Questions to Mr Corbyn over our nationalised railway

I am all in favour of Mr Corbyn’s wish to debate political ideas and policies, and to look again at what we can do to improve the work and achievement of the public sector. One of his flagship policies is his stated wish to nationalise the railways. By this I presume he means he wants to take into public ownership the train management companies that are still in the private sector that have the leasehold right to run train services over the nationalised tracks.

These companies are already very heavily regulated by the state. The government lets contracts which specify services to be run, tells the operating companies the subsidies allowed and costs to be controlled. There are price controls on many of the tickets. In practice today we effectively have a nationalised railway, with the bulk of it directly state owned and controlled – all the property, tracks, signals, stations, are in public ownership and the train service management heavily regulated. Only train ownership is private sector under a system which is like an elaborate PFI arrangement.

So my questions to Mr Corbyn are these

1. What added powers would a fully nationalised railway enjoy which the nationalised railway does not already have by virtue of monopoly ownership of track and stations, and strong regulation of train services?

2. How would you use additional powers over train management to improve things, and why couldn’t this be done under existing regulatory powers?

3. Why is the performance of the completely nationalised Network Rail so poor? Why is it 25% less efficient than continental railways? Why does it often have to pay large performance penalties? Why does it need more subsidy when its valuable assets are on a balance sheet with so little net value?

4. Why was it unable to carry out a large agreed investment programme to expand and improve the track and signals in many parts of the country despite having access to large sums of taxpayer money?

5. Would you want buy up all the engines and rolling stock, and if so how would you pay for that? What would be the benefits of owning rather than leasing?

When asked in polls those people who  say they want a nationalised railway want a better railway and are often unaware of the huge extent of public ownership and control already present in UK rail.

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Network Rail gets a huge pay rise

The latest rail subsidy figures show Network Rail was given 7% more in 2014-15 as operating grant compared to the previous year. In addition it received £6.4 billion of Treasury guaranteed/subsidised loans for its capital spending programme. When Parliament returns I will want to ask more questions about value for money, progress with curbing inefficiency, and prospective returns on investment.

The main Train operating companies in England sent money to the Treasury as payments to run their franchises. Once again the train companies in receipt of the largest subsidies were Merseyrail, Scotrail and Arriva in Wales. Merseyrail’s subsidy ran at 19.8 p per mile, Scotrail at 13.8p, Wales at 13.6p and Northern at 7.8p. In contrast South West Trains paid in 9.6p a mile, East Coast 8.2p, Thames Link and First Capital each paid in 7.2p a mile to the Treasury. ( I have converted the published figures into pence per mile from pence per km as I thought we had agreed to keep miles for distance measures in our country)

There was an increase in private sector investment in new trains and total net payments by the train operating companies of £802 million to the government. This reflects the fact that the train companies required to pay in money sell more tickets to more passengers than the companies in need of subsidy.

Prior to Labour’s creation of a nationalised Network Rail total rail subsidies ran at around £2 billion a year (in today’s prices) compared with more than double that now. Total net rail grant of £4.8 billion and £6.4 billion more public borrowing means the railway alone now adds £11.2bn to annual public spending. There is considerable scope to improve on this performance.

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BBC Charter Review Consultation

I thought you might be interested in my submission to the BBC Review, dealing with their question of how well they serve national audiences.

BBC Charter Review Consultation
Department for Culture, Media & Sport
100 Parliament Street
London SW1A 2BQ

25 August 2015

Dear Sirs

I write to submit my views as part of the Public Consultation on the BBC Charter Review. Please accept this letter as a formal submission on the question of how well the BBC serves its national audiences.

The need for a BBC England

I met with BBC Radio Berkshire and BBC South on 18 August 2015 at their request following my submission that the review of the BBC considers BBC services to England.

I did not, of course, meet with BBC England. After much prodding there is now a webpage on England, but there is still no BBC England with England’s news and other programmes in the way there is a BBC Scotland or BBC Wales. The BBC still seeks to implement a regionalisation agenda for England, breaking us up into regions that encourage little loyalty or even recognition.

Why does the BBC insist on trying to balkanise England when it does not do the same for Scotland? The Highlands and islands are very different from the lowlands, the borders are different from the central belt, yet they allow Scotland to be a single entity. Why is my part of England called the South of England? Why is Wokingham lumped with Dorset and the Isle of Wight, but not with neighbouring Surrey or west London?

Why are the BBC so embarrassed by England? The answer appears on their short profile of England which they have now published on the BBC website. In a revealing passage the BBC states:

“Scottish and Welsh nationalist movements have long been part of the political mainstream, and are seen as champions of legitimate historical identities. English nationalism…has often been portrayed as a reaction to non-white immigration and is seen as largely the province of the far right. But there is a constitutional nationalist movement that focuses on the English Parliament issue”.

So England cannot have a BBC England because a few nasty people have pursued extreme nationalism, whereas in the case of other nationalist movements we look at the majority law abiding membership of those movements and not the criminal fringes. It is interesting that they seem to equate proper national coverage for the nations of the UK with nationalisms. Why can’t they just give sensible national coverage for England within the UK? Many English people want their country recognised and loved without wanting to break up the UK.

They are also hung up on devolution. Apparently you cannot have national feelings without a government. Their dismissive attitude to England is unpleasant. “The kingdom of England had a distinct identity until it was subsumed into the UK in 1707″ – not you note 1603 and the union of crowns. “The establishment of devolved parliaments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales after 1997 gave those constituent parts of the UK their own political identity, leaving England the only part directly run by the British government”.

England is a country with no England government. It has officially recognised symbols including its flag which is flown from Churches, sports stadia, and official buildings as appropriate. You are allowed to have the English flag on your number plates. Yet the BBC claims that “Markers of specific identity such as the flag of St George tend to be unofficial, while similar signs of Scottish and Welsh nationhood are sanctioned by the separate institutions of those countries.”

I would like the BBC to stop denying England’s flag and national feelings, stop trying to break England up, and stop judging England by the minority tendency of its criminal extremists.

As England gains her own voice and votes over English laws, Statutory Instruments, tax rates and spending patterns paralleling the work of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, the BBC will need to offer England only coverage of the English political nation. It also needs a better forum for English culture, sport and leisure activities.

The best way forward would be to use the committee of heads of regional broadcasting in England to construct an all-England news, culture and sport offer which is screened at times when Scotland and Wales screen their own equivalents in their BBC franchise areas. This could be compiled by teams from within the regional structures and be from time which would otherwise have regional programming. The website on England should be rewritten in a less dismissive and offensive way, with more historical accuracy.

I trust the Charter Review will take seriously the question of England. Who speaks for England? How will the BBC offer a mirror to the English nation? When will England gain parity with Scotland at the BBC?

Yours sincerely

The Rt Hon John Redwood MP
Member of Parliament for Wokingham

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Action on migration


On Tuesday I had a conversation with Mr Brokenshire following his letter to me. He came over as a someone seriously trying to grapple with a genuinely difficult set of problems. I have no doubt he wants to deliver the Prime Minister’s promise of getting net migration down to tens of thousands, and is pushing his officials to come up with ways of limiting the numbers of people coming in under various regulations. He answered my points intelligently and explained the legal constraints that affect it.  I am also quite sure that Mr Cameron himself knows the importance of the promise he made and wants the Home Office to deliver for the government.

I reject the views of those who have written in suggesting there is a tri partisan conspiracy between Labour, Lib Dems and Conservatives to ensure migration levels remain high. Labour did change the rules and did allow and want higher inward migration. Conservatives are trying to change the rules to reverse that policy and get back to nearer the levels of migration that we experienced prior to 1997 under a Conservative policy, when a net 50,000 a year was more normal. Labour multiplied the rate by five.

We do need to ask why is it proving so difficult, and what else does the government have to do to achieve its objective. Of course I understand the frustrations of some that the promise has not been delivered. Ministers are not all powerful, and live under the law like everyone else. At the root of this problem is just how far can Ministers exercise their unique power (with Parliament) to change the law? How many European constraints are there and can they be changed?

The first thing is to defend the current arrangement of having our main  border with France in Calais.  It would make no sense to bring all those would be economic migrants and asylum seekers to the UK, offering them false hope by so doing. Ministers have been right to work with the French government to strengthen that arrangement.

The second thing is to send people back promptly who do arrive here as economic migrants but who do not qualify under our schemes to let in students and suitably qualified workers. The Minister agrees, but says the UK courts and legal system often intervenes to delay sending people back. It should be easiest to ask people to leave at the port of arrival, but the legal requirements  seem to get in the way of making a quick decision there and then. This needs to be tackled in UK legislation to the extent that we have the power to do so.

The third thing is to become better at tracking down and removing illegal stayers in the UK. That will be the point of the stronger legislation the Minister is proposing. All of us have to help enforce the law, by not letting illegal migrants get jobs, school places, rent homes, drive cars and have bank accounts. The idea behind the new checks on access to these facilities is to give the authorities more chance of discovering an illegal migrant and arranging for them to leave.

There are three major problems with enforcing a clear and simple UK law on these matters. The first is the European Court of human rights. The second is freedom of movement within the EU. The third is the workings of the UN Convention.

The government has pledged to tackle the human rights requirements. If the UK Parliament debates and votes to amend the law, that should be sufficient legal and moral guarantee of reasonable law without it being judged again in the ECHR. The original  ECHR was designed to stop military dictatorships or other authoritarian regimes from abusing people, not to stop democratic societies deciding who they welcome to their table.

The government is currently engaged in negotiating a new relationship with the EU. They would be wise to make gaining control over our borders a leading priority, as they need to show the UK voters that after renegotiation they will be able to deliver their migration promise. Leaving the EU would certainly make controlling our borders much easier. The worry today is that any country in the EU can welcome in migrants of various  kinds and then grant them the right to come to the UK under free movement.

The UN Convention on refugees should allow sensible rules, as it did before 1997. The UK should do its bit and take some refugees, but should have the Parliamentary power to decide how many and how their safe passage here can best be handled. Parliament needs to send clear directions to our judges, without foreign laws and courts changing the policy.


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The government’s view on controlling immigration

I  have received the enclosed letter from the Immigration Minister about the situation in Calais and the Mediterranean:

Dear John


Security of the UK border is our priority. Basing UK controls in France enables Border Force to stop illegal migrants before they reach our shores. Since 2010, this Government has invested millions of pounds in strengthening the security of our border in Calais and other key ports. The Home Secretary and French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve set out a number of commitments in a joint declaration which was published on 20 September (I think he means 20 th August this year ed) to tackle problems at the port of Calais, including £12 million from the UK Government towards bolstering security and infrastructure.

Border Force uses an array of search techniques including sniffer dogs, carbon dioxide detectors, heartbeat monitors and scanners – as well as visual searches – to find well-hidden stowaways. Additionally, we have installed Passive Millimetric Wave (PMMW) scanner detention technology at Zeebrugge, to enable the port authorities to scan freight lorries for clandestine illegal entrants. When migrants are detected at our juxtaposed controls, they are passed to the French authorities for further action, which may include enforced return to their home country.

Additionally, through increased joint intelligence work with the French, we continue to target the organised crime gangs behind smuggling and people trafficking. A multi-agency UK Task Force was launched in February 2014, working with European and international colleagues to share intelligence and co-ordinate activity to tackle organised immigration crime groups.

There is also good collaboration, on the ground, between Border Force and the French Police aux Frontieres. Together, we are working on an action plan for:

• strengthening security further at the juxtaposed controls in Calais;
• active operational work against organised crime;
• stronger action within the EU, and during Italy’s EU Presidency for which migration is a central theme (this was I believe in 2014 ed);
• strengthening the Southern Mediterranean border; and
• how the UK and partners can tackle illegal migration upstream, particularly from the Horn of Africa and Maghreb.

The Immigration Act will also have a major impact on the Home Office’s work to secure our borders, enforce our immigration laws and continue to attract the brightest and the best to the UK. The Act puts the law firmly on the side of those who respect it, not those who break it, by:

• stopping migrants using public services to which they are not entitled;
• reducing the pull factors which encourage people to come to the UK for the wrong reasons; and
• making it easier to remove people who should not be here.

The wave of migrants crossing the Mediterranean is not just a problem for Southern European countries; it is an issue that affects us all. Many of those trying to cross the Channel from Calais arrived in Europe across the Mediterranean. So we need to work together in Europe on a comprehensive plan that will tackle the root causes of this issue and stem the flow.

The UK is playing a leading role in pushing for action through the EU and the UN to tackle the causes of illegal immigration and the organised trafficking gangs behind it, as well as increasing support and protection for those who need it. It is action of this kind which offers the best hope of an effective response to the numbers of attempted crossings to Europe and the tragic loss of lives.

The UK sent HMS Bulwalk,(Bulwark ed) with helicopters and border patrol ships, as part of the international rescue effort. Since then tens of thousands of lives have been saved, around 5,000 by UK assets alone. HMS Bulwalk was withdrawn on 3 July for planned maintenance but the UK contribution will remain through HMS Enterprise, a Merlin helicopter and border patrol vessels.

We need to treat the causes of this problem, not just deal with its consequences. Tackling this issue in the long term can only be done with a comprehensive solution. That means helping the countries where these people come from to reduce the push factors; build stability and create livelihoods; and to go after the criminal gangs and trafficking networks profiting from this human misery.

We are establishing a dedicated law enforcement team to tackle the threat posed by illegal immigration from North Africa, in light of the surge in numbers crossing the Mediterranean. The 90-strong team will bring together officers from the National Crime Agency, Border Force, Immigration Enforcement and the CPS with the task of relentlessly pursuing and disrupting organised crime groups profiting from the people smuggling trade.

With a handful of Europol cells in Sicily and The Hague and the rest on standby in the UK to deploy to different areas in the region as required, they will exploit every opportunity at source, in transit countries and in Europe to bring the gangs’ criminal operations to an end. The UK is also a leading member of the ‘core group’ of EU Member States and African partners developing the EU’s ‘Khartoum Process’, focused on concrete actions to combat people smuggling and human trafficking in the Horn of Africa.

We also need a Government in Libya that we can work with to address this problem as the majority of people are travelling through that country. The UK is working with EU partners on what more can be done, but we are clear that it is essential that any measures taken do not increase the pull to the EU. As the Prime Minister has repeatedly said, we need to break the link between embarking in unseaworthy boats from North Africa and entering and remaining in the EU illegally. This form of illegal migrant funds organised crime and undermines fair access to our countries. That is why we welcome the decision of the EU Foreign Affairs Council on 22 June to launch a military operation in the southern Mediterranean. The operation will seize smugglers’ vessels on the high seas and will disrupt smuggling networks and prevent further human tragedy.

More widely, to have a credible EU migrant policy and to free up resource to help those genuinely in need of our protection, we must remove the perception that getting on a boat will lead to automatic settlement in the EU. Until we do that numbers will continue to grow, criminals will get richer and public confidence will be damaged irreparably.

Wherever possible we should return the boats immediately whence they came. But if we cannot do that we must ensure that when they arrive on EU shores we stop, fingerprint, and screen migrants to control their movement and to distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants.

We must ensure that they cannot travel further than their point of arrival and must return them without delay to their country of origin. That means investing real effort in infrastructure and expertise at the most exposed borders. But is also requires the determination to make it happen, not least from those countries most affected.

It is also clear that we need to enhance efforts to help stabilise the countries from which migrants are travelling. This includes stepping up efforts to address conflict and instability as key drivers of migration, including in Syria. The UK is at the forefront of the international response to the crisis in Syria, committing £900 million in humanitarian assistance. Our support has reached hundreds of thousands of people across Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

We also support the EU’s proposals for sustainable protection in North and East Africa under EU Regional Development and Protection Programmes (RDPPs). RDPPs aim to improve the conditions for refugees seeking protection in their region of origin until they are able to return to their homes, and to help support their host communities. We are already participating in the Middle East RDPP, which is supporting a sustainable approach to protection for those who have fled to neighbouring countries to escape the Syrian crisis, and we have pledged €500,000 to that Programme. We support the proposals for new RDPPs in North Africa and the Horn of Africa. Enhanced, safer and more sustainable regional protection is key to protecting those in genuine need of refuge, and preventing further dangerous journeys to Europe.

We will continue to work with our EU, Mediterranean, and African partners more broadly to develop and implement actions in the region in order to reduce the number of those placing their lives in the hands of criminal facilitators and the resulting loss of life.

Yours ever

Rt Hon James Brokenshire

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Network Rail’s ability to destroy investment capital

Last year our equity value of Network Rail fell from £8.18 billion to just £6.39 billion. It is a very small sum for all that land, all those buildings, all that track and signal investment. Worse still, our equity value went down despite the railway spending another £6.47 bn on investment that year. I say our because of course Network Rail is owned by all of us, the taxpayers of the UK.

Let’s just look again at those numbers. Network Rail invested more in 2014-15 than its complete equity value at the end of the year. Despite investing so much, its equity value went down.

It takes a special management genius to be able to spend so much and to have so little equity at the end of it to show for it. It is true a lot of the investment was paid for by borrowings, but surely the idea is to add value, not to subtract it if you borrow to invest. When adding new investment to a well established investment and property, it is normal to show a profit on the investment when you put it in. Furthermore, Network Rail continued to enjoy high levels of subsidy/train operating company revenue from a rail system which remains heavily subsidised.

Overall last year it reported an after tax loss of £376 million. It did not have to pay large amounts of tax, but decided to write off tax losses it held as an asset, on the grounds that it was unlikely any time soon to be making sufficient profits to be able to use up the tax losses! However, if you turn to another of the financial statements that says the “total comprehensive(expense) for the year was (£1791 million)”,  that is a large negative sum.

So the owner of the some of the best property routes into the hearts of our cities and across our countryside, with a monopoly over them, is a big loss maker that invests in a way which reduces the equity value of its business. Network Rail is putting very large sums of capital into the railway, but seems to lack discipline over how much to spend and how to control the costs of individual projects. I was all in favour of a new Reading station and associated works, but did it really need to take a rumoured £900 million to do? What return will taxpayers receive on that and similar investments? Why can’t the railway earn a living on all this new investment? The fares are certainly high enough. The problems lie with the cost base, and with the large number of empty seats they run around the country without the marketing flair to fill them. Meanwhile commuters and people on busy routes at busy times of day suffer from too few seats and high prices.

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Germany leading or tiring of the EU?

German enthusiasm for a United States of Europe has been a given of the European project. Mrs Merkel is probably allowing herself a little private celebration that once again she has quelled rebels over lending money to Greece and has persuaded her anti bail out Finance Minister to back her and refrain from playing to the no more loans gallery. She probably knows that in practice money lent to Greece is going to be written off or placed on the never never in a way which makes it effectively a grant. She also knows that the German people are not ready to approve grants to Greece.

Juts as one problem recedes temporarily, another arrives in her In tray. Germany wants some migrant labour, as its population is falling and its economy is capable of generating extra jobs. The shock news that Germany might accept 800,000 refugees this year shows the scale of the problem now confronting the EU’s rulers. Germany may well be tolerant and friendly toward migrants for the most part, but the pace and size of this migration stretches even well run administrations trying to register, help and house all these new people. There are those in Germany who now say this is too many too quickly, and despair of the lack of proper border controls elsewhere in the Union that allows so many to travel through their countries to reach the German promised land.

Mrs Merkel does what is now a reflex action for German Chancellors under pressure in the EU – she picks up the phone to the French. On this occasion she wanted to discuss changes to the Schengen agreement on open frontiers. This response is somewhat different to her initial response to the UK’s proposal that we gain more control over EU migrants into the UK when she claimed to be a resolute supporter of free movement or completely open internal EU borders. Now German public opinion is on the move, maybe reform is possible after all. Germany seems to be considering reimposing proper German border controls, with German decisions on who should be admitted, if the rest of the EU both fails to control their own external borders properly, and fail to take their fair share of in bound migrants to the EU as a whole.

The BBC likes to contrast the UK taking say 15000 refugees with Germany taking 800,000. The true comparison is with the UK taking 600,000 migrants in various categories, many of them coming under free movement rules within the EU. Maybe German can now understand our worries about the ability of a government to keep up with migrant demand for homes, school places, health facilities and benefits if they come on too big a scale.

The German people have not been told the truth about the price of creating a United States of Europe. Germany will need to pay a lot more to other parts of the Eurozone, just as West Germany had to pay a lot to East Germany when they amalgamated currencies. Germany will also continue to be the receiver of migrants of last resort if they continue with one EU country with a common external frontier policed by Greece, Italy and the others.

For now under Mrs Merkel Germany remains the leader of an EU on a wild ride to political union. If more of the German people rumble the nature of the plan and see just how much the Euro will cost them German opinion might shift towards more German answers to EU created problems. Germans do not seem to have the same commitment to helping Greeks that West Germans had to helping East Germans.

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Security on trains

Should anything more be done to promote and encourage safety and security on trains? Today’s worrying news makes this a topical question which I would be interested to hear about.

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Network Rail loses £982 million on derivatives

I have pointed out in past years that Network Rail, our nationalised railway industry, is very good at losing large sums of money on trading and owning derivatives. Yesterday I looked at charities close to the state and in receipt of large grants that have made a financial success out of it. Today I want to start a review of a nationalised business that receives far larger sums from the state and has made large losses out of it.

The Network Rail management claim they need to deal in derivatives, as they have substantial long term borrowings where the interest rate might go up when they need to refinance. Worse still the company has borrowed considerable amounts in foreign currencies, meaning they have a foreign exchange risk which would require them to pay back a larger sum if the pound falls whilst they owe the debt. They call what they do hedging.

Their latest annual account for 2014-15 states ” Some derivatives do not qualify for hedge accounting and are therefore classified as held for trading. Changes in the fair value of derivative financial instruments that do not qualify for cash flow hedge accounting are recognised in the Income statement as they arise.” This is a complex way of saying that although they claim all their derivatives are needed against borrowings they have made, accountants regard some of them as trading activities. When these go wrong they have to declare the loss each year as it occurs and put up more collateral – more cash – against the position they are running. Last year they needed to find an extra £690 million of cash to sustain their derivatives. The reported loss on derivatives was £982 million.
Is this what a nationalised.l railway should be doing with taxpayers money? Is this Jeremy Corbyn’s dream way to run a nationalised railway? I don’t think they should be borrowing in foreign currencies in the first place, and am glad they are now treated as a business owned for taxpayers by the Department of Transport, using the Treasury to borrow money for them in sterling. Their revenue is in pounds so it is better their debts are in pounds.

When we are trying to control public spending it does not help when a large taxpayer owned business does this in derivative trading.

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Housing Association riches

It is good to see a group of charities which are closely linked to the public sector doing well financially. The Housing Association movement has a successful business model. They invest in residential property, often with grant aid for the investment. They let most of the homes out to people who usually need Housing Benefit to pay the rents, so there is state underwriting of their main income. Housing Benefit stands behind many of the rent increases that are now common, owing to pressures from demand on the supply of rented properties. They make a surplus or profit on their trading accounts. They pay no tax on this surplus all the time they maintain their charitable status. They then see the value of their residential holdings go up as the market rises, yielding substantial tax free gains.

One of the largest reported a surplus of £209 million last year on trading account. It held £340 million in cash and liquid investments. Its properties which cost it £5.6 billion to buy and build were worth £16.3 billion (at market value assuming with vacant possession). It had received £2.695 billion of accumulated grants. This pattern seems common. Another I look at recorded an operating surplus of £106 million last year, held £170 million in cash and liquid assets and held £3.7bn of gross assets at book cost which was doubtless a substantial understatement of market value.

The issue I want to raise is what more can the Housing Association movement do to assist with the wish of many more people to own their own home? Could they use their cash, their skills as developers and their ability to borrow against the security of their large portfolios to make many more new homes available for affordable homes to buy? What should the government’s policy on grants be, given the financial strength of these bodies? Are these bodies doing enough to help in a market short of housing with high rents?

86% of UK householders would like to own their home, but only 64% do. This is down from 69% in 2001. Worse still the proportion of people under 40 who own their home has shrunk fastest, thanks to the pressure of demand and pre 2007 lending policies driving up prices.

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    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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