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Taking Back Control | Great Firewall of China | Return of the Mak

Parliament has finally risen for recess, after a long start to the year, giving Westminster’s inhabitants and hangers on a well needed rest. We hope you have a lovely break over the Easter weekend, but in the meantime, here’s a roundup of what’s happened over the past 6 days…

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Driving the Week 🚨

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner launched Labour’s local election campaign in Dudley this morning, promising “a real plan to rebuild Britain” to deliver “growth in every corner of the country”. Taking the fight squarely to the Conservatives’ door, Starmer accused the Government of “preying” on peoples hopes and fears and pledged to deliver “levelling up” and a new “Take Back Control Act” for greater devolution to local mayors (Editor’s note – as much as politicians love to use phrases like this, rules on the naming of Bills mean it will actually end up with a thoroughly dull name such as the Devolution (Mayoral Powers) Bill). The Labour leader reiterated Labour’s pledge to achieve higher growth “with a reformed planning system, no longer blocking the homes, the infrastructure, the investment that the country needs”. With analysis out this morning from election data wizards Professors Thrasher and Rallings that the Tories could be on track to lose 500 of the 1,000 their council seats up for election on 2nd May, the biggest threat to Rishi Sunak’s premiership may not be from Keir Starmer, but from his own backbenches on the 3rd May.

China was responsible for two attempted cyber attacks on MPs and the Electoral Commission, Deputy PM Oliver Dowden told MPs in a statement to Parliament on Monday, announcing that the UK has sanctioned two individuals and one company associated with the Chinese state in response. Cue uproar from those at the blunt end of the cyber attack including prominent China hawk Iain Duncan Smith who in Parliament likened the Government’s response to “an elephant giving birth to a mouse” and later in an interview with the rather unparliamentary language: “it’s complete b****cks”. The United States went further charging seven Chinese nationals who reportedly work for China’s ‘Advanced Persistent Threat Group 31’ with conspiracy to commit computer intrusions and wire fraud, whilst New Zealand raised similar concerns with the Chinese ambassador. China has denied the allegations, calling the evidence “inadequate” and instead urged the US and UK to “stop politicising cyber security issues.” Nothing to see here then.

The Prime Minister conducted a mini-reshuffle on Tuesday night to replace departing ministers Robert Halfon (Apprenticeships and Skills) and James Heappey (Armed Forces) who decided to leave Government seven months before the election. (Editor’s note – in entirely unrelated news, former ministers who have left Government in the last 2 years must apply to ACOBA before taking up a new appointment or role outside government). Halfon and Heappey were replaced by Luke Hall and former Army Officer Leo Docherty respectively, with Nus Ghani taking over as Europe Minister and Kevin Hollinrake promoted to Minister of State at the Department for Business and Trade. Alan Mak returned to Government as a junior minister alongside Hollinrake at DBT, after a brief stint as Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury in the dying days of the Johnson Government – finally giving us the chance to shoehorn the Mark Morrison 90’s classic Return of the Mack into the weekly briefing just in time for Easter.

Coming Up Next Week 📆

MPs and Peers will be enjoying their Easter break until 15th April, with business scheduled for the week they return to include: consideration of a Lords message to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill; second readings of the Tobacco and Vapes Bill and the Finance (No. 2) Bill; as well as debates on hospice funding, access to redress schemes and the Covid pandemic response.

The Week in Stats 📉

$10,030 – price of cocoa per metric tonne reached this week, the highest ever level.

38% - proportion of residential dwellings in the UK built before 1946, the highest of any European country

5 weeks – until the General Election, had the Fixed Term Parliament Act not been repealed. There are local elections taking place on this day.

63 – Conservative MPs who have confirmed they won’t be standing at the next General Election.

4,644 – number of migrants who have reached the UK after crossing the Channel so far in 2024.

Other Political News 📰

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt confirmed that the Conservatives will keep the ‘triple lock’ on pensions if they win the next election. Speaking to Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday, he said he was “confident” the “expensive” promise would be paid for by growing the economy. Whilst Labour said it was “committed to retaining” the triple lock, it has not yet confirmed if the pledge will feature in its election manifesto. This April, the state pension is set to rise by 8.5%, although a new study from the Resolution Foundation think tank found that pensioners will actually only end up £20 a year better off thanks to this April’s personal allowance freeze.

Sewage spills into English rivers and seas more than doubled in 2023, as the Environment Agency published its Event Duration Monitoring data for last year. The data revealed a 54% increase in the number of sewage spills compared to 2022, although it has been acknowledged this is partly due to the fact that last year was the sixth wettest year on record. However, as the EA pointed out, “heavy rainfall does not affect water companies’ responsibility to manage storm overflows in line with legal requirements.” Water UK, the trade association for the water industry, called the results “unacceptable” and urged Ofwat to approve their plans to invest £10bn in upgrading sewage infrastructure.

New figures have been unveiled showing that applications for heat pump grants jumped by 75% in February compared to the same month in 2023, according to the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. This marks the fourth month there have been more than 2,000 applications since the Boiler Upgrade Scheme increased to £7,500. Up to the end of February 2024, there have now been 35,741 applications and the scheme has paid out nearly £127m in vouchers to customers.

The ONS confirmed that the UK is in recession as it published revised GDP figures for Q4 2023, showing that the economy shrank by 0.3% during the period, after shrinking by 0.1% in Q3. The stats also reveal that the UK economy grew by just 0.1% in the whole of 2023, the worst annual economic growth since the financial crisis in 2009.

The Prime Minister faced the Liaison Committee on Tuesday, where he was quizzed on topics including the economy, public services, the Rwanda Plan and net zero. During the session, Sunak laughed off Liz Truss’ claims that she was brought down by the “deep state”, and when asked if he was a part of it quipped “I probably wouldn’t tell you if I was, would I?”

Around the World 🌍

137 people were killed and over 100 were injured in a terror attack at a concert in Moscow last Friday, which the Islamic State Group has claimed responsibility for. Four men, all citizens of Tajikistan, have been arrested and charged with committing an act of terrorism, with another 10 arrested suspected of aiding the attack. President Putin, while admitting that the crime was committed “by the hands of radical Islamists”, has insisted that Ukraine had some involvement in the attack, suggesting that they “prepared a window” for the attackers to cross the border, a claim that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has labelled “absurd”. The White House announced it had warned Moscow a month ago of intelligence predicting a terror attack in the Russian capital, which would be aimed at a large gathering, like a concert, a warning which at the time was dismissed by the Kremlin as propaganda and an attempt to interfere with the Russian election. Following the attack, France has raised its terror alert warning to the highest level.

The UN Security Council adopted a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Gaza on Monday, passing after the US abstained from the vote. The move not to veto the resolution from the US, one of Israel’s closest allies, has been criticised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who subsequently announced he will no longer be sending a delegation to Washington as planned to discuss military operations in the southern Gazan city of Rafah. The White House denied the claim that its decision reflects a change in position.

Senegalese Opposition candidate, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, unofficially won the country’s election, after the main opposition and ruling coalition candidate Amadou Ba called Faye admitting defeat. Official results from the election are expected in the coming days, though polling suggests Faye has a strong lead. The President-elect, at 44, will be the country’s youngest President, and has said he wants to focus on fighting corruption, maintaining the country’s sovereignty by renegotiating oil contracts and improving relations with France. Faye, who was only released from prison in the last two weeks, had previously admitted to being a substitute candidate, as the key opposition figure, Ousamane Sonko was banned from running in the election due to a conviction of defamation.

Ecuador’s youngest Mayor, Brigitte Garcia, was killed last weekend, as the 27 year old was found dead in a car in the town in which she had won the mayoral election last year. Investigations surrounding the death are ongoing, with the motive still unclear, though police have announced they believe she was shot from inside the car.

Thailand became a step closer to legalising same sex marriage, as its lower chamber passed a Bill which would alter the definition of marriage to being a partnership between two individuals, instead of between a man and a woman, alongside making provisions allowing same sex couples to adopt. The Bill was voted on this week, with 400 of the lower chamber voting in favour, whilst just 10 voted against it. It now needs to be approved by the Senate and the King, though it is widely accepted that it will pass and be approved by the end of the year. Should the Bill pass, Thailand will become the first Southeast Asian country, and third Asian country, to legalise gay marriage.

Highlights from Parliament 🏛

The Commons crammed in a range of business before rising for recess on Tuesday, with Ministerial Statements on cybersecurity, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s report on women’s State Pension age, Israel and Gaza and building safety. Debates on the appointment of an acting Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and acting Health Service Commissioner for England, and on the National Policy Statement for National Networks were also held. In addition, the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill passed its third reading and returned to the Lords with amendments; and the Pedicabs (London) Bill passed its remaining stages and awaits Royal Assent.

The Lords had a busier legislative week at it sat for an extra day, which saw the Victims and Prisoners Bill pass its committee stage; the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill pass its third reading; the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill and the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill pass their second readings; and the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill resume its committee stage. Oral questions concerning asylum claims, rail services, child poverty and surplus carbon emissions were also raised.

Committee Corridor 📜

Shared ownership schemes are failing to deliver a route to homeownership as rent, service charges, and complex leases have made it difficult for those looking to become homeowners, so concluded a new report from the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee. The report called for reform to how the shared ownership scheme operates.

The Government should focus on long-term think, investment and resilience, according to a new report from the Public Accounts Committee. The report analysed a list of spending problems a government may face, and focused on three themes: long-term thinking and investment; resilience; and risk management and understanding.

An increase in Statutory Sick Pay in line with Statutory Maternity Pay would create a balance between providing financial support and not placing an excessive cost on businesses, according to a new report form the Work and Pensions Committee. The report found that all employees should be eligible for SSP and called for the Government to amend legislation to allow for it to be paid in combination with usual wages.

Sexual health services are under ‘severe pressure’ amid funding reductions, the Women and Equalities Committee revealed in its recent report. The report stated that while rates of STIs have increased, especially among young people, the Government has “failed to heed” the warnings and the Committee has called for the Government to place a greater priority of teaching RSE in schools. 

The Defined Benefit Pension Schemes should remain active, according to a new report from the Work and Pensions Committee, which made the case for the Government to implement new regulations and improvements to protect scheme members.

Key Movements 🔁

Following the departure of James Heappey MP as Armed Forces Minister and Robert Halfon MP as Skills and Higher Education Minister, the following reshuffle took place: Leo Docherty MP was reshuffled from Europe Minister to Armed Forces Minister, while Luke Hall MP joined Government as the new Skills Minister. Nus Ghani MP was moved from Industry Minister to replace Docherty as Europe Minister and Kevin Hollinrake MP was promoted in the Department of Business and Trade. Alan Mak MP joined Government jointly in the Department for Business and Trade and the Cabinet Office. Halfon also announced he would stand down at the next election. 

Labour conducted a minor reshuffle of its own. ‘Baby of the House’ Keir Mather MP joined the Whip’s Office; Kim Leadbeater MP becomes PPS to the Shadow Health Team; and the newly elected Gen Kitchen MP, Damian Egan MP and Sarah Edwards MP were appointed PPSs to the Shadow Home Office, Shadow Education Team; and Shadow Environment Team respectively.

Scott Benton resigned as MP for Blackpool South to avoid the likelihood of facing a recall petition. A by-election will take place on 2 May. 

Will Harris and Roy Stone have been appointed advisors to Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Steve Barclay MP.

Bernard Taylor has been appointed Chair of the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

Lord Morse stepped down as Chair of the Office for Local Government (Oflog). A new Chair will be appointed in due course.

Saurabh Bhandari has been appointed Director, Property Delivery and Transformation of the Office of Government Property within the Cabinet Office.

Luisa Fulci has been appointed HM Courts & Tribunals Service Board.

This Week’s Polls 📊

With Humza Yousaf completing his first year as Scotland’s First Minister, Ipsos found that his favourability ratings had dropped from -1 to -15. He remains less popular than his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon, who has a favourability rating of -12.  

Labour have their largest lead over the Conservatives since September 2023, according to Savanta’s latest Westminster Voting Intention poll. Labour were on 44%, with the Conservatives on 24%, Reform on 11% and the Lib Dems on 10%.

And finally, Britain’s favourite type of egg is Fried, after Ipsos’ poll revealed it as the choice of 27% of UK adults. In second place, with 22%, was scrambled, while rounding off the podium places was Poached, with 15%. Navigate just can’t believe the option ‘Chocolate’ wasn’t included in the poll.

Think-Tanking 💭

The IFS published a report which analysed recent trends in public sector pay and argued that suppressing public sector wage growth compared to private sector will make it harder to recruit, retain and motivate staff.

The Resolution Foundation published a report considering if the UK’s housing issues are shared by other countries or if the issue of housing affordability is a distinct UK phenomenon.

The IEA published a paper that argued that Government’s ‘nudge tactics’ undermine personal choice and specifically looked at the practical and ethical implications of ‘paternalistic’ efforts.

The Centre for Social Justice published a report analysing school absences, which stated that the number of ‘severely absent pupils’ had increased by 161.8% since the pandemic.

Policy Exchange published a report which looks into three pathways for achieving Net Zero power, outlining how much money would be needed for investment if the Government chose to go Net Zero by 2030, 2035 or remain the same.

The IPPR published a report on how generative AI could affect the UK’s economy, specifically on wage inequality and job displacement.

You’ve Got to Laugh 😂

Having won the by-election on the single issue of opposing ULEZ, Boris Johnson’s successor Steve Tuckwell MP this week embarked on an even more righteous and worthwhile political crusade: gathering signatures as part of campaign to establish a fish and chip shop in Uxbridge town centre…a bizarre campaign which makes more sense when you understand that the campaign’s nifty T&Cs commit the signer to receiving local Conservative Party information on ‘this and other issues’ (read: general election campaign material). However, in a ‘you couldn’t write it’ moment par excellence, it was then revealed that, as a councillor sitting on Uxbridge’s planning committee in 2019, Tuckwell voted against planning permission for…you guessed it, a fish chip ship in Uxbridge on ‘noise’ and ‘smell’ grounds. Politics as performance.


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