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As Parliament gears up for Easter Recess, it’s all go for Rishi Sunak who today launched the Tories’ local election campaign after this week’s fall in inflation. However, with new figures showing the sharpest increase in UK absolute poverty in 30 years, the damning report into the state pension scandal and the delayed Rwanda Bill, calls continue to grow for the PM to call a general election.

Welcome to the weekly roundup from Navigate Politics, bringing you all the top news, publications and movements from UK politics over the past seven days, ensuring you’re fully briefed on the top stories ahead of the weekend. If you know somebody who would find this briefing useful, please do forward it on so they can subscribe and get it direct to their inbox each Friday.

Driving the Week 🚨

The rate of inflation has dropped to its lowest level in two and a half years, falling to 3.4% in February. Wednesday’s ONS figures revealed a 0.6 percentage point decrease from January, a fall which has been largely driven by food, and restaurant and cafes. However, housing and fuel prices are continuing to rise rapidly. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt welcomed the drop to 3.4%, insisting that “the plan is working” (just in case you didn’t hear that one enough at the Budget). This was followed by the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee voting 8-1 to maintain the interest rate at 5.25%. The Bank said it still expects inflation to reach its 2% target by the summer. Meanwhile, the Department for Work and Pensions released the Households Below Average Income report, with Secretary of State Mel Stride quick to highlight that “the Government’s cost of living support prevented 1.3 million people from falling into absolute poverty after housing costs in 2022/23”, although he did briefly acknowledge that median incomes have fallen slightly and there were increases in the number of children in absolute poverty. Interesting contrast then to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s heading which says ‘Annual poverty figures show Government failed to protect most vulnerable from cost of living crisis’. JRF emphasised that this is the second year in a row that absolute poverty has increased, highlighting that 600,000 more people (half of them children) are living in absolute poverty compared to last year, bringing the total figure up to 12 million; additionally food insecurity has risen dramatically, from 4.7m people in 2021/22 to 7.2m in 2022/23.

Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda Bill has been put on hold until mid-April after the House of Lords inflicted seven defeats during parliamentary ping-pong on Wednesday. The Bill, which aims to confirm Rwanda as a safe third country for the removal of people entering the UK under new immigration laws, and to deter migration by unsafe and illegal routes, is central to the Government’s pledge to “stop the boats”, with any delay making it increasingly difficult for the Prime Minister to see flights take off for Kigali by the Spring as planned. The amendments which were passed by Peers include a provision to ensure “due regard” for domestic and international law; that Rwanda can only be deemed a safe country once a treaty bringing in new safeguards has been fully implemented; and to exempt individuals who have supported the UK armed forces overseas from deportation to Rwanda. The Bill came back to the Lords after MPs on Monday voted down 10 amendments to the draft law proposed by peers earlier this month, with Home Secretary James Cleverly criticising “deliberate efforts from Labour to delay, disrupt or sabotage the scheme”. As the Bill remains stuck in limbo, Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt confirmed the changes will not be considered by MPs until after the Easter Recess on Monday 15th April. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper argued that “if the Conservatives were ready to implement this, they would be bringing the Bill back to complete the remaining stages next week and get on with it”. Senior Government figures are reportedly hoping the ‘emergency legislation’ that was introduced to Parliament in December will finally become law on Thursday 18th April.

Coming Up Next Week 📆

In the Commons – Two pieces of legislation - the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill and the Pedicabs (London) Bill - should safely and calmly complete their passage through the House of Commons. As both Bills have already passed the Lords, their next step should then be to receive Royal Assent. The Commons will then enter Recess at the end of Tuesday, with it returning on Monday 15th April.

In the Lords – Plenty of legislation is due in the Lords before Peers go on Recess at the end of Wednesday, with the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill and Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill to have their second readings. The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill has its third reading on Tuesday, while the Victims and Prisoners Bill continues its committee stage, with it now onto its 8th day of consideration.

On Committee Corridor – The big event next week is the Prime Minister’s appearance in front of the Liaison Committee, with the pre-announced topics to be discussed being: the scrutiny of strategic thinking in Government; the economy and public services; and global issues. Sunak isn’t the only Cabinet Member to face a pre-Recess grilling, with Defence Secretary Grant Shapps, Environment Secretary Steve Barclay, and Health Secretary Victoria Atkins all due to give evidence to their Department’s respective Committees.

Campaigning for the Local Elections will be in full swing, ahead of polling day on 2nd May. The Prime Minister launched the Conservatives’ campaign today.

The Week in Stats 📉

3.4% – February’s inflation rate, which fell from 4% in January.

5.25% – the Bank of England’s unchanged interest rate.

£231,000 – the highest outstanding student debt in the UK. The Student Loans Company also revealed that graduates in England leave university with average debts of £44,940.

12 million – the total number of people living in absolute poverty in 2022-23 according to DWP’s latest poverty stats, a rise of 600,000 from the previous year.

£8.4 billion – Government borrowing in February, higher than economists had predicted.

Other Political News 📰

Vaughan Gething won the Welsh Labour leadership race, beating Jeremy Miles, and officially became the Welsh First Minister as Mark Drakeford stepped down this week. Gething, aged 50, is Europe’s first Black Head of Government. His new cabinet was also named, with Jeremy Miles taking over Gething’s old gig becoming Cabinet Secretary for the Economy and Energy. Other key members of the new Cabinet include Julie James as Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Lynne Neagle for Education, Huw Irranca-Davies for Climate Change and Rural Affairs, and Eluned Morgan remaining as Cabinet Secretary Health.

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves delivered a Mais Lecture on Tuesday, vowing to create a new chapter for the British economy, criticising the neoliberal economic model, noting that we now live in an era of global insecurity driven by geopolitics, technology changes and the climate crisis, and stated there is now a need to strike the right balance between openness to global trade and resilience at home. She confirmed Labour’s plans to strengthen the remit of the OBR to guarantee that any government making significant and permanent tax and spending changes will be subject to an independent forecast and emphasised the importance of balancing the books. Also detailed were Reeves’ plans to attract investment into the country, including through changes to R&D, investment in net zero, investment in skills, and plans to “deliver a once-in-a-generation overhaul of the nationally significant infrastructure regime”. Reeves also conceded that the effects of the mini-Budget, which “dramatically changed the fiscal circumstances” that the UK must operate in, was why the Shadow Cabinet decided to roll back on its £28bn Green Prosperity Plan pledge.

The Prime Minister discussed all things small business on Monday, announcing a package of support including provisions for the Government to fully fund the cost of training young apprentices for SMEs, hoping to increase the number of apprentices in the UK by 20,000. An Invest in Women Taskforce was also announced, which will raise a bespoke funding pot for female-founded businesses through private capital and address the wider challenges that female entrepreneurs specifically face. HMRC also announced this week its decision to reverse its plans for a temporary 6 month closure of its Self-Assessment helpline, a move also welcomed by small business advocates.

WASPI women affected by changes in the state pension age are owed compensation, according to an investigation by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. The report found that the DWP failed to provide accurate, adequate and timely information about increases in the state pension age for some women when the relevant legislation was changed in 1995, plus during further changes in subsequent years. The report has been laid before Parliament, with a request that it looks at the findings and intervenes to agree a remedy for the women affected.

A new ‘trailblazer’ devolution deal for the North East was signed by DLUHC, which will 'hand the incoming North East Mayor and Cabinet more control over transport, housing and skills’ alongside making provision for over £100m of new funding that can be invested in the North East’s priorities. The Government have also committed towards the designation of a growth zone, where North East local authorities will be able to retain 100% of business rates growth for the next 25 years. The deal, signed on Monday, was announced as part of the Spring Budget.

West Yorkshire Police announced that they have launched an investigation into the alleged racist comments made by Tory Doner Frank Hester, after he claimed that Diane Abbott MP made him “want to hate all black women”. The police said that it is working to establish if a crime has been committed.

Around the World 🌍

Putin ‘won’ a fifth term as president in Russia’s most uncontested election yet, according to one watchdog. He apparently received 88% of the vote, while the three opposition candidates (handpicked by the Kremlin) shared the rest between them. The turnout was also high at over 75%, although this was in part due to many being pressured to vote. It clears the way for Putin to rule until 2030, which would surpass the length of Stalin's rule and make him the longest-serving Russian leader in 200 years.

Leo Varadkar announced he would resign as Prime Minister of Ireland in a shock statement which even caught his deputy off-guard. He said he was stepping down for "personal and political" reasons and was "not the best person for the job anymore". His party, Fine Gael, which governs in coalition with Fianna Fail and the Green Party, will now seek a replacement who could be in place by early April. Opposition Sinn Fein demanded a general election be called.

Portugal’s Democratic Alliance (AD) was invited to form a minority government after it won elections earlier this month. AD won 80 seats, narrowly pipping the Socialist party’s 78, but was well short for the 116 needed for a majority. However, it has ruled out trying to form a government with the far-right Chega party, which won 50 seats, and it is unclear how it intends to govern going forward.

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing parliament passed a strict new security law which further criminalises dissent and expands the definitions of secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries. The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office declared the new law would ‘further damage the rights and freedoms’ of Hong Kongers and “entrench the culture of self-censorship” in the city.

Vietnam’s president resigned after just one year in the role. The Communist Party announced President Vo Van Thuong had ‘violated party rules, and that he had shortcomings which affected public opinion and the reputation of the party, state and himself’. His resignation is believed to relate to bribery and fraud allegations and is unusual in Vietnam’s tightly controlled and choregraphed political scene.

Highlights from Parliament 🏛

In the Commons – MPs held their final full week of debate before the Easter Recess, taking just 6.5 hours of debate and voting on Monday to remove all of the amendments made in the Lords to the Safety of Rwanda Bill over the last two months. The Trade (CPTPP) Bill – now Act – held its third reading and passed – formalising the UK’s membership of the CPTP in law. On Wednesday the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill held its second reading – during which MPs on all sides lambasted the treatment of those wrongfully convicted in the scandal and supported the Bill as a first step in the process of quashing the convictions and providing compensation. General debates were also held on select committee reports on defence and food security.

In the Lords – Peers began the week by debating the Spring Budget, before turning to the main act of the week – tearing into the Safety of Rwanda Bill – on Wednesday, in which they inflicted seven defeats on the Government, including on amendments to monitor Rwanda’s safety, ensure the Bill has “due regard” for international law, require age assessments of potential unaccompanied children, and remove the definition of Rwanda being a “safe country” with regards to individual asylum claims. The Upper House finished off the week with debates on local government finances and the use of “sportswashing” to cover up human rights abuses, before a day of private members bills in both Houses on Friday.

Committee Corridor 📜

Up to 8 million people could be disenfranchised at the next General Election, warned the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee in a report. It found ‘notable issues’ with the implementation of voter ID and says the electoral registration system is ineffective and inefficient.

Disabled consumers need to be considered ‘from the outset’, recommends the Women and Equalities Committee in its report into the accessibility of products and services. With the spending power of disabled households estimated to be £274bn, the Committee urged the Government to make ‘private sector websites and applications which provide essential products and services subject to the same regulations as the public sector.’

A new uprating guarantee should be introduced to benefits, says the Work and Pension Committee report into benefit levels. The Committee also recommended the Government establish clear benchmarks and objectives linked to living costs to measure the effectiveness of benefit levels.

The Government is failing to ‘fix the crisis in social care’, regrets the Public Accounts Committee in one of its two reports out this week. It cites ‘chronic understaffing, rising waiting lists and patchwork funding’ as putting ‘sustained financial pressure on local authorities’, while also expressing particular concern about the demand for adult social care services in rural areas. 

Recruitment and retention are an issue in the Civil Service, find the Public Accounts Committee’s second report this week, mentioning ‘chronic pay issues’ and a lack of morale. It states that the majority of Departments ‘do not know how much recruitment costs or how to make it more efficient’.

The Government’s efforts to enhance patient safety remain lacking, details the Health and Social Care Committee’s report into the issue. It highlights delays in implementing recommendations from independent inquiries dating back to 2013, particularly related to maternity care, leadership, staff training, and safety culture improvements.

Key Movements 🔁

Dan Barker will be the Reform Candidate for the Mayor of Greater Manchester, having defected from the Conservatives. The Conservatives now need to find a new candidate.

Alex Hynes has been named Director General, Rail Services, in the Department for Transport, with it to be a 2-year secondment from Network Rail.

Rachel Watson has been appointed Director General of the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

Andrew Mitchell (not the Development Minister) will become HM Ambassador to Germany in September 2024; Nathanial Copsey has been named as HM Ambassador to Bulgaria; and James Dauri is the new Ambassador to Panama.  

Scott Mitchell has been named the People’s Champion of the national Mission to beat dementia, founded in his wife Dame Barbara Windsor’s memory.

Nine Industry Experts have been selected to provide independent advice and expertise to the Government as part of the BBC funding review. This includes former Downing Street Director of Communications Amber de Botton.

Phil Smith has been appointed as Chair of the SME Digital Adoption Taskforce; and Hannah Bernard and Debbie Wosskow will lead the Invest in Women Taskforce.

Andrew Marr has been appointed as Cultural/Academic Trustee of The National Gallery.

Derek Wilson has been reappointed as Chair of the Sports Ground Safety Authority for a term of 3 years; Gillian Fairfield has been reappointed as Chair of the Disclosure and Barring Service for a further two years; and Catherine Mann has been reappointed to the Monetary Policy Committee.

This Week’s Polls 📊

People are happiest in the Netherlands and least happy in Hungary and South Korea, so reveals Ipsos’ annual Global Happiness report. GB comes in at 10th place out of the 30 countries surveyed, with 75% of Brits willing to admit they’re happy. In good news for the country this is 5% more than last year… but 4% down on 2010.

Speaking of unhappiness… Conservative MPs may have put up a thinly veiled attempt at unity at the 1922 Committee this week… but the latest YouGov poll putting the Tories on 19% compared to Labour’s 44% will not have helped. Even worse for the Government, swinging in with a swift right hook is Reform UK, who polled 15% - their highest vote share ever.

Think-Tanking 💭

The Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report on the major challenges for education in Wales, a report on living standards since the last election, and a paper on the effect of menopause diagnosis on employment and earnings, reliance on social safety net programmes, and demand for medical care.

The New Economics Foundation published a report on solving the UK’s skills shortage, outlining how a National Skilling Wage would future-proof the UK economy.

The Adam Smith Institute published a report criticising the Labour Party’s plans to add VAT to private school fees.

The Institute for Government released a paper on hung parliaments which sets out the existing rules and conventions for government formation after an election with an unclear outcome.

RUSI published a workshop report debating the impact of AI on geopolitics and whether there is a need for a new analytical framework to capture AI’s impact on international relations.

You’ve Got to Laugh 😂

Chicken Outfits and Westminster are an all too common occurrence, but this week saw the joke spread to Manchester as Labour Councillor Pat Karney appeared at a meeting of the Council (and spoke!) while wearing a chicken mask. The Councillor demanded the Prime Minister call a General Election, and this follows on from the Labour Party’s stunt in Westminster where they dressed activists as chickens to make a point about Sunak ruling out an election on May 2nd. Looks like Labour are happy to ruffle some feathers before Easter


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