My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests recorded in the register as a member of Kirklees council and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. As a member of the Select Committee, I too wish to praise the leadership of the committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong.
My abiding memory from the witnesses who gave oral evidence to the committee was of the dedication of all those involved in providing public services. Service providers rose to the multiple challenges posed by the pandemic and overwhelmingly put first the needs of the people they served. As we know, some of them literally gave their all. I pay tribute to all those in public service for their heroic actions during this continuing pandemic.
As we have already heard, this is a wide-ranging report and I wish to focus my comments on the response of services provided by local government. What struck me most in listening to the witnesses was that staff were energised by the challenge of continuing to provide services in a different way. They were almost always motivated to continue providing the best services they could and determined to find ways round the barriers rather than be intimidated by them. The result, we heard, was that innovative practices were introduced. Some were the result of government initiatives and funding. As we have already heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, 15,000 rough sleepers were rehoused in hotel accommodation very quickly thanks to a government grant and local government action. This was a significant success and one that had other benefits for homeless people.
Innovations were also sparked by practitioners from different services and organisations, such as NHS community services and local government social care working more closely together and with local and national charities and voluntary groups. They described how they felt empowered by the challenges of the pandemic to pay less heed to existing service guidance and just find a better way of doing their job.
One of the examples in the report is of social care and the NHS in the Leicestershire area establishing what they call their “care home cell” to ensure co-ordination. That is an example of dependence on already very good working relationships across the organisations. The importance of effective personal relationships was repeated by other witnesses.
It was also vital in another strong theme that emerged: the importance of local, place-based services. Time and again we heard evidence about topdown control being less effective than local solutions. For instance, as someone in the Local Government Association described it:
“Guidance came out in dribs and drabs. One of my [local authority] colleagues said it was like trying to construct a piece of Ikea furniture with a piece missing and the instructions being posted daily in bits and pieces.”
Another example of topdown instruction not being as effective came from my own local authority. Early in the pandemic there was a significant outbreak in a meat processing factory in Kirklees. The central data provided was so poor that the council’s public health director asked the council’s digital service to provide the data in a more meaningful and accurate way. This was successfully achieved.
However, it was clear from the witnesses that local services of all kinds were in a fragile state following years of austerity. Age UK wrote that the pandemic had revealed the
“true extent of the impact that underfunding, structural issues and market instability have had on the system’s ability to respond”.
Local government was described as much less resilient as a result of very significant funding cuts.
One of the lessons was best described by users. They said that where providers have listened to them and then changed their practice as result, their needs were much more effectively met and there was a reduction in duplication. This co-production—codesign— was much the best way forward for users who gave evidence.
This is a valuable report; I have touched on just a small part of its deliberations and conclusions but to me the lessons are clear. First, we should reduce central control and have much more local, place-based definition of service provision. Secondly, we should enable coproductions to flourish. Thirdly, we should recognise the enormous contribution of people and personal relationships in innovating and overcoming adversity, and value those people. Finally, underfunding services on which our society relies cannot continue if care for the more vulnerable among us is important to society as a whole. The challenge for the Government is how these vital lessons are to be at the forefront of their thinking and funding decisions. I hope the Minister will explain how the Government intend to respond to these very significant challenges.