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From the Queen’s Speech to the next election: what now for the government’s agenda?
From the Queen’s Speech to the next election: what now for the Government’s agenda?

Posts Tagged ‘brexit’

What is the government’s plan for state aid?

Two of the Margaret Thatcher’s most steadfast beliefs were the benefits of European economic integration and the folly of governments providing financial aid to support particular businesses and industries, both of which she said contributed to the UK being labelled the ‘sick man of Europe.’ Ahead of the UK joining the European single market in 1992, Margaret Thatcher addressed businesses and encouraged them to think about the opportunities access to the single market would create. She said: “Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers – visible and invisible – giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people.”

How times change. The current Conservative government, in its negotiations with the EU, is willing to sacrifice access to the single market so that it can offer state aid to British businesses. This about-turn raises a fundamental question: why is this government so keen to be able to financially support businesses, and what does it hope to achieve?

What are the rules on state aid?

State aid, broadly speaking, is any advantage granted by the government on a selective basis to businesses, and it can come in many forms: direct cash transfers, preferential tax treatment and financial guarantees offered by the state. Under EU rules, there is not a blanket ban on state aid. State aid can be provided if it is approved by the European Commission, it is of a small sum or if it is covered by the General Block Exemption Rule. The General Block Exemption Rule allows state aid to promote new activities that would not otherwise have taken place and promotes economic development without distorting competition. State aid that falls outside of these parameters and is viewed to distort competition by offering an advantage to a particular business or industry is illegal under EU law.

The UK and the EU are currently at loggerheads over state aid and a future free trade deal. The EU is demanding that in return for a free trade deal, the British government should commit to ‘dynamic alignment’ with the EU’s state aid rules – the so-called ‘level playing field’ commitments. The UK government, however, wants to have its own ‘separate and independent’ policy on state subsidies. The EU’s fear is that if it gives British firms free trade access to the single market without assurances on state aid, the government in the UK could subsidise green technology, for example, and undercut European made products, undermining the principles of the single market. The EU’s objections are quite reasonable – if you want to be a member of a club, you need to play by the rules. If there can be no agreement between the two sides, the UK will leave the EU on 1 January 2021 without a deal, an outcome that is looking increasingly likely (and even desirable to some within Downing St).

What’s the plan?

Should the UK leave without a deal, the government will not be able to splash the cash wherever it wants, as it will still be bound by World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules on state aid. One crucial difference though is that the WTO state aid restrictions only cover goods, while the EU’s rules cover both goods and services. This opens the door to the UK being able to financially support a range of industries in the service sector, an area where the UK already has a competitive advantage, especially in financial and professional services.

Dominic Cummings recently told civil servants in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that he was working on a plan to help the UK build ‘$1 trillion tech companies.’ Cummings views a no-deal Brexit and the removal of EU state aid restrictions as an opportunity for the government to support British start-ups to become genuine players on the world stage, having historically lagged behind the United States and China.

Looser rules on state aid would also help the UK be more flexible in times of emergency. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, HM Treasury was restricted in its ability to offer CLBILS loans to private equity-backed firms due to the EU’s rules on ‘businesses in difficulty.’ Due to the leveraged financial structure of these firms, under EU rules, they were not eligible for government financial support. Outside of the EU’s legal framework on state aid, the government would be free to financially aid whichever businesses it chose to, an option that will only become more appealing as the reality of increasing unemployment kicks in.

Will it work?

The idea of a British tech giant is an appealing one for the government. Foreign technology firms are difficult to tax, and it would make the government’s life a lot easier if it had a homegrown firm it could draw revenue from. The creation of high quality, well-paying jobs would also be a bonus.

There are some problems with Cummings’ plan, though. Historically, the British government has a chequered record of success in ‘picking winners.’ When compared to the private sector, governments lack the knowledge, expertise and market discipline to sustain and grow companies. This means risk is often not weighed effectively, leading to either over or under-investment. There is also the risk that business decisions get made not for sound commercial reasons but to fulfil some other government priority.

The interaction between the state aid tech giant plan and the government’s levelling up agenda also throws up some inconsistencies between its wider priorities. Tech firms tend to thrive in big cities and those that are home to elite universities. These are precisely not the areas the government wants to ‘level up’: post-industrial towns in the north and midlands. The price of state support for the tech sector would be the government trading off the UK’s remaining manufacturing base in the north and midlands by removing tariff-free access to its biggest market.

State aid is an appealing idea, but to be implemented well it requires a government to have patience, skill and good judgement. It will also involve the government having to make an unappealing sacrifice that will undermine its levelling up agenda. The deeper message of the government’s interest in state aid is that it is no longer ideologically wedded to the ideas of the past and it is more than willing to deviate from them if it is politically expedient to do so.

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Brexit explainer – what is the Internal Market Bill and why does it matter?

For avid Brexit-watchers, the headlines from the past week may seem like the country has been transported back to October 2019. With restless backbenchers, strongly worded statements from EU Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, and journalists running to the nearest legal expert, Westminster is suffering from a collective case of déjà vu. For those just tuning back into the Brexit negotiations, here’s what you need to know.

What is the Internal Market Bill?

The Internal Market Bill is intended to create a framework for trade to operate across the four UK nations post-Brexit. The Bill attempts to ensure the whole UK operates as its own single market. It would establish two legal principles – mutual recognition and non-discrimination – to ensure there are no new barriers for businesses trading across the UK, allowing a good or service to be sold anywhere in the UK without any internal standards blocking the movement of goods.

Why is the Bill so controversial?

The principal issue is that the Bill would reverse the Northern Ireland protocol contained in the Withdrawal Agreement, which was signed by Boris Johnson and passed by the current Parliament on 24 January 2020. The protocol settled the issue of post-Brexit trade across the Irish border by applying some EU customs regulation to goods travelling between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland to avoid checks at the Irish border. The Bill would contravene the Agreement in three ways:

  1. It gives ministers powers to not to apply EU standards on paperwork for goods leaving Northern Ireland going to the rest of the UK.
  2. It gives ministers the power to disapply or modify state aid rules in Northern Ireland, which the Withdrawal Agreement stated would continue to be governed by EU state aid rules. Those powers also allow the UK Government to ignore decisions of the European Court of Justice and EU legislation on state aid.
  3. It would prevent individuals from enforcing the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement in UK courts by stating the measures in the Bill are ‘not to be regarded as unlawful on the grounds of any incompatibility or inconsistency with relevant international or domestic law’.

The second issue with the Bill is the decision to apply mutual recognition to the devolved nations without their consultation. Mutual recognition means goods lawfully produced in England according to English standards can be sold in Scotland, even if Scotland has higher (and thus more expensive) standards. This means the devolved nations are not allowed to exclude goods from other UK nations made to lower standards, undermining their ability to set their own regulations.

What has the reaction been?

Reaction has been strong from both sides of the Brexit debate, fuelled by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitting in the Commons that the Bill ‘does break international law in a specific and limited way’. Domestic opponents of the Bill suggest that it will damage the UK’s international reputation, preventing it from being taken seriously when addressing illegal acts conducted by other nations and making trade talks harder.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has described the Bill as an “assault on devolution”, an accusation that is unlikely to hurt the SNP’s standing going into the Scottish Parliamentary elections next year. Sturgeon has now pledged to campaign to demand a new independence referendum as “the only way to protect the Scottish parliament from being undermined and its powers eroded”.

The European Commission has threatened the UK with legal action and trade sanctions if it does not withdraw the controversial clauses in the Internal Market Bill by the end of September. Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin has also personally criticised the Bill, stating that he is now pessimistic about the chances of agreeing a trade deal with the UK. Despite this, the EU has no intention of immediately shutting down  its talks on the UK/EU future-relationship, saying it would amount to falling into a trap set by the UK.

Across the Atlantic, US Speaker Nancy Pelosi has warned that there is “no chance” of the US signing a trade deal under a Biden presidency if the UK goes ahead with the Internal Market Bill in its current form because it undermines the Northern Irish peace process.

Why has the government done this?

The government has stated that the Bill is merely its way of tidying up “loose ends” in the Withdrawal Agreement that it says were caused by passing the Agreement “at speed”. The policy is described as a ‘safety net’ by ministers, to protect Northern Ireland’s position if a deal on future relations with the EU cannot be reached.

The UK has also claimed Michel Barnier has threatened not to include the UK on the list of “third countries” on food standards, which would effectively make it illegal to move food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

This defence has been met with scepticism by political commentators, the EU and some UK politicians, who believe the UK Government is either trying to force more concessions from the EU, attempting to force the EU to walk away from negotiations or simply did not realise the implications of the Withdrawal Agreement during the negotiations.

Of course, more than one of these reasons can be true at the same time, and it is entirely possible the UK Government feels it is a necessary action to take to protect trade with Northern Ireland, while also using the Bill as a way of shaking up, or perhaps deliberately destabilising, the trade talks.

What happens now?

The government has told the EU it doesn’t intend to withdraw the Bill, meaning it will be debated in Parliament. Conservative MP Bob Neill has tabled an amendment that would give parliament a veto on any decision to breach the Withdrawal Agreement. A significant number of other amendments are also expected. The passage of any amendment would require a significant Conservative rebellion, as well as the support of Labour, the SNP and the smaller opposition parties.

The Bill must also pass in the House of Lords, where it has been widely condemned, including from Conservative peers. The Lords are highly unlikely to block the Bill but may introduce amendments to force the Bill back to the Commons. It is almost certain to back any amendments passed in the Commons designed to water down the Bill. The Bill can’t pass into law until both Houses pass the same version of the Bill in full.

What happens if the Bill passes?

The passage of the Bill in its current form is likely to cause a serious impasse between the UK and the EU. European Parliament leaders, representing a majority of MEPs, have issued a statement declaring they will block the EU-UK trade deal if there is any breach of the Withdrawal Agreement. This marks a line in the sand from which neither side is backing down and makes the possibility of leaving the transition period without a trade deal significantly higher.

While it is highly unlikely the Bill will be voted down, it may be passed with amendments that either remove or significantly waters down the current provisions. The government is considering implementing sanctions, including a ‘nuclear option’ of withdrawing the whip from rebel Conservative MPs.

The Bill also has implications for the union. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have set out strong opposition to the Bill and with Scottish Parliamentary elections on the horizon in 2021, the Bill is set to further provoke anti-Westminster sentiment among Scottish nationalists. Polls have consistently shown a majority in favour of Scottish independence since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and this Bill is likely to cement opposition to the current Westminster Government in Scotland.

The matter may well be settled in the courts. Although the UK Supreme Court is unlikely to have jurisdiction over the issue due to parliamentary sovereignty, the EU may choose to take the case to the European Court of Justice which has jurisdiction over the interpretation and implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Whatever happens over the next week, the UK Government has chosen a provocative approach that will have significant implications for the outcome of the UK-EU trade negotiations, its relationship with its own MPs, the strength of the union and its international reputation.

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2020 vision: What challenges lie ahead for higher education over the next year?

Higher education did not feature heavily in the 2019 general election campaign, with political attention inevitably focused on Brexit and the NHS.

The election result, however, will have significant implications for the higher education sector over the next year and beyond.

As ever, concerns over funding and the long-term financial sustainability of higher education institutions will dominate discussions within the sector. But beyond funding, higher education faces political pressures on a range of issues from grade inflation to Vice-Chancellor pay.

Below is a snapshot of the five biggest challenges facing the higher education sector in 2020:

 

Funding and fees

The Augar Review of post-18 education and funding, published in May 2019, recommended the government reduce tuition fees to £7,500 per year, with the government replacing any lost funding through increased grants to universities. The Conservatives’ general election victory means it is unlikely the government will cut tuition fees but there is some scope for funding shifts to support subjects deemed to be of most economic value.

Funding changes will emerge from the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) which determines the allocation of quality-related (QR) funding for research and will realign the funding settlements for research institutions.

Demonstrating the impact of research is worth 25 per cent of the 2021 REF, an increase from 20 per cent in the last iteration in 2014, and institutions will have to carefully consider how best to demonstrate the social and economic impact of their research beyond academia.

This will involve higher education institutions needing to prove their research has had a positive impact on the economy, government policy, public services, the environment or society, taking into account the priorities of the REF panel.

 

Brexit

Despite Boris Johnson running on the promise that he would ‘get Brexit done’, the implications of Brexit still loom large for higher education.

Indications suggest the government will charge EU students full international fees for the academic year following 2021/22, which could impact on demand and create financial pressure on institutions that recruit heavily from the EU.

There also remains the question of the extent to which the government will replace the lost income of universities from EU research funding beyond the end of the transition period.

 

Grade inflation

The past year has seen increased media and political attention paid to the number of Firsts and 2:1s awarded to students by UK universities, prompting fears grade inflation is undermining the value of British university degrees.

In response, the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment launched a new framework for the classification of degrees as part of a new voluntary code towards the end of 2019.

The extent to which the new code of practice is able to halt the number of top degree awards will determine whether the government seeks to introduce further regulatory oversight of the classification of degrees. How the government decides to deal with grade inflation will indicate the extent to which it is comfortable with the marketisation of the higher education sector.

As a potential consequence of institutions needing to attract students, the government may be forced to correct market incentives through increased regulation.

 

Free speech

Gavin Williamson has publicly stated universities must take steps to ensure free speech on campus or the government will legislate to protect freedom of expression. Writing in The Times last week, the Education Secretary warned higher education institutions that intimidation of academics by students and other protesters is unacceptable and they must do more to protect the safety of academics and their right to free speech. Williamson has pledged to change the legal framework to strengthen free speech rights if universities do not take sufficient action.

The intervention by the Education Secretary will be a challenge for universities as they try to balance the right of students to protest against the need for academic freedom and expression. The government’s demand for free expression on campus will be particularly tested when it comes to topics like transgender rights and the politics of the far-right.

 

Vice-Chancellor pay

Media and political scrutiny of Vice-Chancellor remuneration has continued into 2020, following recent analysis that nearly half of Russell Group universities have increased Vice-Chancellor pay over the past year. A lot of the pay increases awarded to university bosses have been above inflation, with the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool receiving a 12.8 per cent increase, increasing her annual pay to £410,000.

Some universities, such as the University of Southampton, have cut pay when appointing new Vice-Chancellors, and the Russell Group has stated pay awards are down by nearly two per cent across the group.

Faced with hostility from unions and students, higher education institutions will need to work hard to justify their pay awards to Vice-Chancellors to avoid further straining their relationships with ordinary staff and students.

 

 

 

 

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