Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Credit where credit is due, the Budget last week was exactly what was needed. Tax cuts for the lower paid, increases in the Living Wage, a fuel duty freeze, and more money for our NHS. It was astonishing how the metropolitan classes sniffed at the £420 million for potholes – one journalist argued that it was wrong given the threat to our environment. Given that our town and road infrastructure is riven with potholes, and how small white van businesses and motorists depend on good roads, it was so typical of the anti-car brigade to be so aloof from day-to-day realities.
I welcomed the £200 million for vulnerable youths and the £400 million more for education capital spending – though much more is needed; ideally, a Ten Year Plan, similar to the NHS, if education is not going to become our Achilles heel. It is vital that the Spending Round next year, sets out the a long term education plan, to ensure our schools and colleges are properly funded and fit for the twenty-first century and the arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We need less initiative-itis on education, with a bit of funding tinkering here and there, and a much more strategic view on what education policy and funding should be.
The Conservative Party is full of unsung heroes and one of those is Nonie Bouverat, who most of this site’s readers will have never heard of. Mrs Bouverat is Chief Executive Officer of the Conservative Foundation, one of whose primary tasks is to raise funds to provide low income parliamentary candidates with bursaries.
This is something I have fought for a long time, and was delighted when Lord Feldman made an initial announcement about this at the 2015 Party Conference. The website of the Conservative Foundation does not even mention Bouverat, yet it is she who has done so much to get this bursary scheme off the ground.
If the bursary scheme was developed to include supporting councillors and Party members, we could help ensure that low-income members could get a fair deal when they got involved in the Party, especially when standing for elections or travelling to events. Hats off to Bouverat and the Foundation. I hope it goes from strength to strength.
Centre for Rocket Studies
What has happened to the Centre for Policy Studies? Under its remarkable new director, Robert Colvile, you rarely read a newspaper without hearing about the latest work of the CPS. Though big under Margaret Thatcher, the CPS later had a few lean years, but now seems to be having a rocket-boosted resurgence, with policy pamphlets a plenty, alongside the great CapX online newspaper promoting Capitalism.
Their latest report, launched by the Prime Minister earlier this week, proposed a £1000 a month ‘Universal Income’ to raise wages for the lower paid, and a Work Guarantee to ensure that everyone keeps 51p in every extra £1 they earn, partly by cutting the Universal Credit Taper rate. Alongside Tory Workers, the CPS are carving out a Conservative-minded, pro-Workers agenda. All power to the CPS-ers!
Universities and value for money
My Education Select Committee published a report this week in which we noted that 49 per cent of graduates are not in graduate jobs. We need a rethink of Higher Education – more focused on graduate outcomes, more committed to skills and vocational education, and more devoted to really giving the disadvantaged a chance to climb the Higher Education Ladder of Opportunity.
Re-introducing means-tested maintenance grants would help, as well as more Degree Apprenticeships, as these students earn whilst they learn. The number of part-time students has declined by half over the past few years, so why not introduce flexible learning, by which students can hop on and off courses and build up credits? Why do we need the traditional, rigid three year structure? Of course, excessive Vice Chancellor pay should be curtailed too. That must be a job for the new Office for Students.
1922 Drama (not)
I read every weekend in the Sunday newspapers that the end of the Tory world is nigh. A week or so ago, we were told by the media that the 1922 meeting with Theresa May would take on the role of some show-trial court of the Prime Minister, with a ‘noose’ in the offing, and the distinguished Sir Graham Brady acting out the role of Judge Roland Freisler.
So I arrived at the meeting on my electronic Segway Rollerscoot (it is always a long walk otherwise to Committee Room 14) expecting great drama. Many journalists were outside in Commons Committee Corridor with pens and pads – a bit like the old ladies with their knitting needles waiting around the French Revolution’s guillotines for the next execution.
As it happened, it was a good-natured affair, with Theresa May being quite frank about her views (whether you agreed with them or not). Sir Graham was more Rumpole of the Bailey than Roland, as MPs were called to give their views on the EU. As I left this most august occasion, journos asked me what I thought. I could only reply, that the Prime Minister was ‘honest’.