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National Infrastructure Commission: key points

The Government has set out its stall after consulting on the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), making some important political points in the process…

1/ The Treasury will, ultimately, be the NIC’s master. The Chancellor will appoint the body’s chair, commissioners and CEO. The Chancellor will also determine when the NIC can present reports to Parliament and what topics should be covered (with preferred topics likely to include those where the Treasury can influence recommendations by supplying data and ‘expertise’).

2/ In giving the NIC one ‘fiscal envelope’ to assess what can be afforded, the Government has implied there will be a single “infrastructure budget” that covers everything from bricks to broadband. This is likely to provoke a zero-sum approach by supporters for individual projects and suggests the Government does not anticipate significant private sector finance for potential projects.

3/ The NIC will provide an annual review of Government progress on agreed projects – based on figures provided by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which is run by the Cabinet Office. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NIC has been barred from offering a view on Hinkley, HS2, or Heathrow.

Full details of the Government’s response can be found here: http://bit.ly/1Z8e9XA

A bad reshuffle for Boris? Don’t be silly.

A post-referendum reshuffle is so widely expected that some senior Ministers, in anticipation of promotion, have stopped accepting speaking invitations from July. That degree of confidence is rarely healthy – and neither is the hubris in those Cameron loyalists who think Boris Johnson can be “contained” in a clever reshuffle.

When the PM (or Chancellor) is dishing out jobs, most MPs sit nervously by their phone, snapping at anyone who has the audacity to call when Number 10 might be trying to get through. Most MPs eventually take whatever job is offered to them, regardless of any bravado beforehand. Boris is not most MPs and he will do neither of these things. He’s too big to be ignored and has no incentive to take a job he doesn’t want – so he will either be the prince-across-the-water on the backbenches, or will force Cameron to put him into a role that helps, not hinders, his chances of becoming PM.

Government test for Apprenticeship Levy dates

A policy paper this summer will give private sector suppliers to Whitehall an idea of what the Government really wants when it signs a contract. The Public Services (Social Value) Act asks public sector budget holders to get wider social, economic and environmental benefits when they spend public money. The Cabinet Office has promised to give examples this summer of how Whitehall is delivering on the Act and what else the Government will do to promote it. The case studies it chooses will give a useful signal for what Government wants suppliers to do beyond delivering what they are actually being paid to do. The paper will also give a good indication of whether the flagships Apprenticeships Levy policy will be delivered on time – if training programmes don’t feature heavily in the Government’s examples, it may suggest the policy is being held back until it’s ready for the outside world.

Tech determines Government funding

The Paymaster General, Matt Hancock, has just delivered a speech at King’s Cross in London on blockchain technology. Although Hancock admitted “there’s still a very long way to go to bring Government up to date with the internet age”, he did feel able to talk about the Government’s ambitions to use blockchain “to manage the distribution of grants.” He talked about education and international aid explicitly, citing the Student Loans Company and DfID grants to aid bodies.

In all, the speech shows Government is still a very long way behind the technology curve. In typical Whitehall fashion, its first concern is how to count and distribute the beans more accurately, rather than realising that substantive policy change will be needed to keep up with the modern world.

In the short term, though, organisations that can play down to Whitehall’s tech standards will benefit from new pots of public money looking for a home.

Follow the (public) money

A common misconception in politics is that the Budget sets Government spending for the year. This isn’t quite true – instead, the Budget sets out the changes to Government spending. If you want to find out where every pound is actually being spent, you need to read (600 pages or more of) the Supply Estimates. These have just been published (http://bit.ly/1XJWndG) and are essential material if you want to understand how Government decides what to procure and invest in.

What the papers say…about the EU campaign

The Daily Telegraph launches a “stronger borders” campaign today. The campaign gives the paper enough room to assuage its readers without biting the Government hand that feeds it stories. More importantly, when a national paper launches this kind of campaign, it has often already been given an assurance its “demands” are going to be met anyway. This allows the paper to claim credit for changing policy while guaranteeing Ministers a media platform to announce the changes. In this case, it looks like the Government is planning to announce a new approach to border control before the EU referendum, which would be a smart move given immigration concerns are a strong card for the Leave side.

A summary of Greig Baker’s article for Labour Uncut

Last week, I hosted a dinner with the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, Iain Wright. During the discussion, it struck me that the Labour Party's attitude to MPs like Iain says a lot about its lack of determination to get back into Government.

If you haven't met Iain, he is impressive and approachable. He also struck me as having the most valuable asset in politics - authenticity. Iain is not perfect, but he is capable, he can win over new supporters for Labour, and he might even be able to convert a few former opponents.

Clearly, a majority of MPs also think he has got something useful to offer, or they would not have elected him to chair an important and influential Select Committee. But there's the rub: it is not clear at all that the Labour leadership appreciates MPs who can reach beyond the converted and help the grassroots understand why some people shudder at the thought of a Marxist Prime Minister.

Having met both Iain Wright and Peter Mandelson (who previously held his seat in the North East) I can honestly say there are any number of major differences between the two. But there is also a fierce irony that it's still the case that the Labour Party will have changed for the better when it learns to love the MP for Hartlepool.

Government steps up in tech

Liam Maxwell has just been appointed HMG’s first National Technology Adviser. The move represents the increasing influence of the Cabinet Office across all Government Departments, while the “Council of Experts” that will be drawn from businesses that work with Government will have an impact on different firms’ ability to win major Government contracts.

DfT Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce (STAT)

STAT meets for the first time today and the new body has some ambitious goals: 30,000 new transport apprenticeships; 20% of new apprentices to be women; and a 20% increase in BME apprentices. The new body also reflects the growing trend where Whitehall instructs businesses to pay, collect, and deploy taxes to meet social policy objectives. In the short term, suppliers who can help meet the new targets will be at a significant commercial advantage.

The GUIDE to the week, 14th April

It was a pleasure to welcome BIS Select Committee Chair Iain Wright to the GUIDE steak night yesterday. Thanks to everyone for making it such an enjoyable evening. Away from the wine and food, here’s our take on the rest of the week…


“Grassroots Out” and “Leave.EU” took the news of Vote Leave being the official Brexit campaign with as much good grace as expected – none. Politically, Leavers will be disappointed (and disadvantaged) by their reluctance to support Vote Leave. Practically, it was also pretty stupid for a major Leave.EU donor and two Eurosceptic Conservative MPs to meet in a Westminster bar and moan about how “they were stitched up”. One of my colleagues (and everyone else in the bar), heard the trio explain that “UKIP is f***ed”, predict that “Nigel Farage will set up a new online party the day after polling day”, and weigh a legal challenge to Vote Leave. Bonkers.

Holier than thou

The Church commissioners manage a £6.7bn pension fund, so they have some serious political clout. Their latest move has focused on ExxonMobil and climate change. More widely, it points to the growing political activism of large scale investors from both the public and private sector. This trend will grow…

Levy levees

Everyone knows the Apprenticeship Levy raises big questions for business. Working closely with Civil Servants on this over the past six months, we have seen it raise a few in Whitehall, too. A major obstacle for BIS officials is the way other Departments have responded, with some seeing the programme as a turf grab intruding onto skills policy in “their” sector. As a result, some bureaucratic walls have gone up, even as the launch date gets closer.


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