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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:29 pm on 22nd July 2021.

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Photo of Lord Bichard Lord Bichard Crossbench 2:29 pm, 22nd July 2021

My Lords, as a member of the committee I welcome this debate, partly because it gives me an opportunity to warmly thank both the noble Baroness for the way in which she has chaired the committee and the staff for the quite exceptional way in which they have supported us.

Some of us have spent many happy hours down the years talking to empty rooms about the need to reform government, not because we long for some bureaucratic nirvana but because we were convinced that without reform some of the most disadvantaged people in our society would continue to experience poor, difficult-to-access services, and we as a nation would continue to waste scarce public money. So I was pleased that for its first report the committee chose to look at what the pandemic could teach us about our public services, and I was not surprised that it concluded that there was now an overwhelming case for reform, notwithstanding the outstanding commitment of so many of our public servants. That view seems now to be shared by the Government themselves because in their own Declaration on Government Reform, published just a few weeks ago, they accepted that the pandemic

“has … exposed shortcomings in how government works.”

I hope the Government will now revisit the committee’s recommendations, particularly the eight principles of reform that the chair referred to earlier.

For today, I shall focus on four of those principles which, surprisingly, the declaration of reform barely mentions. The first, as has been said, is the need to prioritise prevention and early intervention. Our system of government is designed to respond to problems rather than prevent them, and the pandemic has demonstrated how short-sighted that can be. Covid hit hardest those with preventable disease, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, living in poorer communities. It is not just in the field of health that we need to prioritise prevention. Our prisons are full of people who have been failed by the education system, whose mental health problems have never been addressed and whose addictions have been left untreated. We are now seeing the cost of responding too slowly to the impact of climate change, measured in terms of the human misery caused by flooding and pollution. Any credible vision for the future and the reform of government has to prioritise a shift from response to prevention.

It also needs to tackle the issue of sharing data. The declaration of reform mentions data only as a way of enhancing the accountability of services. While that is important, the committee found countless—and I mean countless—examples of how the failure to share data between services has stood in the way of improving those services and providing essential services. We were told that schools are often not aware that a pupil is receiving support from social services, GPs are not told that a family is involved in a child protection process and criminal gangs are able to exploit teenagers in county lines because of the failure to share information between the police, children’s social care and health. We found some excellent examples of how, during the pandemic, services had found new ways of sharing data—usually at the local level—to benefit clients, but in a governance system that is now so fragmented we have to find better permanent ways to share information across bureaucratic boundaries if we are ever to reform government.

As the chair has said, the committee also saw many great examples of how charities, community groups, volunteers and the private sector had delivered essential services, often supported by their local councils. These non-statutory services, not for the first time, showed how they could respond quickly, how they could innovate and make services more accessible and how they were more trusted than traditional providers. To be fair, we saw many examples of how statutory services had helped them by introducing new flexibilities, not least in the way in which services were commissioned. Again, though, our concern was that these changes would not survive the return to normality. We felt strongly that the new normal should be about services for public good being provided by a coalition of providers, some statutory, some voluntary, with those in the voluntary sector being given real parity of esteem as professionals in their own right.

Lastly, the committee became persuaded that, in future, public services should be designed and delivered with a great deal more user involvement. We heard how the failure to do that in the past had resulted in services being provided in the wrong place, at the wrong time and in the wrong way. Civil servants and local officials need to find new ways to involve citizens and users, children included, not via ever more sophisticated consultations but by way of genuine co-design and co-production. That is especially important if the inequality of access experienced by minority groups is to be tackled.

The pandemic exposed serious flaws—we need to be honest about that—but the innovative response from so many points us to how we should change by creating a system where public services are more devolved, co-designed with users, focused on prevention, delivered through diverse providers and better at working in partnership and sharing data. That should be our future.