement changes to our immigration system that I know were welcomed across my constituency; policies such as the Nationality and Borders Bill and the Rwanda Asylum Plan are steps towards ensuring our immigration system functions for the benefit of those in the UK and addressing concerns around immigration.

However, the ECHR ruling on the Rwanda policy showed that even more needs to be done. Leftist commentators are always quick to point out that people are not landing in dinghies in Mansfield, but my constituents prioritise this issue because they want to see ‘fairness’ across our services and our spending. We’ve never had enough focus on this issue.

Whilst we’re off meddling in the ‘diversity’ of our public sector staff or legislating to limit free speech, we’re not concentrating our fire power on those issues that are economically, socially and electorally vital.

We’re spreading ourselves too thin, trying to keep the loudest activists on side, and are therefore failing to meet expectations of the majority of our citizens.

One reason that I backed Kemi Badenoch early on in this leadership election is her bravery on cultural issues. In her role as an Equalities Minister she was very forceful in pushing back on the divisive ideas put forward by today’s social justice warriors.

In particular, she’s really pushed back against the erosion of common-sense ideas around what constitutes a woman, making sure that the rights of women are upheld, as well as on critical race theory and other difficult topics.

It may upset some Twitter activists, but these are the issues where my constituents get absolutely fed up of politicians avoiding difficult subjects or kow-towing to the loudest voices at the expense of the majority! I hear things like ‘why are they banging on about that when they can’t even sort the roads out?’ on an almost daily basis from my constituents.

We need a leader that is going to be strong on issues of identity politics and the erosion of our conservative values, or our hard fought rights, and move the conversation back to those public services that matter most.

During the leadership contest in Parliament, I was on a radio show where Kemi was called a ‘Marionette’; a puppet for the conservative establishment, for standing up for common sense and balanced debate on issues of race and gender in education. This shows just how strong and resolute our new leader will need to be on these cultural issues, on being proud of our country’s history, and having clear, strong values.

The angry, shouty left will not accept that the majority don’t share their view, and tackling this will be hard, but it’s vital.

Government has increasingly become involved in regulating the online space too, beyond just policing what is illegal, but now in to new realms of free speech.

We all know there are all sorts of issues with social media; I’ve had death threats against myself and my whole family from individuals online. However, this does not mean the Government has to become involved to the extent that it is seeking to, particularly because such things – death threats, inciting violence or terror etc – are already illegal.

When you cross a line in to policing the ‘legal but harmful’ you’re infringing on freedoms, giving inappropriate powers to big tech companies to decide what is ‘harmful’, and using vast resource to get involved in things that are not core business, and that are probably impossible (or unhelpful) to achieve.

Sometimes the answer can’t be found in legislation, and in fact bad laws can make things worse.

Too often government has sought to be all things to all men when this is not feasibly possible. It grows our tax burden, and it pleases no one. It’s time to stop worrying about what the Mirror is going to write and govern on the culturally common-sense approach that is widespread throughout the country. Why are we messing around with diversity targets when people can’t get their passports on time? Lets get the basics right and rebuild trust in the system!

All things come back to our culture. We’ve developed in to a society where government has to have all the answers, and where that answer is always to ban something or legislate for something. It’s not right and it’s not sustainable, either financially or for the fabric of our society.

The Conservative Party was once one of practical common sense, of getting things done, of sound financial management – and also of conservative social values. At least some of that has been seriously eroded and damaged. A new leader needs to take radical steps to fix it.

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Nat Wei: Will Sunak or Truss finally stop a Conservative Government tabling un-Conservative legislation?

27 Jul

Lord Wei is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He is a co-founder of Teach First, a social entrepreneur, and a former government adviser.

With the hustings now underway there will be lots of questions asked no doubt about how we combat the cost of living, lower tax (eventually), control immigration, and how to make the most of Brexit.

But another key question is this: how can we make sure that a Conservative government actually delivers conservative legislation? Or at the very least, stops tabling laws drafted by civil servants (often in collaboration with our political opponents) which attack directly Conservative principles such as freedom of speech and thought, or the right to privacy.

One clear glaring example of this is how the Schools Bill, authored effectively with the public backing Labour politicians such as Lord Soley, seeks to prevent parents from fulfilling their duty to educate their children as they see fit. It massively empowers local authorities to monitor how parents raise their children, imposing inspections that will bring state intrusion deeply into homes and the lives of families.

This is bad enough on its own terms. But worse is what it will empower politicians to do next.

Should a future government seek to change the national curriculum to further teach woke ideas and oppose conservative ones, our own Schools Bill as currently drafted will remove the ability of parents to take their children out of school and educate them at home.

It does this by enabling officials to inspect what is being taught and then, for the slightest, subjective reason, force parents to put their children back into school using an attendance order. If they refuse to comply, they would face a hefty fine and then up to 52 weeks imprisonment, without recourse to appeal.

(There are already unjustifiable cases of this happening today, even before this particular bill has passed.)

How did we get to a point when such a draconian, statist, and anti-freedom law even gets it onto the desk of our Education Secretary unvetted – let alone makes it to Second Reading of the House of Lords?

Many a distinguished previous Conservative education secretaries, such as Lord Baker, have highlighted how abhorrent is this Bill, with its centralising tendencies and lack of detail.

Sadly, it is not the only piece of such legislation in the pipeline. Others, such as the Online Harms Bill, are also proceeding through Parliament. In each case laudable aims are harnessed to bad laws with unintended consequences, many of which will lead to the unjust curtailment of ancient freedoms.

So if you have a question to ask at one of the hustings this summer, why not ask them what they are going to do about the Schools Bill and others like it, which seek to curtail freedoms in ways that are not only un-Tory, but which could be weaponised against Conservatives and our beliefs one day very soon?

True Conservatives believe in our ancient rights to be free: free to spend money and to put it to use how we see fit, free to take control over our sovereignty, and free to operate within the rule of law which should protect our freedoms of speech, privacy, and belief.

Which of the candidates to be our next prime minister truly believes in freedom? And which one will fight to make sure our laws guarantee this and don’t take them away?

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Toby Young: Don’t be fooled, the Online Safety Bill poses a grave threat to our tradition of free speech

15 Jun

Toby Young is the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union.

In an article published last week, Chris Philp says the House of Commons committee that is scrutinising the Online Safety Bill has heard evidence from a ‘wide range of people… welcoming this pioneering internet safety law’.

Had the committee invited the Free Speech Union to give evidence – or, indeed, Index on Censorship, Big Brother Watch, or any other pro-free speech organisations – the response would have been less enthusiastic.

I take issue with the minister’s claim that the Bill will ‘enhance’ freedom of speech.

As is well known, the Bill will require the big social media companies like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to address ‘legal but harmful’ content, including ‘content that is harmful to adults’. If they fail to do so, they will face fines of up to ten per cent of their annual global turnover, which in Facebook’s case amounts to $11.7 billion, based on its 2001 revenue.

Philp rightly points out that while these ‘Category 1’ providers will have an obligation to stipulate how they intend to respond to ‘legal but harmful’ content in their terms and conditions, they will not be required to remove it. But he is being disingenuous when he says they could ‘choose to allow it on their platforms’.

The different responses available to the providers in the Bill are described in such a way as to deter them from taking such a laissez-faire approach. These are the four choices, as set out in Clause 13:

  • taking down the content;
  • restricting users’ access to the content;
  • limiting the recommendation or promotion of the content;
  • recommending or promoting the content.

Choosing to allow content that is ‘legal but harmful’ to adults on their platforms is not one of the four options. Rather, if the companies do not want to remove or restrict this content they will have to recommend or promote it.

It is frankly inconceivable that YouTube, Facebook or Twitter will choose option (d) after the Government has designated the content in question ‘harmful’.

Had the Free Speech Union been invited to give evidence to the Bill committee it would have urged the Government to add a fifth option – ‘do nothing’. But I doubt that would have been taken up because the Government’s is clearly hoping it can get social media companies to remove tendentious material without making it unlawful.

In this way it can claim, as Philp does, that it is making the internet ‘safe’ without trespassing on our free speech.

This goes to the heart of what’s wrong with this Bill. Not only is the concept of ‘legal but harmful’ content a weaselly way of trying to restrict free speech – of trying to square a circle that cannot be squared – but it is a breach of the fundamental principle of English Common Law that unless something is explicitly prohibited it is permitted.

It introduces a new grey area in which certain speech is deemed by the Government to be harmful and social media companies are encouraged to remove it, but it is not explicitly forbidden.

This sets a dangerous precedent – will the concept of ‘legal but harmful’ be extended to what we’re allowed to say in print? – and is bound to have a chilling effect on free speech.

To make matters worse, there is no concrete, non-circular definition of content that is ‘legal but harmful’ to adults in the Bill. Rather, this will be included in supplementary legislation – a statutory instrument to be brought forward by the Culture Secretary.

We do not yet know what content will be included in this Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which makes informed discussion of the Bill difficult, but in the DCMS press release about the latest version of the Bill (which uses the phrase ‘legal but harmful’ eight times) ‘harassment’ is given as an example.

That set alarm bells ringing. The Free Speech Union has just successfully concluded a protracted dispute with Essex University over its anti-discrimination and harassment policies which were invoked to no-platform two feminist law professors three years ago.

After we threatened Essex with a law suit, it reluctantly agreed to amend its polices so they cannot be used in the same way again. But the practice of shutting down opposition to trans rights dogma on the grounds that challenging it constitutes ‘harassment’ of trans people is widespread across the higher education sector.

I am concerned that if ‘harassment’ is designated as ‘legal but harmful’ in the secondary legislation, that will be exploited by trans rights activists to get social media platforms to censor people defending women’s rights.

Even if the SI brought forward by Nadine Dorries is not overly censorious, what guarantee do we have her successors will be equally restrained?

The power the Bill confers on the Secretary of State at DCMS to draw up a list of ‘legal but harmful’ material he or she would like social media platforms to restrict is likely to be taken advantage of by a future Labour government to stifle criticism of its agenda. In that respect, this Bill is a hostage to fortune.

In his article, Philp points to the protections the Bill will provide for free speech, namely, additional safeguards for journalistic content and content of democratic importance, as well as an obligation on Category 1 providers to ‘have regard’ for freedom of speech. “These provisions taken together will strengthen free speech online, not undermine it,” he writes.

But these clauses are woefully inadequate. In a recent article for The Critic, I explained how the provisions in the Bill designed to protect journalistic content would require only the slightest of tweaks to bring in state regulation of the press through the back door – something John Whittingdale MP has also expressed concern about.

And ‘content of democratic importance’ is likely to be defined quite narrowly, just protecting commentary on current party political disputes, not contributions to broader, cultural debates.

A parent wanting to challenge the promotion of gender ideology at her child’s primary school would in all likelihood not be protected by this clause.

As for the duty to ‘have regard’ for free speech, any parliamentarian reading this will know that ‘have regard’ is the least onerous of legal duties – the kind of meaningless concession that troublesome backbenchers are fobbed off with by wily ministers.

If Twitter considers the free speech implications of permanently banning JK Rowling from its platform and then completely disregards them, it would be fully discharging its ‘have regard’ duty.

Had I been asked to give evidence to the committee, I would have urged the Government to strengthen this clause so it can compete on a level playing field with the duty the Bill imposes on social media companies to protect their adult users from ‘legal but harmful’ content.

But it would have fallen on deaf ears. The Online Safety Bill is designed to strong-arm social media companies to remove vast swathes of lawful speech, and to pretend otherwise is misleading.

The post Toby Young: Don’t be fooled, the Online Safety Bill poses a grave threat to our tradition of free speech first appeared on Conservative Home.

Interview: Frost on Johnson’s future, tax cuts, admiring Cummings, Net Zero – and the abuse he has faced as he mulls his political future

14 Jun

If anything stops Lord Frost from carrying on in politics, it will be the “shocking” degree of personal hostility he has encountered, which he describes, unbidden, at the end of this interview:

“The degree of aggression, hostility on social media and beyond, has been quite striking to me. I’ve had people spit at me in the street, push me, shout at me on trains, this sort of thing.

“So I’m now a bit edgy about any kind of public interaction. That has been a real surprise and disappointment to me.”

He observes that because he became a minister without having first been an MP, he had not become accustomed to some of the rigours of life in the public eye.

Frost resigned as a minister in December last year, in protest at the Government’s “direction of travel”, but is now considering seeking election to the Commons, in order to press Boris Johnson and his team to adopt more Conservative policies, including tax cuts:

“The trouble is in many ways the damage is done in the sense that we’ve now shown to the world we’re willing to raise taxes. You can’t put that genie back into the bottle, other than through a recantation: ‘We got this wrong, it was the wrong thing to do, we’re a low-tax Conservative Party.'”

In this interview he describes how, while serving as a career diplomat, he became a Eurosceptic, and how later he became a “big admirer” of Dominic Cummings.

He deplores the restrictions on freedom of expression during the lockdowns of recent years, and opposes the target of reaching Net Zero by 2050:

“I think we’re going at it too fast with technology that can’t yet do the job, and the risk is that we end up with rationing and demand management rather than achieving the goal.”

But he began by discussing the Northern Ireland Protocol. This interview was conducted at teatime yesterday afternoon, before the Government had published its Bill, but Frost explained the principles which should inform policy, and why it was right in the first place to sign the Protocol, and is right now to insist on changes.

ConHome: “You tweeted this morning: ‘Many are asking for my view of today’s NI Protocol Bill…The Govt is right to act but must get the detail right.’

“You say in between those quotes that you need to read and study it. You won’t have been able to do that yet, but what would getting the details wrong look like, and what are the dangers inherent in the Bill?”

Frost: “We know there’s been a back and forth over the past week internally between groups with different views on this subject, and I suppose what might be a risk would be if they found compromises that tried to keep everybody happy, tried to find middle ways that don’t complete the logic of the direction that’s established.

“Are you going to take the [European] Court out completely, or is there going to be some residual role? Is dual regulation done in a simple way, or in a complicated way?”

ConHome: “You mean they mustn’t muddle it in such a way that all the people who think it isn’t being done properly are on their back, and all the people who complain about breaking international law are on their back, all at the same time? They’ve got to make up their mind what they’re doing?”

Frost: “Yeah, I think that’s fair. This is going to cause a lot of alarms and excursions, obviously. If we’re going to go through this we need to make sure we deliver the result that’s worth having at the end of it.”

ConHome: “What do you think of the objection that this is clearly in breach of international law, the Attorney General is there because she’s a Spartan, they’ve dragged in the Treasury devil but he’s not allowed to pronounce on the legality of the proceedings…”

Frost: “So who knows what’s happened internally on all of that. I think the Attorney General, she’s the legal adviser to the Government and what she says goes, and there’s always debate around things, but I think that is decisive.

“We’ll have to wait and see what the summary of the legal position is when it’s published. It sounds as if the Attorney is convinced there’s an international law support for this course of action.”

ConHome: “Is there not a case for publishing the whole legal advice?”

Frost: “Well it’s not normally done. I don’t think it’s necessary as long as you make clear what the Attorney’s view is.”

ConHome: “One view is that the main problem for the Government is that the Bill won’t persuade the DUP to go back into government in Northern Ireland before it is passed.

“If it doesn’t achieve this end, it will simply help create further ill-will for nothing, won’t it?”

Frost: “Every course of action on the Protocol now has some risk that it won’t bring along somebody, that it won’t bring along one group or another, somebody won’t like it.

“In the end you’ve got to act and invite everybody else to react to that action. So I hope the DUP do what’s necessary and begin to come back in to the Executive after this is tabled, if it is what we think.

“But if they don’t it doesn’t make it any less valid that we should be acting as we are.”

ConHome: “Does anyone ever change their mind about the Protocol? Such a high percentage of the debate is just experts, or supposed experts, repeating their previous positions.”

Frost: “It’s such a complicated and delicately balanced document in the first place that it’s capable of accommodating various interpretations.

“I thought it was carefully balanced, I thought it would last longer than it did, I thought the EU would run it in a more sensitive way than they have done.

“So the fact that they haven’t means I’ve changed my view slightly.

“But the text itself says what is says. It was a response to events.

“And those who say ‘I wish we’d not signed this’ or ‘You shouldn’t have signed it’ have got to face up to the reality at the time.

“It’s very easy for commentators to say ‘I wish it hadn’t been like this’. But they have to say what would they have done faced with the choice of signing an improved but still imperfect Protocol, and getting Brexit to happen, or endless prolongation of the constitutional war and possibly Brexit never happening.

“Those were the actual choices, and to pretend there was some other way through is just trying to have it all ways.”

ConHome: “The objection then becomes that having signed it, you’re in no position now to try to drive a coach and horses through the very vehicle that you signed in this Bill.”

Frost: “I mean I wish it didn’t have to be like this, is the simple answer. It wouldn’t have taken much to run it in a more sensitive way. It is of course not being fully implemented even now. It can only work because of the grace periods and so on.

“I wish it had been possible to do it differently but it isn’t.”

ConHome: “At the other end there are people who say, ‘We could deal rationally with Michael Gove. Indeed we reached a settlement with Michael Gove. But we found David Frost to be a complete monster, who stuck obdurately to a UK position and is responsible for some of this trouble.”

Frost: “So I think what’s happened since I left sort of disproves that. There are two answers to that question. One we came in, I came in in 2019-20 after three years in which the UK had not been saying clearly what it wanted and had been making a terrible hash of the negotiations.

“There was a need to be clear and a need to be forceful in what we said if we were going to get anything to happen.

“Second, this year Liz Truss initially started with a completely different approach and there was a month or so when everyone said this brutish, nationalist Frost has disappeared and we’ve now got somebody who can work.

“And where are we? We’re in exactly the same position. How negotiators are to each other is only a minor element in it. The question is what is the national interest involved.

“There hasn’t been any movement on the national interest involved and that’s why we are where we are.”

ConHome: “When did you become a Brexiteer? One looks at your C.V., Foreign Office, Ambassador to Denmark, you had this key strategy role in the Foreign Office. This is not a C.V. that’s automatically associated with support for Brexit.

“So when did it happen? Did you have to keep it quiet?”

Frost: “I regarded myself as a Eurosceptic pretty soon after I went to Brussels in the Nineties. I went to Brussels with quite conventional opinions and they changed through seeing the way it worked, to be honest.

“And this was the Major Government era and all the drama of that. I think I began to think leaving might be necessary, because one forgets now leaving was really quite a far-out opinion until quite late in this process, I began thinking it might be necessary around the time I left the civil service, around then, 2013.

“I think many of us, it was only when the renegotiation failed, indeed was never seriously tried in the first place, that it seemed like OK there’s no real option left other than leave now.

“It was probably known that my opinions were, within the Foreign Office, quite sceptic. There are people like Charles Grant for example who will say that ‘I never realised he was a Eurosceptic, he never seemed to show any sign of it when I met him’.

“Well good, I was supposed to be representing the Government, that was the job. It doesn’t mean one can’t have internal convictions on things.”

ConHome: “When you did the Scotch Whisky Association job [Frost was Chief Executive 2014-16] your line in the referendum was pro-Remain. Presumably that came with the job?”

Frost: “Again, I represented the views of the members on that. Actually, I was on the Council of Open Europe at the time, and Dom Cummings, who I didn’t know, did a bit of a hit job on me in May during the referendum campaign.

“So if you look on Guido round about that time you will find some of my internal emailing leaked to him, which shows that my private opinion was different.

“That was actually quite awkward for me at the time.”

ConHome: “Is Cummings a loss to the Government, or had the position become completely impossible?”

Frost: “I think he is a loss. I’m a big admirer of Dom. I haven’t agreed with him on everything, in particular on aspects of lockdown, Covid policy, we’ve had a different view, but I think his focus and ability to look through the day to day noise, focus on the goal, work out what’s important to it, what isn’t, you know that’s quite a rare skill in government, and it’s even rarer to be given a chance to act on it.

“So I think you need somebody like that, you need people who are able to do that. Otherwise you become overwhelmed by the day-to-day noise.”

ConHome: “Do they have that in the team now?”

Frost: “Well I don’t know the current team as well as I know the predecessor. It’s not obvious from events that they have that at the moment. But if they haven’t, they ought to try to get it.”

ConHome: “Are you enjoying being a columnist? You can say whatever you like, you’re not constrained by collective responsibility. Do you enjoy it?”

Frost: “I do quite. I might get a bit weary of saying, at some point, and want to do doing again. Who knows? But at the moment I’m enjoying it.”

ConHome: “You have become a kind of right-wing poster boy. You’re writing in favour of a small state, lower taxes, you’re sceptical about lockdowns, sceptical about Net Zero, you want less regulation.

“To the members, this is a dream, and you do recognise what’s going on. There’s a lot of conversation about ‘If only they’d do what Lord Frost tells them to do, and if only Lord Frost were there to do it’.”

Frost: “Yeah, I mean it’s been a bit of a surprise to me to be honest. I’ve been a party member, off and on, for some time, obviously you can’t do much more when you’re in government, but you’re allowed to have convictions about things.

“What I say now I just regard as normal conservatism. You know, let’s get the state back down to the size it was when Gordon Brown was in power, that’s good.

“That doesn’t make you in favour of a night watchman state. It just makes you in favour of trying to shrink it when you can.

“I think lockdowns were extremely damaging and liberated some extremely worrying forces and currents of opinion that we need to do our best to put back in their box.”

ConHome: “Which are what?”

Frost: “The authoritarian state. Vaccine passports and wherever that may lead. Some of the constraints on the free expression of opinion that happened from time to time during lockdown.”

ConHome: “Anything in particular?”

Frost: “The most obvious thing is where did all this start, was it a lab leak or not, the ability to debate that. I thought it was also suggestive they took quite some time before they acknowledged the vaccines don’t prevent transmission, they only prevent symptoms.

“There was a kind of month or two where that was obvious but it was not acknowledged in official statements, and then became too obvious not to.

“I think one of the most worrying things was the inability to look objectively at the evidence, weigh it up, come to reasoned conclusions. There was much too much doubling down on ‘we did this so we must stick to doing it, even if the evidence points in a different direction’.”

ConHome: “You said last month, ‘I don’t think the Lords is a particularly brilliant place to do real politics from. I think you need to be in the Commons to do real politics, that’s obvious…if in future the opportunity comes up and the party wants me to do it, obviously I would be ready to stand down from the seat and do proper politics again.’

“Do you want to be in the House of Commons?”

Frost: “It was a new thing to me. I left out of concern about the direction of travel and the plan B. I hadn’t really intended to continue political life in a different way.

“But then there’s been this speculation about would I do it. What you’ve just quoted says what I think. The House of Lords is a great institution and I don’t want to undermine Conservative colleagues who do a good job and are very necessary to getting the business through.

“But the fact is it’s an unelected house. You can’t take controversial positions in it, you can’t easily advocate cases, and in the end you can’t and shouldn’t I think really block and change things in the Lords.

“If you aspire to shape opinion and make things happen I think it’s right that you should be in the Commons. Whether I want and will do that I’ll see.”

ConHome: “To be clear, you’re mulling the possibility.”

Frost: “Yes, I think that’s fair.”

ConHome: “The obvious critique of all this is look, here’s Lord Frost, he was quite a senior minister, which means you’ve got to knuckle down and accept things you don’t like, on Net Zero, Covid, the direction of tax and spend and all that.

“And if Lord Frost didn’t want to do that within the Cabinet, in the Lords, why would he be any good at doing it collectively with colleagues in the Commons?”

Frost: “Well I think it’s a fair question. Obviously there are quite a lot of Tory colleagues in the Commons who have the same opinions as me on quite a lot of things, and that’s not a contradiction for them.

“What we need to do is get the Government onto an agenda that more Conservatives feel they can support.”

ConHome: “Do you think that Rishi Sunak has succumbed to the institutional grip of the Treasury and isn’t bold enough about income tax cuts?”

Frost: “Well I don’t know about him personally, and I’m always a bit cautious – lots of people attributed to me thought processes and beliefs that weren’t in fact the case.

“But obviously I think that the economic situation requires loosening of fiscal policy and tightening of monetary policy, and I think that means personal tax cuts, not rises. If we could reverse out what we’ve done that would be a start.

“I do think the Treasury orthodoxy is very strong, and I wouldn’t like to say he’s been captured by it, I don’t think that’s fair, but I do think the Treasury Finance Ministry view of the world is all about getting in money, it isn’t about structural reform to increase the productive capacity of the economy.

“The trouble is in many ways the damage is done in the sense that we’ve now shown to the world we’re willing to raise taxes. You can’t put that genie back into the bottle, other than through a recantation, ‘We got this wrong, it was the wrong thing to do, we’re a low-tax Conservative Party.’

“And that should be the direction of travel. I’m not sure how likely that is, mind you.”

ConHome: “On Net Zero, what’s your view? That the target is too severe?”

Frost: “I think the way I would look at it is not to get into ‘Is it the right target?’ or ‘Is global warming scientifically justified?’ or whatever. From the political point of view, my view is that with the technology we’ve got I don’t see how we deliver the target by 2050 unless we are rescued by fusion power or some massive advance in battery power.

“But at the moment those things don’t seem likely. And I don’t see how we are going to decarbonise the grid by 2035. I don’t see how the technologies exist.

“And everybody is ignoring the fact that the intermittency of renewables (a) is a problem in itself (b) imposes huge costs elsewhere on the grid by the way of backup and inefficiency.

“I think we need more focus on security. We need a more realistic focus on the speed of the transition. I think we’re going at it too fast with technology that can’t yet do the job, and the risk is that we end up with rationing and demand management rather than achieving the goal.”

ConHome: “Lots of our readers will think all that is simple common sense, and will therefore ask, ‘What did other people say in government when you put this view to them?'”

Frost: “One other consequence before I answer the question. Net Zero affects huge parts of the economy, not just in energy prices but in systems, the way it works.

“And if you want serious post-Brexit reform that produces greater efficiency, lower costs, simpler ways of doing things, the existence of the Net Zero target is a big inhibition on that.

“You’re essentially saying large parts of the economy are off-limits for the purposes of reform.

“So that’s the context that I used to have those discussions in. Without going into detail, I think many people would acknowledge that.

“I think people reasonably point out Net Zero was in the manifesto, it was something that was campaigned on, it was one of the pledges, it should be taken seriously.

“I don’t want to speak for others. But many people have a degree of uncertainty and unease about it that is not always dealt with.”

ConHome: “What were your feelings at 9 p.m. last Monday when you heard that 148 Conservative MPs had voted against the Prime Minister?”

Frost: “Well, I was happy the PM had survived, I wasn’t that surprised to be honest the vote against was so high, reading the runes.

“I think the Prime Minister, I’ve said it, I think he’s a remarkable guy, he’s done a lot for this country, he deserves a chance to deliver and to continue with the agenda, so I’m glad he’s survived from that point of view.

“But I do think he’s got to deliver the agenda. That’s the question mark now. And I’ve worked as closely with him as anyone over the last five years, and I feel for him, the agonies of this very, very difficult politics.

“But equally, we’ve got a majority of 80, we must do something with this majority of 80 to keep improving the country.

“Can I say one other thing I meant to say, just about coming into politics?

“Most people become ministers and do controversial things in politics after they’ve been an MP. For me it all came suddenly out of the blue, and having to get used to the public exposure suddenly, without any kind of prep, has been quite shocking in some ways to me.

“The degree of aggression, hostility on social media and beyond, has been quite striking to me. I’ve had people spit at me in the street, push me, shout at me on trains, this sort of thing.

“So I’m now a bit edgy about any kind of public interaction. That has been a real surprise and disappointment to me.

“I mean it shows the passions that have been unleashed.”

ConHome: “Is it one of these things that you might rationally have anticipated, but you can’t emotionally until it actually happens? The reason you might rationally have anticipated it is you were Boris Johnson’s special adviser, so you’ll have seen the antipathy, hatred and venom that he was the target of. But until it happens to you, you can’t quite believe it’s happening.”

Frost: “Exactly, exactly. And I think if you’ve had time to get used to the idea it’s one thing. All of a sudden to find it there has been shocking.

“I mean I’m not saying I should be protected from hostile comment on social media. Don’t get me wrong. I definitely don’t think that. There are plenty of block and mute tools. I certainly don’t think we need an Online Harms Bill to protect me from comment.

“But the degree of personal hostility, and sometimes as I say face to face, has been striking. If anything stops me carrying on it’s more likely to be that and the knock-on than anything else. Which is a pity, really.”

The post Interview: Frost on Johnson’s future, tax cuts, admiring Cummings, Net Zero – and the abuse he has faced as he mulls his political future first appeared on Conservative Home.

James Roochove: Social media companies are publishers, not just platforms – and should be liable for defamatory adverts

5 Apr

James Roochove is a solicitor and Director of Astraea Linskills. He regularly advises MPs and political activists.

Dealing with internet trolls is bad enough, but imagine those trolls paying to access huge online audiences to trash your reputation.

Last month, my client Lee Anderson, MP for Ashfield, received an apology from Google in the High Court – thereby underlining that anyone, especially politicians, could find themselves in a similar position in the future.

It was a timely reminder of the problems surrounding internet advertising, a cause championed by the Money Saving Expert, Martin Lewis, for many years. This included his legal action against Facebook which was resolved in 2019. At that time Google put out a statement saying:

“Because we want the ads people see on Google to be useful and relevant, we take immediate action to prevent fake and inappropriate ads. We have a tool where anyone can report these ads and these complaints are reviewed manually by our team. In 2017, we removed 3.2 billion bad ads and we’re constantly updating our policies as we see new threats emerge.”

Despite this, Lee’s case raises further questions about internet advertising. Coincidently, his High Court appearance came only two days after the government launched a consultation about the matter.

Politicians can have a hard enough time online as it is, but having internet advertisers give a platform to those seeking to attack them with defamatory statements presents a whole new challenge to grapple with.

If the subject of an advert takes legal action, they must first establish who they are going to take action against. It is not impossible to find the person or company that placed an advert, but that doesn’t mean they are always a viable prospect for civil legal action, which can be expensive, particularly if your opponent is unable to pay damages or legal costs.

Imagine, for example, that a political activist places highly defamatory adverts about their local Conservative MP, reaching thousands of their constituents. While some political activists are well heeled, let’s assume for this example they are not, so have little to lose. The MP has a decision whether to spend thousands on legal action, with no prospect of recouping anything. It’s a daunting prospect.

But what about the company taking money to facilitate the advert in the first place?

Put simply, if a company like Google or Facebook are happy to display such statements, they should be prepared to take legal responsibility for them too. Sadly, this is something they continue to resist.

More traditional forms of advertising (i.e. newspapers) are clearly liable if they publish defamatory content. This might explain why newspaper advertising rarely, if ever, risks printing anything that could be defamatory. They know they could get sued, which in turn means they take care about what they advertise.

Lee’s case highlights that such diligence isn’t always guaranteed online. In his case, an advert containing the words ‘MP’ and ‘paedophile’ got through Google’s systems. How the word ‘paedophile’ in an advert does not ring any alarm bells is quite astonishing, let alone when it is used in conjunction with a Member of Parliament.

Google, despite its apology, maintains it is not liable for the advert.

The statement in Court also showed the view Google took when the matter was raised with them.

Granted, the company acknowledged that the advert should not have been displayed, and removed it when a complaint was made. But in practice that relies on someone constantly monitoring the internet for any content that might need to be removed, rather than being able to rely on the internet advertisers to police adverts effectively in the first place.

It remains a mystery to me how a company the size of Google cannot simply alert politicians if and when an advert about them is displayed. Every MP has a publicly accessible email address, why not notify them? Then, rather than receive a shock days, weeks or months later when they happen to see a defamatory advert, MPs could review adverts when they are first displayed and, if contentious, seek to have them taken down quickly before untold damage is done to their reputation.

Many internet advertisers pay special lip service to political adverts, notably after the Cambridge Analytica saga, yet here an advert that said “MP” and displayed the image of a Member of Parliament was not included in Google’s dedicated political adverts library. How many other political adverts slip through the net? How can politicians monitor adverts about themselves if the dedicated database isn’t rigorously maintained?

More worryingly, when Google was asked for information about the number of times the advert had been displayed, and where, it was not provided. Requests made under GDPR were not responded to.

As MPs grapple with the Online Safety Bill and how to try and police the internet more effectively, it is a no brainer to expect the highest possible standards for paid content. If Internet advertisers were clearly liable for each and every advert they accept money to display it would focus minds and practices for the benefit of everyone.

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

15 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Glendening: The Online Safety Bill is a grave threat to a pluralistic, liberal democracy

4 Nov

Marc Glendening is Head of Cultural Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

In the cult American Cold War era film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the humans are incrementally being replaced in a small mid-western town by alien replicas. They might look outwardly exactly the same as the originals but their ultimate mission is, of course, to impose a collectively conformist consciousness on Planet Earth.

The question I am now semi-seriously asking myself is this: has Nadine Dorries, together with the rest of the cabinet (with the possible exception of Priti Patel) become mind, if not body, snatched by New Left ideology?

Earlier this week we learnt that her department has accepted a recommendation from the Law Commission to insert into the already profoundly illiberal Online Safety Bill new criminal offences based upon causing ‘likely psychological harm’. Courts will be invited to judge whether communications have had a ‘harmful effect’.

The Law Commission should not be viewed as some detached, academic observer of the legal system. It is, rather, an ideologically partisan organisation, as extensively documented by Joanna Williams.

Its 2020 Consultation Paper on Hate Crime asserted a commitment to both critical race and critical legal theory, two of the most influential contemporary New Left doctrines. The Commission even recommended making private conversations potentially prosecutable, something the SNP has now enacted. It has referred to transgender-scepticism as an ‘absolutist’ and ‘objectionable’ political philosophy.

Under the terms of revised Online Safety Act there will be a ‘knowingly false communication’ offence; one sent with the intention of causing “emotional, psychological, or physical harm to the likely audience.” The Government says it wants to use this to block, as an example, antivaxxers.

This is a very dangerous road to be going down. Once government uses the law to stop the spread of allegedly false information in this area, how else might it be deployed by the police and the CPS?

In a pluralistic democracy, by definition, those in control of the machinery of state need to apply a self-denying ordinance. They must not use their powers to load the dice one way or the other between competing viewpoints. These should be resolved freely in the market place of ideas through the exchanges of the rival interests.

For real liberals, the communication of an opinion, no matter how factually erroneous or offensive to some, can never constitute causing actual harm, as dear old JS Mill established in On Liberty. The articulation of one’s views, including personally directed insults, do not, rationally-speaking, remove the autonomy and agency of another person. Once this key assumption is abandoned then we are well and truly on the proverbial slippery slope towards some form of authoritarianism.

Could it be, then, that people who believe that only women have cervixes end up being prosecuted for spreading ‘false information’? Given the long list of people who have so far been placed on police Non-Crime Hate Incident databases (without any lawful basis), and prosecuted in relation to the transgender issue, this is a likelihood. Indeed, in its latest intervention the Law Commission overtly states that the ‘misgendering’ of trans people could in certain situations constitute causing ‘harm’.

These powers, like all the existing laws relating to so called ‘hate speech’, will always be deployed in a politically asymmetrical way. It will be fine – quite rightly – to massively abuse Tories, TERFS, whites, men and Piers Morgan, but people articulating beliefs considered seriously transgressive according to the ‘Woke’ zeitgeist might well get their collars felt.

By going down this road, the Government is putting into practice the agenda set by Hacked Off, the Media Reform Coalition and other left-wing campaigns who have been demanding extensive state regulation of the traditional media and the internet.

For the New Left, freedom of speech is not something to be celebrated but, following on from postmodernist theory, potentially a source of non-physical yet coercive power. They believe, that it is the principal means by which those groups defined as having ‘privilege’ maintain their power over women, ethnic and religious minorities, and the other supposedly oppressed categories.

There is therefore a dangerous, anti-liberal dynamic at work within New Left ideology. Taken to its natural conclusion, it is incompatible with liberal democracy. Censorship is not seen as something that is necessarily oppressive, but rather, in the hands of right-thinking people, it is potentially liberating. Take this quote from Nadia Whittome, a Labour MP: “We must not fetishise ‘debate’ as though debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act. The very act of debate… is an effective rollback of assumed equality and a foot in the door for doubt and hatred.”

The Conservative Party’s lack of any discernible guiding philosophy is why Government ministers are now effectively ciphers, like those body snatched hillbillies described earlier, for the contemporary left’s drive to re-engineer our culture and language. Many voters in Red Wall seats voting Tory as an act of defiance against the illiberalism of the modern Labour party can now be excused for thinking ‘what is the point?’ when on this, as so many other issues, their newly adopted party is effectively no different.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Free speech is threatened by sanctimony as well as by extremism

20 Oct

The eulogy is a difficult form, demanding a profound appreciation of the most characteristic qualities of its subject, and the ability to convey intense feelings of grief and love, bringing perhaps to the mourners some sense of consolation at hearing a life so fondly portrayed and admired.

Boris Johnson has this week delivered two excellent eulogies, on Monday to Sir David Amess and today immediately after Prime Minister’s Questions to James Brokenshire.

Sir Keir Starmer sought to bring the same “collegiate spirit” to PMQs itself. One can see why he did this, but one has to hope it does not happen very often.

For it led to a competition between him and the Prime Minister to see which of them could sound the most pious.

“After the week we’ve just had I really don’t want to descend to that kind of knockabout,” Sir Keir remarked at one point, after Johnson had made some not very knockabout point.

The Prime Minister reverted to his most correct and solemn manner. He was being asked about the forthcoming Online Safety Bill, and how it can be used to prevent the publication of extremist content.

A good question, which one hopes will provoke impassioned argument as the legislation passes through the House.

For the threat to freedom in today’s session was posed by the exchange of platitudes with which no one could disagree, since to do so would be to expose oneself as a bad person.

The Leader of the Opposition had forgotten that it is his duty to oppose, and conceived instead that it was his duty to foster a high moral tone.

Beneath the surface some sort of argument, or struggle for supremacy, was still going on, but it was one which no ordinary mortal could be expected to follow, so dreary and sanctimonious were the terms in which it was couched.

Too much of this, and PMQs will no longer exist as a spectacle which any normal person wants to watch. We shall have succumbed to the tyranny of the sanctimonious.

Profile: Nadine Dorries, Johnson loyalist. A splash of colour amidst a grey landscape. And promoted by him for precisely that reason.

14 Oct

Boris Johnson likes to disconcert his critics by doing things which fall outside their conception of what it would be fitting for him to do.

His appointment of Nadine Dorries as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is a signal example of this.

In all the reams of speculation about how he would reshuffle his Cabinet, nobody seems to have foreseen her promotion.

As David Gauke remarked earlier this week on ConHome,

“When Nadine entered Parliament as part of the 2005 intake (of which I was also part), it was not obvious that she would one day join the Cabinet.”

Other Conservatives treated her more rudely. Two Tories who have recently published their diaries, Sasha Swire and Alan Duncan, refer to her by her nickname, “Mad Nad”.

Like Johnson himself, she was until recently looked on with condescension as a vulgar and unserious person who had no idea how to behave. Dorries refused to show the respect for the Cameron-Osborne leadership which anyone intent on promotion was expected to show.

So when asked in April 2012 by the BBC whether David Cameron and George Osborne are “still, in your opinion, two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”, Dorries replied,

“not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk, but they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others – and that is their real crime.”

When Theresa May succeeded Cameron as Prime Minister, and made Philip Hammond Chancellor, Dorries was no more supportive of them.

And yet if the world had been paying attention, it would have seen that if and when Johnson became leader, her fortunes would in all likelihood be transformed, for she has long been one of his most loyal supporters.

In September 2012 she recalled on ConHome (for this site took her seriously and carried a considerable number of pieces by her) the origins of her support for Johnson:

“I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing, the first time I heard it suggested that Boris might one day be Prime Minister.

It was in Bournemouth, on the second evening of conference in 2004. I was in the company of a shadow secretary of state and a senior member of CCHQ, and we were sat in the window seat of a restaurant. It was evening, dark and pouring with rain.

The restaurant was bustling, packed with conference goers and smelt of wet wool, pensioners and politicians.

We were in a slight hurry as I had to get the shadow minister to a speech he was due to deliver at a conference fringe – but after a full day which had begun at 6am – we were starving and desperate for food. My job was to place the order quickly and as I sat back down into my seat, the conversation turned to the last tense conference we three had been at together the previous year, which had set the scene for the downfall of Iain Duncan Smith.

The conversation wandered onto the longevity of Michael Howard’s tenure in the role of leader, which I was informed with an authoritative voice, would be short.

My question was, ‘who could possibly replace him?’ The swift reply, which indicated that it wasn’t a spur of the moment revelation and perhaps something already pre-determined, shot straight back in one word ‘Boris’.

I laughed. Oh… how I laughed. I replied with one word, high on exaggeration, ‘Boris’? Followed by ‘are you serious’? They were, deadly…

It only took weeks of viewing Boris through the prism of potential leadership in order to shift my thoughts to exactly the same place as theirs.”

And here is Dorries at the most recent party conference, asked by Christopher Hope during the recording of Chopper’s Politics podcast who her mentor has been:

“It’s always been Boris… Someone like Boris who does it a bit differently gives you the confidence to be yourself in politics.”

When Hope asked why her appointment as Culture Secretary had been criticised by so many in the arts, she replied:

“Oh snobbishness, total pure left-wing snobbery.”

Nadine Bargery was born in 1957 in Breck Road, a deprived district of Liverpool. Her father, a bus driver who died at the age of 42, was an Irish Catholic, her mother an English Protestant.

Money was “very tight” and she left school at the age of 16 to train as a nurse. At the age of 17 she met Paul Dorries, to whom she got married, and with whom she had three daughters.

They spent a year in Zambia, she running a school, he working as a mining engineer. On returning to England, she set up a child care business.

In 2001, she stood as the Conservative candidate in Manchester, at Hazel Grove, then a safe Liberal Democrat seat, after which she spent three years as a special adviser to Oliver Letwin, who this week told ConHome:

“It isn’t often that someone with Nadine’s energy and chutzpah arrives on the political scene. When they do, one can expect all sorts of fireworks. And now she is in charge of a Department that will give her every chance to light up the sky. This is likely to be a spectacle worth watching.”

“I wanted to be an MP so badly it consumed me,” she wrote on ConHome soon after entering the Commons. She would have liked to represent one of the Liverpool seats, but none was remotely winnable for a Conservative, so she became the candidate for Mid Bedfordshire, which she has held since 2005.

In her maiden speech she said:

“I promise to be a voice for the family and to stand up for mothers who wish to stay at home and raise their children but feel voiceless and unworthy in such a career-oriented society, when raising the children of tomorrow’s society is the most worthy job of all.”

Here was an early sign of her social conservatism, perhaps most evident in her strenuous attempts to reduce the age at which women can obtain an abortion from 24 weeks to 20. She also spoke in favour of grammar schools. She and her husband separated in 2007.

In 2012 she came before a wider public by appearing on I’m a Celebrity, to the annoyance of the Conservative Whips, though she had asked for and been granted leave of absence without revealing where she was going.

The Whip was for a time withdrawn, but she remained well able to give as good as she got, as in this dialogue with Andrew Neil in December 2012:

Neil: “Do you think your political career’s effectively over?”

Dorries [amused rather than cowed]: “No, not at all. It might just be beginning.”

In 2016, she wept at St Ermin’s Hotel when Johnson announced to his followers that he was abandoning his leadership bid, and in 2018, after he had resigned from the post of Foreign Secretary, she leapt to his defence when he was under fire for his article about burkas. Early meetings in his new leadership campaign were held in her Commons office.

Her ministerial career began at the age of 62, in July 2019, when Johnson became Prime Minister and made her a junior minister at the Department of Health. The following May he promoted her to Minister of State in the same department.

And just under a month ago he made her Secretary of State at DCMS. This is nowadays a major economic department, with a heavy legislative programme including the Online Safety Bill, crucial measures to enhance Britain’s position as a world leader in data and tech, and significant though as yet unspecified media reforms.

Johnson has cleared out the previous ministerial team, led by Oliver Dowden, which was running this programme, and has put in a new team led by Dorries, with one fewer minister.

As Gauke observes,

“To some extent, she embodies the new Conservative voters – northern, working-class and socially conservative and is a natural culture warrior. It is surely likely that the Prime Minister, in making this appointment, looked forward to her upsetting all the right people. So far, she is doing exactly that.”

On the sports side of her brief, she declared her interest as a passionate supporter of Liverpool Football Club, and has pointed out that her great grandfather, George Bargery, was a founder member of Everton, where he played in goal.

On the literary side, she has herself enjoyed success as an author. In 2014, when the first of her novels came out, Ann Treneman of The Times went to Liverpool and did an interview with Dorries which is of absorbing interest.

The new Culture Secretary is aggressive and friendly, pugnacious and vulnerable, at one and the same time. In Chopper’s Politics podcast at the party conference, she recalled having to borrow shoes to go to school, mentioned with pride the achievements of several people who had been at her school, and said that today they would not have the same opportunities to make their way in the cultural field:

“If you want to do that today you need a double-barrelled name and you need to have gone to a private or a public school or your Mum needs to know someone or your Dad needs to know someone or you need to have a connection with the BBC…

“For me that’s what levelling up is about…it’s about people…who come from a background like mine who want to be the next grand slam champion but can’t afford private tennis lessons.”

She added that the BBC “have a kind of groupthink and their groupthink excludes working-class backgrounds”.

DCMS is responsible for more appointments to public bodies than any other department. It is hard to imagine a Labour Secretary of State could be more determined than Dorries to ensure that working-class applicants have a fair chance of getting those jobs.

Johnson has, in short, put in someone who is profoundly committed to her idea of levelling up, and may also prove rather good at catching her opponents off balance.

Rocio Concha: If the Government wants to build back better, it must put the consumer at the centre

9 Aug

Rocio Concha is Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?

As we start to look ahead to beyond the pandemic, the Government will have to grapple with how to stimulate an economic recovery and form public policy agendas for a society that in many ways looks different compared to 18 months ago. While there will be a natural focus on investment, innovation and competition, it would be a fundamental mistake to overlook the vital role which consumers have to play.

Because it will be everyday people that drive our economic recovery. The more confident they feel, the more they are likely to spend and shop around, to stimulate competition and to support innovation by trying new products and services – all things which the UK, and businesses large and small, are relying on to bounce back.

The challenge for the government is a daunting one – and the increase in the time we now spend online is illustrative of the delicate balancing act they must achieve. The ability to work, bank and shop remotely offers huge convenience. Many of the changes people have made to their lives will be here to stay. Yet the increasing move to a digital world has presented problems and risks, such as the significant increase in online scams, that haven’t yet been adequately addressed.

Harnessing the positives and neutralising the risks that have arisen for consumers won’t be easy. Changes that may have taken years have happened almost overnight in some cases and that needs to be caught up with.

At Which?, we believe the government should empower consumers to lead our economic recovery, and there are many ways it can do this. Building on already existing legislation or consultations, there are three areas where Ministers can make markets work more fairly, and bring an end to rogue business practices that all too often see everyday people get ripped off.

First, competition and consumer policy requires reform to give such regulators as the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) sharper teeth, with proper powers to act as deterrents for unscrupulous companies that break consumer laws. In practice, that means swift and effective redress when customers are wronged, and proper accountability for businesses using unfair practices in dealing with consumers – as some have during the pandemic.

In the digital space, a handful of dominant tech giants, including Facebook and Google, can no longer be allowed to stymie competition and reduce innovation in the sector. The newly-formed Digital Markets Unit, operating out of the CMA, is a step in the right direction – but it won’t protect consumers unless it is equipped with the necessary enforcement powers, including the ability to hand down heavy fines.

Second, if consumers are to feel more confident engaging with new technology and new markets, then they will need to feel safe being online. It is no coincidence that fraud has surged by a third compared to last year. Yet with some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, there are measures that giant online platforms – such as those named above – which so many of us use everyday, can and must do to prevent the avalanche of fake adverts that makes it far too easy for fraudsters to target victims from appearing on their sites in the first place.

Which? research earlier this year found that four in ten investment scams begin online. The government has taken positive action to tackle aspects of online safety by introducing the draft Online Safety Bill – but, as it stands, it will fall short of swiftly dealing with all online fraud. Unless it provides online platforms with the legal responsibility to prevent, identify and remove fake and fraudulent content on their sites, including paid for ads, then fraudsters will continue to exploit their systems and services to carry out a crime that can cause a devastating amount of financial and emotional harm for its victims.

Third, as numerous new tech products furnish our homes, customers must be confident that they are safe to use. Smart gadgets and devices can bring huge benefits to consumers’ lives, but these products must be properly safeguarded with strong security protections to prevent cyberattacks.

The Government’s upcoming Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill will scrutinise this. However, if Ministers are serious about cracking down on insecure and unsafe products in our homes, online marketplaces and retailers must be given additional legal obligations in the Bill for ensuring the safety and security of the products sold on their sites – and for customers to get appropriate redress when they buy faulty products.

Taking action in these three areas means that the Government needn’t magic legislation out of thin air to begin empowering and protecting consumers. Indeed, the government pledged to give the CMA enhanced powers to tackle rip-offs in its manifesto.

Here are the foundations from which to make people feel confident that the economy is working for them. To do so would really build back better.