Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull) Regulations 2020 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 7th October 2020.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour 3:00 pm, 7th October 2020

My Lords, as a Birmingham resident, I shall focus on the city itself, though mindful of the challenges in Solihull and Sandwell. However, before doing so, I want to focus on a more general matter: the relationship between the Government, local authorities and other public bodies. We have debated this before. I accept that there is a good working relationship between the city councils and the Government, but right from the start the Government generally seem to have excluded local bodies from the key part that they could have played in helping to combat and manage the virus. Public health directors were ignored and NHS and university lab capacity was overlooked.

As the Institute for Government pointed out in its analysis of government decision-making,

“The decisions on lockdown and school closures were taken and introduced swiftly, and with little consultation and planning for how they would work in practice

The institute said:

“We heard from senior government officials that, in some cases, they were taking their instructions directly from the prime minister’s daily press conference—with limited or no opportunity to feed in advice before decisions were made.”

Yet at the Conservative Party conference, the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, bemoaned the most overcentralised bureaucracy in western Europe. But was it not the noble Baroness and her colleagues who set up a hyper-centralised organisation to run track and trace, which is now making the most monumental mess of it?

I was struck by a comment from Newcastle City Council leader, Nick Forbes, who said confusions over the latest restrictions were “deeply unhelpful”, and that they were very difficult to enforce and had left dangerous conspiracy theories to fill the void. A frequent complaint from many leaders is that local authorities were often given little notice of when local regulations were to be made.

Last night, in the very interesting response to the Covid Statement, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, spoke on this. He said:

“The mayor of a city simply does not have a huge laboratory in which to do tens of thousands of tests a day. The mayor of another city simply does not have a control room filled with PhD analysts who can crunch the numbers and run massive supercomputers with complex algorithms to look at millions and millions of items of data within minutes. These are not the functions of local government, nor will they ever be.”—[Official Report, 6/10/20; col. 608.]

I have reflected on this, and I fully accept that the Government have at their disposal some very clever and committed people. But at the end of the day, however many experts you have, it falls to politicians to look at the options and make decisions. Frankly, I do not see why local government leaders cannot be part of that process. When you think of the calibre of leaders such as Ian Ward in Birmingham, Newcastle City Council leader, Nick Forbes, or Judith Blake in Leeds, and many others, you can see that they are quite able to look at the data and share in the decisions that have to be made.

My noble friend Lord Rooker asked two very pertinent questions about local lockdowns. Today at Prime Minister’s Questions, Kier Starmer pointed out that the Prime Minister’s own Hillingdon area has a rate higher than some areas where they face new curbs. Why is that? In 19 out of 20 areas that have been under restrictions for over two months, we have actually seen an increase over that period. Why is that, and what does it say for the current strategy on local lock- downs?

The Minister will be aware that, in Birmingham, 15% of cases since the start of September have been in the five to 18 age range, so school transmission is now a significant driver. Contact tracing data since the start of September shows that 83% of contacts for confirmed cases were within households. Hospitality accounts for only 2% of contacts, yet we are threatened with further restrictions on the hospitality trade. Will the noble Baroness ensure that an evidence-based approach is taken if indeed further restrictions are to be made in that sector? As far as the West Midlands is concerned, it supports 135,000 jobs, contributing £12.6 billion a year to the West Midlands economy.

Finally, will the noble Baroness look at the financing and support given to the city council to see whether it can be increased?