Concerned? You ought to be.

It doesn’t matter whether you are an arch-Brexiteer, a firm Remainer, still uncertain, or just bored with the whole Brexit thing, I am – and you ought to be – really very concerned about the UK’s future.

Whatever your views of the issues, the harsh reality is that ‘we are now where we are’, and that is certainly a more informed and accurate statement than the fatuous ‘Brexit means Brexit’. This means that we have a Prime Minister and a government which seems determined to pursue a ‘No deal’ option. In truth, there is no such thing as a ‘No deal Brexit’; the current one deal with the EU – which brings with it settled trading arrangements with most countries in the world – will have to be replaced with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new deals, yet to be negotiated, on trade, migration, finance etc.

Let’s forget for a moment that Boris Johnson fronted all those bus-promises on the NHS (and more) which could never, and will never, be kept.

Let’s put to one side his casual relationship with the truth and the facts. His former boss – the Conservative Max Hastings – said that “Johnson would not recognise truth… if confronted by it in an identity parade”, describing him as interested only in “fame and gratification… a scoundrel or a mere rogue”.

Even, when under the severest self- and external- constraints on his behaviour in the last month, he was simply unable to stop himself dissembling. In the Tory leadership hustings, he produced a kipper from under the podium. Waving it in the air, he said that the kipper’s producer – from the Isle of Man – was “utterly furious” with EU regulations. “After decades of sending kippers like this through the post he has had his costs massively increased by Brussels bureaucrats who have insisted that each kipper must be accompanied by this: a plastic ice pillow.” He went on to say that once the UK leaves the European Union, the country would be able to “take back control of our regulatory framework“.

However, it was just another of those stupid and untrue ‘EU straight banana’ stories:

  • the Isle of Man isn’t in the UK nor in the EU
  • there are no EU rules on the transport of smoked products, such as kippers, and
  • food safety regulations in the UK are set by the UK Food Standards Agency.

I have listened to, and talked with, thousands of constituents since the Referendum. Overwhelmingly, those who supported Brexit have told me that the two things that determined their votes were ‘taking back control from the EU’ and ‘cutting migration’.

I have to say that I’ve never understood the ‘taking back control’ argument.  How does coming out of the EU, in which, as a member, we have a major influence and say (and often a veto) and representation in the decision-making process, but replacing it with the rules of the World Trade Organisation, in which we are but a bit-part player with little influence, constitute ‘taking back control’?

As for ‘cutting migration’, has no-one noticed that as soon as Johnson became Prime Minister, he immediately dropped Theresa May’s ‘tens of thousands’ target and the manifesto promise to get annual net migration below 100,000? As many of the countries (like India) with which the new government has promised early trade agreements require an increase in migration as a condition of a deal, Brexit voters look as though they will be disappointed on this issue as well.

It has become absolutely clear that Boris Johnson and his supporters have no alternative plan for a deal with the EU, nor do they have appropriate contingency plans for a no-deal scenario.

A whole succession of the new government ministers have told us that ‘when the EU recognises we are serious about the possibility of leaving the EU without a deal, it will be prepared to make big changes to the withdrawal agreement so that a deal can be reached’. Abject nonsense.

The EU position isn’t being decided by EU bureaucrats; it is being determined by the 28 heads of government who will act in what they see as the best interests of their countries, and they’re not budging. As the Irish Chancellor told the UK Chancellor Sajid Javid yesterday, Ireland has no intention of removing the backstop from the Brexit agreement. They are not being intransigent. They have consistently told us that, if there is a credible alternative, they will consider it, but Johnson hasn’t got one to produce.

Then, last week, Johnson’s No 10 spin-doctors highlighted Donald Trump’s welcome to Boris Johnson and his assertion that an early USA/UK trade deal is entirely possible. As Trump has asserted time and time again, in his trade wars with Canada, Mexico, China and others, that he is determined to ensure that the USA gets what it wants from the negotiations and couldn’t care less about the other parties, we ought to be wary about what the price of a deal may be.

So, for the realists, today’s statement by Larry Summers, who was Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s Director of the National Economic Council, is no surprise. Summers said that Brexiteers “…are delusional if they believe that a “desperate” Britain can strike an advantageous trade deal with the USA”.

He said that Britain had “no leverage” in any trade negotiations and was absolutely scornful about the idea that Trump would, or could, produce a favourable trade deal for Britain. “I’m not sure what Britain wants from the United States that it can plausibly imagine the United States will give,” he said.

“Look at it from America’s point of view: Britain has much less to give than Europe as a whole did, therefore less reason for the United States to make concessions. You make more concessions dealing with a wealthy man than you do dealing with a poor man. Second, Britain has no leverage. Britain is desperate. Britain has nothing else. It needs an agreement very soon. When you have a desperate partner, that’s when you strike the hardest bargain. The last thing you do is quit a job before you look for your new one.”

After saying it was “close to inconceivable” that any agreement could get close to making up for the UK’s loss of trade with the EU, he added “If Britain thinks that the American financial regulators are going to come together to give greater permissions and less regulation of UK firms, I would call that belief close to delusional.

It is this set of circumstances that has led to a 25% devaluation of the £ since the referendum, with every prospect of another 10% devaluation before the end of this year. The only people who will gain from this are the currency speculators. It is no surprise that they have been Boris’s biggest backers.

Concerned about your future, and the future of your children and grandchildren? You ought to be.

Potential and diversion

People of my generation can look back to a time when a complex matrix of formal and informal systems sought to provide appropriate support and interventions to keep teenagers on the straight and narrow.

As well as parents, families and friends, there were many voluntary organisations welcoming and recruiting young people into a wide range of sporting and leisure activities. At that time, most teenagers left school at 16 years and entered work, where older workers, managers and trades unions provided a different sort of development framework. And there were also numerous youth clubs, some full-time, and many part-time based in community and church halls. They provided a safe place for young people to be creative, develop new friendships and learn new skills, all with a trusted adult.

I don’t want to be unrealistically nostalgic nor see that era through rose-tinted glasses. However, looking back, it is clear that it was that big, messy, uncoordinated pattern that helped to successfully deliver young people into the adult world. Of course, it had many failures as youngsters slipped through the net. And, some youngsters – just as today – seemed determined to avoid the net altogether and to pursue a life of anti-social behaviour and crime.

The new Prime Minister has made a big announcement about increasing the number of police officers, but not back up to the number that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats inherited in 2010. But there is absolute silence about the range of other services that seek to divert or deter young people from crime. Prevention seems to be missing from the Boris lexicon.

Youth services were overwhelmingly funded by local authorities. Similarly, many of the voluntary organisations – from uniformed groups like the guides and scouts to sports and leisure groups – were also supported by council grants to underpin the big voluntary contribution.

However, after nine years of austerity, many parts of our country – including Sheffield and other parts of South Yorkshire – now have no recognisable Youth Services at all.  As the government has cut local government funding hard, increased spending on adult and children’s social care has squeezed out spending on libraries, parks and youth services.

Over the last decade, spending has fallen by 70%, 14,500 youth and community workers have lost their jobs and 760 full-time youth centres have closed their doors. It’s in that context that youth crime – including ‘county lines’ drug dealing – has begun to thrive again.

Those who argue that council cuts haven’t hurt anyone are living in cloud-cuckoo land. The truth is that those cuts will have damaged some youngsters for life and some families and communities for decades.

We need to build a nation for our young people where they are safe and secure, treated fairly, supported in the present, and ambitious for their future. We need them to be skilled and equipped to learn and earn, pay attention to their health and wellbeing, be active members of their communities, and happy and confident in their futures.

We need to have a non-formal development and education policy for all young people which focuses on their personal, social and civic development. If necessary, we should have a National Charter for Youth Work underpinned in law.

Any such programme will need to be diverse, engaging young people by choice. To be successful, it will need to be owned and shared by other stakeholders, like the police and those concerned with children’s social care. It will also require determined and innovative leadership and a significant investment in a skilled workforce.

Brexit or Remain, Deal or No Deal, are completely irrelevant to a decision to invest in young people, helping them to realise their potential and diverting them from a life of crime.

So, Prime Minister Johnson, what are you going to do about it?

Diversionary tactics

All the media attention is on the Conservative Leadership election and, de facto, the selection of the next Prime Minister by some 150,000 Conservative Party members.

Jeremy Hunt is calling on Boris Johnson to stop hiding from public sight, arguing, correctly, that he ought to answer questions about his policies.

Put to one side the questions about his character, although they are ones to which he should respond.  Conspiracy theorists might be tempted to believe that all the brouhaha, about what actually happened last week at his girlfriend’s flat, and which led to the police being called, is being stirred up by his supporters as a diversion from the serious policy challenges he should be facing.

But it’s Boris Johnson’s policies – or lack of them – on which we ought to concentrate.

For example, Boris Johnson asserted, yet again last week, that tariffs would not necessarily have to be paid if the UK left the EU without a deal because the UK could rely on the general agreement on tariffs and trade (GATT). Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England – a Canadian with no political axe to grind – had to go public, not for the first time, to confirm that the UK would be hit automatically by tariffs on exports to the EU in a no-deal Brexit, and that Johnson was simply wrong.

The more that Boris Johnson’s assertions are exposed to the white heat of scrutiny, the more that we shall see that his analysis and policies simply do not add up.

But the problem goes much deeper than that.

We know that Theresa May’s government is a front-runner in the ‘worst government in history’ race. We also know that, like David Cameron, Mrs May has used the UK employment figures, claiming ‘record highs’, to suggest that all is well with the UK economy.

Well, stop and think again.

Let me share some facts about our economy and the implications for households. And then just put this information in the context where, whatever the Brexit outcome now, we know that we are in for really rocky times in the next few years.

Household debt has been rising since 2016 and is forecast to reach 150 per cent of disposable income by early 2024. The Office for National Statistics UK household debt is the worst on record and amongst the worst of any Western economy.

For an unprecedented nine consecutive quarters, UK households have spent, on average, more than they’ve earned, pushing them into deficit for the first time since the 1980s. In other words, most households are maintaining their standard of living only by borrowing more. Is it any surprise that more than 8 million people in Britain are classified as experiencing problem debt?

And the problem is going to get worse.

The Conservative government has frozen in-work benefits at a time when food prices are rising and wages have not been keeping up. The Trades Union Congress economists – of which I was one, many years ago – are warning that the growth of consumer credit is a sign of fundamental problems in the economy, such as weak pay growth and low public investment. I agree.

After nine years of austerity, people are, on average, paid less than they were a generation ago. In relation to those on the lowest earnings, six million people are earning less than the living wage.

The continuing increases in household debt tell us that families are struggling to get by on their pay alone and that many are over-optimistic about their future earnings. At the same time, public and private investment growth are well behind the level of similar countries.

We need an economy that is fundamentally more prosperous and where prosperity is shared by all.

Boris Johnson simply doesn’t have policies which address these challenges. It is little wonder that he is ducking and diving to avoid being challenged about his policy agenda.

We should be afraid. Very afraid.

Up the High Street

Last week, in the House of Commons, I was able to speak about the recent report by the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on High streets and town centres in 2030. I thank everyone who contributed to our inquiry, including our witnesses. We took a range of evidence from retailers, councils, landlords, planners and academics.

The decline of the high street is a real concern to the general public. The change—the reduction in the number of people shopping, in some cases the empty shops, and in the worst cases the decay and deterioration across villages, small towns, larger towns, cities and district centres—is almost entirely down to online shopping.

Some 20% of sales are now done online: the highest percentage anywhere in the world. That has happened in the UK over a fairly short period—the past 10 or 15 years—and in many cases the use of shops and the reaction of councils and the Government have not kept pace with that very rapid change. As politicians, we cannot and should not want to halt it, but we must look at what we can do to mitigate its impact and address the situation.

We concluded that the days when the high street was 100% retail have gone. here now needs to be a strategy in each area, backed by the local community, initiated by local councils and supported by local traders, to create a different approach to the activities on the high street. We concluded that if high streets and centres are to survive and thrive by 2030, they must become

“activity-based community gathering places, with a reduced retail element and a wider range of uses, including green space, leisure, arts and culture, health and social care, and housing, with the community at its heart.”

Councils have a really important role to play in developing that approach, working with local communities and businesses. Business improvement districts can play an important part. It means that local plans

“must be forward looking, anticipating what will happen in five years’ time.”

We are pleased that the Government has now accepted that all local plans should be reviewed every five years, and that town and city centre strategies should be looking at least 10 years ahead. But that cannot happen given the 50% cuts in planning budgets resulting from government cuts.

The Government’s £675 million future high streets fund is helpful, but not enough. It cannot be a talking shop. Real, hard advice and learning from others must be at the heart of it.

In order to make things happen quicker, there has to be change in procedures for compulsory purchase powers. We were also clear that the government’s new permitted development rights should not be allowed to get in the way of a local plan that tries to change the fundamental land use of part of a centre.

It is unfortunate that government ministers have got their heads in the sand when it comes to the issue of business rates. Amazon pays 0.7% of its turnover on business rates while high street chains spend between 1.5% and 6.5% of their turnover on business rates; in other words, some high street businesses are paying 10 times as much as their online competitors. That simply is not fair.

We said that the government look at a number of options: an online sales tax, an extension to VAT, a green tax on deliveries, or anything to reflect changing shopping habits. But they came back and said no; they did not want to do anything at all. I say “Get real. It cannot continue like it is.”

But retail landlords also have to get real. We asked the government to look again at upward-only rent reviews, and they said, “No, we’re not going to interfere in contracts between landlord and tenant.” That cannot be. Putting the decision off only makes things harder.

There are big High Street challenges for councils, central Government, retailers and landlords. We concluded

“Unless…urgent action is taken, we fear that further deterioration, loss of visitors and dereliction may lead to some high streets and town centres disappearing altogether.”

It’s time for that urgent action.

Kick them in the ballot box

Following announcements this week, there is to be a new £3 a week tax for 1.7 million over-75s

Strangely, that’s not how the government described the decision to end free TV Licences for the over-75s. But that’s what it is equivalent to.

More than 4000 over-75s in my constituency – and more than 20,000 in Sheffield as a whole – will lose their free TV Licence.

And it’s yet another broken promise from this incompetent, shambolic Conservative government.

The Conservative Party Manifesto for the 2017 General Election stated

“We will maintain all…pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this parliament.”

There was no ambiguity. There are no ifs and no buts.

In one foul swoop, the Conservatives – including each and every one of those standing in the election to be the new Leader of the Conservative Party – have broken their promise to 3.7 million pensioners.

If those candidates can break one simple unequivocal promise with such a total lack of concern, why should electors put their trust in any of the other promises those candidates are now making…about Brexit, education spending, our NHS, or housing?

We all remember Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg’s broken promise on student tuition fees. This is on a par. What these two broken promises have in common is that they were made in full knowledge that they were going to be broken.

Is it any wonder ordinary people have become sceptical about what their elected representatives say? I’m ashamed of them. I may have many weaknesses, but I have never made a promise to my constituents that I didn’t intend to keep.

In abject dishonesty, the government has tried to blame the BBC for this broken promise. This was because the government had forced the BBC to take responsibility for Free-TVs in the negotiations about the BBC budget and the Licence Fee.

This week, in the House of Commons, I challenged the Conservative Minister, Jeremy Wright, about this broken promise.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab)

More than 4,000 of my constituents will lose their free TV licences. Will the Secretary of State explain to them ​simply and clearly how he expected to keep the promise made to them in the 2017 manifesto about their free TV licences? What mechanism did he intend to use?

Jeremy Wright

As I have said, the Government’s view as to what we expected of the BBC was clear. It was expressed clearly a number of times, including by me and indeed by the Prime Minister. However, the statutory fact of the matter is that this is a decision for the BBC to take. We made our view very clear, and other hon. Members made their views clear too, but it remains the BBC’s decision to take. I regret that it took the decision it did, and we must now speak to it about what more can be done.

https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2019-06-11/debates/C43F0B6F-CC9C-437F-879F-FED5FF929A1B/FreeTVLicencesOver-75S

So, just as bad as actually breaking the promise is the Ministerial confirmation that it was a promise that the Conservative Government was actually incapable of keeping.

But, instead of pleading guilty, all I got was mealy-mouthed words saying he regretted the decision that had been taken.

Of course, the BBC should never have been forced to take this responsibility and the BBC should never have agreed to become responsible.

But both knew where it would end up. As the former Minister (Conservative MP Ed Vaizey) said:

“The Government should either take back the policy or support the BBC changes.

They should not use weasel words to undermine the changes that the BBC has made.”

I couldn’t have put it better.

I hope 3.7 million over-75s take their revenge in the way they know best.

Kick them in the ballot box.

Long way to go

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower continues. Another flat-block fire this last weekend is just the latest reminder that the review of building safety is urgent and important.

The all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has been looking at improvements that can be made to regulations and rules on buildings and building safety to make other people safer in their homes and other buildings they are in in the future. We have had ‘robust’ discussions with Dame Judith Hackitt – leading the government’s review – and government ministers. We have had a very detailed exchange of correspondence with both and we’re still waiting for some answers.

Although the government has taken some action, overall the response has been inadequate or un-finalised.

It is a story about cladding, the requirement for unsafe ACM cladding to be removed, and it is a story of other materials that may be just as dangerous as ACM cladding. It is a story not merely of high-rise residential buildings, but of other high-risk buildings such as hospitals and old people’s homes. It is a story not just about new building, but also about existing buildings.

A year after the Grenfell disaster, the Government came forward with £400 million to remove the cladding off high-rise social housing. But there remains a real problem about private flats and the refusal of freeholders to accept responsibility.

The issue gets complicated because, in some cases, developers are no longer responsible for the buildings. It really is a situation that would never get resolved. Ministers have failed to face up to the reality.

Last July, we recommended that an immediate fund be established, initially at a very low rate of interest, at least to provide the wherewithal to get this work done, and we could argue about who would pay for it afterwards. We are still very much in that position.

The government has now announced a £200 million fund for private sector properties, but there are a lot of questions about it. First, who applies for the fund? Who ensures the work is carried out? Is there a timeline by which all this work has to be carried out? What happens if no one applies and the building is still there with this cladding on it? What happens to the local authority if it goes in and does the work in default: does it get the money back? What happens where a developer has already, rightly, paid for the work themselves: can that developer claim the money back from the fund, or does it apply only to work that currently has not been carried out? In the end, who is responsible for the work being signed off as satisfactory?

There are a lot of questions that need addressing and we are still waiting for ministers to answer them.

But, at the heart of the matter is making sure that materials are right and are properly tested. In the end, it is not even about the building regulations in relation to fire; it is about the building industry as a whole and how it operates.

This is about making sure not merely that the materials are right, but that the materials specified are actually used, that the buildings are properly signed off and that they are properly maintained and managed. This is a whole-system issue.

Currently, there are a whole series of conflicts in the process. Materials’ producers going around different testing organisations until they found the one that actually approved their material.  Fire authorities testing their own work and recommendations, which is wrong. This is also about the whole testing regime for products. Building inspectors being appointed by developers and then signing off the work of the people that have appointed them. This cannot be right.

The more we uncover, the more we realise that the whole construction industry is not fit for purpose. We need a fundamental review of how it operates, considering not just specifications, but including the management of projects and ensuring that people have homes and other buildings that are safe to live in.

Families at Grenfell lost their lives. Many who survived are still trying to re-build their lives. And thousands of leaseholders are stuck in homes which no-one is prepared to buy until the issues are resolved or are facing costs of tens of thousands of pounds in remedial works.

Landing in the right place.

For far too long, we have built too few homes at a price which people can afford.

As a result, homelessness, hidden homelessness, over-crowding, families and individuals occupying unsatisfactory housing or living in insecure tenancies have all increased. It has a massive impact on employment, on schooling, on social care and on the housing benefits bill.

We cannot, we should not, continue like this. It’s the mark of an uncivilised society.

To build new affordable housing – to buy and to rent – we need to address the availability and price of land. Over the last 20 years, the price of housing land has risen by more than 5 times, far in excess of general inflation.

Not only does this mean that fewer households are able to secure homes they can afford. It also means that we end up paying a higher proportion of the housing bill for the land, squeezing the money available for building standards (for example, rooms getting smaller and smaller) and community infrastructure (for example, schools, parks, roads).

Public and private money is going in to the pockets of a relatively small group of landowners who are simply benefiting from changes in the planning status of that land, mainly from agricultural to residential.

Last year, the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, published a report1 which highlighting how many other countries, for example Germany, use land to deliver high quality new homes, rather than preventing it as happens in England.

The scale of the suffering caused by a shortage of safe, secure and affordable homes should give any government the courage to take bold action, both to lower the cost of land and then to build the next generation of social homes that we so desperately need if we are to truly solve our national housing emergency.

Land value increases from the granting of residential planning permission are not small. Agricultural land granted planning permission for residential use increases in value, on average, around 120 times from £22,300 to £2.7 million per hectare.

Who should be the beneficiaries of these increases and in what proportion? Should it be the person who owns the land, but who potentially did very little to contribute to the windfall profit? Or should the community seek to claim the greatest share.

The present rights of landowners simply serve to distort land prices, encourage land speculation, raise house prices and reduce revenues for affordable housing, infrastructure and local services.

Think back to the first generation of New Towns. Development Corporations were empowered to acquire land at, or near to, existing use value and capture uplifts in land value from the infrastructure they developed and subsequent economic activity to reinvest in the local community. We need to apply these principles to all development land, enabling a new generation of garden cities, towns and villages.

There has been no sign in this government of this sort of bold thinking. None of the Conservative Leadership candidates has demonstrated a determination to take the necessary action.

We are in the midst of a housing crisis. It is vital that the government meets its target of building 300,000 new homes every year.

Reform of development land compensation and a new social housing programme to deliver affordable homes to buy and rent securely have to be at the heart of the response.

This week, housing charity Shelter has published its contribution – Grounds for Change – to the case for land reform. I am pleased to have been invited to contribute a chapter.

If you are not convinced of the need for bold change, please read this for free at:

https://england.shelter.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/1779418/Grounds_For_Change.pdf

1 Land Value Capture https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcomloc/766/766.pdf

Cyber shambles

Whenever a Minister in the current government states that a particular issue is a top priority and that the government is leading the way, you can almost guarantee that the opposite is the case.

Despite the occasional highly-publicised success in tackling cyber-crime, the harsh reality is that the vast majority of such crimes are not investigated, let alone brought to successful prosecution. Day-in, day-out, millions of people receive phishing e-mails and scam texts and learn that their data has been stolen or, even worse, heard that information about themselves that they had provided in confidence to a supplier of good or services had been sold to many others.

I predict that there are many more scandals to be revealed about global companies taking our data and records of our activities – without our permission – to be aggregated, profiled and sold for a wide variety of purposes. Targeted marketing may be the most innocuous of these. There is much more to be revealed about interference in elections and politics.

Of course, these cyber-security issues are those which mainly affect the individual. But there are big cyber issues which affect the security and defence of the state. Across the world, we have seen examples of hackers (whether state-sponsored or far-too-clever-for-their-own-good teenagers) taking control of, or disabling, key elements of infrastructure from power-plants to TV stations, from defence establishments to financial institutions.  Some defence analysts believe that we should drastically cut resources in traditional state security measures and invest those resources in cyber-security.

Last week, the government released its first progress report on its 2016-2021 National Cyber Security Strategy. This should have been the third annual report. Given the lack of progress, it’s no surprise that the government hasn’t wanted to be held accountable for it.

The report was an admission of failure by the government. It admits that 11 of its 12 strategic outcomes have not been met and are unlikely to be met by 2021. The Cabinet Office – the government department responsible for the strategy – has admitted that it has “low confidence” in the evidence used to assess progress against six of the strategic outcomes.

Also this week, the Public Accounts Committee has published its report on the cyber-security strategy. The facts speak for themselves:

  • Just nine percent of businesses are aware of the CyberEssentials programme, the government-backed scheme to protect against cyber-attacks;
  • Only 16% of FTSE 350 boards have a grasp of cyber threats;
  • Only 57% of FTSE 350 companies regularly test their cybersecurity incident response plans.
  • the proportion of UK firms reporting a cyber-attack has risen from 40 per cent to 55 per cent in the last year, and almost three quarters of firms were ranked as “novices” in terms of cyber-readiness
  • only 4% of businesses use government sources of information to protect themselves against cyber threats
  • a third (£169 million) of the Programme’s planned funding for the first two years was either transferred or loaned to support other government spending£69 million of this funding will not be returned to the Programme.

It’s little wonder that government ministers are divided and all over the place when it comes to making a decision about what, if any, place there should be for the Chinese company H in 5G UK telecoms infrastructure

This is despite the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre Oversight Board (HCSEC) finding critical cyber vulnerabilities that are not being adequately addressed and that Huawei’s approach to software development brought significantly increased risk to UK operators.

Does it fill you with confidence? No, me neither.

It’s a cyber-shambles.

Affording a home

I take no pleasure from having correctly predicted that every housebuilding promise made by Conservative and Liberal Democrat Housing Ministers since 2010 has been broken. Not one of the promises has come close to fulfilment and no apologies have ever been made.

So far as I was concerned, on an examination of the facts, those promises had as much credibility as claims that Brexit would deliver and extra £350m per week for the NHS and that, post-Brexit, securing advantageous trade deals across the world would be a doddle.

Boris Johnson now finds himself on the wrong end of a prosecution for his persistent repetition of the £350m per week claim.  His case is not helped by the revelation that he had been persistently told by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that his assertion was simply untrue.

So, you will not be surprised that I tend to rely on ONS data to look at historical performance about housing, including housing affordability.

One of the biggest tragedies of the last decade is to have seen young individuals and families squeezed out of the market to buy a home of their own and then be forced to live in insecure privately rented homes with exorbitant rents, which disable them from saving sufficient for a deposit. A large proportion of this generation may be excluded from home ownership for the rest of their lives.

It is interesting to note that the government has not made a new housing promise. Instead, it has set a ‘target’ of delivering 300,000 new homes per year by mid-2020.

Housing charity Shelter has estimated that more than 3 million new social homes (ie 150,000 pa) would need to be built over a 20 year period to address social housing need. However, the government’s target assumes that just 3% (ie 9000 pa) would be social homes built by local authorities. The gap is dramatically obvious.

In March, ONS produced its latest annual report on housing affordability in England and Wales1 .

Amongst other findings, ONS reported that:

  • On average, full-time workers could expect to pay an estimated 7.8 times their annual workplace-based earnings on purchasing a home in England and Wales in 2018.
  • This followed 5 consecutive years of decreasing affordability. [ie the gap between earnings and house prices got bigger each year.]
  • The London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea remained the least affordable local authority in 2018, with average house prices being 44.5 times workplace-based average annual earnings. [You will remember that Grenfell Tower is located there.]
  • There are 77 areas that became less affordable over the last five years -most were in London, the South East and the East of England
  • There was not a single area in England and Wales where affordability improved.
  • Despite all the Ministerial claims about the Help-to-Buy scheme helping young families on to the property ladder, newly-built dwellings were estimated to be significantly less affordable than existing dwellings.

Over the last decade, the construction of new social and affordable rented homes has stagnated. The number of new homes built in this sector has slowed to a trickle of a few thousand a year, while at the same time demand becomes greater and greater.

It is clear that social housing has been left to drift for too long and it appears that there are no coherent long-term strategies to put this right.

So, the House of Commons all-party Housing Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has launched a new inquiry2to investigate the effectiveness of the Government’s current strategies to increase the numbers of social and affordable rented homes.

We will look at the adequacy of funding levels, as well as programmes and incentives for key stakeholders, such as local authorities and housing associations, to stimulate delivery. We will also look at the challenges facing different areas of the country and consider what lessons can be learnt from successful schemes in other countries.

For the next 6 weeks, we are inviting evidence for the inquiry.

If you have evidence or experiences or comments about these issues which you want us to consider, please submit it3 as soon as possible, and by 12th July at the latest.

1 Housing affordability in England and Wales: 2018

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/housing/bulletins/housingaffordabilityinenglandandwales/2018

2 Inquiry into long-term delivery of social and affordable rented housing.

https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/housing-communities-and-local-government-committee/news/long-term-social-housing-inquiry-launch-17-19/

3 https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/housing-communities-and-local-government-committee/inquiries/parliament-2017/social-housing-inquiry-17-19/commons-written-submission-form/

Taxing times

I take a very simple approach to taxes. You should pay them.

I have no time at all for those individuals who, and corporations which, indulge in artificial schemes designed to avoid what they should properly pay.

Despite all the warm words and promises, Conservative governments have consistently been reluctant to legislate to close down loopholes and to pursue tax avoiders.

A report1 this week from the Tax Justice Network confirms the extent of the issue. It found that the UK has “single-handedly” done the most to break down the global corporate tax system which loses nearly £400bn to avoidance. The amount dodged globally each year is more than three times the NHS budget or roughly equivalent to the entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Belgium.

The UK is by far the world’s biggest enabler of corporate tax dodging, helping funnel hundreds of billions of pounds away from state coffers. Of the top 10 countries allowing multinationals to avoid paying billions in tax on their profits, four are British overseas’ territories. Tax haven territories linked to Britain are responsible for around a third of the world’s corporate tax avoidance risk – more than four times the next greatest contributor, the Netherlands.

At the top of the list are the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands – all British overseas’ territories. Jersey, a Crown dependency, is seventh while the UK itself comes in thirteenth. Yet, this Conservative government is still failing to take the measures required to ensure transparency in the UK and in the overseas’ territories and dependencies.

However, it has decided to pursue workers who entered into schemes of disguised remuneration over the last decade. Disguised remuneration is an aggressive and contrived form of tax avoidance that involves a loan, which there is never any intention of repaying, being routed via a low or no-tax jurisdiction and then back to the United Kingdom, to avoid income tax and national insurance.

Unfortunately, many low-paid workers in service industries were required or conned into these schemes by ‘tax advisers’ and bogus umbrella companies. If something looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is!

However, there were thousands of well-remunerated individuals who sought out these schemes. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people were involved. Finally, HMRC woke up and, in 2016, the government decided to act on these unlawful schemes and require payment of the proper taxes and dues. More than £1bn has now been reclaimed – 85% of it from employers – but there is still a long way to go.

Generally, I support the approach that the government is now taking. However, I still have some concerns about how it is proceeding. There does need to be a differentiation between those people, mainly low-paid, who were conned into the schemes and gained little benefit from them – most of the benefit went to the agencies and employers – and those, mainly well-paid, who entered the arrangements in full knowledge of their gamble.

I have little time for those people who are now making a lot of noise because they are being told that they have to pay £500,000, £700,000 or even £900,000 that they avoided by their own actions.

1 https://www.corporatetaxhavenindex.org/