Robert Halfon: Do Twitter’s bosses believe that anti-semitism is worth indulging for profit?

29 Jul

What is the difference between Radio des Mille Collines and Twitter?

Radio des Mille Collines (RDMC) was a radio station that broadcast in Rwanda between 1993 and 1994.  One of its founders (and primary funder) was businessman, Felcien Kabuga, who was recently arrested in France for alleged war crimes against the Rwandan Tutsi population in 1994. One million – predominantly Tutsi – Rwandans were killed over three months in a genocide that shocked the world. In the summers of 2008 and 2009, I spent time teaching in Rwanda, as part of the Andrew Mitchell-led Project Umabano.

What I learnt and saw first-hand in that country will haunt me for the rest of my life. The Tutsi people were, first, systematically demonised, then, marginalised and, finally, murdered. As so often in human history, the Free World stood by and let it happen.

In part, what made the mass-slaughter humanly possible were the activities of the RDMC. Listened to by millions, the station would broadcast regular propaganda against the Tutsis, notably describing them as, “cockroaches”. It helped ‘desensitise’ the Hutu population in terms of the killings they would go on to carry out.

I thought of Radio des Mille Collines on Monday this week as, for the first time since joining Twitter in 2009, I began a 48-hour boycott in solidarity with Jewish groups, Jews in public life, the former Chief Rabbi and supportive friends.

As RDMC showed, the power of broadcasting – whether it be social media, TV or radio – can, at worst, facilitate a genocide. At best, it desensitises those who engage with it, so much so that they no longer see racial hatred as an offence, but merely part of everyday parlance.

Clearly, Jack Dorsey is not Felicien Kabuga. Nor is Twitter as an organisation encouraging genocide.

But was RDMC the early equivalent of Twitter for the Hutu militia? Whilst the Hutus may not have had the internet, they did have access to pocket radio. They were able to switch on and hear ‘ordinary’ folk call in to tell their stories about the so-called horrific actions of the Tutsi “cockroach” population.

Was the ability of the RDMC to spread evil and hatred any different to some of the vile Tweets that anti-Semites write on Twitter, seemingly with both impunity and immunity?

In essence, the question to be asked is whether Twitter has created a safe haven to spread hatred of Jewish people? What I have never understood from some of these social media websites is why the onus is always on the victim to report abuse. Why is it that the advanced algorithms do not pick this up? Moreover, when it is reported, especially when it comes to anti-semitism, rarely is it followed through.

At the time of writing this article for ConservativeHome, despite reporting an anti-semitic tweet a week or so ago, it has still not been removed. This inaction – as exemplified in the case of Wiley, the rapper who wrote anti-semitic tweets last week, which are still up as I write -is why so many good people have decided to stage a 48-hour boycott of Twitter.

Often, Twitter goes after the big high-profile cases in terms of dealing with extremism, yet when it comes to specific and regular instances of anti-Semitism, the social media site appears to turn a blind eye.

Why does all this matter? In February, the Jewish Community Security Trust reported that anti-Semitic incidents were at an all-time high, with 1,805 cases recorded in 2019. Online anti-Semitism made up the greatest proportion of abuse, at 39 per cent, with the vast majority taking place on Twitter.

Perhaps the management of Twitter just don’t care because they are making so much money? Why should a few upset Jews upset its golden applecart?

As far as I am aware, none of us Twitter boycotters have left Twitter for good. I will still use the social media site as, on balance, it is more useful than not. But, I have a very different opinion of Twitter from a few years ago, when I thought the social media site was a genuine benefit to mediakind. There might come a time that this 48-hour boycott – a chip of ice, slipping down the mountain – may become an avalanche. Millions of decent people may decide that Twitter is no longer worth the candle. I think that time could be nearer than we think.

Michael Gove, in the past, described countries that treat their Jewish citizens well, as being the countries in history that were most liberal, enlightened, democratic and having deep respect for the rule of law. In the same way, perhaps, we can judge the enlightenment of social media sites by the way they genuinely – or not, as the case may be – work to combat anti-Semitism.

P.S. Readers may be interested in this article I wrote on the Rwandan genocide in August 2008 for ConservativeHome: “How Bergen Belsen came to the hills of Rwanda”.

Darren Grimes: “Hey folks, eat out and spend more – no, not you, fatty. And here’s a new tax for you, consumer-friendly online retailer.”

29 Jul

Darren Grimes is a political commentator and is content creator at Reasoned UK.

“C’mon folks, Dine Out To Help Out at the taxpayer’s expense, feast like a Bourbon King to help Britain’s hospitality sector…!

“…Except you, fatty!”

“C’mon folks, get splashing the cash on retail to get the economy moving again and speed up our economic recovery…!”

“…Online retailer? Not you, I think you’ve caused quite enough trouble on our high streets, ta very much.”

It used to be a source of much hilarity when I worked in the think tank world and would see article after article from left-wing columnists about the so-called influence that think tanks have upon influencing and shaping the Conservative Party and government policy.

They do, of course, achieve way beyond their size and numbers – but with HS2 still going ahead, strict new junk food rules that ban pre-9p, advertisements and a proposed online sales tax, if there is a think tank playing the role of puppet master, it certain;y isn’t one on the side of business and the consumer.

By nature Conservatives, especially the rank and file membership, are wary of taxes, and are therefore unsympathetic to tax rises. They tend to think that people spend their own money more wisely than the Government spends it.

They regard taxes as an unfortunate necessity, because some things, such as defence, law and order, foreign policy, and some parts of care for those needing to be caught by society’s safety net have to be handled collectively.

Polling carried out by Survation for  the Adam Smith Institute reveals this to be the case beyond the Conservative Party’s card carriers. There is popular support for reducing taxes after the lockdown to help boost the economy and jobs – with young people the most supportive of tax cuts after the lockdown. You can understand why: they might not be casualties of Covid-19, but they have disproportionately suffered from the economic response to the disease. Young people who are trying to enter the workforce might well experience long-run lost earnings too.

I have two brothers back home in County Durham, both younger than I am at the ripe old age of 27; both struggling to find employment as many receive their P45; both wondering what their post-COVID future will look like, and both desperate for the experience that only gainful employment can offer.

We should be doing all they can to ensure that young people like them, in those highly-targeted former Red Wall areas and beyond, are offered the best possible chance to get back into work as quickly as possible.

That’s why I find it completely and utterly baffling that the Conservative Party seems to be doing all it can to kick consumers and businesses whilst they’re down. It’s those consumers and employers that we need to be helping to secure precious economic growth, and to regain those record levels of employment that we recently enjoyed and benefited from.

We should have a laser-like focus on reducing the tax burden on enterprises, supporting housing reform, improving accessibility to child care and championing trade over vested interests – instead of waxing lyrical about how fat Britain is and how one extra dose of nannying is all we need to get us off of our bottoms and away from our calorific excesses.

It really is quite something to see the Prime Minister, who once railed against paternalistic Toryism, becoming the champion of it – only days before the Government offers a taxpayer bung to encourage us all to stuff our faces to support British hospitality.

The proposals for taxes on online goods also don’t make any sense. At a time when many had no other choice but to shop online, these are taxes that are likely to get passed on to workers and consumers. They would make it much more difficult to sign a trade agreement with our American allies, are not what we should be doing at this unfrozen Brexit moment and will do nothing to alleviate the burden our consumers and high streets are facing. The solution to solving the issues our brick and mortar stores face will not be solved through clobbering online shoppers.

The question that it’s about time Her Majesty’s Treasury should ask itself would be: “which taxes should we cut to boost growth and jobs?” The answer is the taxes that discourage employment – such as National Insurance. We should reduce Corporation Tax, not by cutting the rate, but by allowing businesses to deduct the full cost of expenses they incur in the year that they incur them. In general, we should reduce or eliminate the taxes that discourage enterprise, employment and expansion – God knows, my younger brothers and millions like them could do with the helping hand.

Andrew Bowie: Evidence today that Ministers won’t negotiate trade deals that expose British farmers to unfair competition

29 Jul

Andrew Bowie is MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

As someone who believes in the levelling-up agenda and vision of a Global Britain, I am excited by our re-emergence as an independent trading nation. For the first time in more than 40 years, we are able to devise our own trade policy and export the best of Britain abroad in ways we haven’t always been able to.

As MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, home of the best beef, lamb and malting barley, I cannot wait to see more of our brilliant food and drink sold abroad. But as we develop our own agricultural trade policy once again, it is absolutely vital that the voice of the industry and the public are heard, and that their interests are advanced and protected.

Alongside many colleagues, that is why I welcome the government’s decision to set up the Trade and Agriculture Commission – which launches formally at an event in Whitehall today. Now is the right moment to step up engagement not just with the farming industry, but also with consumer, animal welfare and environmental groups across the UK.

The Commission includes representation from all these groups, and will be engaging more broadly with stakeholders like the RSPCA, British Veterinary Association, National Sheep Association, Food Standards Agency, and Tesco – all of whom are at today’s launch event.

The Commission will work with these and other organisations across the UK to ensure that the UK agriculture sector remains among the most competitive and innovative in the world. Its work will inform the fundamental principles of the UK’s agricultural trade policy, and provide expert advice to government on areas like increasing export opportunities, and on how Britain can remain a world-leader in animal welfare and environmental standards.

To her credit, Liz Truss has been clear that this government will stand up for British farming as part of any trade deal, and will never sign an agreement that means British farmers face unfair competition. I, for one, am reassured by that, and see this Commission as further evidence that the government is serious about taking expert advice and pursuing trade policy that benefits farmers and consumers.

We should be optimistic out there for some of the fantastic opportunities available to out UK farmers and producers. The US, for example, is the world’s second biggest lamb market – if we take a three per cent market share, it could boost lamb exports by £18 million a year. One in five agri-food and drink companies sell abroad, so there is a real opportunity to increase that number and sell more of our brilliant produce overseas.

We also have the opportunity to lead the global debate around agriculture trade policy and drive higher standards across the world. Our environmental and animal welfare standards are among the highest in the world. Leaving the EU actually gives us the freedom to engage the WTO on this issue and build an international coalition that pushes up standards beyond Britain. This is part of the work of the Commission.

Its establishment is a welcome step at a critical time for UK farmers and food producers, and will help ensure British farming and consumer interests are at the heart of UK trade policy.

Simon Kaye: The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic was a wake up

29 Jul

Simon Kaye is a Senior Policy Researcher at the New Local Government Network.

We live – as we’re constantly told – in turbulent times.

Even before the arrival of a new viral pandemic and months of self-induced economic coma, changes were clearly on the horizon. Politically polarised culture war, drastic and unpredicted shake-ups of the UK’s constitutional status quo, the slowly-boiling-frog feeling of technological progress, environmental degradation, collapsing faith in democratic institutions, and ever-growing, ever-more-complex demands on public services.

But this turbulence also creates a moment of radical possibility.

The COVID-19 emergency has highlighted a structurally different way of approaching the most serious challenges we face. The thousands of mutual aid groups that have emerged in the last few months – the subject of our new report at NLGN – reflect a general rise in neighbourliness, community cohesion, and attachment to place.

While this is an effect visible almost everywhere affected by the pandemic, there is evidence to suggest that Britain has experienced this effect in a more pronounced way than everywhere else. Perhaps this is because we are measuring from such a low starting-point. The UK is, by many measures, one of the most centralised countries in the world. This was never more visible than in the systematic failure of the centre to respond to the pandemic – with over-centralisation ruining our efforts to set up test-and-trace systems, create useful tracking apps, and work effectively with facilities and resources not under direct government control.

While the current government seems to be alive to the pressing need for modernisation and streamlining at the crowded centre of Whitehall, there had been very little interest in a meaningful devolution and decentralisation agenda which could genuinely ‘level-up’ regional economies and give people a real sense of ‘taking back control’.

Little interest, that is, until now. The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic may have just about served as the wake up call that the centre needs. The Prime Minister has called for new proposals to support and sustain the community response that we have seen as the country turns toward recovery.

There are lessons aplenty in our report on the new mutual aid groups, where thousands of people spontaneously responded to the crisis by supporting their shielding and vulnerable neighbours, sometimes by meeting essential needs for food and medicine, and at other times in a surprisingly sophisticated way that addressed welfare issues too. Our research revealed an extraordinary diversity of approaches and experiences. In many places mutual aid was the only thing that made the government’s ‘shielding’ policy at all workable.

Mutual aid groups show an appetite for self-governance and localism that many thought to be extinct in the UK. They represent a way for people to invest time in the places they live and the people they live near, and improve their lives independently of the state. Many of the groups we spoke to expressed a desire to sustain their newfound local cohesion and spirit of friendly collaboration after the end of the crisis.

Our research shows that the success of these groups often hinged on the special circumstances of the current emergency. This means that, for community action of this sort to continue, ways must be found to create space for the flourishing of flexible, autonomous, and citizen-driven activity at the neighbourhood level.

So how can this be done?

First – embrace the role of local government. In the best cases we observed, councils offered expertise, resources and spaces for mutual aid groups to thrive. They also stood out of the way and allowed these groups the freedom to respond quickly and on their own terms. We suggest that councils work to build up the skills, tools, and culture they need to help facilitate and empower community groups in the future. Of course, it should go without saying that councils will need to be properly resourced if they are to do this important work.

Second, and just as importantly, create the time for people to be better neighbours.

In many places the conditions for these groups’ strength was created by the free time of working-age people who were furloughed or otherwise found they had little work to do. We think it would be appropriate to incentivise employers to allow more free and flexible time for employees – perhaps specifically earmarked for community engagement – so they can spend that time on being good neighbours. Normalising a shorter and more flexible working week, introducing new bank holidays, and increasing statutory holiday time could all help, too.

We don’t long for permanent economic lockdown, of course, but the mutual aid phenomenon does demonstrate that many people will use their free time in extraordinarily productive and pro-social ways. As the economy fires up again, this free time is likely to evaporate – but the needs that the mutual aid groups are meeting will not fade nearly as fast.

Such measures would help begin the work of building up the resilience and fortitude of our communities, and even help replace dependence on top-down systems with meaningful localism and autonomy. We owe it to ourselves to find a very different starting-point before the next big challenge arrives.

The Government’s speedy response to Spain reflects what happened in the initial stages of the Coronavirus outbreak

28 Jul

Over the weekend there was enormous uproar about the Government’s decision to apply a 14-day quarantine rule to tourists returning from Spain. It did this at extremely short notice, throwing into disarray the holiday plans of approximately 1.8 million people, many of whom also had the added complication of worrying about their workplace rights.

The decision to impose the rule was instigated by Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, who warned that rising cases in Spain were “statistically significant”, having risen by 6,355 since Friday. Thus the Government felt compelled to act quickly.

On Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Dominic Raab defended the move, saying that a “real time response” was right, and anything else would “muddy the waters”.

This has, of course, not gone down well in Spain, whose tourism industry is highly contingent upon an influx of Brits. Pedro Sánchez, its prime minister, criticised the restrictions, saying that “64.5 per cent of the new cases registered are in two territories” and that in most of the country the prevalence of Covid-10 was “very much inferior to the numbers registered in the United Kingdom”.

Indeed, it is mainly Catalonia in the north-east and nearby Aragón that have seen spikes in infections. Either way, the rate of the infection for the country now stands at 35.1 cases per 100,000, compared to the UK which stands at 14.7 (according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control), hence the newfound concern.

It’s not only the Spanish prime minister who is unhappy about the news, but the travel industry too, which will struggle immensely as a result of the uncertainty it creates.

It has already been reported that large numbers of trips to France, Italy and Greece have since been cancelled, a trend which is likely to grow after Boris Johnson warned today of a second wave across Europe.

The decision could inadvertently exacerbate social inequalities, which the Coronavirus crisis has already highlighted, as those in low-paid, on-site jobs, will be unable to self-isolate versus, say, bankers working from home.

The Government has said that they will be offered universal credit to those whose income is impacted, but the practical implications of being off work for two weeks is not always something the state can mitigate. Furthermore, it could be said that the Government’s move contradicts its own desire to get people back to work on August 1, given all the risks involved.

Although the guidelines will put a dent in many holiday plans, there is some good news at least. According to The Telegraph, ministers are trying to cut the quarantine time for those coming back from Spain to ten days. This move will presumably be extended to other destinations – all the more important as countries such as France and Germany have also seen rises in Coronavirus cases.

Ministers want to reduce the quarantine time by testing arrivals from high-risk countries eight days after they land (Coronavirus takes five to seven days to incubate). If they test negative they will be allowed to come out of self-isolation two days later. This plan should cut almost a working week off the self-isolation period, and as scientists’ understanding and ability to test Coronavirus, hopefully these testing plans can go even further.

One thing that is also worth pondering is whether the risk of quarantine rules were inevitable, too, given that countries are now much more effective at testing. Fears about a second wave may be exacerbated by the fact that governments can better detect the virus now.

Though there is anger at the Government, Raab was right to say that advanced notice of the Spanish quarantine would have caused confusion in the travel industry (though it has happened as a result of the decision too).

Part of the Government’s fast response to what was happening in Spain reflects what happened at the beginning of the UK’s Coronavirus outbreak. A study by researchers at Oxford and Edinburgh University has found that most cases in the UK could be traced back to Spain (34 per cent), France (29 per cent) and Italy (14 per cent), as opposed to China.

So it could be said that there is a “once bitten twice shy” element to the newly imposed quarantine. And had the Government not done anything, it would no doubt be accused of callousness by the usual armchair epidemiologists.

As for what happens next in travel? Like much of the Coronavirus crisis, it’s anyone’s guess.

Andy Street: One, two, three – it’s a hat-trick of coming Conservative Party conferences for Birmingham

28 Jul

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

For years, the Party conference season was synonymous with the seaside. With the Commons in recess, delegates headed to places like Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton, to shape policy in the midst of seaside rock and ‘kiss me quick’ hats.

All that changed in 2008, with a bold decision that sent an important message about Conservative commitment to urban, modern Britain. The conference came to Brum. Last week, I was delighted when Amanda Milling returned here to announce that we will be hosting three more conferences – in 2022, 2024 and 2026.

It was an announcement that was greeted with real excitement. Birmingham is a hospitality city, with exhibition and conference venues that have made us leaders in “business tourism” in the UK.

Holding the Party Conference brings great benefits, both economic and more symbolic ones.

Firstly, of course, Conference brings income to the host city – estimated to be worth £20 million for each conference. This is great news for the region’s economy and jobs as we attempt to safely restart the economy post lockdown.

Major conference and exhibition venues like the NEC and ICC directly employ many thousands of local people, and the West Midlands’ hospitality sector also supports a region-wide supply chain, from hotels, restaurants, bars, events companies, and marketers. This vital sector was brought to a complete halt by Coronavirus. It is no wonder last week’s announcement was so well received, coming hot on the heels of the Prime Minister’s announcement that exhibitions could reopen from October 1.

Secondly, the return of Conference to Brum gives us an opportunity to underline our region’s relationship with and connection to Government – bringing, since 2010, the whole Government to the region. Much has been said about the need for Government to escape their South East bubble to connect more with communities north of Watford. By relocating to Birmingham for Conference, ministers will see first-hand how their investments, guided by devolved decision-making and local expertise, are helping level-up the economy.

Thirdly it gives us the chance to showcase the City and wider region. While the traditional warm Brummie welcome hasn’t changed, delegates and the media will notice plenty of visible improvements to Birmingham. They highlight the renaissance that has transformed the Second City in recent years and is set to continue.

When delegates arrive in 2022, a better-connected Birmingham will still be buzzing with the afterglow of the summer’s Commonwealth Games. Trams will have once again become a familiar sight, running past the Conference venue, the length of Broad Street and out towards Edgbaston. We will have seen further huge improvements in the City’s transport network – with the complete rebuilding of University Station (winning Government funding last week).

New, first-generation Sprint bus routes, which months before shuttled international spectators between Commonwealth Games venues, will be bringing people to a city centre transformed by the completion of the £700 million Paradise development. By 2022 Birmingham’s bold, bright new future will be firmly here.

Finally, the location of the annual conference reiterates the political importance of the UK’s cities to our party. When David Cameron moved our annual conference from the traditional seaside setting to our great cities it underlined the party’s ambition to win again in urban Britain. After all, until 1997 those cities contributed an important cohort of MPs and Cabinet Ministers to Conservative Government.

However, that drive to win back urban Britain has proved an elusive challenge, despite the election victories of 2010 and 2015. Even when the “red wall” was breached in 2019 Labour bastions in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds proved resistant. Indeed, of these cities, only Leeds has conservative councillors.

For this entire period, the only Conservative MP in any of our great cities was Andrew Mitchell in Sutton Coldfield. But it was in Brum that the break-through came. In 2019, for the first time since 1987, the Party gained a big city seat – Birmingham Northfield. This was a hugely important and symbolic win for the Party, showing we can win in cities again.

More importantly it has given the people of Northfield constituency a dedicated, effective and sincere champion in Gary Sambrook. Gary has already proved tenacious in fighting for his area – and is pushing, for instance, for further regeneration of the former Rover factory site at Longbridge. Much has already been done to reclaim what had been a derelict eyesore for many years – but Northfield’s new MP is determined to create even more jobs and opportunities there.

Birmingham also sets the pace when it comes to Conservative representation on local authorities in urban Britain. Unlike the other big cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, the Conservatives have run the council here in recent memory and retain a strong, influential base of councillors, led by indomitable campaigner Robert Alden.

In the last local elections Labour’s majority across a city of ten parliamentary constituencies comprised just 4483 votes – less than 500 per constituency, a tiny majority. Indeed, when you consider that my own majority averages 135 in each constituency, it shows how closely fought elections are in our area.

There is a real possibility that when delegates arrive in Birmingham for the conference in 2022, they will be visiting a growing city of more than a million people with a Conservative-led Council. If we are serious in our ambition to be a party that reflects a modern and diverse Britain, achieving this outcome must be a reality.

Newslinks for Tuesday 28th July 2020

28 Jul

Quarantine to be cut to 10 days for people arriving from Spain…

“Quarantine for people arriving from Spain and other countries with high levels of Covid-19 will be cut to 10 days under plans being finalised by ministers, The Telegraph has learnt. The Government hopes to announce this week a new policy of testing arrivals from high-risk countries eight days after they land. If they test negative they will be allowed to come out of self-isolation two days later, reducing the mandatory quarantine period by four days. The move will cut almost an entire working week off the self-isolation requirement, and ministers hope it will help salvage the summer holiday season for some of those already booked on flights abroad.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, criticises the UK’s decision – Reuters
  • Whitty told ministers they had to act – Daily Telegraph
  • Shapps flies home from Spain into Coronavirus quarantine – The Times
  • No 10 tells holidaymakers to claim universal credit for quarantine – The Guardian
  • Millions face losing entire cost of holiday as Coronavirus cases increase – The Times
  • Bookings for staycations surge – The Times

… as holidaymakers are told there’s a risk to all travel

“Holidaymakers were warned yesterday that “no travel is risk-free” as concern grew that the quarantining of arrivals from Spain will be extended to other countries. Downing Street insisted that rules on overseas travel were under “constant review”, raising fears that the holiday plans of millions will be threatened. At least 11 European countries where quarantine-free travel is possible have suffered Covid-19 increases in recent days, with some reaching higher infection rates than the UK. In the past fortnight Croatia and Belgium have registered twice as many cases per head as Britain. Infections have climbed in France, Germany and Austria too.” – The Times

  • Curfews and local lockdowns make holiday resorts the new Coronavirus front line – The Times
  • Europe faces tough tourist season as result of virus – Daily Telegraph
  • Repatriation during pandemic hampered by penny pinching, say MPs – The Times
  • Foreign Office neglected Britons abroad after Covid-19 travel bans, says report – The Guardian
  • Police crack down on “illegal” staycations – Daily Telegraph
  • WHO says Covid-19 is “easily the most severe” crisis it has faced – The Guardian

Downing Street urged to toughen up on “back to work” message as big companies say they’ll keep staff working from home

“Downing Street was urged to toughen up its ‘back to work’ message last night after a string of top firms said they would not be encouraging staff back to offices for months. A Mail audit of big companies found many are not planning for the majority of workers to return to offices until at least towards the end of the year. In another worrying sign for city and town centres, several bosses said they expected working from home to become the ‘new normal’ after the crisis. Among the firms contacted by the Mail, consultancy giant KPMG said the majority of its 16,000 office-based workforce were unlikely to return until next year. Education publisher Pearson, which has about 3,600 office staff, also said workers would not be expected to return potentially until 2021.” – Daily Mail

  • Johnson warns UK businesses to prepare for second wave – FT
  • Cat diagnosed with Coronavirus in first UK case of animal infection – The Guardian

Junk food ad ban is likely to take two years

“A 9pm watershed for junk food adverts is likely to take two years to introduce as ministers give companies time to make food healthy enough to promote. Calorie labels on pub beer pumps are being considered and the government has told cafés and restaurants that they will be next for compulsory nutritional labels on menus and chalk boards. Boris Johnson promised an obesity plan yesterday that would not be “nannying or bossy” as he cited his weight-loss efforts to encourage people to use fear of the coronavirus to get in shape. The prime minister said that he had been “too fat” when he was admitted to intensive care with Covid-19 in April.” – The Times

Mark Wallace: Boris Johnson’s obesity drive is nannying – and contradicts Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme

“Yesterday, Rishi Sunak tweeted a list of restaurants, the first letters of which spelled out the slogan of his new policy to help the industry: Eat Out to Help Out. The scheme is pretty famous, and not just for its enjoyably smutty undertone. The Treasury will provide a 50% subsidy for diners in thousands of establishments for most of August. On the same day, the Chancellor’s neighbour announced another government initiative: a new obesity strategy. “Like many people, I struggle with my weight,” Boris Johnson confessed, citing his personal experience of Covid-19 as evidence of the need for the nation to get fitter and shed some flab.The plan includes a ban on pre-9pm TV advertising of unhealthy foods.” – The i Paper


Johnson will today announce £2 billion strategy to encourage cycling

“Electric bikes will be cheaper under a new subsidy to encourage older people and commuters to get out on the road. Boris Johnson will announce today a £2 billion strategy to spread “the transformative benefits of cycling” following concerns that people shun two wheels because of worries over road safety or cost. In England grants will help cyclists to buy ebikes, which typically cost £1,000 to £3,000. The subsidy level is yet to be fixed but if it mirrors the electric car scheme, it would mean a third off the price. The grants will be on top of the government’s cycle to work scheme, which gives higher-rate taxpayers up to 42 per cent off the cost of a bike, potentially providing more than two thirds off for some employees.” – The Times

The “cabinet is too large”, Sedwill tells the PM

“Boris Johnson should cull half the cabinet and the government is “too siloed” and “too rivalrous”, the departing head of the civil service said yesterday. In a valedictory speech Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, said that decision-making was being hindered by the “preoccupations of Westminster” rather than the “issues which matter to our citizens”. His call for Whitehall reform is striking because it chimes with the views of Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, with whom Sir Mark has clashed in recent months. Whitehall sources said that both men had always agreed on the need to streamline government but fell out over what Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings saw as Sir Mark’s inadequate early response to the coronavirus.” – The Times

Hackers “based in China” targeted Tugendhat with campaign of lies

“Chinese cyberagents are suspected of being behind a campaign against a senior Conservative MP involving hacking attempts and online impersonations. Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, said last night that he had been subjected to concerted efforts to access his email account and discredit him professionally and personally. The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a division of GCHQ, the government listening post, was called in to examine attacks on his communications and attempts to impersonate him online. Google’s security team also investigated the origins of “spoof” email accounts set up to mimic him and found that the ultimate users were based in China.” – The Times

PM told to include care workers in NHS visa scheme

“Boris Johnson is under pressure to include social care workers in a fast-track NHS visa as figures show that half a million more carers will be needed over the next 15 years. A year after Mr Johnson promised to fix the elderly care system “once and for all”, efforts have intensified in government to find a solution but no structure or funding model has been finalised. Yesterday No 10 denied reports that a tax for the over-40s to fund social care was under consideration. The prime minister’s spokesman said: “It is not true that we are considering this.” However, the idea has gained support among some in government as a way of raising billions of pounds needed to improve the system.” – The Times


Ministers gave £275m of aid cash to firm that built “unsafe” schools in Pakistan

“A company that failed to build schools for 115,000 pupils in Pakistan was awarded an extra £112 million by the British government for projects around the world. IMC Worldwide was awarded a £184 million contract to rebuild earthquake-damaged schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab in 2014 by the Department for International Development (Dfid). However, six years later some students are still being taught in tents after safety concerns revealed serious design flaws in 92 per cent of the schools. It has now emerged that Dfid awarded the company responsible a further £112 million of business for projects ranging from road construction in Nepal to water sanitation in Sierra Leone.” – The Times

Cummings leads push for light-touch UK state-aid regime after Brexit

“Leading members of the UK government are pushing for a minimal, light-touch regime for state aid for British business after Brexit — a stumbling block for talks between London and Brussels over an EU-UK trade deal. Influential Brexiters led by Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s most senior adviser, are arguing against any legislation that would see the UK’s internal market subsidy regime between England, Scotland and Wales governed by an independent regulator. The light-touch regulatory approach would be opposed strongly by Brussels, with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier saying last week there could be no future economic partnership without “robust guarantees” on a level playing field for future trade — including on state aid.” – FT

Government draws up extension to Help to Buy scheme

“UK ministers are drawing up plans to extend the Help to Buy property support scheme beyond its December deadline to prevent buyers losing out due to Covid-19 delays. The government is set to prolong the Help to Buy Equity Loan programme, which allows people in England to buy a new-build property with a tiny deposit, to protect several thousand people whose purchases have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Introduced in 2013, the initiative helps people buy a home with a deposit of as little as 5 per cent of the property’s total value, with the government providing a further 20 per cent equity loan, or up to 40 per cent in London.” – FT

Bercow, Watson and Corbyn’s ex-chief of staff “will not get peerages”

“John Bercow, Tom Watson and Jeremy Corbyn’s former chief of staff Karie Murphy will be formally rejected for peerages this week when the Dissolution Honours are published. Whitehall sources said the trio – who were all nominated by Mr Corbyn – have been dropped from the final list following concerns raised by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, known as Holac. Former Conservative Party treasurer Peter Cruddas has also been left off the list, and two other major Conservative donors are in doubt. However, Holac has approved around 30 new peers, including the England Cricket legend Sir Ian Botham, former Tory chancellors Kenneth Clarke and Philip Hammond and former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson.” – Daily Mail

News in brief:

Johnson benefits from the scorn of critics such as Parris, for it suggests the PM is still an outsider

28 Jul

“There seems no pressing need to embark on the second volume, provisionally entitled The Statesmanship of Boris Johnson, which I hope one day to offer the world.”

So I wrote in 2007, for the paperback edition of my account of his early life, published in hardback the previous year.

Distinguished commentators of the Right and Left, including Alexander Chancellor, Stephen Glover and Paul Routledge, were among those who had greeted with incredulity my suggestion that Johnson might yet become Prime Minister.

David Cameron was firmly in the driving seat as Conservative leader, and in the reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet which he conducted in the summer of 2007 – necessitated by Gordon Brown’s Cabinet reshuffle on becoming Prime Minister a few days earlier – had kept Johnson at arm’s length, as Shadow Spokesman on Higher Education.

Both men had been to Eton and Oxford, but as I attempted in a subsequent update of the book to explain, their temperaments were incompatible:

“There is something about Boris which is an affront to serious-minded people’s idea of how politics should be conducted. By refusing to adopt their solemn tone, he implies that they are ridiculous, and the dreadful thing, from their point of view, is that a large part of the British public agrees with Boris. So it is not just lefties, but people from every part of the political class, who cannot bear his unwillingness to take them as seriously as they take themselves. It was after all a Tory leader, Michael Howard, who had sacked Boris [in 2004], and Howard’s chosen successor, Cameron, has similar instincts about what does and does not constitute reliable behaviour…

“For while Cameron is a favoured son of the Establishment, and takes the Establishment’s view that there are certain things which are just not done, Boris is an outsider, a loner, a man who likes to be on genial terms with everyone but who has no circle of political intimates. Cameron is a man of astonishing gifts, including cool judgement under pressure, but his instinct is to work within the existing framework of rules. Boris frets under such restraint and is always ready to drive a coach and horses through it. Cameron believes in order: Boris believes in being free. Cameron is bound to regard Boris as a bit disreputable, while Boris is bound to regard Cameron as a bit limited.”

This divide had a decisive influence in 2016, when Brexit was the issue. Cameron sought to uphold the status quo, but Johnson drove a coach and horses through it.

So now we have an outsider as Prime Minister, a situation less unusual or paradoxical than one might suppose, for an essential features of our tradition, and a reason why it has survived, is that the Conservative Party has often been led by outsiders.

Margaret Thatcher, Harold Macmillan, Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli are four obvious examples: all on occasion could not, as a matter of temperament more than ideology, stomach the Establishment line taken by the then party leader.

All at one time or another – though not of course in perpetuity – were able as a result to appeal to parts of the nation which were far removed from the Establishment, and which regarded the Establishment’s moralising with disgust.

This is the line in which Johnson belongs. He has a particular affinity with Disraeli, a scandalously disreputable figure in his youth, this early history obscured by his ability to charm Queen Victoria, and by posthumous adulation.

Like Disraeli, Johnson has dismayed his liberal opponents by winning support from patriotic working-class voters who believe in the greatness of Britain, symbolised today by Queen Elizabeth II and our armed forces.

The present Queen would never dream of being partisan in the manner of her great great grandmother, but Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm for her or the armed forces, and sympathy with various terrorist movements, cost Labour dear in December 2019 among its traditional supporters.

Matthew Goodwin suggested, in a piece yesterday for Unherd entitled “Why Boris Johnson keeps on winning”, that the Prime Minister has so far retained the support of these patriotic working-class voters because like them, he rejects the view of many on the Left that Britain is in decline:

“Ever since the vote for Brexit, Left-wing and liberal writers have been consumed by ‘declinism’: the belief that Britain’s best days are in the past. Declinists are united by the assumption that, because of decisions that went against their own politics, Britain has become a diminished world power, is falling behind other states and is led by incompetent, amateurish elites who either lack the required expertise or ‘correct’ ideology to reverse this decline or, worse, are actively perpetuating it…

“One reason why declinists are so vicious is that they have found themselves written out of the national story — election defeats or referendum outcomes have left them on the sidelines, with little power or influence. One reason why Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and Munira Mirza have been so strongly attacked is not only because they committed the double sin of being Conservatives and Brexiteers, but because they are essentially the first group to have gone up against the ‘liberal establishment’ and won.”

Johnson benefits from the disdain of his critics, for it shows his supporters that he is still, in some respects, an outsider, one who is despised rather in the way they were despised when they voted for Brexit. Here is dear old Matthew Parris in a recent column for The Times:

“his colleagues always knew his shamelessness from his personal history. That he isn’t even clever, however, they are only now discovering. If competence shone through then I think the shamelessness would remain an embarrassment that his colleagues would be prepared to suppress. But he’s losing, and the combination of incapacity and shamelessness is beginning to curdle.”

A dozen other commentators might be quoted, all as determined as Parris to take the lowest possible view of the Prime Minister.

One day they will almost certainly be right. Johnson will fall: he will take the blame for something he has done, or even, it may be, for something he has not done, or something many of us thought at the time was a good idea. The role of Prime Minister is essentially sacrificial: ask Lord North, Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden or Tony Blair.

But until the culminating debacle, whatever it turns out to be, Parris and the rest render Johnson incomprehensible. How can a man who “isn’t even clever” have won two London mayoral elections, the EU referendum, the leadership of the Conservative Party and a general election?

A second volume is required to plumb this mystery. Is Parris clever enough to see through Johnson, or Johnson clever enough to incur the enmity of Parris? I shall endeavour, while writing it, to provide evidence for both schools of thought.

Julian Brazier: The time is now for university reform. Here’s how we fix Britain’s broken institutions.

28 Jul

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

The public debate about the future of universities has moved a long way in the last year or two. Michelle Donovan’s excellent recent speech was an important step: the first time a spokesman for any British government has acknowledged that university is poorly serving a substantial proportion of students.

It has since been underlined by a strong statement from Gavin Williamson. The concerns expressed by think tanks, individual writers and the House of Commons Education Committee, which concluded that only half of recent graduates were in graduate level jobs, have been brushed aside unanswered by the university lobby.

Instead, apologists for the universities repeatedly cite statistics about the value of degrees, based on averages which mix the highest performers with those struggling at the margin. Worse, they focus on high participation rates around the world, simply ignoring the two major ways in which the UK is out of line. First, in almost every other country, most students study from home, roughly halving the cost of a campus-based course, and, second, and more importantly, most students in those countries with high HE rates study vocational subjects.

These two factors make comparison with HE participation rates abroad misleading. It is interesting, however, to look at Switzerland and Germany because both are, in one important respect, like us and unlike the majority; they deliver the bulk of their vocational education outside universities, making their statistics more comparable to ours than say France, Italy, Spain or indeed America. Germany and Switzerland have much lower HE participation rates than the UK and both have low unemployment – and exceptionally high productivity.

The Government understands this. As it moves towards reform, a model is emerging based on a shift towards vocational courses at universities, combined with more FE and apprenticeships. More vocational courses are being floated by government as the gateway (along with cuts in vice chancellors’ salaries where appropriate) to assistance from a new bailout fund.

But that limited lever can only apply for the duration of the Covid crisis and only to those institutions seeking financial help. Yet, the crisis is driving record numbers of school leavers into applying for HE this year, despite the Government’s laudable efforts to sustain the sagging jobs market and build up positive alternatives like apprenticeships.

The tanker is drifting further off course. So, the urgent question is, how can the Government enforce its laudable aims without fatally compromising the independence of universities?

My suggestion is that they formally split courses into three categories: two academic, STEM and Arts/other, together with a third, vocational category. Then a set of minimum admission standards should be applied within each of the three categories for eligibility for student loans and other government support. This would leave universities free to control their admissions, but effectively block them offering places to those below the relevant national standard. There could be a limited system of exemptions based on foundation courses for mature students.

The setting of standards would be controversial, but the following broad approach would be a significant improvement on the existing “money for old rope” approach. STEM courses should require a good A level grade in mathematics – it is unrealistic to expect anyone to benefit from a degree in engineering or computer science without a sound mathematical base. In a few cases, like the biological sciences, a minimum overall A level combination might substitute for a maths result.

At a time when the economy desperately needs more STEM graduates, it is in nobody’s interests to allow youngsters to study subjects which they lack the mental capacity to master. We need better maths and science teaching in schools – and more more pupils, including more girls, studying STEM subjects – not to offer false hopes afterwards, as many universities are doing. Too many good universities are already spending the first year of physics and engineering degrees on remedial maths.

The hardest to set nationally would be the arts sector. The Government might wish to avoid the temptation of comparing classics with PPE or geography, to choose three subjects entirely at random, and just set a minimum standard across the board, say three Cs at A Level.

Finally, standards for vocational courses could be set in consultation with industry. Such consultation might suggest that FE or apprenticeships are more appropriate, except for those with the strongest academic base. Certainly, most students should study in their local city or town (other than those living in the most remote areas), to keep costs and debt down.

In her speech, Michelle raised concerns about universities recruiting school leavers for courses that do nothing to improve their life chances. These split into two categories – those on the wrong course and those who should not be at university. Introducing national standards would rescue the most vulnerable group, the latter category, and, incidentally, make permanent the laudable recent ban on unconditional offers. It would have a second important effect too – many of the non-vocational courses would wither because of the paucity of applicants likely to achieve the new standard.

None of this would interfere with universities’ independence, but the package would stop a minority of universities cynically exploiting those most unable to benefit, by shackling them with a lifetime of debt and lost aspirations. It would also save the taxpayer a great deal of money as most student loans are unlikely to ever be fully repaid.

The standards could also be applied to overseas students, so that our doors remain wide open to the brightest and the best – but not to low achievers who currently automatically qualify for a two-year additional stay.

The Government also has an opportunity to drive good leadership by vice chancellors in a quite different way. The honours system sends powerful messages, and two filters could be applied to applications for senior university staff, apart from the obvious main category of awards for academic and research achievement.

First there is an opportunity to highlight those VCs like Karen Cox at the University of Kent, who have acted unilaterally before the government guidelines were published. She announced a large personal pay cut – and imposed the same on her senior colleagues – while protecting low-paid staff. That is real leadership.

The second filter is highlighted by the contrast between Oxford University, on the one hand, where Louise Richardson has consistently resisted Chinese investment with compromising strings. She has also defended dons like Nigel Biggar against woke lynch mobs.

At Cambridge, on the other hand, Stephen Toope, the Vice Chancellor, has presided over the creeping takeover of critical parts of his empire by cheque-waving Chinese organisations and turned a blind eye to the impact on academic independence.

At the same time, he has taken a strong stand in favour of a BAME academic who published profoundly racist material, citing the importance of free speech, and yet allowed a don to be ejected for disagreeing with the woke mob and Jordan Peterson to be denied a visiting professorship, because he was once photographed with a student who was wearing an offensive tee-shirt.

Making Louise Richardson a Dame – and blocking any efforts by the HE Blob to get an honour for her Cambridge counterpart – would send a clear message that Conservatives believe in academic freedom.

We have a great deal to be proud of in our university sector, with the highest-ranking institutions in the world, alongside America, but – in the interests of the rising generation – elements of the system badly need reform. At last, we have a government willing to take action. Here are some ideas for a plan.

Amanda Jenner: A “Devolution Revolution” in Wales will help politicians better connect to their communities

28 Jul

Amanda Jenner is Welsh Conservative County Councillor for the Trewern, Buttington and Middletown ward.

The Conservative Party is a broad church, a place where both common ground and respectful difference of opinion can be found within its membership on a whole host of issues.

This is particularly evident in Wales, where the Welsh Conservatives welcome those who believe that devolution has the potential to work for the whole of the country, as well as those who are anti the Welsh parliament and are understandably “devo-sceptic” due to 20 years of a now languid Welsh Labour, which even at best has been lackadaisical to most of Wales outside of the M4 Corridor.

Recently, Paul Davies, the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Senedd, spoke passionately on the need for a “Devolution Revolution”. This was Calon Lân music to many of our ears and I hope that as part of this Revolution, we fully embrace the idea of localism.

Arguably one of the grounds for devo-scepticism is that decision makers down in Cardiff have lacked the appetite to address many of the issues that occur in Mid, West and North Wales. One example of this was their recent National Development Framework consultation, which identified priority areas for large-scale energy development, without sufficient consideration of the impact this would have on local tourism businesses or associated tourism assets, such as National Trails.

There are some within the Welsh nationalist camps who like to spin this devo-scepticism as a nonsensical idea that Welsh Conservatives are all Anglophiles above all else, who want to copy and paste England’s policies and culture, and enforce them upon Wales.

In the run up to the 2021 Senedd Election, the Welsh Conservatives must bat this ludicrous notion away. Yes we can learn from across the border, but it takes local knowledge and understanding to decide whether to apply, adapt or ignore policy and models used elsewhere.

As a county councillor in Mid Wales, I know my patch. I know that an all singing and dancing remote online learning system, is worthless for some of my residents who can’t get a decent broadband connection. I know that that my residents are alarmed that a minister in Cardiff will be making the decision on whether to develop a large-scale incinerator in a rural area, just a few hundred metres away from a primary school. I know that it is costly and complex to deliver public services in a rural area and that often, we have to think outside of the box.

Localism is a conservative value. As a Conservative, I want to conserve and safeguard the local things around my community that are loved. I want to see the children in our local schools encouraged to have aspiration and to become resilient and responsible adults who have the confidence to seize the local opportunities around them.

I want Welsh language and Welsh culture to be naturally embraced and to grow organically. I don’t want to see the Welsh language forced upon every nook and cranny of Wales, including upon those communities whose traditions and cultures may not have the Welsh Language embedded in them.

At the heart of localism is an appreciation of the significance of community spirit, which has been so commendable during the Covid-19 pandemic. Localism gives a nod to our wonderfully diverse Welsh culture and traditions. Localism encourages local solutions to local problems and would require local decisions for local developments, no matter their size.

In Wales, the decision on whether to approve developments over a certain size is made by a Welsh government Minister. I would like to see this power devolved to local government. Further, in the wake of Covid-19, in order to get the economy back on its feet, local knowledge of business, jobs and opportunities, is fundamental. As argued recently in the LGA magazine by Councillor James Jamieson, the Chairman of the LGA, I too would like to see local government ownership of the employment and skills agenda.

Those who continue to strive for an independent Wales surely cannot shun the idea of localism. Isn’t one sentiment of their movement, the desire for decision makers who understand the needs of those who are impacted by their decisions? Perhaps I am becoming an idealist here, but isn’t “localism” the pacifying solution for all?

What I do know though, is that we cannot carry on with the same old lacklustre Welsh Labour business as usual. I hope that as part of this “Devolution Revolution” we Welsh Conservatives look to de-centralise parts of the Welsh Government and to divert resources more directly to frontlines by empowering local decision makers.

Of course, to responsibly do this, we need to ensure that local authorities are funded fairly and transparently – something which is long overdue a thorough examination in Wales.