I declare my interest as a Cumbria county councillor.
This report from our Public Services Committee, chaired by my noble friend Lady Armstrong, is one of the best things that I have ever read on the reform of public services. It sets out an ambitious agenda, drawing on the lessons of the Covid crisis and international experience. It shows what a cross-party consideration of these issues can achieve and how a remarkable degree of consensus on principles for reform can be established.
However, I am afraid my question is whether our politics is up to the challenge. We saw a very weak response from the Government to this report, both in their refusal to engage in the work of the committee and in their very weak response. The response popularised by the Government is the so-called levelling-up agenda, but we saw in the recent Prime Minister’s speech how empty that is. When you come out with a proposal for a £10 million plan for dealing with chewing gum on the streets, that shows that you do not really have sensible principles for reform in your head. It seems to be a splash of central government paint to cover up fundamental cracks in our society.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in his condemnation of overcentralisation. Not only is that a very inefficient way of trying to tackle deprivation and complex problems of poverty at local level but it is, frankly, quasi-corrupt; it is getting near to pork-barrel politics, and that is not where we should be going.
We need fundamental reform in governance and funding. At present, the Government are levelling down, not levelling up: the proposal to withdraw the universal credit supplement will plunge many poor families further into poverty; the rejection of Sir Kevan Collins’s plan for educational catch-up was a very bad sign; and, despite all the talk, there is still no long-term funding solution for the NHS and social care.
Yet the present moment is an ideal time for a Government to make difficult tax and spending choices. Everyone is aware of the cracks exposed in public services, but at the moment we are seeing the Government allowing a manifesto commitment that they made on taxes to trump the lessons of Covid—and of course that commitment came well before the Covid crisis. The point about manifesto commitments applies equally to my own party: some in my party want to elevate the 2019 manifesto to semi-sacred status, but really we should be looking at the lessons of the Covid crisis and developing policies for public services along the lines of the committee’s report.
It is not enough to simply say, “Let’s spend more money”; we also have to have a credible agenda for reform. On reform of the NHS, we have to recognise that, despite its achievements, the NHS has failed so far to provide an equal opportunity for people to live a healthy and full life, and the emphasis has got to shift to prevention. In education, we have got to recognise that there are many problems of deprivation leading to poor educational opportunities and schools where standards need to be raised.
We know that people in public services work very hard, but they often work in silos. We have to be prepared to use the charity and the voluntary sectors and even, at times, the private sector, which we must see not as an enemy but as a potential partner. We have got to avoid hidebound, bureaucratic approaches that lead to inadequate data sharing, as we have heard.
We need an ambitious agenda of public service reform. I hope that a Labour Government would be prepared to follow the principles of this committee report, which are so sensible and so wise. I thoroughly commend the committee on its work.