Maria Miller: Death and rape threats, abuse, revenge porn. It’s time for Government to get tough with the social media giants.

28 Feb

Maria Miller is a former Culture Secretary, and is MP for Basingstoke.

I want 2021 to be the year that we finally grasp the nettle of online abuse – to create a safer, more respectful online environment, that will lead to a kinder politics too.

The need has never been greater. Abuse, bullying, and harassment on social media platforms is ruining lives, undermining our democracy, and splintering society.

As an MP, I have had to become accustomed to a regular bombardment of online verbal abuse, rape, and even death threats. In this I am far from alone. Female colleagues across the House are routinely targeted online with abusive, sexist, threatening comments. As Amnesty has shown, black female MPs are most likely to be subjected to unacceptable and even unlawful abuse.

And while women and people from an ethnic minority background are more likely than most to receive abuse online, they are not alone. Hate-filled trolls and disruptive spammers consider anyone with a social media presence to be fair game: one in four people have experienced some kind of abuse online and online bullying and harassment has been linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

While the personal impact of online abuse is intolerable, we must not underestimate the societal effect it is having. Research by the think-tank Compassion in Politics found that 27 per cent of people are put off posting on social media because of retributive abuse. We cannot have an open, honest, and pluralist political debate online in an atmosphere in which people are scared to speak up.

Which is why I am working cross-party with MPs and Peers to ensure that the upcoming Online Harms Bill is as effective as possible in tackling the scourge of online abuse.

First, the Bill must deal with the problem of anonymous social media accounts. Anonymous accounts generate the majority of the abuse and misinformation spread online and while people should have an option to act incognito on social media, the harm these accounts cause must be addressed.

I support a twin-track system: giving social media users the opportunity to create a “verified” account by supplying a piece of personal identification and the ability to filter out “unverified” accounts. This would give choice to verified users while continuing to offer protection to those, for example whistle blowers, who want to access social media anonymously.

The public back this idea. Polling by Opinium for Compassion in Politics reveals that 81 per cent of social media users would be willing to provide a piece of personal identification (passport, driving license or bank statement most probably) to gain a verified account. Three in four (72 per cent) believe that social media companies need to have a more interventionist role to wipe out the abuse on their platforms.

Of course, this approach would need to be coupled with enforcement ,and I believe that can be achieved by introducing a duty of care on social media companies, along the lines suggested in the Government’s White Paper.

For too long, they have escaped liability for the harm they cause by citing legal loopholes, arguing they are platforms for content not producers or publishers. The legal environment that has facilitated social media companies’ growth is not fit for purpose – it must change to better reflect their previously unimaginable reach and influence. Any company that sells a good to a customer already has to abide by health and safety standards, and there is no reason to exempt social media companies. Any failure by those companies to undertake effective measures to limit the impact of toxic accounts should result in legal sanctions.

Alongside a duty of care, we need more effective laws to give individuals protection, particularly when it comes to posting of images online without consent. Deepfake, revenge pornography and up-skirting are hideous inventions of the online world. I want new laws to make it a crime to post or threaten to post an intimate image without consent, and for victims to be offered the same anonymity as others subjected to a sexual offence, so we stop needing the law to play continuous ‘catch up’ as new forms of online abuse emerge.

Finally, the Government should make good on its promise to invest an independent organisation with the power and resources to regulate social media companies in the UK. All the signs suggest that Ofcom will be asked to undertake that role and I can see no problem with that proposal as long asthe company is given truly wide-ranging and independent powers, and personnel with the knowledge to tackle the social media giants.

In making these recommendations to Government, my intention is not to punish social media companies or to stifle online debate. Far from it. I want a more respectful, representative, and reasonable discourse online. So, let’s work together over the coming 12 months to make this Bill genuinely world-leading in the protection it will create for social media users, in the inclusivity it will foster, and respect it will engender.

Dehenna Davison: Levelling up means nobody should be forced to leave their home town

27 Feb

Dehenna Davison is MP for Bishop Auckland.

The past year has been tough. Nobody can deny that. The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on us all; affecting society’s health – both physically and mentally – and hitting our economy hard.

We mustn’t underestimate the economic hit Covid-19 has delivered, a hit which has shone a light on many of the economic and social divisions that already existed in our society.

With the Chancellor saying in November that our economic emergency has only just begun, we must now look at how we can ensure we use the recovery in the most effective way to level up our country.

Levelling up is at the heart of what I came into politics to do. When I talk about levelling up, I’m talking about ensuring that whether you’re born in Bishop Auckland or Beaconsfield, Birkenhead or Bath, you have access to the same opportunities.

Right now, we see young people being pushed out of towns to cities like Newcastle, or down south to London, to chase those very opportunities. The Centre for Cities report, The Great British Brain Drain, has shown housing and transport infrastructure are the main barriers to young graduates returning to, or staying in, their hometowns.

Whilst the report focuses on graduates, it’s important to highlight the role inward local investment plays in creating those high-skilled job opportunities for non-graduates, such as through apprenticeships. We need to do more to prove to young people that there are other ways to get a high-skilled job than just moving away for university.

With the Government’s recent announcement on the Green Industrial Revolution, creating 250,000 jobs, we have a real opportunity to create those high-skilled, high-paying jobs in areas like County Durham.

We don’t have to look far to see what investment can do in helping to level up. Just look across to Tees Valley to see the great work Ben Houchen is doing as Mayor. With the South Tees Development Corporation, Tees Valley has been able to secure inward investment and redevelopment, ensuring a strong base for local job creation.

If you’re a young person in 2020, we know it’s tough to get on the housing ladder. Average house prices are more than four times higher now than in the 1990s, but the same has certainly not been the case for average earnings. We need to ensure that young people do not feel frozen out of the housing market. Schemes such as Help To Buy have been lifelines for many, but in many cases, the supply of good quality, affordable housing is also an issue.

The Government’s proposed planning reforms will have a great impact on house building, helping to ensure a generation of young people are able to access the same opportunities of home ownership that their parents had.

However, what is also highlighted in research on why people tend to move towards more urban areas is that it’s not just for a job, but for the overall living experience. People want to live in areas that are attractive, and where there are fun and engaging things to do. For example, in Bishop Auckland, I often receive complaints about the fact that the town doesn’t have a cinema.

But I have a plan. People want vibrant town centres, with a buzz of both day and night life, and good places to socialise. In this sense, investment in public realm works and cultural and leisure assets is crucial. The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has stressed the idea of building well-connected communities in towns, where homes are blended with shops and civic buildings to create a real sense of place and community.

The Government is providing the tools for this, with £3.6 billion being invested through the Towns Fund alone. Bishop Auckland is benefiting from this scheme, adding to the cultural investment from The Auckland Project, together hoping to radically reshape the town centre to make it a more attractive place to live and work.

Strong public transport networks are also crucial. It’s all very well creating high-skilled jobs, but if people in certain areas can’t physically get to them, then the full benefit of levelling up efforts will always be limited. We are lucky to be living in a fast-moving technological age, so we need to be exploring options, like on-demand bus services, to provide transport routes in the most efficient and convenient way for consumers.

However, with Covid-19 accelerating workplaces’ adaptations towards working from home, this creates huge opportunities for areas that those working for firms based in major cities may not have ordinarily considered living in. Towns like Bishop Auckland could begin to market ourselves as ‘digital commuter towns’. Why shouldn’t we aim to attract those in highly-paid roles working for Manchester or London firms who are predominantly home-working? Why shouldn’t we aim to have more money being put into our local economy?

Yes, Covid-19 has presented many challenges, but it has also presented opportunities. As we focus on a recovery that aids levelling up, we need to look at ensuring that young people have multiple reasons to want to stay in their hometowns. That they’re able to aim for local, high-paid jobs, or opportunities from further afield that the digital age makes possible. That they’re able to settle down in the streets they grew up in, and they enjoy spending their free time where they live.

This is how we will truly deliver on the mission to level up.

This is part of Bright Blue’s essay series, Centre Write.

Alexander Stafford: A freeport in South Yorkshire will prove our commitment to the Blue Wall

27 Feb

Alexander Stafford is MP for Rother Valley.

As the first Conservative Member of Parliament ever to be elected to serve Rother Valley in its 101-year history, repaying the trust of my constituents and ensuring this Conservative Government works for them has been my mission from day one.

Here in the Blue Wall – and let’s call it that now – the key Conservative priority of levelling up has to become a reality if we are to hold seats like mine in 2024. It’s that simple.

Whether I’m here or 160 miles away in Parliament, my constituents must see how the opportunities and potential we all enjoy – as the world’s fifth largest economy – mean real economic rewards for everyone right across the United Kingdom. Global Britain can’t just be an idea, it must be a reality accepted and embraced in every home in the Blue Wall and right across the country.

Last week, I joined some of my Blue Wall colleagues in writing to our fellow Yorkshire MP, Rishi Sunak, asking him to consider our bid for a freeport in South Yorkshire.  This simple but effective idea of a tax and customs-free economic zone has been supported by the Chancellor for years, and we share his vision on the potential of freeports to transform our economy.  It would have direct and clear benefits for places such as Maltby in my constituency.  That’s why we are determined to see South Yorkshire chosen as one of the ten new freeports in the coming months.

Our plan – backed by a large number of businesses, community and political leaders – is for a freeport in an area around Doncaster Sheffield Airport and the nearby iPort rail terminal.  Our driving purpose is to support and grow our advanced manufacturing base, creating new opportunities, increasing employment and contributing to the levelling up that South Yorkshire needs and deserves.

The figures are stark, and exciting: our freeport could boost imports by £306 million and exports by £410 million, transforming the Sheffield city region into a net exporter of goods by the end of the decade.

And, most importantly to my constituents, 28,700 new jobs could be created – well-paid ones in advanced manufacturing, too, with wages around 19 per cent higher than average. Unlocking or accelerating over £570 million of investment is within our grasp should the freeport be granted. Imagine what a huge difference that would make in an area that for too long has been an afterthought to those in Westminster.

A freeport in South Yorkshire could even become the largest advanced manufacturing hub in Europe. It could boost clean mobility too, building and testing cleaner, more energy efficient and renewable technologies, contributing to achieving Net Zero by 2050.

International businesses have long made their home in the area – names such as Sheffield Forgemasters, Liberty Steel, Hird Group, Boeing, McLaren Automotive, Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Siemens can see the potential of South Yorkshire, and I know our bid will make that even clearer.  More globally-recognised names will be drawn to the benefits of the freeport, further boosting the potential of the region and bringing investment to build back better, now and far into the future.

On Wednesday Sunak will give the most closely-watched Budget in a generation. The unprecedented fallout from the pandemic, and the brave and necessary amelioration measures the Chancellor has implemented, cannot continue forever. Furlough and the vast array of other support businesses across the UK have received from the taxpayer have quite literally put food on the table for millions. But, of course, at some point we will have to begin to pay back the billions we borrowed in 2020. .

As the hugely effective vaccines programme administered by our NHS and volunteers allows us to emerge from the restrictions caused by the pandemic, the pressure will be on the Chancellor to plot a way out of the economic challenges we currently face. I agree strongly with him that the development of freeports will help to crank up the economic engine needed to drive our economy forward. It is important that, as we emerge from this global pandemic, the Government makes the decisions required to get our national finances under control whilst also ensuring families are supported and businesses can flourish once more. Freeports are one tool that the Chancellor has in his economic toolbox to help us do this, and I look forward to hearing what else he has to say when he addresses the House of Commons next week.

By establishing freeports, businesses and investments that would have gone elsewhere will be drawn to the UK, creating jobs and boosting confidence. By establishing them across the country, I know we can tackle deprivation, raise living standards, scale up manufacturing, and reconnect our constituents with the good that business does.

As the Prime Minister has often reminded us, votes from the Blue Wall are often only lent votes. Let’s use freeports to repay that trust our voters have placed in the Conservative Party in 2019 and give them yet another reason to vote for us again in 2024.

Newslinks for Saturday 27th February 2021

27 Feb

Salmond denounces Sturgeon: ‘Scotland’s leadership has failed’

“Downing Street has been urged to intervene in the escalating Salmond-Sturgeon feud as the former Scottish First Minister accused his successor of leadership “failure”. Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, told The Telegraph that the Cabinet Office should investigate whether Scottish civil servants broke the code of conduct in their handling of complaints against Alex Salmond. On Friday, Mr Salmond used an extraordinary six-hour evidence session to detail claims that there was a conspiracy against him involving his one-time protege Nicola Sturgeon. She denies the allegation. Appearing before a Scottish parliamentary committee, Mr Salmond took aim at the top of the Scottish political establishment with the cameras rolling, saying: “Scotland hasn’t failed, its leadership has failed.”” – Daily Telegraph

  • Successor is unfit to lead Scotland, ex-First Minister tells inquiry – The Times
  • He says she flouted ministerial code over handling of harassment claims – Daily Mail
  • Salmond’s evidence: His key claims – Daily Telegraph


  • BBC accused of giving Sturgeon ‘free rein’ to attack political rivals – Daily Express
  • First Minister could be gone in weeks, says Scottish Tory leader – Daily Telegraph

>Yesterday: Video: WATCH: Salmond’s evidence to the Holyrood inquiry in full

Johnson ‘eyes move for Gove’, who he ‘needs but does not trust’

“Suggestions that Gove was being cut adrift were amplified by Johnson’s decision to appoint Frost’s number two in Brexit negotiations to lead a unit in Downing Street charged with drawing up a strategy to see off the Scottish National Party threat and protect the Union. Rumours circulated in the ever feverish Downing Street hothouse that Oliver Lewis’s appointment was designed to denude Gove’s influence in another key area of his brief: managing the relationship with the devolved administrations. To take one job away could be seen as carelessness on the part of the prime minister; to undermine a second seemed deliberate. Yet nearly two weeks on a more complex picture emerges. Johnson, it seemed, had not deliberately set out to marginalise Gove and was slightly horrified that it had been perceived that way.” – The Times

  • Symonds ‘tried to sack’ a Whitehall official who refused to sign off a bill – Daily Mail

DUP Minister halts work on post-Brexit checkpoints ‘in defiance of EU’

“Construction work on controversial post-Brexit checkpoints in Northern Ireland has been halted in defiance of Brussels, in a clear signal of rising frustration with rules governing the transport of goods to and from the British mainland. Agricultural Minister Gordon Lyons has been warmly praised by former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib, a staunch critic of the Northern Ireland Protocol, for recognising that, where the bloc was concerned, actions spoke louder than words. Mr Lyons, a member of the DUP, today confirmed that he had pulled the plug on work to build permanent inspection facilities for post-Brexit checks on agri-food goods arriving from Great Britain. He has also stopped further recruitment of inspection staff for the port facilities and ordered an end to charges levied at the ports on traders bringing goods from GB into Northern Ireland.” – Daily Express

>Yesterday: Hussein Kassim in Think Tanks: Britain faces limited opportunites to diverge from the EU after Brexit

Charles Moore: Unionists cannot escape their share of the blame for this Scottish ‘fish fight’

“The broad situation is the fault of Unionists too, however. Their attitude to devolutionists has mostly been “Let them have what they want”. Their idea of “them” in relation to Scotland lazily equates the SNP with the Scottish people. When complaints grow louder, more money and powers are shoved the Scottish government’s way. There has been little consecutive thinking about how best Union and devolved authorities can cooperate, politically or administratively. Whitehall’s links are weak. “Better together” was the good slogan for the “No” campaign in the 2014 referendum, but that thought is not much put into practice. It is noticeable that ministers like praising the Union, but also that they do so as a substitute for action rather than a prelude to it.” – Daily Telegraph

  • SNP feud reveals the lack of accountability in UK politics – Henry Mance, FT

>Yesterday: ToryDiary: The red white and blue archipelago: how localism can sustain the Union.

First-time buyers get boost for new loans in Budget

“Tens of thousands of young people will get their first step on the housing ladder under a mortgage guarantee scheme due to be announced in the budget next week. Buyers will be able to obtain a mortgage with a deposit of only 5 per cent of the value of a property under the plan to turn “generation rent” into “generation buy”. The Treasury will guarantee part of the loan to encourage banks to offer riskier mortgages on properties worth up to £600,000. Banks stopped offering 95 per cent loan-to-value mortgages at the onset of the pandemic last year. Some 90 per cent loan-to-value mortgages are back on the market, but there are strict eligibility criteria and availability is limited.” – The Times

  • Sunak warns of bill to be paid to tackle UK’s ‘exposed’ finances – FT
  • Chancellor will announce a huge expansion of workplace training – Daily Express
  • Bosses will get £3,000 for every new apprentice they take on – The Sun
  • Most Tory voters support an increase in corporation tax – Daily Telegraph
  • State-backed Covid insurance may be lined up for festivals – The Times
  • Sunak will launch £100million taskforce to catch the Covid fraudsters – Daily Mail

>Today: David Gauke’s column: My Budget advice to the Chancellor. Raise income tax, not corporation tax.

>Yesterday: Ben Houchen in Comment: The Budget. On Wednesday, Sunak must hear the voice of the North – and kickstart a new era of job creation.

Johnson hints North is set for major rail boost

“Boris Johnson hinted the north is set for a major infrastructure boost to railroad the nation to build back from the pandemic. The PM, speaking to railway chiefs yesterday, outlined plans to speed up major projects saying he wants the Department for Transport (DfT) and Network Rail ‘to halve the time and slash the cost’ of projects. He said: “We know that it is by infrastructure, innovation and skills, we will spread opportunity around the country. “We know the good efficient mass transit systems are the great social and economic levers and bringers of hope. It’s thanks to your efforts that post-coved, post-Brexit Britain will be propelled by a new generation of electric or even hydrogen trains whizzing down the ringing grooves of change as I think [the poet] Tennyson puts it. Reopening Beeching lines, renewing the very musculoskeletal system of the country.”” – The Sun

  • Prime Minister ‘promised gambling review after a party with lottery boss’ – The Times

>Today: ToryDiary: Will the Government meet its commitment to end rough sleeping during this Parliament?

Compulsory jabs for care staff ‘supported by Buckland’

“A senior cabinet minister has backed “no jab, no job” proposals from care homes as figures showed nearly one in three staff have not been vaccinated. Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, said there was an “obvious rationale” for social care groups to introduce the policy in light of fears about vaccine hesitancy among care home workers. Only 6 per cent of residents are yet to have received a jab. There are signs of particularly low uptake among carers in London, where 45 per cent of staff have not yet been vaccinated. Almost half of domiciliary care workers who look after people in their homes have not received the vaccine either. All carers have been offered a vaccine.” – The Times

  • Johnson is keen to ban firms from having a ‘no jabs, no jobs’ policy – The Sun
  • Unions criticise UK’s age-based vaccine approach – The Guardian
  • Workers will be flocking back to their offices ‘in a few short months’, predicts Johnson – Daily Mail


  • If we don’t reform social care now, when will we? – Damian Green MP and Jeremy Hunt MP, Daily Telegraph

>Yesterday: William Prescott in International: Australia is starting to reach the limits of what its coronavirus strategy can do

Facebook warned UK ‘won’t shy away’ from cracking down

“Furious ministers warned Facebook they “won’t shy away” from cracking down on the tech giant in the wake of their Australian newsfeed ban. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said “nothing is off the table” – including billion pound fines – after he vowed to raise the “tech titans'” behaviour at this summer’s G7. The social media giant was blasted for blocking news content in Australia after they introduced a law forcing tech giants to pay for news content on their platforms. Yesterday, Mr Dowden spoke with former Deputy PM Nick Clegg who now works for Facebook to warn them over their behaviour… He also revealed he is planning to use the G7 Carbis Bay, Cornwall in June to address competition concerns in digital markets.” – The Sun

Begum cannot return to UK for citizenship battle, Supreme Court rules

“A woman who left the UK to join Isis in Syria on Friday lost her legal battle to return to contest the removal of her citizenship when the Supreme Court ruled against her in three related legal cases. The ruling overturns a decision by the Court of Appeal in July last year that would have allowed Shamima Begum to return to the UK from the Syrian refugee camp where she is living. It is a victory for home secretary Priti Patel whose department revoked Begum’s British citizenship and has fought strenuously to prevent the “jihadi bride” returning to the UK, saying she is a national security risk. Begum, now 21, left her home in east London in 2015 with two school friends for what she called the “good life” in Syria under Isis control.” – FT

  • Britain risks creating new Guantánamo in Syria, says rights group – The Guardian

News in Brief:

  • Salmond’s hairsplitting on devolution sounds almost Conservative – Henry Hill, The Spectator
  • European Research Group demand NI Protocol is scrapped – David Scullion, The Critic
  • BBC Alba’s hagiographical documentary on the late Charles Kennedy – Iain Dale, Reaction
  • Ulster court case spotlights the need to take back control of judicial appointments – Henry Hill, CapX

Will the Government meet its commitment to end rough sleeping during this Parliament?

27 Feb

We had a gleam in our eye when we talked to the Centre for Social Justice about a recent series for this site.  It was about five giants of our time, equivalents of William Beveridge’s wartime ones, first brought up to date by Iain Duncan Smith (the Centre’s co-founder).

Beveridge’s were Want, Squalor, Idleness, Ignorance and Disease.  Those for our series were worklessness, educational underachievement, mental health, homelessness, serious personal debt and, since we extended the series into a sixth day, domestic abuse.

Homelessness and rough sleeping are not the same, but the second usually comes from the first, and is at the heart of it.  The glint in our eye was that, of all these ravaging experiences, rough sleeping was the least hard to eliminate over the course of a Parliament.

If Boris Johnson didn’t agree, the last Conservative Manifesto would have fought shy of pledging to “end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament”.

How is the Government doing?  Earlier this week, it was able to announce that rough sleeping figures at a six year low, having fallen by 43 per cent since 2018, with 2,688 people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2020, compared to 4,677 in 2018.

£750 million will be spent over the next year to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, including what the Housing, Communities and Local Government Departments says is “the largest ever investment in longer-term move on accommodation, with 6,000 new homes pledged by the end of this Parliament”.

Undoubtedly, a major contributor to that fall has been the Government’s “Everyone In” programme launched at the start of the pandemic, which made creative use of empty rooms in closed hotels and hostels.

But readers will see that the drop began back in 2018, two years before the arrival of Covid-19, and it continued at the same pace after Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019.  What was happening?

As so often, there are a mass of contributors to the answer – such as the Government’s Next Steps Accommodation Programme, with its support for local councils and their partners in the voluntary sector, other state agencies and civil society.

One, however, stands out – which brings us back to the CSJ and also to, among others, four Conservatives.  The first is Brooks Newmark, who chaired a CSJ working group that produced, three years ago, a report called Housing First.

Housing First, in Brooks’ words, “provides wrap-around support for some of the most vulnerable long-term rough sleepers, many of whom have complex needs including mental health and addiction issues. Critically, Housing First does not place conditions upon participants.”

Here is a Government estimate of detail behind the claim: it’s latest estimate is that 53 per cent of participants of Everyone In who had slept rough were ex-prisoners, 60 per cent had substance misuse needs and 82 per cent had mental health support needs.

In short, any government could provide a Potemkin solution to rough sleeping, were it ruthless enough, by forcing rough sleepers off the streets and incarcerating them in squalid conditions – while making no attempt to address what drove them to sleep rough in the first place.

And since there are exactly as many stories about how people came to sleep rough as there are people who actually do so – and since no two people are the same – every rough sleeper needs personal care that will not only get him off the streets, but keep him off too.

That means housing first, as the scheme says, plus care that will at least reduce his substance abuse; or provide mental health support, and perhaps get and keep the person in work.

The second Tory in our tale is Sajid Javid, who took a keen interest in reducing rough sleeping when he was Communities Secretary, and helped persuade the Treasury to to fund three big Housing First pilots in Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands.

Writing recently on this site in the wake of a further CSJ report, Close to Home, Javid argued that Housing First should “be scaled up from 2,000 to 16,500 places to become a flagship policy for people whose homelessness is compounded by multiple disadvantage”.

Which takes us to the third Conservative – Bob Blackman, who with Neil Coyle, a Labour MP, chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ending Homelessness.

Blackman, who steered a Homelessness Reduction Act through Parliament two years ago, was recently charged with Coyle and the group to undertake a review of Housing First.

It is, he declared late last November, “the cornerstone of successful homelessness strategies worldwide. It must be properly funded and rolled out across the UK”.

Which takes us to the last of our four Tories.  Unlike the others, even Javid, he actually leads for the Government on reducing homelessness and rough sleeping, and so has responsibility for what happens next: Robert Jenrick.

The Housing Secretary knows very well that despite the stupendous spending, recent progress and success – under drastic conditions – of “Everyone In”, winter is coming, as they say in Game of Thrones – metaphorically, if not literally.

“There is already evidence that some who benefitted from the ‘Everyone-In’ programme are already returning to the streets and rough sleeping,” Brooks wrote recently, looking ahead to what we all hope will be the end of the pandemic.

“Many of these individuals fit the profile for needing Housing First support. As the furlough scheme unwinds and the ‘Everyone-In’ support scheme ends, there is a risk the trickle of individuals returning to the streets escalates throughout 2021.”

The CSJ recommended in Housing First that the programme be scaled up to £110 million a year over the course of a Parliament: that’s the best part of half a billion pounds over the course of a Parliament.

The Government’s £750 million for next year is the best part of a fifth of that figure, though of course it will be spread out over several schemes and to different bodies.  Half a billion pounds from the Treasury would be a challenging ask.

Jenrick will seek to deliver the manifesto commitment and arm-wrestle the Treasury to the floor.  But that gleam in our eye was dimmed, a few months ago, when we mulled an obstacle to delivering it.

And there will always be a queue – since the supply of housing is necessarily limited. Then there is welfare eligibility. The voluntary sector wants a temporary suspension of both the no recourse to public funds conditions for 12 months, and a suspension of the habitual residence test.

According to Government’s figures, that we quoted then 26 per cent of rough sleepers in 2019 were non-UK nationals, with a further ten per cent being of unknown national origin.

The voluntary sector wants a temporary suspension of both the no recourse to public funds conditions for 12 months, and a suspension of the habitual residence test, in order to help get them off the streets.

It’s unlikely that such changes would go down well with the focus groups, even given a lasting shift in public attitudes to welfare in the wake of Covid.  Downing Street will be alert to the point.

We can see no reason why that percentage of rough sleepers, just over a quarter, should alter much once life and travel return to near the old normal.  Perhaps the Government can end rough sleeping without changing those conditions – and honour its commitment.  But it seems a big ask.

David Gauke: My Budget advice to the Chancellor. Raise income tax, not corporation tax.

27 Feb

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

If there is one tax that the Chancellor is likely to increase when he stands up to deliver his Budget on Wednesday, it is corporation tax. Speculation that the corporation tax rate is going to rise has been running for months and if the Treasury wanted to dispel such speculation it could have done so. In contrast to George Osborne’s time as Chancellor – when reductions from 28 per cent to 17 per cent were announced – Rishi Sunak is expected to announce a Corporation Tax rate in the region of 23 to 25 per cent.

Is this a good idea? My view – as the Minister of Tax throughout the Osborne Chancellorship – is that it is not. But it is worth examining the arguments for and against such an approach.

The first argument that will be made is that we might not need tax rises at all. I wish that this was true but sadly this is unrealistic. It is true to say that we can live with higher levels of debt than was the case in the past. Interest rates are low and likely to remain so. Even if they increase, the long dated maturity of our debt gives us a chance to respond. The markets are happy to lend to us, the risk of a sovereign debt crisis is remote. The Covid crisis is the type of event in which governments should be willing to borrow and the consequences can and should be dealt with over a long period of time. In short, we needn’t be in a hurry to pay off the Covid-19 debt.

Even accepting all of this – that ‘this time is different’ – there is still an issue. Even after we are put the economic consequences of Covid-19 behind us, the OBR forecasts a deficit of £100 billion or 4 per cent of GDP. Our debt to GDP ratio would continue growing. Given these forecasts assume tight control over public spending that will be hard to deliver and the significant demographic challenges that face the country in the 2030s, some kind of fiscal tightening in the form of tax rises will be necessary eventually.

The second argument is that now is not the time. I would agree that now is not the time for a fiscal tightening. The economy is currently shrinking and unemployment is likely to increase substantially in the months ahead. The markets are not jittery so there is less of a pressing need to take action. Nonetheless, the Government could increase some taxes without engaging in a fiscal tightening if long term tax increases are accompanied by short term tax cuts or spending rises. So one can announce and even implement tax rises without engaging in an immediate fiscal tightening.

There is also a political issue. Delaying action on fiscal consolidation might make economic sense but it would push tax increases into the last years of a Parliament. Leave it a year or so and the Chancellor might find that his Parliamentary colleagues – not least the Right Honourable Member for the marginal seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip – might become rather resistant. Now might be the last chance to take action.

The third unconvincing argument is that cutting corporation tax has not cost us any money and increasing it will not raise you any money. Look at how corporation tax revenues have increased since 2010, the argument goes. Sadly, life is more complicated than that. Yes, rates have fallen and revenue has increased but corporation tax receipts reflects where we are on the economic cycle (in 2010, businesses were not making much by way of profits and if they were they had big losses to offset). Furthermore, the post-2010 reforms were Lawsonian in their approach in broadening the base at the same time as lowering the rate (so these were not simply cuts). In addition, lower corporation tax rates have unintended behavioural changes in that more people pay themselves through companies (diverting tax revenues from income tax and national insurance contributions). To put it another way, increasing corporation tax rates really will bring in more revenue.

So, to summarise, it will be necessary to increase tax revenue, it is reasonable to make a careful start on that process now (albeit in a way that does not tighten fiscal policy in the short term) and that increasing the corporation tax rate will bring in additional revenue. I could also add that, of all the potential revenue-raisers, this is likely to be politically less painful than other options. Even businesses will not squeal much because, for many of them, making a profit appears to be a remote eventuality and paying more tax on those profits would be a relatively nice problem to have.

It would still be a bad idea.

Why? If we are going to raise more in taxes – and we are already at historically high levels – we need to have a debate about which taxes are least damaging to economic growth. Over the long term, corporation tax ranks as being one of the worst.

Corporation tax is a tax on profits. Profits are the return on investment; the higher the tax on profits, the lower the rate of return. All other things being equal, the lower the rate of return on investment, the less investment you get.

There is also a tendency to think that corporation tax is something that is paid by, well, corporations. At one level that is true but – to state the bleeding obvious – all taxes are paid by people in the end. Corporation tax is ultimately paid by shareholders in lower dividends, consumers in higher prices and employees in lower wages. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that in an open economy like the UK, it is the workers who lose out the most. Investment goes elsewhere, productivity does not increase as quickly as it would otherwise do and, in the end, wages and salaries reflect productivity.

It is no coincidence that, in the era of globalisation, corporation tax rates have fallen around the world. I spent much of my time as a Treasury minister trying to persuade international businesses to locate more investment and activity in the UK as a consequence of the competitiveness of our corporate tax system. We were starting to see success but there was always a question as to whether the UK was truly committed to corporation tax competitiveness in the way that, say, the Republic of Ireland was. Given the current speculation, it was a fair question. On top of Brexit, a sharp hike in corporation tax rates will be yet another blow to our international reputation as a place in which to do business.

If we need more tax revenue – and we do – we have to make use of our big, broad-based revenue raisers – income tax, national insurance contributions and VAT. The manifesto pledge made in 2019 not to increase the rates of these taxes was unwise at the time but it was made in good faith. However, much has happened since and the Government would be justified in recognising that. Attempting to fill the fiscal black hole by swingeing increases in corporation tax will reduce business investment and damage our international competitiveness. Not for the first time, the politically expedient choice will come with a painful economic cost.

William Prescott: Australia is starting to reach the limits of what its coronavirus strategy can do

26 Feb

Originally from Adelaide, Australia, Will Prescott recently completed a PhD thesis on interwar Conservative Party history at the University of Oxford.

It is fair to say that the UK hasn’t had the best Covid-19 response among developed countries. Its infection and death rates, though not dramatically worse than much of Europe, are still awful by global standards. Now in its third lockdown, and even with infections falling, it is still not entirely certain when Britain will return to normal.

In contrast to the UK’s ongoing woes, Australia’s response is often upheld as a role model: a country that has all but eliminated the virus, and whose population leads an almost restriction-free life.

There is no doubt that Australia has had a better crisis than the mother country. At the time of writing, Australia’s Covid death rate was just 35 per million. If the country had Britain’s death rate of 1,767 per million, its death toll would be over 45,000, as opposed to its current 909.

Economically, while Britain suffered its worst contraction in 300 years, Australia’s GDP has substantially rebounded. Life is almost, though not completely, normal. In my home city of Adelaide, I can do things unimaginable in the UK, like enjoying a pint or going out to lunch. I can see friends whenever and wherever I want, and mask wearing is rare.

Part of the reason for this success is that, unlike the UK, Australia went hard on the virus, and went early. Borders closed in March 2020, nearly a year ago now, before it became firmly established Australia. In Britain, by contrast, the virus had spiralled out of control before any serious border curbs were introduced.

Despite its successes, however, the Australian approach is unsustainable in the long term.

Shutting yourself off from the world isn’t cheap. Tourism, though propped up by domestic travel to an extent, is in a far weaker state than in February 2020. Higher education, dependent on full fee-paying international students, has lost most of this once-lucrative revenue stream. Migration, a significant driver of Australian economic growth, is now at record lows.

While the economy appears strong, it is being propped up by government stimulus, which cannot last forever. Hardly surprisingly, the Government is now talking about reopening borders once the population has been vaccinated.

Border closures also come at a real human cost. Caps on arrivals, necessary given the limits on the hotel quarantine system, and the prohibitive cost of flights mean that tens of thousands remain stuck overseas. Some are in dire straits. The Government’s treatment of stranded Australians is beyond disgraceful. Beyond sympathetic Facebook posts, leaking email addresses, offering loans for the truly desperate, and a pitifully small number of repatriation flights, Australia has all but abandoned its citizens to their fate.

Dan Andrews, Victorian Premier, even suggested that Australians be barred from returning at all unless they have compassionate grounds for doing so. I only made it onto my economy-class flight because my mother was terminally ill, and my airline was reasonable. You should not need a terminally ill relative to enter your own country.

Perhaps even more importantly, international border closures do not, as claimed, break the cycle of lockdowns. In their more honest moments, ‘Zero Covid’ supporters admit this. Since flying back to Australia in mid-October, there have been lockdowns in AdelaideBrisbanePerth, and Melbourne. Ongoing lockdowns are inevitable given that it seems impossible to stop leaks from quarantine hotels. Lockdowns are essential if the goal is to keep infections at zero. While the duration and effects of these three to five-day lockdowns are trivial compared to the UK ones, they are still disruptive.

Even though life feels normal, the situation is precarious. It was only through sheer luck that that the South Australian outbreak was caught early, and there is no guarantee that contact tracing efforts will always succeed in identifying every new case.

Travel within Australia remains difficult as states frequently close their borders to each other to prevent infections spreading across the country. Exploiting his state’s longstanding separatist tendencies, Western Australia’s Premier closed his people off from the rest of the country for 222 days last year. Border changes mid-flight are not unheard of. Australia has not been this physically split since federation in 1901. For the many Australians whose families are divided between states, this means prolonged separation, Christmases missed, funerals delayed, and weddings postponed.

I make no attempt to deny Australia’s success in controlling the virus, nor do I suggest that Australia erred in its early border closures. But I am saying that these restrictions can only be short term, and only to buy time for vaccines to be rolled out or new treatments to be discovered. In the long term, the economic and human cost is too high is too high a price to pay for a very fragile normality. Ultimately, unless it remains isolated forever, Australia will have to learn to live with the virus just like everyone else.

Hussein Kassim: Britain faces limited opportunites to diverge from the EU after Brexit

26 Feb

Hussein Kassim is senior fellow at UK in a Changing Europe, and Professor of Politics, School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies at The University of East Anglia.

Although 31 December 2020 had long been set as the end of the transition period, the UK was not ready for the transfer of responsibility from the EU. Moreover, further change is likely.

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement may have enabled the two sides to avoid the disruption of no deal, but it also leaves substantial unfinished business.

Looking further ahead, it is unclear that the UK will have much latitude to use the regulatory autonomy that it secured through its pursuit of sovereignty to diverge from existing policy. It faces constraints imposed by the deal itself, but also others that derive from international conventions, international law, and other sources.

These are the conclusions of the report, UK Regulation after Brexit, released today by a team of policy specialists and produced by ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’, the Centre for Competition Policy, and Brexit & Environment.

Is the UK ready?

On 1 January 2021, following the expiry of the transition period, the UK assumed responsibility for regulation from the EU. Rule-making and regulatory tasks that had been performed by EU bodies on behalf of the member states across the full range and breadth of public policy returned to the UK.

In addition, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement imposed its own regulatory requirements relating to the border with the EU that the UK’s withdrawal has created. In some cases, such as aviation, competition policy, and consumer protection, the Government decided to enlarge the responsibilities of existing agencies. In other areas, including the environment, it established completely new bodies.

A cross-sectoral overview reveals important gaps in the governance of key areas. In environment, for example, as a result of the delay in passing legislation, the new Office for Environmental Protection is not yet in place. Indeed, it may not be fully operational before the end of the year. Other elements including policy instruments and infrastructure are also missing. Although the UK has left the EU Emissions Trading System, the UK version remains in development. Elsewhere, the Goods Vehicle Movement System (GVMS), which will allow operators to file paperwork to secure advance approval to cross the EU border, is still under development.

In a number of policy areas, stakeholders have expressed reservations about the design of British regulators and whether they are suitable equipped. As well as staffing and budget, concern has been raised as to whether UK bodies have the appropriate powers, especially in enforcement. Because EU agencies are backed by EU law and the European Commission and Court of Justice of the European Union, they are able to ensure effective compliance, including on the part of governments. It remains unclear in some areas whether UK regulators will have the same clout or enjoy the same independence.

They are also worries about how, or indeed whether, British bodies will be able to compensate for the effects of losing access to EU resources. This applies to EU agencies, such as the European Environment Authority, which is an invaluable source of information for policy making, from which the UK has withdrawn, as well as networks, such as the European Competition Network, which shares data and expertise that the UK Competition and Markets Authority used to pursue antitrust issues with a transnational element.

Similarly, it is unclear how policy instruments, such as the European Arrest Warrant, used by the UK to find, arrest and extradite11,300 people in the ten years up to 2019, or the European Criminal Records Information System, which is an important tool for cooperation on crime, can be replaced. The fact that the Schengen Information System (SIS II), used by UK police forces more than 500 million times each year, and Europol databases are no longer available to British authorities, is a particular concern.

Duplication is a further issue. In aviation, the UK Civil Aviation Authority will perform many of the same licensing, certification and approval functions that are carried out by the European Air Safety Agency. Costs will not only be borne by the UK taxpayer. Pilots and flight crew, airline companies, manufacturers, training organisations and others wanting to operate in both the UK and the EU will need to submit to the same accreditation processes in both jurisdictions.

In chemicals, companies will have to register with both UK and EU authorities at an estimated cost to the industry of £1 billion. Duplication is not only expensive, it creates uncertainty and over time may lead firms to choose to make a decision to be active in one market rather than both.

Unfinished business following the deal

The process of regulatory adjustment is also patchy and incomplete for reasons related to the scope and provisions of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Defence and foreign policy, for example, are not included in the deal, but it seems likely that the two sides will want to cooperate in the future.

In some sectors, such as equivalence in financial services, a decision on the EU’s part is pending, leading to some anxiety and uncertainty over the fate of the City of London. In others – for example, consumer protection – agreement still needs to be reached between the EU and the UK.

In others still, transitional arrangements introduced to smooth the transfer from EU to UK regulation will require action the part of the Government or stakeholders when they expire. British exporters to the EU, for example, are currently permitted to self-certify their compliance with rules of origin, but this possibility has only been extended by the EU for a fixed period. Importantly, the Agreement links a review on energy cooperation to fishing. More broadly, the entire deal will be reviewed every five years.

Moreover, there is unfinished business on the UK side. Key policy decisions have yet to be taken in a number of areas. Quota allocation across the UK fishing fleet, for example, has yet to be decided, and is like to raise tensions between the four home nations. Decisions are also awaited on how SafeSeaNet, CleanSeaNet and THETIS, instruments for the sharing maritime safety, security and environmental information, are to be replaced.

What prospects for divergence in the long term?

The UK has ceased to be an EU member state, but there is a question mark about whether policy divergence is a real possibility in the longer term.

Despite the new impediments to trade, the EU remains the UK’s largest trading partner. There is a clear asymmetry in the size of the respective economies, and the EU is aware of its bargaining strength in international trade agreements. Both the asymmetry and the EU’s experience are reflected in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, where the single market is strongly safeguarded, and non-regression clauses, the possibility of cross-retaliation, and the single governance framework limit the possibilities for British divergence.

But the Agreement is not the only constraint on the UK. In many sectors, obligations are imposed by international treaties and international law. Pragmatic considerations also need to be taken into account. In areas where the EU is a global standard setter, for example, departure from EU norms would place UK producers at a competitive disadvantage.

Moreover, business itself may be wary of too much change. As David Bailey notes in the report: ‘While the UK government highlights possible regulatory divergence as a benefit of Brexit, at the moment industry sees it solely as a cost given that it has invested heavily in complying with the current framework’.

Looking forward

The report shows that, despite the changes in British regulation, the UK was not prepared to assume responsibilities from the EU, and that there are important gaps in governance. The difficulties that have been experienced so far are not teething problems, but reflect a structure change. Moreover, the process of adjustment is far from complete.

Yet, in many sectors, the prospects for policy divergence, which was central to the UK government’s pursuit of sovereignty, are limited, and not only due to the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

Miles Beale: The UK wine industry can be a post-Brexit success story for Global Britain

26 Feb

With over a decade campaigning for fairer alcohol taxation, Miles Beale is CEO of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association – and spokesman for Wine Drinkers UK. This is a sponsored post by Wine Drinkers UK.

Stop somebody in the street (social distancing guidelines permitting) and ask them to name one of the UK’s top exports, and they might say cars, the British music industry or pharmaceuticals.

You may have to wait a while until you find somebody who says wine, despite the fact that total UK wine exports were worth almost £650 million a year prior to Covid-19.

Combine this fact with the knowledge that Britain is the second-largest importer of wine by both volume (after Germany) and value (after USA) , and you begin to understand the UK’s place at the centre of the international wine industry.

Wine trading with the EU has become more bureaucratic and costly since 1 January, but with the UK now fully outside the EU, the Government has an opportunity – some might say an obligation – to roll back protectionism inherited from EU membership. The Government’s appetite for swift action will determine the future success of the sector and could unlock the opportunities for growth that exist around the world, making the Government’s vision of ‘Global Britain’ a reality.

Today, the UK is already a global centre of wine trading (including in fine wines), wine knowledge (hosting the biggest global provider of wine education), and home to one of the most diverse and democratised wine markets. It’s little wonder that wine is the nation’s favourite alcoholic drink and provides 130,000 jobs.

And there’s a huge opportunity for future growth. As the Department for International Trade acknowledged in marking English Wine Week in 2019, by 2040 the industry is predicted to be producing 40 million bottles a year, equating to a retail value of £1 billion. Exports of English wine could reach £350 million over the same time frame.

The Trade and Co-operation Agreement reached on Christmas Eve – including the annex on wine trading – was welcome. It ensured wine tariffs were not introduced and new red tape delayed until 1 July. However, with more than 50 per cent of wines on the UK market coming from the EU, the new arrangements for wine trading are more complex and becoming increasingly expensive. If left unaddressed the initial hit to the UK’s thriving, SME-packed wine industry, its global hub status, and its domestic market will never be recouped.

So what is the solution? In short, it lies in harnessing the UK’s post-Brexit trade policy – including striking deals with wine producing nations such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States – to maintain and enhance our global wine status. These free trade deals provide a golden opportunity to remove wine tariffs and, in parallel, to scrap protectionist EU non-tariff barriers such as the costly VI-1 certification requirement.

Arguably, given the relative weight of NTBs and their disproportionate and adverse impact on SMEs, a wine certification requirement should be dropped immediately – they are protectionist and serve no purpose.

Alongside bi-lateral trade agreements and in addition to the UK’s excellent decision to re-join the global wine standards body (the OIV), the UK should also act to boost its role in the global wine trade by signing-up to the World Wine Trade Group. The group already includes some of the world’s largest wine producers, such as Argentina, Australia, Chile, and the United States and provides the best route to achieving mutual recognition of wine making practices – which would support the global wine trading and in turn the UK’s ambitions.

And where some of these actions may take time, it doesn’t mean the Government can’t take supportive action domestically in the meantime. An ideal first step is using the forthcoming Budget to deliver a cut in wine duty for the first time since Nigel Lawson (whose picture hangs on the wall of Rishi Sunak’s Treasury office) was Chancellor in 1984.

With British drinkers paying fully 68 per cent of all wine duties collected across the EU27 and the UK prior to the pandemic, wine the most popular alcoholic drink in the UK, and wine sales essential to the recovery of the hospitality industry, cutting wine duty would be a ‘win-win-win’ for businesses and consumers – and also the taxpayer, with cuts and freezes proven to increase revenue to the Exchequer. As the UK looks to recover from Covid-19, a duty cut would offer a welcome down-payment on securing the UK’s global wine hub status and potential, not least through helping our wine exports bounce back after having more than halved during the pandemic.

The opportunity for future growth in the British wine sector is there for the taking. With swift action on tax and trade, the Government can first secure and then build on the UK’s global hub status that the industry currently enjoys. But it’s a time-limited opportunity to realise Global Britain’s ambitions in our sector. It’s now up to the Government to seize it.