Local Government and Social Care Funding

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:46 pm on 24th April 2019.

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Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:46 pm, 24th April 2019

My hon. Friend Toby Perkins made a good point. This is an incredibly important debate, as we are discussing cuts to local authorities. I would also say that my contribution, in which I will talk about the impact of cuts on youth violence, is extremely important.

After the Prime Minister’s recent summit on serious violence, about which this Chamber is still awaiting a statement, the Government launched the “Consultation on a new legal duty to support a multi-agency approach to preventing and tackling serious violence.” Many of the words in this document are to be welcomed. However, local authorities are responsible for many of the services that the Government see as key to this multi-agency approach, and cuts of nearly £16 billion to local government since 2010—£165 million in Lewisham—have left our public services at breaking point, so hon. Members can see why so many are sceptical about the Government’s multi-agency strategy. There is a lot of promising language in the consultation, with mentions of following the evidence, focusing on the long term, and working “with and for communities”. It includes examples of best practice and advice from the World Health Organisation on violence reduction.

Violence is not inevitable; with the right approach, I truly believe that it is preventable. Obviously, we need Departments to work together to share data and generate long-term solutions. We hear all the time that this is not just an issue that the police can tackle alone. We need a strategy that brings together schools, social services, housing, police, youth services and the voluntary sector—one that follows the evidence and brings communities with us. Indeed, we need a public health approach. However, teachers and frontline NHS workers have expressed concerns about the proposed legal duty, and with fair reason. Over the last nine years, austerity has taken its toll. The NHS is suffering the biggest funding squeeze in its history. Schools budgets have been cut by £1.7 billion since 2015. Adding yet another responsibility on to the shoulders of our brilliant but overstretched teachers and NHS staff without further resources is unacceptable.

If hon. Members look at my own Borough of Lewisham, they will see the immense pressure that the council is already under. Since 2010, Lewisham has suffered cuts to its budget of more than 60%. Local schools have lost out on over £25 million of funding since 2015 and 14 schools are facing a shortfall in their budget as a result. Food bank use has been rising year on year. Last year, 7,000 families in Lewisham visited a food bank—yes, 7,000 families. Lewisham is one of the most deprived local authorities in England and one of the 20 local authorities with the highest levels of child poverty. At the same time, the local population has risen by 10% since the last census, adding yet more pressure to the council’s dwindling budgets. That is the context we are talking about, with poverty rising, complex social needs rising and the local population rising, alongside unsustainable cuts to local services.

The Government’s public health approach says that we should be bringing together law enforcement, education, health, housing and youth services. Councils want to do that, but they need the funding to achieve it. Youth services in the Borough of Lewisham have been cut by more than a third since 2012. As a result, centres are struggling to remain open and the year-round provision that we had in the past is just no longer possible. Our police are working hard with fewer resources, often putting themselves in danger to ensure that they keep us safe. Lewisham, Greenwich and Bexley police forces in south-east London have recently had to merge, resulting in the loss of 100 police officers. At the same time, we have lost several local police stations and more are at risk of closing soon. I know the police would prefer that that was not happening.

Councils such as Lewisham have had to be creative so that it can still deliver for local residents. Put simply, we previously had a service with 45 local community wardens and now there are 30 seeking to do the same job. That is on top of a reduction in the number of police community support officers. In the past, we had more than six community support officers per ward; they knew the local area well and had the capacity to build relationships with the community. That is no longer possible. Most of our wards are left with just one community officer, and that is a picture we are seeing across London.

There is a familiar story in our schools. On average, Lewisham schools will suffer an estimated loss of almost £26 million between 2015 and 2020, equivalent to £319 per pupil, and most teachers are now teaching classes of well over 30 pupils. School exclusions are rising, too—speaking of which, when will we get the Timpson review of school exclusions? I have asked that several times in this Chamber.

Also notably absent from the Government’s consultation is early years—a worrying, but not surprising, oversight. Sure Start centres have been cut across the country, and Lewisham is no exception. In 2010, the borough had 19 children’s centres; only five are left today. Early years support is crucial to a public health approach. How else can we implement early intervention? Is it not time that the Government provided maintained nursery schools, with the sustainable funding they need to keep their doors open?

I wanted to end on a more positive note. We in Lewisham are lucky to have a Labour council led by a brilliant mayor. In spite of all the cuts, Lewisham Labour is committed to implementing a public health approach to tackle violence. It plans to lead a truly community-led approach, and has already started by consulting Lewisham’s vibrant community groups and voluntary organisations. Our local government has a huge part to play in tackling violence and it is reassuring that the Government have recognised that. The Government are using all the right language, but now is the time to follow through with the necessary funding that our services have been without for far too long.

We talk about following the evidence, but where is the evidence that a programme run in a school teaching kids, “Don’t carry a knife, because you won’t be safe,” actually works? If we want to talk about true evidence, we have to build our young children’s resilience; we have to teach them to realise how fantastic they will be in the future and give them the skills to do that. That means investing in Sure Start early childhood centres, in our schools and in youth work. Our young people deserve that—they deserve the futures we all want for them. I urge the Government to fund local authorities properly, so that they can deliver.