Covid-19 (Public Services Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:08 pm on 22nd July 2021.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Chair, Youth Unemployment Committee, Chair, Youth Unemployment Committee 2:08 pm, 22nd July 2021

My Lords, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. First, I congratulate the committee on its report and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for her introduction. She is absolutely right in calling for us to learn the lessons of how public services have been delivered—or, indeed, not delivered—during the pandemic. She also talked about the importance of resilience and of engagement with people and communities. I subscribe to everything that she said.

As the title of the report says, this is a critical juncture for public services. The committee was right to use those words. It is urgent that we learn the lessons of the Covid pandemic. It brings into stark relief the delay in this report reaching the Floor of the House for debate. It was published in November 2020. The Government replied three months later, but it has taken a further five months for this House to hold a debate. Can the Minister explain why there has been such a delay?

I want to make one crucial point this afternoon, and it is this: you cannot run England out of London. The Government’s replies to paragraphs 117, 139, 140 and 141 of the report, on the need for decentralisation and local integration of services, are, frankly, inadequate. I submit that it is not enough to promise a White Paper “in due course” based on directly elected combined authority mayors and regional partnerships such as the Midlands Engine and the Northern Powerhouse. This leaves out counties, public health structures and local government generally. It does not address the need for a single, unified health and social care service and for greater investment in prevention, which could in turn save public money, as the report makes clear.

Crucially, and as the report also makes clear, we cannot continue with a system of overcentralised delivery of public services, poor communication from the centre and a tendency for service providers to work in silos. This, my Lords, is a hub and spoke model, so beloved of bureaucracies, which promotes silo working rather than service integration. As the committee has pointed out, local authorities often receive divergent messages from different government departments. As worrying was the need for local areas to interpret public announcements by the Government without prior consultation.

I said earlier that you cannot run England out of London. We do not try to run Scotland like that, nor Wales, nor Northern Ireland, so why, for example, do we run Yorkshire like that? The argument the Government have used has been that decisions have had to be made quickly. Of course they have, but that is no excuse for national attempts at recruiting volunteers not being aligned with locally co-ordinated responses, nor for national public health executive agencies not using local public health resources effectively, nor for the expertise of local authority contact-tracing teams being unused in the design of test and trace. These are fundamental matters. It is vital that local areas are seen as partners with far greater decision-making powers.

Very wisely, the committee, on page 14, described the German public health system, which has local and regional governance structures with 375 local health offices empowered to make decisions. We could learn much from them, and I hope we will.

I want to raise a final issue, which relates to schools and which the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, mentioned. The Prime Minister appointed an adviser, Sir Kevan Collins, as education recovery commissioner. He produced a report, supported, it seems, by the Prime Minister, calling for substantial funding over three years to assist pupils who had lost school time, but the Treasury refused to fund it. Just £1.4 billion was allocated for one year—about a 10th of the money asked for, albeit over three years. The commissioner resigned. This is not joined-up government.

Covid has exposed serious flaws in our systems of government. I hope this is understood by the Minister and his colleagues, because they have the power to drive the change we need.