Kieran Cooke: Yes, schools have been challenged by Covid-19. But they have also shown a tremendous ability to innovate.

12 Aug

Kieran Cooke is a branch officer in Chingford and Woodford Green Conservatives, a former County Councillor candidate and an educational adviser.

The current media and public discourse is filled with concerns and challenges around getting young people back into schools and the lost learning that has occurred due to school closures.

However at the same time, new opportunities have arisen which benefit schools and young people but have received little airtime. These opportunities are due to the quick response and innovative ways that the school system as a whole – from individual teachers in their classrooms to those leading the education system – have reacted over the course of the pandemic to date.

In April 2019, the Government published its strategy to help improve and increase the effective use of technology in education. Little did it know at the time how important this would be in supporting pupils’ learning during the period of school closures.

The rate at which schools, and the education system as a whole, adapted and innovated to provide online learning opportunities for young people was impressive. Covid-19 has accelerated progress in the use of technology in education at a rate that was not imagined prior to the pandemic. This has required educators to improve their digital skills, helping them to future-proof their own skill-set in using technology to improve learning for all.

Of course the missing ingredient here, as highlighted by school closures, is the lack of equity of access to digital technologies for all young people. Prior to the pandemic, there were many ideas around reimagining the future of learning.

But this pandemic has moved that conversation on significantly, by necessity. The Government now has the opportunity to continue this progress in the use of education technology to support improved learning outcomes for all. This will shift learning from something that happens in a physical classroom to a blended model on a more permanent basis, as well as future-proof the education system and prepare young people for the increasingly digital workplace and society.

Another strategy that has benefitted from a ‘turbo-charge’ during the pandemic has been the Government’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy to address the need for more teachers who then remain in the profession.

Applications to the teaching profession have soared in this period, with UCAS’ latest data indicating that between June 15 and July 20, there were 91 per cent more applications to teacher training compared to the same period last year. Encouragingly, this increase includes shortage subjects such as physics and maths, which are going to be crucial for the long-term Covid-19 recovery and our future economy.

While some of this is because of the economic downturn in the private sector, it is also likely to be due to an increase in society’s perception of teachers due to them having excelled in ‘their moral duty’ to keep schools open for key workers’ children and vulnerable children and the sense of fulfilment and increased insights of parents in teaching their own children.

This improved perception of the teaching profession is long overdue and a key characteristic of the highest performing education systems globally. We now need to build upon this opportunity by supporting these teachers throughout their career with high-quality professional development and conducive working cultures, thereby retaining them within the profession.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity to have come out of the situation is how schools and the learning of young people have risen up the political agenda and in the public’s mind. Getting all young people back into school as a non-negotiable priority has reminded everyone of the fundamental importance of schools beyond just learning.

For many young people, school is where they feel safe, feed themselves and develop emotionally and socially. While this has always been recognised, the Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted just how important this is.

For example, there was a 32 per cent increase in contact with the NSPCC during lockdown and an estimated 2.3 million young people have not completed any school work during school closures. This shows how vital it is for decision makers to continue the investment and support for schools and that is why the Prime Minister’s recent announcement on the increase in per pupil funding is welcome.

That way schools can continue to fulfil their key role in contributing to the long term recovery from Covid-19 by upskilling and preparing all young people to contribute to rebuilding the economy and wider society.

So while not underestimating the challenges that schools, the education system and most importantly young people themselves have faced over the last few months, let us not lose sight of the opportunities that have been realised. By building on these, the education system will bounce-back better and give itself a head start in improving outcomes for all young people.

TONIGHT: ConservativeHome Live – in conversation with Matthew Elliott

12 Aug

There’s still time to register for your free ticket to take part in our next ConservativeHome Live interview, which takes place at 7pm tonight.

I’ll be speaking to Matthew Elliott – co-founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, chief executive of Vote Leave, and one of the UK’s most successful political strategists – about the emerging faultlines and flashpoints in British politics, the strategic challenges facing the Government and, of course, the state of play on Brexit. Given this morning’s dire economic data, and the Chancellor’s warning about further disruption to come, it will be particularly interesting to ask a leading fiscal hawk about the next steps in terms of tax, spending and the deficit.

As ever, audience members will also be able to put their own questions to Matthew, too.

Thanks to the generous support of our sponsor, Thorncliffe, this event will be free to view – click here to sign up for your ticket.

Mo Metcalf-Fisher: “Pubs versus schools” doesn’t need to be an either-or scenario in reopening Britain

12 Aug

Mo Metcalf-Fisher is spokesman for the Countryside Alliance.

During lockdown, the closure of pubs was catastrophic for the countryside. Pubs form part of the backbone of rural communities up and down the land. They are not just places to see off a pint; they are public houses that provide a vital community space. They act as village hubs, often being one of the few places available for local people to meet, hold events and even operate as polling stations during elections.

When the go-ahead was given by the Government to reopen pubs from July 4, the nation collectively cheered. Meeting up with friends at my local on the first evening it reopened gave me immense joy. Seeing other families and friends enjoying themselves, laughing and exchanging stories all while putting money into the till of a local business was incredibly satisfying to see again. Despite this positive development, it seems pubs now face a further challenge to their long-term existence.

Throughout the Covid crisis, the Countryside Alliance has been keeping in regular contact with publicans across our extensive network of rural businesses. While most were incredibly grateful for the financial support and flexibility of the Government during the height of lockdown, many were incredibly eager to get going again, once restrictions were lifted.

Landlords and pub owners seldom have an easy day; working long hours and continuously coming up with innovative ways to drive up new business. Irrespective of vast complications caused by Covid, there are a multitude of pre-existing factors which make keeping pubs open a challenge. Supermarkets selling multi-buy offers which are not available to pubs, for example, make it much harder for pubs to compete. It’s no secret that the number of pubs has been decreasing steadily for several decades. According to the BBPA, from 2000 to 2018, pub numbers have declined by 22 per cent.

Then there has been an effort, by the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, to push an unhelpful narrative that pubs should be the first establishments to close in order to prioritise keeping schools open. Her exact quote, was: “If the choice has to be made in a local area about whether to keep pubs or schools open, then schools must always take priority.”

Now, no one is seriously doubting the importance of children going back to school, as quickly as possible. Seeing certain teachers unions’ attempting to sabotage plans to reopen schools and playing politics with our children’s future has infuriated me to my core. However, why is the not-so subtle dig over the prioritisation of reopening being landed at the door of our hardworking publicans?

The issue I take with her remark is that she has provided little clarity as to why there needs to be an exclusive choice between the two. The reason the closure of pubs captivated so many in the nation is because of their importance both as an economic contributor; providing huge levels of employment as well trade for an array of other connected businesses like breweries and wholesalers, as well as their huge societal contribution, at heart of so many local communities.

Pubs have already invested large sums into bringing their establishments up to the strict standards of health and safety expected of them. Plastic protective screens have been set up, PPE bought, hand sanitiser stations made available and track & trace systems implemented.

It is clear publicans understand their duty to their collective communities to provide a safe and secure social space. Many of the pubs we speak to have reported that as time has gone on, footfall has gradually increased. Staff have been taken off furlough and new personnel have been hired to meet the demand.

However, that same network of pubs in villages and small towns across Britain are virtually universal in their view that if a second lockdown were introduced, requiring them to shut shop again, they would have to close for good.

The choice facing local authorities should not simply be an either-or scenario. Without pubs, our economy will take an ever greater hit and the long-term damage it will cause across local communities will be irreversible.

We are officially in a recession now and it should go without saying that if we are to even attempt to pick up the pieces when this awful pandemic ends, we need to have a functioning economy. Sniping at pubs from the sidelines and pushing to halt a trade which employs hundreds of thousands of people, will cause untold devastation. Once leaving school, children will need jobs to go to. Unless we are out in our communities earning and spending money, their future remains bleak.

Pubs need and want to continue trading safely, especially as there is no guarantee of further financial support in the event of a further lockdown. Where Covid-related incidents have popped up at pubs, swift action has followed suit.

Take for example the Crown & Anchor in Avely, Essex. Within hours of being notified that a patron had been taken ill with suspected Covid symptoms, the pub immediately notified the community and shut shop. They carried out an extensive deep clean of the premises and remained shut for 72 hours. After following the relevant guidelines, they were able to reopen and continue trading. Going forward, it seems obvious that this remains the most effective way of dealing with Covid cases, from both an economic and health & safety perspective.

Covid has obviously created great anxiety for many people and time will only tell how long it will take for the vast majority of us to go back to leading an ordinary life. But it remains clear that there is not a bottomless pit of money for the government to prop up the economy for the long term. We need sensible, practical solutions for living day to day while the virus remains. We can’t continue living in fear and we must not allow businesses, like those remaining pubs, to fall by the wayside.

Newslinks for Wednesday 12th August 2020

12 Aug

Government “rips up exam system to give pupils ‘triple lock’ on grades”

“Students were given a ‘triple lock’ on their A-level and GCSE grades last night as ministers ripped up the system in the wake of the Scottish exams fiasco. Just 36 hours before A-level results are released, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said students could now opt for the grades they got in their mock exams. It means A-level students can choose between the marks they get awarded tomorrow – which are based on teacher assessments and a computer-generated ‘standardisation’ model – or their mock results. If they are not happy with either of those, they can sit the exam in the autumn, with the Government covering the cost for schools. Mr Williamson was forced to offer the unprecedented ‘triple lock’, which will also apply to GCSE pupils, after Nicola Sturgeon performed a U-turn on Scotland’s exam results.” – Daily Mail

  • Schools to be given £30 million to pay for invigilation and any other running costs – The Times
  • Tens of thousands of pupils in Scotland to see their exam results bumped up – The Times
  • Williamson under pressure to follow Scotland’s lead and ensure all A-level pupils receive their predicted grades – Daily Telegraph

>Today:

Allison Pearson: Give the Class of 2020 the grades they deserve

“‘I’m scared for Thursday.’ The brief text from a friend that pinged on my phone in the small hours of yesterday morning needed no further explanation. Parents across the country will be experiencing the same gnawing knot in the gut, the same foreboding. My friend’s twins get their A-level results tomorrow. Both are predicted good grades and should make their university offers. But, in the present chaos, who knows? Because schools were closed unnecessarily back in March by panicking politicians, egged on by a hysterical media, Olivia and Ned, and millions of other pupils, were not allowed to prove what they could do – even though there is not a single recorded case in the world of a teacher being infected with Covid by a pupil and, let’s face it, very few activities are more socially distanced than an exam in a school hall.” – Daily Telegraph

Coronavirus 1) Lockdown obliterates jobs at the fastest rate since financial crisis

“Jobs were lost during lockdown at the fastest pace since the financial crisis a decade ago, official figures show. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) says that employment fell by 220,000 between April and June, the steepest fall since May-July 2009, when 254,000 jobs were lost. The scale of the downturn is likely to be even greater, and ONS analysis of tax data shows that between March and July the number of people on payrolls fell by almost 750,000. “We always knew that this was going to be a tough time for people,” Boris Johnson said on a visit to Herefordshire yesterday.” – The Times

  • UK officially in recession for the first time in 11 years – BBC
  • Infections rise among people of working age – The Times
  • Flu kills five times more than Covid – The Times
  • Europe’s economic winners and losers from the Covid crisis – Daily Telegraph

Coronavirus 2) Children are safe, insists Boris Johnson as study points to school virus risk

“Boris Johnson insisted yesterday that schools can return safely if there is “discipline” about Covid-secure rules as ministers attempted to distance themselves from an official study that warned of higher risks for secondary pupils. After research by Public Health England suggested that older pupils did catch Covid-19 from each other, the government said precautions already taken in schools assumed that children transmitted the virus like adults. Preliminary findings from the study in more than 100 schools contradicted blanket assurances from government that it was safe for all pupils to return next month, with unions saying that “overhyped claims only serve to undermine trust and confidence”.” – The Times

  • Obesity “raises risk of hospital admission for virus” – Daily Telegraph
  • Cases and hospitalisations rise in France as UK considers quarantine – Daily Telegraph
  • Removing Portugal from travel quarantine list would be a “gamble” say industry experts – Daily Telegraph

Coronavirus 3) Councils to pick up the bill for test-and-trace services

“Councils have been told to pay for local contact tracers themselves as health chiefs pleaded for help to put “boots on the ground” to track coronavirus cases. A third of NHS Test and Trace’s call centre staff are to be laid off and the rest deployed regionally to work with councils, in an acknowledgement that the system has not been fighting local outbreaks effectively. Council public health directors are pressing for a share of the service’s £10 billion budget to hire staff. Ministers are resisting handing over any money, saying they will offer councils extra testing and dedicated clinical call handlers but that it is up to local authorities to pay for their own staff.” – The Times

  • As health chief warns there may not be enough contact tracers to knock on doors – Daily Telegraph
  • Advisor in £150 million PPE scandal is axed – The Times

>Yesterday:

Coronavirus 4) 10 million claims for meals under Eat Out to Help Out scheme

“Diners used the chancellor’s meal deal discount 10.5 million times in the first week of the “eat out to help out” scheme as the cost of government job support rose to more than £44 billion. Under the scheme, which will last all month, businesses can claim up to £10 per person back on all food and non-alcoholic drinks sold on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The Treasury said that HM Revenue & Customs had received 10.5 million claims in its first week at an average of £5 each, bringing the cost to £50 million. The government has budgeted for £500 million but the scheme will cost less than half that, at £225 million, extrapolating from the first week.” – The Times

Sunak weighs up whether to shelve his autumn Budget

“Rishi Sunak is weighing options to shelve his autumn Budget — billed as the defining economic moment for Boris Johnson’s government — if Britain is hit by a big second wave of coronavirus. While the chancellor expects to deliver his Budget as planned, it is a sign of government anxiety over a possible autumn Covid-19 spike that he is ready to delay big public spending decisions until after the crisis. Fears over a surge in unemployment when Mr Sunak’s furlough scheme ends in October add to his concerns. The Office for National Statistics on Tuesday said Britain had shed almost three-quarters of a million jobs since the start of the lockdown, with ministers braced for many more losses in the autumn. Debenhams, the department store group, was on Tuesday just the latest of a series of employers to unveil job cuts, saying 2,500 staff would go on top of 4,000 already announced.” – FT

Johnson losing confidence of public on trade

“People are losing faith in Boris Johnson’s ability to deliver game-changing trade deals after Brexit that can create jobs and prosperity, according to internal government research. A study into public attitudes towards potential trade deals found growing scepticism about their benefits and increasing hostility to any deal that might reduce environmental and animal welfare standards. Support for a trade deal with America had fallen by 10 per cent in a year with about a third of the public concerned that it would reduce food standards and undermine the NHS. The research found that for the first time a majority no longer believed trade agreements would lead to more UK jobs — only 42 per cent believed it would do so, down from 51 per cent a year ago.” The Times

Refugees “would rather die than fail to reach Britain”

“Migrants preparing to cross the Channel in small dinghies warned today that they would throw themselves overboard if the Royal Navy tried to force them back. Families living in refugee camps said that the Channel would become a sea of bodies after Boris Johnson pledged to counter a surge in the number of boat crossings. Kamal Sadeghi, 39, a Christian convert from Iran, his wife, Niki Karimi, 33, and their daughter, Sava, who celebrates her first birthday on Sunday, have spent ten days living in a tent in woodland close to Calais central hospital.” – The Times

>Today:

Online political campaigning to become more transparent

“The UK on Wednesday outlined proposals designed to bring greater transparency to online political campaigning by requiring imprints on digital content. Civil society groups welcomed the move but said many more steps were needed to make the online political space more resistant to exploitation. Under the government’s proposals, paid and digital content promoted by political parties, registered third-party campaigners, candidates, elected officials and registered referendum campaigners, would need to show who was responsible for its production and publication. Other campaigners would only require digital imprints in cases where they had paid for promotion, in order to protect the right to free speech.” – FT

UK trade talks stall with Japan over blue cheese demands

“Talks between Tokyo and London over a new trade deal have hit a snag after Liz Truss, UK trade secretary, insisted on bringing Stilton cheese into the negotiations. Both sides came close to an agreement in London last week, but Ms Truss is holding out for a better deal for British food, with a particular focus on attempts to boost sales of blue cheese in Japan. The dispute reflects the “cars for cheese” trade talks between the EU and Japan ahead of last year’s agreement between the two economic superpowers. But while the UK is aiming to largely mirror that deal, Ms Truss is hoping a symbolic Stilton cheese “win” will show the UK is able to secure a better deal than the one obtained by the EU.” – FT

Joe Biden makes history by picking Kamala Harris as running-mate

“Joe Biden last night chose Kamala Harris, a California senator with whom he clashed during her rival presidential campaign, to be his running-mate against President Trump. Ms Harris, 55, would be the first female or black vice-president. The daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, she makes history as the first non-white woman on a presidential ticket. Mr Biden’s age — he would be 78 on inauguration day, becoming America’s oldest president — means that she instantly becomes a strong frontrunner to be the next Democratic presidential candidate.” – The Times 

News in brief:

Allowing illegal migrant boats to cross the Channel is false compassion

12 Aug

The media narrative, as so often, has portrayed the story as toughness versus tenderness. Those who are idealistic and caring are on the side of welcoming the beleaguered refugees crossing the Channel to Dover in precarious dinghies. They are cheered on by the BBC and The Guardian. Then we have those who sternly declare that the law must be upheld, our borders protected, national interest upheld. Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party leader, was ahead of the “mainstream media” in highlighting the sharp increase in the numbers coming over this summer. Thus he is a convenient stage villain.

The reality is a bit more complicated. There is an important debate to be had about how many refugees we could and should take in. Of course, this is a moral issue. But it is also a practical one. One of the arguments for ending free movement with the EU is that it should be easier to accept more refugees. It would also help ease the financial costs if the ban on asylum seekers was lifted and they could live in spare bedrooms rather than only self contained accommodation.

Some fail to back up “virtue signalling” rhetoric with action. David Cameron announced, in September 2015, the Syrian Vulnerable People’s Resettlement Scheme, with a target of 20,000. The Labour Party immediately complained it was too low – yet Labour (and Lib Dem) councils had a poor record of offering places for them.

Once we have decided how many to help, there is the question of which ones. The monitoring group Open Doors estimates 260 million Christians around the world face persecution. I would like to see us offer more of them sanctuary. Our special responsibility to Hong Kong is another priority that has been highlighted.

So far as the Syrians are concerned, should we be taking them from the overcrowded UN refugee camps – in a legal and (relatively safe) manner? Or should we just fill up the allocation by allowing those to stay who have jumped the queue and managed to make it here illegally? In the case of Syrians, for example, should we take them from the camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon? Or from Calais?

Last year it is estimated that at least 1,885 migrants died in the Mediterranean. Of course, it is impossible to know the full number. The UNHCR have put it at six a day. The greater the chance of being able to stay, the higher the numbers that will pay whatever they can to the criminal gangs of “people traffickers” and risk drowning to get to Europe.

Much the most effective method is to prevent the asylum seekers arriving in England in the first place. The Times reports:

“Ministers are considering using 42m-long Border Force cutters to stop boats from reaching Britain’s territorial waters. The French authorities would then be contacted to intercept them, with a focus on intelligence sharing.

“The government has moved away from a more aggressive Australian-style “push-back” approach, which would have involved Royal Navy and Border Force vessels intercepting boats as they left French waters.”

Critics of the proposal include Jack Straw who warns that amidst the confrontation the dinghies could capsize and its occupants drown. Then we have unnamed sources suggesting that it is impractical or disproportionate. Logistical considerations are important. If Border Force boats can do an effective job of escorting the asylum seekers back to France then I can see that might well be safer (and a lower cost to the taxpayer) than bringing in the vessels of the Royal Navy. It is also reasonable to note that the Channel is smaller that the Indian Ocean and so rather than duplicating Australian arrangements it would be sensible to have our bespoke version.

But whatever the operational details, the broad thrust of the Australian approach has been completely vindicated and it would be right for us to follow it. In 2013, Tony Abbott, the new Australian Prime Minister, ensured that illegal boats heading for his country were towed to an offshore centre. From there they were able to make a claim for asylum. But if it was rejected they could return home but not to Australia. Between 2008 to 2013 there were 877 asylum seekers who drowned en route to Australia. Since then none have.

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, says:

“The number of illegal small boat crossings is appalling. We are working to make this route unviable and arresting the criminals facilitating these crossings and making sure they are brought to justice.”

Naturally many on the Left will vilify her for taking a strong line – while most people will recognise that controlling who comes into our country is pretty basic to national security. So taking the necessary action is a patriotic duty. But it is also a moral duty. Allowing illegal crossings and rewarding those who survive them with residency is false compassion. By firmly putting a halt to the practice, Patel can save many lives and ensure that whatever sanctuary we can offer, is granted fairly to genuine cases in the greatest need.

Darren Grimes: Johnson must face down the teaching unions with Thatcher-like resolve

12 Aug

“As Conservatives, we believe absolutely in equality of opportunity – the idea that every child, in every part of the country, should have a fair chance. It is not only the most important thing we can do to unleash the UK’s potential, but is at the heart of creating a fair and just society.”

That’s page 13 of the Conservative Party’s winning manifesto last year; a manifesto that secured Boris Johnson an 80 seat majority, saw seats that had always been red change with chameleon-like ease to boast a shade of blue, banished Jeremy Corbyn to the dustbin of history and ensured we could, finally, heal the divide and Get Brexit Done.

That, my friends, will have all been for nothing if the Prime Minister does not face down the teaching unions with Margaret Thatcher-like resolve. With warnings of Covid-19 growing inequalities between our richest kids and our poorest kids, Johnson will be rejected by the aspirational working class that voted for him in large numbers, whose hard slog is made easier in large part by an understanding that they’re ensuring a better lot for their sons and daughters.

The National Education Union, in providing its half a million members with a “checklist” of 200 safety demands for the reopening of our schools, has proven itself to be more concerned with being a thorn in the side of the Conservative Party over being the guardians of children’s interests. One item on the list asks the Government to answer: “Does the timetable include sufficient creative subjects, and space for dialogue and sustained thinking?”. There can be nothing more outrageous than to play politics with the future of our kids.

While Keir Starmer stands idly by as unions attempt to wreck the future of our children, raising questions about just how tough he would be in the top job, the Prime Minister can stand strong knowing that he has the public on his side if he decides to take on the unions. YouGov found that 57 per cent of Brits agree that schools should open after the summer, with only 25 per cent believing they should not.

Evidence from the Public Health Agency of Sweden, in a document titled Covid-19 in schoolchildren: A comparison between Finland and Sweden, compares two similar countries with very different approaches to lockdown: Finland was conventional in its closure of schools, Sweden famously much bolder in its refusal to countenance such an illiberal approach to its economy and society. The report concludes that the closure of schools had no measured effect on the number of cases of Covid-19 among children: “Children are not a major risk group of the Covid-19 disease.”

In a further boost for science-based evidence, on Monday morning, Russel Viner, a member of the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and President of the Royal College of Peadiatrics told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “reopening schools is one of the least risky things we can do.” He then told Times Radio that there’s “at least five studies from around the world” that would suggest “there’s very, very little transmission of this virus in schools.”

How many times have you heard this government boast of how heavily it is following the science, they’re absolutely mad for “the science”! If that’s presently the case there will be absolutely no wiggle room for it not to return our schools to normal without a moment’s hesitation and resist following Labour in kowtowing to union pressure.

While our kids have been banished from our schools, I was delighted to learn of the Invicta Academy, that has delivered virtual lessons in English, Maths and Key-Stages 1-4 via Zoom in the likes of London, Surrey, Oxfordshire and Lancashire. The message from the entrepreneurial and community-minded founders of the project to the obstructive teaching unions is clear: if you try and delay the reopening of our schools, we will find a way to ensure our nation’s kids don’t suffer.

The problem is that it isn’t kids in Surrey or Oxfordshire that will suffer the most. According to the UCL Institute of Education, our kids on average understood 2.5 hours of schoolwork per day during lockdown. This, however, varies widely with 28 per cent of children in the South East doing more than four hours of offline schoolwork a day, compared with only nine per cent in the North East. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 31 per cent of private schools were delivering four or more hours of live online lessons a day, with state schools at a paltry six per cent.

The Prime Minister must be the champion of those who suffer disproportionately from our educational divide and disadvantage that his government’s response to Covid-19 has widened further. If, or when, it comes to future lockdowns, which would be utterly ruinous for the British economy, employment and wider society, our schools simply must keep the doors open from next month.

Tony Smith: Expanding the UK refugee resettlement scheme is one way we can improve our border security

12 Aug

Tony Smith is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

On July 3 I wrote in these pages that in order to turn the tide on migrant boats entering UK waters illegally we would need a new agreement with France, which would enable us to return the migrants safely and securely immediately whence they came.

This week immigration minister Chris Philp is seeking precisely that with his French counterpart. Meanwhile numbers have continued to rise with over 4,000 now having made the journey this year, and new intake records being broken almost every week.

As a former practitioner with over 45 years’ experience in the immigration and borders business I have been inundated with requests for media interviews. Why do they come? How do they come? How can we stop them? Why don’t we let them in? Why don’t we let more in?

In my time in the Immigration Service (and the UK Border Force, which it later became) I was criticised from both ends of the political spectrum for working in the field of immigration and border control.

Many a taxi driver said to me (hopefully in jest) that it was “all my fault” that we were overwhelmed by immigrants. Others (less so in jest) saw me as having some kind of character flaw for being so nasty to innocent people, by denying them entry or by making it hard for them to enter and stay illegally in the UK.

In my many media appearances on this topic over the past few weeks I have appeared with several commentators from across the political spectrum – some wanting complete border closures: others wanting the complete abolition of borders.

I was Director of Ports of Entry in the Blair years. In 2002 we saw a record intake of over 80,000 asylum seekers. The vast majority were coming across the English Channel on ferries, trains, or concealed in vehicles. Since then we have concluded several bilateral agreements with France to enhance immigration controls on those routes. This was a top priority for that government, just as it is for this one.

By 2005 we had reduced asylum intake to 25,000. It went lower still before creeping up again in recent years, to around 35,000 last year. Even then the Home Office never really recovered from the 2002 crisis. The Department was criticised year on year for “failing to get a grip” of the asylum backlog, despite a three-fold increase in resources and a massive spend on asylum accommodation and infrastructure across the country.

Asylum applications are notoriously difficult to assess; the easy option is to grant asylum (or at least exceptional leave to remain). Even when refused, the route to removal is a tortuous one riddled with endless appeals, judicial interventions and – even then – non-compliance with the documentation and reporting processes.

According to UNHCR there are now 79.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world at the end of 2019. 26 million are outside their country of origin in places like Turkey (1.6m) Pakistan (1.5m) Lebanon (1.15m). Hundreds of thousands are in other countries close to unstable states, such as Iran and Ethiopia.

Meanwhile despite pleas from UNHCR, the Western World has consistently reduced its contribution to refugee resettlement schemes. In 2019 countries previously renowned for a more generous approach to refugee resettlement reduced the numbers to a trickle – 21,000 in the USA, 9,000 in Canada, 3,000 in Australia. In the EU the UK took 5,774 refugees through resettlement routes – more than any other EU country.

Yet we hear of far more “generous” approaches to asylum in other countries. The fact is the number of asylum applications in mainland EU countries far exceeds their political will to accept refugees. They have no choice, because the external EU border is porous and a great many irregular migrants have managed to penetrate it. Once there, many want to choose which EU country they would like to live in. Encouraged by the borderless Schengen zone, many will drift North and lodge asylum applications in those countries they see as more attractive (eg Germany, Scandinavia, France).

Because the UK is not (and never was) in the Schengen zone the final hurdle is the English Channel, and how to penetrate that. Given enforcement measures by successive governments of all colours they have found it evermore difficult to do so – at least until they discovered this latest loophole of getting out onto the waters and getting “rescued” by a British vessel.

I have heard many commentators argue that it is lawful for asylum seekers to cross borders without papers or permission, to make their claims. In fact, the correct terminology is “irregular” rather than “illegal” migration; but it cannot be right that International Conventions can effectively trump border controls altogether as people seek new lives in other countries. Not least because this fuels international organised crime and human smuggling chains who will continue to prey on vulnerable people by exploiting “irregular” routes.

Many of those in Calais have already been refused permission to stay in an EU country; but as far as they are concerned that is only the start of the process, not the end of it. Those who argue for major UK resettlement offices in France miss the point.

First, if there is hope that by getting into France you have a greater chance of getting into the UK, then more will come to France. Hardly desirable from their point of view, given their own asylum backlogs. Second, we already know that many won’t take no for an answer; and while they remain in France, they will continue to try to penetrate the UK Border by irregular means including this one.

There is certainly a global debate to be had about legal resettlement routes. The frustration of the UNHCR and refugee lobby is palpable. By refusing to open legitimate resettlement programmes for those displaced in source and transit countries, the Western world is simply encouraging irregular migration across multiple borders.

As the transition period comes to an end and we depart the Dublin Convention, we must firstly negotiate safe third country agreements with our neighbours to stop irregular migration and asylum shopping. Anything less is clear evidence that we have lost control of our borders; something we know is unacceptable to most people living here already.

Assuming we are able to do so, the UK could then show the way for the rest of the world to encourage the proper resettlement of some of the 26 million refugees who are already displaced around the world by expanding the UK refugee resettlement scheme.

However, it would be impossible for any government to do so without first demonstrating very clearly to the public that this is “controlled” migration to people who are genuinely deserving of protection; and not “uncontrolled” or “irregular” migration to the UK, over which we have no control.

First and foremost, we must stop the boats and “take back control”. Anything less will continue to undermine public confidence in our border controls and play directly into the hands of the smugglers.

Felicity Buchan: We need new homes that are safe

12 Aug

Felicity Buchan is the MP for Kensington.

There are two things that the vast majority of people would agree with:

  • As a country, we need more homes – well built and appropriate to their surroundings;
  • We need to kickstart our economy.

A substantial programme of new housebuilding is the answer to both of those. Through apprenticeships and traineeships, we can increase job opportunities in the construction sector to drive the economic recovery, while building hugely needed new homes.

This issue – of ensuring that everyone has a safe, secure home they can afford – is personal for me. As the MP for Kensington, which includes Grenfell Tower, I am acutely aware that each person should go to sleep at night in a safe and secure home. Good housing has a profound impact on health, wellbeing, educational attainment, and economic success. The prevalence of coronavirus in communities where overcrowding is common, is another wake-up call for the need for more housing. We need to adopt a two-step approach: ensuring our existing housing stock is safe and fit for purpose, while building more housing.

I am very supportive of the Government’s overhaul of our building safety regime with the Fire Safety Bill (which had its Second Reading in April) and the draft Building Safety Bill (which was introduced to Parliament in July). If there is to be any positive legacy from the Grenfell fire, it must be that a tragedy of this kind is never allowed to happen again and that our building and fire safety regime is state of the art.

But we also need to correct the fundamental shortage of housing, in particular of affordable housing. Many people working in our vital services and many young people struggle to find an affordable home within a suitable distance from their employment, and this is certainly a significant issue in Kensington.

We have seen the Government commit to increasing the supply of affordable housing by allocating £12.2 billion for the Affordable Homes Programme for homes to be delivered from 2021/22 over the next five years. In June 2020, Government estimated this would deliver up to 180,000 new affordable homes.

We need a range of tenures in our new affordable housing, including socially rented and intermediate ownership. Clearly new housing needs to be sympathetic to its surroundings; and I would strongly recommend a focus on developing brownfield sites, with developments of a height and massing in keeping with the local area.

As we respond to coronavirus, we must focus not just on saving lives, but on saving livelihoods. Housebuilding is crucial to rebuilding a strong economy, and brings with it skills and employment opportunities. Research from the Centre for Economics and Business Research and the National Housing Federation had calculated that £4.8 billion would be added directly to the economy, and 86,000 jobs would be supported, if 90,000 affordable homes were built a year. When indirect spending is added, this rises to £11.2 billion and 200,000 jobs. Furthermore, the Government estimated in the Budget 2020 that its £12.2bn investment in affordable housing should generate an additional £38 billion in public and private investment, an enormous uplift.

Community organisations and businesses also have a role to play. In December last year, I visited a housing association scheme for young people at risk of homelessness in Kensington, run by Evolve Housing and Support. It was inspiring to see young people learning skills and receiving the support that can set them up for life.

A government-backed building programme also provides an opportunity to encourage investment in green, sustainable development. As a member of the Conservative Environment Network, I have been particularly involved in lobbying the Government for a Green economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The Green Home grant scheme is an excellent step in improving our existing housing stock; we also need to build energy efficient new affordable housing developments.

Building new affordable homes is a rare example of a “win win”: providing the safe and secure new homes people need, while fuelling the recovery of the construction sector and the economy as a whole. These homes can be a lasting positive legacy: well built, energy efficient, and sympathetic to their local areas.

Let’s combine these aims to make sure we build back better.

Robert Goodwill: Why grouse shooting matters for moorland communities

11 Aug

Robert Goodwill is MP for Scarborough and Whitby, and a former Home Office and Education Minister.

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated communities across the UK, particularly those reliant on seasonal tourism. Businesses in areas like the magnificent North Yorkshire Moors in my own constituency have been brought to their knees.  Sadly, many of the new breed of “staycationers” we are seeing are leaving little for locals apart from the litter from their picnics.

However, a new study by researchers from the University of Northampton has revealed a vital lifeline which is helping to keep some of these communities afloat, even amid the coronavirus storm. The study examines the impact of integrated moorland management practices, including those that benefit grouse, in upland communities. It finds that grouse shooting forms part of a ‘complex web’ of economic and social factors that allows some moorland communities to not only survive, but thrive in these difficult times.

The study, which is one of the largest of its kind, surveyed moorland residents around the UK and found that communities where moors were managed for grouse were far more socially vibrant and economically resilient than those which had no connection to the activity.

To those, like me, who are familiar with these communities, this comes as no surprise.

In 2010, the Moorland Association estimated that the industry was worth some £67.7 million in England and Wales. One North Yorkshire pub landlord who participated in the recent study estimated that shooting parties accounted for 30 per cent of his business between August and September, dropping slightly to 20 per cent between October and January.  This can often be the key factor that ensures the survival of the local pub as the focus of the remote community.

What makes the results of this recent study so fascinating, however, is the breadth of impact grouse shooting has been shown to have on the entire uplands economy. As well as supporting the wages of gamekeepers, beaters and publicans, estates managed for grouse shooting rely on a whole host of local contractors, sporting agents, lawyers and other workers to facilitate the sport.

One grouse moor owner estimated that only about ten per cent of the £800,000 he spends annually goes on gamekeepers’ salaries, with the rest paying for the upkeep of the moor.

Much of this upkeep is itself of massive benefit to local farmers, who work alongside grouse moor owners to conserve and protect the land. While “The Glorious Twelfth” itself is not subsidised, associated moorland management is, and the study found that moor owners regularly facilitated farmer access to government stewardship funding streams.

One farm in Barnsdale was documented to receive 22 per cent of its income from stewardship, while another received 30 per cent. By footing the upfront costs of conservation work, moor owners allow farmers to access millions of pounds in grants which are usually only paid after the work has been carried out. Under new post-EU support schemes these environmental factors will be even more vital.

The researchers from Northampton concluded that the long-term economic impact of such practices was ‘massive’, not only for local moorland communities but for the whole of the UK.

If estates were to stop integrated moorland management, the researchers forecast that these communities would become even more reliant on tourism and hospitality, the very sectors most at risk from a second peak of infection. The economic consequences of this, they surmised, would be ‘severe’.

Our uplands are also a vital resource in the fight against the other epidemic we face. We are the most obese nation in Europe and this not only leads to many health complications but is a major factor in Covid-19 mortality.

Moorland communities benefit from increased access to well-managed outdoor space, with 89 per cent of survey respondents regularly exercising on the moors. 69 per cent engaged in the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, compared to a national average of 66 per cent for men and 58 per cent for women. By maintaining tracks and clearing areas of bracken, grouse moor managers contribute to this culture of fitness amongst moorland communities.

These communities also benefit from strong social links and a deep-rooted sense of identity. 83 per cent of those surveyed felt they ‘belonged’ to their communities, with shooting playing a strong part in this sense of identity. 74 per cent of respondents were involved in shooting in some way and over 90 per cent of them identified a connection to family heritage and rural identity as a reason for participating in the sport.

Additionally, the researchers found what they considered to be a surprising level of community participation in moorland areas, with at least 51 per cent of survey respondents participating in some type of social activity such as a church choir or pub quiz team. They attributed this community spirit to the presence of gamekeepers and their young families in the villages, as well as the intergenerational mixing facilitated by shooting itself.

These kinds of social links are incredibly important to both mental and physical well-being and represent huge financial savings to our heroic NHS. A sense of belonging is also absolutely crucial during the present pandemic when many of us feel cut off from the world and from our loved ones. As with its economic impact, the social roots of integrated moorland management run deep and provide a lifeline to many communities that would otherwise be struggling even more.

Covid-19 has prompted many of us to reconsider certain aspects of modern life we once thought indispensable. From home-working to stay-cations, the pandemic has highlighted how adaptable we as a society are to change and how unfit for purpose many of our usual habits and routines are under the ‘new-normal’. Yet in following the science, we find that some of our older, more traditional ways of doing things can help us to keep weathering the present storm.

For upland communities, moorland management that incorporates grouse shooting allows for a richer, more diversified stream of revenue and a more fulfilling social life that benefits even those who have never picked up a gun. As we reconsider life in a post-Covid world, it is important that we preserve those activities which keep businesses afloat and draw communities like these closer together.