As youth unemployment grows, can Sunak come to the rescue (again)?

15 Sep

Another day, another onslaught of depressing news for the UK – this time around the unemployment rate. The latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the rate has grown to 4.1 per cent in the three months to July compared to 3.9 per cent before

While some analysts have pointed out that this is low by historic and international standards, Rishi Sunak will no doubt be having sleepless nights wondering what happens when the Government’s furlough scheme comes to a close; how much worse will the current figures get?

Moreover, Conservatives as a whole need to think critically about how to help young people, who have been worst affected by the economic turmoil. The ONS data showed that people aged 16 to 24 suffered the biggest drop in employment, a trend that has been consistent throughout this crisis, and others; in 2008, it was today’s millennials taking the brunt – hence why the “youth vote” has been so low (and will become more of an election stumbling block for the Tories as this demographic heads towards the 40s and 50s age bracket without home ownership, and the rest).

So what does Sunak do about all this? (Incidentally, he has not stipulated his next budget date, with rumours it could be in January). The first thing to say is that he has already released some enormous measures to support young people. These include a £2 billion “Kickstart Scheme”, whereby the government will pay for employers “to create new 6-month job placements for young people who are currently on Universal Credit” – in the hope that this can create hundreds thousands of new jobs.

The Government is also giving businesses £2,000 for each new apprentice hired under the age of 25, a £111 million investment to triple traineeships in 2020-21 and £17 million funding for sector-based work academy placements, among other measures. 

These are all steps in the right direction; for years it has been said that the UK is too focused on university degrees, while the economy demands more technical/ practical skills. The tech sector, particularly, is growing and needs young people to fill the gap. Perhaps it is the case that Sunak will expand these sorts of training schemes even further.

What many want to know is whether the Chancellor will extend furloughing, but he has repeatedly ruled this out, saying: “Indefinitely keeping people out of work is not the answer.” Given that the scheme has already cost the taxpayer an estimated £60 billion, one suspects many quietly want it to come to an end. Besides, it’ll be young people picking up the eventual bill – however much of a support it appears right now.

While ruling out further furloughing, Sunak did promise, however, that “we will be creative in order to find ways of effectively helping people.” He has certainly proven himself to be imaginative, winning hearts and stomachs with the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, so the question is what this next phase of creativity could look like.

One suggestion that has been made for the UK is that it adopts a model similar to that in Germany, to stave off huge job losses. Germany uses something called the Kurzarbeit job subsidy, which the country has had since the early 20th century, and is estimated to have saved around half a million jobs in the financial crisis. 

Whereas the UK’s furloughing scheme meant businesses asked their employees to stay home for months on end, Kurzarbeit invited them back to work – albeit on reduced hours. Using the scheme, German businesses can take employees on for the time they need, and the government then pays workers a percentage (around 60 to 80 per cent) of any lost hours.

The key advantage of the scheme is its flexibility – as it allows companies to respond to fluctuations in their business; they can reduce workers’ hours if they have a loss of trade, for instance, and up again for vice versa. It is also far less expensive than furlough, costing around 33.5 billion so far – with plans for it to be extended until the end of 2021.

France, too, has something similar to the German system, called “partial unemployment” or “partial activity”. Using this scheme, businesses can cut their employees’ hours by up to 40 per cent for up to three years, but they will still receive nearly all of their standard salary – which the government pays a percentage of.

While Sunak has offered a “jobs retention bonus” to get employers to bring staff back from furlough – whereby they received £1,000 for every staff member retained – it may be the case that the flexibility afforded by the German and French systems is what can help businesses feel more confident about hiring again.

There will be other radical proposals put forward as to how to tackle the issue, focussing on how to further incentivise employers to take on the young, whether that’s targetted changes to their National Insurance contributions, or something more inventive.

Another thing to add is that non-employment related measures can greatly help young people feel more secure in their lives. Things as basic as reducing council tax or travel would certainly improve matters for a generation of renters.

And lastly I would write that much of helping young people cannot be done with a budget. It ultimately relies on the Government – and society – realising that repeatedly opening and closing the economy means that this demographic will take the brunt; it requires us to have more difficult conversations about what price we will pay for knee-jerk responses to rising cases. As today’s data shows, the economic consequences are harsh indeed.

Sam Hall: Extinction Rebellion is completely wrong in its approach to climate change

15 Sep

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network

As a Conservative environmentalist, I believe passionately in the need for stronger action on climate change. I initially regarded Extinction Rebellion as wrong, but well-meaning. I’ve now come to the conclusion they are not only wrong, but actively harmful to the cause they claim to champion.

During their first action in 2019, I was sympathetic to the urgency with which XR demanded action on climate change, and the importance they attached to the issue. I shared, to some extent, their frustration that it wasn’t given the prominence in political debates that its seriousness merits. And I admired their skill in triggering a national conversation on climate change.

However I now believe Extinction Rebellion have gone badly off course with their use of polarising tactics, and that their approach to fighting climate change is completely wrong.

It has become apparent, for example, that they predominantly direct their protests against people and organisations on the right of British politics. Boris Johnson, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Telegraph are some of their recent targets. But to address climate change effectively over multiple political cycles, we need the support of all political traditions – particularly Conservatives.

We need messages and messengers that will appeal to those groups among whom support for climate policies is lowest, not attacks on the political leaders and institutions they trust. We need to celebrate when once-sceptical Conservatives put forward good climate policies, not criticise their lack of purity.

Another problem is their uninspiring message of despair. Remember XR founder Roger Hallam’s claim that climate change will see billions of deaths, or children at school today will not survive to adulthood?

Of course, unmitigated climate change is incredibly dangerous, but fighting it requires us to be hopeful. We must believe that, if we act, we can succeed in stopping the most severe impacts. We shouldn’t dwell on apocalypse, but rather focus on solutions that create jobs and bring new industries to Britain, while making our towns and cities more prosperous, greener, and healthier places to live.

We also have to bring people with us. Yet by letting an all-powerful assembly, made up of a tiny unelected minority, decide our pathway to net zero, XR is attempting to short-circuit the democratic process.

We do need comprehensive public engagement on climate change, and there is certainly a useful role for assemblies in developing policy. But decisions should be taken by elected politicians that the voters can hold accountable and kick out of office if they choose.

Vital public consent for climate action would quickly be shredded by the pace of change they are demanding. Net zero by 2025 would be eye-wateringly expensive, and cause huge economic dislocation. Instead, we need a transition that is as quick as possible, but which gives people time to adjust, and companies the opportunity to invest for net zero as part of the normal business cycle.

Disagreeing with this 2025 target doesn’t mean you aren’t worried about climate change. Far from it. Environmental ambition should not – although frequently is – measured by the earliness of a target date or the scale of government spending. Truly ambitious policies must also be feasible, costed, and command the support of the public.

Nor is it about being ‘anti-science’. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the world must reach net zero emissions by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change agrees that a 2050 net zero target meets our obligations under the Paris Agreement.

While I would be delighted if technological innovation meant we could reach net zero before 2050, it is the case that our 2050 net zero target has a much sounder basis in science than XR’s 2025 deadline.

Nor should we excuse their extreme actions as creating political space for moderate proposals on tackling climate change. For one thing, that is not what most XR campaigners are aiming to achieve. They do not accept compromise.

More broadly, the media and parliamentary debate around Extinction Rebellion is increasingly focused on policing and human rights issues. Note that the statement on XR in Parliament last week was given by the policing minister, not the climate change minister.

Even the climate discussion they provoke is unhelpful. In the media, sceptics of climate science who opportunistically elide XR with mainstream environmentalism, are pitched against left-wing climate activists. XR’s demands and tactics are inimical to a reasoned, evidence-based debate on climate.

But enough negativity. Here is my alternative approach. We need a credible, deliverable and affordable plan to reach net zero by 2050. One that creates millions of well-paid green jobs across the country, that revitalises our towns and cities with the clean industries of the future, and that harnesses the genius of our scientists and the creativity of our entrepreneurs. One that gives consumers freedom to choose between attractive and compelling solutions, and where private-sector competition and government support make them affordable for all.

We need to create the frameworks for businesses to invest in clean technologies, including an appropriate balance of fiscal incentives, regulation, and market signals. And the government needs to make it easier for people to make greener choices in their daily lives, to gain skills to work in clean industries, and to participate in community efforts to improve their local environment.

We have so much more to do to get on track to, and reach, net zero. We need major programmes to upgrade homes, restore nature, and build out renewable energy. We need to deploy new technologies such as green hydrogen, carbon capture storage, and heat pumps, and bring down their costs. In sectors like aviation and shipping, we need to develop and commercialise technologies that are still in their research phase. And we need to do all of this while bringing the public with us and keeping the UK economy competitive.

We have a great prize within our grasp – a clean, reindustrialised Britain, and nature restored to our beautiful landscapes – but we should be clear that achieving it will be hard work.

XR is making that vision even harder to achieve by alienating the public. I fear they are coarsening and toxifying our public discourse on climate change, and fuelling the extremes. For the sake of the climate, I hope they change course.

James Frayne: Do voters care about breaking international law, and if so, how much?

15 Sep

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

How much of an electoral risk is the Government taking by threatening to break international law? There hasn’t, to my knowledge, been much published polling on the issue and I haven’t seen any qual either. I’m not sure how revealing any opinion research would be at this point, anyway. Not only is the issue highly complex, but the Government hasn’t communicated a settled position on its intentions – and, in turn, the issue has not been played out properly in the media or in Parliament.

The public have only seen complex snippets. It’s therefore extremely unlikely the Government’s threat to break international law will have had much of an impact on public opinion at all so far. This isn’t to say the issue isn’t important or won’t have an impact in time. But it’s much more useful to consider how opinion might change and what might change it. How might we anticipate this change? Six questions come to mind.

Will this just split down Leave-Remain lines? As we know from the 2019 election, most people are bored to death by never-ending negotiations to leave. As we also know, almost everything on the Brexit process splits down Leave-Remain lines. There’s almost no crossover, where Leavers take the side of Remainers on an issue and vice versa. The well has been poisoned; you just have to take the occasional peek at Twitter and see otherwise normal people spewing bile at each other over Brexit.

ConservativeHome has taken an unusual position here: it’s associated with Leave but has encouraged MPs to vote against the Government. How common will ConservativeHome’s position be? This is the crucial question. Until significant numbers of Leavers (particularly Conservative Leavers) come out and join ConservativeHome, it seems most likely that Leavers will tacitly back the Government. Public opinion would shift if more Leavers follow the Editor’s advice.

Will this just look like Brexit chaos? The entire Brexit negotiation process has been a massive fiasco. From the morning after the referendum, government on this has been a shambles. One of the reasons so many people wanted to ‘get Brexit done’ was because they wanted the chaos to go away. I wonder therefore whether many will just write this off as being just another cock-up. Government opponents will need to explain why this is a special case. At present, they haven’t yet been able to do this effectively, although the arrival of more senior Conservative politicians into the fray might change things somewhat.

Can the public ever be made to care about international law? International law is complex, of course. But my sense is that it can’t be simplified in the way those hostile to the Government’s threat are seeking to do. People like Blair and Major are talking about how Britain’s moral standing will be adversely affected and so on. While a reasonable point, there are two reasons this won’t work.

Firstly, because, Brexit partisans aside, and rightly or wrongly, most people still consider Britain to be a moral actor in the world; this alone won’t undermine that. Secondly, more importantly, because many believe other countries break international law all the time. That said, opinion would surely change if and when the public are confronted with the prospect of another country unilaterally changing a treaty they had agreed with us. (It’s also worth adding the straight reality that Tony Blair is hardly the best advocate for international law.)

What is the reputation of the law more generally? My very strong sense is that the English public have also lost respect for ‘the law’ more generally. They believe  the law no longer reflects natural justice and, that word again, fairness. Respect for the law has been slowly eroding for many years now, but it has been eroding very quickly in recent years. Increasingly, people have not only heard stories about pathetically weak sentencing, but they’ve also heard, in their eyes, perfectly reasonable Government policy decisions being unpicked by the courts.

The Establishment Left has claimed this shift in opinion amounts to a swing against an independent judiciary and the beginnings of a march towards a more political legal system. It’s nothing so thought-through; rather, people think the law no longer reflects right and wrong and therefore the accusation levelled at Britain – as being a law breaker – simply doesn’t have the same power that it once might have done

What do the public think about the EU’s behaviour during negotiations? It would be an exaggeration to say the mass of the public have followed Brexit negotiations closely. But, to the extent they have, my sense is that they think the EU has behaved with hostility towards Britain.

Varadkar, Barnier and Juncker seemed to revel in Britain’s difficulties during negotiations. The pro-EU British media liked to praise these politicians for this, on the basis they were teaching about the reality of its new position. But it was always going to be pointlessly destructive because it stored up English resentment that, when the time came, the Government would be able to tap into – as it now might well do.

Will the public cut slack to the Government over Northern Ireland? It’s important to consider the merits of the Government’s stated case – or, rather, what the public will think of these merits.

At one level, the Government has a very strong argument: it’s perfectly reasonable to argue Northern Ireland, as much part of the UK as England, should not be treated differently. The problem, of course, is that the Government initially said it should be treated differently and that it had secured a winning agreement.

Will the public rally behind Northern Ireland if the Government makes a case that the agreement is having unintended consequences, or will they think Northern Ireland isn’t worth the bother? There’s no question that unionist sentiment has faded in recent times; not because of a surge in English nationalism, but because of a sense that Scotland, particularly, wants to go its own way. The UK doesn’t seem the country it did even 10 years ago. Will English Leavers think the Government should therefore dig in in the way it seems to be planning?

What does all this mean? My sense is that, on current trajectory, the Government’s opponents will not be able to make this an issue the public care about (Covid obviously towers above everything at the moment) in time. The only way this will change is if Conservative Leavers are mobilised en masse – and if perceived historical allies start to question this behaviour too, mostly from the US, but also Canada and Australia. As it stands, it’s mostly been anti-Brexit voices who have made the running on this issue, which, as I note above, makes it look like just another day in BrexitLand.

Newslinks for Tuesday 15th September 2020

15 Sep

Brexit bill 1) Javid leads Tory attacks on Brexit law change

“Boris Johnson saw off a threat to his political authority last night after former cabinet ministers attempted a parliamentary revolt against him. Senior Tories, led by the ex-chancellor Sajid Javid, defied a three-line whip and abstained on legislation that would give ministers the power to override parts of the EU withdrawal agreement. In the end the government comfortably won the vote by a majority of 77 with the support of the DUP. Among Tories who abstained was Mr Javid, along with two former attorney-generals, Geoffrey Cox and Jeremy Wright. Two former Northern Ireland secretaries, Karen Bradley and Julian Smith, also failed to vote, as did the chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, Tobias Ellwood.” – The Times

  • Tory revolt grows over plans to amend the Brexit divorce deal – Daily Telegraph
  • Johnson failed to sway Tory rebels over Brexit Bill ‘safety net’ – Daily Telegraph
  • Internal market bill passes by 77 votes amid Tory party tension – The Guardian
  • Rebellion over contentious Brexit bill – FT
  • Bid to override Brexit divorce deal passes first hurdle – Daily Mail
  • Controversial Brexit bill passes first Commons test – The Sun

Brexit bill 2) As Johnson tells rebellious Tories, Brussels put a gun on the table

“Boris Johnson accused Brussels of putting a “revolver on the table” last night as he fought to quell a rebellion from the government benches against a bill that ministers have admitted breaks international law. The prime minister said the EU was “threatening to carve tariff borders across our own country” and that the UK Internal Market Bill, which seeks to override aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol, was to “neutralise that threat”. The protocol, which the government agreed to last year, kicks in in the event of a no-deal Brexit to prevent a hard border in Ireland. The bill, which Mr Johnson is trying to fast-track this week, seeks to alter aspects of that agreement “notwithstanding” domestic or international law.” – The Times

  • PM wants a deal and threat is just a tactic, says Ireland – The Times
  • EU can resolve Brexit row to prevent no deal, says Irish foreign minister – Daily Telegraph
  • Rebel alliance: the Tory politicians opposing new Brexit bill – The Guardian
  • Could Boris Johnson’s tactics break the impasse over a deal? – Daily Mail

Brexit bill 3) Hague: Breaching international law would leave Britain perilously exposed

“It will not have been easy for Geoffrey Cox, a Conservative MP and strong supporter of Brexit, to say that he could not back the proposals in the Internal Market Bill that the Government admits will breach international law. By all accounts he had protracted discussions with Downing Street before coming to his view that “it is unconscionable that this country, justly famous for its regard for the rule of law around the world, should act in such a way”. He spoke with the experience and authority of a former attorney general. I have the different perspective of a former foreign secretary. But I come to the same conclusion.” – Daily Telegraph

Minister says call police if your neighbours break rule of six

“A minister has urged people to report their neighbours to the police if they see them violating the government’s new “rule of six” coronavirus restriction. Any social gathering of more than six is against the law and people could be fined up to £3,200 if they do not abide by the measure, which applies inside and out and came into force yesterday. Yesterday Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, said that concerned neighbours should report violations to the police’s non-emergency number, 101. He said that the government was looking at other routes because of concerns about the volume of work for the police. “We are in discussions about what reporting mechanisms there might be, but there is obviously the non-emergency number that people can ring and report issues they wish to,” he told Today on BBC Radio 4.” – The Times

  • Brits urged by minister to snitch on neighbours – The Sun
  • Crisis in NHS hospitals with health workers unable to access Covid-19 tests – Daily Telegraph
  • Backlog of nearly 200,000 tests in government labs – FT
  • Virus tests run out as labs struggle with demand – The Times
  • Schools ‘will grind to a halt’ unless Covid testing improves – The Guardian
  • Shortage of tests in 10 worst-hit hotspots – The Guardian
  • UK faces looming alcohol addiction crisis – Daily Mail
  • The 17 local authority areas where cases are not rising – Daily Mail

Replace furlough and stop firms ‘firing and rehiring’, Starmer to tell PM

“The Labour leader will accuse the prime minister of failing to get the basics of coronavirus testing right or formulate a plan for care homes over the summer and of attempting to “re-open old wounds over Brexit”. Addressing Johnson directly in a speech delivered virtually to the TUC Congress, he will say: “Get your priorities right. Get on with defeating this virus.” Under the coronavirus job retention scheme, which will end on 31 October, workers placed on leave have received 80% of their pay, up to a maximum of £2,500 a month. Johnson has refused to extend the scheme, saying it would only keep people “in suspended animation”.” – The Guardian


And finally, Vine attacks book’s lurid claims of sex and booze in Cameron clique

“The diaries of the wife of a former Conservative minister have reignited tensions at the heart of the close-knit clique that surrounded David Cameron in his years as Tory leader. Extracts from The Secret Diary of an MP’s Wife, a memoir by Sasha Swire, the wife of Sir Hugo Swire, which is serialised in The Times this week, have portrayed Mr Cameron, his wife, Samantha, and the former chancellor George Osborne in their most intimate moments, prompting criticism from Sarah Vine, the wife of Michael Gove. Writing in the Daily Mail yesterday, Vine accused Lady Swire, the daughter of the former defence secretary Sir John Nott, of an “innate self-confidence and complete inability to self-censor” and described the book as “calculating” and “disturbing”.” – The Times

News in Brief

The changes that Cox wants from the Government to the UK Internal Market Bill

15 Sep

ConservativeHome understands that the former Attorney-General, who expressed his reservations about the Bill yesterday in the Times, will support it were the Government to make five concessions.

These are concentrated on a guarantee to the Commons that the Government will not trigger the safeguarding measures save in the following circumstances.

  • A manifest breach by the EU of its duties with regard to good faith, best endeavours or both in the execution of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
  • If the arbitration panel set up under the terms of the Agreement rules that this has taken place.
  • Where pending a decision by the panel “it is urgent and necessary to take temporary and proportionate measures to the protect the fundamental interests of the UK”.
  • Under the safeguarding provisions of the Agreement itself (which both the UK and the EU are entitled to use).
  • After the Commons has voted to approve the implementation of the measures by passing a statutory instrument in the form of the affirmative resolution procedure.

In our view, two points arise from putting this list of proposals alongside the Bill as it stands.

  • First, the Government and most of its critics are now not that far apart.  Very few, if any, believe that no UK government should ever be in the position where it can be accused of breaking international law.  Most, like Cox, think that if necessary Ministers must sometimes take action that will lay them open to that charge (as in his third point above).  But they’re opposed to this Government declaring that the safeguarding measures would definitely break international law if applied when it’s not clear that these would.
  • Second, Boris Johnson appears to have conceded Cox’s last point by saying that “if the powers were ever needed, Ministers would return to this House with a statutory instrument on which a vote…would be held”.  That is consistent with the affirmative resolution procedure being used, as Cox wants.  However, a vote on a statutory instrument would only give the Commons the opportunity to bar the application of the measures retrospectively – not in advance.

So the Government is presently holding its line on not conceding such a vote.  But the safeguarding measures won’t be debated until next week.  And new compromise proposals or / and last-minute offers, sometimes made from the despatch box, have a way of emerging when controversial parts of Bills are being considered.

More broadly, the Government is distancing itself from Brandon Lewis’ claim in the Commons last week that the measures would breach international law if applied.  Though it has not disowned Lewis’ statement, Johnson suggested yesterday that the EU isn’t negotiating in good faith.

If so, that would make the legal position on any triggering of the safeguarding measures more complex.  But we repeat: they may never be implemented, since they won’t be in the event of these negotiations concluding with a deal, which is still possible – and arguably more likely than otherwise.

– – –

Playbook today lists 30 Conservative MPs who didn’t vote. The usual warning about absentions not necessarily being deliberate applies to the list below.  (So for example, Theresa May is abroad.)

  • Stuart Andrew
  • Crispin Blunt
  • Karen Bradley
  • Graham Brady
  • Rehman Chishti
  • Christopher Chope
  • Geoffrey Cox
  • Jackie Doyle-Price
  • Tobias Ellwood
  • Liam Fox
  • George Freeman
  • Richard Graham
  • Stephen Hammond
  • Oliver Heald
  • James Heappey
  • Damian Hinds
  • Simon Hoare
  • Sajid Javid
  • Edward Leigh
  • Jack Lopresti
  • Tim Loughton
  • Theresa May
  • Bob Neill
  • Owen Paterson
  • Julian Smith
  • Ben Spencer
  • John Stevenson
  • Gary Streeter
  • Charles Walker
  • Jeremy Wright

Gale and Percy oppose the UK Internal Market Bill’s Second Reading. Thirty-six Tory MPs don’t vote.

15 Sep

Only two Conservative votes against the Bill yesterday evening – Roger Gale and Andrew Percy.

A paltry number was to be expected, since most of those who oppose the safeguarding provisions, which the Government claims would break international law if applied, support the rest of the Bill.

Their aim therefore will be to amend those provisions during the committee stage of the Bill.

If they don’t succeed then, on paper, the Government would be close to losing Third Reading – were all those Tory MPs who didn’t back the Bill yesterday, plus all those who didn’t vote, then to oppose the Bill.

In practice, this almost certainly won’t happen, for three reasons.

First, not all those who didn’t vote will have abstained deliberately.  Some will have been ill, a few abroad, and so on.

Second, not all of those who did abstain deliberately will oppose the Bill at Third Reading if the amendments that they support fail.  Some will abstain, and some will end up supporting the Government, after all.

Finally, it appears from the Prime Minister’s speech during the debate yesterday that the main demand of the critics has been conceded in principle.

This is because suggested that all MPs will have the chance to debate and vote on the safeguarding provisions if they are ever brought into effect.  For further details, see our ToryDiary this morning.

Ben Bradley: I will not be undertaking unconscious bias training – and call on my colleagues to take the same stand

15 Sep

Ben Bradley is MP for Mansfield.

The evidence is growing that many of our institutions are dominated by a metropolitan “groupthink” that is intolerant to any diversity of views, whether it’s the BBC, the British Library or even government departments. The latest such evidence is the further rollout of unconscious bias training here in the Commons.

This particular idea, that we all need to be re-educated and taught to suppress our innate urge to be awful to each other all the time, is costing the taxpayer a bomb as it rolls through our various government agencies and quangos. Next it’s the turn of MPs to be told that all of our thoughts are offensive and should be corrected.

I found out recently that House of Commons staff have been forced to sit through this nonsense since 2016, but the course is being extended in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests – a subject on which my thoughts have been pretty well publicised – and MPs will be expected to sit through it too. Let me be clear right from the off; I will not be taking it.

Nobody doubts that racism exists and can make life more challenging for some people. Nor that sexism exists, ageism and discrimination across a whole spectrum. That much is true. What I doubt here is that these things are somehow buried deep in all of our subconscious, steering us at every turn, and that with the help of some genius “educator” I can be cured of my unseen evil. I’m yet to see the evidence of it achieving a great deal, apart from big profits for the training company.

It’s been reported this week that £7,000 of taxpayer’s cash will be spent designing a course featuring a blue “Cookie Monster-esque” puppet, who wants to tell me in its cute and furry way that I shouldn’t use “offensive” words like “pensioner” or “lady”. Apparently, the puppet also plans to tell me which version of history I must use and which bits I should delete from my memory – improving my “cultural competency” – which is going to cost us around £700,000 in total. Needless to say I’m not convinced that this is an appropriate use of taxpayer’s money.

In recent weeks I completed similar “Valuing Everyone” training, aimed at explaining how I should not be mean to my staff. I guess I blindly stumbled in to that one, not quite aware until I clicked on to the Zoom call exactly what it was I was doing. It was quite a jolly couple of hours in truth – a nice chat with colleagues, but as far as I can tell it will have achieved precisely nothing except for a sizeable bill (around £750,000).

I don’t doubt that there are more than a small number of MPs who are a nightmare to work for and who can behave inappropriately. I’m just not convinced that two hours of training will have made the blindest bit of difference, despite the huge cost. In truth, if you asked the staffers in this building they could tell you who those bad bosses and managers are in seconds – it’s not a secret – and you could deal with the actual problem rather than just “being seen to do something”.

There’s something deeply undemocratic about it too, in my view. I’m elected to this place to represent my constituents. To share their thoughts and views with the House. We’ve already seen through the Brexit debates how the views of Leave voters were characterised as racist and unacceptable, and now we’re to be “educated” about which views are appropriate for us to speak about.

Who gets to decide which issues or views are appropriate for me to raise on behalf of my constituents? I’ve been told that speaking about the challenges facing working class white boys in my community is racist or sexist more than once. If it causes offence to a handful should I keep quiet? The biggest issue filling my inbox is illegal immigration, something thousands of my constituents feel very strongly about, but it’s a bit controversial, isn’t it, so should I leave it alone? The thought police will be the death of open debate and stymie our democracy.

I’ve said it more than once, that the electoral shift in the demographics of the “average” Tory voter in 2019 are not something we can ignore. They elected Conservatives, with a clear conservative message in that election about law and order, taking back control, freedom and free speech that can give a voice to places like Mansfield that have been ignored for a long time… We need to stick to that message and those values.

It’s pretty well recognised now that this kind of imposition of one set of values on to others is wildly unpopular with what is now the “core” Conservative vote – the working class folks of Mansfield, of Bury and of Redcar. They abhor the antics of BLM, of Extinction Rebellion and the like telling them what they should think. They know their own minds. It’s that kind of conflict with the metropolitan bubble where our institutions largely exist that lead us to Brexit, too. Woke ideology seems pretty deeply embedded at this point.

In my view we should be unabashed in our cultural conservatism, sticking up for free speech and the right to “make my own bloody mind up, thank you very much”, and stepping in to block this “unconscious bias” nonsense. I, for one, will not be taking it, and I’d call on my colleagues to take the same stand. Maybe we can have a good go at some bigger reforms too. After all, this is a Conservative Government!

Helen Evans: Housing associations need to work with the Government to boost oportunities for home ownership

15 Sep

Helen Evans is the Chief Executive of Network Homes and the Chair of the G15 group of London’s largest housing associations.

Housing associations have offered the opportunity of home ownership to hundreds of thousands of people in recent years. Many people working in the housing association sector bought their first home through shared ownership and they are passionate about extending this opportunity to many others.

Everyone needs a safe, secure, and affordable home of their own and this means there is a need for a balance of different housing options to support a broad range of people. I strongly welcome government’s recognition of that with an investment programme balanced between affordable homes to buy and rent.

Working with a broad coalition of manufacturers, architects, investors, other housing associations, and leading figures from the housing industry, we supported a call for Homes for Heroes over the summer. This recognised that many of the essential workers who kept the country alive and functioning during the coronavirus crisis live in unsuitable, unaffordable, or insecure housing. Many essential workers are on minimum wage, or slightly above, and in London and other high value areas that means the only affordable option is likely to be social rented housing. Indeed it is notable that one-third of London’s ‘blue-light’ workforce currently live in social housing. For people on moderate incomes – for example a Band 5 nurse – we found that a discounted rent product, around 60 per cent of the market rate in outer London, would be affordable. For essential workers on higher incomes, or dual-income households, shared ownership offers an attractive and affordable route into home ownership. We found very few essential workers who would be able to buy a new home with just a 30 per cent discount.

We proposed a delivery programme of 100,000 well-designed, beautiful, affordable homes for essential workers, manufactured in innovation hubs in the Northern Powerhouse and enabled by planning flexibilities. This call was endorsed by a wide range of bodies including the Local Government Association and the Greater London Authority. We are now working with investors and architects to explore how the homes could be delivered at minimum cost to the public purse.

The current economic situation casts a shadow across much of our work and we are acutely aware of the challenges that this will bring to the powerful role housing associations could play in supporting the social and economic recovery of the country. On a practical level, most housing associations are keen to get their people back in the office and working together in a safe way. We are doing this first through encouragement; at Network Homes we have asked all staff to come into the office two days a week. I believe that face-to-face contact is essential for collaboration, innovation, building relationships, and supporting new and junior staff to learn and progress. Many people report to feeling similarly productive whilst working from home, but an organisation has to be more than the sum of its parts, we are not just a collection of individuals. Housing associations are community-based organisations, with a range of functions (e.g. servicing boilers) that require physical attendance; for me it is important that this principle applies to all my colleagues so we can work together as a single coherent organisation.

I also recognise the moral duty of housing associations to support economic activity through our work and workforce. Having more people in our offices in the centre of cities will help this. I care deeply about London and its success and I am keen to do all I can to help get the city moving again.

This is not without its challenges, including significant challenges in relation to building safety which face us and the people who have bought homes from us in taller buildings. Hundreds of our leaseholders, and thousands more in the private sector, have already discovered that they are stuck by lending and valuation processes which I think are going to need government action to resolve – this needs urgent attention if the issue is not to grow rapidly.

The new model of shared ownership proposed by government, subject to a coming consultation, also raises important practical and philosophical questions in relation to home ownership. Whilst the Government’s manifesto commitments to simplify shared ownership and make it fairer are understandable, these latest changes risk making it more complicated and reducing supply. Simply put, housing associations facing the current housing market uncertainties may reduce the volumes they can deliver of this new, untested product. It is proposed that housing associations will carry out any repairs and maintenance for new shared owners for the first ten years. If this extends into people’s homes then it will inevitably limit their ability to customise – a fundamental tenet of home ownership. If we are to be responsible for internal health and safety then there are legal challenges of whether courts will grant us access into people’s homes to service their boilers. They have been reluctant to do so to date in relation to fire safety issues affecting leaseholders.

I am keen to work with a wide range of partners, including all levels of government, to overcome these challenges and to provide the firm foundation of a home of their own, to the maximum number of people.