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Local Government Responsibilities: Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:14 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Mental Health and Social Care) 3:14 pm, 18th March 2020

Very much so. I am following all the social media input from my constituents, and I am glad to see that people are very keen to help. However, we must be careful, because we are talking about very vulnerable people, often with complex care needs, and we do not want to put them into difficulties through the efforts of volunteers, so we need guidance on that point.

Let me turn to self-isolation. I had to self-isolate for five days last week, and I know it is not easy, but it will be particularly hard for people with anxiety disorders, who rely on a routine to cope. Both now and once we are on the other side of this, what support will the Government be offering to help address the mental health consequences of the pandemic and of self-isolation or shielding for long periods? I noticed in the media that there were programmes showing what is being done in Wuhan in China, with hundreds of counsellors talking to people on a phone helpline, talking them through the difficulties they were experiencing. I think we may have to be thinking about something like that. In particular, many older people are now looking at several months potentially locked down in their own home, so what can the Government do to ensure that those people do not become lonely and isolated, with all the mental health consequences that would cause?

The challenges facing local government over the coming months are not limited to social care. The Government finally published yesterday the public health grant for the next financial year. Between 2014-15 and 2019-20, budgets were cut by £870 million, although there has been an increase to the grant this year. While the publication of the allocations finally provides some certainty to local authorities, the reality is that their public health functions are likely to be focused on coronavirus for the foreseeable future. Public health services such as smoking cessation are vital to prevent people from acquiring long-term health conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which can make a future case of coronavirus more serious. Will the Minister commit to allocating further money to public health if local authorities need it to keep people safe during the crisis?

The other major area of concern is homelessness. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government announced a fund yesterday to help local authorities provide accommodation for homeless people who might have coronavirus, which is welcome, but given the scale of the homelessness crisis in this country, can the Minister tell us whether that fund will be topped up if needed? We do not want local authorities to have to ration support now because they think they might need some of it later.

I understand we are expecting a statement at 5 o’clock on education, and the Government are not yet closing schools—we may hear more at 5 o’clock—but we do see more teaching staff off work ill or self-isolating. Schools are being closed for certain years, and other closures look increasingly likely. I have seen that in my constituency. For many children, school is a place where they can get breakfast and free school meals. If children have to stay at home, they may go hungry. What support will be put in place to protect those children if schools are closed, whether that means providing food for them or ensuring that social services are monitoring their condition?

Lastly, I want to mention bins and waste collection. The safe handling of waste that could be contaminated by coronavirus will be a major challenge for public health and for the protection of the staff who work in that vital service. Will the Minister tell us what action is being taken alongside local authorities to ensure the continuity of waste collection services, given that the staff who work in those services will themselves be subject to illness and self-isolation?

We also need to think about council tax. If the Government are giving business rate relief for coronavirus, why not council tax relief for the general population? If people are out of work for an extended period, council tax is a big cost. Councils would need reimbursement for lost income, as they would with business rates. Additionally, we need councils to show some restraint with pursuing council tax arrears through the courts. Although loss of income for councils could be a very big issue at a time like this, depending on how long everything lasts, everything points to Government support and action for that. I should say to the Minister that I am happy to supply him with a list of all the questions I have asked, because it is very difficult for him to answer everything all in one go.

Coronavirus poses a unique challenge for this country. We will all need to work together to tackle it. The work that local authorities do will be central to addressing the crisis and will help to hold communities together as we do so. It will not be easy, and I am sure there are many issues we have not foreseen. I thank everyone working in local government and in social care and all our teachers and teaching staff, because they are a vital frontline service. I hope the Minister can reassure the House that local authorities will get all the help they need in the weeks and months ahead to tackle this crisis and to carry on providing the services that people rely on every day.