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Local Government Responsibilities: Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:32 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner 4:32 pm, 18th March 2020

I am sad to report to the House that, having spent 22 years as a member of a local authority and having been elected as a Member of Parliament, I have gone down in the index of public trust. When it comes to politicians and Members of Parliament, we are fortunate that we still sit above lawyers and estate agents, but local government is very much trusted by the people of this country. That is why what the Minister and the Government have done, not only in their approach to the coronavirus outbreak but to the bigger strategic challenge of how we properly resource our local services for the coming years, is very important.

One of the long-standing frustrations of my time in local government is that Parliament—it has the opportunity to be incredibly strategic on behalf of our country and to think about what it wants to achieve for the nation in many of these big-picture issues, such as housing, healthcare, social care and education—has sometimes been drawn into detailed debates about very specific issues, when we would achieve so much more by allowing our locally elected colleagues to demonstrate the leadership that they are demonstrating in response to this crisis. They need to have those resources to accept from this House the challenge to deliver against those ambitions and then to be left to get on with it.

Local resilience forums, which the Minister referred to on a number of occasions in his speech, are to me a very good example of exactly that kind of leadership. My experience as a councillor is in the London Borough of Hillingdon, although my constituency straddles two London local authorities. Going back to 2001, with 9/11 we suddenly had to deal with thousands of stranded travellers who had no means of getting back to their homes. They needed to be found somewhere to stay, to be fed and, in many cases, to be provided with medical care, communications and support. We saw local organisations––not just the local authority, but schools and the military––rallying around, co-ordinated by the local authority, to provide that crucial support.

In the decade since, we have had to deal with significant outbreaks of very serious illnesses, including severe acute respiratory syndrome, middle east respiratory syndrome, H5N1 and swine flu, from which a young girl in my local area sadly passed away. The local authority then had to step in to manage those communications, in order to reassure that community and make sure that the support was in place so that a school or community that was grieving could deal with the situation. It is impossible to do that directly from this House, which is why the Government have rightly taken the view that they will look at the strategic question of providing an appropriate level of resources and then enable those people in their local communities to route that money directly to where it makes the most difference.

My hon. Friend Ben Everitt referred to the provision of a bus to make emergency accommodation available for homeless people. Many of us have local authorities that have contracts with local voluntary organisations, for example, the YMCA, as in the case of my local authority, to provide that kind of emergency accommodation. In other parts of the country, such accommodation may be provided directly by the local authority itself. It is crucial, therefore, that the theme that runs throughout all this is the ability of local authorities and local resilience forums to deploy the money that is rightly coming from this Government in the most flexible way possible to meet those local challenges.

Lessons could be learned on that, and I am cognisant of what Opposition Members have said about the challenges associated with special educational needs and disabilities, and the educational provision for people in that situation. It is clear that the more local flexibility there is, the easier it is for those communities to rise to the challenge of meeting the needs of those individuals. The more we seek to control that from the centre, the less satisfied many of our residents and voters will be with the outcomes they are seeing. Given the amazing range of provision that we see—I am cognisant of the remarks about what was happening on youth services—we have fantastic voluntary organisations, which are providing brilliant opportunities to young people. A decade or two ago, their lives would perhaps have been lived in a youth club, but they are now being lived online, on a smartphone, where they talk to their friends in the privacy of their bedrooms. So something different is required in the modern world, and that is another example of where the leadership of local authorities, which know their communities, can deploy those resources, albeit more limited than they might have been historically, in the most effective way.

I wish to make a couple of specific observations about particular strengths of the Government’s response. The first relates to the announcements that have been made to support nurseries and early years providers. I should declare an interest: as a parent of two young children, I am a user of my local council-run nursery. There are many people, some employed in our public services and others who are going about their daily business who are dependent on the existence of those services to ensure that they can live their lives. Such services provide an opportunity for their children and the children who may not come from prosperous backgrounds to gain the best possible start in life. So I am pleased with the commitment that the Government have given to ensure that, even if children are having to step back from those places because of the immediate prevailing situation, funding will still find its way, and so when this moment of emergency passes families can find that those services and the opportunities for the youngest children are still there. That is an extremely wise move, and the more we can send that message to proprietors and managers of nurseries and parents whose children use them, the better.

The second thing I wish to refer to is the distribution of personal protective equipment. Because of my personal connections with the national health service and from what I hear as a local councillor, I know that there is, understandably, a high degree of anxiety among many of those staff who, unlike us in this Chamber, will be sent out to people who are known to be suffering from the coronavirus in order to provide direct, hands-on personal care. They are worried about whether they will be able to access the quality and standard of equipment that will be necessary to keep them safe. The announcement by the Minister that the distribution from national stocks of those products to those frontline workers is going to be absolutely crucial once again in providing that degree of reassurance.

That is not reassurance to those in the markets who are wondering which moves to make when they are trading their shares, and it is not reassurance to the international community; it is reassurance to people who are absolutely at the frontline of responding in a very direct and very human way to this crisis. Again, the more we can get out the message the better that, as well as a sum that is so mind-bogglingly large—over £300 billion—that it is hard to grasp, this House is thinking about the basics of face masks and gloves and aprons that people need to make sure that they are safe when they are doing an essential job, to bring this country together and to keep our people safe.