Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:34 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Smith of Leigh Lord Smith of Leigh Labour 8:34 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, I need to begin by declaring my interests in local government: I am the leader of Wigan Council, a vice-president of the LGA, a vice-chair of SIGOMA, chairman of the Greater Manchester health partnership board and a member of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

The Queen’s Speech was a huge disappointment for local government. We understand the need to be exercised with Brexit in this Parliament, but the fact is that there is not a lot of substance for local government over the next two years in this gracious Speech. The first issue I want to raise, following my noble friend Lord Watts, is the finances of local government. Perhaps I may ask the Minister a simple question: has austerity ended yet? It clearly has in Northern Ireland—if you are there, you have £1 billion in your back pocket and can spend quite a lot—but what about those deprived communities in the north of England that my noble friend talked about? They already have much less per head in public spending and that will get even worse, so has austerity ended?

Secondly, following the terrible events over the last few weeks, what are the Government going to do about public services? We have heard police chief after police chief argue that they need more funding. In Greater Manchester, they have had to cope with the situation after the Manchester Arena bomb with 2,000 fewer police than we had in 2011. There clearly needs to be an increase; even this Government cannot resist that. There have been hints by the Secretary of State that in health, the public pay freeze may go beyond the 1%, which is unsustainable while inflation is beginning to rise. Again, the question for the Government is: if public pay begins to rise beyond the 1% that is in the forecast, who will pay the bill? Will it be local authorities or local taxpayers, who would really be a substitute for more cuts as it would be the only way they could pay those bills?

I am particularly concerned about the lack of clarity in the Government’s promise to allow local authorities to keep more of their business rate revenue. We thought that this was to happen over the course of the Parliament which started in 2015. There is nothing in this gracious Speech to indicate when or whether it will happen. I also want to know what the Government’s attitude is towards the pilots. A number of authorities, including Greater Manchester, have been piloting the issues around business rates collection and all we have been told by officials is that it will probably go on until the end of this year—although when we signed up to the deal, it was to continue over the next 12 months and to the end of 2019-20.

I turn to devolution because it is about not just the nations of this country but the regions of England as well. Since the departure of the former Chancellor to edit the Evening Standard, the commitment of the Government to devolution has been less than solid. We have not really understood where they are coming from. If we remember the northern powerhouse, there are arguments in favour of driving it up—the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, made clear what we still need to do—but does that still mean anything to anybody there? Coming on to Brexit, we need to make sure that the powers that are devolved back to this country from Brussels do not stop in the sticky fingers of Whitehall but can go down into the regions and local authorities. We need a voice to make sure that point is heard.

Given my health hat, I need to mention social care. It is promised that we will have a consultation on that but it is clearly a matter of urgency. The Government have tried to fix it on a number of occasions and the last Budget put a bit more cash in the system. But there is really a long-term problem with the ageing population and the impact it has on not just local authorities but the health service as well, creating bed-blocking and other issues in the NHS. The King’s Fund is predicting a further gap of more than £2 billion by 2019-20, so we need a solution early and it needs to be consensual if it is to work properly.

Finally, I turn to the awful events of the tragedy around Grenfell Tower. In the past, national and local government have really not taken fire safety seriously in all our buildings. Whatever the outcome of the inquiry—I hope it is a quick inquiry—we need to take that on board. For example, we cannot still have schools deciding on the whim of a head teacher whether or not to impose sprinklers. It has to be done and we have to say, “If we want to keep our buildings and schools safe, it should be done properly”.