UK digital government push loses steam as Macron hosts global crowd

A former adviser to David Cameron ran France’s “GovTech” summit this week, raising eyebrows about Britain’s own push.

LONDON — Brexit is distracting the U.K. from a much-touted effort to digitize government — and France is only too happy to take advantage of the situation.

On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a high-profile gathering on government technology, or “govtech,” in Paris, which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, tech CEOs and U.K. Health Secretary Matthew Hancock attended.

The summit, which takes place just months after French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, will cast a shadow over the U.K.’s own distracted efforts to digitize government, leverage big data and use artificial intelligence to provide more efficient public services under a forward-looking program launched seven years ago by former Prime Minister David Cameron.

According to MPs and former and current officials with direct knowledge of Britain’s digitization drive, concern is growing inside the U.K. government that the initiative is losing momentum due to a slew of high-profile departures, lack of political leadership and Brexit’s ability to suck up so much of government resources.

The risk, said people involved in the discussions, is that London would start to fall behind in an area where it was ahead of the curve and miss out on the opportunity to position itself to compete in a global digital economy.

“It would be silly to pretend that the Cabinet Office’s top priority right now was technology rather than Brexit,” said a government aide who asked not to be named, in reference to the department that oversees the Government Digital Service (GDS). “May has got a difficult governing situation and political environment to have to deal through getting Brexit through. It is understandable that might be taking some attention away from this.”

Brexit is also diverting the attention of political leadership. Multiple reshuffles prompted by Brexit resignations and other scandals have meant every Cabinet Office minister is new in their post since the start of the year. Elsewhere in government, HM Revenue and Custom’s “making tax digital” project has been postponed as officials try to figure out how to run the U.K.’s border after it leaves the EU.

Another former official said: “There is not a noise coming from government saying this [the digital transformation initiative] is something we want to continue and promote.”

Disarray prompts probe

Just two years ago Britain topped an international ranking of countries’ preparedness for a digital future, in part thanks to the GDS, a division launched in 2011 by David Cameron as part of a drive to cut costs in the public sector.

But London has since dropped to fourth place in the United Nations’ e-government ranking behind Denmark, Australia and South Korea. France is still far behind the U.K. in ninth place but has been steadily moving up the chart.

Concerns the U.K.’s political leadership is losing sight of its digital priority have prompted parliament’s cross-party science and technology select committee to launch an inquiry into the matter, which will begin taking oral evidence in coming weeks. The committee’s chairman, Norman Lamb, said the inquiry arose due to concerns raised spontaneously raised with him over the fate of the digital drive.

“I thought it was something that should be explored,” he said, adding that he had yet to come to any firm conclusions about the state of the effort.

However, U.K. officials speaking on condition of anonymity stated clearly that the U.K. effort is losing its direction and momentum. “Out of the start gates we ran incredibly fast and we are now well ahead of the pack, but we have definitely slowed down and everybody else has got into this drive,” said one former government official.

“It is the departure of key personalities, a disappearance of a political overlay … Five years into a revolution it’s probably inevitable that some steam reduces but I don’t think the government has been savvy enough in ensuring the great success continues.”

The ex-official added that the service still exists and “does decent stuff” but it is no longer the “beacon of transformation that it used to be.”

A spokeswoman for government said it is championing the use of new technology in the public sector thanks to its £20 million GovTech program. “We are working with innovative businesses to provide solutions to public sector challenges, from tackling rural loneliness to cutting traffic congestion and improving firefighter safety.”

Chancellor Philip Hammond also announced as part of the U.K.’s annual budget that the government’s office for AI and the digital service would review how government can use artificial intelligence, automation and data to drive public sector productivity.

Our man in … Paris

One example that raised eyebrows in London is the decision by U.K.-founded company, PUBLIC, to organize their govtech summit in Paris. Daniel Korski, chair of PUBLIC.io and a former adviser to Cameron, managed to book Mariya Gabriel, the European commissioner for digital economy and society, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander de Croo as well as Trudeau and digital ministers from across the EU.

A U.K. contingent will also be coming to Paris, including the minister in charge of govtech, Oliver Dowden, Hancock and NHS Chief Digital Officer Juliet Bauer.

Asked why he was hosting the event in Paris rather than in a U.K. city, Korski said it is more realistic to switch to London in 2019 or 2020 because the U.K. is currently “in the eye of the storm” over Brexit, a fact that would make many potential attendees think twice about coming.

He also stressed his company, which now has a presence in France, had always had broader international ambitions because it believes public services can only really be transformed by working across borders.

Critics also pointed to a slew of departures from the top ranks of the digital drive as part of the problem. Mike Bracken, former chief of the Government Digital Service, has since set up the consultancy Public Digital, and is working with 18 governments around the world to boost their digital agendas. Liam Maxwell, the government’s chief digital officer, left to join Amazon Web Services this month.

“Since Bracken’s departure, GDS appears to have lost its way somewhat,” David Bicknell and Rob Anderson, respectively government computing editor and analyst at the consultancy GlobalData Public Sector, wrote in jointly submitted written evidence to the parliamentary inquiry on the subject. “Instead of the days when GDS was able to ride the waves of turmoil in government and indeed to create some turbulence of its own, it has become a small boat in danger of capsizing in stormy seas.”

Macron’s PR magic

Tough rhetoric from May’s government on big tech platforms and plans to introduce a digital services tax by 2020 may also be detracting from the digitization drive, the former official added. “That is where we are potentially lagging behind, by not saying come here and expand.”

Defenders of the U.K.’s digital policy point out that London is still far ahead of most EU rivals, including France. Macron’s gathering in Paris was more about “optics and political attention” than substance,” said a former member of the digital service. “France has some way to go to prove it is going to make changes.”

The current U.K. government aide thinks the summit did not bubble up entirely organically because of the amazing work France is doing in this area. “It is something they are partly doing to demonstrate they are still leaders, it is as much a defensive thing as an offensive thing,” he said.

However Gavin Freeguard, head of data and transparency at the Institute for Government think tank, thinks the French deserve more credit.

“I think it is more than PR, there is quite a big drive and France are seeing the opportunity actually to put themselves as world leaders is my sense,” he said.


Read this next: How US Republicans gave up on porn

Eamonn Ives: No, Brexit will not threaten all creatures great and small

In certain respects, the UK’s leaving of the EU could reap animal welfare benefits on a scale hitherto unimaginable.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue.

In case you hadn’t yet noticed, the United Kingdom is currently negotiating its leaving of the European Union. Whilst we do not know exactly where the country will end up after the 29th March next year, it is almost certain that Westminster will have the opportunity to legislate on policy issues which for decades it has offshored to Brussels. Nowhere is this more apparent than with respect to environmental law – of which roughly four-fifths stem from the EU.

This has, reasonably enough, put the proverbial cat amongst the metaphorical pigeons of the environmental lobby. Notwithstanding the fact that just about all of them lament Brexit, it is unsurprising that they regard the country’s vote to leave as a threat to existing standards. When anything could happen, expecting the worst might be an instinctive response. One area in particular which has attracted a considerable amount of attention is that of animal welfare regulation.

Such anxieties are, at the very least, understandable. One cannot deny that there exists a contingent of Brexit supporters – some of whom wield significant political clout – who would happily see current welfare standards watered down. However, I also believe that those fears are somewhat misplaced and overblown, and that in certain respects, the UK’s leaving of the EU could reap animal welfare benefits on a scale hitherto unimaginable.

One of the most exciting aspects of Brexit is the fact that it allows the UK to do away with divisive and much bemoaned Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This byzantine framework for awarding public money to farmers and land-owners based largely upon nothing more than the amount of land they manage has a whole host of drawbacks – none less so than the consequences many, Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike, believe it has had for British biodiversity.

Mercifully, the Government has committed to replacing the CAP. In a move inspired by a report published by Bright Blue last year, future payments look set to be made to recipients for the public goods they deliver. Importantly, things which increase animal welfare (such as measures which reduce antimicrobial resistance – a threat to animals and humans alike) were singled out by the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, as a possible public good which could be rewarded under the CAP’s successor. Thus, the policy rethink which Brexit fundamentally symbolises, played out in this instance as the re-evaluation of funding priorities, could easily lead to improved animal welfare in Britain.

But potential animal welfare gains triggered by changes to agricultural policy do not stop there. If one considers where the majority of animal welfare abuse occurs, an obvious starting point would be with animals which are reared for their meat. Whilst this is not to tar every livestock farmer with the same brush, examples of animal abuse in the industry are undeniable, and are now frequently appearing in the national media as reporting improves.

And yet, society is today closer than ever before to being in a position where it could virtually eliminate all such suffering. Cultured meat, more commonly known as lab-grown meat, has, of late, made great leaps forward in terms of its commercial viability. The costs associated with producing it have fallen exponentially: one start-up which was producing cultured meat at $325,000 per burger in 2013, had it down to a mere $11 just two years later. Venture capitalists and philanthropists are flocking to invest in cultured meat, with industry figures believing it can become cost competitive in just a couple of years’ time.

So where does Brexit play into this? Unfortunately, the EU gives me little reason to think that it will embrace this potentially game-changing technology with the open arms anyone who is interested in animal welfare (and indeed climate change, biodiversity, and much more else besides) might wish it would. The EU’s long-standing opposition to genetic modification, and more recent hostility towards the much less controversial ‘gene editing’, means that one can be forgiven for being pessimistic about the EU forgoing the hyper-precautionary mindset which it has displayed in the past.

Furthermore, given that we know how successful the farming lobby has been in capturing the EU (at its peak, 71 per cent of the EU’s total budget funded the CAP), there is again good reason to believe it could act as a formidable stumbling block to the EU affording cultured meat a favourable regulatory regime. Already, the European farming lobby has mobilised the European Court of Justice to ban plant-based alternatives from using ‘dairy style’ naming words for cheese and milk substitutes: what’s not to say they won’t do the same for cultured meat?

For the arguments expressed above, I believe that the UK’s leaving of the EU does not jeopardise animal welfare – far from it. Brexit gives the UK a golden opportunity to rethink the frameworks which underpin agricultural and countryside management, to the betterment of animal welfare. It also permits the Government to prevent some of the most flagrant examples animal abuse.

Finally, whilst admittedly unclear at present, if we do indeed witness the same proclivity from the EU to regulate against the innovation of cultured meat as demonstrated with respect to gene editing and genetic modification, being outside of that regime can only be positive for animal welfare.

Greg Hammond: Freedom for disruptive technologies v the need for peace and quiet

Clumsy bans are not the answer – but local rules do need to be adapted to cope with Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb.

Cllr Greg Hammond is a councillor for Courtfield Ward in Kensington and Chelsea.

“This generation are Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters”, says Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. And she is right that disruptive technologies are delivering consumers new opportunities for services at lower prices than conventional taxis, hotels and restaurants. Such new freedoms are welcome, and are particularly taken for granted by the young generation that does not remember the restricted choices of the pre-smartphone age. Yet are these new technologies an unalloyed good?

In my ward and its neighbours in South Kensington, in addition to enjoying the benefits of Uber, Airbnb and Deliveroo, our residents have been experiencing some unintended second – and third – order consequences of these disruptive technologies.

Uber drivers have found hitherto quiet residential streets in which to hold while awaiting a call-forward for a fare. In some cases, unwilling to pay for parking and with no designated rest areas, drivers are discarding on the curbsides litter from hastily-eaten meals and even drinks bottles re-used for urine. Of course not every Uber driver is guilty of such anti-social behaviour, but as a minimum residents’ parking bays are blocked and extra traffic created in certain hotspots.

Short-term holiday letting is also proving to be much more lucrative than traditional residential letting. Although Airbnb and similar sites apply a maximum limit of 90 days’ letting per year, it is easy for unscrupulous landlords to register with more than one site and let all year round. Instead of being just a means of making some occasional money from a spare room, there are now short-term letting businesses with multiple properties. Indeed there are some entire town houses containing nothing but short-term letting flats. The consequences are hollowed-out communities, a reduced supply of properties for those who want to live in the area, rubbish left out in the streets on the wrong days by people who are not invested in the local community, and increased instances of noisy parties at anti-social hours on what are working days for local residents.

Deliveroo (and Uber-eats) riders meanwhile are congregating near the restaurants whose products they are going to deliver. Increasingly using noisy scooters rather than relatively benign bicycles, large numbers of riders are positioned at peak times near the restaurants. An example of this problem was in an echoey residential mews which also happens to contain the service entrance to a local branch of Nando’s.

So what is to be done?

The answer is certainly not Labour’s instinctive opposition to new ideas that threaten existing vested interests: the type of reaction that was recently demonstrated by Sadiq Khan’s clumsy attempt to ban Uber in London. This is the kind Luddite approach that would still see our cloth made on the Spinning Jenny and steam locomotives on the railways. Something much more nuanced is required.

In Kensington & Chelsea we are having some small successes in addressing these problems. My Ward colleague worked with parking enforcement and an engaged group of residents to address the problem of Uber drivers holding in one particular hotspot. I organised a meeting on site with Deliveroo’s head of public affairs to show her the problem in the mews. Pleasingly, she was proactive in following up by explaining the problems to the riders and setting up a direct email address for residents’ complaints. As councillors, meanwhile, we have encouraged the Council to increase parking restrictions in that mews, but have accepted that the Deliveroo riders have to go somewhere and that the already-busy commercial street is the place. In both cases the problems have been mitigated in the particular hotspots, though these are microcosms of the problem as a whole.

On short-term holiday letting, last year our relevant scrutiny committees launched a proper study into a problem that had been identified by councillors but had hitherto been completely overlooked as an issue by council officers. The study identified that only a quarter of the short-term holiday lettings in our borough were for the classic ‘spare room’, whereas three-quarters were full dwellings and therefore probably primarily business enterprises. The recommended solutions in many cases would require primary legislation. Suggestions included the creation of a mandatory licensing system and registration with the local authority to facilitate enforcement actions against breaches of, for example, the 90-day limit. A more ‘joined-up’ approach to enforcement between different council departments was also proposed.

The actions described are all tentative first steps, and in some cases are hyper-localised. It would be wrong to squash the new freedoms and opportunities offered by disruptive technologies or to give in to vested interests. But we also need to protect our residents from new threats to the quiet enjoyment of their homes and neighbourhoods. Where does the balance lie? There are no easy answers. Constructive suggestions in the comment area would be a useful contribution to the debate.

Why a sack full of Russian cash won’t change UK Brexit debate

Leave voters have proved highly resistant to a change of heart on Brexit.

CCTV footage emerges of Vladimir Putin entering the offices of unofficial Brexit campaign Leave.EU weeks before the 2016 referendum and handing over a sack of cash to figurehead Nigel Farage and main funder Arron Banks.

Voters erupt in shock that they were duped and express indignation that a referendum on the most important British political decision in a generation was bought by a foreign power.

Except they didn’t. And they wouldn’t.

This fantasy scenario (we will come back to Leave.EU later) may be the stuff of dreams for Remainers desperate to prompt a “People’s Vote” to reverse Brexit. But it is doubtful that even such a clear and blatant picture of referendum tampering would convince many in Britain that they need a Brexit do-over — beyond those who are already convinced.

Brexit campaign donor and businessman Arron Banks (R) and Leave.EU campaigner Andy Wigmore arrive at Portcullis House to give evidence to parliament’s digital, culture, media and sport committee in London on June 12, 2018 | Daniel Leal Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

That might seem odd if you’re sitting in Brussels, Berlin, Bucharest or Barcelona. After all, viewed from afar, the spectacle of the British government and its well-regarded civil service almost completely taken up with the complexity of leaving the EU looks like a whole lot of hassle.

In the negotiations themselves, the Brexiteers have had to roll with punch after punch — on the Brexit bill; on the cutoff date for citizens’ rights; on the transition period and much else. And at the end of it all is the prospect of a large dose of economic pain. According to the U.K. government’s own figures, an 8 percent hit to growth in the worst-case scenario.

Then there’s the cost.

By March next year, the U.K. government will have spent an estimated £2 billion on Brexit-related preparations, according to the Institute for Government. And the hit to the economy caused by uncertainty is already far bigger — the Center for European Reform think tank estimates it at £500 million a week.

So Brexit ought to be looking a lot less attractive, right?

The truth is that most Leave voters either don’t believe this “bad news” — prominent Brexiteer politicians and Leave-supporting newspapers often dismiss it as a Project Fear rerun — or they believe that it is a price worth paying to get to the end goal of a clean break with the European Union.

Even if Leave.EU did benefit from foreign funds it would make not a jot of difference to Britain’s divided Brexit politics.

While polls have shifted by a few percentage points toward Remain, there has not been the mass outpouring of “Bregret” that many Remainers assumed would follow.

In a poll for POLITICO conducted by Hanbury Strategy, when respondents were given a choice between the economic disruption of a no-deal Brexit and remaining in the EU, 46.5 percent chose the former.

And supplementary questions demonstrate how the core messages of the Leave campaign still have a strong resonance with voters. When given a choice between controling immigration or maintaining close economic ties with Europe, immigration won by 60 to 40 percent.

On “more flexibility” for the U.K. to set its own laws versus “more investment and trade” with the EU, the former had 65 percent support. And the power to strike trade deals came out on top against a hard border in Northern Ireland — by 59 percent to 41 percent. Despite the political turmoil, leaving at almost any short-term cost still has strong appeal. For many Leavers, Brexit is about self-determination, sovereignty, freedom from foreign interference and the power to control Britain’s borders.

That brings us back to Leave.EU, the unofficial Brexit campaign that promoted a strong anti-immigration message in the run-up to the June 2016 vote. In May it was fined £70,000 by the Electoral Commission for breaches of electoral law (Remain campaigners also received fines totaling £19,250 and the official Vote Leave campaign was fined £61,000 in July for breaching spending rules).

Demonstrator with an effigy of US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the March For The Many on September 23, 2018 in Liverpool, England | Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

But the news has got worse for Leave.EU. On Tuesday, it was hit — along with co-founder Banks’s insurance firm — with a further penalty of £135,000 for breaches of data laws.

Imposing the fine, the Information Commissioner said:  “We may never know whether individuals were unknowingly influenced to vote a certain way … But we do know that personal privacy rights have been compromised by a number of players.”

Even more serious for Banks is his referral by the Electoral Commission to the National Crime Agency for a criminal investigation. The Commission said it has “reasonable grounds to suspect” that Banks was not the true source of £8 million in loans made to Better for the Country, the organization that ran Leave.EU.

Banks strongly denies any wrongdoing and told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday that the source of the funding was a U.K. registered company called Rock Services. He said categorically that none of the money had come from Russia.

In all likelihood, the result of the NCA investigation will not be known until after Brexit day in March next year. But even if it came earlier, and showed Leave.EU did benefit from foreign funds — along with that conclusive CCTV evidence — it would make not a jot of difference to Britain’s divided Brexit politics.

Leave voters have been castigated by Remainers since the day of the referendum for being too stupid or ill-informed to know what they were voting for.

About the most charitable interpretation their opponents can muster is that they were duped by “lies” from Brexiteer politicians. If that hasn’t encouraged a change of heart then the argument that Putin helped to pull the wool over their eyes with the aid of a loud-mouth insurance salesman is unlikely to cut much ice either.


Read this next: Road to victory for European conservatives’ chosen one

Brexit campaign group and backers face £135K in data misuse fines

The UK’s ICO announced it would fine Leave.EU and Arron Banks’ Eldon Insurance £60K each for breaching privacy laws.

LONDON — The U.K. data watchdog plans to fine the Brexit campaign group Leave.EU and Eldon Insurance — the company owned by Arron Banks, a top donor to the unofficial campaign — for “serious breaches” of electronic marketing laws.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said in a report it would fine Leave.EU and Eldon Insurance £60,000 each for breaching privacy and electronic communications law. A separate £15,000 fine is due to be levied against Leave.EU for sending emails to Eldon customers with Leave.EU newsletters.

U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s investigation into the use of data during the European Union referendum in 2016 found more than one million emails had been sent to Leave.EU subscribers over two separate periods.

These emails included marketing for “GoSkippy” services — the trading name of the Eldon Insurance company, owned by Leave.EU founder and donor Arron Banks. Almost 300,000 emails were also sent to Eldon Insurance customers containing a Leave.EU newsletter.

Denham said she was also investigating allegations Eldon Insurance shared customer data with the Leave.EU campaign.

The revelation came in an Information Commission report probing the use of data in the European Union referendum, published on Tuesday. It said it had uncovered “disturbing disregard for voters’ personal privacy” and “significant issues, negligence and contraventions of the law.”

Denham also said she had issued “assessment notices” to the three main credit reference agencies —  Experian, Equifax and Call Credit — and is in the process of conducting audits. Assessment notices have also been issued to data brokers Acxiom Ltd, Data Locator Group Ltd and GB Group PLC, the report said.

“Serious breaches of data protection” by Cambridge Analytica — the data analytics firm which used personal information harvested from more than 50 million Facebook profiles without permission —  had been identified, and a “substantial fine” would have been issued to the company if it was not in administration, Denham’s 112-page dossier also said.

The report was published ahead of Denham’s appearance in front of a select committee hearing with MPs on Tuesday.

Read this next: Oettinger: Merz good CDU candidate for Europe

Tim Berners-Lee: ‘I don’t regret creating the web’

But the creator of the world wide web wants governments, companies and citizens to reshape the internet for the 21st century.

LISBON — Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web, has no regrets.

Despite trolls, misinformation and harmful content filling up the internet, the 63-year-old British engineer said he believed the positive effects of his creation outweighed its downsides — though he warned about the need to keep the web open and free for all.

“I don’t regret creating the web,” Berners-Lee told POLITICO at Web Summit, a technology conference in the Portuguese capital.

But, he added: “A couple of years ago, I realized there was a change of attitudes. We can’t assume that connectivity will inevitably lead to more understanding.”

Twenty-eight years after Berners-Lee’s invention, his World Wide Web Foundation published a manifesto on Monday urging governments and companies around the world to boost connectivity, give people greater control over their data and provide a safe haven for debate.

His call for greater control over personal data echoes a shift among policymakers, who on both sides of the Atlantic are pushing for greater restrictions on the global digital ecosystem.

From a digital tax in the United Kingdom to multibillion-euro antitrust fines from the European Commission against Google, officials are moving to sanction and impose rules on digital giants.

Digital rights campaigners are similarly trying to keep the web open to all, avoiding a so-called “splinternet” in which different countries or regions follow contrasting rules of the online highway. Tech giants are also looking to reshape their relationship with users amid concerns that the balance of power has shifted too much in favor of some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, particularly in light of recent data scandals at tech giants like Facebook.

“We believe we need stronger rules that give people greater control,” Mounir Mahjoubi, France’s digital minister, told POLITICO in Lisbon. “The web can’t just be decided by the strongest actors.”

France is the first government to sign up to Berners-Lee’s new pledge, whose goals include promises to make it easier for all to access the internet, protect people’s rights online and keep the web safe from harmful material.

The European government joins 57 other organizations, including Google and Facebook, which similarly have pledged to spend the next six months working together to draw up proposals for how such lofty expectations can be put into practice. The aim, according to the Web Foundation, is to hold regular meetings between now and May, to hammer out the details and unveil a so-called “contract for the web” in late spring, 2019.

“A lot of discussion is a first good step,” Berners-Lee said. “We can set the agenda for lots of people.”

From talk to action

Much will depend on how the disparate organizations — everyone from Google and Facebook to Access Now, the digital rights group, and Tom Wheeler, the former head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission — work with each other.

Despite common ground over removing the worst malicious content from the web and giving people control over their online information, many of these groups and individuals stand on different sides of the debate over how the internet should be regulated.

Such differences — including the role of large tech players in wider society and potential restrictions on government surveillance — are likely to come to the surface as Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation seeks to find compromises between the players over the future of the web.

France’s involvement in the project is particularly calculated.

While Emmanuel Macron, the country’s president, has made it his goal to make France more welcoming to startups and the rest of the tech industry, his government similarly has been championing the need for more regulation over large tech companies, as well as the potential imposition of new taxes on revenues generated from digital services.

“France wants to lead the way,” said Mahjoubi, the French digital minister. “We want to make the web impactful for the whole of humanity.”


Read this next: Controversial German domestic spy chief sent into retirement

Howard Flight: The best part of a week on, we can see that last week’s Budget was a popular one

The Chancellor has been fortunate that the public finances have improved substantially at a particularly convenient time.

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Philip Hammond has been fortunate that the public finances have improved substantially at a particularly convenient time. Economic growth has been revised up next year to 1.6 per cent; employment has been revised up, with 800,000 more jobs than forecast in 2023; wages will rise above inflation for the next five years.

The borrowing target has been met three years early, with the deficit now down to 1.9 per cent of GDP. The debt target has also been met three years early at a peak of 85 per cent of GDP. Borrowing is £11.6 billion lower than forecast at 1.2 per cent of GDP. This has improved significantly the scope of what the Budget can seek to address.

Overall public spending will increase by 1.2 per cent per annum, between 0.2 per cent and 0.4 per cent less than forecast growth. The improved tax yields have enabled the Prime Minister’s NHS commitment to be fully funded.

The Chancellor presented a pragmatic “micro” Budget, seeking to address virtually all of the issues which came up as needing attention. Yet perhaps its most important ingredient was a significant cut in taxation for the majority next April – increasing the personal allowance to £12,500 and the higher rate to £50,000 a year.

Local Authorities are getting an extra £1 billion of funding and business rates for retailers with rateable values below £51,000, will be cut by a third for two years. A further £1.7 billion each year will be provided to benefit working families on Universal Credit with the work allowance – the amount families can earn before losing credits – being increased by £1000 per annum.

A new two per cent digital services tax to insure that large digital firms pay a “fair share” of tax, is expected to raise £400 million per annum. Schools will get a further 400 million this year and defence will get a further £1 billion this year and next. There is also £160 million for counter-terror police. The national living wage will increase by nearly five per cent to £8.21. The national productivity investment fund will be increased to £37 billion and will be extended to 2024. Large roads will get £28.8 billion for 2020-25, and even potholes will get £420 million! PFI will be abolished, leaving a bill for £200 billion to be honoured.

There was a range of extra funding largely for small business – extending the annual investment allowance to £1 million; extending the start-up loans programme for 10,000 entrepreneurs; delivering the lowest corporation tax rate in the G20; keeping three million small businesses out of VAT; reducing the cost of taking on apprentices by halving the co-investment rate for non-levy payers; £121 million to support cutting-edge digital manufacturing; £78 million to fund electric motor innovations; £315 million in quantum technologies and £50 million for new Turing Fellowships.

Measures to help more people into home ownership include abolishing stamp duty retrospectively for first time buyers of all shared ownership properties of up to £500,000; an additional £500 million for the housing infrastructure fund; committing over £7.2 billion to a new help to buy equity loan scheme to support 110,000 new home buyers and the abolition of the housing revenue account cap controlling local authority borrowing for house building.

There are measures for those keen on the environment and more money for the Transforming Cities fund. Remarkably, the Chancellor has addressed virtually all the issues of concern to citizens and, as a result, I think, the best part of a week on, that this has proved to be a very popular Budget. The one important reform it has not addressed is the confiscatory rates of stamp duty on larger properties in London and the South East. This had led to a freezing up of the market – bad for revenues and for economic mobility.

George Freeman: There was much to cheer in the Budget. But now we need an inspiring programme for growth.

At the moment, we are treading water and appear to be relying on popular support for Brexit, and the threat of Corbyn, to keep us in office.

George Freeman MP is Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum and The Big Tent Ideas Festival, and is MP for Mid-Norfolk.

On Monday, the Chancellor announced that “austerity is coming to an end”. Politically, there was a lot to cheer in this Budget – some good news and headlines for struggling high streets, our crucial Universal Credit reform, NHS workers and the vast majority of constituents who rely on public services. Furthermore, there were many helpful retail pledges for colleagues in marginal seats. Given the Brexit divisions and infighting, we badly needed some good news.

But if we are going to end the biggest squeeze on disposable incomes since the war, the central question for our future is this: how can we get back to the 2.5-3 per cent growth that we enjoyed pre-Brexit? Before the EU Referendum, we were one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe and the G7. Now we’re one of the slowest-growing.

The Budget invites the public to judge us on different metrics – no longer on our commitment to balance the books (abandoned) or reduce the debt (still growing), but on our ability to “end austerity”. People will now need to feel tangible improvements and see how Brexit can be a catalyst for much higher growth and prosperity.

Because this Budget won’t be decided on the comment pages of broadsheets. It will be decided on the ground.  By parents chatting at the school gates. Families looking after their ageing relatives in care homes. Commuters stuck in traffic jams because the housing has come, but the infrastructure hasn’t. Or the millions standing on trains every morning who’ve shelled out £2,000 for a season ticket and feel ripped off.

I no longer advise the Prime Minister, but here’s what I’d say if I still did. We need to remind people that every public sector pound has to be earned before it is spent, and that we need a more inspiring programme of business-led growth to drive prosperity and opportunity.  This means some big changes.

First, accelerating our transition from a service economy to an innovation nation.  Innovation is key to our driving up productivity, prosperity, inward investment and exports. We won’t escape debt with growth at 1.5 per cent and low productivity.  We need a renaissance of enterprise and innovation.  Such buccaneers as James Dyson and Richard Branson have done more to transform this country’s prospects than any government department ever will.  We need to stop the business-bashing and promote entrepreneurship and innovation. While the UK is still a crucible of start-up entrepreneurship, the engine is not yet humming: we have too many start-ups that are never scaled up, too little of our innovation funded by the City and too little that is taken global by British companies. We need a new national mission. We must be the innovation nation.

Second, tangible access to new markets for our innovation.We can’t just do research.  We need to innovate, manufacture and trade.  If Brexit means anything, it surely means an opportunity to go global. But that can’t mean importing cheap food and cheap clothes from sweatshops. We need to be exporting our innovation. The UK should be using every tool possible to unlock access to the fastest emerging markets in Africa and Asia.

For 40 years our whole economy has been geared to our being a European services economy. Why don’t we make Brexit the moment to embrace a new global strategy for higher growth through exporting technology and innovation into emerging markets? If the opportunity is properly seized, we could use our Industrial Strategy and public sector innovation to make Britain a crucible of new technology scale up and financing through the City.

We could then use our aid budget and global soft power in emerging markets to grow our exports and trade links with the fastest growing economies. Why don’t we offer some of the fastest emerging countries where we have a strong historic links a deeper Aid, Trade and Security Development Partnership?

Third, harnessing the public sector as a test bed of innovation. We’ll never export our innovation if we’re not using it ourselves. Innovation can’t be just about making a lucky few in the City rich beyond their wildest dreams. In order for us to be a test bed for new technology, we need to put enterprise and innovation at the heart of the public sector.  If we want to lead the world in digital health, we won’t do it unless the NHS is already a pioneer. You can have as many digital health clusters in Shoreditch as you like. But if the NHS isn’t testing and buying it, we will never become the innovation nation we need to be. Building, financing and growing these little start-ups into serious businesses of scale. The problem of the austerity era was thinking that our problems could be solved by cutting things. Actually, the only way our problems can be solved is by growing things.

Fourth, empowering local leaders to innovate more. Innovation can’t be ordered from on high. It comes from people having the power to make decisions themselves. That’s why we need to embrace bolder economic localism. Let’s remember that our national economic performance is made up of hundreds of local economies, all of which need to be growing faster. Another five years of ever-tighter spending controls from the Treasury risks undermining local growth and innovation.  Instead of delaying essential local infrastructure holding our growth hubs back, why not let them raise infrastructure bonds in the international capital markets and embrace bold ideas like integrated track and train mutuals which invests users money into better services?

Fifth, a new model of Treasury incentives. Too often, Whitehall’s funding orthodoxy rewards failure.  If you deliver more for less in the public sector we give you…less!   And give more to those failing.  If you ran a business like that it would be bust.  And depressing to work in. It’s no wonder that public sector leaders are so dispirited.  Many are leaving.  We need them to stay.  So why don’t we send a signal to encourage them, be bold and embrace a new model of incentives-based funding which rewards successful local service leaders for delivering efficiency and productivity? We need a new approach based on a radical idea: if an area reduces the deficit quicker than Whitehall’s average we should let them keep 50 per cent of the savings to re-invest.  Why not the same on growth? If councils grow their tax base, why not let them keep 50 per cent for local services?

Our choice as a nation is clear. Do we timidly manage our decline? Or do we set out a bold plan a brighter future? At the moment we are treading water and appear to be relying on popular support for Brexit, and the threat of Jeremy Corbyn, to keep us in office.

For a majority of voters, keeping Corbyn out and delivering Brexit are not good enough answers.  We need to show voters that this is the path to something more inspiring.  We need to start setting out a bold vision for Conservatism in the twenty-first century.