Archie Hill: Strong devolution must mean giving more counties unitary status

6 Aug

Archie Hill is a researcher at Henham Strategy. He also works in the research team at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Just over a year ago, during his very first week as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson made a speech in Manchester, warming to a familiar theme:

“We are going to give greater powers to council leaders and to communities. We are going to give more communities a greater say over changes to transport, housing, public services, and infrastructure that will benefit their areas and drive local growth.”

Familiar, in the sense that every recent government has promised greater devolution of powers at a local level. A new wave of decentralisation is always on the horizon.

But this Prime Minister’s commitment to devolution rings true. Decentralisation may be a common refrain, but it is a long time since it has assumed so central a role in a government’s platform: the ‘levelling up’ agenda upon which the Conservatives fought and won so handsomely is rooted in local devolution. Not for nothing did the Prime Minister describe himself, grappling when pressed for a definable ideology, as “basically a Brexity Hezza.” As well as a flamboyant hairstyle, he shares with Lord Heseltine a belief that reforming local government, and setting out more coherent efficient structures which work properly, can help unleash growth around the country.

It was Heseltine, after all, whose report No Stone Unturned demonstrated the disjointed state of local government in England, with different tiers of councils operating at different levels and overlapping responsibilities; as wasteful as it is confusing. At a local level, this confusion reaches absurdity: just getting a pothole or a sign fixed can involve negotiating county, district, and parish councils, each with their own separate remit. Small wonder, then, that we found that fewer than one in five of those surveyed in our polling thought it was easy to understand who was responsible for what, across local government. This confusion leads very quickly to apathy.

In recent months, as part of a team at Henham Strategy, I have been working on a report, commissioned by the County Councils Network and published this week, setting out where the current system is failing and how powers can be devolved more effectively at a local level.

A more effective – and accountable – means of local decision-making is vital. Fortunately, the government has an opportunity to make lasting changes, in the form of the upcoming, much-trumpeted Devolution White Paper from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, ours was the most centralised state in the western world. As the Centre for Policy Studies found in their report A Rising Tide, locally determined taxes make up just 1.7 per cent of GDP in the UK, compared to 15.9 per cent in Sweden, or 10.9 per cent in Germany. But during the current crisis, the government has felt compelled to take further control of large segments of the economy and manage it from the commanding heights of Whitehall. This ignores the real lesson of Covid, which is that it is at the local level where the most effective response has occurred.

County authorities have made some of largest contributions to the national effort, ranging from shielding the vulnerable and protecting the NHS, putting in place infection control plans for care homes, sourcing hundreds of thousands of pieces of PPE, and helping secure local businesses’ futures. When previous governments talked about local devolution, too often what they had in mind was the creation of new mayoral bodies covering a large urban area, in London, Greater Manchester, or the West Midlands. This focus on metropolitan areas has been to the cost of counties and those who live in them.

Half of our population is located in England’s counties; half of our overall economic output is created there too. They already provide accountable local leadership – in the form of elected councillors – that is readily recognisable by people who live there. Indeed, our commissioned polling found that only nine per cent of those surveyed thought that mayors should have more powers than county council leaders.

A number of county councils have become unitary authorities, and many other councils we spoke to are keen to follow suit. The opportunities of a single, more streamlined body that can speak with a unified voice for the whole county are enormous, both in terms of cost savings and more effective decision-making at scale. Where district councils too often act as a brake on development and strategic planning, unitary authorities provide a more responsive, joined-up form of local leadership across a larger population. Cornwall Council demonstrates this, bringing together representatives from health, business, transport, and local town/parish councils all round one table: the result is that Cornwall has seen the highest annual average increase in new homes in England since it became a unitary authority, all whilst saving £15.5m per year through reduced running costs. It has also been able to distribute grants during Covid faster than anywhere else.

The government must make it easier for more counties to follow this path, setting out a consistent approach to unitarisation for local leaders rather than relying on a ‘deal-by-deal’ basis. To embrace levelling up, they must start by giving local areas the means to pursue this agenda themselves – from housing and planning to infrastructure, from skills and employment to health and social care. Instead of the current patchwork system, a new, more effective form of local governance is necessary to unlock regional growth and drive our economic recovery. If, where previously there have been only promises, the Prime Minister wants action on local devolution, then it is time to make counties count.

Aphra Brandreth: Davey would take the Lib Dems backwards; Moran to the Left. But whichever direction, does it matter?

5 Aug

Aphra Brandreth is a Conservative Councillor and was the candidate in Kingston and Surbiton in last year’s General Election.  

As I write, the Liberal Democrat’s 115,000 members are deliberating over who will become their fourth party leader in just five years. The choice between Ed Davey and Layla Moran represents a step backwards or a step to the Left, but ultimately with just 11 MPs neither leader is likely to shift the party from their current status as the fourth largest in Parliament any time soon.

So does the outcome even matter? With so few MPs they have very little influence, we’ve seen that during the current pandemic where the Lib Dems have been barely visible in the debate. Does anyone outside the Westminster bubble even realise Davey is acting party leader? Where the party do have MPs, well over half represent constituencies in either London or Scotland, highlighting just how unrepresentative they are of the country as a whole.

In the 2019 General Election, I stood as the Conservative candidate against the incumbent Davey in Kingston and Surbiton. Davey is back for another try at party leader despite failing once already. Last time the party thought a better bet than him would be Jo Swinson (remember her, our next Prime Minister?!)

In our General Election hustings, Davey used a “Not me, Guv” approach to avoid taking responsibility for any policies or issues from his time as a cabinet minister in the Coalition Government.

The public (Twitteratis excluded) understand the challenges of making hard decisions with conflicting priorities. And in my view, what the public crave in their politicians more than anything else is trust. Trust they will do their best, trust they will be honest and trust they will own their decisions.

Davey’s record shows he voted for raising the tuition fee cap, against raising welfare benefits and for the “bedroom tax” to name a few. But even when presented with facts and voting records Davey tries to shift the blame to anyone else but him.

However, you can’t distance yourself from policies that you supported as a Government minister, and that’s the fundamental problem for the Lib Dems – they ultimately don’t want to take responsibility. As a party of protest, when they finally get the opportunity to govern, they realise that either their policies aren’t workable (take their university tuition fee promise which former party leader Vince Cable admitted was simply not feasible) or they would rather someone else stepped in to sort the issues out.

It is the same at a local level with the Lib Dem-led council in Richmond Borough in London where I am a Conservative councillor. While Hammersmith Bridge, a major route into central London, is closed for the foreseeable future to traffic, the Lib Dem administration is happy to sit by believing it’s not their problem.

They’re hoping someone else will sort it out, although with Sadiq Khan having bankrupted Transport for London, rebuilding the bridge any time soon is looking increasingly unlikely. When the Conservatives controlled the council, we were prepared to take responsibility for the bridge, but not the Lib Dems for whom responsibility is an anathema.

Moran’s leadership bid clearly distances herself from the coalition days saying she wants to move forwards, but where is she moving to? She’s made it clear she considers a coalition with Labour an option, and certainly wants to build significant co-operation.

And that’s the other big problem for the Lib Dems. What do they actually stand for? With Keir Starmer having firmly positioned himself in the centre Left ground, Moran’s Lib Dems would be shifting even further to the Left with more unworkable promises.

Her plans for a Universal Basic Income may well become the tuition fees saga for the next generation of Lib Dems, too expensive to be feasible and with the resulting inflation ultimately ineffective. So, the question is why would anyone who supports a centre Left stance vote for the Lib Dems, when they could vote for the main opposition party which already has a clear voice?

And why does it matter anyway? It matters because a significant proportion of people who vote Lib Dem aren’t voting for a Lib Dem Government, they are voting against the alternatives. Which means in places like Richmond, Twickenham and Kingston where a Corbyn-led Labour vote collapsed, and the Greens stood aside, the Lib Dems swept up votes. Leaving the electorate with ineffectual representatives and a council administration that doesn’t really stand for anything clear, and takes little responsibility. And that has consequences for residents.

Whichever leader the Lib Dems choose at the end of this month, until they are prepared to take responsibility for their past, and set out a future that is both workable and distinct, they are unlikely to have much of a voice in this Parliament or the next.

Rob Sutton: Sir Philip Barton – a key player in Johnson’s quest for global Britain

5 Aug

Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Sir Philip Barton, the British High Commissioner to India, has been announced as the incoming Permanent Under-Secretary of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). He will take over from Sir Simon McDonald, who is stepping down at Johnson’s request, on September 1 and oversee the long-awaited merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID)

An FCO lifer, Barton will inherit complex internal dynamics and be vital to the success of Johnson’s mission to reshape Britain’s role on the world stage. He has been with the FCO since 1986, punctuated occasionally by secondments to the Cabinet Office. Early assignments included Caracas, Nicosia and Gibraltar, and he was Private Secretary to the Prime Minister under Major, then Blair.

From 2011 he was Deputy Head of Mission to the USA in Washington, D.C., from 2014 to 2016 he was High Commissioner to Pakistan, and he is currently serving as High Commissioner to India. He has been tested during political crises, as the Director General, Consular and Security at the time of the Salisbury poisonings and most recently as Director General of the Covid-19 Response at the Cabinet Office.

His appointment has thus far had a positive reception. Dominic Raab has called him an “outstanding public servant and diplomat” with “experience across all areas of foreign policy.” Sir Mark Sedwill said he “will bring to the role an understanding of overseas development funding together with experience of international relations.” Jeremy Hunt Tweeted that “he is one of the most thoughtful & diligent civil servants I worked with & carries great wisdom lightly.” Andrew Adonis described him as “an immensely able & experienced ambassador who is well equipped for the big challenge of heading the diplomatic service at this time of crisis.”

He is well-liked and trusted. It is important that he is perceived as a safe pair of hands and a natural choice within the civil service. With multiple high-profile civil servants stepping down since the 2019 general election, a controversial appointment to lead FCDO would have put No 10 on the back foot at a time when it should be looking to craft a positive vision for the future.

For Barton, the challenges are both internal and external. Within the FCDO, a new hierarchy must be built. Creating clear chains of command from two parallel organisations with competing interests will cause friction. Buzzwords like “coherence” and “integration” will seem premature if the new organisation is wrought with internal power struggles and turf wars. We should have some idea of Barton’s initial success by the end of September.

Long term, he will need to ensure the functions of the FCDO’s constituent departments can be executed. Tensions are an inevitability, and tailoring a unified mission will be difficult when commercial and political interests and poverty relief pull in different directions. All this as Britain seeks new trade deals across the globe and weighs its future relationship with Europe.

Barton appears to be an exceptionally good fit to take on these challenges. His background is less Eurocentric than his predecessors in the role. He looks away from Brussels and towards Commonwealth nations with whom Johnson will be eager to renew relationships.

His experiences will also help to ensure Britain continues to be a world leader in international development. Pakistan is one of the five biggest recipients of UK aid funding, and Barton’s time as High Commissioner will have given him a better understanding of the challenges of poverty relief than his peers appointed to industrialised European nations. This will go some way to settle the nerves of those who worry international development will be an afterthought for the new office.

Barton will take the helm at the FCDO at a time of internal upheaval and international uncertainty. His career path is typical enough to avoid controversy but his specific experiences may prove invaluable to performing the multiple tasks which his success will depend upon. The Government aims to complete the formation of FCDO by the end of September, so we will know soon enough whether he is up to the task.

Graham Gudgin: Now is the time to combat Scottish Nationalism

5 Aug

Dr Graham Gudgin is an honorary research associate at the Centre for Business Research, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He was Special Advisor to the First Minister in Northern Ireland 1998-2002.

When Douglas Murray wrote recently that Scottish nationalists are unique in escaping the opprobrium usually associated with nationalism he is only half right. Irish nationalists have pulled off this trick for decades or centuries even when their supporters were killing people. The trick is to make liberals view the nationalist cause as escaping from victimhood. Rather like escaping from a bad marriage, many will support the new beginnings of independence.

Who would not have supported the Finns escaping from Russian domination? The West always supports nationalists escaping from its opponents grasp, like the new nations emerging from the Soviet-bloc, even including Kossova a province of the greatly disliked Serbia.

Even more than the Irish, the Scots have a good case in arguing for independence. Their history and geography set them apart. They were an independent state for many centuries and could be one again. To write, as Murray did, that an independent Scotland would “join sub-Saharan Africa in the world poverty indices” is silly and will, of course, be taken as typical English condescension. The battle to save the union is now deadly serious and must be treated seriously.

We must recognise that devolution in the form adopted in 1998 was a mistake. Although there were misgivings at the time, the Labour view that devolution would strengthen the union prevailed but is now in tatters. Devolution cannot deal with a contested adherence to the wider nation any more than it could in Ireland. Labour domination of Scottish politics was viewed as sufficient protection for the union especially with an admirable leader in Donald Dewar. However, as the unifying memories of the world wars faded, along with strong memories of Scottish martial prowess, feelings of separateness could be built upon.

Although the SNP hate the idea, latent nationalism was reignited by North Sea Oil. The SNP first made real electoral gains under the slogan, ‘Its Scotland’s Oil’. The potent mix of a distinct national identity allied with financial strength was there to be exploited by middle-class Scottish nationalists who stood to gain financially and in status from independence.

The SNP’s problem was to carry with them the working class, especially on Clydeside. Thatcherism provided an opportunity with its use of Scotland as a testbed for the poll tax and the SNP grasped it gratefully. Ever since they have presented themselves as progressives. The long withdrawal of Labour from its historic role in defending working-class interests gradually overcame electoral loyalty, and just as in the red wall of northern England, Labour surrendered its Scottish base.

All of this is a national tragedy, but we are where we are. The task now for unionists is to face up to the realities of the problem and to avoid superficial remedies and soft-soap talk. These include avoiding a reliance on throwing money at the problem. Just as in Northern Ireland, the flow of cash from England does little to soften nationalist sentiments. Money is accepted without gratitude. Feelings of financial dependence can just as easily foster resentment as generating a need to ‘cling to nurse for fear of finding something worse’. In Scotland, the majority have never heard of Rishi Sunak, the saviour of their economy during a global pandemic.

Although the realities do indeed include living standards supported by financial subsidies from London, we should not assume that this will be decisive. Scotland’s economy is quite strong, with per capita GDP at close to the UK average. There is little doubt that Scotland could emerge as an economically successful nation rather like Denmark.

Subsidies are not necessary to bring Scots up to English living standards but rather have allowed Scottish living standards, and especially public services, to be better than in England and higher than their own resources would allow. ONS data shows that Scottish living standards are well above the English average and close to those of London once house price differences are taken into account. Scots may be willing to settle for a degree of austerity in return for independence, and with post-independence living standards at something close to the English average, their lot could be acceptable.

So, what is the case for the union? The core case is that three-hundred years of successful union should not be lightly tossed aside. The UK has been a force for good in the world through this period and can continue to fill this role. As a nuclear power with a seat on the UN Security Council and at the centre of a multi-racial Commonwealth of nations, its global reach is immense.

The SNP’s alternative of a future inside the EU may yet backfire if the UK secures a satisfactory deal with the EU and demonstrates that, like Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, economic life outside the EU can be quite satisfactory. A slogan of ‘Give Back Control (to the EU)’ would hardly help the SNP. An EU border at Berwick would be a nuisance for everyone but especially the Scots.

The financial strength of the UK might not be decisive but is nonetheless a strong card which should be played vigorously. The Barnett Formula under which Scotland has received its subsidies since 1979 does little for the union since it leaves financial support largely invisible to voters. It needs to be quickly replaced by a UK Cohesion Fund. Public funds should be initially allocated on a simple basis pro-rata to population. This would leave Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland well short of what they currently receive, and the difference should be made up from a cohesion fund which makes it fully clear what money is coming from where. We need not go as far as putting Union Jacks on new roads or buildings, but the message would be clear.

Finally, although it is dreadfully late in the day, efforts should be made to contest Scottish beliefs about their own history. Like the Irish, the core of national identity is built upon beliefs about a successful resistance to English attempts at dominance, in the Scottish case most notably at Bannockburn.

The real story, as in Ireland, is not of attack from the English but by French-speaking Normans who, having overrun England, expanded further into Wales. Ireland and Scotland as well as Southern Europe and the Middle East. Scots’ resistance was helped by bringing in their own Norman barons, including the Le Brus and Balliol families, and unifying their own diverse ethnic groups under William Wallach (William the Welshman).

Even so, this would not have worked without the Great Famine, the Black Death and the Hundred Years War to deter the Norman descendants. Independence from then on was then a largely sad story of poverty, feudal dominance and dissension, until the Scots flowered magnificently within the British Empire.

David Starkey’s description of pre-union Scotland as a “benighted hellhole” might be too strong but is reminder of why the union was so positive for the Scots

Having tied themselves to an England on the up, Scots are tempted to jump ship from what they see as English decline. The best tactic is to persuade and demonstrate that a post-Brexit UK has a bright future, remaining a force for good in a troubled world. This needs to be a national effort involving historians, economists and many others. If we leave the task to Johnsonian bluster, we can expect the worst.

Statistical Notice 2020/07

5 Aug
Statistical Notices update the definitions and guidance contained in the Banking Statistics Yellow Folder

Newslinks for Wednesday 5th August 2020

5 Aug

Close pubs before schools if infections rise, ministers told

“Closing schools must be “a last resort” in any future lockdowns, the children’s commissioner for England has warned, with education taking priority over the economy. In a briefing for ministers Anne Longfield said that shutting restaurants, shops and other non-essential services must be the first line of defence in any future outbreak with schools remaining open. She accused the government of too often regarding children as “an afterthought” during the first lockdown, leading to damaging effects on their education and wellbeing. Schools are finalising plans to reopen to all pupils next month despite concerns from unions and some scientists that it could lead to a spike in infections.” – The Times

  • ‘Close shops and pubs to reopen schools,’ says Children’s Commissioner – Daily Telegraph
  • Doctors fear lockdown effect on non-coronavirus patients – The Times

Comment:

  • The Government must up its game to prepare for a second wave – Sir Keir Starmer, The Guardian

MPs will start grading Health Secretary with ‘Ofsted-style ratings’

“MPs will start dishing out Ofsted-style ratings on how well Matt Hancock is doing his job. The powerful Commons’ Health and Social Care Committee will grade Government progress on major pledges – from “outstanding” to “inadequate”. The new system has been set up by chair Jeremy Hunt and will focus on performance in areas such as cancer, patient safety and mental health. The scores will be handed out by an independent expert panel chaired by one of the nation’s top docs, Professor Dame Jane Dacre… Ratings will follow the Ofsted scale – inadequate, requires improvement, good and outstanding. The panel’s first piece of work will look at maternity services in England, which have been rocked by a series of scandals in recent years.” – The Sun

  • English councils with highest Covid rates launch own test-and-trace systems – The Guardian
  • Many Whitehall mandarins ‘do not expect to return to the office’ before 2021 – Daily Telegraph
  • MPs say lack of early UK quarantine helped to accelerate pandemic – FT
  • Rules are dividing the young and sceptical – The Times

Comment:

  • Workshy Whitehall is wrecking the recovery – Ross Clark, Daily Mail
  • Johnson’s rise to power taught him all the wrong skills for this crisis – Rafael Behr, The Guardian

Charities criticise Tory Chief Whip for refusing to suspend Conservative MP accused of rape

“Charities have accused the Conservative Party of “minimising violence against women” by refusing to suspend an MP who is the subject of a rape investigation. Women’s Aid was among the groups which joined unions to say the party’s lack of action suggested a “failure to believe victims”. It came as the woman who accused the former minister of attacking her alleged that Conservative Party Chief Whip Mark Spencer – to whom she made a complaint in April – prioritised the MP’s well-being over her own. The former Parliamentary aide claims Mr Spencer acted to ensure “pastoral care” for the MP but did nothing to investigate her allegations.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Tories ‘dismissing violence against women by not suspending rape suspect MP’ – The Times

Russian hackers ‘stole leaked documents from Fox’s personal email account’

“Russian hackers stole the contents of a former Cabinet minister’s personal email account, it has emerged, as Whitehall departments admitted that ministers received only “informal” training in data security. Classified documents relating to US-UK trade talks were taken from a private email account belonging to Liam Fox, the former International Trade Secretary. How the documents came to be in a private email account is expected to form part of an ongoing police investigation into the hack. The Government does not explicitly ban the use of private email accounts for official business, but says all information must be handled in accordance with the law, including the Official Secrets Act.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Theft proves Russia alerts were ignored, says Grieve – FT
  • Fox faces growing scrutiny over Russian hack of personal email – The Guardian

Philip Johnston: Cummings’ planning overhaul will provoke Tory shires into outright rebellion

“When governments talk of “radical overhauls”, they usually mean some modest tinkering dressed up as something fundamental. But the planning shake-up outlined by Mr Jenrick, the housing secretary, and to be published tomorrow really is radical in the literal sense because it will tear up the existing system by the roots and start all over again. The argument for doing so is that we still have a socialistic planning model, set out by the post-war Labour government, which is unsuited to modern needs (just like the NHS, in other words, though no-one is proposing its radical overhaul, sadly).The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act remains the template for decision-making despite umpteen repair jobs over the past 60 years, including half-a-dozen changes since 2010 aimed at speeding up building through permitted developments and planning in principle.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Johnson cries ‘nimbyism’, but his planning changes will be disastrous – Simon Jenkins, The Guardian
  • Let’s be honest about our overcrowded island – Clare Foges, The Times

Ross ‘set to be crowned’ Scottish Tory leader as no challengers emerge

“Douglas Ross is set to be crowned the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives on Wednesday, after no other candidate put themselves forward for the role. Senior figures in the party have united around the former Scotland Office minister, who on Tuesday became embroiled in a row with the SNP after the party labelled him “racist”. Candidates have until noon to put themselves forward and gain 100 nominations, however, party insiders confirmed that a challenger to Mr Ross was not expected to emerge, meaning he will succeed Jackson Carlaw. One Tory insider confirmed last night: “It’s very much a one horse race”. The coronation was due to take place as a new row broke out between Mr Ross’s camp and the SNP.” – Daily Telegraph

More SNP:

  • Sturgeon forced to make U-turn over ‘ludicrous’ decision to ban men from seat – Daily Express

Business urges rethink on Sunak’s job support measures

“Ministers were urged to rethink measures to avert mass unemployment after companies warned in a survey on Wednesday that they would not use schemes set out by the government last month to protect jobs. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, unveiled a package of measures in his summer statement to support jobs across the UK that the government said would give businesses the confidence to retain as well as hire workers. His plan for jobs included a £1,000 “bonus” for companies for each furloughed worker they bring back, as well as a subsidy to cover some of the pay for young people, and grants for apprentices and trainees. But according to a survey of more than 500 companies by the British Chambers of Commerce, only 43 per cent said that they would seek the furlough bonus and far fewer stated they intended to use the other schemes.” – FT

  • Chancellor could hike business rates for ‘most valuable properties’ – Daily Telegraph
  • Firms say proposals could lead to more job losses and store closures – Daily Mail
  • Javid’s verdict on the Johnson government – FT Podcast

Bailey accuses Khan of ‘forgetting his roots and betraying his communities’ as Mayor

“Sadiq Khan has been accused of “forgetting his roots” and “betraying his communities” as Mayor of London. Tory Mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey will today lash out at the capital’s leader for being “all talk and no action” and failing to help “people of colour from poorer backgrounds”. In a major speech on Wednesday alongside the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, Mr Bailey will take aim at Mr Khan for not helping to tackle the “difficult and deep-rooted causes of poverty and inequality”… Mr Bailey will say the pair have a lot in common and both have a “responsibility to our communities”. He should “avoid creating an us versus them culture, where we end up fighting only for politically useful causes”, Mr Bailey will say.” – The Sun

Tories make donors and friends directors of civil service boards

“Ministers are inserting a slew of Conservative allies into senior Whitehall roles as they continue their assault on the civil service establishment. Analysis by The Times has found that over half of new appointments to departmental boards this year have gone to close political colleagues of cabinet ministers rather than figures from the world of business. Of the 13 appointments that have taken place this year, eight have gone to Tory party insiders. Departmental boards were introduced in 2010 to bring in “independent” non-executive directors who could “fundamentally transform the way government operates, scrutinising decisions and sharpening accountability”… However, recently ministers have appointed a number of former special advisers to the positions, which carry an average salary of £15,000 per year.” – The Times

  • Health official Wormald leads race to become UK’s top civil servant – FT

Corbyn launches official complaint after House of Lords snub leaves him ‘humiliated’

“Jeremy Corbyn has lodged an official complaint with Parliamentary officials after his nominations for peerages were overlooked while former Labour MPs who rebelled against his leadership were given seats in the House of Lords. Mr Corbyn is understood to have been particularly enraged by the rejection of a peerage for former Labour official and close ally Karie Murphy whom he had wanted to install in the Lords to work on trade union rights. Ms Murphy was one of the most powerful figures inside Labour under Mr Corbyn’s leadership and insiders believe her nomination was blocked as a result of an Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation into the party’s handling of alleged antisemitism. She denies any wrongdoing.” – Daily Express

  • Union members accuse Len McCluskey of losing focus on saving jobs – The Sun

Toll mounts after Beirut rocked by massive explosion

“A huge explosion in the port of Beirut devastated a large area of the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, leaving at least 78 dead and some 4,000 injured. Hassan Diab, Lebanon’s prime minister, described the blast as a “catastrophe” and asked for international support, declaring that Wednesday would be a national day of mourning. The country’s higher defence council said Beirut was a “disaster zone” and Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s president, called for a two week state of emergency. Interior minister Mohamed Fahmi said initial investigations suggested the explosion was caused by confiscated explosive material, according to local media. Badri Daher, director-general of Lebanon’s customs authority, linked the explosion to ammonium nitrate being stored at the port, in comments to a local news channel.” – FT

  • At least 100 people are killed and thousands hurt – Daily Mail

Tributes paid to John Hume, former SDLP leader and Nobel peace prize winner

“World leaders have paid tribute to John Hume, the former SDLP leader, Nobel peace prize winner and leading player in the Northern Ireland peace process, who has died aged 83. His death marks the passing of one of the most important Irish political leaders of the 20th century whose ideas of compromise, opposition to violence and cross-community outreach underpinned the principles of the 1998 Good Friday agreement. In a statement on Monday morning, his family confirmed that Hume had died in a nursing home in his native Derry. He had had dementia for many years. “Celebrating community in all its diversity went to the heart of John’s political ethos and we are very appreciative that our communities supported, respected and protected John,” the family’s statement said.” – The Guardian

  • Body arrives at cathedral ahead of his socially distanced funeral tomorrow – Daily Mail

A battle with teaching unions looks inevitable next month. Who will win?

5 Aug

Consensus might be in vanishingly short supply regarding the right response to the Coronavirus pandemic. But giving priority to getting the schools fully reopened next month does have general approval. Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, is a lockdown hawk – arguing we have “probably reached near the limit or the limits” of opening up society. But rather than suggesting that the schools should remain largely empty he suggests it is a matter of trade-offs. Professor Graham Medley, another Government advisor, is thinking along the same lines. Medley says:

“It might come down to a question of which do you trade-off against each other, and then that’s a matter of prioritising. Do we think pubs are more important than schools?”

Daniel Hannan feels “it is a question, not just of proportionality – children do not, in normal circumstances, experience or pass on Covid symptoms – but of equity.” He writes:

“Nothing has shocked me so much over the past four months as the gap between ambitious and unambitious schools. Good state schools, and most private schools, ran something close to a full timetable, with morning assemblies, online classes, music lessons, even sports days (mediated through apps that record speed and distance). Bad ones sent out desultory worksheets and, in some cases, wouldn’t mark them.

“A survey by the Children’s Commissioner found that half of teenagers, and nearly 60 per cent of under-12s, got no online teaching at all last term. The go-to excuse of failing schools – lack of resources – doesn’t work here. The playing fields of Eton may be expansive and expensive but, during the lockdown, they were used only by the children of key workers whom the school had taken in. Teaching online is cheap: it is a question of commitment, not money. Yes, a few kids might lack access to screens; but that is an argument for offering extra support, not for refusing online lessons to everyone else.”

The message from the Government on school reopenings has been robust. While other measures to restore normal life have been subject to caveats, the schools one has been unequivocal. The implication is that even if we have discouraging statistics – or predictions such as the Lancet study suggesting a “second wave” – then the response will be to look for alternatives to keeping the nation’s children stuck at home.

The hitch is that the teaching unions are just are emphatic about wanting schools to be closed. The National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (the NASUWT) is anxious not to be regarded as any less militant that the National Education Union (the NEU). Like all militants, they are well versed in making impossible demands, whilst going through the pretence of following reasonable procedure. Thus, whatever precautions are put in place and however much the threat of Coronavirus recedes, they will come up with a declaration that returning to work would put the safety of their members at risk. The risk assessment will be challenged as deficient – regardless of how meticulous it might be.  The timing of these objections will be as late as possible to make it harder for them to be resolved. In the awkward event that a demand they thought was impossible is met, they will quickly think of a new one.

One great prize for the unions would be to keep the schools closed for long enough to prevent SATS – the Statutory Assessment Tests – and the Progress 8 tests taking place. These are important accountability measures for primary and secondary schools – which show if the children are actually learning anything.

What will help the unions is that the practicality of having a school functioning is the necessity of having a large majority of teachers back at work. The classes need to be covered through the school day. If only half the teachers are prepared to turn up, then it probably won’t be viable for the school to open. The situation might be eased by some parents refusing to send their children back to school. But this could hardly be counted on. There is also the restriction on moving pupils from one “bubble” to another. In any case, if many parents are uneasy about schools functioning again, this can only be helpful to the unions and detrimental to the Government so far as winning over public opinion is concerned.

Suppose if the Government decided to take inspiration from how Ronald Reagan responded to a strike from air traffic controllers in 1981? He told the strikers that if they did not return to work within 48 hours, they would lose their jobs and might not be re-hired. There was some temporary disruption but the resulting control system emerged safer and more efficient.

In the context, a bold response would be justified. Other workers (including just about all others in the public sector) who are required by their employer to return to their workplace must do so – unless they can establish to the satisfaction of some official entity, such as the Health and Safety Executive, that entering such premises would be a genuine hazard. By not coming in to work, without a legally valid reason for remaining absent, they would have foreited their job.

For teachers, though, the idea of being sacked seems pretty farfetched. Furthermore, they are not directly employed by central Government – but by academy trusts or local authorities. However, it would be possible for the Government to say to the school authorities that they are being funded to provide education. If they are unwilling or unable to find enough teachers willing to carry this out, then their funding will cease. The problem with this nuclear option is that to carry out the threat could involve closing schools – with the disruption lasting much longer.

So one can see how the teaching unions might feel they are in a pretty strong position. But they do risk overplaying their hands. Most teachers did enter the profession with the motivation of teaching. They do actually develop a concern for their pupils to learn. It would be interesting to see some polling or focus groups from teachers but I suspect that if unions are too brazen in their intransigence they will alienate their members. Time will also increase the number of parents who wish schools to be up and running. Primary pupils in England in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 went back at the start of June – and each week the number of pupils being sent in rose significantly. Strike action would hardly be noticed if a school is empty anyway.

Even if the unions “win” – which I suppose would mean many schools staying closed for weeks with the teachers on full pay and facing no sanction but perhaps shuffling back into the classrooms at some stage in the New Year – that might be dangerous for them. What if some parents mount a strike of their own? They might withdraw their child from school completely and opt for home schooling through to A-Levels. This would cut the finance to schools – who are paid on a per pupil basis. Clusters of parents might hire private tutors to teach ten or 12 children at a time. What if such informal arrangements start next month, intending to be temporary, and then turn out to work rather better than regular schooling? The added attraction for those annoyed by schools pushing left-wing indoctrination would be obvious.

True, most parents would probably not resort to such drastic action. But they might still feel considerable dismay. A YouGov poll yesterday showed a big majority favouring full reopening after the summer holidays, “as things currently stand”. Imagine the exasperation if there is long delay with apparent justification? The Government would be likely to respond with legal changes that diminish the power of the teaching unions – with heads given greater authority to hire and fire and negotiate pay and conditions on an individual basis.

The teaching unions may win the battle this autumn. But then lose the war – once long overdue action is taken to break their stranglehold.

Daniel Hannan: Sweden settled in for the long haul, and now doesn’t need to worry about a second surge

5 Aug

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

You know who isn’t worried about a second wave? Sweden. Covid cases may be rising worldwide but, in that stolid, sensible monarchy, they are down nearly 90 per cent from peak. “I think to a great extent it’s been a success,” says Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist. “We are now seeing rapidly falling cases, we have continuously had healthcare that has been working, there have been free beds at any given time, never any crowding in the hospitals, we have been able to keep schools open which we think is extremely important, and society fairly open.”

Uncomplicatedly good news, you might think. Yet the overseas media coverage of Sweden is brutal. Its fatality rate is endlessly compared to the lower rates in Norway and Finland (never the higher rates in Italy or Britain). Many commentators sound affronted, as though Sweden were deliberately mocking the harsher prohibitions imposed in most of the world.

The nature of their criticism is telling. To condemn Sweden for its relatively high number of deaths per capita suggests a worrying inability, even after five months, to grasp what “flattening the curve” means. In the absence of a cure or vaccine, an epidemic will end up reaching roughly the same number of people. That number may differ from country to country for all sorts of possible reasons: age profile, weather, family living patterns, openness to international travel, incidence of obesity, past exposure to different coronaviruses, differing levels of genetic immunity.

But it won’t be much affected by lockdown measures. To put it at its simplest, flattening the curve doesn’t alter the area underneath the curve. No country can immobilise its population indefinitely; so all we are doing, in the absence of a medical breakthrough, is buying time.

The UK lockdown was intended to string things out while we built our capacity. “It’s vital to slow the spread of the disease,” said the PM in his televised address of March 23. “Because that is the way we reduce the number of people needing hospital treatment at any one time, so we can protect the NHS’s ability to cope – and save more lives.”

Sweden judged that it could manage to keep its hospitals functioning with only relatively minor restrictions – and it was right. With hindsight, it seems likely that the UK could have got away with a similar approach. Not only did our Nightingale hospitals stand largely empty throughout; so did many of our existing hospital beds. The expected tidal wave, mercifully, did not come – probably because the rate of infection, worldwide, turned out to be lower than was first feared.

No one should blame public health officials for erring on the side of caution. Still, it ought to have been clear by late May that we could start easing restrictions. We knew, by then, that the infection rate had peaked on our around March 18 – that is, five days before the lockdown was imposed.

But, alarmingly, liberty turns out to be more easily taken than restored. The easing of the lockdown was achieved in the face of public opposition: British voters were global outliers in their backing for longer and stronger closures. The media, never having internalised what flattening the curve meant, failed to distinguish between preventable deaths and deaths per se.

In March, according to the official minute, “Sage was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress the spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak.” As far as I can tell, it has never rescinded that view. The question is not whether there will be some post-lockdown uptick in infection rates – releasing an entire population from house arrest is bound to lead to an increase in all sorts of medical problems, from common colds to car crashes. The question, rather, is still the one we faced in March, namely can we be certain that our healthcare capacity will not be overwhelmed.

Given what we can see in Sweden – and, indeed, in developing nations which lack the capacity to isolate their teeming populations – it seems pretty clear that we can.

Yet the original rationale for the closures has somehow got lost. Commentators now demand the “defeat” of the disease, and hold up league tables of fatality rates as if that were the only gauge by which to measure the performance of different countries. Covid, like everything else, has been dragged into our culture wars, so that one side revels in excessive caution, ticking people off for the tiniest lockdown infractions, while the other argues that lockdowns don’t work at all.

The case against the lockdown is not that it was useless, but that it was disproportionate and had served its purpose long before it was eased. Confining an entire population is bound to have some impact on slowing a disease – any disease. The question is how high a price we should be prepared to pay.

Sweden seems to have got it right. It banned large meetings and urged people to stay home where possible. But, beyond one or two targeted closures, it broadly trusted people to use their nous. Because it judged coolly at the outset that there would be no immediate vaccine, it never got into the ridiculous position of being unable to restore normality in the absence of one. It settled in for the long haul, understanding that the disease would be around for a while, and that acquired immunity would be part of the eventual solution.

The figures for Q2 growth are published later today. Yes, Sweden will have suffered. The distancing measures taken by most Swedes, and the global downturn, will have taken their toll. Still, my guess – judging from retail figures, credit card activity, employment rates and other extant data – is that Sweden will comfortably have outperformed most European countries, as well as avoiding the costs of furlough schemes and massive borrowing.

It may turn out, when all is said and done, that the international variable was not the eventual death toll so much as the price exacted from the survivors.

Ryan Bourne: “Levelling the playing field” is no argument for an online sales tax

5 Aug

Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Some time soon, we’ll see more automation in the fast food sector. Burger-making machines are real. Franchises such as McDonald’s have rolled out self-ordering touchscreens. It’s not difficult to imagine a world in which fast-food worker numbers collapse. In the longer-term, when the technologies become widely affordable to businesses, cost reductions from these sorts of labour-saving investments will benefit consumers through lower prices.

Not every competitor chippie, kebab shop, or burger outlet will make the transition, of course. Some will struggle under what will then become the higher cost, labour-intensive model, finding their niche in the market. Others may simply go out of business – unable to compete on price and without the ability to invest in the machinery.

Would this be a problem? Or is it simply an example of capitalism’s creative destruction? 

Imagine if the struggling companies and their employees demanded Parliament pass a “burger automation tax” under the premise of “levelling the playing field” with those companies that took the plunge. Think how dangerous supporters of consumer-led capitalism would consider it for popular price-reducing innovations to be held up as a problem. Consider how bemused we’d be if the savings in labour costs were dubbed “unfair competition,” simply because not every company realised them.

Well, we are seeing an analogous argument capture policymaking today. And, bizarrely, free-marketeers within the Conservative party are not really speaking out against the muddled thinking.

The UK government is kite-flying about an online sales tax of two per cent, or taxing online deliveries to consumers. One of the many justifications given for even considering these Luddite measures is to “level the playing field” between online retailers and the High Street, given the latter face business rates.

Here’s the problem: there already is a level playing field. Just as all businesses face the same minimum wage laws, they also face the same overall tax regime. This includes business rates – which is a tax on the rental value of commercial property, not sales.

Faced with those policy realities, businesses are free to decide how to operate and structure. Innovative online sellers such as Amazon have simply adopted business models that repudiate the need for a high fixed‐cost physical presence in expensive inner‐city areas.

Operating from out-of-town warehouses is a cost-saving business decision akin to the potential automation in fast food. To then suggest that online retailers not needing to rent high-value property is some distortion of competition that requires a corrective tax, as the Treasury reportedly believes, is just bizarre.

It’s this business decision that partially explains why online sellers can provide low prices for consumers, enhancing their welfare. The idea that adopting this model is some underhand advantage is as daft as saying that Amazon’s packaging costs are a disadvantage for it, requiring a “packaging-equivalent tax” on High Street stores’ sales.

To echo the 19th century classical liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat, the bricks-and-mortar retailers using this level playing field argument are akin to candlemakers petitioning the Government about the sun flooding the market with cheap light.

Now if the Government thinks that the current business rates regime is an inappropriate tax on rental values or has distortionary impacts on commercial property use (I agree, but think the impact overblown) then, by all means, they should change the law faced by all. If councils are worried about car parking charges’ impact on high street retailers, then they are within their rights to adjust them.

But let’s not talk as if it’s unfair competition when firms, faced with a tax regime, innovate to reduce costs to provide a service in a way that consumers prefer. For make no mistake, it is customers that will ultimately bear the costs of any new sales or delivery tax in the form of higher prices, especially those whose use of delivery is less responsive to price, such as in rural areas.

Of course, increasingly traditional retailers are themselves re-orienting to online, especially during Covid-19. Any cuts to business rates (to the extent they are passed through by landlords) might allow for some consumer price reductions to “compete” better with online firms for sales. But if these same traditional retailers then face a new tax on their growing online sales anyway, the Government will have given with one hand and taken with another. 

And which companies will suffer disproportionately from the new administrative burden of having to deal with an online sales tax, do you think? Will it be Amazon? Or is it more likely to be smaller companies navigating the online market for the first time?

This whole debate highlights a broader gripe I’ve had with Conservative policy thinking for some time. Conservatives used to understand the case for consumer-led markets, as extolled by Jeff Bezos in a US Congressional hearing last week. They trusted customers to make choices in their own best interests. Our revealed preferences were thought to represent us trying to maximise our wellbeing under the circumstances we face.

But increasingly MPs seem to think they know better. Sure, customers might be flocking to online retail, especially during a deadly pandemic. But what they really want, we are told, is a thriving High Street. Who you gonna believe: MPs or your lying eyes?

The idea that any business providing the same product must face the same tax and regulatory cost base to truly compete on a “level playing field” is easily dismissed. Wind and nuclear power both produce electricity. But if someone told you we needed a tax on wind power to make up for the safety costs of nuclear, you’d think they were utterly mad. So what do we think is different about retail, after we’ve decided that it’s appropriate to tax commercial property consumption?

Now perhaps the Government’s real aim is not to “levelling the playing field.” Some say a tax on online deliveries would reduce congestion – a daft argument given a van delivering to 30-40 places would cause far less traffic congestion than everyone going to stores. Some say that the Government simply needs the revenue – in which case £2 billion is a relative drop in the ocean. Our communitarian friends, with their stale 1950s vision of High Street’s somehow engendering “community,” want to pull any lever to try to preserve the town centres of yesteryear.

Yet those arguments are self-evidently absurd or futile in the face of ongoing trends. The “level playing field” line is more dangerous precisely because it sounds as if it’s pro-competition. If Conservatives really believe, however, that the role of Government is to correct for businesses finding ways to reduce their fixed costs, as if this were some unfair advantage, then they are further through the economic looking glass than I’d realised.

Matt Vickers: The killing of Andrew Harper. Why I, alongside 22 other MPs, wrote to the Attorney General last Friday.

5 Aug

Matt Vickers is the MP for Stockton South.

The images of Henry Long, Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole laughing during their trial for the killing of PC Andrew Harper truly pierced the public consciousness. Their sniggering and pride in the devastation they caused has desperately angered the British people, and last week’s manslaughter verdict feels out of step with such a brutal crime.

On August 15, 2019, PC Harper was called to the scene of the attempted theft of a quad bike. The three teenage boys involved sped away in their car, PC Harper became tangled and was dragged for over a mile, before dying on the road. His killers swerved time and time again, violently trying to shake him off, yet they claim they were unaware he was even stuck to the car.

Such a crime against one of our brave police officers must surely be met with only the strongest and toughest of sentences. Anything less beggars’ belief and flies in the face of justice.

It is for this reason I, alongside 22 other MPs, wrote to the Attorney General last Friday. We are urging her to refer the case to the Court of Appeal and recommend that a full life-term should be served. Faith in public order is integral; for our justice system to work we must protect those who work to uphold and defend it.

Just take a few moments to read Lissie Harper’s open letter, published on Facebook. PC Harper’s wife’s letter is both eloquent and direct, devastated yet composed:

“I implore you to hear my words, see the facts that are laid out before us, and I ask with no expectations other than hope that you might help me to make these changes be considered, to ensure that Andrew is given the retrial that he unquestionably deserves and to see that the justice system in our country is the solid ethical foundation that it rightly should be. Not the joke that so many of us now view it to be.”

His innocent loved ones have been left without closure; a common-sense approach to justice is needed. Unfortunately, many would say the ultimate aim of securing a retrial is unlikely, and I would be choosing to overlook significant legal precedents if I was to say otherwise.

It is very rare for “not guilty” verdicts to be overturned, regardless of how intense external pressures and public demand may be. In this instance, there is a potential road to a retrial, but it is uphill and scattered with obstacles. The High Court would be able to order a retrial if one of the defendants was acquitted because of “intimidation of, or interference with, a witness or juror”.

From the very beginning of the trial, there were allegations of attempts by supporters of the accused to distort the trial. At one stage, the presiding judge ordered extra security measures to protect the jury, following information from the police thatan attempt is being considered by associates of the defendants to intimidate the jury”. This alone creates the space for an investigation into the conduct of the trial from the Crown Prosecution Service. It could potentially be crucial.

It is obvious that PC Harper was a wonderful man. He had the sense of public duty to serve, even when his shift was up and he was due to head home.

We must stand alongside those who run towards danger to protect us at times like this. The intuitive recognition of what is right and what is wrong is something the people of this country have at their core; it is this very spirit and hunger for justice that must now be harnessed.