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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

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Social care workers, together with healthcare workers, are at the frontline of the crisis. They must be offered every support possible to enable them to keep working throughout.

More widely, there are grave concerns about the extra capacity that will be needed in the social care sector in response to the crisis. Earlier this week, I visited Turney School in my constituency, an outstanding school for children with special educational needs aged four to 19. Of the more than 130 children at Turney School, 90% are eligible for free school meals, many have multiple and complex needs, and most have a diagnosis of autism. If, as we hear, schools across the country are likely to close shortly, there will be an urgent and immediate need for additional social care support for Turney pupils and many thousands of children with special needs across the country.

Schools such as Turney fulfil not just an educational role, but a social, emotional and respite role for children and their families. Many Turney families live in overcrowded, poor-quality accommodation. Self-isolation in such circumstances will be intolerable and the need for social care support will be critical. The same is true for all children in receipt of free school meals and those who are potentially at risk at home. The social care sector will need to step up to meet the needs of our most vulnerable children.

Finally, in relation to social care, I raise the issue of access to personal protective equipment. Vulnerable people with covid-19 will still need support with personal care, and no one should be made to put their own health at risk in the course of doing their job. I welcome the Minister’s comments on PPE, but will he set out the detailed plans to ensure that all social care workers, whatever setting they are in and whoever their employer is, will have access to PPE? There is serious concern about the impact of the crisis on autistic people and people with learning disabilities, more than 2,000 of whom are still trapped in inappropriate hospital accommodation. As hospitals restrict visitor access, and as the emergency legislation contains provisions to short cut detention under the Mental Health Act 1983, what steps are the Government taking to uphold the human rights of autistic people and people with learning disabilities and to ensure that community services being stretched even further do not result in more people reaching crisis point and being detained in hospital?

The second area of council services I want to raise today is housing and the homelessness service. Homelessness and housing need have risen dramatically during the past decade of Tory austerity. A failure to fund the building of new, genuinely affordable social housing or regulate private renting, combined with cuts to welfare and the disgraceful five-week universal credit wait have driven up homelessness.

I was proud during the last Parliament to be a co-sponsor of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, and a recent report by Crisis concludes that the new legislation has been making a difference, but London Councils has made it clear that the level of funding provided by the Government was far from adequate, estimating that the amount that London Councils alone needed to implement the Homelessness Reduction Act was similar to the total national funding the Government made available.

Now we face two additional challenges: the first is the vulnerability of rough sleepers to coronavirus and the impossibility of self-isolating when someone is on the streets. There has been no Government response on this issue. Will the Minister say what arrangements are being made to contain the spread of covid-19 among rough sleepers? Will funding be made available for emergency accommodation that is suitable for self-isolation in addition to the funding that has already been made available to tackle the endemic problem of homelessness, which existed prior to this pandemic?

Secondly, the economic crisis that threatens to engulf our country has the potential to increase homelessness further. The lack of attention to the predicament of private renters has been disgraceful, but without that thousands of people will find their homes at risk. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that no one will lose their home as a consequence of coronavirus?

Our councils are now being asked to administer large amounts of the financial support that the Government are providing in response to this crisis, yet they have not been provided with any guidance, and they are not being supported with additional capacity. Local authorities that have been cut to the bone might find additional financial administration very challenging, so will the Minister set out what support is being provided to councils to ensure that they are able to administer hardship funds and business support without delay and without impacting on other services?

Across many areas of responsibility, local government is at the frontline of this unprecedented public health and economic crisis. It is the job of our councils to ensure that the burdens of the disease do not fall on the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities. It is the job of central Government to ensure that they are properly funded, equipped and supported to do so.