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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:13 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 4:13 pm, 21st October 2019

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my interests as a councillor and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I join the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in expressing my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for a positive and always very constructive working relationship.

The focus of my remarks today will be confined to some aspects of local government. Nearly 20% of total national spending on public services is through local government. Sadly, though not surprisingly, the two words not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech were “local” and “government”. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the current Government have no interest in, nor concern for, local government. The sins of omission are as great as those of commission. Despite the fundamental place that local government has in the lives of everyone in our nation, this Government have nothing substantial to say on what they intend to do to enhance that offer.

The Government have accepted for at least the past four years that a crisis exists in the funding of care for vulnerable adults. The Prime Minister has told us that he will solve that crisis. I looked in vain for concrete proposals. Once again, the Government are ducking their responsibilities. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services has put it bluntly, saying that social care in England is adrift in a “sea of inertia” caused by years of budget cuts and concluding:

“The system is not only failing financially, it is failing people”.

The Government’s only financial response is to pass on to hard-pressed council tax payers the burden of funding social care, with some additional national core funding, which will still mean a significant shortfall in what is required. Can the Minister provide a timetable for the publication of a White Paper with proposals for tackling this crisis?

At least the Government have recognised that there is a crisis in the funding of adult social care. The costs of care for vulnerable children is, if anything, a bigger funding crisis. The total number of looked-after children reached a new high of 75,420 last year, representing the biggest annual rise in the number of children in care in eight years. An average of 88 children now come into care every day and, overall, councils face a £3.1 billion funding gap for children’s services by 2025. Again, sadly, the government response in terms of funding is minimal in comparison to the need—just a share of the social care and children’s budget of £410 million, when the need is £600 million for children alone. Can the Minister provide assurance that policies are being developed by the Government to address what appears a startling abdication of responsibility for the most vulnerable children in England?

At the heart of these two immense failures is the bare fact that the Government are failing to develop policies for the fundamental reform of local government finance. They have previously committed to a multiyear provision of funding. That has failed, and local government finds that it is unable to plan for more than one year at a time because of it. That is simply not an efficient use of public funds. A major portion of the quantum of funds available comes from business rates. That tax is rightly criticised for no longer reflecting modern business practice. My party, the Liberal Democrats, has at least proposed a solution: replace business rates with a commercial landowner levy and increase funding for health and social care with a 1p rise in income tax. What are the Government’s plans?

Of course, a major element of the problem for local government is that key decisions are still taken in London. Where are the plans for a genuine devolution of responsibilities and funding? Perhaps the Minister can provide some clues.

The one glimmer of hope in the Government’s plans addresses the viability of some struggling towns. Of course, additional funding is to be welcomed, but deep-seated problems will not be resolved by one-off funding, as previous iterations have demonstrated. Councils provide essential, life-enhancing services. It is a shocking indictment of this Government that these needs are not being addressed.