On 15th July, I wrote an open letter to our Prime Minister, who took office on 11th. Theresa May has now been PM for 99 days. It is customary to hold leaders to account after 100 days on the basis that they have had enough time to at least set out their agenda, assemble their team, and begin to make progress on their top priorities. So how is it going so far in relation to the issues I set out three months ago?
Of course the Government has been somewhat preoccupied with Brexit! I was seeking to set out some values and principles that could guide us in arriving at the right position for the Brexit negotiations. My suggestion was to try to find common ground after the divisiveness of the referendum by examining options from a wider perspective, asking how each option helps us to move towards a country that “leaves no-one behind”, which remains open and inclusive and which uses the Global Goals as a framework. I then asked, beyond the Brexit debate, how this government would make progress in relation to human rights, climate change and international development.
There has been some good news. Mrs May and her new International Development Secretary have reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to continue to contribute 0.7% of GNI to international development. The re-testing procedure previously required to enable claims for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) has been abandoned for people with severe conditions and no prospect of getting better. Finally, under pressure of the imminent closure of the Calais Jungle, the UK has agreed to fast track the process to allow unaccompanied children to join their families in Britain. So far only a few of the estimated 178 minors with a right to come to the UK have been able to leave the Jungle, but the signs are good that the others will soon follow.
On the other hand, it has been a sad disappointment to see that while poverty and exclusion continue for millions in our country, the Government has chosen to prioritise the reintroduction of selective education (see my blog on Grammar Schools: https://worldtorights.org/2016/09/10/the-grammar-school-debate/).
At the same time, we are told that there is to be no more money for the NHS, despite the promises made during the referendum campaign and the vital importance of the health service in providing for those who are otherwise left behind. Our health service is in big trouble. The scale of “efficiency” savings required to balance the books without extra money are inconceivable without further damage to the health of patients. Every professional I have spoken to in GP surgeries and hospitals is deeply worried. Yet the Government’s priority seems to be investing in training with the aim of reducing immigration. While training more doctors and nurses is a good idea, I really don’t think anyone voted to exclude much needed medical professionals and most would prefer available funds to be spent on treating patients.
In my earlier blog on the referendum (https://worldtorights.org/2016/06/18/vote-for-humanity-in-the-eu-referendum/) I argued that our ageing society is likely to need more immigrants in future, not fewer, in order to fill the jobs our economy will need as dependency ratios worsen through demographic change. I think the Government knows this but they have made rash promises to cut numbers so they are casting around for answers. One of the daftest ideas is the proposal to cut the number of places for foreign students at UK Universities and colleges. It will not be in our economic or political interests for future leaders of countries across the world to have been excluded from the UK and educated instead in the universities of our competitor economies in Europe and North America. And to extend this idea to language schools would be equally foolhardy. English is the global language of business. Surely it is best that people come here to learn it, building their commitment to the UK as they develop their future prospects. One advantage of a falling pound is that the UK becomes a more attractive destination for foreign students, which is good for our economy. We should not turn away that opportunity for the sake of headline immigration numbers.
In my letter to the PM in July, I expressed concern about housing. Prices continue to rise and young people are increasingly excluded from the chance to own their own home, or even in many cases to rent somewhere decent. Shelter has been scathing of the Government’s claims to be replacing social housing stock lost to Right To Buy (http://blog.shelter.org.uk/2016/03/right-to-buy-replacement-four-steps-to-good-news/) while there is no sign that new homes are being built at anything other than a pathetically slow rate by historical standards:
I also asked for action to address child poverty. Theresa May has spoken of a country that works for everyone. Surely that “everyone” must include the nation’s poorest children. Yet the IFS projects a 50 per cent increase in relative child poverty – from 17.0 per cent in 2014-15 to 25.7 per cent in 2020-21 – and an increase in absolute child poverty from 16.7 per cent in 2014-15 to 18.3 per cent in 2020-21. So far I have not seen any new energy from Mrs May’s administration to change this forecast. Surely this should be a real top priority?
Mrs May talked about helping those working class families who ‘just about manage’. That would be good, but we still have millions who live in poverty, who are excluded from economic progress, who are marginalised, alienated and without hope. They must not be left behind. Indeed they must be given the help and support they need. Inevitably, this will cost money. It means looking after those who are not able to survive without help from wider society. It means changing the language and culture away from the idea of the deserving (‘hard-working families’) or undeserving (lazy scroungers dependent on welfare) poor.
In proposing the use of the Sustainable Development Goals and the “leave no-one behind” principle as guiding values for our country, I focused particularly on the three areas of human rights, climate change and international development. On human rights there have been contradictory reports, initially that the idea of abandoning the European Convention and the Human Rights Act and replacing them with a British Bill of Rights, would be quietly dropped. But subsequently the Justice Secretary pledged to go ahead with a British Bill of Rights, while at the same time apparently acknowledging that there is no parliamentary majority to abandon the ECHR. Internationally, the continued sale of weapons to the Saudi government as it bombs civilians in Yemen appears to show that economics trumps human rights when it comes to arms sales. I remain deeply concerned about the Government’s commitment to human rights.
On climate change we have recently seen an important new international agreement on greenhouse gases, but the UK Government’s energy policy seems to be very confused. We need adequate low carbon energy, but the Government’s commitment to horrendously expensive Chinese/French nuclear power, combined with fracking, doesn’t seem the best answer. While I understand the pressure to reduce dependence on Russian and other imported gas, replacing it with dependence on Chinese nuclear investment seems contradictory (and why does no-one ever answer the questions about hazardous nuclear waste – because there is no answer?). It is time we invested more seriously in renewable energy. We need to get over the apparent hatred of windmills; we need to build more solar (new more efficient technologies are on the way and the price will come down), and we need to develop tidal and wave power options. As the rest of the world abandons fossil fuels over the next decades, we could be at the forefront of a lucrative and socially responsible renewable energy industry, but we seem to prefer to buy nuclear technology from abroad.
Whatever we now do about climate change we already know it is causing damage to the poorest people on our planet. They need our help to adapt to a climate changed world. This help should be additional to the 0.7% aid commitment. So far, Ms Patel’s actions at DFID have included some very positive interventions, including rapid assistance to the victims of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. But some of her rhetoric remains worrying. A focus on trade and UK self-interest is not guaranteed to achieve her other stated goal of helping the world’s poorest. Just as we have to deal with inequality in our own society, so our aid must work not only to advance economic growth and development, but also to bring the equity that is the only way to ensure that the benefits of development reach the poorest and that no-one is left behind. Investments in education, health and nutrition must continue to be at the heart of our aid programme, as must efforts to empower communities and strengthen participation and governance.
At home or abroad, in our Brexit positioning and in our domestic policy, the Sustainable Development Goals can still be our guide and ‘leave no-one behind’ our motto. I hope to hear these phrases in the coming months. The first 100 days is a mixed bag so far. There have been some positive developments and some negative ones, but there is still little indication of the Government’s direction on some of the most important issues for our society. What we do know is that too much policy now seems driven by a counter-productive obsession with immigration numbers and internal arguments over what Brexit really means, while the deep social and economic divisions that helped drive the Brexit vote remain largely ignored, or even accentuated. What score would you give the first hundred days?