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The Daily Telegraph

The Daily Telegraph

The Daily Telegraph

Back in the sunny lockdown spring of 2020, escaping the office to work from home had its attractions. Freedom from the commute, lunch in the garden, more time with the family. For millennials, a couple of months back in the parental home, with free Wi-fi and all meals provided, made a nice break from routine.

But as we go into winter, told that there could be six months of ever-tightening restrictions ahead, a desk in a chilly back bedroom or corner of the living room, or a laptop on the kitchen table, are all looking less conducive to a well-balanced life. It’s not just the impact on heating bills of staying at home all day, or the threat of the taxman catching anyone who has taken the opportunity to carve out a space dedicated to home working. It’s the lack of any form of human interaction, especially if there’s no gym open for indoor exercise, or a pub to go to for a chat. And for young people at the start of their careers, needing to learn from working alongside colleagues, the lack of interaction is not just boring, it presents a real block to progress.

Online meetings are fine for a while, to cover the basics. But they leave no scope for creativity, for ideas generated in the informal conversations which are the stuff of office life, or those random encounters which might result in a new deal. For the first couple of months in lockdown, most office-based businesses found they could manage well enough; some even claimed that productivity increased due to less time spent travelling or chatting. But, for most, the ability to stay effective was based on the human and financial capital established by years of team-working, goodwill generated through interaction with clients and knowledge shared by colleagues accustomed to face-to-face encounters.

As those reserves of capital were depleted, the phased return to the workplace over the summer held out the welcome prospect of a return to near-normal business life. Employers invested heavily in virus protection, drawing up detailed protocols and work rotas to comply with new guidance, making the workplace as safe as possible to get their businesses back on track and – with luck – resuming growth.

No sooner had they done so than the Government ended its back-to-the-office message. Now, not only are employers’ efforts at virus protection largely wasted, they are being told they must take responsibility for employees’ working conditions at home. The new chairman of the Health and Safety Executive has announced that employers who “ask” their staff to work from home should conduct risk assessments. If sitting at the kitchen table is giving a worker a bad back, the HSE will offer a meeting (on Zoom, of course) to check up on the kitchen furniture and if necessary to take the matter up with their employer.

At this point, employers might reasonably be feeling rather aggrieved. Instead of paying for Perspex partitions, air-conditioning upgrades and hand sanitising stations, it seems they should have been arranging home deliveries of ergonomic desks and chairs for all their staff. In a tough economic climate, with countless at breaking point, this is not the news they want to hear.

As with so many of the rules currently being made in Westminster, there are costs attached. Employers may be meeting the bill for now, but as businesses falter and work dries up, WFH may turn out to be very expensive for us all.

The Daily Telegraph

Priti Patel’s migration plans are truly humane

The current soft system for protecting our borders only encourages desperate people to risk their lives

With the Government preparing to “take back control” of UK immigration policies, leaked plans to deter illegal migrants by threatening to process their asylum claims offshore were met with predictable uproar. Proposals being examined by the Home Office include setting up processing centres in British overseas territories, where migrants would be held pending their claims being assessed, or housing them in old cruise ships or decommissioned oil platforms off the coast of the UK.

These ideas draw on the example set by the Australian government in deterring illegal immigration by using detention centres on offshore islands. Angry voices on the Left assert that Priti Patel’s proposals are cruel and inhumane. But the present system is anything but humane, as dangerously overloaded boats and dinghies cross the English Channel in increasing numbers, enriching the traffickers responsible for what Boris Johnson described in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph as an “evil trade”.

More than 6,000 people have made the crossing so far this year, more than twice the number arriving by this route in 2019. The majority are young men, but women (including expectant mothers) and young children, many of them unaccompanied, are also chancing their lives to make this journey. Many of those making the crossing will have paid the people smugglers thousands of pounds, using their savings or borrowing from their families. In their rush to beat the winter weather, more people are being crammed on to smaller boats; the smugglers charge less, but the risk to life is greater.

The Home Office has been grappling with this problem for years, to no avail. Since 2019 the UK has been paying the French to put extra police patrols along their coastline, and border forces in Calais claim that nearly half of all attempted crossings have been intercepted. But the number of attempts still continues to grow. French officials have blamed the UK for providing a generous health and welfare system, acting as a magnet, and for failing to deport migrants whose claims are unsuccessful.

Priti Patel certainly shares that sentiment, citing the “Leftie Labour-supporting lawyers” who exploit every opportunity offered by human rights laws to ensure that their clients remain in the UK. In the last year, only 6 per cent of the migrants who arrived illegally in small boats have been deported, representing very good odds for those tempted to make the journey.

Confident of being allowed to stay, and also knowing that they will be housed, will receive welfare payments and have access to UK healthcare, it’s not surprising that migrants choose Britain as their ultimate destination.

Ms Patel’s critics on the Left argue that this is as it should be; that Britain ought to provide a welcome for refugees from war-torn countries. But there is a gaping hole in this argument: all those who make the Channel crossing have already travelled through EU countries where they could have lodged their asylum claims.

The countries they fled from may indeed be unsafe. But if that is the case, the first EU country in which they arrive is obliged under the Dublin Convention to consider their claim to asylum. The fact that so many migrants do not seek asylum in Italy, or France, or any other EU country they pass through on the way to the UK indicates that they are not so much driven by fear as attracted by the prospect of a more comfortable life in Britain.

Hence the other key proposal being considered by the Home Secretary: that any claims for asylum being made by a migrant who has reached Britain via any EU country will automatically be rejected on the grounds that asylum should have been claimed in the first country reached. Not only would such a rule help to deter illegal migration to the UK, thus putting many of the people smugglers out of business, but it should also, if properly implemented, enable refugees to be distinguished from economic migrants. Such a distinction is crucial to restoring faith in immigration policy.

For all the noise on the Left, and protests from the shadow home secretary, Ms Patel can be confident of widespread public support. As a Covid-induced economic meltdown threatens the UK with record levels of unemployment, the prospect of feeding and housing increasing numbers of illegal migrants is deeply unpopular.

The ideas emerging from the Home Office this week provide grounds for hope that, post-Brexit, the tide can be turned and that a fairer and ultimately more compassionate system can be put in place.

The Daily Telegraph

Digital ID cards are a terrible idea

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided governments around the world with a cast-iron excuse to get intimately involved in the daily lives of their citizens. The UK Government is, it seems, no exception. Anyone who is concerned that state intervention may be getting out of hand should be alarmed by the latest wheeze emanating from No10: a plan to assign a “unique digital identity” to all British citizens. This data-sharing exercise is currently being touted as a solution to difficulties encountered by those trying to obtain welfare support during the pandemic, particularly the 2.6 million self-employed people about whom little information is held on government databases.

To those who remember the political battles fought over the proposed introduction of ID cards by the last Labour government, this will seem eerily familiar. Such schemes are always sold as a convenient and speedy way to access state services. The latest selling point – dealing with the spread of Covid – has breathed new life into a previously discredited idea. Earlier this summer Tony Blair, a long-time proponent of national ID cards, described digital ID as “a natural evolution of the way we are going to use technology.”

Those bold words have a hollow ring nowadays. What is it about the word “digital” that seems to lure ministers into a series of costly, ill conceived  projects, each one attempting to increase the reach and influence of the state? This latest scheme comes hard on the heels of the much-vaunted, hugely expensive track-and-trace app, once hailed by Boris Johnson as “world-beating” but which has returned to the drawing board due to – wait for it – “technical issues”.

Announcing the latest data-sharing project, minister for digital infrastructure Matt Warman declared that digital identities could contribute billions to the economy and that he looks forward to “working with partners in the private sector”. If recent history is anything to go by, the section of the economy likely to benefit most from this will be the management consultants and IT providers tasked with setting it up.

In addition to concerns about the state encroaching on personal freedom, one of the strongest arguments against data-sharing exercises is the threat to privacy. The risk that our health records, tax and benefit status or bank details might be leaked or hacked, whether through incompetence or technical failure, has always been a good reason to resist the amalgamation of multiple sources of information.

Defenders of the plans will no doubt point out that Google and Facebook nowadays know everything about us, and that we willingly surrender our privacy every time we make an online search or log on to social media. And if the Government can create a seamless path between state agencies and the private sector, won’t we all benefit from increased efficiency?

Examples of this cited by the Government include removing the need for landlords to check tenants’ immigration status, for bar owners to ask for proof of age, or GPs to require new patients to fill in forms. If we don’t mind Sainsbury’s prompting us to make our usual purchases, or pop-up ads online, why object to the state hoarding our data too?

The crucial difference is one that should be plain to any right-minded Conservative. The internet giants who hold the keys to our online lives, and the supermarkets who reward us with our loyalty card points, are ultimately answerable to us: their users and their customers. Maintaining data security is essential to their commercial success; the reputational and financial cost of breaching our privacy enables us to hold them to account. Not only do state agencies have access to some of the most confidential details about us, they also seem to be the most likely to mislay that information, and there is very little we can do about it.

Whenever government has sought to amass individual personal data and share it across departments, similar justifications have been offered: speed, convenience, efficiency. Yet when it attempts to put into practice an all-encompassing database purporting to make our lives easier, at the cost of millions if not billions of pounds, the scheme generally collapses amid a welter of acrimony, due to technical failure, data protection breaches or public resistance – or a combination of all three. There is no reason to suppose that providing us all with a “unique digital identity” will be any different – and every reason to fear that this is the most dangerous example of government overreach to date.

 

The Daily Telegraph

We can’t wait for a vaccine to make us safe

For all the optimism, an effective vaccine could still be years away. We need to get back to normal now.

Shares in AstraZeneca surged yesterday on the news that President Trump was considering fast-tracking the Covid vaccine it is developing in conjunction with Oxford University. The White House later damped down reports that it would try to shortcut safety procedures in a bid to buy up millions of doses of the vaccine and make them available before the November presidential election.

US scientific agencies warned, too, of the dangers of rushing out a jab that might be ineffective, or carry harmful side effects. No doubt it’s also clear to the White House that the political gains from releasing a Covid vaccine will only be achieved if the American public have full confidence that it will be safe and effective.

The idea that President Trump is recklessly seeking to expedite the process has nevertheless taken hold in Left-wing circles. Certainly, he appears to be desperate for a good news story to offset the political damage his administration has suffered in its handling of Covid. But Trufmp is hardly the only leader wanting to boast that he got to the vaccine first.

The good news from initial trials is that the Oxford vaccine appears to have a double effect, of providing both antibodies and potentially longer-lasting “T-cell” protection. In carrying out their trials, however, researchers have – ironically – been hampered by the fact that the virus is no longer in wide circulation in the UK, so it’s hard to expose volunteers to the risk of infection. Indeed, few of us are likely now to encounter anyone with the virus. Hospital admissions for Covid across England have dropped from 3,000 per day in April to around 50 a day now; daily virus deaths are close to zero. The majority of people who do test positive have no symptoms.

Despite this very low level of risk, fear of the virus is more persistent in the UK than elsewhere. A survey this week found that employees in this country are more reluctant to return to work than anywhere else in Europe. Government threats of more local lockdowns, talk of a second wave and concern that the NHS would struggle to cope if Covid comes back in the winter have all combined to frighten us into staying at home. But, as Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty has cautioned, we can’t count on the promised vaccine to make us safe and we may have to wait at least another year before it’s ready to use.

Millions of pounds of taxpayer’s cash have been staked on government contracts with AstraZeneca and other big drug companies on the basis that normal life can resume once a vaccine is available. But there are still many unknowns. Until large-scale trials have been successfully completed, the Government clearly cannot risk giving the go-ahead to mass vaccination. This process could take at least another 12 months. If serious side-effects emerge, or if the immunity conferred proves short-lived, all bets are off, and we will have to learn to live with the virus.

Britain’s scientists clearly deserve great credit for the speed and expertise they have brought to developing a vaccine, as do the volunteers coming forward to take part in trials. If it works, and if the UK is indeed one of the first countries to be able to offer safe mass vaccination, there will be a huge sigh of relief across the nation, not least in 
Downing Street.

However, until that day comes – and in case it never arrives – the Government should avoid any Trumpian rhetoric and refrain from talking up the vaccine’s prospects. The most important message the country needs to hear is that the risk of falling ill with the virus, let alone dying from it, is now vanishingly small, and that we should not be putting our lives on hold until the vaccine comes along.

The Daily Telegraph

Ludicrous quarantine rules are unenforceable

Putting holidaymakers under house arrest will bring both the law and government into disrepute

The Daily Telegraph

Taxing the over-40s is not the way to solve the problem of social care

As any Conservative government should know, the solution does not lie in compulsion, but in providing incentives

In his opening speech as Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street a year ago, Boris Johnson made a bold pledge to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared.” The plan, it seems, has yet to be written, and the biggest question still waiting to be answered is: who pays?

The latest suggestion, emerging from a task force set up by the government last month, is for a new tax towards care costs to be levied on everyone over the age of 40. Similar to a system adopted in Japan, such a tax is apparently favoured by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, although the Treasury is said to be sceptical.

The idea should be firmly resisted. Compelling people to pay into a national fund, at an age when many will be struggling to meet the financial demands of raising a family and paying a mortgage, is the wrong answer.

As any Conservative government should know, the solution does not lie in compulsion, but in providing incentives for people to take responsibility for their own future in the way they can best afford. There is a case for “nudging” people, such as pension schemes that require employees to opt out, rather than opt in. Crucially, however, such schemes do not take away personal responsibility and choice.

National insurance was introduced in the first place to provide a fund to be spent on the contributors’ healthcare and pensions, but as Nye Bevan memorably admitted “The great secret about the National Insurance fund is that there ain’t no fund.”: the money raised is in practice treated in the same way as general taxation. There is no reason to suppose that a social care fund would be any different, or that those paying would have any control over how the money is spent.

We all need to think about how we pay for our own care in old age. But handing over more money to the government means handing over responsibility – and choice. As many families have found to their dismay, if the state meets the cost of old age care, social services will decide what kind of care will be offered.

Care at home will usually be minimal and inadequate, and there will be little or no choice between care homes, sometimes requiring families to travel long distances to see loved ones. Clearly it is much more desirable for an elderly person – or their family – to be able to choose the care best suited to their needs.

The biggest incentive for anyone to save for their own future – whether in pension plans, property, or savings vehicles like ISAs – is to provide such choice, rather than forcing them to be dependent on what the state can offer. But one of the biggest worries for anyone trying to save up enough is the inability to predict what their care needs will be: a couple of years of frailty at the end of life, or 20 years with Alzheimers? This is where the government could play a useful role, to act as guarantor.

Does that sound familiar? It should do, because back in 2012 the Dilnot Report on social care came up with just such a solution, providing a cap on the amount anyone could be required to spend on care, after which the government would foot the bill. The existence of such a cap was intended to open the way to a market in affordable social care insurance, giving everyone more confidence as well as choice.

The Dilnot Report received cross-party support and was poised for implementation in 2013. It remains the best solution on offer, would save the current government scraping around for new taxes, and provides a neat answer to the question every Conservative should now be asking: how can we give more people the chance to provide for their own needs in old age whilst sharing the cost?

The Daily Telegraph

Why should wealthy pensioners get free TV licences?

The BBC is right to end free TV licences for the over-75s. There is no justification for subsidising the viewing habits of well-off pensioners, so the decision to limit free licences to those on Pension Credit makes good sense. Of the 4.5 million households currently entitled to a free licence, about 1.5 million will continue to be able to claim, so that the elderly who genuinely struggle to meet the cost will still be protected.

In the last 20 years, too many freebies have been handed out indiscriminately to the elderly: TV licences, winter fuel allowances, bus passes and travelcards, along with numerous other leisure concessions. Yet over the same period, pensioners’ incomes have risen far faster than those of working age households. The typical pensioner has more disposable income than the average young family, a gap that will undoubtedly grow wider as the full economic impact of the pandemic is felt.

 In grasping that particular nettle, the BBC has made the right decision. But now, having turned the majority of its over-75 viewers into paying customers, it should take more care to respond to customer demand. Older viewers are the most likely demographic to tune into BBC4, yet this channel – which carries most of the BBC’s cultural and historical content – is threatened with closure in order to allocate more money to the youth-facing BBC3. The under-40s have become far less likely than over-65s to watch traditional television, preferring to stream content from the internet and watch whenever, and wherever, they want. With the advent of YouTube, Netflix and Amazon TV, the BBC has slumped in popularity among the young.

Instead of chasing after younger viewers, and losing its older audience base in the process, the BBC should copy its competitors by switching to subscription-based funding. Why should it be compulsory for everyone to pay a fixed fee for programmes they have no desire to watch? The best way to end the arguments about the licence fee would be to abolish it altogether.

When the Prime Minister returned to work at the end of April he pledged that all decisions on managing Covid-19 would be taken with “maximum possible transparency” and that the Government would share all its “working and thinking” with the British people.

The best place to share such thinking is in Parliament. The daily press briefings have never been a satisfactory format for exploring the reasons behind Government decision-making. If the British people really are to be allowed to share in the process, this can only be achieved through their representatives in the House of Commons. Yesterday’s farcical attempt at socially-distanced voting is proof there will be some kinks to iron out, but it is vital that Parliament resumes, in as close to normal conditions as possible, so that laws can be openly debated.

Take the latest changes to public health law, introduced on Monday by Health Secretary Matt Hancock. They include a new rule specifically prohibiting anyone from staying overnight anywhere except their own home. Mr Hancock asserted that these regulations would “flip the basis of the law back to specifically outlining things that you cannot do, as opposed to saying you can’t do anything unless it’s specifically provided for.”

A welcome principle – yet Mr Hancock is being a little disingenuous. Yes, this change represents an increase in personal freedom – but it also brings the law further into the private domain.

Instead of being accosted in a public place and told to go home, people can now be visited by the police to find out if they are entertaining guests beyond the permitted limit. Police chiefs have already stated that they will not seek to “forcibly remove” someone found to be breaking this law. But they can direct the offender to leave another’s house, with the threat of a fine or even arrest if co-operation is not forthcoming.

The “overnight stay” law may be desirable on public health grounds. But this should be a matter for personal judgment, taking into account individual circumstances. Such questions should at least be offered to the Houses of Parliament for discussion, for health advice to be aired and the arguments for and against personal freedom to be heard.

Mr Hancock instead took the view that the measures were so urgent that the emergency procedures permitted by public health legislation could be used. Hence the regulations were “made” on Sunday and became law on Monday morning. Only after becoming law – by way of statutory instrument – were they laid before Parliament. Yes, the Government has the power to rush such legislation through and to discuss it later. But this is hardly a transparent approach calculated to gain public trust.

To build such trust, the Government is right to insist that Parliament should return, and that means in Westminster and not via Zoom. If some MPs have health concerns that restrict their ability to participate, proxies and other arrangements will suffice. For others to cite childcare as an obstacle to attendance is feeble – countless key workers have had to overcome similar issues. Nor should it be difficult to find a way of voting that balances practicality with managing risk.

MPs owe it to their constituents to get back to work, and the Government must trust Parliament to do its job.

The Daily Telegraph

With the NHS no longer in crisis, it’s time to question the proportionality of the state’s restrictions

Did your heart leap when the Government told you that more shops would soon be opening? No, I thought not. Shopping won’t fill the aching void left by the inability to see our children and grandchildren, our brothers and sisters, our parents and grandparents. All those people who may not live under the same roof with us but whose lives are entwined with ours, and make life worth living: in other words, our families.

Of the many freedoms we have surrendered over the last 10 weeks, the loss of the freedom to spend time with our families as we wish has been the hardest to bear. Perhaps you have a new grandchild, born during lockdown, who you are longing to see and to hold in your arms? Or maybe you are a new mother, desperate for your own parents to come and hold the baby and share your joy?

More prosaically but just as importantly, you might be the grandparents who pick the children up from school once a week, or take them to the park on Saturdays, or have them to stay in the school holidays. You probably accepted that lockdown was a painful necessity to get past the point of maximum risk to the NHS and to your own health, and so for 10 weeks you stayed at home, kept your distance and avoided all unnecessary human contact.

But now, before going out into the wide world again, your first desire is to spend time with your family, knowing that they, like you, have been in lockdown. What could be the danger in that? Yet the Government will not allow you to trust your judgment and exercise this basic right, and so you can only meet your loved ones individually, six-feet apart, in a park or stretch of woodland – no hugs, no touching.

Maybe, if no one is looking, you let your grandchild’s little hand creep into yours. But you feel like a criminal as you do so. For a moment, you think that this is how it must feel to be hiding from the watchful eye of a hostile neighbour in a totalitarian state. And you drop the child’s hand and move away. The emotions stirred by such encounters are the most atavistic, for the denial of contact with our loved ones strikes at the heart – literally – of what it is to be human.

When Winston Churchill argued for an international convention to protect human rights after the last war, he had in mind those fundamental freedoms Britain had fought so hard to protect – among them the right to family life. The Human Rights Act, in large part derived from that convention, provides “the right to enjoy family relationships without interference from government”. The Act also provides for this right to be restricted, for the sake of public safety, health and security – but only where government can show that the restriction is “lawful, necessary and proportionate”.

With the NHS no longer in crisis, and infection rates so low that vaccine trials are struggling to find people exposed to the virus, it is surely time to question the proportionality of the Government’s restrictions? If it is judged safe to have a cleaner or a nanny in your home, for children to return to school and for clothes shops to reopen, isn’t it time to trust families to make their own judgments about their ability to mingle safely?

Much has been said about “bubbles” allowing two households to meet at some point in the next month. But the Government insists that such encounters must be outdoors and that no physical contact can take place; we are even to be given guidance on how to walk through a house to reach the garden without touching anything. This kind of micromanagement is becoming ridiculous.

We have grown accustomed to being told what to do these past months and we have, for the most part, swallowed orders without complaint, believing them to be for our own good and for the health of our nation. But there must be limits on the Government’s ability to intervene in family life. Only we can know the precise circumstances, home life and health risks to which our nearest and dearest have been exposed, and we should be trusted to act accordingly.

A Prime Minister who cannot understand the importance of this basic freedom shows a woeful lack of understanding of what makes us human. If we are forced to invoke the Human Rights Act to remind him, it will be a sorry moment for Boris Johnson and the Government he leads

The Daily Telegraph

Lockdown has been miserable enough without local authorities closing public amenities and shutting car parks in a bid to keep us all at home
The weather is glorious, the countryside beckons, and the risks of catching Covid in the open air are now known to be minimal. As lockdown eases off, the best thing we can do with any free time is get outside, soak up the vitamin D and enjoy the wide open spaces offered by England’s coast and countryside. But local councils and tourist boards are acting like a bunch of Nimbys, telling visitors to keep away. Many are refusing to open car parks and public toilets, forcing visitors to park on roadsides and avail themselves of the nearest hedge.
Professor Robert Dingwall, a member of the Government’s scientific advisory committee, says that councils should be ordered to reopen such facilities to encourage people to get out and about as much as possible. He is concerned that the British population has been “terrorised” into staying at home, and that such disproportionate fear will have a lasting negative impact.
The Government stated last week that we could all drive as far as we liked to take exercise and enjoy our leisure (in a socially distanced manner). But councils in some of the most beautiful parts of England appeared not to get the message. Cornwall’s council leader declared before the weekend that “Cornwall is not open for visitors”. In case anyone was thinking of driving to Keswick, at the heart of the Lake District, local councillors put up roadside signs announcing: “Keswick is still closed. Please come back when we are open.”
For thousands of people living in densely populated urban areas of the north west, access to the Lake District at the weekend, to wander on the lake shore or walk the fells, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. For such access to be denied, or made as difficult as possible, is contrary to the founding purpose of England’s National Parks, of which the Lake District is one.
Some tourism chiefs, by contrast, have risen to the occasion. Andy Parsons, chief executive of the Cotswolds Conservation Board, announced that “everyone is welcome” to enjoy this beautiful part of England. He simply asked visitors to show consideration for local residents and farmers while they do so. It’s a sensible message that acknowledges the privilege attached to living and working in the countryside, a privilege that should be shared, not hoarded.
In areas such as Cornwall and the Lakes, heavily dependent on tourism for their livelihood, councils should be doing all they can to facilitate safe access. That means opening car parks and public toilets; the latter are a necessity, especially given the importance of hand washing.
People who cannot drive to the countryside must also be given the confidence to use their local parks. Yet some London councils, including Tower Hamlets (one of the UK’s most deprived urban areas) are closing parks at 5pm, more than three hours before the sun sets. For residents, the very people councils are supposed to serve, that can mean no open-air exercise all week, especially for those still at work.
The experience of lockdown has highlighted both the best and worst characteristics of British public life. Sadly, many local authorities and taxpayer-funded organisations have shown themselves too eager to cite risk or inconvenience to staff as an excuse to close things down, rather than working out how to open up safely in order to meet the needs of the public they exist to serve.

The Daily Telegraph

Why have we done such a poor job of protecting care homes?

14th April 2020

They could have been safe havens from coronavirus. In our obsession with the NHS, they were ignored

As the nation stays at home to “protect the NHS”, another tragedy has been unfolding away from the public gaze. Covid-19 is raging through the UK’s care homes. The number of residents dying each week with the virus rose tenfold between 27 March and 4 April. It has long been clear that the virus is more likely to be fatal to the elderly and to those with underlying health conditions, yet those most in need of shielding have not been afforded the protection they needed.

From the beginning of this year, as data emerged from China showing how the lethality of coronavirus differed according to age, it was clear that it would be the elderly who should take greatest care to avoid contracting the disease. Evidence from Italy emphasised the point; the age profile of the population, combined with the greater prevalence of multi-generational households, helped to explain the rapid spread and high death rates experienced in that country. Yet the bodies responsible for the inspection and supervision of our care homes, and in some cases the managers of those homes, were behind the curve.

In the UK, multi-generational households are the exception. Before the advent of coronavirus, this was commonly held to be a sad state of affairs. Why did we shuffle our elderly relations into residential care rather than have them living with young families? But with the arrival of a pandemic, this separation of the generations might have been converted from weakness to strength. Care homes could have become the equivalent of the “isolation hospitals” used until the 1960s to help protect against infectious diseases.

It should not be just a matter of hindsight to point to such a possibility: in 2016, a national drill codenamed Exercise Cygnus warned the government, the NHS and local authorities that the UK needed to be better prepared for the possibility that a severe strain of influenza could arrive from an Asian country with devastating effects. Every winter, care homes have to be on their guard against seasonal flu, knowing it to be more deadly for their residents than for the young and healthy.

Why, then, did the care home sector, the Care Quality Commission and local authorities not impose early lockdowns on care homes and demand that all staff be provided with protective clothing and virus testing? Perhaps the desire to ensure that the elderly did not feel lonely, and the well-meaning insistence that they should maintain social contact lest they suffer from depression, served to distract those in authority from the need to prioritise their physical health.

But it is hard to see why some relatively simple precautions could not have been introduced as soon as coronavirus reached these shores. Hand sanitisers at every doorway, restrictions on visitors and daily health checks on staff should have been the minimum required, backed up by warnings by Public Health England. However imperfect testing may be, surely care home workers should be given the same priority as doctors and nurses, to avoid them unwittingly spreading the illness to their elderly charges.

Moreover, protecting care homes and their residents will become even more important in the months ahead. Steps must very soon be taken to return the young and economically active to some semblance of normal life. But given all the evidence available about the differing impact of the virus, the over-70s and those with existing health problems will no doubt be required to isolate themselves as much as possible from the risk of transmission. The public needs to have confidence that the most elderly and frail are being properly protected.

It is a dismal irony, however, that our national and quasi-religious obsession with the health service has pushed care homes out of the picture. The Government has justified its entire strategy for fighting this pandemic on the need to “protect the NHS”, given the limited number of intensive care beds available.

NHS capacity does not yet appear to have been breached, but it is sadly inevitable that deaths in care homes will continue to rise. Let us at least do more to protect their staff properly and do our best to ensure that their frail residents are not exposed to unnecessary suffering.

31st March 2020

Pettifogging officials must not be allowed to stamp out the last sparks of freedom

“This isn’t a holiday!” said the police officers clearing sunbathers off the green in Shepherd’s Bush last week. Reminiscent of the 1940s “Don’t you know there’s a war on!”, it’s a phrase that will no doubt fall from the lips of many officials over the coming weeks. But as those weeks stretch into months, the British public must be allowed a little sunbathing if it is to keep its sanity.

The severity of the lockdown imposed on the people of this country will make huge demands on their patience and fortitude. Introduced in order to protect the health service and to save the lives thousands of the elderly and frail, the lockdown will nonetheless take a severe toll on the physical and mental health of millions.

Current polling shows resounding public support for the measures, but to maintain that support for long enough to have the desired effect, officials at all levels must restrain their desire to emulate ARP Warden Hodges of Dad’s Army, terrorising Walmington-on-Sea with endless petty commands. Setting up hotlines, for people to inform on neighbours suspected of taking two walks a day, might appeal to self-appointed busybodies but will do nothing to build community spirit.

The list of over-zealous interpretation of the lockdown laws grows longer by the day. Convenience stores, most of whose proprietors and staff are working flat out to keep the nation fed, complained yesterday that council officials had told them not to stock Easter eggs on the grounds they are “non-essential”. As the stores’ trade body was quick to point out, there is nothing in the regulations to prevent such sales. Of course no one “needs” Easter eggs, but when children cannot see their friends, go on holiday or even use the swings, who would grudge them a chocolate treat?

On Saturday, MP Stephen Kinnock tweeted a photo of himself visiting his parents on his father Neil’s 78th birthday, taking food supplies plus a couple of garden chairs so he and his wife could sit in the front garden ten feet away from them and sing happy birthday. The response from South Wales police was to rap Kinnock’s knuckles, tweeting “This is not essential travel”.

The Church of England has been telling clergy not to use churches for prayer or funerals, despite the fact that specific exemptions in the lockdown regulations allow them to broadcast online worship from those churches, and indeed to hold funerals (within social distancing rules). Whilst a few imaginative vicars continue to use their churches to pray and send out footage of their worship to their housebound flock, the majority have surrendered to officialdom. In this time of anxiety and spiritual hunger, churches and cathedrals stand empty even of their priests.

If the nation is to retain its health and sanity it must also, as the Government recognises, be allowed to take exercise in the open air. For city dwellers lucky enough to own a car, it is surely reasonable for them to drive into the countryside to take a bracing walk, away from the crowds. Indeed, by so doing they are relieving pressure on urban green space needed by those who lack cars.

The law does not preclude such outings, yet it seems the police are determined to clamp down on what they see as frivolity, to the extent that some forces have been setting up road blocks and asking “Is your journey really necessary?” Given that less than 6 per cent of England is built over, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t room in the countryside for us all to take a walk and hear the birds sing.

Nor should the construction industry be staging a pre-emptive shutdown. Forcing building companies to go under will not help us house the homeless when this crisis passes. The enthusiastic builders working on the new “Nightingale” Covid hospital suggest that with the application of imagination and common sense, construction work can continue safely with a low risk of infection.

With Corbynite enthusiasm for command and control, Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth yesterday called for the government to publish a list of essential businesses – and close down all the rest. Labour must not be allowed to win this argument.

The great British public have so far shown remarkable solidarity in embracing the lockdown and supporting the beleaguered health service. The Government must not risk that support by stamping on the few small sparks of freedom that remain undimmed. No-one thinks this is a holiday. But we all need a little sunshine.

The Daily Telegraph

7th January 2020

Centralising our police forces would be a terrible idea

Policing needs to be brought closer to our communities, not made more remote

If the British public is to feel any benefit from the recruitment of 20,000 new police officers, then it needs to be clear that an expanded force will focus on public priorities rather than chasing political fashions.

Research commissioned by this newspaper shows that the proportion of crimes being solved has fallen to the lowest level recorded, and that courts are standing idle as police and prosecutors fail to bring cases to trial. At the same time, allegedly overstretched officers are finding time to record thousands of ‘non-crime hate incidents’, of which it seems there is always a plentiful supply on social media.

There is plainly a serious disconnect between public concerns about day-to-day crimes, such as street attacks, burglaries and car crime, and the level of police responsiveness. Put bluntly, local police forces are failing in their most important duty: to keep us safe.

Senior police officers have admitted that this is worrying and acknowledge that police priorities have to change. But we should be wary of the solution currently favoured by Martin Hewett, head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, who has called for a restructuring of the 43 regional police forces, merging them into a smaller number of bigger units. As ever, the siren call for economies of scale, “streamlining” and greater specialisation has met with a warm response from leaders of various representative bodies within the police force, such as the Superintendents Association and the Police Federation.

It is tempting to conclude that the officers who spend their time representing the interests of sectors within the force are more enthusiastic about rearranging structures than challenging and reforming front-line failings.

Policing our streets, gaining and using information effectively, responding quickly to muggings and break-ins and maintaining public confidence: all these tasks require local and neighbourhood knowledge and all demand front-line officers, not desk-bound “specialists.” It is an irony that at a time when technology enables information to be shared between individuals and small units faster and more widely than ever before, the assumption remains that mergers are necessary in order to scale up expertise.

In terms of policing, it is far from clear that this has ever been the case. As a large-scale academic review in 2016 pointed out, there is no convincing evidence that merging police forces improves results. The review found that mergers risk impairing local effectiveness and that there is no clear link between size and efficiency. Policing is above all a labour-intensive activity requiring officers on the ground, so that much-vaunted “economies of scale” usually remain an aspiration rather than a reality.

The 2013 merger of police forces across Scotland into one single force should be enough to dispel illusions about the benefits of centralisation. Promised budget savings have failed to materialise, millions being spent on management consultants’ fees while front line staff are cut; crime-fighting policies applicable to tough inner cities were rolled out across Scotland regardless of local policing needs, damaging public confidence and causing resentment amongst officers; both the inaugural Chief Constable and his successor lasted less than three years in the job, resigning amid allegations of management failure.

To her credit, Home Secretary Priti Patel does not seem convinced that restructuring police forces is necessary, and has made it clear her priority is more officers on the ground, with the support and equipment they need. But she also needs to steer forces away from their preoccupation with social media and the enforcement of “woke” viewpoints.

Giving police chiefs ever bigger fiefdoms over which to preside, replacing local knowledge with generalised policies, is precisely the wrong direction of travel. Policing needs to be brought closer to our communities, not made more remote.

The Sunday Telegraph

24th November 2019

Doctors should be doing more home visits not fewer

Persuading a doctor to visit you at home nowadays is fraught with obstacles, however ill you might be. Such is the reluctance of GPs to come and see you that you will end up having to get to the surgery somehow, or else head for A & E and take your chances there. Last week a national conference of GPs voted to scrap home visits altogether, describing them as an “anachronism” which should not be part of their core work. For the frail elderly, anyone living alone, or parents of young children, particularly those unable to afford a car, the end of home visits is a very worrying prospect.
Have GPs really so lost sight of their role that they feel able to describe this part of their work as a “waste of time”? In an age when almost every consumer item can be delivered to your door, it is extraordinary to think that the one service which you really need to receive at home could soon be consigned to the past. A GP’s waiting room these days is no place to be ill: full of feverish children crying, adults coughing and sneezing, queuing for hours to be seen for five minutes (if you are lucky). That such a system has been allowed to develop is surely a terrible reflection on the priorities of the NHS, where services seem increasingly geared to the convenience of staff rather than patients.
As all political parties vow to spend billions on the health service, it is worth considering what happened when a large pot of money was last offered to GPs, by Tony Blair. Fed up with a long hours culture, and struggling to meet the demands of an expanding – and increasingly elderly – population, family doctors negotiated a new deal which paid them better while relieving them of out-of-hours work. So began a trend away from a personalised service where GPs had a holistic picture of their patients’ needs, to be replaced by a box ticking, target-led and surgery-centred business.
If this latest proposal is agreed, any home visits will have to be dealt with by a separate NHS service rather than by local GPs. Not every GP at last week’s conference was happy with the idea. In the words of one of those opposing the resolution, “it will disrupt fundamentally the relationship that we have with patients if they do not trust that when they are older, sicker and more unwell we will still be their doctor.’’
For many patients on the books of large GP practices, who never see the same doctor twice, such trust is already a thing of the past. Enterprising NHS-trained doctors in wealthy neighbourhoods are setting up private practice groups, available to those who can afford to pay a fee. Ironically, these doctors have no surgeries, instead spending all their time on home visits. With minimal overheads, these modern-day Dr Finlays are rediscovering the satisfaction of knowing their patients personally.
One of the reasons NHS practices are currently under so much pressure is the difficulty in recruiting newly-trained doctors to this branch of medicine. Yet if GPs now abandon home visits they will be losing a task which lies at the heart of the doctor-patient relationship, giving purpose and meaning to their role. Any new government settlement for general practice needs to place more emphasis on that relationship, rather than whittling it away further.

The Daily Telegraph

15th October 2019

There’s nothing ‘populist’ about cracking down hard on crime

“Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” Tony Blair’s mantra was aimed at placating anger over rising criminality while reassuring the liberal intelligentsia whose good opinion he wanted to retain. It was a balancing act David Cameron attempted to imitate as he invited us to “hug a hoodie”. Under Theresa May, the Tories drifted even further away from their once-hawkish reputation on law and order. But fewer police on the streets, overcrowded and drug-infested prisons, a failing parole system and record levels of knife crime have all combined to create a feeling of insecurity.

It is this insecurity that Boris Johnson’s government is seeking to address and Priti Patel as Home Secretary has left us in no doubt about the direction of travel. “We are coming after you” is her message to criminals, and yesterday’s Queen’s Speech filled in the detail of previously sketched out plans.

Violent and sex offenders will face longer sentences. The horrific consequences of releasing prisoners only half way through their sentences were revealed by this newspaper last week: almost a fifth of all murders are committed by prisoners on parole who have been let out of jail early. Under the Government’s proposed reform, anyone jailed for four years or more will have to serve at least two-thirds of their sentence before they can be released.

Further measures include widening the category of murders for which life sentences will be applicable. Tackling concern about foreign offenders, anyone breaching a deportation order will serve years – rather than weeks – before being released again. The Government also wants to demonstrate its solidarity with the police by proposing a police covenant, similar to the Military Covenant.

The Government’s message to the public is clear: we understand why you have lost faith in law enforcement, we share your anger at a system that allows convicted murders to kill again and we intend to meet your concerns and rebuild your faith in British justice.

Predictably the cry has gone up from the bleeding heart liberals, Labour and their fellow travellers in the media, that this “crackdown on crime” is a “populist” measure designed to win the general election that cannot be far away. Francis Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform labelled the new sentencing proposals “the politics of the lynch mob” which will “take hope away” from prisoners. Channelling Blair, Harry Fletcher, from probation union Napo, said: “The Government must tackle the causes of anti-social and criminal behaviour and resist the temptation to flag populist measures.” Diane Abbott dismissed the Government’s programme as a “pre-election party political broadcast which the government has no means to deliver.”

Patel must be delighted with these reactions. Among the liberal intelligentsia, “populist” has become a term of abuse. But Johnson’s government, to its credit, sees no conflict between a policy that is popular and a policy that is right. When criminals on early release commit murder, when police officers are killed on duty and children knifed on the streets, the Government’s duty is not to fret for the welfare of the murderers, but to protect the public. And if the Opposition will neither allow the Government to put its reforms into action nor hold an election, it must face the day of reckoning when the public is finally allowed to have a say.

 

26th July 2019

Priti Patel’s approach is just what we need to win the war on crime

As knife crime and homicide rates have risen, the Conservatives’ reputation as the party of law and order has been shredded. Boris Johnson’s decision to appoint Priti Patel as Home Secretary, alongside his commitment to increase police numbers by 20,000, sends a clear signal that his government intends to restore that reputation.

Proud of his record in reducing crime in London, the new Prime Minister wants to show that he will give the police the tools they need – including more freedom to stop and search – to get knives off our streets and make all our towns and cities safer.

In these uncertain times, with an ever-present terror threat and an epidemic of fatal stabbings, you might expect broad support for such explicit emphasis on public safety. Yet the loudest response to Patel’s appointment so far has been from the human rights lobby, desperate to express their concern at the prospect of a Home Secretary who intends to make national security her priority and who has in the past called for stricter enforcement of immigration rules.

Underlying many of the criticisms from the Left is of course a barely-concealed hostility to Patel’s cordial relationship with Israel, a relationship which led to her informal meetings with Israeli officials while she served as Secretary of State for International Development.  Failure to clear all those meetings with Downing Street in advance prompted her sacking from the May government, already uneasy at her outspoken calls to make the international aid budget work towards Britain’s interests abroad.

Like her new boss Boris Johnson, Patel has long argued for a points-based immigration system. As a Vote Leave campaigner, she was a strong exponent of giving the UK control of its own immigration policy, not only to meet its economic needs but also for reasons of national security.

If called upon to decide between supporting the US and the EU in security matters, it is not hard to guess which way the new Home Secretary will turn. Civil liberties campaigners, outraged at her predecessor Sajid Javid’s decision not to seek an assurance from the US government that convicted Isis torturers and executioners will not face the death penalty, have already marked Patel down as an enemy of human rights, believing she is likely to stick with Javid’s line. Indeed, one of the first attacks against Patel is that she once sympathised with calls for the return of the death penalty in the UK, a view she later abandoned.

None of these attacks are likely to trouble Patel overmuch; indeed they will help her to establish her credentials as a politician who sides with the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators; not bowing to the liberal metropolitan elite but rather speaking up for the families who have suffered the consequences of rising crime.

In so doing, Patel needs also to recognise the link between illegal drug use, particularly the habitual use of cannabis, and violent crime. Examples of the connection are numerous, from the Manchester Arena bombers to the bloodthirsty murderer of Lee Pomeroy on a commuter train.

Yet over the last four years police forces around the UK have been increasingly reluctant to charge cannabis users, despite the fact that it remains a Class B drug. In some police authorities, fewer than 20 per cent of  those found in possession of the drug last year were charged. A Home Secretary who wants to make the streets safer has to challenge police forces on this issue, rather than allowing them to turn a blind eye to “recreational” use.

During her time as Home Secretary, Theresa May famously berated the police for their complacency and restricted their powers to stop and search. As Prime Minister she reaped the legacy of that confrontation, both in terms of rising knife crime and lack of confidence between police forces and the government.

Patel is no doubt aware that there is a fine line to tread between calling the police to account and giving them the tools they need to keep us safe. If she can get them to concentrate on public safety, while reassuring officers that she will support them in that task, she will not only restore confidence in the Conservatives but also improve trust in the police force, as a source of security rather than enforcers of political correctness.

4 June 2019

Labour has shown once again that it wants nothing more than the abolition of private property

Do you have a couple of spare bedrooms? Or maybe a large garden you enjoy cultivating? Jeremy Corbyn would like to tax you for such privileges, to discourage “over-consumption of housing. ” If Labour wins the next election,  you can forget about keeping your house in retirement and having space for the grandchildren to stay, unless you are assured of a big enough income to meet the tax bill. An official report produced for the Labour Party laments what it describes as our “broken” system of land ownership and proposes to replace council tax with a “progressive property tax”, set nationally and based on regularly updated values. Payable by owners but not by tenants, the tax would also be significantly higher for second homes. Current discounts for single people such as widows living alone would be removed, to deter them from occupying “large” homes.The report, entitled Land for the Many, is edited by green activist George Monbiot, and has been given a warm response by shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett. It makes no secret of its ambitions to change the way land is owned in the UK, to enable the state to take control over, and ultimately to reallocate, private property.

Playing on widespread concerns about the cost of housing, the report blames lack of social mobility on increased land values; it argues that the “accumulated wealth” of those who own homes is blocking the aspirations of those unable to get on the housing ladder.

Instead of considering the obvious causes of pressure on housing in the most overcrowded parts of Britain – such as the huge increase in immigration triggered by the last Labour government – Monbiot and his co-authors fall back on the old Left wing sentiments of envy and spite. Since we cannot all have a tennis court or swimming pool, it asserts, our objective should be to arrange that all tennis courts and swimming pools be publicly owned and shared by all. Or perhaps you hope to have your own vegetable garden to tend in retirement? Think again. If Jeremy Corbyn takes power, you will have to join the queue for a state-owned allotment instead.

Taking the socialist view that private ownership of land should ultimately be abolished, the report envisages an ideal world in which no-one would own the land on which their home is built. Land and housing should no longer, it argues, be “treated as financial assets.” As a first step, powers of compulsory purchase would be extended to enable public authorities to buy up land for social housing, paying landowners below market price.

Determined to crush any financial return on owning a property, Labour also has private landlords in its sights. The report describes the private letting market as a “buy-to-let frenzy” and proposes “open-ended” tenancies, with caps on permissible rent increases. Not only would this remove the incentive to let out a property , it would also create significant risks to landlords of being able to reclaim their property in the future, effectively handing control to the tenant.

Closing down the private rental market in this way would of course mean that everyone unable or unwilling to commit to buying a home would lose their access to privately rented property, a prospect that apparently does not trouble the writers of this report. They seem confident that the state would be able to take over enough land to supply social housing for all at public expense.

Conservative housing Minister James Brokenshire describes the proposals in Labour’s report as “extraordinary and deeply damaging in equal measure.” He is right.

Yet this is the same James Brokenshire who less than two months ago announced Conservative plans to stop private landlords reclaiming their properties on “as little as 8 weeks’ notice”: in other words, to end the freedom of contract brought about by shorthold tenancies, currently terminable by either side on a minimum of  two months’ notice. These “Assured Shorthold” tenancies, introduced by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher, produced a huge increase in the availability of property for rent. If Jeremy Corbyn wins the battle for hearts and minds with his openly socialist and authoritarian agenda, today’s Conservative Party must take its share of the blame, for shifting the goalposts so far in Mr Corbyn’s direction.

Let us hope the next leader of the Conservatives grasps the threat to freedom posed by today’s Labour Party – and succeeds in communicating it to the electorate before it’s too late.

6th September 2018

The Archbishop of Canterbury occupies a unique position in public life. Leader of the Church of England and symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican communion, he has the opportunity to apply biblical wisdom to the challenges of the modern world and to speak up for Christ in a society too often consumed by secular demands. With a publicity machine and Twitter account at his disposal, the Archbishop’s opinions on controversial topics have the potential to influence both public and personal morality.

How depressing it is, then, that Justin Welby uses his unique position to espouse the standard Left-leaning political prescriptions that we can hear any day of the week not only from Jeremy Corbyn but from nearly all Labour, Green, and LibDem politicians. It has become all so predictable. At least since the Eighties, when in response to inner city riots the Church published Faith in the City – described by one Cabinet member at the time as “pure Marxist theology” — whenever an Anglican leader has chosen to intervene in politics, his demands have been for higher taxes, more state intervention, and more redistribution.

In Welby’s case, by participating in a commission on “economic justice” led by the IPPR, a think-tank founded to promote New Labour policies, the Archbishop has been unapologetic in expressing a tax-and-spend political worldview. Writing in support of the IPPR’s findings, he demands that the Government should increase taxes on personal wealth and multinationals, set up a state investment bank, force businesses to pay higher wages, and strengthen the bargaining power of the unions.

As Telegraph readers will know, such policies have been tested under past Labour governments and have proved ineffective at solving the problem of poverty and disadvantage. Under the current Conservative government, UK employment is at an all-time high, income inequality has fallen and the wealthiest people now pay a higher proportion of all income tax than at any time under Labour. As for strengthening the trades unions, rail and tube strikes in recent years surely demonstrate that in industries where the unions still exert significant bargaining power, the public pay a very high price in disruption and rising fares?

But setting aside the economic fallacies in the Archbishop’s proposals, the problem many Christians will have with Welby’s decision to share a platform with the IPPR is the political nature of his interventions.

With a background in the evangelical wing of the Church of England, it might have been expected that this Archbishop would seize every opportunity to promote a specifically Christian worldview and explain how Bible teaching can be applied to modern social and moral challenges.

There is surely no shortage of such challenges. Take the rising cost of care for the elderly: it might be apt for the Archbishop to remind us of the commandment to honour our fathers and mothers by taking responsibility for their care, instead of always assuming that the state will step in. The epidemic in gang-based violent crime is one of many social problems with roots in father absence and lack of male role models. Yet we do not hear a call from the Archbishop for policies to discourage casual relationships or increase parental responsibility.

As lawyers and the media combine to argue for easier divorce, a speech from the Archbishop about the serious and lifelong pledges contained in the ceremony of marriage might not come amiss. These are all topics of fierce debate involving decisions of both public and personal morality, where spiritual guidance is arguably more important than “economic justice.”

Politicians are very wary of talking about God, perhaps fearful of appearing messianic in their ambitions. But church leaders have a God-given opportunity to engage in moral and spiritual questions, untainted by a political agenda. Earlier this year, Welby attracted widespread ridicule by claiming that the European Union was “the greatest dream realised for human beings since the fall of the Western Roman Empire.” His boldness in attaching himself to the side of Remain shows that he is not afraid to court political controversy. But many of his flock would prefer that he showed similar boldness in speaking out for Christianity, instead of calling on the state to solve our social and economic ills.

From smart meters to the cash point’s decline: Why we are becoming hostages to tech

29th June 2018

Far from liberating society, technology is eroding our independence

Have you had a smart meter installed, thinking it would enable you to control your energy use and keep your bills down? Well, maybe you should think again.

This week the former head of “meterology” at energy regulator Ofgem, Jerry Fulton, confirmed what many of us had long suspected: smart meters will give suppliers, rather than consumers, greater control over our energy use and in particular the ability to charge us more for our gas and electricity when we most need to use it. Mr Fulton explained that the latest meters will allow half-hourly variations in charging rates, so that when wind and solar power generation is sluggish and usage is high, prices will rise steeply.

This seems entirely believable, given the failure of both Labour and Conservative governments over the past 20 years to plan for Britain’s energy needs. Too much green wishful thinking, combined with a pathetic inability to take infrastructure decisions, has led us to the point where energy rationing is a serious possibility.

As a substitute for long-term planning, the Government nags us into accepting smart meters (paid for by a levy on everyone’s bills), while telling us to save money by switching suppliers. Thousands of householders have already discovered that these two objectives are incompatible because their meters won’t recognise different suppliers. And, as Mr Fulton points out, once fluctuating tariffs are introduced, price comparisons will become virtually impossible.

This doesn’t feel like progress, does it? Worryingly, a similar process is threatening our access to our own money. Online banking, contactless cards and the end of cash payments are all promoted as tools to give us control over our finances. Yet the technological dream rapidly turns sour when online banking systems crash, leaving customers powerless and bringing businesses to a halt.

The march to a cashless society continues: more than a thousand cashpoints have closed in the past six months, often in towns where bank branches have also disappeared. Where ATMs remain, customers are more likely to be charged for using them: yesterday the Daily Telegraph revealed that the UK’s biggest cashpoint provider plans to start charging customers at thousands of its machines.

We thought that technology would liberate us, yet in the hands of big government – and big corporations – it is slowly but surely tying us down, by making us dependent. Once hooked, our choices are constrained and we cannot break free.

This bears down hardest on the poorest in society, who cannot pay their way to freedom: rationing by price is more regressive than any tax. David Cameron once memorably scorned Gordon Brown as an “analogue politician in a digital age”. But in its eagerness to embrace technology, the Government should be more mindful of the digital threats to our freedom.

 

Upholding family values will see off the Left

5th August 2017

Conservatives have long understood that strong families are the best safeguard against state intervention. Couples who take care of each other, look after their children and take responsibility for their elderly relatives, all reduce the burden on the state and on the public purse. In contrast, socialism has always been dismissive of family ties, viewing parents as agents of inequality. Marxist doctrine holds that children should be reared collectively, to eradicate privilege and to ensure loyalty to the state and its objectives.
To rediscover the differences between conservatism and Corbynism, to build a coalition of voters that will deliver a majority at the next election, and to create positive arguments for limiting the size – and cost – of the state, the Tories need to make the case for upholding and strengthening the role of the family.
What does this mean in practice? It starts with support for marriage, the institution proven to be the best insurance against family breakdown and the most likely to provide children with stability. Research shows that the value of marriage is not just coincidental; the public affirmation involved in signing up to marriage, rather than drifting into cohabitation, plays an active role in maintaining a couple’s commitment to each other.
Happily, divorce rates are falling, with fewer married couples splitting up. But the prospects for children remain bleak because nearly half of all babies are born to unmarried parents. These parents are three times more likely than their married counterparts to split up before their child reaches 16.
Worryingly also, marriage is becoming the preserve of the better-off: the vast majority of married parents are higher rate taxpayers, whereas low income parents are mostly unmarried. Clearly any government interested in promoting family stability needs to provide more support for marriage among middle and lower income groups. Yet recent Conservative governments, in common with their Labour predecessors, have focused support on couples who split up. The marriage tax allowance, so long promised by David Cameron, was finally implemented at a paltry £200 a year, so insignificant that most couples fail to claim it. This contrasts starkly with the level of subsidy available to parents living apart.
Conservatives also need a message to contrast with the Left’s vision of collective, state-supervised childcare. Raising children should be the prerogative of parents, with minimal state intervention, save in cases of abuse or neglect. The role of a Conservative government should therefore be to encourage freedom of choice for families. Instead of subsidies contingent on non-parental, state-regulated care, families with a working parent should be offered tax allowances to spend as they wish, on childminders, nurseries, or care by a family member. If one parent wants to spend time at home caring for their children, while the other works, Conservatives should applaud that decision. Perversely, however, the Tories’ strategy of continually increasing individual tax-free allowances has driven more families to have both parents in work, leaving those with just one breadwinner substantially worse off.
Giving families the option to pool their allowances, allocating work and care as best suits them, would not only affirm family life, it would demonstrate a Conservative belief in individual choice, enabling parents to transmit their own values. Such choices should also be open to families when deciding on the best school for their children, and so it is disappointing that the government is cutting the budget for free schools, the parent-led initiative introduced by Michael Gove.
Forced by their lack of a majority to abandon plans for more grammars, the Tories should at least be confident in making the case for free schools and their ability to respond to parental choice while providing opportunities for families at all income levels. Instead, however, Justine Greening appears to be succumbing to the agenda of the Left: that all schools should receive more cash regardless of their success rates.
The Education Secretary also seems overly keen to subscribe to the most extreme of Left-wing ideas: that gender is a social construct rather than (in almost all cases) a biological fact. Parents who are worried about such outlandish and confusing notions becoming part of the curriculum could be excused for thinking that “conservative” is no longer an apt description of Theresa May’s party.
In opposition, a political party can more easily be forgiven for toying with borrowed ideas or seeking to reinvent itself at leisure. But for a government trying to hold back the advance of the most Left-wing Labour leadership Britain has known, such luxuries are not available. If Tories fail to articulate a message based on recognisable principles, ideological ground will soon be ceded and they will find themselves lacking any coherent message. In making the case for conservatism afresh, and pushing back socialism, where better to start than by upholding the family?
Jill Kirby is a policy analyst and former director of the Centre for Policy Studies, the think tank co-founded by Margaret Thatcher

Projects like Hinkley Point look dated before construction even starts

24th June 2017

The government’s deal with French energy suppliers EDF for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point is risky and expensive, and will force consumers to pay higher electricity prices for 35 years. That is the damning verdict of a report released yesterday by the National Audit Office. The total subsidy bill of the massive new power plant, which is not due to be completed until at least 2025 and is based on unproven technology, have risen from an initial £6 billion to £30 billion.

Theresa May came close to ditching Hinkley last summer, before apparently concluding that a bad deal is, in this case, better than no deal. It’s true that Britain has an energy gap but it’s also increasingly clear that Hinkley is not the answer. What would a better electricity deal look like?

First, we need to be more nimble: mammoth infrastructure projects like Hinkley look out of date before construction has even started. By basing the deal on pessimistic energy price forecasts back in 2012, the government committed to paying EDF more than double the market price for electricity at a time when prices are falling.

Second, the government must reconsider the UK’s carbon targets in the light of evidence on the harms of so-called “renewables”. The Labour government’s 2008 pledge to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 has distorted the market, closed British factories, and driven hefty subsidies towards the most costly and inefficient energy sources. Instead of burning cheap coal, several of Britain’s biggest power stations are now subsidised to burn imported wood pellets, a practice which is not only costly for households but has also now been found to emit more carbon. As the Chatham House think tank concluded in a report earlier this year, this misdirected subsidy has been bad for the planet as well as for the consumer.

Third, use home grown solutions. British engineering companies are developing small nuclear reactors, based on existing technology, capable of being built off site and installed much more quickly and cheaply than a giant reactor like Hinkley. Instead of paying hefty subsidies to EDF, why aren’t we promoting these British engineering skills, with the potential not just to supply the UK but to export their products?

Finally, the government must continue to make the case for fracking in the UK. Shale gas has driven down US energy prices, providing so much fuel that the gas is being liquefied and sold across the world. Because gas is the fossil fuel with the lowest emissions, it can provide us with cheap and reliable fuel at the lowest environmental cost – long before Hinkley Point raises its ugly and expensive head across the Somerset landscape.

The adoption crisis is a legacy of target culture 

12th November 2014

Rules intended to speed up the process have led to fewer children finding a suitable home

The Daily Mail

The more you tell teenagers about sex, the more sex they will have. And the more unwanted pregnancies will result.

31st May 2017

How can rewarding the feckless and punishing the hardworking be the right way to support families?

19th August 2014

The Times and Sunday Times

Arrogant Bercow should be brought to heel

20th August 2014

The Speaker’s nonsensical appointment of a new clerk of the Commons threatens to bring parliament into disrepute

The British parliament is the envy of the world, a model for lawmaking. So as the public lose trust in politicians, the reputation of parliament itself is crucial. That is why the row over the appointment of a new clerk to the House of Commons, at a salary of £200,000 a year, is not just a silly season Westminster spat. The prime minister should intervene.

The clerk of the House reports to the Speaker and is responsible for ensuring that parliamentary procedure is observed. This is not just fusty tradition: these rules allow MPs to be properly heard in debates, for due weight to be given to proposed law changes and for parliamentary privilege and freedom of speech to be upheld. The rules are  set out in Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice, now in its 24th edition and comprising 45 detailed chapters. They are an essential part of the UK constitution.

John Bercow, the Speaker, depends on the guidance of the clerk and his or her team, as does every MP. The clerk’s salary is much higher than the prime minister’s because it is pegged to that of a lord justice of appeal, which suggests its quasi-judicial status. Indeed, the clerk has the authority to correct the Speaker if necessary, as Mr Bercow’s predecessor, Michael Martin, found to his cost. Mr Martin, under fire for his failure to respond to public concern about MPs’ expenses, tried to slap down backbench attempts to instigate a motion to unseat him. On consulting the clerk, Mr Martin was proved wrong; he resigned the next day.

Perhaps Mr Bercow is keen to avoid this fate. He is said to have clashed with the current clerk, Sir Robert Rogers, who is standing down after more than four decades of service. Sir Robert is said to find Mr Bercow’s domineering behaviour towards him intolerable.

In common with his predecessors, who have typically spent their working lives in parliament, Sir Robert not only has a comprehensive grip of procedure but also knows every MP by name. This knowledge is not lightly acquired, which is why the obvious front-runner to replace him is his current deputy, David Natzler. But Mr Natzler, despite being well-liked and respected by parliamentarians, has been passed over by Mr Bercow, who proposes to appoint instead Carol Mills, a manager from the Australian senate.

Ms Mills has apparently been chosen for her management skills, having been responsible for catering and other administrative services at the Senate. Yet she is totally unfamiliar with parliamentary procedure. The clerk of the Australian Senate, Rosemary Laing, described the potential appointment of Ms Mills as “bizarre and an affront”. Baroness Boothroyd, the former Speaker has this week joined her voice to the criticism, declaring that Ms Mills would be “totally out of her depth”.

In choosing a clerk with so much to learn Mr Bercow clearly wants to grab more authority for himself. At the very least, he is showing disdain for the institution he is meant to serve.

To date, he has shown not only a determination to modernise his role but also to put his personal stamp on it. His decision to reject the speaker’s traditional robes and breeches, in favour of a lounge suit and schoolmaster’s gown, was an early indication of his tendency: to assume that his own choices are more important than the office he occupies.

Yet parliament is much greater than the sum of its parts. What makes it great is not its MPs or indeed its officers, but the collective wisdom drawn from its rules and traditions, built up over eight centuries. Foremost among the guardians of those traditions is the clerk of the House. Governments and prime ministers come and go; they rise and fall in public esteem and the quality of their governance varies widely. But their mistakes, their whims and preferences, and the possibilities of corruption, are curtailed by the “mother of parliaments”.

If, when the Chilcot inquiry finally reports, questions are raised again about whether Tony Blair knowingly misled the House of Commons over the Iraq war, there may be calls for the former prime minister to be impeached. The decision whether or not to do so will lie with the House of Commons, under the guidance of the chief clerk. Should this be a former Australian services manager or a clerk whose working life has been steeped in the workings of our democracy?

Mr Bercow’s wish to jettison institutional wisdom to further his own agenda must be overruled immediately. The clerk’s post is a Crown appointment, which must be authorised by the Queen on the advice of her prime minister. There are two problems. The passed-over deputy clerk, Mr Natzler, is said to be planning a sex discrimination case, arguing that the reason he was rejected for preferment was his gender. Ms Mills is also facing an investigation into her department’s decision to allow CCTV surveillance of an Australian minister’s office. The Queen should not be invited to ratify Ms Mills’s appointment with these issues still outstanding.

It is hard to see how such a controversial candidate can occupy this post with the quiet authority that is needed. The prime minister has the power to send this proposed appointment back to the Speaker and ask him to think again. He must do so.

First win hearts and minds. then win elections.

16th April 2014

Politicians must win the battle of ideas, and the Conservatives are at last making progress in tax and welfare debates

Has George Osborne finally decided that Conservatives can win the battle of ideas? The Chancellor’s new-found confidence, derived from a well-received budget and a growing economy, seems to be inspiring him to seek a change in the terms of debate. Given the importance of positive language in winning hearts and minds, this could be a crucial turning point. On Monday he appeared to lay to rest a negative description of tax cuts that for many years pervaded every speech he made on the subject.

The pejorative phrase “unfunded tax cuts” entered the political lexicon back in 2006, when Gordon Brown used it to slap down Blairites on the Labour benches. It was swiftly adopted by Mr Osborne, then shadow chancellor, who deployed it at regular intervals to dampen expectations that he would cut taxes. Notably, he used it to rebuff his own Tax Reform Commission’s proposals for increases in the personal allowance, asserting that he would (like Mr Brown) put “stability” ahead of reductions in tax — as if the two were mutually exclusive.

Such timidity in the face of Labour’s arguments has now, it seems, been overcome. This week, heralding the results of a new Treasury analysis showing that freezing fuel duty has contributed to growth, the Chancellor was bullish about the ability of tax cuts not only to help “fund” themselves, but also to boost the economy. This analysis came hard on the heels of the news that cutting the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p resulted in £9 billion of extra revenue to the Treasury — too big a margin to be explained away by deferred earnings. Instead of trying to defend “tax cuts for the rich”, Mr Osborne can now ask Ed Balls: “How would you fund a return to the 50p tax rate?”

Seizing the initiative in this way is hugely important for the Conservatives, who have spent too long — both in opposition and in government — on the defensive. Fearful of seeming to relish their task, ministers have often appeared apologetic about the decision to cut state spending. Yes, deficit reduction is a necessary and vital task — albeit one in which the government has made painfully slow progress — but it is not the only reason to curb the excesses of the Labour years.

The growth of the state was not just financially costly. As the long arm of government reached further into our businesses, our schools and our families, it squashed initiative, eroded trust and — as we have now learnt — increased inequality. The Blair/Brown governments proved that spending more does not solve deep-rooted social problems; on the contrary, it often exacerbates them.

In their pre-election pledges to increase spending on overseas aid and the NHS, the Tories appeared to concede an important argument to Mr Brown: only by spending more taxpayers’ money can you prove you care. Yet the cabinet minister most associated with “compassionate Conservatism”, Iain Duncan Smith, has argued consistently that public spending creates dependency and damages lives. He has been vindicated by a steady accumulation of data showing that tougher welfare sanctions are getting people back to work, confounding his left-wing critics.

The number of UK households where no one has a job has fallen from 20 per cent in 2010 to 16.6 per cent last year. Figures released yesterday show that in more than 4,000 of the households affected by the government’s benefits cap, working-age adults have now found jobs. If Labour had achieved these advances it would be proclaiming them from the rooftops.

Children growing up in a home where no one is working were among the greatest victims of the Labour years, lacking any role model for their future lives and learning to accept joblessness as a way of life. In describing the plight of these households, Mr Duncan Smith has rightly refused to describe the welfare dependent as feckless scroungers. Indeed, his preferred terminology is not welfare “cuts” but welfare “reform”. This insistence on positive language has reaped popular dividends, with polling showing consistent support for the government on this issue.

It is said that Mr Osborne’s new, positive language is at the behest of the Conservative campaign adviser Lynton Crosby, who has been concerned that the party is too often on the intellectual defensive. In observing Mr Duncan Smith’s success in getting voters on side, however, the Treasury should also take note of the role of think-tanks in crafting and promoting policy. Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievements, in curbing big government and unleashing enterprise, would not have taken place without free-market think-tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies. Mr Duncan Smith’s own policy agenda was developed over the past decade by the important think-tank he himself founded; the Centre for Social Justice.

As Ed Miliband presents the electorate with a vision of old-style price controls and renationalisation, it is imperative for Conservatives to win the battle of ideas. In doing so they must demonstrate, as Mrs Thatcher did, that ideas are not the preserve of policy wonks in dark rooms, but are capable of transforming millions of lives. Key to the ideas’ success will be the language in which they are expressed. As Mr Osborne speaks of a “quiet revolution” where people come to realise they are better at spending their money than government, he is at last recognising the power of ideas and the vital necessity of sharing those ideas with voters. Otherwise it is your opponents who set the terms of debate.

Couples on £300k should pay for their own nannies

19 March 2014

David Cameron could soon be eligible for £6,000 a year of taxpayers’ cash to help him pay his nanny’s wages. The PM’s salary of £142,500 might seem a pretty comfortable annual income but things must be tougher than they look. The upper earnings limit for the coalition’s shiny new childcare subsidy is a whacking £150,000, or £300,000 for a couple, provided both parents are in paid work.

As long as Samantha’s part-time role at Smythson slips under this limit, the Camerons’ annual outlay on their Nepalese nanny could be nicely reduced. An extra £6,000 (£2,000 per child under 12) might come in handy. It might even pay for a chillaxing family holiday in Ibiza.

I can’t help thinking, however, that the Camerons, and other “hard-working families” on £300,000 a year, should pay for their own nannies. Nick Clegg, who is keen to take the credit for this government largesse, seeks to justify this generosity towards the rich by claiming that a lower cap would make things “too complicated”. Funnily enough, we didn’t hear the “too complicated” excuse when, two years ago, George Osborne confiscated child benefit from any family with a parent earning more than £50,000. They were labelled as the “better off” who should not, in the Chancellor’s view, be receiving support for raising children.

That confiscation has hit hardest families with only one breadwinner, for whom £50,000 represents their total annual income. These one-earner couples, typically with a mother at home looking after young children, are so far beyond the Government’s sphere of concern that they have been repeatedly punished by coalition policies. The increase in the tax-free personal allowance, for example, is worth half as much to them as to a dual-earner couple. The tax burden on one-earner families in the UK has risen steadily since 2010 and is now 45 per cent higher than the OECD average. And unlike the Prime Minister’s Notting Hill friends, these families will have no share at all in the latest childcare goodies.

Nor indeed will the very poorest couples, if one of them has the temerity to stay at home looking after their baby. In the eyes of the coalition, a mother who cares for her own children cannot by definition be “hard-working”. As far as Cameron, Clegg and Osborne are concerned, childcare is only worthy of financial recognition if someone else does it.

Jill Kirby is a policy analyst who blogs for The Conservative Woman

The nanny state must prove nannying works

31 May 2013

Is the Government really about to make some of the poorest working families in Britain worse off? 

Tax credit changes to encourage hard work can be justified but they have been bungled

6th April 2012

If you’ve got erotic capital, why not flaunt it?

Feminists may hate it, but good looks are just as important in the boardroom as the bedroom

23rd August 2011

Why Britain must spring its dependency trap

22 April 2011

Don’t tell us debt is bad then treat savers like mugs

7 April 2011

More maternity rights are bad for mothers

14 January 2011

National insurance is just a tax by another name

26 November 2010

Mummy, they’re misleading you about going back to work

The Sunday Times 8 August 2010

This retirement age needed pensioning off

30 July 2010

How Labour blew the children’s inheritance

11 June 2010

ASBOs can’t beat a neighbourhood policeman

30 September 2009

It’s not hard to spot the children really at risk

12 August 2009

Spare some change for our new billboard?

7 April 2009

Dithering ministers saddle us with an energy crunch

The Sunday Times, 3 August 2008

Parents beware: do-gooders want to push you aside

The Sunday Times, 8 February 2009

A mother’s place isn’t in the war zone

The Sunday Times, 1 April 2007

Scandal of the pension haves and have-nots

The Sunday Times, 25 February 2007

After Climbié, children are at even more risk

The Sunday Times, 11 February 2007

The hoodie needs a daddy, not a hug

The Sunday Times, 16 July 2006

 

The Daily Telegraph

Prison isn’t working for Huhne or for us

2nd April 2013

Neither the lax regime housing the disgraced MP nor high-security jails are fit for purpose

Our abortion law is being undermined

4th February 2013

The 1967 Act was never intended to make terminations a form of contraception.

Nick Clegg is not going to give working mothers a helping hand

14th November 2012

Mothers want to be able to spend more time with their children – this requires changes in the tax system, not pushing fathers to take paternity leave

Parenting should not be taught by the state

18th May 2012

David Cameron must not be led astray by Norway’s “Golden Skirts”

10 February 2012

Quotas are not the way to promote women’s interests

(Also covered as Talking Point  in The Week 10 February 2012)

Marriage desperately needs a royal boost

19 April 2011

When is the Coalition going to tackle the growing problem of family breakdown?

There is a way to save our lost children

22 February 2011

With 64,000 children in care, and adoption rates falling, reform is urgently needed.

Marriage makes us all richer – not poorer

8 February 2011

The cost to the nation of family breakdown is immense. It is time for politicians to act.

Prison is what Jon Venables knows best

24 July 2010

It might have been kinder to have left James Bulger’s killer in custody

Labour’s Katherine Rake is wrong: it takes two to mend a ‘broken …

1 December 2009

It is not in the interests of children to suggest that the nuclear family is dead.

The bigger Britain’s government gets, the worse it is for us …

10 July 2009

How has government become so disconnected from reality? Five techniques have been deployed to create the appearance of success while presiding over failure.

The equality agenda is bad news for women

30 July 2009

Women are being told to avoid ‘feminine’ jobs – but what they want is to stop being lectured.

The worst place to grow up is in care

7 November 2008

Councils should not be making it even harder for children to be adopted.

Why the NHS keeps failing mothers

10 July 2008

A lavishly funded health service in a Western economy should surely be able to guarantee every mother a properly supervised delivery. Where has it gone so wrong?

Tories must set parents free to raise children

16 June 2008

The Conservatives must develop their ideas for less state intervention in childcare.

Labour must stop penalising marriage

7 December 2005

Jill Kirby argues that the Chancellor’s policies have deepened the lone-parent trap.

 

Daily Express

LET’S STOP PAYING WELFARE MUMS TO HAVE BIG FAMILIES

27th October  2012

Couples are putting off having children because they need both salaries to pay the rent or to keep up their mortgage payments.

They also worry about the price of childcare and the sacrifices they will have to make to give their children a good start in life.

Why should their taxes be spent on allowing a jobless household to avoid these tough choices?

 

CONTROL IMMIGRATION INVASION TO HELP YOUNG UNEMPLOYED

5th November 2011

We know that the coalition is fighting shy of a row about immigration.

But if it wants to cut the welfare bill, lift the burden on public services and get our young people into work it needs to talk about it.

 

CHILDREN IN JOBLESS HOMES AND A NEW KIND OF POVERTY

10th September 2010

Today a child in a house where no one works may have access to a flatscreen TV and the latest trainers….

 

SHOULD A LAW FORCE FAMILIES TO CARE FOR AGED PARENTS?

3rd February 2010

Do children have a duty to look after their parents in old age? The leading lawyer Baroness Deech believes we are too quick to shrug off our responsibilities…

 

MARRIAGE: THE FOUNDATION OF SOCIETY

2nd December 2009

Why won’t Gordon Brown stand up for marriage? The Prime Minister is, by all accounts, a happily married man…

 

The Independent

The trick is to succeed where a Labour government failed

28 July 2010

 

The five ways that government disguises failure as success

10 July 2009

 

The sinister Newspeak that makes cynics of us all

28 December 2007