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Local Government Responsibilities: Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:13 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:13 pm, 18th March 2020

I would like to start by commending the work that our local councils are doing in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Faced with an unprecedented set of challenges across social care, education, children’s services, housing and homelessness, they are providing access to advice and support for many people who are distressed, worried and facing hardship as a result of the public health and economic calamity we are seeing, while sustaining day-to-day services such as bin collections, parks and libraries. Our councils are doing that in the context of 10 years of unprecedented cuts to their budgets and a total absence of coherent strategy for local government from central Government.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee observed during the last Parliament that there has not been any assessment from central Government of the responsibilities of local government across its statutory and non-statutory functions and no objective assessment of the resources needed to fulfil the task at hand. Instead, our councils have been cut to the bone. Both my councils have lost more than 60% of the funding they received from central Government in grant. They have been forced to raise council tax, which is regressive and hits the poorest residents hardest, while demands on their core statutory services, adult social care and children’s services have continued to increase, and the need for housing and homelessness services has spiralled as a direct consequence of the welfare policies of a decade of Tory Governments.

In that context, the shift to reliance on business rates is of grave concern. Business rates have been the Government’s only game in town for local government, and we now face an economic calamity that may result in business rates revenue simply draining away. It is imperative that the Government come forward with proposals for how councils will be supported to sustain services in the context of the risk of business rates collapsing. Our councils are stepping up to play their part in multiple different ways, as the closeness and proximity of their relationship to communities make them uniquely placed to do so, but there is a lack of resilience across all our public services. After the last decade, that is completely predictable and therefore completely inexcusable.

I turn to a couple of areas of public services that are responding to the crisis as they relate to our councils, the first of which is social care. Our social care system was in crisis before the coronavirus pandemic struck. About 1 million people eligible for social care are not receiving any, and the sector needs about £3.5 billion of additional funding just to meet additional needs. Across the country, councils of all political persuasions are struggling to deliver the social care services that local residents need, and private contractors continue to hand contracts back to councils.

Now, social care workers are at the frontline of the response to covid-19, caring for some of the most vulnerable residents and working hard to take on additional caseloads as hospitals work urgently to discharge people to free up bed space needed for the pandemic, yet many social care workers are paid the minimum wage and remain on zero-hours contracts.

Last week, 100 parliamentarians from both Houses and many political parties joined me in writing to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to ask that social care workers be placed on the same footing as NHS workers with regard to sick pay during the coronavirus pandemic. NHS workers and contractors have been guaranteed full pay if they are ill or need to self-isolate, but no such commitment has been made to social care workers. It is vital that low-paid workers, whose jobs bring them into contact with many of the people most vulnerable to covid-19, are not forced to make an impossible choice between taking action to protect the safety of those in their care or putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their family’s head.

I have not received a response to my letter and, despite raising the issue in the Chamber, there has been no indication from the Government that they understand the urgency of the issue or that any action is being taken. Lives will be lost if low-paid, workers with precarious jobs are forced to make impossible choices. I hope that in responding to the debate, the Minister will provide a definitive commitment to social care workers in response to covid-19.