Welcome to 2019. It’s traditional to start the New Year in a spirit of optimism, in the hope that this year will prove a better one than the last. Below is a “to do” list which, if properly addressed, might just make everyone’s life a little easier.
It’s impossible to begin, however, without a reference to Brexit, and a fervent plea for our political class to find a way through this impasse so they have the time and the space in which to address other urgent business. Before Christmas one of our very own Wise Men, Sir Edward Leigh MP, proposed an ingenious solution that might save face on all sides. Given that everyone has dug themselves into entrenched positions, this would seem a good idea.
A barrister and constitutional expert, Leigh has suggested that the UK makes use of a provision of the Vienna Convention [an international treaty which has binding force] to impose a time limit on the Irish border backstop. Some fancy diplomatic footwork is required. The EU as a body is not a signatory to the Convention, so it would have to concede the validity of the UK’s invoking this, but it would not involve amending the Agreement. On their part, the die-hards in the European Reform Group would have to accept this as sufficient to dispel their concerns. A little good will on all sides could resolve the issue and allow us to move forward. But for once we seem to have a lawyer who is part of the solution, rather than the problem.
And now the to-do list:
1. First off, political parties. The Conservatives need to rediscover the truth of the old saying that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The ERG [the Eurosceptic wing] has signally failed to land a killer punch. Twice they’ve lost in their attempts to oust Theresa May, and their proposals for using existing technologies to solve the Irish border issue have yet to convince. Meanwhile, too many Cabinet ministers are indulging their egos and ambitions in off-the-record press briefings. Carry on like this, and Labour won’t win the next election: the Tories will lose it.
As for Labour, their absurd contortions over Brexit just make their front bench look ridiculous. There is no coherent alternative plan, just a fanciful wish list. The party was once the respected political voice of organised labour. Now that role has largely disappeared, it has reinvented itself as the tribune of minority interests and the champion of identity politics. At some point the Corbyn leadership cult will crash. To many voters much of this is simply irrelevant, little more than an echo chamber of career politicians with their snouts in the taxpayers’ trough. The party urgently needs to rediscover a purpose beyond self-perpetuation.
2. Immigration. The political classes, who were largely on the Remain side, must stop viewing the result of the 2016 referendum as a single-issue verdict on immigration. It wasn’t. Sure, immigration control was a factor, but there were plenty of others. “We’re not racist, stupid or too northern” said Brigg MP Andrew Percy of his constituents’ majority for Leave. Too right. The metropolitan condescension of too many Remainers in the chattering classes has been contemptible. Let some common sense and basic decency – see below re Windrush – prevail.
3. The NHS. There has to be some national acceptance of the need for reform, but an incremental approach seems preferable to [yet more] radical upheaval. There are just too many bureaucratic bodies and too much internal contradiction: for example, how do you square a commitment to patient choice with local Clinical Commissioning Groups formed of GP consortia who “buy” services through contracting with local second-tier providers, such as hospitals? If you could simply raise the standard of healthcare provision so there was some guarantee of uniform service rather than a postcode lottery, that would be a good first step.
4. Affordable housing and the oligopoly of UK housebuilders. For the benefit of those who weren’t fully up to speed, Sir Oliver Letwin’s report confirmed what others had already concluded. Domestic housebuilding in this country is subject to the stranglehold of a small number of powerful firms which control the market and regulate supply. Letwin chose his words carefully. The picture that emerged, however, was of a rigged industry in which a few senior managers pay themselves obscene sums of money, bankrolled largely by the support for first-time buyers enacted by the last government: another fine mess of Cameron’s that needs clearing up. This effective cartel needs to be challenged, surplus MOD land sold to smaller developers, and proper government support made available for factory-built modular housing units.
5. Contracting-out and Outsourcing. By the dying days of last year the Stock Market had delivered its verdict on Britain’s major outsourcing businesses. Over £4bn had been wiped off the collective share prices of Kier, Capita, Babcock, Mitie et al. The collapse of Carillion in the spring of 2018 was merely the canary in the mine. These businesses are in trouble, and there are two primary underlying causes.
First, contracting out is only possible if the client has a competent procurement function. The UK public sector has shown itself to be hopeless beyond belief at issuing major tenders, awarding them appropriately and then managing the relationships with its suppliers.
Second, large contractors have over-expanded chiefly through hastily bolted-together acquisitions, bidding for anything and everything, then finding themselves often running businesses they don’t understand. I was staggered to learn that five of the country’s prisons were being managed by Sodexo, the world’s biggest catering business. Its core expertise is running canteens, cafeterias and restaurants for schools, government agencies, hospitals and the like. On what basis were these contracts to run our prisons awarded? That the inmates were going to be fed a better quality of fishfinger? As far back as 2013 Sodexo was embroiled in a scandal at HMP Northumberland, and yet the contracts kept coming.
Until civil service procurement can be shown to have achieved a minimal level of competence managing what is already on their plates, contracting out of essential public services should be halted.
6. The Department for International Development [DfID], public sector budgeting and the homeless problem. DfID’s annual budget currently runs at £13.4 bn or 0.7% of the UK’s Gross National Income. This arbitrary percentage was set under the Cameron administration, and DfID has come under constant criticism for waste, a failure to scrutinise the projects it funds and investing public money in wholly inappropriate schemes like the Ethiopian government’s forced resettlement plan and an all-girl pop band. Prior to her short tenure as Minister in charge, Priti Patel MP had made known her view that it should simply be abolished.
The history of DfID proves the old adage that if you give a bureaucrat a budget, they will spend it. After all, failure to spend this year’s allocation might mean next year’s could be cut, and where would their power base be then? A tiny, tiny proportion of this bloated sum could be diverted to fund a proper solution to the nation’s homelessness problem and still leave enough for our political class to signal to the electorate how virtuous they are.
7. Grenfell. My heart sank when I read that the Grenfell Tower enquiry is going to drag on and on, well into 2020 and beyond. The Chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, gave as his reason the vast amount of evidentiary data [200,000 pages] that needs to be collated, assessed and summarised before Phase 2 can begin. The learned judge is no doubt a thorough and meticulous man, but detailed scrutiny has to be balanced against public confidence that this is not going to turn into [yet] another endless enquiry that results in nothing of substance. Why not recruit a panel of young, well-qualified lawyers to sift through and summarise the key elements so we could have an interim report by mid-year? Justice delayed is justice denied.
8. Windrush. A similar urgency is needed in the Windrush case. Victims of this shameful episode are still appearing in the media to recount stories of continuing Home Office neglect and incompetence. Sajid Javid is a decent man who has had the courage to address this issue head-on, but there still seems to be a thoroughly nasty culture in his Department which has to be rooted out.
9. Universities and Apprenticeships. The landscape for young people embarking on a new chapter post 18 is changing dramatically. Apprenticeships offer a genuine alternative for those who want to avoid being lumbered with a mountain of debt and prefer to get stuck into their careers. Official statistics report that 370,000 people started apprenticeships in the academic year 2017-18. It’s still a fraction of the 3 mn odd who applied to UK universities in the same period, and it’s a decrease on the previous year’s figures. Two factors, however, should be born in mind.
First, it’s still a relatively new development and will take time to bed in.
Second, there is no centralised application process as there is for virtually all universities. Businesses offer apprenticeships that start at different times and the application process varies widely. Some harmonisation would smooth the process for applicants, and this initiative needs to come from government.
But the trend will accelerate, encouraged in part by the demand side. Smart firms, especially those in the professional services sector, have realised that they have an opportunity to recruit high-quality people five years before the competition for the best and the brightest really gets under way.
10. DIY. And finally, there are a plethora of lobby groups expecting government to sort out problems which are in their own hands to solve. A good, if mundane, example are curry house owners who have been continually pressing for a relaxation of visa rules which would allow skilled chefs from overseas to enter the country. Now, I like a good curry as much as the next person, and am fortunate to live near a town that has some first-rate tandoori restaurants. I would hate to see this fine culinary tradition peter out.
Yet there is no magic to subcontinental cuisine that an experienced chef equipped with a sheaf of Madhur Jaffrey recipes [other cookbooks are available] cannot conjure up: I know this for a fact. When I ran executive development programmes, it was a tradition at Cranfield that we held a curry night at the half-way point. We didn’t need to recruit a specialist in the kitchen – we just briefed the regular chef and he/she and their team produced a banquet to die for.
Instead of seeing this as a problem, why should curry-house proprietors not view this as an entrepreneurial opportunity? Let them follow the example of the growing number of villagers who have banded together to establish community-run shops and pubs. A network of curry academies up and down the country. Now there’s a thought to take us into 2019.
Happy New Year!
PS Oh, and bin the white elephant that is HS2.