Parliament Watch: Environment

In this series, we’re exploring how different sectors may be impacted by autumn policy announcements and how you can prepare for a period without physical party conferences.

When MPs and peers return to Westminster next month, one of the most prominent issues they’ll face is the environment, with the Government echoing the rhetoric of campaigners who have been calling for a ‘green recovery’ and for the UK to ‘build back better’ from the coronavirus crisis. They will also have to vote on the three key bills to create a post-Brexit environmental framework, consider the implications of new trade deals, and prepare for the UN climate change conference COP26, which the UK will be hosting next year.

Building back better
Announcing a £350m decarbonisation package at the end of July, Boris Johnson said ‘our green ambitions remain sky high as we build back better for both our people and our planet’. This aspiration was also set out in Rishi Sunak’s summer economic statement as part of the Government’s ‘Plan for Jobs’. He said that the Government wanted ‘a green recovery with concern for our environment at its heart’ and announced a £3bn plan to create green jobs, including the Green Homes Grant to improve domestic energy efficiency. This, of course, is in addition the Government’s need to explain how it will meet the target set under Theresa May of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

As environmental campaigners have repeatedly pointed out, delivering a green recovery and attaining net zero requires more than just warm words, targets and isolated programmes, welcome though these are. For this reason, all eyes will be on the Budget Sunak is expected to deliver in the autumn. In order to drive private sector investment, the Government will need to give a clear steer on its direction of travel and give investors confidence that the UK is on a secure, long-term pathway to net zero, covering all of its activity.

It has a variety of tools at its disposal to achieve this. For example, the long-promised National Infrastructure Strategy, Energy White Paper and Low Carbon Heat Strategy are all now expected to be published in the autumn, alongside the Comprehensive Spending Review and an interim report from the Net Zero Review. Together, these could create a framework for a greener, more environmentally friendly post-Covid future. However, environmentalists will be concerned that the Government’s ‘build, build, build’ mantra could result in incoherent policy, with Johnson claiming in a speech that ‘newt-counting’ was delaying house-building, even as he asserted that the UK would ‘build back greener’.

Taking back (environmental) control
As we get closer to Parliament sitting again and to the end of the Brexit transition, those of us who focus on the environment will be on the lookout for details of the return of the three key bills which will define our post-Brexit environmental framework: the Environment Bill, the Agriculture Bill, and the Fisheries Bill. So far, the only one of these to appear on the parliamentary calendar is the Fisheries Bill, which will have its second reading on the first day that the Commons returns – 1 September.

Even as the bills progress through Parliament, there is plenty to be done to ensure that they can actually be implemented and many details that need to be fleshed out. For example, the Environment Bill will create a new environmental regulator, the Office for Environmental Protection and recruitment for its chair started earlier this month. Another example is the Environmental Land Management scheme being created through the Agriculture Bill, with more details on this promised by the autumn. The Environment Bill also contains a range of measures targeted at reducing waste and boosting recycling, including a deposit return scheme, extended producer responsibility for packaging, and consistency in waste and recycling collections. These all await further consultation to agree their details before they can be implemented.

Appearing before the Environmental Audit Committee in June, George Eustice, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told MPs that his priority ‘across all fronts, whether it is agriculture, fishing or our environment, is to demonstrate that we can chart a different course and do things better than the European Union’. The next few months will give us a good indication of how the Government’s actions match this rhetoric.

Trade deal or no deal?
The environment – and agriculture in particular – has taken a prominent role in discussion of the UK’s post-Brexit trading future. Concerns about the implications of a trade deal with the USA for the country’s food, environmental and animal welfare standards have proven to be a flashpoint, even within the ranks of the Conservative Party.

An amendment to the Agriculture Bill seeking to ensure that the UK wouldn’t agree trade agreements allowing the import into the UK of food which didn’t at least meet the UK’s standards was tabled by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Chair Neil Parish, a Conservative MP. This was rejected, but in light of the concerns the Government launched a Trade and Agriculture Commission in July to advise on its policy on this topic, with a report expected after six months. With suggestions that time is running out for a deal to be agreed before the American presidential election in the autumn, this is a key area to keep an eye on.

The proposed trade deal between the UK and Japan also seems to have run into agriculture-related problems, with International Trade Secretary Liz Truss reportedly holding out for better terms on British blue cheeses, such as Stilton. Perhaps more seriously, European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier said last month that the UK’s position on fisheries in negotiations on the post-Brexit relationship with the bloc was ‘simply unacceptable’ and ‘makes a trade agreement at this point unlikely’. All these are issues which will continue to develop in the autumn, and in years to come, as the UK tries to establish its position now it has left the EU.

Delivering global change
It’s important to remember that climate change is ultimately a global concern which needs coordinated international action – no matter how good the UK’s policies might be, the planet’s current trajectory cannot be altered unilaterally. One of the events which fell foul of COVID-19 was COP26, the UN’s climate change conference, which was due to be hosted in Glasgow this year. The event has now been postponed to 2021, and environmental organisations will be keeping a beady eye on what Alok Sharma, who is both COP26 President and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary, has been doing to ensure that the conference is regarded as a success in challenging the climate crisis, rather than a missed opportunity.

A crucial moment
One of the few upsides of the current pandemic is that it allows for some thought about things we might want to change as we start the process of recovery, while Brexit allows a similar opportunity for thinking about future environmental, agricultural, fisheries and trade policy. However, there are also significant risks involved – will the Government’s planning reforms negate the ‘green recovery’? Will the UK’s new environmental framework deliver the improvements the Government claims? The next few months will give us some clarity on the UK’s future trajectory.

Comprehensive spending review

Parliament Watch: Comprehensive Spending Review speculation

In this series, we’re exploring how different sectors may be impacted by autumn policy announcements and how you can prepare for a period without physical party conferences.

One of the most significant political events this Autumn, once Parliament returns from its Summer recess on 1 September, will be the long awaited Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). First scheduled for 2019 as Boris Johnson took office; it was postponed over concerns about Brexit and an early General Election followed instead. It is considered by many to be a very bold move for this Government to press on with a 2020 CSR during the COVID-19 recovery and a possible second wave of cases.

The Treasury is accepting written representations in advance of the CSR, from any interest group, individual or representative body, up until 24 September 2020.

You can see the scope of the Review by the Government priorities listed here for submissions to address:

  • Strengthening the UK’s economic recovery from COVID-19 by prioritising jobs and skills
  • Levelling up economic opportunity across all nations and regions of the country by investing in infrastructure, innovation and people – thus closing the gap with our competitors by spreading opportunity, maximising productivity and improving the value add of each hour worked
  • Improving outcomes in public services, including supporting the NHS and taking steps to cut crime and ensure every young person receives a superb education
  • Making the UK a scientific superpower, including leading in the development of technologies that will support the Government’s ambition to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050
  • Strengthening the UK’s place in the world
  • Improving the management and delivery of our commitments, ensuring that all departments have the appropriate structures and processes in place to deliver their outcomes and commitments on time and within budget

The Review will address current Government spending from next year, 2021-22, to 2023-24 as well as capital, or infrastructure, spending for an additional year, to 2024-25 so it is clear the CSR is critical given the next General Election will be in 2024 or earlier.

This key fiscal event presents the Government with a rare opportunity to shape not just spending, but its vision for modern UK Government administration.

Strengthening the UK’s place in the world after the long-running Brexit issue is crucial for this Government, yet we have already seen an indication of the different path this administration is taking in terms of the abolition of the Department for International Development and creation of a larger Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Its new Permanent Under-Secretary was announced recently as Sir Philip Barton and he takes up this position on 1 September.

Despite being widely criticised by the development community and three former Prime Ministers, Boris Johnson has been clear he thinks a new ‘super department’ is the right way forward for a post-Brexit Britain, with a far greater emphasis on trade rather than aid. The Prime Minister said: ‘For too long, frankly, UK overseas aid has been treated like a giant cashpoint in the sky, that arrives without any reference to UK interests.’

This CSR might be less controversial in terms of public spending cuts, not least because in light of COVID-19 there will be little appetite to reduce NHS spending, and also because of Boris Johnson’s mission to level up Britain and increase spending across the nations and regions of the UK, through improved infrastructure and better public services. The 40 new hospitals promised will need to be paid for and delivered, and the PM has also been consistently clear that there will be no return to austerity. Conversely, he has promised a significant rise in number of NHS doctors and nurses, as well as new police officers and a school building upgrade programme.

Additionally, in what is being viewed by many Westminster watchers as a victory for the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings, the Government’s long-awaited foreign policy and defence review is being conducted alongside the CSR. This could see cuts to the defence budget and is certain to see a shift away from traditional military spend, such as tanks, to modern defence capability such as information operations and technology to tackle the threat from cyber warfare. The overall size of the Army might be reduced too as the 82,000 troop target was dropped from the 2019 Conservative manifesto and the Government has found it increasingly difficult to meet this figure in recent years.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, will the CSR seek to fund the crucial local government and social care services that have been under such strain in recent months? We will find out soon enough, but the problem isn’t going away for the Government. Leading thinktank the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned recently of local government facing an additional £2bn funding shortfall this financial year. The IFS warned that the Government needed to decide on whether to offer local government additional support this autumn including allowing them greater borrowing flexibility or face seeing cuts to services.

The autumn 2020 Comprehensive Spending Review offers the Government and its relatively inexperienced Chancellor Rishi Sunak the opportunity to set out how it intends to operate over the coming years, as Britain adjusts to its new status, no longer in the European Union and adjusting to life after the pandemic, with all of the additional Government spending which that entailed. The Chancellor has said the CSR is: ‘Our opportunity to deliver on the third phase of our recovery plan – where we will honour the commitments made in the March Budget to rebuild, level up and invest in people and places spreading opportunities more evenly across the nation.’

Keeping track of the CSR or other political issues? Get a free trial of Vuelio Political Monitoring and make sense of new political times. 

Parliament Watch: Education and Skills

In this series, we’re exploring how different sectors may be impacted by autumn policy announcements and how you can prepare for a period without physical party conferences.

The education and skills sector will be a critical one this Autumn, as it will be central to the recovery from COVID-19, and particularly important as the furlough scheme draws to a close in October. This ties into Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s announcement of an overhaul in further education in July as part of the Government’s levelling up agenda. Hopefully, we will see further details of this ‘fundamental change’ with the publication of a White Paper in further education, as well as the implementation of Government measures to counteract the impact of the employment crisis on young people.

Opportunity Guarantee
As part of the Government’s ‘build back better’ plan for recovery from Covid-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised an Opportunity Guarantee to help young people get into work, stating in June that every young person will be given the chance of an apprenticeship or work placement. This was first mentioned by Education Committee Chair Robert Halfon and further supported by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in his Summer statement, announcing a bonus of £2,000 for firms who hire a new young apprentice aged 16-24 and £1,500 for apprentices over 25. It is unclear how successful this will be, as apprentices were made redundant amidst the wider employment crisis caused by the pandemic. Furthermore, some stakeholders have said the bonus will be wasted on larger employers who would be hiring apprenticeships anyway. Nevertheless the promise has gained traction, with many calling for the Government to publicly commit to the promise, given numerous reports that the economic consequences of the pandemic will fall heavily on young people.

T-Levels
The Government is planning to launch T-levels this autumn, despite requests to postpone the launch due to coronavirus concerns. These 2 year-courses, equivalent to 3 A levels, will be a mix of classroom learning and ‘on-the-job’ experience from Industry Placements, and have been introduced. The first 3 T levels will be available from September 2020 in Design, Surveying and Planning for Construction, Digital Production, Design and Development, Education and Childcare, with a further 7 courses set to be introduced in 2021.

This is a major part of the Government’s plans to improve technical education in the UK and the courses are supposed to differentiate from apprenticeships, which are more heavily geared around on-the-job experience and designed for people who want to enter the workforce at 16. As opposed to a direct route to work, T levels are described by the Government as an alternative to A levels and a pathway to further study. However, the roll out is controversial as in March the awarding bodies for the first three T levels asked the Government to delay their plans, on the basis that colleges would likely be in ‘crisis and recovery mode’ until the Autumn term. However the Government has decided to go ahead with the initial launch date, with Skills Minister Gillian Keegan writing to providers in April about how important it is that students do not lose out on opportunities due to COVID-19.

Further Education White paper
In a speech hosted by the Social Market Foundation, Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson announced the publication of a White Paper this autumn which will set out ‘long-term change’ for further education. This will be an important step in supporting the Government’s ambitions to level up the country, and address skills shortages in certain sectors which may be impacted by Brexit later in the year.

Reform in this area will also be tightly linked to recovery from the coronavirus pandemic as many will need to reskill. Although speculative, it is thought the document will focus on four ‘pillars’ of funding, qualifications, workforce and careers, as well as a mechanism for bringing failing colleges under state control and giving Ofqual powers to make funding decisions about different qualifications.

Schools Reopening
Over the summer the Government have been clear that Schools and Colleges will reopen fully in September, despite controversy over the safety of doing so. Plans for returning safely include staggered start times and grouping whole year groups into bubbles, with teachers moving between different groups to facilitate teaching the full curriculum. Teachers unions have expressed continuing fears over the safety of reopening, as they say Government plans rely on lower-levels of COVID-19 in the community and a fully functioning test and trace contact system. They have also called for the Government to have a ‘Plan B’, in case these qualifiers have not been reached. However, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has stated that teaching unions cannot be allowed to ‘dictate’ when children go back to school and urged cooperation and support from the unions to get children to help the ‘national recovery’. There have also been suggestions that further restrictions in other areas of the community may be necessary to allow this to happen.

Another issue is that in a deal with Government to secure a bailout package, TfL agreed to suspend free transport for under-18s from September onwards. Undoubtedly this will impact low-incomes families and young people’s access to education and campaigners, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, have called on the Government to reconsider these changes. Following Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign on free school meals support for disadvantaged children, it is possible that there will be some change here, but undoubtedly will be a talking point when schools return in September.

Parliament Watch: The Health and Social Care sector

In this series, we’re exploring how different sectors may be impacted by autumn policy announcements and how you can prepare for a period without physical party conferences.

Over the past few months, the health and social care sector has been dominated by its response to coronavirus. This blog will look at the biggest impacts COVID-19 has had on the health and social care sector and highlight where we could see temporary or permanent changes to its systems.

Healthcare
In the early phase of the pandemic non-Covid NHS services were rolled back amid fears that the NHS would become overwhelmed with the approaching coronavirus peak. Over the past few months there has been a reduction in diagnostics, referrals, and treatment for illnesses, as well as a drop in the number of people attending appointments with their GPs and hospitals, amid fears of catching COVID-19. Consequently there is a now massive backlog in care need, and fears that NHS waiting lists could reach 10 million by the end of the year. The impact of this has been felt across the health sector. Cancer Research has said that a third of cancer patients have had their treatment disrupted by coronavirus and estimate 38,000 fewer treatments than usual have taken place, since lockdown began. Similarly, the British Heart Foundation has highlighted that in cardiovascular health, an estimated 5,000 heart attack sufferers in England may have missed out on life saving hospital treatment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, coronavirus has exacerbated mental health problems for many, leaving charities worried that services need additional Government support. This comes as Mind reports that during lockdown one in four people who tried to access NHS mental health services were unable to get any help.

There has been a phased return to services, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock calling in late April for people to use non-Covid health services, and more recently in July, NHS England announced its third phase to the pandemic response, where it said: ‘Having pulled out all the stops to treat Covid patients over the last few months, our health services now need to redouble their focus on the needs of all other patients too, while recognising the new challenges of overcoming our current Covid-related capacity constraints.’ The plan calls for a return to near normal level of service in August and preparations to be made for increased winter pressures.

This comes with £3bn worth of Government funding for the NHS to prepare for winter, including upgrades to A&E services. However, with greater social distancing, PPE and hygiene measures required in hospitals treating coronavirus cases, the Nuffield Trust have warned that the capacity and speed at which health services can operate in the coming months will not reach typical levels. In addition, for the longer term, there are calls for a rethink of how NHS systems and bodies interact with each other, in light of greater partnership working during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Social care
Coronavirus has been felt most harshly by the social care sector. From March to July, there were 30,500 more deaths among care home residents, than would usually be expected for the same time period. With a COVID-19 social care plan not announced until the mid-April, issues including PPE shortages in care settings, deaths amongst care staff and the discharge of 25,000 patients from hospital into care homes without a COVID-19 test, dominated headlines in the pandemic’s early stages. Elderly people with dementia have been acutely impacted with the Office for National Statistics estimating in July that half of all deaths in care homes from COVID-19 were people with dementia. Meanwhile, in the Care Quality Commission reported that between April and May there was a 134% increase in the number of deaths of people with a learning disability and/or autism, who receive services from adult social care, independent hospitals and in the community.

Calls for social care reform have grown. The Health Foundation has argued that successive Governments have failure to improve the social care system and left it ‘underfunded, understaffed, and at risk of collapse’ at the start of the pandemic and it calls for urgent reform to address the ‘longstanding policy failures exposed by COVID-19’. Matt Hancock promised social care reform in his recent ‘Future of Healthcare’ speech to the Royal College of Physicians. He said: ‘Now it’s time to set clear ambitions about the future of social care in this country and fix an issue that has been ducked for far too long’. He indicated plans for a fairer system with more money going into social care, greater integration with health systems, the building of effective structures on accountability and recognition for carers.

Digital
With social distancing, the coronavirus pandemic has generated a massive shift in the number of people accessing the healthcare system digitally. In the 4 weeks leading up to 12 April, 71% of routine GP consultations were delivered remotely, compared to 25% being held remotely the same period last year. Matt Hancock has suggested that this should continue with telecommunications being used firstly, and face-to-face appointments only used when clinically necessary or for when people can’t use digital technology. He believes the use of digital could free up time for clinicals and enable the NHS to run a smoother service. Alternatively, the Royal College of General Practitioners has argued that a 50/ 50 split between in person and digital is a more ‘realistic and sensible’ target. It warns that a digital first approach to general practice could exacerbate health inequalities as those with complex needs, or people who are less ‘tech savvy’ risk being isolated from healthcare services.

The Health Foundation has raised similar concerns, highlighting that digital appointments are more likely to happen in regions of high deprivation, as GPs at high risk of COVID-19, and required to work from home, are more likely to live in poorer areas. Meanwhile, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine has released a statement on access to emergency care, where it recognised the role telecommunications could play in maintaining social distancing in urgent care units. It recommends that 999, general practice and NHS 111 are used to direct people to the correct services, instead of allowing people to turn up at A&E units themselves.

Health inequalities
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exacerbated health inequalities across multiple intersectionalities. Research from the Office for National Statistics has showed that people of a black ethnicity are over 4 times more likely to die from a COVID-19-related death than people of a white ethnicity. Whilst those highly deprived and densely populated urban areas, or those who work in lower paid occupations such as in construction or social care, were the hardest hit by the virus. Public Health England published a rapid review in May, which confirmed concerns over widening health inequalities. Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch is now leading the work on its findings. Work includes reviewing the effectiveness of Government actions to lessen the disproportionate impact of coronavirus and the commissioning of further research where there are gaps in evidence.

Winter coronavirus outbreak
Despite coronavirus infections levels diminishing since the peak, the health sector is still on alert for future waves, with fears being compounded by a potentially harsh winter flu outbreak spreading alongside coronavirus. Last month, the Academy of Medical Sciences warned in a report commissioned by the Government’s SAGE committee, that a potential second wave of coronavirus infections this winter could be ‘more serious than the first’.

It highlights that with the NHS typically under more pressure in winter, numerous measures are essential to prevent a second spike, including minimizing the spread of coronavirus, creating ‘Covid-free zones’ in hospitals and increasing the capacity of Test and Trace. In preparation for winter, the Government has rolled out a 90 minute return Covid test which will enable clinicians to rapidly advise patients on their coronavirus status and differentiate between the more common winter flu. They have also expanded the winter flu immunization programme, so millions more vulnerable people will be able to access the flu vaccine, in the hope to relieve some winter pressures on the health service. Finally, the Test and Trace programme, which has come under recent criticism with decreasing levels of contacts being followed up by contact tracers, is considered to be a key part of the Government’s coronavirus response in coming months.

Parliament Watch: Higher Education

In this series, we’re exploring how different sectors may be impacted by autumn policy announcements and how you can prepare for a period without physical party conferences.

The Higher Education sector has been severely impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic and this disruption is likely to continue into the Autumn. Universities this year face competition for domestic students because of the drop in international student numbers, as well as pressure to deliver attractive-looking courses under ‘new normal’ social distancing restrictions.

In Research and Development, funding will also be crucial as the Universities bail-out tapped into £100m of future R&D funding, which is even more concerning as we approach the end of the transition period in December 2020, having left the European Union. The Government has committed to working with Universities as part of developing the UK’s research and innovation output and announced a move away from the target of getting 50% of young people into University this year, so it will be interesting to see how these objectives play out in parallel.

A new version of the University experience
Universities will return in the Autumn with a very different looking version of the ‘University Experience’. Although they have been given guidance by the Government, during a recent Education Committee session University Minister Michelle Donelan was careful to stress that Universities are autonomous institutions and will need to carry out their own risk assessments to ensure the safety of students. This will severely impact how freshers’ week and the social elements of University life is carried out, as well as the everyday logistics of thousands of students, small campuses, and other learning facilities. Despite fears over student numbers dwindling because of the restrictions, a record 40.5% of all 19-year olds in the UK applied to go to University this year, with the numbers actually increasing during lockdown.

Further, to add to financial pressure caused by a drop in international student numbers, groups like NUS have been campaigning for an option of reimbursement for the last academic year. Students have been told they can complain to the Ombudsman if they haven’t received adequate tutoring in line with other years, so there is pressure to deliver on COVID-safe courses.

It will be interesting to see how different Universities navigate this, with some famously suspending all lectures until 2021. There have also been warnings that risk assessments should include mental health considerations, as students face being away from their families for the first time, combined with restrictions around social support.

Augar Review Response
The Government commissioned Augar Review into post-18 education was published in May 2019, and made sweeping recommendations for further and higher education, including cutting tuition fees and setting up lifelong learning allowances for degree or further education programmes. Although the Government has delayed its response and any policy changes, a press release outlining changes to higher technical education in July mentioned the upcoming measures announced would complement the review.

The Government has announced commitments to improve the further education sector and but haven’t so far commented on any other higher education reforms, so it will be interesting to see if it includes this sector, and if so, what the response will be.

Grades Scandal
Due to the pandemic, A level examinations were cancelled this year and replaced by a combination of teacher predictions and a class, school and subject standardisation process. Exams regulator Ofqual confirmed the appeals process earlier this year; with concerns being expressed early on by the Education Committee and stakeholders around the suppression of grades, potential for bias, and adequate support for disadvantaged students in the appeals process.

The Scottish Exam Board SQA recently came under fire for suppressing the grades of thousands students when external markers downgraded teachers’ predictions. Statistics have suggested this disproportionality impacted pupils at schools in disadvantaged areas, and in response First Minister Nicola Sturgeon apologised and agreed to accept teachers assessments.

Despite this foresight, A level results day in England has been similarly disruptive, with just under 40% of A levels being downgraded from teacher’s assessments on Thursday 13 August and thousands of young people missing out on University places. The Government has said grades remained broadly stable with a 2.5% increase in As and A*s, however because of the standardisation used, students from disadvantaged areas were worst hit whilst private schools saw an increase in the proportion of students achieving top grades.

The Government have so far announced a taskforce of Ministers and exam regulators Ofqual to tackle this issue, and have offered free appeals for students this year, echoing Sturgeon’s actions a few weeks ago, however we can expect to see further movement on this extremely important issue. Similarly to Scotland, there have been calls for Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to resign over the mishandling of this issue from the Liberal Democrats, with Labour asking for the results system to be scrapped.

The Government has celebrated more disadvantaged students going University this year than ever before, but it remains to be seen how the disproportionate impact of standardisation effects social mobility and access to University.

Research and Development Spending
The Government has been focussed on Research and Development spending as a means to turn post-Brexit Britain into a ‘science-superpower’. As such, the Conservative Manifesto committed to increasing R&D spending by 2.4%, with an increase in public investment to £22bn a year by 2024-5 announced in the Budget in March 2020. You can expect this conversation to be ramped up in the lead up to the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, but also as part of the recovery from COVID-19, mentioned by the Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the UK Research and Development Roadmap published in July.

The Roadmap defines dynamic innovation and research as part of an interconnected system across government, academia and universities, and states the Government is ‘not afraid to make tough choices’ in ensuring this system is fit for purpose. It’s possible these changes will start to be made this year, given the Government’s apparent focus on this area of the sector.

Parliament Watch: Housing

In this series, we’re exploring how different sectors may be impacted by autumn policy announcements and how you can prepare for a period without physical party conferences.

One of the Conservative Government’s manifesto pledges ahead of the December 2019 election was to increase the number of new homes being built. The Chancellor spoke of an ‘infrastructure revolution’ in the March 2020 Budget – echoed by Boris Johnson in his recent Build Build Build speech – and announced new funding for an extension of the Affordable Homes Programme with a new, multi-year settlement of £12bn and over £1bn of allocations from the Housing Infrastructure Fund to build 70,000 new homes.

Despite this funding, the Covid-19 pandemic has inevitably impacted the delivery of new homes, with sites being shut down, projects facing difficulties securing labour and materials, and disruption to supply chains. The crisis has also had an impact on the removal of dangerous cladding, but building safety has remained high on the agenda, with the Government taking steps to implement the recommendations of the ongoing Grenfell Tower inquiry.

Planning White Paper
The long-awaited Planning White Paper was published on 6 August. It sets out reforms to streamline and modernise the planning process, bring a new focus to design and sustainability, improve the system of developer contributions to infrastructure, and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed. It contains proposals to give greater freedom for buildings and land in town centres to change use without planning permission and create new homes from the regeneration of vacant and redundant buildings. These changes aim to support both the high street revival – and minimise the damage caused by the changes in working trends – allowing empty commercial properties to be quickly repurposed and reduce the pressure to build on greenfield land by making brownfield development easier. The proposals are being consulted on until 29 October.

Building Safety Bill
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick described the Bill as ‘the biggest change to our building safety regime for 40 years’. Businesses will need to quickly adapt to ensure they are prepared. Reforms include the creation of a new Building Safety Regulator, housed within the Health and Safety Executive, to oversee the safety and performance of all buildings and impose sanctions on those who fail in their responsibilities. Several new bodies will be set up to support its work, including a Building Regulations Advisory Committee, which will provide evidence-based guidance on new issues that emerge in the built environment sector; a Competence Committee, to create consistency amongst the competency of workers in the building safety sector; and a new residents panel. A Homes Ombudsman will also be established, and the safety of construction products will be granted to the Secretary of State. A draft bill has been published and is currently going through pre-legislative scrutiny before it is introduced to Parliament.

Consultation on Fire Safety
Published alongside the draft Building Safety Bill, the Fire Safety consultation is a key part of the Government’s package of reform to improve building and fire safety in all regulated properties. The consultation is seeking views on proposals to strengthen the Fire Safety Order, implement the recommendations from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and strengthen the regulatory framework for how building control bodies consult with Fire and Rescue Authorities. The deadline to submit evidence is 12 October 2020.

Green Homes Grant scheme
The £2bn Green Homes Grant was one of the major updates in the Government’s Summer Statement — laying the foundations for a green recovery. The scheme, set to launch in September, will help homeowners in England improve the energy efficiency of their properties through a government grant of up to £10,000. The money, which will be distributed in the form of vouchers, can be used for a whole range of energy saving improvements including double-glazing, loft insulation, solid wall insulation and floor insulation. Homeowners and landlords in England and Wales can apply.

Public sector land review
Alongside the new planning rules and ahead of the Spending Review, the Government said that a new cross-government strategy will look at how public sector land can be managed and released so it can be put to better use. This would include home building, improving the environment, contributing to net zero goals and injecting growth opportunities into communities across the country.

English Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper
The Government has planned to bring forward the English Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper this Autumn, detailing how the UK Government will partner with places across the UK to build a sustainable economic recovery and launch the long-delayed National Infrastructure Plan.

Henry Dimbleby

Helping out with eating well

Today sees the publication of Part One of the National Food Strategy, written by Henry Dimbleby [pictured], son of broadcaster David Dimbleby, but, more relevantly, founder of the restaurant chain LEON. The report was commissioned by Michael Gove during his tenure as Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, but its scope goes well beyond that department’s powers.

Today’s instalment focuses on two highly topical issues – food poverty, which has gained a new salience in light of the economic ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis, and food standards in new trade deals, already the subject of great political dispute.

Indeed, these pressing circumstances have changed the report’s schedule. Part One had originally been envisioned as a diagnostic document, with proposals for reform of the UK food system to follow next year; instead it now makes a series of urgent recommendations, though a full strategy is still scheduled for 2021. The rapidly changing circumstances have also led to revisions to the report right up to its publication – recommendations on advertising of unhealthy food were excised after the Government unilaterally announced them on Monday as part of its obesity strategy.

The report therefore fits nicely into the wider discussion about ensuring that the UK builds back better after the pandemic. As it identifies, ‘in the age of COVID-19, a poor diet is almost as great a threat to life as cancer or old age’. Dimbleby explores a wide range of aspects that have led to poor diets: ‘individual’, in which he splits the population into six groups with shared characteristics; ‘social’, noting that the UK doesn’t put as high a social value on food as other European countries; and ‘material’, claiming that the free market is ‘the single most important force that shapes our food environment’ and outlining the factors that drive companies to produce and market unhealthy food, using Marks and Spencer’s Percy Pigs as an example.

The complexities of the food system are well demonstrated by even the limited number of recommendations that Dimbleby makes at this stage, crossing a number of different policy areas.

Reflecting on the need for an increased ‘nutritional safety net’ for children given the impact of COVID-19 on employment, he calls for the expansion of Free School Meals provision and the Holiday Activity and Food programme (both Department for Education schemes), increased value and eligibility of Healthy Start vouchers (a Department for Health and Social Care measure), and an extension to the work of the Food to the Vulnerable Ministerial Task Force (which is led by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but also involved the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions).

Turning to Brexit, his recommendations cross the responsibilities of both DEFRA and the Department for International Trade. He rejects the ‘globalist model’ of trade, insisting that the UK should have ‘lines we will not cross’ and that ‘standards are not the same as protectionism’. Under his approach, the Trade and Agriculture Commission would set core standards on animal welfare, the environment and climate, and the Government would only agree to cut tariffs on products that meet these, with verification programmes to prove that foreign producers are doing so. There would also be improved scrutiny of trade deals, with statutory duties to commission independent reports and to give Parliament enough time to examine proposed agreements. He also calls on the Government to ‘be bolder’ and ‘go faster’ with its new Environmental Land Management scheme.

The challenge for Dimbleby now will be to put together a comprehensive set of recommendations, drawing together all these different policy streams to create an all-embracing vision for the future of the British food system. But the real challenge isn’t Dimbleby’s at all – it’s the Government’s, both in choosing how to respond to his initial recommendations, but also in ensuring that his final report is acted on, and the UK builds the ‘healthier world’ he calls for.

Need policy monitoring or political support? Find out how Vuelio can help

Public affairs events

A recess like no other: when will events be back on the Parliamentary agenda?

This is a guest post from Nicole Wilkins [pictured], Publisher of forward-planning diary service Foresight News. 

Foresight news nicole wilkinsAs Parliament heads into its six-week summer recess, the effects of COVID-19 and the lingering lockdown restrictions continue to be felt in how diaries have (and haven’t) been filled.

In a normal year, recess caps off weeks of summer receptions and garden parties, giving everyone a chance to get some networking done before Westminster goes quiet in August. Public affairs teams can then take advantage of the summer to start planning for September, with party conferences often top of the list for engagement opportunities.

Not so, this year: there were no summer parties like last year, think tank events were replaced by Zoom webinars, and pubs were only open for the last two and half weeks of the session. While MPs have been back in Westminster since 2 June, most of Whitehall is still working from home and some parliamentary business remains subject to the constraints of remote working.

Most committee hearings, for example, are still being held virtually, with sessions and witnesses often announced at the last minute. This is partly due to the overall disruption and the urgent nature of many of the committees’ coronavirus-related inquiries, but they are also benefitting from not having to worry about packed diaries and the logistics of getting everyone in the same room at the same time.

While civil servants may begin to return to the office in August, Government guidance on events is not due to change before parliament returns, so September is likely to look pretty similar. With more people returning to work, and restaurants and pubs open, there will be more scope for one-on-one engagement, but APPGs, seminars and committees will still be virtual, and larger networking receptions will be off the table for another at least another month.

But the Government’s determination for lawmakers to lead the way back to normality does allow for some small, socially-distanced opportunities. The Henry Jackson Society was able to take advantage of MPs’ presence in Westminster to host a roundtable with visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer have both been doing the kind of site visits and photo ops that couldn’t be justified under lockdown. Even on the virtual front, organisations are beginning to get back to their main priorities; whereas the beginning of lockdown was a scramble to salvage pre-pandemic events and then to find the coronavirus angle, the past month has brought more groups getting back to their bread and butter issues.

Looking ahead to September, the most obvious challenge is the party conference-shaped holes in the calendar: the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats have all moved their conferences online, while the parties that hold their events later in the autumn may not have clarity on changing guidelines in time to put together a physical event.

Some teams are already planning their own virtual fringe, but with no shortage of webinars to watch, it’s a good idea to start thinking about different formats to see if you can incorporate some of the other beneficial elements of attending conference, aside from listening to speeches. Though Zoom and Teams are now live-stream standards, the Lib Dems have announced that their conference will be held via Hopin, a platform that incorporates a randomised chat element to try to recreate the networking aspect of in-person events.

But for those who are really missing warm wine, small talk and even smaller sandwiches, there is some optimism in the not-so-distant future: Boris Johnson’s plans for conferences and business events to return from October and relaxation on social distancing in November offers hope for a return to normality just in time for Christmas receptions.

 

Get in touch with Nicole to request a free one-week trial of Foresight News.

Lockdown stakeholder

How to adapt your stakeholder engagement during lockdown

For most external relations teams, managing relationships with a variety of audiences and stakeholders is at the very core of what they do. Systematic and regular touch points are how relationships are tested, along with keeping a close eye on stakeholder activities through media and political channels. Intelligence and engagement help inform stakeholder mapping, which is a vital activity for measuring reputation and progress against strategic or campaign objectives.

Lockdown has, however, changed the game. In the past 12 weeks, engaging with stakeholders in person is no longer an option, which Vuelio research revealed was MPs’ preferred method of engagement. Furthermore, with COVID-19 now dominating the narrative, the progress of building stakeholder voices on our behalf is likely to have slowed or even paused indefinitely.

So, how do we keep hold of our relationships and build new momentum behind our engagement goals? The answer is to firstly accept where we are. This is a new normal which means looking at our stakeholder map and relationships through a new lens and resetting the foundations:

Influence/interest matrix
Return to the basics of stakeholder mapping: are your stakeholders still interested in your priorities and can they influence them in a positive or negative way? Can you see this in their activities since lockdown began or do you need to accept their score or place in your map has changed?

Broaden your channels  
If your stakeholder map was not informed by social channels before, it definitely should now. Many key stakeholders are connecting with their audiences through social channels – this could be you. At the very least, social activity can help inform the interest axis on your matrix right now, and can provide true insight into thinking. Our sister company Pulsar has been mapping the new normal using online conversation, which clearly shows the power of social.

Build digital relationships
If our usual ‘get to know you’ conversations were based on activities your stakeholders have done or plan to do physically, you now need to find a replacement. Discussing great social posts your stakeholder may have created or even passing on content sources and data you have found useful at this time, can help build the relationship. Being a beacon of knowledge in the new normal will help entrench your value with the stakeholder.

Consult on communication preferences
Reaching out to your key stakeholders and asking how you can connect with them seems obvious. However, it may not be something your stakeholder has thought of. What different options can you offer: a regular newsletter? A regular informal virtual catch up or a structured online briefing? Do you understand how their workflow operates (does a member of their staff process incoming digital communications, for example). And are you aware of preferred timings (Do they like to catch up on reading on Friday mornings so you know when to follow up?).

And finally…

Success IS possible
It doesn’t have to be that the old plan has failed or is paused indefinitely. Establishing new metrics of success can keep your organisation progressing right now in stakeholder engagement activities.

Ready to establish new goals and make the most of the stakeholder landscape in lockdown? Find out how the Vuelio Stakeholder Relationship Management platform has helped our clients do just this.

UK Finance

How the banking and finance sector is tackling COVID-19

Matthew Conway is the director of public affairs at UK Finance, the collective voice of the banking and finance sector. COVID-19 presents the biggest challenge it has faced since the financial crisis of the late noughties. In this guest post, Matthew describes how the sector has responded.

The banking and finance sector, which UK Finance represents, understands very acutely its responsibility to help the country’s businesses and families.

We do this for economic reasons, but we also hear – and accept – that having been bailed out during the financial crisis, we must now be part of the solution to this crisis.

So, what have we done?

The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme is helping firms with a turnover of up to £45m. After a slow start and some refinement by the UK Government, firms have now received nearly 36,000 loans with a combined value of over £6bn and no interest or fees to pay for the first 12 months. For those with higher turnovers, the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme has released more than £350m on similar terms, while the Bounce Back Loan Scheme has already helped more than 260,000 smaller businesses access more than £8bn quickly and simply, underpinned by a 100% Government guarantee.

Thousands of other firms have had their existing overdrafts increased, new loans and invoice finance extended, or repayment holidays applied to existing facilities.

For individuals and households, the sector has delivered three-month mortgage and credit-card payment holidays, a moratorium on repossessions, a three-month extension to mortgage offers where house moves have been delayed, fee-free £500 overdraft buffers and an increase in the limit for contactless payments from £30 to £45.

It has also introduced third-party payments to enable carers to get cash for vulnerable and shielded customers and enabled product transfers so customers—including those on holidays—are not moved to standard variable rates when fixed-rate mortgages expire.

Throughout, we have been aware that speed is of the essence, and lenders have worked around the clock to put schemes in place and process applications. Products that normally take months to develop have been operationalised in a matter of days.

But this has come with added risk as the stricter regulations rightly introduced after the financial crisis to prevent lending to those who may not be able to repay, rub up against the need to get money to those who need it to trade through and survive COVID-19. Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, but we know that money will be lent to businesses that may still fail, and those who will be called on to judge future disputes between businesses and lenders must be clear about what we are doing and why.

We now need to look forward. Unwinding support when there are major uncertainties about future employment and income is a huge challenge, yet 1.6m mortgage holidays taken in the first month of their availability will soon start to expire, and estimates of demand for debt advice range to up to six million customers. We are therefore working on solutions for customers who cannot revert to a capitalised mortgage, and we are speaking with the Money and Pensions Service and the three free-to-use debt charities to gauge demand for debt advice and how best to meet it.

Beyond this, banking and finance firms are planning for the anticipated phased relaxation of lockdown and a ‘new normal’ in how they manage their own operations. Their top priority is ensuring the health and safety of their employees while continuing to serve their customers in a safe and efficient manner. At the same time, many business models will fundamentally change: social distancing will limit how many customers and staff can be in premises, consumer habits will change, and caution may reign.

As with the financial crisis, the banking and finance sector will be judged for its actions during the COVID-19 crisis for years to come. Firms are determined to help the country through the current financial difficulties, and when we look back on their efforts, I very much hope we will do so with pride.

East London

Re-thinking growth in post-COVID London

Julian Ellerby is the Director of Local London – a strategic partnership of eight boroughs in the east and north east of the capital. The national pandemic means we need to review how we approach growth while faced with a potential recession. In this guest post, Julian describes some of the potential solutions. 

It’s time to review our approach to growth.

The implication of this pandemic will be wholesale reassessment of how we go about so many aspects of our lives.

Take digital and virtual working. Parliament has reconvened in a hybrid state of physical and virtual meetings. Will that become normal?

The most important lesson we can take from this emergency is resilience. How ready were we, and how ready would we be should something equally catastrophic happen again?

We will need politicians to build harder resilience into policy making to manage future traumas.

The greatest hit however has been on our economy and ability to work.

The use of furlough, grants and tax relief is papering over the cracks, but the fact that more than one million have registered for universal credit is a strong indicator of the impact.

Working here in the most deprived part of the capital, I have seen that COVID-19 will leave our communities even further behind.

With the global financial crash and now the health crisis, we’ve had two international traumas in a dozen years. Who can say when the next will be?

Here in East London we work as a strategic partnership of eight local authorities as a collaborative called Local London. We work for good inclusive growth. That means ensuring benefits are felt by local people and they also have the power to influence how growth impacts on the places they live and work.

To ensure growth is meaningful there are 10 areas that will make it more resilient:

1. Level closer – you must reduce inequality to mitigate future challenges
The greater the levels of inequality, the lower the resilience to manage trauma. Access to the right skills, well-paid employment, secure housing tenure, strong in-work training and a properly funded benefits system all reduce pressure on the system during the calm periods and are essential during times of crisis.

2. Change place thinking to respond to changing habits
The whole concept of workspace is changing and home as ‘office’ is now the norm. We should provide much more collaborative workspaces for those industries that need them and stronger digital capacity. In East London, we need to invest in creating a small number of multi-purpose centres for work, leisure and retail in the same way Stratford has grown following the Olympics. The key is to rethink workspace so that it pre-empts the attitudes and habits of those that access it.

3. Third sector funded effectively and brought closer to local government
The third sector needs sustainable funding arrangements in place that are closely aligned to local government. The finances should be ring-fenced and a proper package of training, development support put in place.

4. Digital infrastructure prioritised over other infrastructure
Digital investment is essential to enable new types of working and a new economy. In the same way major transport infrastructure gets significant attention, we need to apply that to digital. We also need to create effective governance at scale so that all parts of the country have the best digital infrastructure.

5. Devolve responsibility for land to give local accountability
Devolve decisions about industrial land, permitted development, housing builds, workspace and even the green belt through a clear policy framework. Let local government plan strategically for their areas and coordinate strategic planning with neighbouring authorities.

6. Support SME sustainability all year round
SMEs make up over 95% of local businesses across Local London. Six out of 10 new businesses will be gone within three years of inception.  Put in place funded enterprise agencies, better loan schemes supported by training packages and flexible apprenticeship programmes.

7. Address the gig economy up front
There is fragility in employment – low paid zero-hour contracts have inbuilt risk. Employers and employees need to have mitigations in place against risks. This means employment rights, contracts, pay, pensions and job security need a full-scale review.

8. Supply chains monitored and managed
Local authorities are using their own contracts and procurement systems to support local suppliers. But there is not enough knowledge about business interdependency. Agree standards and invest in monitoring supply chains.

9. Invest in innovation as a cross-cutting theme
Invest in innovation across public sector bodies constantly and put money into sharing best practice to scale up.

10. Create regional financial reserves for local government
Introduce regional pooling of reserves, funded initially by Government. This ensures broader strategic decisions are made on where to invest or how and when to call on them.

Building greater resilience into the approach to growth will benefit everyone who lives and works in this part of London and must now be a priority.

 

This guest post is part of a series on Vuelio’s political blog Point of Order, which publishes insight and opinion to help public affairs, policy and comms professionals stay ahead of political change and connect with those who campaign on the issues they care about. To find out more or contribute, get in touch with Vuelio Politics.

parliament closed

Lockdown Lobbying: Public affairs in a time of isolation

The latest Vuelio webinar heard from an expert panel comprising of Robin Gordon-Farleigh, a former Downing Street communications strategist and adviser to two former Prime Ministers, Nicole Wilkins, Publisher of Foresight News and Rob Dale, PRCA Consultant of the Year 2019.

The panel reflected on the fact that much of what the public affairs sector does, in terms of building and nurturing relationships with a wide range of different stakeholders at meetings, conferences or other events, simply cannot happen in the usual way at present. It is either happening online instead or is being postponed indefinitely.

The speakers provided practical advice to help listeners maintain policy engagement and ensure that corporate strategies could be updated and revised to cope with the pandemic. They also addressed how public affairs professionals can continue to engage with the policymaking process and have a positive impact in this fast-changing environment.

Dale said in his experience, MPs now fully grasped the ‘enormity’ of the COVID-19 crisis and welcomed engagement from organisations where they already had a link and where people could offer case studies or an international perspective on the pandemic. He recommended against any engagement with MPs where there was no historic link, but did say that All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) could in some cases still work virtually and ‘plug the gaps that Government can’t fill’ in terms of their inquiries.

Gordon-Farleigh explained that most Government departments were ‘forging a new normal’ and life won’t be exactly as it was before for Government any more than it will for anyone else, at least for some time. He said this offered all organisations the opportunity to ‘recalibrate strategies and priorities’ as well as the suggestion that public affairs professionals should ‘review all of their messaging across all channels and be more human centric with an empathetic voice’.

Asked by several listeners about the EU trade negotiations currently underway, the panel thought the Government was benefitting from negotiations not generating front page news in the way they were previously. Gordon-Farleigh suspected that the transition period won’t be extended and pointed out the talks were continuing through this pandemic.

In terms of keeping in touch with stakeholders and updating stakeholder maps, Wilkins said it was important to keep track of people on furlough or those no longer moving roles due to the crisis. Dale said stakeholder mapping is really important and he referred to recent projects he has been aware of that achieved extra support for the fishing industry and for cycling shops in the current crisis, which came about by coordinated pressure from MPs across the House of Commons speaking to Ministers with one voice on behalf of those key sectors. He added: ‘Politics is still about being in the room, body language and relationships, so you should be thinking about what you can do when things return to normal’.

In terms of practicalities of arranging events in parliament or elsewhere, Dale advised booking two or three dates for rooms now allowing for a staggered return to normal business if refundable bookings are possible.

In terms of advice on organisations seeking coverage of their campaigns, Wilkins advised that people should target individuals in the ‘political and media spheres, who you know are interested in your issue’ so that these people are already aware of the issue and to ensure that the campaign stands the best chance of gaining traction.

Asked by listeners about delays to the Government’s next Spending Review or a possible emergency Budget, Gordon-Farleigh said he could perceive such an emergency Budget and added: ‘A lot of spending will be reviewed. Government will want to prioritise boosting the economy to turbo charge our recovery’.

Finally asked about tips for public affairs agencies, Dale advised that agencies should: ‘Keep talking to clients, deal with the here and now but also look at what you’ll be doing in six months to help their members out of it. Retaining clients will be a big focus as many will be looking to reduce their spend’.

Lockdown lobbying: How is public affairs surviving in a time of self-isolation?

Join three experts in the UK public affairs sector to discuss how the sector is reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic and what should be done to maintain policy engagement.

It has been confirmed by the First Secretary of State Dominic Raab that the UK lockdown restrictions will continue for at least another three weeks, and many will now be well-adjusted to remote working, not least in the public affairs sector.

Parliament, for example, has adapted to allow virtual questioning of Ministers for the first time in its 700-year history using Zoom once it returns from recess on 21 April.

The House of Commons Commission chaired by the Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has announced that following the delivery of ‘hybrid proceedings’ for questioning Ministers and for PMQs led by Dominic Raab in the Prime Minister’s absence, the House will then consider extending this model for debates, motions and legislation as soon as possible.

MPs are also able to consider new temporary arrangements for remote voting. Many select Committees have already held virtual committee meetings thanks to platforms like Zoom and this is set to increase in number when the House of Commons returns.

As the First Secretary of State set five clear conditions that must be met before the Government, led by its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) Committee, will consider relaxing any of the measures brought in to reduce the spread of COVID-19, this situation is clearly set to continue into May and perhaps even longer. Raab said in terms of relaxing the strict health and economic restrictions: ‘We will only do it when the evidence demonstrates that it is safe to do it’.

MPs are finding that their workload in terms of constituency casework and enquiries has increased significantly. One senior MP advised Vuelio that they are seeing an increase in cases of people ‘trying to access the various business support schemes’ as well as those stuck overseas and trying to return to the UK, or people trying to access benefits through the DWP and needing assistance. MPs are also seeing traditional lobbying continue as well, with various advice and suggestions on how to deal with the pandemic being sent to Ministers and backbenchers daily.

With this ongoing challenge for the public affairs sector in mind, Vuelio is hosting a webinar to discuss some of the key issues for our sector including:

  • How to keep your political audiences engaged during lockdown
  • How COVID-19 could impact policymaking for the long term
  • The implications for your organisational strategy
  • Tactics for updating your stakeholder map
  • The opportunities that exist for you to maximise engagement

The webinar guests are Robin Gordon-Farleigh, a former Downing Street communications strategist and adviser to two former Prime Ministers, Nicole Wilkins, Publisher of Foresight News and Rob Dale, PRCA Consultant of the Year 2019.

Sign up to attend the webinar or, if you can’t join us live, to receive the recording afterwards.

Dr Philippa Whitford MP: Lockdown shouldn’t end until the COVID-19 peak has passed

 The SNP’s Shadow Health and Social Care SNP Spokesperson, Dr Philippa Whitford MP, writes that extensive testing and contact tracing must be established before the current lockdown can be reviewed.

Boris Johnson’s Government was apparently warned in mid-January about the threat posed by COVID-19, yet took little significant action, beyond advising us all to ‘Wash our hands’ until mid-March. Nor, despite the failings highlighted by the 2016 flu pandemic exercise, Operation Cygnus, were efforts made to prepare health and social care services, by purchasing additional ventilators and PPE while they were still available.

As late as 11 March, the day COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the reality of asymptomatic spread was still being denied by the Secretary of State in the House of Commons.

During the ‘containment’ phase, the UK chose not to follow the WHO guidance on testing, contact tracing and isolating cases to break the chain of infection. This meant that when, on 16 March, the UK Government finally recognised the potentially appalling death toll of sticking with their ‘herd immunity’ policy, the only option left to them was to initiate physical distancing; followed on the 23 March by lockdown.

Prior to the lockdown, the number of new infections was accelerating exponentially as every case of COVID-19 was able to infect two to three other people who could each, in turn, infect three others. Cases were doubling every few days but, for a long time, the numbers seemed quite low and UK Government ministers appeared complacent.

Having missed the opportunity to contain the infection, maintaining ‘safe distancing’ has become critical to minimising the number of people ill with COVID-19 at any one time and ensuring health services are not overwhelmed but have sufficient resources to treat everyone, including those who become ill from other causes during the outbreak.

There have been suggestions that the number of new cases is stabilising rather than accelerating. While any improvement is welcome, it is simply too early to tell when we will reach the peak. The number of people infected is still rising and, while the UK might be approaching the peak, it is certainly not yet coming down the other side.

To avoid taunting the public, it would have been better to be honest from the start, as was the case in Scotland, that the lockdown would require about 12 weeks rather than be up for review in three. The suggestion that those under 30 years could soon come out of lockdown is particularly concerning as the young have often, mistakenly, thought they were immune to COVID-19 and may now start to rebel against current advice. Based on the predicted mortality of 0.03% for those aged 20-30 years, this could result in the loss of 630 young adults – surely far too high a price to pay.

Throughout this crisis, there has clearly been a tussle within the Cabinet about the balance between the health impacts and economic damage. The leak of recent Home Office discussions has raised concerns that the dangerous herd immunity strategy is still being pursued, particularly as the UK Government encouraged construction and manufacturing to continue in England despite the supposed ‘lockdown’.

No reduction in the lockdown should be considered until the peak of the epidemic is passed, and extensive testing and contact tracing established. Otherwise we are likely to see another surge in cases and further loss of life.

The UK Government failed to use its two months’ grace to properly contain the epidemic or prepare healthcare services for what they would face. They must not now compound those mistakes, through impatience, by lifting the lockdown prematurely.

Dr Philippa Whitford is the SNP’s Westminster Spokesperson for Health and Social Care & Europe. She is the MP for Central Ayrshire.

Government support for charities is welcome to ensure they survive this crisis

The Head of Media at the Charities Aid Foundation, Caroline Mallan, welcomes the additional Government support for charities announced last week by Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

At the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), we were very pleased to see the Chancellor’s package of assistance for charities announced just before the Easter break – it was a welcome first step for so many charities facing uncertain futures. Moreover, Mr Sunak’s recognition in his remarks of the value of civil society – the charities, non-profits and advocacy organisations that speak for those who so often have no voice – set a gracious tone for those of us working to ensure that the charities that we rely on in our day to day lives are going to be there for the months and years to come.

We need them to survive not just because of the invaluable support they are providing on the frontlines of the battle against coronavirus, but also because when the day finally arrives when we emerge from this crisis, their mission will not have diminished.

At CAF, we have created an emergency fund for small charities, offering grants of up to £10,000 to help them survive the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. It is very telling that the fund had to pause accepting new applications after just one week when more than 5,000 organisations applied for help. Their requests totalled more than £37m, even though the initial fund was created with just £5m – a sum that we are hoping to grow thanks to the generosity of CAF’s many donors.

The statistic that has always struck me out of our extensive research into charitable giving is one from a couple of years back, that found that three-quarters of all households in the UK had used a charity in some way in recent months, but three in 10 people did not even realise that they had done so. It is just one number, but for me it speaks to the inherent role that charities play in our lives.

If you have cycled on a canal tow path, you have used a charity. If you have visited a historic palace, you have used a charity. If you have attended a small theatre production, you have used a charity. If a loved one is ill and needs to go into hospice, you will be using a charity. If a loved one suffers from dementia and spends time in a day centre – vital to offering respite to primary care givers living with people with complex and emotionally taxing health issues – then chances are that service was provided by a charity.

Charities are everywhere, they clothe the poor, feed the needy and care for the vulnerable – both people and animals. They are the guardians of our natural world and for many, they are the only connection to the world outside their own homes.

Our work at CAF is to champion charities. I can honestly say that we have never been busier or more focused on the job we have ahead of us. Many of our private clients took hours, not days or weeks, to get in touch to ask us how they could help. Our charity clients have been candid and forthcoming in helping us tell the story of the need that exists out there. The businesses we work with have never been more engaged as they strive to help in any way they can. It is heartening during some difficult times to see the depth of generosity that exists and gratifying to be able to play a small part in telling their stories and helping charities to navigate these unprecedented, choppy waters.

Caroline Mallan is the Head of Media at the Charities Aid Foundation.

Alistair Carmichael MP: Government was ‘working in a hurry’ and must do more now to support the dynamic self-employed sector

Former Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael asks that the Government makes more support available to small businesses and the self-employed, or risk a far smaller and less vibrant self-employed sector in the future.

It takes a particular sort of person to start your own business or to make your living in self-employment. It is not for everyone. Yes, it can give freedom that will never be found in a large corporate or in the public sector. It can also bring a lot of risk and uncertainty. There is no chain up that blame can be passed. For good or ill, you know where the buck stops.

For many people who are self-employed it is not just a means of earning a living but can also be a lifestyle choice, informing how they see the world.

It is that mindset that Government always finds difficult to understand, and not just in the current COVID-19 crisis.

Last week when the Government announced new measures to support self-employed people, I welcomed the efforts, however overdue.

One week on, however, and it is becoming clearer from my inbox that there are large gaps in this support, even setting aside the extended delays in getting it. Few of the self-employed feel any more reassured today than they did this time last week.  For many, the despair is deepening. Lockdown pulled the rug from under their feet and they see nothing to cushion their fall.

One accountancy practice in my constituency tells me that more than 75% of their clients do not qualify for any of the support measures offered by the Government. That is the scale of the failure here.

These are often young businesses – sole traders who either have yet to file a tax return or filed their first tax return last year. Their accounts are often complex due to the short period covered and high level of start-up costs reducing their recorded profit. Most importantly, these businesses have not had time to build up cash reserves to see them through this crisis.

One constituent who contacted me set up a small groundworks company in 2018. Due to the purchase of essential equipment that year, he spent more money than he made, and because the last financial year is the one his eligibility is based on, he has been told that he cannot receive any support aside from Universal Credit. He feels – and I agree with him – that it seems very unfair that he must use his savings to stay afloat, while the vast majority of the UK are receiving assistance.

A further complication is presented for those working in tourism, which makes up a vital part of the local economy in my constituency and others. Outside major cities like London it is highly seasonal, and yet this is not recognised in the Government’s measures. Those who rely on the summer trade – now likely to be minimal as a result of the virus – to cover them through the rest of the year cannot live for twelve months on three months of Government support based on an ‘annual average’.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect for these businesses is the inability to access grants available to business rate payers. Most small businesses starting out are run from home, and many continue in this way for practical reasons. Home based businesses are no less important than businesses that operate from rateable premises and yet so far, no support is offered to them.

The issues I highlight here are just a few examples of those that I have encountered from constituents in the last few days. My hope is that the current measures are inadequate because the Government was working in a hurry, rather than because they have designed something that they think will do the job. It has been my experience, though, that Government departments struggle to ‘get’ how self-employment works. That, I believe, is why the scheme took longer to design and why it has so many flaws and gaps.

No one is expecting to get through this crisis without any hardship at all, as the Prime Minister suggested when I put my concerns to him before the parliamentary recess. All that self-employed people are asking for is the same treatment and the same assurances as people in employment have already been given. If we cannot stretch ourselves to support our dynamic self-employed economy now, we cannot be surprised if it is far smaller and less vibrant in the future.

Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, Brexit and the party’s Chief Whip. He is the MP for Orkney and Shetland.

How will the economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?

The think tank Policy Exchange hosted a webinar this week bringing together some of the players who responded to the last global crisis: the banking crisis of 2008-9.

Policy Exchange hosted a webinar to discuss the economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, chaired by its Senior Fellow Juliet Samuel. It brought together three of the key players who led the UK response to the 2008 economic crisis: Lord Darling, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord King, the former Governor of the Bank of England and Lord Macpherson, former Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury. They were joined by Dr Gerard Lyons, newly appointed Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a former adviser to Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London.

Juliet Samuel opened the discussion on 1 April by warning that economic predictions by Deutsche Bank that this global crisis could well be the third largest economic reduction in the last 100 years, with a 6.5% drop in GDP, compared to only a 4.2% drop in 2008-9. She said this could well put the economy into recession if not a depression and said the fiscal backdrop was likely to be very different once the immediate crisis had passed. Samuel asked if taxes would have to sharply increase as they did after the Second World War?

Dr Gerard Lyons said the Government response to this pandemic needed to be ‘unconventional, unlimited and urgent’. Where the 2008-9 crisis was largely a western financial crisis, this pandemic is obviously global and does not respect national frontiers. In 2008-9 the solution was financial first then macroeconomic, with this COVID-19 crisis, the initial solution was a health one and a macroeconomic solution would follow when Governments would need to look to boost the global economy again. He observed that the action in 2008-9 was global, with this crisis many countries are more ‘on their own’ in terms of their varied responses and he added the G20 forum that met virtually at the beginning of the crisis had been ‘left wanting’ in its response.

Dr Lyons said the consensus was a possible economic recovery in the fourth quarter of 2020 and added while there was ‘no ideal policy response’ he did think there was agreement on the scale of the problem.

He added the Government accepted the collapse in demand and income and was seeking to minimize and offset that lost income and to ‘provide liquidity and ensure financial stability’ to make sure the hit to the economy was temporary and not permanent.

While initially the Chancellor said his measures would be ‘timely targeted and temporary’, Gerard Lyons said it was now clear the Treasury’s actions were ‘coherent, coordinated and comprehensive’.

He accepted, as many politicians and commentators have been saying, that more still needs to be done to assist the self-employed, adding that delay to them receiving any financial help until June was ‘problematic’ and said it was likely that more resources had to go into Universal Credit to assist the increase in applicants.

Dr Lyons said it wouldn’t be advisable to ‘burden the corporate sector with more debt’ so suggested that more grants should be offered in place of loans. Big companies were still not paying suppliers quickly enough, which is a traditional problem for small firms and even more serious now. He said it was important for Government to ensure as many companies as possible survived this shock and came out on the other side of the crisis. He also dispelled the myth about a magic money tree and said the Government was perfectly able to manage its debt through the debt management office.

Former Bank of England Governor Lord King said there were lessons to be learned from the banking crisis of 2008. He gave the example that banking system then was running right up against the margins and didn’t have sufficient capital to absorb losses or the ability to raise liquid assets; we now see the NHS will need additional capacity to be ready to cope with this pandemic. He urged all concerned to ‘avoid bogus predictions’ especially given it was very difficult to know how long the lockdown measures were likely to be needed.

Lord King added there needed to be ‘collective insurance’ from the Government to all affected and that nobody should blame the private sector for this when it is a Government decision to ‘lockdown the economy’ and ‘push down on economic activity’.

As a result of this, Lord King said the Government had to ensure cash flow to all businesses ‘large and small and the self-employed’ and agreed with other panelists that it was ‘not good enough’ to make the self-employed wait until June without any tangible support. He was also concerned about the ‘mechanism of delivery’ for this Government support if most bank branches were closed and unable to support businesses. Banks either by phone or in person had to be open to ensure the Government-backed emergency loans that were available in principle were ‘available in practice’.

Lord King concluded that the Government needed to find an ‘exit strategy’ to avoid a ‘rebellion against the lockdown’ the longer it is sustained, and added that as a result of this crisis the Government needed to support the NHS to ensure it was better able to ramp up the number of intensive care beds and for the NHS as a whole to be more robust and resilient.

Former Treasury Permanent Secretary Lord Macpherson said overall the Government and the Chancellor had ‘done a good job so far’ in this crisis but it was clear that more was required.

He noted that the social security system was likely to be put under more strain to help the ‘poorest in society’.

He echoed other panelists in pressing for a credible exit strategy and said the key questions was ‘How do we pay for this crisis and how do we come through it stronger?’.

Speaking as a former Treasury civil servant, he said it was critical to strike the right balance between ‘taxation, borrowing and printing money’ and suggested that the time might now be right for Government to consider a health tax to cover the cost of demographic pressures on the NHS and funding additional capacity.

Former Chancellor Lord Darling said the COVID-19 pandemic is different from the banking crisis of 2008 as there is no way of seeing the scale of the problem or knowing how long it will last.

He was clear that the Government message on testing up to this point had not been clear but said only a huge roll out of testing would ensure the NHS could get back on to the front foot in tackling the virus and this would also establish who has the virus and who has had it and is likely to be immune.

He said the delivery of the measures announced for the self-employed would take longer to deliver than many people have got, and this was not helped because people were finding it difficult to get access to the banks or information they required. Reflecting on his own time in Government in the Blair and Brown Governments, he suggested a temporary VAT reduction could be one solution to boost the economy and added national governments needed to ‘work as never before together if we are going to get through this’.

When questioned about the impact the crisis would have on national transport infrastructure projects like HS2, Lord Darling, as a former Transport Secretary, said Government should focus on delivering small ‘shovel-ready projects’ rather than huge and costly projects likely to take many years to come into use, like HS2.

Lord Clement-Jones: If we truly want people to stay home, they need the cash to get by

Liberal Democrat House of Lords spokesperson for Digital, Lord Clement-Jones, urges the Government to think again about how best to support the self-employed who cannot survive until June without any financial help, and to do more for people who weren’t helped at all by the package announced last week.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis the self-employed have been neglected by the Government. Even with Rishi Sunak’s announcement last week of a financial package for the self-employed, it seems they will not receive a single penny until June.

This took far too long to come, but with consistent pressure from the Liberal Democrats such as through tabling amendments in both Houses of Parliament, finally the Government came forward with something. We consistently made clear that millions of individuals had been plunged into financial insecurity, and subsequently far too many were wondering if they can even afford to put food on the table over the next few months. However, this then begs the question how do they expect people to wait months before they see any material financial support?

The self-employed are not high-flying entrepreneurs as often pictured – they are taxi drivers, hairdressers, builders or child minders. Many of these people will not have savings large enough to cover the cost of living for months on end without any money coming in.

The majority of the self-employed have taxable incomes of less than £10,000 a year, and that compares with just 15% of employees on incomes that low. Without any money before June, they won’t be able to pay their mortgages, rent and bills, and potentially face financial ruin.

Another industry largely forgotten about is the creative industries. The Creative Industries Federation survey last week revealed that 60% of creative freelancers estimate that their income will more than halve in 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak, and almost 50% of freelancers who responded to their poll have already had 100% of their work cancelled.

The wait until June is not the only concern Liberal Democrats have. The scheme proposed by the Chancellor also ignores all those who have been self-employed for less than a year. Between November 2019 and January 2020, the number of self-employed workers increased by 194,000. Many of these individuals will have risked their savings to get started and it looks like they will get nothing from the package. Equally, the Chancellor’s pledge that the self-employed can access loans is also useless to the majority who cannot to afford the personal guarantees banks are saying small businesses need.

If we truly want people to stay home, we must ensure people have the cash to get by now. This is not just about protecting their finances, but also their health. We need to protect them and those around them from the virus – this cannot become a luxury for those who can afford to. If we have seen anything over the past few days, it has been how easily and quickly this virus can spread. The financial packages announced are not just there to protect people’s bank accounts, but to give them the ability to follow the advice we have been given regarding social distancing. If we truly believe that no-one deserves better healthcare because of who they are, where they’re from, or how much they earn, then I would urge the Government to think about how soon they can get the funding to the self-employed during this crisis.

Lord Clement-Jones is a Liberal Democrat peer and the party’s House of Lords Spokesperson for digital.

The Public Affairs working from home challenge: Think about reading

The Head of Public Affairs at the law firm BDB Pitmans, Stuart Thomson, offers his suggestions on how to best use the additional time we have when working from home, to further our personal development.

The time that we now all have working from home can be used productively. We have the ‘day job’ to be getting on with, but we should think about personal development as well. And what better way than reading a book or two!

Working from home can be quite challenging and there is a real danger of simply being sat staring at a screen all day. So, one way that you could choose to bring a bit of useful variety into your set-up is to put some time aside each day to read.

While I am sure that you have a stack of fiction books to get through, there are some really useful non-fiction titles out there for your personal development as well. This applies across the whole of the communications profession but I’ll stick to public affairs!

So, here are a few thoughts that I’ve had about some useful public affairs reading:

  • The systems and processes – books on political processes can often be really quite dull and technical. However, take a look at Besly and Goldsmith’s ‘How Parliament Works’ for a good guide to the Westminster parliament. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly both have good online guides.
  • Campaigns and strategies – I can’t rate the materials freely available on the Government Communications Service highly enough. There is everything from evaluation to digital communications and the OASIS framework for campaign planning.
  • How To Guides – there aren’t many ‘how to’ guides available covering public affairs. The most comprehensive ones are probably Lionel Zetter’s ‘The Art of Political Persuasion’ and my own ‘Public Affairs in Practice’. Both cover everything from the basics of what public affairs is through to effective engagement and political processes. While ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ is mainly UK and Brussels based, Zetter has an international dimension. If you are interested in how public affairs is done in different countries around the world then my ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ would be a good starting point.
  • Best practice – it is always useful to take a look at the CIPR and PRCA They both have great resources, guides and case studies as well. I’d also suggest taking a look at the training options they have. Both are working on more online courses for obvious reasons, but they have some already available.
  • Others – there are also some more general communications books that really help with public affairs. I’d point to Measure What Matters, which gets you thinking about KPIs, Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, with some constructive thoughts that I found useful when starting off with new campaigns, and Words The Work, which helped me to focus even more on every word I write.

If it’s helpful, I have added the books, as well as a few others, to an Amazon page.

It would be great to hear ideas from others about what books they have found useful and maybe why as well. There are no end of really good books available but personal recommendations are always worth just that little bit more.

You’ll have to forgive me a little cross-selling as well but you may also find my regular (and free!) blog useful as well: www.stuartthomson.co.uk.

I look forward to hearing what I should be adding to my book list. Happy reading!

Bob Blackman MP: Homelessness Reduction Act was the first major legislative change for 40 years

Conservative MP Bob Blackman writes about his journey from being drawn second in the Private Members’ Bill ballot to passing a ground-breaking piece of legislation: the 2018 Homelessness Reduction Act. The Act ‘places a duty to refer on to agencies like the NHS, the prisons service and Jobcentre Plus, to try to ensure no one is missed in the system’ and ensures local authorities offer help up to 56 days before the crunch occurs, reducing the need for unsuitable temporary accommodation.

 

In April 2018, I was proud to see my Homelessness Reduction Act given Royal Assent to become the first major change to legislation on the subject in England for nearly forty years.

This piece of ground-breaking legislation came about after I was drawn number two in the Private Members’ Bill ballot in 2016. It is a comprehensive change to the law that has shifted the emphasis firmly towards preventing homelessness from ever occurring in the first place, and it ensures that care leavers, ex-offenders, NHS patients, armed forces veterans and other vulnerable groups will receive help and advice for the first time.

From the moment I was drawn in the ballot, I was inundated with requests to use the opportunity to further interests or a particular cause by multiple groups. I settled on homelessness reduction after giving thought to issues I have seen in my time in politics, having been a councillor and member of the London Assembly before entering the House of Commons.

A lot of work went into ensuring the Bill would be workable and credible and I was naturally pleased that it gained valuable backing from the Government and all opposition parties. My colleagues on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee deserve particular mention for their support, as this was the first time a Private Member’s Bill was given pre-legislative scrutiny by a Select Committee and it made a big difference in ironing out the finer points at an early stage.

The homelessness charity, Crisis, deserve a great deal of credit for helping to support the early formation of the Bill through its extensive groundwork, and I also owe thanks to Shelter and several other charities for their support as well. The Residential Landlords Association, and London Councils, to name a few are also to be commended for having the insight and vision to recognise the need for this legislation and I am also grateful for their support. Throughout the process I was repeatedly surprised by how dated homelessness law was and how long had passed since proper scrutiny by lawmakers.

The experience gained from the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 was perfectly timed to help inform measures put forward in the Homelessness Reduction Act. Wales saw a 69 % decrease in the number of households owed the main homelessness duty for example. While there are obvious differences between the nations, this was a demonstration that shifting the balance towards prevention work could really make a difference.

Drawing on lessons from Wales, there is a strong evidence base to suggest that the costs of transforming local authority services towards prevention work will rapidly offset the savings to local authorities on temporary and emergency accommodation. As of the end of 2018, there were 78,930 recorded households in temporary accommodation, with 69% placed in temporary accommodation in London, and the number of families with children stuck in completely unsuitable B&B-style accommodation on the rise. The National Audit Office (NAO) report on Homelessness in September 2017 showed that, of the £1.1bn spent by English local authorities in 2015-16, £845 million was spent on temporary accommodation, and this figure has only continued to increase.

I am very pleased that the Government is funding the initial implementation of my Act to the tune of £72.7 million, helping local authorities to make the adjustments and provide the new services needed to turn things around and change how we approach homelessness entirely. As a result, I believe there will be fewer people hitting the point of becoming homeless in the first place, with local authorities empowered to step in and offer help and advice up to 56 days before the crunch occurs, in turn causing a reduction in the need to use unsuitable temporary accommodation.

Of course, this piece of legislation cannot be considered a fix-all. Homelessness is typically the end point that occurs due to numerous other issues and no one thing can provide a complete solution. The Act places a duty to refer on to agencies like the NHS, the prisons service and Jobcentre Plus, to try to ensure no one is missed in the system, and it also reinforces legislation to ensure Private Rented Sector accommodation has been inspected for suitability prior to it being offered. I hope all the different measures contained within this legislation will really make a difference on the ground and I intend to continue to press the Government to keep monitoring it and listening to local authorities as they feed back.

Bob Blackman is the Conservative MP for Harrow East.