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.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe: Reflections on Coronavirus – Test, Test, Test!

Former Business Minister and Tesco director Baroness Neville-Rolfe writes: ‘Supermarkets are on the frontline in crises such as this one with their unique knowledge of the supply chain, a vast employee base of all ages and skilled operational mangers’.

The importance of establishing the facts clearly, the unintended effect of the counter measures adopted, and the sheer unpredictability of events are themes that recur in all crises. The point is to overcome these problems. I speak as a former supermarket executive at Tesco and civil servant at No 10, and now as a peer and former Government Minister.

You might be surprised how impressive the exchanges have been in the House of Lords on the virus. Gnarled politicians and former ministers who lived through the 1987 crash, BSE, 9/11, SARS and the financial crisis; Bishops reminding us of the plight of the vulnerable and of prisoners; distinguished doctors; and pillars of the voluntary and education sectors. All have contributed positively and wisely.

Supermarkets are on the front line in crises such as this one with their unique knowledge of the supply chain, a vast employee base of all ages and skilled operational mangers. They have to deal with panic buying – a gut instinct in the absence of facts. My four-year-old granddaughter was yesterday piling up her toy food under the kitchen table because she had heard we ‘have to stockpile’.

The fact is that there is enough food for everyone during the current crisis although home demand will be higher because people will eat at home more. And cupboards can only take so much spaghetti and loo paper! The Competition and Markets Authority need to help by indicating that the enforcement of competition law will be temporarily relaxed to make it easier for supermarkets and food businesses to act in concert for the public benefit. Also keeping prices down in all circumstances is not always wise; the laws of supply and demand are still true.

Supermarkets rely on the news networks to keep customers informed, because when information is scarce, they are inundated with queries. The Government’s daily press conferences are a wise step forward. However awful things might seem, there is a need to ‘stay cheerful’. The free to air broadcasters are a lifeline in times of crisis providing repeats of Foyle’s War and Sunday services now the churches have closed.

Pandemics start in a small way so there is a tendency to delay radical action for too long. I remember that in the foot and mouth (FMD) crisis of the early 2000s the country was shut down too late. Later, the wider impact of shutting footpaths did vast damage to the tourist industry, an economic impact significantly larger than the damage FMD caused to the meat sector.

In the terrifying circumstances of a pandemic, we have to rely on scientific advice. However, like economists, scientists can be wrong, so it is wise to draw on a range of expertise. In the BSE crisis some scientists published a paper speculating that deaths might amount to 100,000. The figure to date is below 200.

What can we do now? The Government is overwhelmed with suggestions. Today I have one demand which would do more than anything else to ease current strains. Get on top of testing so actions and behaviour can be informed by the facts. We must find a way of testing more people for the virus so those infected can be isolated and those not infected can contribute their skills.

Also, we must accelerate and make widely available the new test for anti-bodies. This will ensure that vital workers can get back to work quickly. In Taiwan, in Singapore and one brave Italian town this emphasis on Test, Test, Test has slowed the pandemic significantly.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe is a former Treasury & BEIS Minister and a Conservative peer. She is a former Director of Tesco.

Effective communications in disrupted times

Effective communications in disrupted times

These are extraordinary times that are intensely challenging for our customers’ as they work to maintain coordinated, effective communications to multiple stakeholders in a fast changing environment. This has never been more important and we want to help.

We recognise that every organisation is grappling with exceptional enquiry volumes so from today we’re offering all clients complimentary access to the Vuelio Interactions module for three months. This will enable you to track and manage contact with your stakeholders so even though your team are remote working, you can manage and keep all communications consistent.

We have seen our customers’ manage high coverage volumes so to streamline reporting we will provide Vuelio Canvas, which will also be complimentary to clients for three months. This is a digital coverage tool that quickly and powerfully presents coverage in a way that can be easily shared to keep your stakeholders up to date on coverage, social media and latest published information.

We know that the work of front line, emergency organisations in communicating latest information to stakeholders is critical in managing this health crisis. So, from today, we’re offering NHS, police, fire service, and health and social care charities three months of online media monitoring including news alerts, at no cost. This will support you to understand the changing news agenda and implications for your organisation.

Please contact your account manager to find out more.

We are in a fast changing policy environment so to keep ahead of what this means, we’re offering a free daily bulletin from our political team, summarising COVID-related announcements from official Government sources, key Government spokespeople, industry and community stakeholders. Sign up to the bulletin here.

Alongside offering access to our products, we also want to support your teams to build their confidence in using the platform as they work remotely. From next week, every day at 3pm we will run online Vuelio Training Academies. These 30-minute sessions will be facilitated by Vuelio experts and explain how to get the most from functionalities including:

  • Interactions logging
  • Canvas
  • Media Monitoring
  • Media Database
  • Press Release Distribution

These sessions can be signed up to here, where the weekly schedule will also be available. If there are other areas of the product that it would be useful to cover, please do email your account manager to ask for them to be added.

These are challenging economic times that we all face. If you have any concerns that we can help with, get in touch with your account manager who can be contacted by phone or email as normal.

Government promises all the tools every UK Citizen needs to get through this

Vuelio’s Sam Webber assesses the latest Government response to the Coronavirus pandemic, including a new fiscal stimulus and school closures.

The Coronavirus pandemic has now affected every aspect of Government and public life in a way that this country has not experienced since the Second World War.

The Chancellor’s comprehensive Budget, announced last week, has already had to be updated and overhauled with a far more generous package of measures to safeguard businesses and families. After pressure from MPs representing tourist destinations and from key cultural institutions like small attractions, pubs and restaurants that are set to be particularly affected, the Chancellor increased measures offered to this sector: ‘I announced last week that for businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors, with a rateable value of less than £51,000, they will pay no business rates this year.

‘Today, I can go further and provide those businesses with an additional cash grant of up to £25,000 per business – to help bridge through this period. Additionally, I also am today extending the business rates holiday to all businesses in those sectors, irrespective of their rateable value.

‘That means every single shop, pub, theatre, music venue, restaurant – and any other business in the retail, hospitality or leisure sector – will pay no business rates whatsoever for 12 months, and if they have a rateable value of less than £51,000, they can now get a cash grant as well.

‘I also announced last week that we would be providing £3,000 cash grants to the 700,000 of our smallest businesses. In light of the new circumstances, and to support their cash flow, today I can increase those grants to £10,000.’

Hinting at additional measures for other sectors of the economy he added:

‘Some sectors are facing particularly acute challenges. In the coming days, my colleague the Secretary of State for Transport and I will discuss a potential support package for specifically airlines and airports.’

For those affected by COVID-19 who will lose income and not be able to pay their monthly mortgage, the Chancellor also offered support: ‘Following discussions with industry today, I can announce that for those in difficulty due to coronavirus, mortgage lenders will offer at least a three month mortgage holiday – so that people will not have to pay a penny towards their mortgage while they get back on their feet.’

While he was immediately criticised because this statement offered nothing to those in rented accommodation, they have now been offered additional protections too.

Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said: ‘The Government is clear – no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home, nor will any landlord face unmanageable debts.’

His detailed statement includes a promise that: ‘Emergency legislation will be taken forward as an urgent priority so that landlords will not be able to start proceedings to evict tenants for at least a three-month period. As a result of these measures, no renters in private or social accommodation needs to be concerned about the threat of eviction.’

An announcement from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Wednesday also confirmed what many parents had been expecting: ‘After schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon, they will remain closed until further notice except for children of key workers and vulnerable children, as part of the country’s ongoing response to coronavirus.’

While this has serious implications for those studying for exams that will now not be taking place in the usual way, the Government is clear it will do whatever is necessary to ensure no students are adversely affected by these challenging conditions.

Finally, the Government has set up a new structure of four implementation committees focusing on health, public sector preparedness, economy and international response to deal with the crisis.

  • Healthcare: chaired by the Health Secretary to focus on the preparedness of the NHS, notably ensuring capacity in the critical care system for those worst affected
  • General Public Sector: chaired by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to look at preparedness across the rest of the public and critical national infrastructure, excluding the NHS
  • Economic and Business: chaired by the Chancellor, with the Business Secretary as deputy chair, to consider economic and business impact and response, including supply chain resilience. It will also coordinate roundtables with key sectors to be chaired by relevant Secretaries of State
  • International: chaired by the Foreign Secretary, to consider our international response to the crisis through the G7, G20 and other mechanisms, including like-minded groups, and the UK five-point plan

This shows that as well as relying heavily on the advice from his Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser, the Prime Minister is receiving support from his Cabinet colleagues Matt Hancock, Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma and Dominic Raab and all their respective teams of civil servants to feed into the UK’s holistic approach to defeating this virus.

As Rishi Sunak said this week: ’I want to reassure every British citizen, this Government will give you all the tools you need to get through this.’

Budget dominated by Coronavirus was well received on social media

Much of the media commentary in response to the Budget statement has been positive for Rishi Sunak, barely four weeks after he was appointed as Chancellor.

At 39 he is the youngest Chancellor since George Osborne took office in 2010 and has degrees from Oxford and Stanford Universities, as well as business experience at Goldman Sachs and in several hedge funds.

His experience in Government however has been relatively brief, having only been appointed as a junior MHCLG minister in January 2018, before joining Boris Johnson’s cabinet in July 2019 as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He received his unexpected promotion following Sajid Javid’s shock resignation last month.

After the relatively dull and uneventful delivery of Philip Hammond, the last Chancellor to deliver a Budget speech in 2018, Rishi Sunak offered some genuine enthusiasm. Daily Mail reporter Andrew Pierce tweeted in response to the speech: ‘A star is born’ describing it as a ‘commanding performance’ by Sunak, whilst referring to him as ‘a PM in waiting’.

Torsten Bell, chief exec of the Resolution Foundation tweeted: ‘British politics in 2020: A Conservative Chancellor outlining plans for a bigger state than under Tony Blair and more borrowing than Gordon Brown’.

This concern about the amount of borrowing announced in the small print of the Budget to fund new commitments rather than higher taxation, was picked up by several political journalists including the political editor of The Guardian, Heather Stewart:

‘Don’t underestimate how big a moment this is – Sunak says he’ll invest an extra £175bn over next 5 years, which he says OBR calculates will add 0.5pp to GDP growth. The Tories are embracing the benefits of borrowing to invest. You could say Labour has, “won the argument”.’

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg noted an increase in research and development spending: ‘Very significant increase in govt spending on R + D, up to £22bn – and govt will change the way science is funded too – introducing UK version of ARPA – one of long held dreams of PM’s adviser Dominic Cummings’

Vuelio’s sister company Pulsar conducted some social media listening in the week leading up to and including the Budget, tracking the Twitter traffic of 50 leading political journalists. Unsurprisingly this showed that Coronavirus dominated both the social media conversation over the last week and the Budget itself, with 40.9% of the Twitter traffic.

The NHS featured second in the list of topics with 20.7% of the conversation and infrastructure, another topic which dominated the Budget as the Government set out its levelling up agenda was the third most popular topic with 12.8%.
An additional Pulsar graph showed that positive tweets by the top 50 political journalists being tracked outnumbered negative and neutral ones.

However, the media response was not uncritical, with The Guardian’s Kate Proctor questioning whether Rishi Sunak’s claim that the Conservatives were now ‘the party of public services’ was evidence of amnesia from the Government which had itself introduced austerity and appeared to have had ‘a re-think on borrowing’. She also noted the package of announcements aimed at moving the civil service out of its London base with 22,000 jobs heading out of London and a devolution deal for West Yorkshire including a £4.2bn funding settlement.

The Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn summarised the Budget by saying the ‘rabbit out of the hat’ announcement that all Chancellors seek to deliver was most likely the ‘business rate holiday’ for small businesses. He added that most other major decisions had been ‘delayed as a result’ of the coronavirus, especially setting any new fiscal rules. Therefore, he noted there was ‘no reason for Javid to resign after all’.

Vuelio’s Budget analysis, summary and stakeholder response document is available to read and download here.

Hannah Bardell MP: Good and proper healthcare must be available for everybody in the LGBT community

Scottish National Party MP Hannah Bardell writes following her House of Commons debate on lesbian, bisexual and trans women’s health inequalities.

I came out literally as I was being elected, initially to myself, then later to my family and friends and publicly sometime after that, and that was challenging. It is fair to say that the impact on my mental health was profound.

For me, and for many other people coming out later in life, there is an element of regret and, in fact, mourning for a life not lived as my authentic self and it is hard to describe what that feels like. I try very hard to look forward – to make the most of what is in front of me, not to look back and have regrets that I was not living my life as my true self. There are many reasons why people come out later in life, and there is also much research around the profound impact that that has on people’s mental and physical health.

Coming out as lesbian, gay or bisexual can be a very different experience from coming out as trans. I cannot imagine how incredibly difficult that is, particularly in the current climate. We owe it to our trans and non-binary citizens to support them and ensure that discussion around changes in legislation or any matters relating to their lives and healthcare is conducted in a respectful and decent way.

We know the LGBT community, including lesbian, bi and trans women, experience significant health inequalities and specific barriers to services and support, and are sadly at a higher risk of experiencing common mental health problems than the general population.

The Science and Technology Committee report states that there is ’emerging evidence demonstrates that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT+) people experience significant health inequalities across their lifespan, often starting at a young age.’

Stonewall Scotland’s survey of LGBT people in Scotland found that half had experienced depression in the past year, including seven in 10 trans people, and that more than half of trans people have thought of taking their own life in the past year.

Stonewall Scotland’s survey of LGBT people in Scotland found that:

  • Half of LGBT people (49 per cent) have experienced depression in the last year, including seven in ten trans people (72 per cent).
  • More than half of trans people (52 per cent) have thought of taking their own life in the last year.
  • One in six LGBT people (16 per cent) have deliberately harmed themselves in the last year.
  • One in four LGBT people (24 per cent) have witnessed discriminatory or negative remarks against LGBT people by healthcare staff.
  • One in eight LGBT people (13 per cent) have received unequal treatment from healthcare staff because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Almost two in five trans people (37 per cent) have avoided healthcare treatment for fear of discrimination.
  • One in four LGBT people (27 per cent) have experienced healthcare staff having a lack of understanding of specific lesbian, gay and bi health needs.
  • Nearly three in five trans people (59 per cent) have experienced healthcare staff having a lack of understanding of specific trans health needs.

I understand that some of these matters are very technical. They are challenging and they require a level of expertise. That is why education, open discussion and proper resourcing in Scotland and across the UK is absolutely vital. We know how incredibly hard staff in the NHS work in all countries and parts of the UK. We salute them. However, the studies show that there is a bit more work to be done.

In 2013, a study in the USA said, unsurprisingly, that legalising gay marriage might improve health and reduce healthcare costs. Another similar study last year found that legalising equal marriage could improve the mental health of same-sex couples. Wow — what a revelation! You can marry the person you love and live the life you want as the person you are, and it might actually make you happy and reduce the burden on the healthcare system.

We know that legislative change does not in itself necessarily change culture or fix the problem, but it is an important step.

The specific health needs of disabled people who are also LGBT are often overlooked by healthcare professionals. According to Stonewall, which has produced some compelling briefings on the subject, disabled people in the LGBT community can be left with a lack of trust in their healthcare providers. Multiple needs are often not taken into account, which affects some of the most vulnerable people. LGBT people are not necessarily open about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity when seeking medical help, because of a fear of unfair treatment and invasive questioning.

Stonewall goes on to talk specifically about issues around PIP assessments and it has said that one in five non-binary people and LGBT disabled people have experienced discrimination. Similarly, one in five black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT people, including 24% of Asian LGBT people, have experienced it.

There is still a long way to go and debates such as this one are part of the picture of making sure that good and proper healthcare is available for everybody in the LGBT community. We as MPs must do everything we can to make sure that no one suffers from poor mental or physical health just because of their gender, sexuality or gender identity.

We are all equal. At the end of the day, we are all human.

 

Hannah Bardell is a member of the SNP’s Shadow Foreign Affairs and International Development teams and the MP for Livingston.

This blog post is part of a cross-party 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.