The Week

The Week, 28 October 2022

Charlotte Pickles

Another week another PM, here’s hoping for some stability — initial indicators at least are promising. At Reform towers, we’re particularly pleased to hear Sunak’s commitment to improving education and skills. We await details…

In the meantime, in an otherwise policy-lite week, here’s a couple of interesting analyses you might have missed.

First up, a topic close to Reform’s heart: State resilience. Yesterday, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy published what can only be described as a scathing report on the woeful under-preparedness of our critical national infrastructure to climate change (think flooding, power outages, landslides): “we have unfortunately uncovered an extreme weakness at the centre of Government on a critical risk to the UK’s national security.”

The minister responsible for critical infrastructure, we are told, refused to give evidence to the committee due to a lack of command of the issue. The Committee also notes that the National Resilience Strategy has been repeatedly delayed and has still not been published. It’s almost like we haven't learnt the lessons of the pandemic — or of the many reviews into earlier civil emergencies.

Many of their recommendations echo those made in Reform’s March 2021 report ‘A State of Preparedness’ — from better risk assessment and external input to increased joint working and senior ownership, to regular reporting and stress-testing. It is vital that the Government acts now to strengthen our resilience.

Second, a nifty piece of analysis this week by our friends at the IFS shows just why understanding the drivers behind data changes is so important. Much has been made of the big post-pandemic increase in economic inactivity (essentially people out of work but not seeking work), particularly among the over 50s. Within this cohort, the proportion reporting ill-health has increased, which has led to claims that sickness among older workers is a significant cause of the rising inactivity.

‘Wrong!’, say the IFS. Almost three quarters of the increase in the proportion of 50-64 year olds who are inactive for health related reasons is among people who have not worked in at least 5 years. Showing, as they put it, that “health reasons do not seem to be the key reasons for older people leaving the labour force”. Instead, the data actually shows that “flows into retirement and ‘other’ forms of inactivity” are driving the increased inactivity. And that, of course, presents a very different policy challenge.

Finally, some good news for our new PM, far more people (53%) now think Sunak did a good job as Chancellor than did so when he actually was Chancellor (22%)! Not sure if that’s the hindsight factor, comparing him to those who’ve come after, or us donning some rose-tinted glasses.

Our recommended reads this week…

First up, a new report from Cambridge University’s Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy on police use of live facial recognition. They find that three existing trials (by the Met and South Wales Police) “failed to meet the minimum ethical and legal standards” for governance of facial recognition, with insufficient safeguards in terms of privacy, discrimination, accountability, and oversight. This is obviously not good enough. But facial recognition does offer the chance of identifying suspected criminals in a relatively unobtrusive way — especially if images and videos of innocent people are deleted instantaneously. By failing to implement proper safeguards, policing risks infringing on human rights in the short-term and undermining the long-term case for proportionate use of this technology.

Next is a blog from James Plunkett, who examines an “insistent economic force” behind the rising cost of care in the UK — known as the Baumol effect — and the difficult social and political choices we face as a result. James begins by explaining that, as productivity in certain sectors increases (think manufacturing, tech, or construction), the wages of workers in these sectors grows, which means that workers in other sectors all see their wages rise. But because productivity growth is uneven across sectors (i.e. it is harder for a childcare worker to care for an extra child per hour than for a factory worker to produce an extra widget per hour) the cost of care, relative to everything else, is pushed upwards.

In turn, the “resultant pressure has pushed up public spending, which has inflated the size of the state”. To try and contain these costs, and protect other areas of public spending, “workers in social caring sectors have become more and more squeezed” — with social care staff earning less, on average, than retail checkout assistants for the first time. Looking to a future in which care will comprise an increasing amount of what we do, James concludes that we needn’t be fatalistic about this. More money will undoubtedly need to be spent on social care, he argues, but as long as we’re “radical about reform” and stop “distracting ourselves with fiddles and reorgs”, a “better and more caring” model is possible.