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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:34 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bichard Lord Bichard Crossbench 5:34 pm, 21st October 2019

My Lords, I was delighted to see that the gracious Speech included a commitment to publish a White Paper,

“to enable decisions that affect local people to be made at a local level”,

and to unleash regional potential. The word on the street is that we can expect to see that White Paper before Christmas. If we do, it will not be before time, because our current system of governance is close to being dysfunctional. For me, the big question is whether the Government have in mind further tinkering with this dysfunctional system, or whether they have the courage and the capacity to be bold and deliver proposals which genuinely address the flaws in the current arrangements—if not all at once, then over a period of time, and in all, not just some parts, of the country.

Our system is more centralised than that of any other developed country. To change that, the Government will need to reduce the power of Westminster and Whitehall by devolving significant power to localities to prioritise their spending. Are they prepared to do so, or are they only committed to the decentralisation of power to implement decisions which have already been taken at the centre? Maybe civil servants and Ministers still believe that they know better than the people of Gloucestershire, Northumberland, Cornwall or East Anglia. If they do, they should reflect on the fact that many people voted for Brexit because they felt that they had lost the power to shape their own lives. Simply repatriating powers to a sadly discredited centre of government will not be enough to meet their expectations. Instead, as the nine metro mayors urged recently, we should move quickly to a place-based approach to strategy and budgeting, starting with next year’s comprehensive spending review.

We have a system which not only is excessively centralised but has become increasingly fragmented—some might say confused. The landscape of local services encompasses county councils, district councils, mayors, combined authorities, local economic partnerships, police and crime commissioners, separate fire and rescue services, health trusts, clinical commissioning groups, children’s trusts and private sector providers. I could go on. Not surprisingly, citizens are confused and this mass of independent agencies often fail to co-operate and deliver services which make any sense to their clients. If noble Lords doubt this, they should ask any vulnerable, frail old person, fighting to make sense of the different forms, procedures and regulations required by one or other of the bureaucracies whether this all makes sense, because it does not. If merging some of the bodies is a step too far in the short term, we need to look at ways to better incentivise joint working, again perhaps using a place-based budgeting approach.

Inevitably, this level of fragmentation, which we have encouraged, has also led to reduced accountability. Exactly who is responsible for the success or failure of a particular project or service? Even at the National Audit Office, which I chair, we struggle on occasion to answer that question. Sometimes we even think that was the intention. Confused accountability leads to waste and a failure to accept responsibility and learn from mistakes. Any new arrangements need to clarify accountability rather than further obfuscate. There need to be new ways of ensuring that the non-statutory sector, the voluntary groups and the charity and not-for-profit groups, are genuine partners in meeting the needs of local communities. Many of them feel that they are not at the moment, and many feel unable to liberate the talents of their workers and volunteers. If we can do just some of those things, Whitehall civil servants—currently so stretched—will be able to devote their efforts not to the location of street signs but to issues which only national government can resolve, such as immigration, climate, the environment, trade and the productivity catastrophe, where our recent record has been lamentable.

It is 10 years since the then Chief Secretary, on my advice, launched a scheme called Total Place to improve the quality of services and value for money through better joint working between service providers, statutory and non-statutory. It was hugely popular, with more than 100 areas quickly committing to it. Sadly, the coalition failed to grasp its significance—shame on the devolutionists in the Chamber—but could we be on the threshold of a similar place-based approach to local government? Could we be about to revive Total Place—obviously, completely rebranded? I can only dream.