Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
Yesterday was the Sunday closest to All Saints Day. Since the Loughborough church that I attend is called All Saints (with Holy Trinity), the day and its aftermath assumes greater significance than it might for other churches. And the sermon referenced the work of saints, including Saint Theresa of Avila.
The key message was that being saintly is about doing good things, and our curate acknowledged that this could include doing good things in the world of politics. I believe that most elected politicians enter politics to do good things, though of course we can all argue about how different ways of doing so, and how successful we are in trying.
Now, earlier this year, after much cross-party lobbying, the Government made the right decision, and did a good thing – by agreeing to cut the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals. But last week, it appeared to undo much of its good work, and bow to pressure for the cut in the maximum stake to be delayed. These machines have become known as the ‘crack cocaine’ of the gambling world, and we know that they can cause addiction, misery and even death.
In its impact assessment last year, the Government said that –
“following further engagement with independent bookmakers at the consultation stage, we have explored a number of options to mitigate any disproportionate impact on small and micro-businesses and will be taking forward the following…we will engage with industry further on an appropriate implementation period, which is initially expected to be 9-12 months, based on consultation responses we received from gaming machine suppliers.”
But I am told that, in reality, implementation actually involves changes to software which can be done speedily. In any event, “9-12 months” would take us to May 2019 – not October 2019, as Philip Hammond announced in his Budget last week. So why the delay?
Close observers of the Budget announcements would have heard the Chancellor say this last Monday: “From October next year, I can confirm that we will increase Remote Gaming Duty on online games of chance, to 21 per cent…in order to fund the loss of revenue as we reduce FOBT stakes to £2.”
In the future, we may find out why this happened – but we do know that one Minister has already resigned over it. I hope Tracey Crouch enjoyed her first weekend without a red box for ages. I can speak from experience in saying that it is a real treat!
But a deeper conclusion is that a good thing that this Government decided to do, in orderto address a known social problem, has been at least partially undone by either the economics of the decision, or by lobbying from vested interests, or perhaps both. And that doesn’t look great. Last year, I wrote on this site, in the context of the number of ‘Dubs’ child refugees the UK that would be offering a home to –
“As a party known for strong economic management, the Conservatives must work doubly hard to avoid appearing to know the price of everything and the value of nothing…The announcement about the Dubs scheme has, so far, sounded as if the costs of the scheme and the perceived capacity of local councils are enough for us to stop giving refuge, and the opportunity of a brighter and more secure future, to some of the most vulnerable children on the planet…”
“…Empathy, tone and explaining our motivations go a long way in politics. If a tough decision has to be made, then Ministers have to explain why they have made their decision…”
“This announcement will not, on its own, make people decide which party they will or will not support at a future election. But it, and similar decisions, will have a cumulative impact on the future decisions made by constituents like the one who e-mailed me. It will form the basis of the judgments they make about the motivations of the Conservative Party.”
Seventeen months on, in the Prime Minister’s words, ‘nothing has changed’. The Conservative Party still runs the risk of making decisions which stress head at the expense of heart, and which miss hearing the emotional heartbeat of the country.
That is a particular danger in any Budget that decisions can be set beside each other in an unfair way. Labour got into a mess last week with income tax cuts and benefits freezes, but came unstuck when they couldn’t agree between them a policy response to the income tax threshold changes.
The Chancellor set two decisions deliberately beside each other – Remote Gaming Duty vs maximum stakes in FOBTs. At a time when the Conservative Party is putting the rest of the country through its own ideological rabbit hole in the form of Brexit, we need to be alive to adding to the impression that the fixing of a social harm can wait a few months while we find a way to replace lost revenue.