Paul Maynard: The pandemic has left many people with serious health and financial problems

21 Jul

Paul Maynard is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, and Chair of the Financial Shield Learning Network

The tremendous effort to vaccinate the UK population has meant that we are now on the verge of ending the lockdown. For most of us that will come as a great relief.

The pandemic has disrupted all our lives. But we must be aware the pandemic has had very unequal impacts too. The downturn has been one of the most uneven on record, and many people now find themselves in serious debt and financial distress, through no fault of their own.

I know in my own constituency that many individuals, families, and businesses working in hospitality and tourism, events and the arts, have been knocked back very hard. Long before the pandemic, I fought for a ‘Breathing Space’ scheme to provide people seeking debt advice with protection from enforcement action.

I was delighted to see this scheme come into force in May this year, although the 60-day protection that it currently provides could yet need to be extended further if people who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, struggle to regain work.

There is a proven link between a person’s financial health and their wellbeing. Without sufficient support, the pressure to repay debts can lead to physical and mental health problems which subsequently constrain employability. A longer ‘Breathing Space’ would undoubtedly help, should the economic rebound we are all hoping to see, fail to come through as quickly as we would like.

But even a longer ‘Breathing Space’ would not be enough for many people with both long-term health conditions and debts. Many of these were struggling prior to the pandemic, and many more are struggling now. Protection from debt enforcement needs to be accompanied by support with their health conditions too.

That is why I’m so pleased to have recently been asked to chair the Financial Shield Learning Network. Funded by Impact on Urban Health, the Financial Shield project is currently being trialled in South London, but it could prove to be of national importance. It is bringing together creditors, health, and advice agencies, to improve outcomes for working aged people who have, or are at risk of, long-term health conditions, and who are experiencing financial problems.

The project is highly innovative. Creditors, including the local councils and housing associations, are sharing information about areas of Lambeth and Southwark where there are concentrations of accounts in arrears. This information is then passed to participating GP practices, who search their patient lists and identify people living in those areas, who have long-term health problems.

The GP then proactively text messages these patients and offers to refer them for help with both their finances and, through social prescribing teams, with non-clinical support, to help them better manage their condition.

On the financial support side, people get help from the project’s new ‘Back on Track’ workers to claim benefits, or to obtain grants for essential items. Whilst, from the participating creditors, enforcement activity is suspended pending a repayment plan being worked out. Councils and housing associations also liaise with each other, rather than compete for repayments.

On the health support side, people get access to a huge range of ‘social prescribing’ activities to help boost their mental and physical health, and hopefully improve their prospects of future employment.

This is the UK’s first model of social prescribing to include debt advice and bring together creditors with healthcare providers. If this scheme could be rolled out to other cities and towns where there are large populations of people with both financial and long-term health problems, it could benefit huge numbers of people across the country.

Early analysis indicates there are sixty-four local authority areas in England alone where the Financial Shield approach may be particularly beneficial, including my own constituency.

As Minister for Legal Support, I immediately saw how transformative social prescribing could be in resolving the complex web of financial, health and legal problems the most vulnerable face. This initiative helps deliver that agenda.

It also goes with the grain of current Government thinking. In England, the NHS Long Term Plan includes an ambition for every one of its 1,250 Primary Care Networks to be able to recruit at least one social prescribing link worker. By ensuring they work effectively with creditors and money advice agencies, as well as by providing support with health conditions, I hope we can better support those who now need our help more than ever before.

Paul Maynard: There are better ways to help low-income families than the Universal Credit uplift

12 Feb

Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

When in the Whips Office, I used to try and remind my ‘flock’ that we were supposed to be part of a parliamentary team. That our role was as ‘participants’ rather than ‘commentators’, of whom we had a few too many within Parliament during those turgid months spent trying to deliver Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

(Surely Paul Goodman alone fulfilled that necessarily sceptical eye without the rest of getting stuck publicly stuck in.)

However, one consequence of Covid is we’re all passing public comment, as the space for private comment within the parliamentary party has shrunk behind Zoom and Teams. I find myself, at times, competing with the Leader of the Opposition as Captain Hindsight.

Nowhere is that more true personally than seeking a viable route out of our current Universal Credit (UC) policy dilemma. I’ve written previously about the positive impact the uplift of £20 has had on my constituency. But the real challenge now is a political problem which, I would argue, is wider than just that about UC: how do we transition from financial decisions taken in the early stages of the pandemic to post-pandemic spending which is more reflective of our economic instincts – but which doesn’t have a detrimental impact on my constituents’ financial resilience in what will continue to be difficult times?

Whilst we should perhaps have planned an exit strategy when first announced, it is a perfectly fair narrative that this was introduced when it was expected to be a very temporary measure like furlough. One iron rule of politics is that when something financial is bestowed, to remove it is the political equivalent of extracting a splinter.

I am sure if we had we known lockdown would still be going on now, a more elegant way of buttressing financial support might have been found than the straightforward uplift – but maybe not, bearing in mind that any solution needed swift implementation and so had to be simple enough for DWP’s systems.

Many argue this uplift should now be permanent. There will always be a reason to justify its continuation, with Labour seeking to place us on the wrong side of the divide. There will always be a problem lobby groups will uncover and which extending the UC uplift will somehow single-handedly solve. And no-one is mentioning the changes to Local Housing Allowance yet – just as crucial in my view.

But has our national socio-economic system changed in a such a permanent, structural way as to justify permanent retention? If not (and my answer is no), what gradual changes are required to both UC and more widely so as to avoid a damaging cliff edge?

One idea is to link any fiscal movements (be it tax or benefits) to levels of unemployment. Scott Morrison’s approach in Australia is to attain a six per cent unemployment rate before making fiscal changes. We can argue over differing thresholds for differing interventions, but it is certainly a more calibrated route out than a blunt tool such as a £500 bonus. Whether the Treasury would appreciate having its hands so tied is another matter.

The interaction with furlough matters too. We know that any end of furlough will lead to higher unemployment – so it is hard  to argue that reducing UC’s generosity at that point makes sense.

Some would argue, as the Economist has done, that a gradual diminution in the percentage of wages paid under the furlough scheme starts reallocating labour away from so-called ‘zombie companies’ towards those areas which have either continued to grow during lockdown, or are likely to bounce back more quickly.

But doing that requires also amending some elements of UC to make them equally responsive to an evolving labour market. As many have already noted, the CPS has come out with some intriguing proposals worthy of consideration, including upgrading UC (and crucially legacy benefits) by 0.5 per cent. Most critically, they argue for cutting the taper rate back to 55p so people back in work can keep 8p more of every pound they earn – underpinning UC’s original spirit and purpose.

More fundamentally, this discussion is occurring in a vacuum where we act as though UC is the only policy lever Government has to pull to address what, essentially, is a discussion about reinforcing the financial resilience of those on low incomes. It is an important ‘supply side’ tool – but it needs complementing by a ‘demand side’ tool that seeks to put those regarded as “in difficulty” or “surviving financially” by the Financial Conduct Authority on a sustainable route to that ‘financial resilience’.

(And that is a figure worth dwelling on – updated data published by the FCA on Thursday shows that the numbers in ‘financial difficulty’ rose from 10.7 million in March to 14.2 million by October, some 27 per cent of the adult population. You don’t need to do a module on Venn diagrams to twig that a significant proportion of those who voted for us in 2019 for the first time are in that 27 per cent, whether they live in a ‘red’, ‘blue’ or ‘chicken parmo’ belt or anywhere else, for that matter.)

The other week I put forward a 10 Minute Rule Bill on reviewing Local Welfare Assistance Schemes where I talked about the consequences of the ‘poverty premium’. Low-income families have an average of only £95 in savings. Forty per cent of those aged 20-29 have no savings. It is no wonder that they find themselves in financial crisis when the unexpected strikes – from a fridge no longer working to the death of a family member.

With so many in often unfurnished private rented properties, and on low incomes, over one million are lacking either a cooker, fridge freezer or washing machine. This has serious consequences. No cooker, for example, may mean a focus on costly takeaway meals for those who are ‘time poor’. No washing machine means paying £4 down the launderette (and a further £3 for a drier) rather than 25p for an average home wash

So wider initiatives are needed than just increasing benefit levels. We should be listening to the Centre for Social Justice about supporting families practically, though schemes such as the Holiday Activity & Food Programme. Working with charities like Turn2Us, who are keen to help tackle the extra costs low income families face to support those in persistent poverty.

The DWP has already started cross-government work here – I wait with baited breath the output given the agonies of trying to develop eye-catching initiatives for the ‘Just About Managings’ at every fiscal event, only to see them never see the light of day.

The Treasury should be considering how best to respond to last week’s Woolard Review on the debt landscape – a much broader piece of work than just Klarna and Buy Now Pay Later, as the media have focused on. It sets out many ideas to put people on a journey from high-cost credit products to lower-cost credit, with the objective of greater financial resilience.

Maybe BEIS too should fully consider the recommendations of Matthew Taylor’s report on insecure working before time and events make the layer of dust on it too thick to brush off, and remove it from the departmental draw it seems to be languishing in?

An ever better first step might be to pay close attention to Baroness Stroud and the Social Metrics Commission, who will help us examine the differing needs of groups within that broader 10 million, from the ‘indigent’, to those in persistent poverty to those ‘just about managing’. A broader canvas, perhaps, than a focused discussion on a £20 uplift – but an agenda that helps give ‘levelling up’ the ‘red belt’ a bit more of a tangible shape and feel.

Paul Maynard: Our political problem with free school meals isn’t happening by accident. We are failing to focus on life chances.

27 Oct

Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

With over six thousand children eligible for free school meals in Blackpool North & Cleveleys, tackling food poverty – whether during the school holidays or more generally – is extremely important. It is the ultimate example in politics of where people cry “something” must be done. However, in our topsy-turvy, helter-skelter Parliamentary trench warfare, these issues very quickly morph into one side arguing “anything” should be done if they can paint the other in a poor light.

No-one should have been surprised at either the criticism which came our way (even those like me who abstained in protest) after the free school meals debate, nor the voluntary movement that stepped into the gap as a manifestation of popular disapproval.

If the question was whether the disruption the pandemic had caused, which led to the extension of provision over school holidays in the first place, had sufficiently returned to normality (with schools and school kitchens open again) to go back to not having free school meals, then the answer was no, especially as areas like this entered the instability of Tier Three once more.

A lack of empathy in some comments meant most people’s takeaway is that we want to abolish free school meals altogether, which is a shame given we extended them to sixth forms and introduced universal infant free school meals.

We sort of had advance warning of the storm. A similar debate had occurred that led to us expanding the scheme over the summer holidays. We had a period when we could have developed policies to ensure that the right support reaches the right children and, most importantly, in the right manner to have the impact required. We would have been able to introduce a genuine, long-lasting change in support which would endure beyond merely extending a voucher scheme (that Labour were critical of previously) every time we had a school holiday.

The summer holiday support cost some £120 million extra. At the same time, we invested some £5.7 billion more in a Universal Credit uplift, and a further £1 billion in increasing local housing allowance. It is also worth noting that eligibility for universal credit covers far more children than the much narrower eligibility for free school meals does.

All of this extra money is supporting the financial resilience of many families in my constituency at a time of real and growing insecurity due to the devastating impact on Blackpool’s hospitality sector when it went into Tier 3. And yes, it’s right to look at things in the round and ask how we make that money work harder.

As a first step, we need the bare minimum of a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support scheme. It is important for children to retain a link with an outside body during the longer summer break when child neglect as well as food poverty can increase as school supervision and support decreases. Such a scheme would also diminish the risk of them losing some of the learning that they have acquired during the academic year.

But this issue illustrates our wider challenge on social policy. Our life chances agenda gets put to one side, we fail to extinguish our burning injustices, because “something else” always comes along. Instead, we don’t just need to build back better with economic policy, but use the challenges of the pandemic to address social concerns too.

The policy chief of the Leader of the Opposition, Claire Ainsley, observed, in her previous role with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, that “strong families able to withstand the shocks of personal change and external pressures such as job loss are vital”.

She was clear, as I am, that strong families matter. We need to return a sense of agency and autonomy to the lives of some of the most disadvantaged in society—people who have had their ability to make choices about how their lives are structured taken away from them by systems that they have not designed. I am talking about choices that most of us take for granted.

Politics is not something that we should do to people; it is something that we do with people.

We keep on trying. Our heart is in the right place. A 2015 manifesto focused on life chances. A new Prime Minister talking about burning injustices as she entered Downing Street. A 2019 election victory whose foundation is a whole new demographic cohort of supporters.

But we put all this to one side because something else “more important” comes along to deflect us. We are, I fear, fast reaching a point, to quote Keith Joseph from back in 1997, where our policies and performance no longer match the analysis and principles on which millions have backed us in past general elections.

Strivers, Battlers, Just About Managings litter recent political history. We find ourselves starting to segment the group, divide it up into smaller groups, or add other suddenly-important groups to the wider group. This is perhaps unsurprising in a society which is more individualistic than ever before, and where people’s identities are no longer rooted simply in class or social status – indeed where their identities are ever more rooted in their immediate community.

Essentially, we are identifying a broad group hitherto ignored by the elite, and demonstrating we care through a constant narrative, underpinned by policy justifying that narrative.

Ainsley, who I referred to earlier, describes this group as being on average or below incomes, in poverty probably one year in three – a “precariat”, in that they struggle to maintain let alone improve their socio-economic status. Almost exclusively reliant on public services (and engaging with them on a more frequent basis), renting privately with often unstable tenancies, exposed to volatile market forces in an insecure working environment – we may think their world is somehow not a Tory world.

But they also value family, fairness, hard work, decency and orderly structure – the Tory double helix. They are a group who feel politics has not worked for them and their interests for many years, under governments of all political parties. This is compounded by their view that their children are likely to fare less well than they did, and feel their status endangered by the ‘hourglass’ economy.

How do we tackle decreasing social mobility and the slow decline of in-work progression for those on lower pay rates? Our language focuses on improving social mobility, and we lament it is not increasing. But we never discuss how it might be diminishing and how downward mobility, like grains of sand in the hourglass economy, is actually more likely for many in the “precariat” or second generation immigrants. Ainsley cites one study of low paid workers suggested only one in six would climb out of their low paid roles over the course of a decade.

For Conservatives, at the heart of these issues is not just the challenges above, but also how to protect people not from bad decisions they may sometimes make, but rather the structures that aggravate the penalty paid for poor decisions, which can sometimes tip people over into extreme poverty when the unexpected occurs.

Then there is the larger question of how we reconnect communities to the wider economic health of the nation, and give them a stake in future growth by ending their relative isolation from many of the beneficial consequences of wider government policy.

For all that, the Government must move much more quickly to fill what has now become a policy vacuum. Free school meals is an issue which has cut through. Departments deserve credit for thinking around the issue – the building blocks are there from the DfE’s Holiday Hunger Pilots, to DEFRA’s National Food Strategy to DHSC’s work on improving take up of Healthy Start Vouchers.

I’ve written before on ConservativeHome about how department silo thinking means cross-departmental issues, however important they are, struggle to get momentum. What could be more critical right now alongside restarting economic growth than tackling some of the fundamental structural challenges that would diminish food poverty?

Failure to do so will just lead to technocratic-sounding, misguided-but-benevolent Labour policies around an emblematic “right to food” set out in legislation or a big-brother National Food Service. The lessons since 1945 are that if we Conservatives don’t get it right, someone else will try, and get it wrong.

How to ensure that disadvantaged children are fed when schools are closed

26 Oct

When Theresa May was Prime Minister, Conservative MPs stopped voting, for a time, against Opposition Day motions.  This had two upsides.  First, they were no longer assailed in their constituencies for trooping through the lobbies against motions that could be read to be innocuous.  Second – and even more to the point – one can’t lose a vote if one doesn’t vote at all.

The downside of not opposing those motions was that, once they passed and the Government then ignored them, Ministers were open to the charge of holding the will of Parliament in contempt.  In any event, Labour then unearthed a device that the Government couldn’t bypass – the Humble Address.

We mention this to-and-fro from the last Parliament in the wake of a vote in this one.  Tory MPs are raging about being whipped to vote against last week’s Opposition Day motion on free school meals – especially those newly-elected last year.  They feel that the Whips’ instruction has made them targets in their seats.

Angela Rayner’s disgusting cry of “scum” may be part of the reason: over 100 Conservative MPs say that they and their staff have been the targets of abuse and threats.  Some Labour MPs have form in this way: remember John McDonnell’s notorious remark about lynching Esther McVey.

We believe that Tory MPs can’t simply run away from Opposition motions.  But we also feel that those unhappy backbenchers have a point.  For the simple truth is that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the departmental ministers concerned could scarcely be handling this issue worse were they trying.

One can grasp the scale of the problem by pondering the arguments that Conservative MPs have been deploying against making free school meals available during the Christmas holidays.  The problem is not that there are none.  It is that there are too many.

On the one hand, it was said last week that the taxpayer can’t afford it.  It’s true that we are losing a sense of what the Treasury can afford as the Coronavirus bills pile up.  But if the Government can afford Eat Out to Help Out, why can’t it afford Feed Kids to Help Out?

On the other, it was also said that the Government is spending millions on feeding poorer children.  True again.  But the money is divided up between a mass of programmes – support to local authorities, the Universal Credit uplift, the holiday activities and food programme, Fareshare, Magic Breakfast, and more. That’s a mouthful to communicate.

Conservative MPs point out that the last Labour Government didn’t make free school meals available during the holiday period.  Correct: but Gordon Brown’s failed administration is beginning to become a bit of a distant memory. They say that parents should be responsible for feeding their children, not the state.

Quite so – up to a point.  But if the principle were extended to its logical conclusion, there would be no free school meals at all.  What about sudden unemployment after furlough, to strike a timely note?  Or disability?  And what about state policy that frustrates families – complex childcare schemes, high energy bills, food taxes?

When a Tory MPs can claim that vouchers for meals are being spent on crack dens and brothels, without being able to produce hard evidence, one can hear the bottom of the barrel being noisily scraped.  If vouchers are such a bad idea, why did the Government make them available over the summer holidays in the first place?

There is a hint of the Thatcher era about what is happening now.  Some will say that she won three elections, and the moral of those victories is: ignore the protesters.  But there is a new dimension – even if you don’t believe that the loss of reputation for compassion came back to haunt the Party once it lost its reputation for competence.

It is that while Labour MPs and the hard left are one thing, local businesses, charities and football clubs are quite another.  All these, and more, are queuing up to offer help to disadvantaged children.  Do you warm to the idea of the Big Society?  Well, here it is in action – with the Conservative Party on the wrong side of it.

Reports today suggest that Downing Street knows that it has dug itself into a hole, and must now start to dig itself out.  That would be best attempted by finding a plan that’s better than Labour’s (or Marcus Rashford’s) communicating it, implementing it – and then campaigning for it.

Fortunately, there is one to hand.  If you think about it, schools are not the right venue for delivering help to poorer children during the holidays – for the obvious reason that, by definition, they are then closed.  And the exceptional circumstances of the spring lockdown are now, we all hope, behind us.

Nor do vouchers guarantee “healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink”, to quote from Government guidelines – which, in the case of food, is better delivered hot.  These are best provided in a formal setting.  Which is precisely the aim of the Holiday Activities and Food Programme which we mentioned earlier.

This is a £9 million programme in its second year of pilots.  This summer, it supported up to 50,000 disadvantaged children across 17 local authority areas at a cost of some £9 million – providing at least four weeks of free activities and healthy food during July and August 2020.

The speech of last week’s debate came from Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Clevelys (Blackpool itself, by the way, has eight of the ten most deprived areas in England).  “My view is that we need a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support stream to deal with the trials that have occurred,” he said.

Maynard is not alone in understanding the issues: see Alan Mak’s work, for example, on Magic Breakfast. But he was right to suggest that the pilots have been too slow.  As he said, the issue “is the ultimate example in politics of where something must be done. That is very different from saying that anything should be done”.

Exactly so, and two different groups of people ought to read his speech with special care.  The first are Ministers, the Downing Street apparatus, the Treasury – and a handful of backbenchers.  There is no more matter more primal than food – and getting fed, especially if one is going hungry.

This debacle is a fearful warning to Boris Johnson, Downing Street, the Government and CCHQ: in all things, let alone any matter so emotive, one needs a policy, a message – and the capacity to campaign on it.  In each of these areas, they have been found wanting.

They will have to raise their game on continuing the Universal Credit uplift, and responding to the second part of Henry Dimbleby’s report on food strategy.  Why didn’t they, in this case?  Perhaps because, amidst all the focus on the Just About Managings, they are missing a point: social justice matters in the former Red Wall, too.

The second group of people concerned are the Rashford campaigners.  Some Tories complain about the footballer.  We aren’t joining them.  After all, if it wasn’t for him, we might well not be writing this morning about the issues he has highlighted.

But he should surely see that vouchers, dispersed to parents in a mass of homes, are not a substitute for nutritious meals, delivered to children who are gathered together in a formal setting – just as in term-time.  If Ministers offer such a programme on a bigger scale, he should jump at the chance to embrace it.

Conservative MPs made a strong case against Labour’s free school meal plans in the Commons yesterday

22 Oct

To the surprise of those expecting a u-turn, the Government appears to have toughed out Marcus Rashford’s latest campaign to extend free school meals through the holidays.

Yesterday Labour held an Opposition Day debate on the subject, which was defeated by 322 votes to 261. Only five Conservatives (Caroline Ansell, Rob Halfon, Jason McCartney, Anne Marie Morris, and Holly Mumby-Croft) voted with the Opposition.

The result has outraged Twitter, with the usual, dastardly portrayals of Tory motivations getting bandied about. But to get a better idea of what motivated last night’s vote, we’ve been through Hansard and had a look at the arguments advanced on the day. These seem to fall into a few broad categories.

First comes the not unreasonable (if somewhat partisan) point that the policy being advanced by Labour is not one they chose to pursue during the 13 years they were in power. Brendan Clarke-Smith (Bassetlaw) asked: “why did colleagues on the Opposition Benches never implement any of them under the Labour Government?” Tom Randall (Gedling), further noted that “the proposal in the motion was rejected by the Labour Government when it was made in 2007.”

(Randall also called the Opposition out for improperly invoking the blessed name of Marcus Rashford: “But according to his tweet of 18 October, Mr Rashford is calling for school meal provision in all holidays. Is it that the Opposition motion does not agree with Mr Rashford but is attempting to catch his coat tails or do the Opposition secretly agree with him but are too coy to say it at the moment?”)

Several other MPs had reservations about the model being proposed. Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) set out the problem thus:

“The motion calls on the Government to extend free school meal provision throughout the school holidays until Easter next year. Although on the Order Paper this is a debate about free school meals, even if the motion passes, the result will not be more free school meals. To risk stating the obvious, during the holidays schools are closed, and they do not provide physical meals—free or otherwise—to any child. Let us be clear: what is really being called for here is an extension to the voucher scheme that would start in half-term next week by giving supermarket vouchers to parents of children who are eligible. That is not the same as providing a daily nutritious meal to a child in a school environment to help them get the most out of their education. It is important to recognise the difference between free school meals and what they are for, and supermarket vouchers.”

Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North), himself a former teacher, spelled out some of the consequences of this distinction:

” This is not a one-off extension—this is about free school meals being permanently provided outside of school time. First, who is going to fund that—the school or the state? Do schools provide the meals on-site, or do they have to deliver food parcels? If so, do they have to renegotiate their contracts? Have the unions supported that? Is there understanding of the voucher system, and are they being used in an appropriate and responsible manner? I have had supermarkets, parents and schools contact me directly to say that they have grave concerns about the way in which those vouchers have been used.”

And Danny Kruger explained that Labour were trying to force schools to shoulder a responsibility which was outside their remit:

“As we have heard from the shadow Secretary of State, there is a possibility of the proposal becoming permanent. That is not an appropriate use of schools. Now that schools are open again, it is not appropriate to make them welfare providers. That is a role for the welfare system.”

Beyond these technical questions, several MPs also challenged the underlying premise that the State should be further encroaching on the proper responsibilities of parents.

Clarke-Smith said: “When did it suddenly become controversial to suggest that the primary responsibility for a child’s welfare should lie with their parents, or to suggest that people do not always spend vouchers in the way they are intended?”, whilst Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) added:

“I listened very carefully to what the shadow Secretary of State said, and at one point she said—I hope I do not get this wrong—that it is the Government’s job to make sure children do not go hungry. I differ there, and I think lots of my constituents differ there too, because they would be appalled by the prospect of the Government interfering in their daily lives to make sure their children did not go hungry.”

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Clevelys), a former minister, put it slightly differently but touched on a similar theme: “I am not sure that it returns that sense of agency and autonomy that I seek. Politics is not something that we do to people; it is something that we do with people.”

Naturally many on the left – and indeed, some in the Party – will disagree with some or all of these arguments. But the cartoon-villain image of well-off, southern Tories dismissing concerns of which they have no personal experience does not survive contact with the actual debate. The Conservative caricature has fallen some way behind the state of the current Conservative Party.

Paul Maynard: Here’s why I believe as an ex-Minister that a hard rain may indeed be coming for the civil service

31 Aug

Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

When an early morning call from Number 10 is scheduled on reshuffle day, then the writing is on the wall. The only question is where you want to be when you are asked to “step aside” from Government. Clearly not my Commons office – like the rest of the estate, mobile reception is at best intermittent.

I sat Portcullis House, but then thought better of being dumped in front of passing colleagues, so I strolled down the Embankment a little to receive the inevitable. The Prime Minister was friendly and had perfected the art of the rueful rejection. No-one will ever describe it as pleasant – unless they had pre-planned their departure.

Rather than head straight back to Parliament, I strolled across Waterloo Bridge in dismal drizzle. Never has the location felt so far removed from the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset. I certainly wasn’t in paradise, and rather hoped that the only sunset wasn’t that of my political career. From that bridge, I could gaze upon the Whitehall skyline as if it were some hermetic village, peopled by a priestly caste who floated high above my constituents’ supposedly more mundane concerns, and start mulling over my conclusions about how government does and doesn’t work.

More time in my Commons office then lockdown gave me an opportunity – and how we ex-Ministers seek them – to reflect on whether I felt I had achieved much in office, and whether the machinery of government is best equipped to help ministers do what they both wish and need to do to achieve their lofty ambitions.

Indeed, I felt I had achieved, though others may disagree with the footling nature of my supposed achievements. HS2 anyone? I looked back fondly on my promotion of the “sunflower” lanyard across the transport sector as part of the Inclusive Transport review I oversaw when first a transport minister.

That was until I read Michael Gove’s recent and insightful lecture to the Ditchley Foundation – “inclusive lanyards” came in for a bit of stick as a poor substitute for achieving radical change. The sight of so many such lanyards in supermarkets now has given me pause for thought also.

Gove made so many points which did resonate with me though. Not the least was the need for greater specialism by both ministers and civil servants. As the Major Rail Projects Minister, I literally begged to be sent on some course that might enable me to do a better job of holding delivery bodies to account – yet it was always “just around the corner” until the axe fell.

Excellent officials populated all my three differing ministerial stints, yet many seemed to be in perpetual motion as they moved from role to role, barely staying long enough to finish a project they started. There were exceptions – and they were all the more effective for it.

Ministers are often advised to pick three things to achieve within their average 18 month tenure, but even that degree of longevity seems optimistic these days – so fast is the hamster wheel of ministerial life. You realise things are dysfunctional when you find that you know more about an issue than the officials briefing you, or when you seem to be scheduling farewell drinks for someone in your private office every couple of months.

Individual civil servants are sincere, capable and enthusiastic. I was one of those ministers who knew we were just hot air without people to turn our vision into reality. They are easy targets for ministers lacking that subtle art of both listening and hearing.

However, I remember with enthusiasm that, in opposition, think tanks were a steady stream of innovative policy ideas. In particular, I recall Oliver Letwin’s pamphlet on the conveyor belt to crime – but the conveyor belt of fresh ideas seems to have gradually slowed down.

Within Downing Street, we need to reach out and ensure the hothouse of talent can be harnessed better. We have started to shy away from difficult complexity in addressing our policy challenges on the occasions we do decide to try and deal with them.

But for too long, whichever party may be in government, as a nation we have failed on some of the grand challenges. As a party, we have great ideas and insights, but they fail to see the light of day when they come to be put into practice.

I know ministers are often frustrated that they don’t feel they get the guidance they need as to what the centre wants. Involvement only seems to come when something goes wrong. In Canada, on appointment, ministers receive a “mandate letter” setting out what they are expected to achieve by the Prime Minister. Such a move would be both radical and positive, I believe, in this country. In addition, Canadian ministers don’t have to locate themselves in a departmental silo. The team of officials is built around their briefs – relatively narrow briefs which change as political priorities wax and wane.

So we need to try much, much harder to burst the departmental silos. Whilst some ministers sit across government departments, and the Cabinet Office has at times acted as an enforcer of key themes, on some of the really big thematic underpinnings of policy, Whitehall has not been able to effectively co-ordinate.

Ministerial committees are flabby, too full of a mix of posturing and defensiveness, as ministers defend the turf or score points off colleagues rather than collaborate to achieve. They always struck me as akin to the “boardroom” section of The Apprentice. It isn’t enough just to have someone in your private office picking up the phone to a distant department a small part of whose remit you hold the brief for, if only in theory. Build the structure around the minister’s mission.

That’s why I think we should appoint a pair of cross-government thematic ministers based in Cabinet Office, with the right to attend cabinet, focusing on social justice, infrastructure or inter-generational solidarity – as a test-bed for a new way of structuring Whitehall.

Is the answer to relocate Civil Service decision-making, as some suggest? If it is a case of aping the BBC and transplanting the denizens of Barnes to equally affluent Bowdon, modish Hackney to already-gentrified Hale, then the answer is no. Was the sole reason it was mooted sending the Lords to York was because senior civil servants had found some highly desirable Victorian villas they could afford in Harrogate?

If it is locating, not just processing, PIP claims to Blackpool (hundreds are already here), but those who come up with the processes and financial provisions within which those decisions have to be made, then yes. It needs to be more than a sop to the newly-won constituencies. Indeed, we’d be happy to host the Lords in Blackpool’s magnificent Winter Gardens ballroom where so many of them once strutted their stuff at party conferences.

History is littered with temporary bursts of enthusiasm for reforming the machinery of government or replanting clumps of civil servants in stonier ground. Often this is because it is seen to be an end in itself, rather than measured by whether the fundamental outputs change. Maybe this time will be different – the very scale of the challenge we now face with Covid will force through some radical innovation.

My knowledge of the Wade-Giles romanization methodology for Mandarin doesn’t allow me to confirm whether the Chinese characters for “crisis” and “opportunity” are in fact one and the same, as one endlessly-repeated ‘fact’ that is trotted out states. But even if they aren’t, it has to be how we approach the coming years.

The machinery of state has shown itself to lack the bandwidth and agility required to deliver complexity at pace. A hard rain may indeed be coming, if only because there is no alternative. Far worse, perhaps, would be the ‘spits and spots’ of precipitation beloved of BBC forecasters. Do it properly or not at all.