Richard John: Monmouthshire is leading the way in delivering high quality public services

18 Mar

Cllr Richard John is the Leader of Monmouthshire County Council and a councillor for the Mitchel Troy Ward.

In a quiet and largely rural corner of Wales, the flame of a compassionate Conservative vision for Wales burns brightly. At the last local elections in 2017, Monmouthshire went from no overall control to become the only Conservative controlled council in Wales with 25 Conservative members, 10 Labour, five independent and three Liberal Democrats.

We are the lowest funded council in Wales because the Welsh Government’s funding formula fails to adequately recognise the additional costs and challenges associated with delivering services in a large rural area. But we have not let this hold us back. Monmouthshire receives just £1,176 per head of population, yet some neighbouring urban councils receive as much as £1,881 per head. If we were funded at the Welsh average, we would receive an extra £40million every year.

Despite these challenges, we deliver high quality public services at the forefront of innovation. We set up an investment portfolio both as an income stream and a policy lever and despite the uncertainty of the pandemic, it continues to return a surplus which directly funds frontline services. We purchased Newport Leisure Park in Spytty with £21million of borrowing. The rental income minus interest payments has delivered up to £500,000 a year to help fund core services. We’ve also used our investment portfolio to secure benefits for our communities even in areas that aren’t the responsibility of local government. We agreed a £2million investment with broadband provider Broadway, which has enabled them to put in place a fibre rollout plan to 17,000 Monmouthshire properties, which would not otherwise have access to high-speed internet.

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of individuals and councils taking greater responsibility for mental and physical wellbeing. We decided not to transfer our leisure services into a trust, but to reform in-house. While some Welsh councils have struggled with plans to close leisure centres, our approach has been more commercial – to modernise our sites so they’re more financially sustainable. Monmouth was the first leisure centre we refurbished with a brand new gym, dance and spin studios, new kit, a 25m pool with spa facilities, a three storey soft play area with an open plan café and a beauty salon. Until it was forced to close due to the pandemic, the site was returning a small surplus, which is unheard of for council-run leisure centres.

This commercial approach lends itself to a close working relationship with chambers of commerce in our towns. We have a business resilience forum to ensure a close working relationship between our Sara Jones, Deputy Leader and Economy Cabinet Member, her officers and business owners across the county. Through the pandemic, this close working relationship has enabled us to better respond to the challenges facing our high streets. During the pandemic we distributed £41million of Covid grants and got the money to businesses before we even received it ourselves because we recognised that cash flow was a more serious concern for businesses than for us.

In social care, we’ve won awards for the innovative approach we’ve taken to help older people retain their independence through community-based services, which are focussed on the individual rather than an institution. This approach has enabled hundreds of older people to have their care needs met in their own home, where they can continue to live independently. We’re also one of the very few councils in Wales to pay our carers a starting salary £1 above the real living wage.

Our overriding priority has been to offer children and young people the best possible start in life and accordingly, education has been our top budgetary priority for both revenue and capital spend. We’re working with Welsh Government to build new state of the art new schools, having recently completed two new secondary schools in Monmouth and Caldicot and a new school in development in Abergavenny. Although an anglicised part of Wales, we’re ensuring parents have a meaningful choice in education between English and Welsh-medium schools by doubling capacity over the next decade. Our school system is in a strong place as one of the few authorities in Wales with no schools under monitoring by the schools inspectorate Estyn and no schools in a red category under the Welsh Government’s most recent categorisation of schools. We’ve also set up an innovative scheme with the Compass for Life Foundation to mentor primary school pupils from more deprived backgrounds to focus on their dreams and aspirations because there’s nothing as powerful as ambition for the future.

We’re also at the forefront of the green agenda with bold ambitions to improve the connectivity between our towns and villages for cyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists. Working with Welsh Government, this year we’re rolling out more 20mph zones than anywhere else in Wales to improve air quality and road safety. We have one of the highest recycling rates in Wales and we’re decarbonising our fleet with investment in electric and hydrogen vehicles.

Monmouthshire is strategically the best placed county in Wales for growth and our local economy performs second only to Wales’ capital city. Our towns are often considered some of the best places to live in Wales and ranked amongst the best in the UK.  We play a full role in the Cardiff Capital Region and the Western Gateway, keen to secure the economic benefits of partnership working for our residents. We still have challenges of inequality both within and between our communities and we welcome the decision of UK Government to work directly with councils on levelling up and shared prosperity funding to continue to tackle this because nothing is as strong as local knowledge and trusted relationships.

We are doing well, but we are ambitious for more. With continued Conservative leadership, a shared vision and a sense of urgency to deliver for our residents, we can make our county an even better place to live, work and visit.

Charles Margetts: Adult social care reform – a financial time-bomb facing local councils

17 Mar

Cllr Charles Margetts represents Finchampstead North on Wokingham Council

The social care sector has been underfunded and in crisis for many years. Adult social care affects every single person in the country – everyone will have someone in their family who will get old, or with increased need, and who will need to use adult care services.

Respective governments of all colours have not tackled the problem and this has led the sector into crisis.

This shows itself in three key areas:

  1. The cost of care to the individual. Stories in the national media of people facing 6 figure care bills are no exaggeration. The current system places almost all the costs of care on the individual. This had led to people having to sell their homes to fund their own care. Unlike the NHS, Councils have to administer this unfair system and chase people to pay for their care.
  2. Staff shortages and low wage levels. If a direct comparison is carried out between an equivalent post in the NHS and the care sector, the employee in the care sector is paid approximately 30 per cent less. The NHS is very effective at lobbying for extra pay for its staff and the result has been that care staff have been left a long way behind. This has resulted in significant staff shortages in the care sector. This situation has been exaggerated by the 40,000 care staff who lost their jobs because they refused the vaccination in comparison to the 80,000 NHS staff who have been allowed to refuse vaccination and retain their jobs.
  3. Increased demand and more complex needs. People now live a lot longer than they did 20 – 30 years ago. The result of this is that social care has to deal with increasing numbers of elderly people with more complex needs. The result of this at local authority level is that in Wokingham if we make no changes, year to year costs will go up by four per cent a year. This percentage pressure will only climb in the current climate of inflationary pressures and the need to invest in care workers pay.

We welcome the attention of the government in this area and also note that they have endeavoured to make progress with social care. However, the proposals fall well short of what is needed and will, I fear, impose crippling financial burdens on local authorities

The Government announced a rise in national insurance levels which comes into force in April which is claimed to be ‘a social care levy’. This had led to various government ministers touring tv studios claiming they have ‘fixed social care’. However only £1.8 billion of the £127 billion raised is being passed to social care. The balance is being passed to the NHS. All estimates suggest that Adult Social Care needs a circa £8bn investment to address these issues.

The planned charging reforms have several key parts.

The care cap is being set at £86,400 a year per person. This means the individual will pay for the first £86,400 – and all eligible care costs after this will be paid by the local authority responsible.

Local authorities currently get a discount for the care they commission directly. Part of the reforms involve the abolition of this discount between private payer and Local Authority rates. This will mean higher care charges for almost local authorities across the country.

The proposed reforms make it the responsibility of local authorities to manage and track financial assessments of when a resident passes the cap. There is currently a specified need for an annual financial assessment of every resident using care services.

The planned reforms are also silent on some of the key issues in the sector. There is no attempt to deal with the inferior way the sector is treated in comparison to the NHS. There is little meaningful attempt to raise wages to comparable levels within the NHS. It is difficult to see, with the measures proposed, that there will be any change to the staff shortages in the sector. Although the government has asked each Local Authority to do a ‘fair cost of care’ exercise, this will be fruitless if there is also no long term plan to explain how the sector can cope with the ever-increasing demand without any additional funding

The main financial effect of the changes proposed is to transfer the costs of care from the individual to the local authority; to remove the local authority care discount; and to pass all the administrative burden of the scheme (means testing / financial assessments) with the relevant costs to the local authority

Central government has correctly stated it has given local authorities extra money to fund this change. However the money provided is a fraction of the overall additional cost burden. Any area with high numbers of people paying for their own care and where there are high care costs will face a significant additional cost.

The additional costs will come from the following areas:

  • The local authority will have to pay the care costs of every resident above the cap of £86,400. Not only will the local authority have to pay the care costs of the individual; it also loses the money the individual currently pays – this is a double whammy.
  • Local authorities will face care costs 30-40 per cent higher than before due to the removal of the current discount.
  • We estimate the amount of financial tracking and assessment required by the legislation will be triple what is currently required. This will require notable numbers of additional staff.

To achieve better healthcare for all, it is vital that social care is funded properly and integrated with the NHS. There is no realistic way for hospitals to process healthcare efficiently if social care cannot support the level of discharges needed.

For Wokingham, assuming all the £5.4bn over 3 years is paid out to Local Authorities, we estimate that we will face additional costs leaving a shortfall of £26 million a year. The only way we can sustain this additional expenditure would be to slash significantly any non statutory services (highways, education etc).

The state of local authority funding is well known. Several authorities have had to declare a Section 42 notice indicating they cannot cover their costs and are in essence bankrupt. If no change is made to this legislation there will no doubt be a significant number of additional councils going bankrupt. Every local authority with high numbers of self funders (people paying for their own care ) and high care costs will face similar levels of increase in costs. This level of cost is simply not realistic or sustainable – the Government has simply got its sums wrong.

We are calling on central government to revise its proposals. It needs to allocate more funding to support the bill – or else expect widespread financial failures of local authorities across the country.

How the Government could help workers buy homes, build families, and save for retirement

3 Mar

This country is governed primarily for the benefit of older people, and electoral demographics mean that this is unlikely to change anytime soon. So totally does this cohort dominate the discourse that even those protesting against it, via Exinction Rebellion or Insulate Britain, tend to be old as well.

But there’s only so often one can write the same despairing piece; only so many times one can point out that the Conservatives are storing up a richly-deserved reckoning for themselves if they continue to pretend that the South doesn’t need millions of new homes.

So let’s instead indulge in a little fantasy and wonder what, in some mirror universe, a pro-young people policy agenda might look like.

Housing

Obviously, comprehensive planning reform and a major housebuilding boom would be idea. But absent some sort of putsch, the Town & Country Planning Act and all its malignant consequences will be with us for some time to come.

But even so, there are definite positive steps that ministers could take to make it just that little bit easier for people to get onto the housing ladder.

Take the Lifetime ISA (LISA). Introduced in 2016, this is a specialised savings vehicle intended to help young people save for their first home (or retirement). For every £4 you put into it (up to £4000pa) the Government puts in £1. Seems pretty good, right?

Now, let’s play a game. When LISAs were introduced, the cash value of the home you could buy with them was capped at £450,000. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in December 2016 the average UK house price was £220,000 (£236,424 in England).

In December 2021, the ONS put the UK figure at £275,000 (£293,339 in England). A substantial increase in each case. Now guess: what was the 2021 value of the LISA house price limit?

If you picked ‘£450,000’ then well done, there’s no getting anything past you. Between December 2016 and December 2021, the UK average house price rose by 25 per cent (24.1 per cent on the English values). The power of the official savings vehicle, not at all.

Bonus points if you noticed that neither of those sets of averages includes London. The average property value in London in 2016 was £483,803 – already over the limit – and in 2021 stood at £521,146. There is, of course, no London Weighting on the LISA limit.

So the first plank of our agenda would be simple: take the existing vehicles the Government has set up to help young people save for housing and make them fit for purpose. If there is any reason to keep the maximum value cap, index-link it (from 2016, obviously). Apply a London-specific or regional weighting to it, as we do with public sector pay, so that it reflects the state of the market.

And in order to help family formation, allow couples buying together to pool their value caps. So, for example, two professionals buying together could max out on a £900,000 property, i.e. the price of a family home near a school that cost less than £300,000 in 2000, in the sort of town I grew up in.

Families

Speaking of families, the next thing our pro-youth ministry would do would be to introduce more measures which make it easier for working-age people to have children and support families. William Boyd-Wallace wrote an interesting piece yesterday about the UK’s ‘baby bust’ which set out some of the issues.

However, our ministers would be a bit more radical than simply opening up the market for childcare provision, although cutting the regulation that pushes this country’s costs so much higher than the European average would be a no-brainer.

Moreover, making professional childcare the only option, as at present, seems to be as much about freeing people up to work rather than maximising their freedom to build their own arrangements.

In our mirror universe we’re going for a system that serves the best interests of families, not capital, so the policy would probably look a lot more like a cash payment to every household on a per-child basis. This could be spent on professional childcare or, importantly, used to as income support if one parent went part-time or stayed at home. It would be completely up to the parents.

Making this system universal would also remove one of the great iniquities of the old child-benefit system that preceded the two-child limit, which was that working people faced major financial pressure on how many children they could have whilst those on welfare did not.

Social Care

Now we have a home-buying savings vehicle that is at least calibrated towards the housing market politicians are determined to perpetuate, and which better allows couples to pool their resources towards family homes. We also have a system of cash support to help them start populating those homes.

For our last trick, let’s do something about the iniquity of the current social care arrangements. Heaping taxes on working-age people to fund unlimited liabilities towards retired people is very much not on the agenda for our hypothetical pro-youth ministry.

Again, there are plenty of ideas floating around for how this might be fixed. Make older people invest their largely adventitious housing wealth in their own care; introduce a ‘bedroom tax’ on private property to encourage downsizing in areas that reject planning reform. But again, let us concede that nobody is going to be marching on the Grey Gate anytime soon.

Perhaps a sensible middle-distance solution would be moving towards something like the Japanese system. Under its terms, people over 40 are obliged to buy a form of social care insurance, but then not allowed to claim on it until they reach retirement age.

Introducing such a system here would mean that, for the first time, people were actually ‘paying in’ for the benefit they would eventually receive. It would also focus the burden on older workers, rather than heaping unjust marginal tax rates on graduates already burdened with paying off very high tuition fees.

It would also give the Government an opportunity to formally abolish National Insurance, whose main function at present is to generate a useful myth for older voters (and increasingly, Scottish and Irish nationalists, who think the rest of the UK will pay their pensions forever).

Such a list could be much longer of course. We haven’t looked at overhauling universities and student finance, or reforming the rules around noise complaints so if you move next to a pub or club that’s your problem rather than theirs. But the above would be a good start.

James Roberts: Johnson and Sunak shouldn’t kid themselves. Voters are not impressed by astronomical tax bills.

31 Jan

James Roberts is political director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

In their joint piece for yesterday’s Sunday Times, the Prime Minister and Chancellor declared themselves “tax-cutting Conservatives” and simultaneously confirmed that they planned to hike taxes to the highest level since Clement Attlee.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the new political map of Britain. The 2019 general election brought traditional Tory areas and former Labour seats in the “Red Wall” under one roof. Off the back of his promise to “level up” the regions, perhaps Boris Johnson has calculated that this requires greater public investment and Brits can afford higher taxes to pay for it. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Taxpayers, regardless of where they live, don’t want to pay more. As figures released today by the TaxPayers’ Alliance show, the average household can already expect to pay over £1.1 million in tax over their lifetimes. They’ll pay nearly £480,000 in income tax and £190,000 in VAT. Far from being a tax-cutting government, this is one which is seeing typical families across the UK becoming tax millionaires.

This isn’t just a problem for the so-called affluent Tory heartlands. The bottom 20 per cent of earners need to work almost 24 years to pay off their £450,000 tax bill – more than half their working lives. This is the group who will be hit hardest by rising energy prices and the wider cost of living crisis. Many of them will have voted Conservative in 2019 for the first time, for a manifesto which promised not to increase income tax, national insurance, and VAT.

Yet it’s under the Conservatives that we have seen the biggest increases in the lifetime tax burden. It has risen by almost £350,000 for the average household since 2015-16, compared to a rise of £250,000 between 1999-2000 and 2015-16. Since 1977, the amount of tax you’ll pay in your life has doubled in real terms.

And this is all before the impact of the national insurance rise is felt. Add in corporation tax hikes, council tax increases and fiscal drag from frozen income tax thresholds and it means that things will likely get worse. While Johnson and Rishi Sunak have claimed they are low-taxers at heart, ordinary families who are now tax millionaires will find it increasingly difficult to believe.

Politicians are stretching their credibility on tax policy to breaking point. Breaking the pledge on national insurance, to throw money at an unreformed health and social care system, won’t please anyone. Polling from Public First’s James Frayne, columnist for this site, has shown that Conservatives are losing their reputation for keeping taxes low. More working-class voters consider the national insurance rise to be unfair than fair.

And it’s easy to see why. Someone currently earning £15,000 pays £652 of it in national insurance. With the 1.25 percentage point increase this will rise by £68 to £720, an effective rise in how much taxpayers will be paying of more than 10 per cent. So, with a cost of living crisis, the government has decided now is the time to accelerate the tax burden toward a 70-year high and lump low paid workers with an even bigger tax bill.

Despairing Conservatives may well wonder what the alternative could be. How can politicians guarantee investment while keeping their promises of keeping taxes low? Well let’s remember that when it comes to fiscal discipline, there are two sides to the ledger. As the country emerges from Covid, there could not be a more appropriate time for addressing public spending and refocusing funds on areas where they are most needed. Save to spend, if you will.

Much tougher action is needed to root out waste, reform service delivery and get value for taxpayers’ money. Heed Lord Agnew’s call to take waste seriously. Establish a Parliamentary Budget Committee to assess spending before it happens, rather than just hearing in detail afterwards how money was wasted. End national pay bargaining, address excessive public sector pay and – if they insist on working from home – end the London weighting for Whitehall civil servants. Defund the ridiculous schemes and the wasteful quangos, like the Arts Council. Reform pensioner benefits. And yes, properly cut foreign aid. The list goes on.

But don’t pretend raising the lifetime tax bill further is the only option. One sure way for Johnson, or any future leader of the Conservatives, to keep the new Tory coalition together would be to let taxpayers keep more of their own hard-earned money.

David Willetts: The case for the National Insurance increase

28 Jan

David Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation.

Conservatives don’t like putting up taxes and voters don’t like paying them. So it is not surprising there is an energetic campaign against the National Insurance increase. Should the Chancellor give ground to the critics?

One of the arguments, set out eloquently on ConservativeHome, is that we are having to pay higher taxes because the Government has decided to increase the size of the state, and it would be far better to shrink the state and abandon the tax rises.

But the main reason for the NI increase is to finance the cost of the NHS. That, in turn, is going up just because there are more old people, so public spending rises – even without any change in policy. Old people are heavy users of the NHS. It is very different from the demographic backdrop to the 1980s and 1990s when there were many fewer pensioners because of the low birth rates of the 1930s and the war years.

But now we are facing the healthcare and pensions costs of the post-war baby boom. And, however radically the Government reformed the NHS, it is hard to see pensioners being asked to pay for it, but that is what is driving the spending increases.

The Health Foundation estimates that funding for healthcare will have to rise in the next decade by over £60 billion just to maintain services in the face of these demographic pressures. We can try to offset these pressures by cutting other Government programmes; indeed, we have been doing that for a decade.

Whitehall-controlled day-to-day spending will have gone up by £111 billion between 2010 and 2024. An extraordinary £84 billion of that will have gone to the Department of Health and Social Care. We are reshaping the state so it is above all a mechanism for extracting money from young people to finance services and payment to older people who tend to vote – and vote Conservative.

This leads on to the objection that the levy is unfair on young taxpayers, especially as an increasing proportion of the money is to go to older people to protect more of their assets, and fund their health and social care. It is indeed a big problem that NI is not paid by pensioners, so if they are still working they take home more than a younger worker doing the same job.

The Treasury is very aware of his and for the first time extended this new supplementary rate of NI to pensioner earnings as well. It also covers income from dividends. But there are still other sources of income – from occupational pensions, for example – which do bear income tax but don’t pay this levy.

One obvious simplification of the tax system would be to merge NI with Income Tax, but the various exemptions from NI for pensioners have made this politically difficult. So I am relieved that at least the Chancellor has broadened the base of the new levy compared with traditional NI.

Even so there is still some validity in the argument that the Government is increasing taxes on earnings to protect old people’s assets. What we really need is a bold new Conservative programme for a property-owning democracy. We should reverse the decline in property ownership among young people. I hope to come back to this in a subsequent column.

As well as the generational problem, there is also the objection that the levy hits poor people, who are now facing the cost of living crisis. There is indeed a big hit to living standards looming. But the levy is a smaller part of this than the energy price rises. The NI rise will cost the average household £440. By contrast, average household energy bills are forecast to rise from £1,300 to £2,000. Moreover, the levy is not paid by the lowest income households. The Chancellor also increased the taper for Universal Credit so overall his budget boosted the incomes of many low income families whilst collecting more from the most affluent.

If the Chancellor has any fiscal room for manoeuvre now, he has much better means of easing the cost of living crisis than abandon the levy. Here it is. First introduce a radically improved Warm Homes Discount – increased by £300 and made available to 8.5 million families. Second, spread the costs of energy firm failure over a number of years. Third, temporarily transferring the social and environmental levies off energy bills. Combined this package would reduce energy bills by up to £545 a year at a cost of around £7.3 billion. This is much lower than the £12.7 billion cost from cancelling the rise in NI. It would also be much better targeted: more than half the benefits of postponing the NI levy accrue to the richest fifth of households.

Is it nevertheless the wrong time for any tax increases when the economy is still recovering from the enormous blow of the virus? But if anything it is bouncing back better than was feared. The better figures for public borrowing, which some are arguing show you don’t need the tax increase, are also evidence that the economy is growing fast enough to pay for this.

Borrowing is running rather lower than forecast – but it is still £147 billion this year so far and likely to come in at around £180 billion. With interest rates rising, the cost of this borrowing is going up. The Treasury always worries that if markets think the Government is never going to be able to raise taxes, the interest rates we pay would rise. There is some politics here as well – delay for a year or two and the hit is closer to the next election. Margaret Thatcher faced these arguments 40 years ago when the 364 economists warned against her tax rises in the 1981 budget, but that was the moment when the economy started to recover.

Then finally there is the most seductive argument of the lot – that tax rises actually cost revenues whereas tax cuts fund themselves by boosting economic growth and getting people to declare more of their income. It is true that there comes a point where increasing tax rates reduces totally revenues, but we are nowhere near that. The one apparent recent example is the increase in corporation tax revenues after the rate was cut, but this looks to have been driven more by the fall in business investment after the financial crash and then Brexit. The fall in investment boosted receipts as investment spend can be offset against corporation tax.

There is no prospect of funding today’s British state, shaped by Conservatives over the past decade or more, without increasing taxes. We can’t just keep on borrowing the money for our day-to-day spending on healthcare and pensions. We can certainly reform our taxes. We can also aim to reform the NHS to offset some of the costs from demographic pressures. But we cannot be the tax cutters we were in the 1980s because we are now an older country than we were then – and indeed it is older Tory voters who are the biggest beneficiaries of the reshaping of the state which has been the result.

‘The Prime Minister’s tax rise’

25 Jan

Last autumn, before the Government’s foot-shooting spree began in earnest, it pushed ahead with the controversial decision to increase taxes on working-age people in order to protect the asset wealth of older people.

By pushing up National Insurance, the ‘Social Care Levy’ is supposed to avoid the need for elderly citizens to sell their homes in order to pay for end-of-life care.

At the time, there felt as if precious few Conservatives were speaking out against the policy. Just as with abandoning planning reform, it looked like another area in which the party was set to strangle its future coalition in order to pander to powerful vested interests amongst its current one.

Yet just a few months on, the NI hike is now under sustained internal attack. High-profile MPs such as David Davis and Robert Jenrick have warned that Tory support will ‘evaporate’ unless the move is abandoned. And more tellingly still, Rishi Sunak has started calling it “the Prime Minister’s tax”.

Is the appellation fair? A tax rise wasn’t the only way to fund social care, after all: the Chancellor enjoyed a £30bn/pa windfall at the most recent budget, which would more than cover the money raised by increasing NI. He chose to spend it elsewhere.

Sunak would probably counter that this is what being a proper fiscal conservative looks like. I summed up the ambition set out in his Budget speech thus: “the Government must only be borrowing to actually invest, with everyday spending covered by taxation”. If the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary want more spending, then his duty as Chancellor is to find a politically-saleable way of raising the money.

And what’s the alternative? Our own Gerry Lyons suggests the Government should be more relaxed about borrowing against growth; asking older voters to actually pay in is likely politically impossible; so too is the sort of wholesale overhaul of the healthcare system which Ministers apparently concede, in private, is increasingly necessary. If Sunak would rather meet the challenge without this tax, he’ll need to explain how he would pay for it – and MPs may not like his answer any more than Johnson’s.

Regardless, it is a testament to the unravelling of Boris Johnson’s authority that the consensus behind his grand bargain on social care is coming apart so quickly, and Sunak’s positioning suggests that it may not survive a leadership contest.

Whether or not any of the candidates can come up with a better and more sustainable alternative than just borrowing the cash and hoping for the best, on the other hand, remains to be seen.

Spencer Pitfield: The new polling that shows health and social care to be voters’ top priorities

20 Jan

Dr Spencer Pitfield OBE is Director Union Blue and Senior Consultant at Techne UK.

It goes without saying that we live in simply unprecedented and febrile political times. Like others, I approach the evening news with a sense of foreboding and overall weariness as day after day one new devastating revelation after another appears.

I spend a lot of time it seems repeating my newfound mantra to those who ask for a quick personal political comment: I will not, and cannot, defend what is clearly indefensible… if you break the rules, you must be held accountable… no one is above the law.

Like everyone who enters into politics, whatever their level or role, I have always wanted to do the very best for our communities and country at large. Whilst the unedifying sight of the Conservative Party attempting to self-destruct and the polarised tub thumping of the other parties continues, I cannot help but be so very saddened that we are losing sight of the really grave issues we face at this time.

How difficult it seems now to get ‘airtime’ for the required debate and careful consideration of key policy issues and approaches which are so urgently required.

In 2019 the Prime Minister was elected with a sizable majority, and at the time I was particularly excited by the then promise to further develop and promote what has become known as the ‘levelling up agenda’.

A promise, in short, to provide a better quality of life and opportunity for those in the most deprived parts of our country; an exciting vision to reduce inequality, support those in poverty out of it, and to give those people in most need across our country a ‘leg up’ on the ladder of opportunity.

Polling just released, however, conducted by Techne UK in partnership with the think tank Bright Blue, makes for very sombre reading at the halfway mark of this Parliament.

Those surveyed believe the Government has been performing worse than expected since the last general election across almost all key policy areas polled. Significantly, and most worryingly for the Government, except in the policy areas of climate change and healthcare (net +13 per cent), a majority of 2019 Conservative voters believe too that the Conservative Party is not delivering on its key election policy promises.

Further to the overall assertion that Government has not been able to deliver on its promised agenda, this poll also highlights voters feel particularly concerned that we remain massively unprepared to deal with the major challenges no doubt coming down the line in 2022. These include the rising cost of living (food and energy prices in particular), flooding, and crime.

Here particularly social care (net -34 per cent) and Local Government (net -37 per cent) received the poorest marks from those surveyed.

Poverty is particularly emphasised by those questioned in this research highlighting that the public feels that people on lower incomes have been most likely to suffer since the last election. Indeed, large majorities of respondents think those on low incomes (71 per cent) and the very poorest in our society (70 per cent) have become financially worse off since December 2019. By stark contrast very few people thought those on high incomes have become worse off (nine per cent).

Other ways the Government might better support hard working families included keeping prices for everyday goods low (16 per cent) and increasing the minimum wage (23 per cent). Those polled believed the best ways to support businesses affected by the pandemic would be the continued provision of well-targeted grants and loans to those companies most affected.

With regards to what the Government should prioritise in 2022, improving healthcare and social care perhaps unsurprisingly come out on top.

The considerable dilemma though that the Government faces – both within the Conservative Party and across the country – is the fact that those polled are also clear that the best way to help people at this time is to cut taxes for low- and middle-income families, whilst simultaneously also wishing for public spending levels in key policy areas to be increased.

A balancing act that this Chancellor, indeed any chancellor, would struggle to accomplish – especially at a time when Government debt levels due to this terrible pandemic are so very high.

Throughout this important poll it is clear that voters feel that Boris Johnson’s Government has underperformed, is unprepared for what is to come, and across almost all key policy areas of concern has not delivered.

People feel worse off, and they fear things are only going to get worse.

Regardless of the Prime Minister’s very considerable political problems, history tells us when you are seen not to be delivering on the policy priorities of the people your days in office are numbered.

This is therefore not just a critical juncture for the Prime Minister – without immediate action in key policy areas it will become difficult to win people back.

Andrew Haldenby and Nick Bosanquet: Building new hospitals is the wrong priority for the NHS

15 Jan

Andrew Haldenby and Professor Nick Bosanquet are co-founders of Aiming for Health Success, a new health research body.

During the run-up to Christmas, some Conservatives began to ask why the NHS had not increased its capacity since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, Anne Marie Morris said, when lockdown regulations were debated in Parliament, that the “capacity issue … has hardly been addressed at all”.

NHS capacity is indeed a key factor, determining the ability to cope not only with Covid-19 but also with normal demand. But it is crucial, especially for Conservatives, to understand why capacity has not increased. It’s not the fault of unaccountable NHS leaders or the “Blob”. On this occasion, the Government has stuck for too long with obsolete policies. A renewed approach could improve the situation quickly, in two distinct ways.

The Party has a clear policy to increase capacity: to build or refurbish 40 acute hospitals. This was a key policy in the 2019 Manifesto and has been promoted by Ministers and the Prime Minister many times since then. The problem is that this method to raise capacity is by far the most expensive and time-consuming way to do it.

Extra NHS capacity is needed now but hospitals take years to build or upgrade. Delays are likely because these are complex projects, subject to national regulatory approval and political intervention. Earlier this year, the Government’s in-house rating agency found that the 40 hospital programme was “unachievable” by the target date of 2030. The total cost of the programme has been estimated at up to £24 billion. Little wonder that worldwide, building large hospitals is seen as a solution from the past.

The good news is that building hospitals is not the sovereign and lone way to more capacity. We would propose two ways to increase capacity with benefits starting in 2022.

The first is to improve access to social care. The real capacity problem is that up to 25 per cent of patients in hospital beds need not be there. That has been known for many years but developing new services to solve this problem has had little priority.

During the pandemics Trusts have paid for out-of-hospital support packages and this could be developed further, starting straight away. Care provided in the home is a massive resource which did not exist 20 years ago. This could provide support both immediately post discharge and over the longer term.

For residential care, access is set to worsen as homes close. An immediate positive change would be to enable local authorities to pay homes at realistic and sustainable rates. Currently, care homes use the much higher fees paid by private residents to subsidise their local authority residents, but this is a pernicious arrangement which weakens all types of access.

The second step is to develop care teams outside hospitals which can deliver care closer to home with results within two years. Integrated Care Systems should have the lead in developing services, measured against their ability to deliver care most efficiently. Care “closer to home” is likely to mean two types of service: joint primary care / secondary care hubs in community sites, and diagnostics, rehabilitation and direct care provided in the home itself.

These hubs could provide the support for high-risk patients who were shielded during the pandemic. Paramedics are already showing how it is possible to treat children and elderly patients at home.

A realistic first target would be to reduce local hospital admissions by ten per cent, releasing resources for treating patients who are on the backlog. Reducing admissions would also free up resources for investing in end-of-life care.

The infographic shows that NHS leaders are ready to respond to this approach. It was published by the Devon Integrated Care System. As the Devon ICS says, “whilst our first priority is always to provide high quality and compassionate care, we have a duty to do this within the available budget. To enable us to continue delivering high quality care within our budget we need to shift our resources from hospital beds to the care surrounding patients in their own homes”.

These hubs could offer big advantages to elderly patients. Hospital admissions can offer specific treatments, and this will remain vital for some, but they often reduce capability for independent living outside the hospital through weakening physical resilience and support networks. Hospital admission is often the first step towards permanent care. The new hubs can involve and help carers through respite care, falls prevention and social support. For elderly patients, minimizing admissions is a key step towards better outcomes and continued quality. It also shields them from deeply worrying financial problems. Such support will become more important as increasing numbers of people over 85 live on their own.

We understand that the hospital refurbishment programme has much political capital invested in it. Still, Conservatives must ask whether a new approach is needed, which delivers much faster results in terms of capacity and which greatly improves outcomes for elderly people within the next two years.

Robert Buckland: This focus on shrinking the state is out of date. Voters have moved on from the 1980s. So should our party.

7 Jan

Robert Buckland is MP for South Swindon, and is a former Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor.

Politics in recent years has seemed to be all unprecedented challenges. This is undeniably true, but in many ways, history continues to repeat itself. Once upon a general election, an old Etonian Prime Minister with more than a touch of showman about him and who campaigned with a heavy dose of optimism, support for public services, an unapologetic appeal beyond strong cultural divisions and a distinct sense that our best days lay ahead won 365 seats right across our nation from Hartlepool to Swansea West. I am of course talking about 1959.

For Tory leaders from the 19th century onwards, the strong sense that we are the “national” party has been the golden thread linking everything together. It was of course Disraeli who famously said that the “Tory Party is a national party or it is nothing”. As Tory Unionism grew stronger in the ensuring years, this concept of the party representing all parts of the Kingdom and not just England became stronger too.

All true Conservatives would have shared a sense a pride and excitement as we captured Scottish seats in 2017 and then made huge advances in Wales and the North of England in 2019, which is why any sense of confusion or uneasiness about the party’s current configuration of Parliamentary seats and support is not just misplaced, but bizarre and contrary to our traditions.

Understanding the world as it is, not as we would ideally like it to be, is a fundamental tenant of practical Conservatism. Will Tanner from Onward was correct in a recent article in which he highlighted that the existing coalition of likely Tory voters are to the right on culture and the left marginally on economic issues. They want toughness on crime and illegal immigration, whilst also expecting greater investment into our public services and local communities.

As we embark upon the new year, it is worth reflecting upon the pools of ink that have been spilt by commentators, either lamenting about or salivating over seemingly irreconcilable divisions between the apparent ideology of the Conservative Party and the voters that we now represent. We are solemnly told that Boris Johnson faces an impossible task in trying to reconcile the two.

This thesis is based upon two fundamental flaws. First, it makes the assumption that Toryism is frozen in some sort of mid-1980s state, and that it is driven by nothing more than free markets and shrinking the size of the state. Second, it makes the assumption that voters in different parts of the country are entirely separate species, as detached from each other as if they come from Venus and Mars respectively.

Fortunately for the Conservatives, neither assumption is true. To suggest, as was done after the Chesham and Amersham by-election, that voters in the South of England are somehow more “sophisticated” than voters elsewhere was not only insulting, but just plain wrong. This year, as we turn our focus increasingly towards the next general election, we need clarity of leadership and seriousness of purpose to reject this notion and refocus our collective efforts on appealing to our new coalition of voters.

Up and down our country, people are looking out for the delivery of promises made, so it is sensible to look again at what was written in the 2019 manifesto. Already, we are delivering on many of the key pledges, such as record-breaking NHS funding, 50,000 more nurses, 20,000 more police officers and tougher sentencing. Major immigration reforms are going through Parliament, and as promised we are seeing millions more per week being invested in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure.

Even before the onset of Covid-19, the Conservatives were warming up for a degree of state intervention that had not been contemplated for a generation. The unprecedented set of measures taken by this government during the pandemic was an eloquent demonstration of the death of ideology and its replacement with the politics of practical action.

When it comes to the clear manifesto pledge to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050, what unites voters in all corners of the country is the need to create more secure and sustainable sources of energy than fossil fuels whose supplies can be turned on and off by the likes of Russia. Greener energy sources mean greater energy security and self-sufficiency too, which is an aim that I believe is very much shared by the new coalition of Conservative suppporters.

The fact that millions of jobs and thousands of businesses survived, together with the NHS and our other public services, should be our message to voters that in extremely large measure, we were there for them in their time of greatest need. As a result, there can be no doubt about the Tory commitment to our public services.

Our opponents are fighting the battles of the past on this, whilst ignoring the real task, which has to be a relentless focus on value for money, particularly in the NHS. We have grasped the nettle of social care reform, but if the National Insurance rise this Spring is to mean anything, we have to see hard evidence that these funds will be used for social care once the Covid-19 health backlog has been dealt with. This is what voters will be looking for come the next election, and rightly so too.

A more unwelcome parallel with that historic 1959 win was that the Government was eventually laid low by a series of scandals that demonstrated a sense that it was no longer in touch with the people it was serving. With seriousness of purpose and a strong commitment to competent delivery, we can learn from history, maintain our great coalition and go on to even greater things as the 2020’s march forward. Less hand-wringing and more elbow grease is what is needed now.

Natalie Elphicke: This must be the year in which the small boat channel crossings are ended

4 Jan

Natalie Elphicke is MP for Dover & Deal.

More than 28,000 people came into the UK through the small boats route alone last year. Many lives have been lost. What started as a trickle of boats and a few people has become a booming international criminal business, with ever greater numbers of illegal craft coming in day after day, month after month. Even on Christmas Day, the people smugglers didn’t stop plying their trade – putting even more lives at risk on the English Channel.

The range of departure countries is extraordinary and spans continents. Vietnam in the Far East, and the African countries of Eritrea and Somalia, as well as the Middle East: Iran, Iraq, Syria and more besides. Each of these routes has its own brokers and their own specialities. But they all have in common a clear belief that the UK is easy to break into and even easier to stay in.

Last year, records were broken on every measure. The record for the number of people arriving in a single day, for the number of unaccompanied young people arriving, for the number of people arriving in a month and a year (see here). It was a truly shocking year at the Dover border.

As the numbers have increased, so has the impact. Across the land, hotels, bed and breakfasts, old army barracks and rented housing were snapped up by the Home Office to house the equivalent population of a small town.

In addition, there’s the extra strain on GPs, schools, hospitals, skills and language training, as well as welfare payments. That doesn’t include the millions spent last year on new short-term facilities to hold and process migrants. The traditional facilities at Dover have simply been unable to cope with the numbers now arriving.

It’s not just a matter of money. It’s also one of national security. It is an uncomfortable truth, but one still the same, that not everyone who comes into our country through the illegal channel crossing route wishes us well.

People wanted for serious crimes, including those wanted by other intelligence services, have been detained in Dover as they tried to enter clandestinely by small boat. Not every person who lands on our beaches is picked up. Residents of coastal villages, such as Kingsdown and St Margaret’s, make regular reports of arrivals in the dead on night and in the early hours of the morning. Grown men knock on doors, hide in local woods where villagers walk their dogs, or are picked up by waiting cars and vans.

Beyond money and national security, there is also the question of fairness. It’s unfair to people choosing the right way to apply to come to the UK, when people are able to enter the UK illegally and remain. It’s also unfair to people seeking a way out of poverty, who want opportunity, and who are lawfully resident in our own country, including migrants and refugees who come into the UK through legal routes of entry.

Moreover, the bottom line is that no-one has to make these dangerous crossings. We need to be crystal clear about that. Every person getting into the water is already safe in France, which has an established and responsible asylum system. People are safe in many places before France too, both inside the European Union and elsewhere.

We also need to be clear that there are legal routes of entry into the UK. These are the routes that should be taken. Many people who are making the crossing are fleeing poverty, not persecution. They lack opportunity, not safety. The lure of the UK is predominantly economic. That’s why people borrow and save to pay to come to the UK. It’s an investment in their future.

And right now, there are hundreds of thousands of work visas up for grabs – in a huge array of sectors, including charity worker visas, seasonal worker visas, young persons’ mobility visas, creative workers’ visa, health and social care, HGV, and even amusement arcade work. You can come and work in the UK legally, and millions of people do. But you need to go about it the right way.

There are safe and legal routes for family members, too. Any person with a case for family reunion can make that case on behalf of their relatives in the UK and from the UK. There is absolutely no need for any close family member to be smuggled in at the dead of night.

It is absolutely right that the UK should help those most in need around the world and we do. But encouraging or facilitating people smuggling is not the way to do it. We need to bring an end to the small boat crossings and stop the dangers of people being in the hands of people smugglers and the risk of further deaths on the Channel.

This is the first of two articles by the author on small boats.  The second will be published on this site on Thursday.