John Redwood's Diary
Incisive and topical campaigns and commentary on today's issues and tomorrow's problems

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National free school meals voucher scheme opens to orders

I have been notified by the Government that the national free school meals voucher scheme has opened to orders. Schools can begin ordering free school meal vouchers for eligible pupils from today, adding to the support available for disadvantaged families.

An online service for schools, the scheme allows schools to place orders for supermarket gift cards on behalf of parents and carers whose children are eligible for free school meals.

The vouchers are worth £15 a week per child and families can receive codes by email to redeem themselves, or as a gift card provided by post, collection or delivery to families without internet access.

In addition to the national scheme, schools can continue providing free meals to eligible pupils via lunch parcels, through catering suppliers, or via locally arranged solutions. This might include vouchers for a local shop or supermarket not currently included in the national scheme.

The Department for Education continues to work with LACA, the body representing school caterers to ensure lunch parcels and meals all meet high standards. Guidance developed by LACA and Public Health England is being updated to reflect the additional funding that has been provided to support schools and school caterers in following this approach.

You can read more about the scheme at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/national-free-school-meals-voucher-scheme-opens-to-orders

Universal credit

Yesterday I accepted the Prime Minister’s advice and abstained on the Opposition day motion. I was in two minds about it and gave the government the benefit of the doubt.

On the one hand it is a perfectly fair tactic for the Opposition to table a motion to smoke out a government view on a contentious issue. I prefer it when the government has a view and then defends it with arguments and votes. It would be popular with many if the government just agreed to continue the new higher rate of benefit. On the other hand, I could see that the government wishes to make up its mind on  whether to continue the extra £1000 a year Universal Credit to all recipients nearer the budget when it should have new forecasts of how likely it is people can get jobs to boost their incomes, and how the spending figures generally are placed.

The central idea of Universal credit is to ensure people are always better off working. Higher minimum wages, control of low wage migration, taking lower pay out of income tax are all part of a suite of policies to make it true that it is better to work, whilst ensuring all can afford to live from benefit payments  if they are out of work. I was a strong supporter of the increase in UC when the pandemic hit with policies to control it that drove many lower paid out of work altogether, and slashed the overtime and performance related pay of others.

I fear we will need further support for families and small businesses before the pandemic is over and more normal life resumes. I will press for suitable measures in the run up to the budget. I am against the ideas I see in some parts of the media that from March the government needs to rein in spending and borrowing and push up taxes. That would be quite the wrong response when the economy is still limping along way below its levels of income and work of 2019.

Why are we waiting?

I read that the Chancellor has been charged with chairing a Committee to take advantage of the freedoms we gain from leaving the EU. I wish him well, as there are many obvious easy wins which the government should have ready after four and half years delay in our exit. Why are we still waiting for them?

The Chancellor in particular should get on with a Brexit bonus budget. He should set out the large savings on our contributions to the EU and how they are being used. He should explain how the sums we will still be paying to farmers in lieu of the CAP payments will be better directed. I want to see more of that money promoting domestic food production. The EU often paid us grants to stop us producing things.

He should explain how he will police any residual bills from the EU under the Withdrawal Agreement and what action he will take to get our money back from the EIB and other joint assets we held with them.

I want him to overhaul VAT, an EU tax. He could begin by removing it from all green products, and from domestic fuel. That would promote higher standards of insulation, fuel efficiency and more modern controls, and reduce fuel poverty.

He should examine tax levels and grants for small business with a view to producing a better package. He needs to promote small business and self employment as we need them to power the recovery from the deep anti CV 19 recession we have been living through.

This is not the time time to be increasing tax on the self employed through IR35, nor to be putting VAT onto foreign visitors who used to come here for duty free shopping amongst other reasons. We need a UK open for business and welcoming to visitors with money to spend.

Improving this site

On Monday night the web expert who runs the technical side of this site will make improvements to the layout. The work will be done after 9pm. I have asked him to make it clearer that people can ask to receive a free email of each day’s blog posting, to improve the layout of the text so people can read it more easily on small mobile devices and update the appearance. I have sketched some changes.

I intend to continue with a daily main story which I write. I will continue to turn down the various offers of guest writers, adverts and sponsorship, as I wish it to be independent, and will continue to pay for the service myself. It will continue to be the John Redwood site. It will include items relevant to my job as MP for Wokingham, with a separate local pages section on Wokingham and West Berkshire issues. It is not an MP website site paid for by taxpayers. None of its content is cleared with Conservative Central Office.

Moderating the site is taking up too much of my time owing to the refusal of a limited number of people to accept my guidance. I will repeat

Please limit the number of proposed postings each day

Avoid long postings – unless you have something novel and well researched to say, in which case I might publish them

Avoid links to other sources, unless they are helpful links to easily identified government/Central Bank/global quango free public websites supplying useful data and backup

If you want to highlight something good you have read elsewhere then mention the source and give a small summary of what excites you about it in your submission.

Avoid allegations against individuals or companies as I do not have time to check them out for libel. I afford the same protection from allegations to Opposition MPs as to Conservative ones.

I will from now on be deleting many more incoming comments from a few individuals who are repetitious , who constantly ignore this guidance and whose opinions are now well known to regular readers. They need to find something new to say and to say it better if they want to be posted.

This site does not seek to censor people who disagree with me or the government or the Conservative party, and is willing to explore alternative explanations and policy options in a sensible way.

Death rates

The official figures for death rates in the UK show that the death rate in 2020 was considerably higher than in recent years. They also show, contrary to some media reports, that the death rate stayed below the higher levels it reached in the years 1999-2004. The overall rate is around 1% per annum, with most of those dying being the elderly. As people are living longer, so the typical age of death has trended upwards over the last half century.

There was a surge of deaths in the spring of 2020 brought on by CV 19 which boosted overall annual numbers. Since then progress with finding a range of treatments and nursing procedures that can cut the death rate from the virus have helped to bring down the numbers dying from the pandemic.

Today there is concern that other causes of death including cancer and heart problems may be boosted by people not seeking the treatment they need with these conditions, or by delays in access to hospital care resulting from the need to create extra capacity in some hospitals to handle covid 19 patents. There is also the double hit to overall NHS capacity that has come from the measures to tackle the virus. There is more social distancing in hospitals to wrestle with infection control, and absences of more staff who either catch the virus or need to self isolate for periods after contact with it.

The NHS management and their Ministerial supporters are concentrating on rolling out the vaccine, with the hope that this will solve the problem of lockdown. It may require more development of vaccines and further vaccination moves should the virus transmute. This important work should not detract from the need to advance in other ways as well. So let us look at other ways we can learn to live with this virus.

  1. More medical guidance on ways the rest of us can fend off the virus, using everything from diet to exercise. What is the official view of zinc, Vitamin C, weight loss and other measures in addition to Vitamin D which now has some official support?
  2. Are there treatments like Regeneron and chloroquine that can offer some protection?
  3. More treatments that can cut the death rate and reduce the severity of viral attacks. The work that has discovered dexamethasone and the anti rheumatoid drugs is welcome. Where are we on Ivermectin and others?
  4. More guidance and support for people to convert air flow and heating systems and introduce air cleansing systems within their air systems, to reduce exposure to disease laden air in enclosed rooms and spaces
  5. More use of isolation hospitals to cut the spread of disease in health settings and to reduce the numbers of NHS staff at risk

We need an unlock plan

Now the vaccines are being rolled out at some speed surely we are owed a proposed timetable to remove restrictions? The experts have always wanted long lock downs and have always seemed to rely on mass vaccination as their answer. It has been hard work getting them to take adaptation and safety measures seriously as a way of re opening more businesses, and even difficult to get results from tests and trials of various treatments to cut the death rate and the severity of the bad cases.

This week has been about securing sufficient deliveries of vaccine and sorting out arrangements to get the inoculations done. There have been debates about the relative role of GPs, pharmacies, hospitals and large temporary centres. The system seems to favour large facilities capable of carrying out many procedures, and favours NHS leadership. Let’s hope it goes well.

Meanwhile damage is being done to many small businesses and the economy has declined again. the Chancellor resists all requests to give more temporary help to businesses .

I am pressing for more measures to support the economy and a clearer path back to work.

Government borrowing

A contributor asked for an update on government debt.

The UK had a difficult borrowing problem in the IMF crash of the mid 1970s when the country ran out of foreign currency to borrow and had to make emergency cuts. The IMF supervised a programme of lower public spending in return for loans.

It had a bit of a domestic borrowing problem in the 1980s as a Conservative government tackled the large inherited borrowings. Interest rates rose to high levels to persuade people to take state debt as investments. As spending came under better control so rates came down, helping economic recovery.

It had a worse borrowing problem during and after the banking crash of 2008. State debt was high going into the crash alongside very high levels of private sector borrowing. Both sectors reined in in the last months of the Labour government. The incoming Coalition, contrary to media reports, raised the levels of state borrowing over their tenure.

On each of these occasions debt interest was over 3% of GDP or 6-7% of total public spending. It was considerably higher immediately after the war when state debt was 250% of GDP reflecting the need to spend and borrow to win the war. Patient work brought the debt under better control in the 1950s.

People ask me if we can afford the sharp build up in gross debt brought on by the policies chosen to deal with the pandemic. I am pleased to report that we can afford it, because interest rates have tumbled so much and because the Bank of England is buying in substantial quantities of the debt. The latest official predictions show net debt interest as a percentage of GDP falling to a tiny 0.8% of GDP next year as debts are rolled over at low rates and as the Bank completes its buying programme. This means debt interest will be at its lowest for the post 1945 period. There is no need to count the interest paid on the debt owned by the Bank of England, as taxpayers and government get that receipt.

The Uk government today can borrow money for 10 years at 0.29%. The stated debt is a large 105% of GDP, but the state itself will own £875bn of that so the true figure for the actual net debt owed by the state is around two thirds of GDP.

These are unusual times when the US, UK, leading EU countries and Japan can all borrow at around zero very large sums of money. It is still not a good idea to go on borrowing at scale for too long, and never a good idea to waste money borrowed. The immediate need for high borrowing is necessary to subsidise people and companies that are prevented from working by lock downs. The sooner we can unlock, the sooner we can get our finances under better control.

The good news is there is no need to worry yet. Markets are allowing all the major countries to borrow plenty at ultra low rates of interest, underpinned by Central Banks buying up a lot of the debt. This only has to change were inflation to pick up, which so far it has not. Japan has been doing this now for several decades with no inflation, with gross state debt at 250% of GDP but net state debt around half that and the interest burden very low.

My question during the Urgent Question on the Northern Ireland Protocol: Disruption to Trade, 13 January 2021

Sir John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend introduce urgent legislation to ensure the smooth flow of goods between Northern Ireland and GB? Is it not crucial to our Union, in respect of both Northern Ireland and Scotland, that the Government keep their promise to take control of our laws and borders and to demonstrate a more prosperous internal market for the whole UK?

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Mr Michael Gove): My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want, first of all, to make sure that we are doing everything technically and administratively in order to ensure the smooth flow of goods but, as the Prime Minister confirmed to the House earlier, if we need to take further legal steps, then of course we will.

Sort out the Northern Ireland border

Yesterday I asked the government to legislate to ensure smooth passage of goods between GB and Northern Ireland. The government promised us we were taking back control of our laws and borders. They assured us their deal with the EU allowed the U.K. single market to work properly for the whole UK.

Not trusting the EU I objected at the time. I was very concerned about continuing EU influence over Northern Ireland and over our fishing, and it now seems I was right to warn. EU interference and requirements are impeding the flow of goods from London to Belfast where they go smoothly from London to any English city.

The government says it can use a clause in the Irish protocol to take over and control our single market in Northern Ireland. It should do so. It could also legislate, as they say we are now a sovereign country. I supported them when they sought to do so before signing the Agreement, only to see them cancel that legislation a day later when the EU offered a deal. Clearly the deal was not as good as the legislation. So bring on legislation.

We meant it when we voted to take back control. That has to include Northern Ireland trade and our fishing grounds. There are plenty of countries and businesses around the world who want to sell us things. Our borders with the rest of the world in Great Britain work just fine. We can also supply more of our own needs. Let’s get on with it. We cannot allow the EU to stop us trading with ourselves!

My speech during the debate on Covid-19, 12 January 2021

We have done many more tests than many other countries, and I pay tribute to Ministers and the NHS for all the hard work that has gone into achieving that. We are now vaccinating many more people than in other countries. We have got ahead, and that is very good news. As the Government see the main way out for us to relax the controls as being the vaccination of many more people, we wish everyone every speed and success in rolling out those vaccines.

I also think congratulations are in order for finding two more treatments that can make a difference to the death rate and reduce the length of time people suffer with a severe form of the disease, but what about ivermectin, which some doctors in other countries say can also achieve good results and reduce the death rate? It would be useful to know what progress is being made with the UK tests and whether that might ever be a recommended treatment, because the more treatments we can have to cut the death rate the better.

I would also be interested to know what our experts think about why there have been such differential case rates and death rates around the world. Unfortunately, the UK has now joined the group of countries where the death rate is over 0.1% of the total population, which means quite a lot of deaths, as we know to our sorrow and cost.

We have joined many other countries in that grouping, but why is it that countries like Sweden and Brazil have not yet got to 0.1% when some have been very critical of the way they have handled the virus, and why do many Asian countries seem to have got through with much less damage? What does the international research tell us about the reasons? Why is it, too, that a country such as Belgium has been blighted by such a high death rate and a pretty high case rate? Of course, testing more means that we identify more cases, but our case rate is still not one of the worst in the world, so clearly some of the actions taken are having a beneficial impact.

I also urge the Government to do rather more for the self-employed and small businesses. They are bearing the brunt of the economic damage of the policies being pursued, and more could be done, particularly for those small businesses and the self-employed who have not received any help at all.

Many of them are in business areas in which there have been closures for the best part of a year now, and in which social contact is very important for the business model, meaning their revenues are well down. We are going to need them, and we need a recovery fairly soon.

So I wish every success to those doing the vaccinations, and I hope we can then lift some of the restrictions, because we want to have a vibrant small business and small enterprise sector available to power the recovery we so desperately need.