Questions for Grant Shapps on Question Time

The housing minister is forced to stand in at the last minute as Baroness Warsi is "indisposed".

Baroness Warsi has withdrawn from tonight's edition of Question Time. Rumours are currently flying as to whether this is as a result of Mehdi Hasan's interview with her in this week's NS (full version not yet online -- go and buy and issue of the magazine) , in which she controversially states that Tory losses in "at least three seats" at the last election were "based on electoral fraud... predominantly in the Asian community", or whether she in fact pulled out days before publication, as government spinners seem to be putting about at the moment.

She will be replaced on tonight's programme by Grant Shapps, Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield, Minister of State for Housing & Local Government, and Question Time novice. We can only imagine the commotion in his office right now as he tries to prepare to face Simon Hughes, Diane Abbott, David Starkey and Brian Cox at about four hours' notice.

Surely, he will be asked about Lady Warsi's absence, and in particular the identity of the three seats she names in the interview. But there are questions that need to be put to Shapps himself -- as housing minister, he is now responsible for ameliorating the ever-worsening crisis in the UK's housing sector.

The loss of council homes for life, the chronic shortage of affordable housing in every part of the UK, and his recent remarks on housing association salaries are all areas where Shapps should be grilled.

But perhaps most important to pin down is the effect of the planned council tax freeze on new houses, or the New Homes Bonus scheme, as it has been called. Toby Thomas over at Left Foot Forward reports that shadow housing minister John Healey, in his speech to the Labour Party conference today, has once again strongly criticised this particular policy, arguing that it will in fact result in an increase in council tax, a disincentive for local authorities to build new houses, and an overall effect that some local authorities will end up paying the housing bills of others out of existing budgets (the New Homes Bonus will come out of existing grants). Toby writes:

Healey's analysis finds that 103 councils will suffer a fund-cut of on average £2 million each, helping to pay for the 222 councils who will gain by £400,000. Bigger towns are likely to lose out most, with Birmingham needing 8,500 homes a year built to avoid losing its grant, while Blaby in Leicestershire needs just 70.

This effect could in turn be heightened should local authorities choose not to embrace their newly-devolved role as the lead agency for house-building in their area. In an interview I did last week with Sir Bob Kerslake, incoming permanent secretary at Communities and Local Government and currently chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, he expressed the hope that "forward-looking" local authorities will seize on these incentives, but acknowledged that this will create inequality across the UK. He said:

"You can work with local authorities and show them potential, and even trade off one benefit of housing with another benefit, but in teh end I thnk if they set their face against it then they have to realise that different places will end up in different situations... That is the reality of looking backward."

Perhaps Grant Shapps will be able to shed some light this evening on what people stuck in poor quality housing who happen to live in a backward looking local authority should do to improve their situation, when faced with the reality of the arbitrary inequality created by such "big society" devolution.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder