The threat to the rule of law from left and right

16 May

How parochial our Bill of Rights is compared to the sweeping, modern constitution of Russia. “The pretended Power of Suspending of Laws or the Execution of Laws by Regall Authority without Consent of Parlyament is illegall,” says the first, taking the reader to the vanished world of the late seventeenth century.

“Fundamental human rights and freedoms are inalienable and shall be enjoyed by everyone since the day of birth,” declares the second: a statement of the obvious in any progressive, liberal democracy.

I draw the contrast, with all its savage irony, to make a point: that the rule of law is guaranteed not by words on paper, but on what people do – on their institutions and culture they create.

The thought applies to the Government and the rule of law.  We know the charge against it: that not so long ago, the challenge to the rule of law came from the left, and that now it comes from the right.

And that it covers everything from the prorogation dispute in the last Parliament, to parties in Downing Street and the threat to break international law in this one.

David Gauke has made a case for this view on this site and Daniel Hannan a case against.  I want to open my own take by conceding Boris Johnson’s weaknesses.

Most politicians pride themselves as being on top of the facts.  Though the Prime Minister can do facts as well as anyone when he puts the work in, the truth is that they bore him.

On the canvas he paints upon, the dazzling colours of hyperbole and metaphor count for much more than the black and white drudgery of facts.

Being fired for making up a quote, pyramids of piffle, late declarations of interest: given the background and his temperament, it’s not surprising that he has become the first Prime Minister to have been fined for breaking the law.

Which makes it all the more important to understand how he comes to hold the post with such a large majority.  Let’s go back for a moment to a turning point in the story: prorogation.

In 2019, John Bercow, then Speaker, made a ruling on proceedings about Brexit against the advice of the then Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir David Natzler, and in defiance of convention, as Bercow himself admitted.

His decision paved the way for Dominic Grieve, Yvette Cooper, Oliver Letwin, Hillary Benn, Nick Boles and company taking control of the Order Paper and the Commons.

Focus for a moment not on what they did, and its rights and wrongs, but how it came about.  Bercow was illustrating my point about how the rule of law is sustained or compromised.

There are few constraints on the Speaker of the Commons precisely because it is assumed that they won’t be needed.

By voting Bercow into office and propping him up, Labour and other MPs lit a constitutional fire.  And it is Dominic Cummings’ way to fight fire with fire.

So the prorogation plan was devised.  Which takes us to the Supreme Court’s ruling that discontinuing the session was unlawful.  Again, I ask you not to take a view on the judgement, but to consider the background.

The Court could have taken the view expressed previously by the Lord Chief Justice – that the prorogation was “inherently political in nature and there are no legal standards against which to [its] legitimacy.”

That it did not reflects a change that has taken place in the courts over the past quarter of a century or so – what Policy Exchange calls the growth of judicial power.

In simple terms, this places a higher premium on universal rights and a lower one on British particulars than was once the case.

Perhaps this was always likely to be so given the Human Rights Act, the development of the European Court of Human Rights, and the effect on the courts of almost 50 years of EU membership.

There may come a time when right and left swap sides on judicial power.  I can imagine a Labour Government governing, as the last one did, with scant regard for individual freedom.

Remember Tony Blair’s plan to detain terror suspects without trial for three months.  In similar circumstances, I can imagine Conservatives reaching for the Human Rights Act and the European Court.

The point I’m making reaches beyond party politics: namely, that the shift that has taken place within “the academy”, as the nexus of senior judges and legal academics is called, about the nature of law in Britain has big implications.

Only a minority seems to believe that, ultimately, Parliament is no longer sovereign: that in the last resort there are certain fundamentals that MPs have no authority to breach through legislation.

But the spectre of “conceptual overreach”, as the impeccably moderate Robert Buckland called it, was real enough to spook him as Lord Chancellor.

He wanted to restore “the very conventional thinking that Parliament makes laws that give power to the executive and are checked by the judiciary”.

So, then: a Speaker who didn’t play by the rules, and judges with an activist take on law.  Now we move from the courts, and the shift in power from elected to unelected, to other arenas.

Sometimes, such changes are for the best, or so it seems.  Consider Gordon Brown’s decision to declare the Bank of England independent, for example.

At the time, he was applauded for curbing the power of politicians to debauch the currency.  Today, the Bank itself is accused of doing exactly that.

You don’t have to believe that Brown’s decision was wrong, at least in principle, to believe that the accrual of power by unelected people raises questions of accountability.

These are multiplied when those responsible for regulating government and Parliament overlap.  And gain the power to police MPs for flouting “anti-racism, inclusion and diversity”, as is proposed.

Or when the police themselves choose to fine – or not to fine – politicians without explaining why, with potentially momentous consequences.

A literal view of the rule of law would be that Johnson or others are only in breach of it if and when they are found to be so by the courts.

I am taking a broader one which argues that the rule of law is compromised by people of all parties and none as much when Speakers break with convention as when Ministers are fined.

As it would be were the consensus about the neutrality of the courts and the impartiality of regulators to break down. We are not America yet, but it could happen.

There, the threat is anarchy – a Left that wants the police defunded and a Right that cries foul when it loses elections.  In Russia, the reality is what follows the breakdown of order: tyranny.

In short, the British consensus about the rule of law is under strain. The Government has a problem with it in the sense that a man has a problem if he catches Covid.  He may recover quickly, and he may not.

Yes, he can make his and others’ condition worse by behaving irresponsibly.  But there is no point in berating the patient without also seeking to understand the illness. It strikes down Speakers when they break rules.

Judges display symptoms if they deny Parliamentary sovereignty. Regulators risk catching it if they grab for more power.  Like Covid, threats to the rule of law are social.  They spread.  There is reaction and counter-reaction.  It is a more profound challenge than most of Johnson’s critics want to understand.

The Home Office is flying blind in the Ukrainian refugee crisis, pretending as usual that there is no real problem

10 Mar

What is wrong with the Home Office? Its treatment of Ukrainian refugees seeking entry to this country has so far been shamefully incompetent.

Before answering the question, it is worth reporting what a minister in another department this week told ConHome. He questioned why Ukrainian refugees have to have visas at all, and defended the Home Office vigorously on that point.

The main cause of the blockage is, he implied, higher up, in Downing Street, where the unduly restrictive and complicated policy on Ukrainian refugees was decided.

Certainly the Home Office is not a department which can be relied on to do anything complicated in a hurry. When ConHome remarked yesterday afternoon to a former Home Office insider, “It must be a bit of a nightmare being a Home Office minister at the moment,” he replied:

“It’s normally a nightmare and that’s why it’s so interesting.”

On the failure to get on top of the refugee crisis he said:

“The Home Office sets up systems to perform tasks and unless ministers grip it, it leaves those systems in place and tweaks them. But in this crisis you need to do something completely different.

“Women and children are fleeing in fear of their lives. We should assume innocence and not guilt. We should bring them here and do the biometrics once they’re here.”

There is a culture within the department of not telling ministers when things are going wrong. This makes it impossible to take corrective action until some failure becomes headline news.

A former Treasury official told ConHome:

“The Home Office bears the imprint of a history of administrative failures.  All too often Home Secretaries have carried the can for bureaucratic errors they could not possibly have been aware of.  As a result, it is defensive, insular and resistant to change.” 

The appointment on Tuesday of Richard Harrington as Minister for Refugees, working for the Department for Levelling Up as well as the Home Office, suggests a well-founded lack of confidence in the latter department, and indeed is humiliating for the ministers already there.

On Wednesday morning, Harrington was seen having breakfast with Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up.

An adviser who until recently worked in the Home Office agreed that its ministers are at present quite unable to exercise proper oversight of the department’s multifarious responsibilities. There is almost no oversight of the security services, while the police are expert lobbyists who run rings round civil servants in their mid to late twenties.

This adviser said the department is so overtaxed by its present responsibilities that it ought to be split in two. One department would deal with national security and policing, while the other would concentrate on borders and immigration.

That proposal was discussed by policy advisers in Downing Street before the last general election, but came nowhere near being included in the manifesto.

Sir Oliver Letwin, who from 2010-16 was deputed by David Cameron to sort out some of the most intractable problems facing the Government, has written in his book Hearts and Minds about the extraordinary difficulty for ministers of finding out what was actually going on:

“The dreadful truth was that the government machine as a whole had remarkably little accurate real-time information about its own activities…

“You could find out what had gone right or wrong a couple of years ago; but you couldn’t find out what was happening now.”

This meant that when things went wrong, ministers and officials “were all too often flying blind”. He gives as an instance the Passport Agency, where after a long period of running pretty smoothly, some applicants found themselves waiting a long time for their passports, so complained to their MPs.

The Passport Agency denied anything was wrong. They said they were very close to meeting their target for processing passports, and had the figures to prove it.

An investigation by the Implementation Unit from the Cabinet Office found that each day, a few passports were put in a “to do later” pile, which grew and grew, while the rest of the passports were processed within the target time, so it seemed the Agency was doing pretty well – except to the owners of the passports which were stuck in the “to do later” pile, who complained bitterly.

Until the problem was admitted, it was insoluble. Once it was admitted, it could be solved pretty easily, by hiring extra staff with the skills and the computer terminals needed to clear the backlog.

It seems clear that in the present refugee crisis, neither the Prime Minister nor the Home Secretary has been put in full possession of the facts, which means they have uttered assurances in the Commons which are impossible to reconcile with a large volume of anecdotal evidence about the difficulties faced by Ukrainian refugees who are trying to reach Britain.

The adviser quoted above said a “pure Yes Minister” cycle of claim and counter-claim often occurs in the Home Office:

News reports appear about something which has gone wrong.

Officials deny that anything has gone wrong.

The Home Secretary and her special advisers get angry.

Officials at length concede that something has gone wrong, but insist nothing can be done about it.

The Home Secretary and her special advisers get even angrier.

Officials say nothing can be done for legal reasons.

This is plainly not an efficient way to run things. Nor does it encourage gifted officials to want to work in the Home Office.

As in other parts of Whitehall, promotion is more likely to proceed from pretending things are all right, than from telling your superiors about problems which need to be solved.

And as in other parts of Whitehall, there is a shortage of people who have studied STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and are actually capable of supervising the introduction of, for example, the Digital Services at the Border programme, of which various versions have existed since 2003. Here are a few extracts from the National Audit Office report into this project published in December 2020:

The programme board received reports of resourcing shortages, particularly of technical staff, eight times in 35 months between July 2015 and May 2018, with the Department categorising programme resourcing risk at the highest possible level in July 2019. It struggled with technical delivery…

Until 2019, the Department lacked appropriate oversight, leadership and governance to ensure progress was made and to manage programme risks effectively. Between 2014 and 2019, external reviews and governance boards for the programme identified delivery issues which the Department did not resolve…

The decision to extend the programme’s duration by 36 months to the end of March 2022 added £191 million to the cost of delivering the systems, and the need to keep legacy systems running over this period added a further £145 million, which means that the total cost increase resulting from delayed delivery is £336 million (2019-20 to 2021-22).

The Public Accounts Committee report into the project, published in March 2021, is rather harsher in tone:

The Home Office (the Department) has presided over a litany of failure in nearly 20 years of non-delivery of digital border programmes, with significant delays introducing additional costs to taxpayers, continued dependency on contractors to maintain legacy programmes, and delayed delivery of benefits to Border Force officers, other users and passengers.

The Digital Services at the Border (DSAB) programme is crucial to delivering the Department’s overall objectives for national security at the border to protect the public from terrorism, crime, illegal immigration and trafficking, and is vital for facilitating the legitimate movement of people across the border.

Following the 2011 abandonment of the e-borders programme which it began in 2003 and despite assurances from numerous senior Departmental officials over the years, the Department has now delayed delivery of its original objective of improved information at the border by a further three years, with little demonstrable lesson learning.

The Department failed to respond to or address risks and problems flagged to the programme board earlier in the DSAB programme and false assurances about progress left the Department unable to act on accurate information.

Exactly the problem identified by Letwin: it is easy enough to find out what went wrong in the past, but virtually impossible to find out what is going wrong now.

The Ukrainian refugee problem has come about because the Home Office is flying blind. Instead of deploying substantial numbers of staff at once to the Polish border, to Warsaw, Calais or wherever else they are needed, it pretends even to itself, indeed especially to itself, that the existing meagre capacity, and restricted opening hours, in Warsaw, Paris and Brussels are sufficient, or require only modest reinforcement.

Whenever anything is done, it is too little and too late. This is plainly unfair on traumatised refugees, and on front-line staff who find themselves overwhelmed by the magnitude of their task.

Will the bright light now being shone on departmental incompetence make the slightest difference to the Home Office’s entrenched habit of insisting that problems do not exist, or that if they do exist, nothing much can be done to solve them?

Profile: COP26’s Alok Sharma – who put himself on the map by inadvertently shedding tears in Glasgow

17 Nov

Politics, Alan Watkins used to observe, is a rough old trade. But occasionally, amid the ritual insults and casual cruelties, we see a politician give way to more generous feelings.

Such a moment occurred in Glasgow at the end of COP26, when Alok Sharma fell silent, unable to speak for emotion as he said sorry for a last-minute diminution in what had been agreed.

Delegates could see he was on the brink of tears, and began to applaud. The wider world applauded too, touched by the sight of a politician who had entered with a full heart into the task of bringing the climate conference to a successful conclusion.

Here was proof of the old dictum that an ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of facts. At the age of 54, Sharma had at last emerged as a political figure in his own right. Ed Miliband, for Labour, had “nothing but praise” for him.

“He really does deserve an honour,” agreed a floating voter who in her time has backed everyone from Tony Blair to Nick Clegg.

Sharma until this moment had appeared to be yet another minister who was no more than a dull, laborious apparatchik, a careerist who had long since sacrificed his capacity for human feeling.

This was not actually the case. In July 2017 Sharma wept in the Commons while delivering, as Minister of State for Housing, a statement about the Grenfell Tower fire.

And those who knew him well esteemed him. Oliver Letwin, whom Sharma served as Parliamentary Private Secretary from June 2015, yesterday said of him to ConHome:

“Absolutely splendid person. Clever, conscientious, high-minded, kindly, easy-going, delightful company. The tops.”

A year later, Theresa May sent Sharma as a junior minister to the Foreign Office, where he enjoyed the distinction, almost certainly unique among Alan Duncan’s colleagues, of not once arousing the wrath of that acerbic diarist.

The Foreign Secretary, a certain Boris Johnson, received a mixture of praise and blame from Duncan.

Johnson formed a high opinion of Sharma, who in 2016 had been a staunch Remainer, but who now thought it was essential to respect the result, because “anything else would not be good news for democracy”.

He went on to explain, in an interview with ConHome in February 2019, that after the referendum

“I was disheartened for a period of time. But actually straight after that, when Theresa May became Prime Minister, I became Minister for Asia and the Pacific, and I spent literally every other week getting on a plane to Asia on a Wednesday and coming back on a Sunday.

“The interesting thing was that absolutely every single government and every single foreign investor that I met thought that us leaving the European Union would present significantly more opportunities for bilateral trade and investment.”

In 2016 Sharma had endorsed May’s candidacy for the leadership. In 2019, he wrote a piece for ConHome explaining why he was backing Johnson:

“I have worked closely with him in Government, during my time as a Foreign Office Minister. I saw just how deeply he cares about Britain’s place in the world and our ability to project a global footprint, which will be increasingly important post-Brexit. I have also seen first-hand his ability in meetings with foreign dignitaries to strike up good and productive relationships and engender real warmth and positivity.”

So the “global Britain” project, which seems to its critics like so much hot air, is one that Sharma has been working on for several years.

He was born in Agra, on the Yamuna River south of Delhi, but at the age of five moved with his parents to Reading, on the River Thames west of London. They set up a business, and his father, Dr Prem Sharma, became a respected figure in the Conservative Party, for which Alok first volunteered to deliver leaflets when he was 11.

He was educated at the Blue Coat School at Sonning, on the Thames, and at the University of Salford, where he read Applied Physics with Electronics, after which he qualified as a chartered accountant and became a banker, working in London, Stockholm and Frankfurt.

But he hankered after politics, and his wife, who is Swedish, encouraged him to put in for the seat of Reading West, which he won for the Conservatives in 2010, after the previous, Labour MP, Martin Salter, had retired.

In his maiden speech Sharma remarked:

“The comedian and actor Mr Ricky Gervais grew up in Whitley, not far from where my parents lived when they first moved to Reading. I do not know Mr Gervais personally, but it is entirely possible that we loitered in the same shopping precinct when we were youngsters. Of course, one of us has now gone on to great things – and the other has become a Member of Parliament.”

One notes a talent for self-deprecation which might have been the prelude to a lifetime of obscurity. But as Sharma has repeatedly demonstrated, modesty is not incompatible with strong emotion.

In 2013, he paid tribute in the Commons to a Conservative leader who had just died:

“My father often remarked that Margaret Thatcher was not just the first British female prime minister, but the first British Asian prime minister. He was not joking – he does do jokes, but never about Baroness Thatcher. He always said that she might not look like us, but she absolutely thought like us. What he meant was that she shared and empathised with our values, experiences and ethos. For immigrant families such as mine, she was aspiration personified…

“My parents started their own business in the late ’70s. As anyone who has run a business or tried to run one knows, it is pretty hard work when it first gets started. My parents certainly went through some pretty tricky times, but the one thing of which they are absolutely certain and I am absolutely certain is that if it were not for the economic policies that Margaret Thatcher and her Governments followed, they would not have prospered—and without them, I would certainly not be here today.”

One trusts that some brilliant young scholar is already studying the affinities between Thatcher and a number of ministers who came to prominence after 2019 (cf Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak).

This is work that could most fittingly be performed at Oxford University, in penance for denying Thatcher, its alumna, an honorary degree.

For although some of the finest young minds in that home of lost causes are Roman Catholics, one trusts that light will also be shone on the affinities between Methodism, Hinduism and Thatcherism. Religion plays a larger role in British politics than our generally secular press is capable of noticing.

Sharma said after Glasgow, at the Sunday afternoon press conference in Downing Street, “I’d had about six hours’ sleep in three days.”

His tears were the result of tiredness: no doubt that is part of the truth. And no doubt another part of the truth is that, as he told Nick Robinson,

“I just get on with things with the minimum of fuss and do the best I can.”

But success brings its penalties, one of which is that people cease to be so charitable.

“People like him, but he is incurably lightweight,” a senior Tory close to the COP26 negotiations told ConHome. “Yes, he was nice to people. He has a fawningly oleaginous manner.

“But he was not even in the room when the deal was done between John Kerry and the Chinese negotiator, Xie Zhenhua. The UK team didn’t even know the deal was coming. Sharma was crying out of frustration and fury that he’d been humiliated.”

That is certainly not how it looked to the delegates in the hall in Glasgow, or to the wider audience. But is is perhaps a measure of Sharma’s arrival as a major player that he now attracts criticism.

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.

Robert Halfon: The Conservatives were the party of affordable and social housing – and must be again

24 Feb

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Conservatives need to remember something forgotten about our past. We were once the party that brought social housing to the people that needed it throughout this country.

In 1951, Tories went into a General Election with the phrase, “housing is the first of the social services”, proudly sat at its heart. Echoes of this could be heard when the PM last summer committed to “not just to defeating Coronavirus but to using this crisis to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades.” The first of which he said was housing. He is right, but I think we can go further with the housing we need.

The 1951 manifesto made clear that access to a good home, an affordable home, was central to productivity, family life and good health. This sentiment – this vision – is as relevant today as it was then. The difference, however, is today we have lost our way in making that vision achievable.

Harold Macmillan, the then minister in charge of delivery, ensured that the Government beat its target of 300,000 homes a year, and good homes at that. I know this, because I am proud to represent a small part, in the form of my constituency of Harlow. Our town was created as part of the post-World War housing boom, started by a Labour government but accelerated by a Conservative one.

These homes were true homes as well. Safe, secure, affordable and designed to be far better than what had come before. New Towns like Harlow were – and some will be surprised by this – incredibly popular. They were also made possible by Government investment in social housing. Housing that ensured everyone, whoever they might be and whatever they did, could benefit from the delivery of this vision that everyone should have a home, whatever their background.

In 1979, the BBC broadcast a show about Britain’s New Towns and visited Harlow. It interviewed both those who had moved out of shoddy accommodation in London, as well as the children for whom the town had always been home.

Harlow had been gifted, by both Labour and the Conservatives, a proud community who lived in quality social housing that allowed them to prosper. Children had a great start in life. They had fields to play in, good local schools to attend, sculptures to inspire them, their own bedrooms for big ideas to be imagined.

Unfortunately, this is where the story of Harlow and of housing takes a turn.

Nobody, not Macmillan, not Churchill, or Atlee for that matter, intended the post-War investment to be the final investment. To build the New Towns and that be that. Yet, in a way, this is what happened. Investment in housing wound down and the focus on the delivery of social housing took a 40-year back seat to reach a position like the one we are in now, with fewer than 7,000 new social homes a year being built.

A failure to deliver a positive vision for housing has consequences. Consequences whereby families are placed into, what can only be described as human warehouses – unsuitable, former office blocks – away from their communities, their families, in an act of social cleansing by predominantly London Labour councils. There’s no room to build a better life. There is one room and in it you eat, you watch TV and you sleep.

Families are in unsafe conditions. Exposed to vulnerable people. Parents are exhausted, taking their children on long commutes to distant schools. This is not how we used to do it. It is not a fair offer – it isn’t a Conservative offer.

Fortunately, the MHCLG Secretary of State is well aware this is not good enough and is taking steps to improve such conversions, demanding quality housing and more say by local councils.

However, this doesn’t tackle the underlying problem: that instead of measuring our housing success in the places we build and opportunities we bring, we engage in a relentless pursuit of “units”. We are doing this the wrong way round. Homes should not be measured in units delivered but in lives transformed.

Temporary accommodation, which is what many office-block conversions through permitted development rights often are, cost councils almost £2 billion in 2019/20. That’s a 55 per cent increase since 2014/15 and is money that by and large we pay to private landlords for providing unsuitable homes.

This is absurd. And we see it right across England. For example, in Blackpool, almost three-quarters of private renters are having to rely on housing benefit and yet the local authority is blocked from applying for grants for social homes due to the current rules. That doesn’t then mean public money is not spent, but instead of spending it on building homes to be proud of, we send it into the hands of private companies.

I share the ambition of the Prime Minister and the Government to unlock home ownership for a new generation. I am proud to be a part of the party that has done so much to champion it through measures like Right to Buy. But I also see no contradiction in being both the party of the home owner and the party of social housing. Quite the reverse.

By building the social homes we need, we may in fact be truly demonstrating that we are the party of home ownership. Not doing so, has made home ownership an impossible dream for too many.

Being stuck in an overpriced private rental market is the real barrier to ownership. According to Shelter, 63 per cent of people in private rented households have absolutely no savings at all. Two in five (40 per cent) of the population have less than £100 in savings. It is just not possible to save for a deposit if your money is having to all go into the pocket of a landlord.

Moveover, overcrowding has massively increased in the rental sector – from 187,000 homes in 2011 to over 300,000 right now. An affordable, social home would be.

Perhaps some Conservatives will be fearful of trusting local authorities with something like building homes – they fear they would be wasteful and slow. Surely, however, just as we can support academies as the model for delivering our schools, we should consider the role of Housing Associations in being a private route to social housing.

But for Housing Associations to succeed, we need a Conservative Government to unlock their potential. Because right now, social homes just aren’t being built. In fact, more than half of local authorities delivered no social rent homes at all last year and 50 local authorities have now gone five years without delivering a single social home.

We need to enable and incentivise better about what we need. Housing Associations are currently building a lot of shared ownership because that’s what policy is pushing them towards. Even without any extra investment we could change this by simple measures like increasing the flexibility provided around grant rates.

For example, the current grant rate for social housing is too low in most parts of the country and that means Housing Associations have to build more market sale and shared ownership to cross subsidise. If we removed the grant rate cap, or raised it, they could build more social rent.

We also need to look at how the current regulations and tax systems benefit the big developers making homes for private sale. The scales are too weighted towards helping the big boys at the expense of the communities they are building in. The recent plan to expand the small sites exception will make this worse. Currently, new developments of up to 10 units are exempt from providing any community benefit or affordable housing. The proposal to increase this exemption to between 40 and 50 units should be reconsidered.

Instead, the Government should look at how that contribution is made more effective. They have said they will replace the current method through Section 106 contribution with a new infrastructure levy, recognising that right now the system isn’t doing enough. However, the proposals need a lot more detail and could benefit from embracing existing good practice that we see in places like South Gloucestershire, where the Conservative-run council continues to be number one in the country for building social housing.

Finally, the Government should listen to the advice it received from the former Cabinet Minister, Oliver Letwin. His review into why homes weren’t getting built pointed directly at the cost of land. Innovative proposals around how to address this by changing the way we interpret phrases like “market value” exist and are worthy of consideration. Not least, because the status quo, in which land can rocket by 275 times its value following the grant of planning consent, are only creating perverse incentives to trade in land instead of building actual homes.

This Conservative government should not be afraid to fix the rules that are currently breaking our country’s housing market.

At the end of 2019, we earned the trust of the country by promising that we would make their tomorrow better than their today. During this pandemic, our Prime Minister rightly promised to build back better. We should, and we can, do all this if we again become the party of social housing.

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.