It is a real pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock and to speak this afternoon as a member of the Public Services Committee on the first report of the committee. This was a very revealing inquiry prompted by the unfortunate and unexpected arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I pay tribute to the chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, and the committee staff who worked under extreme pressure, frequently producing documents and suchlike at very short notice. I also pay tribute to my fellow committee members whose depth of knowledge and diversity of life experience made this inquiry so interesting and worth while. This was the first inquiry that I had been party to since joining your Lordships’ House, and I found it quite thought-provoking.
I say that it was a revealing inquiry because it highlighted areas of government that hitherto had been accepted as perhaps good working practice or, at the very least, accepted as the norm, with no real incentive for change. The Covid pandemic certainly put many of these previously accepted practices to the test, and they were found wanting when the chips were down. The report identifies many of these, a recurring theme being that of data sharing and, as it says clearly and is very well evidenced, Covid-19 has highlighted the inadequate data sharing between national agencies and local services.
As can be seen, we identified a number of conclusions and recommendations. If I were to choose an area from the inquiry that really caught my attention, it would undoubtedly be the overcentralised delivery of public services. We heard compelling evidence from a large number of witnesses identifying a clear lack of involvement at local level. In many cases they had been left in the dark as to the support that they were entitled to but denied due to confusion and a deficiency of clarity caused by a very centralised approach.
This was made abundantly clear by a number of witnesses. I too want to mention Agatha Anywio from Wandsworth, who told us of her experience in the early days of lockdown. She said that
“I had a letter from the Government telling me that I should officially shield, but nothing happened … It was about four weeks into lockdown before I was actually recognised, only because I persisted … If I had kept quiet and done nothing about it, I have a feeling that I might have been completely forgotten.”
Debra Baxter from Wigan, who is 55 years old and has cerebral palsy, told the committee that she was now a full-time wheelchair user. She said:
“My personal experience was that if it was not for the support of my daughter, who is here beside me, during lockdown I would not have been able to cope … I also felt that this pandemic, shall we say, took us all by surprise, and there were no actual structures with the social care setting to deal with emergencies like this. If it were not for my daughter and the friendly neighbours who live around me, I would struggle a great deal during lockdown.”
The impression left by front-line public service providers who gave evidence was that there was no co-ordinated communication strategy across government departments. Dr Jeanelle de Gruchy, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, told us that her colleagues from central government
“often failed to draw on local resources because they were unaware of the role played by local authority public health teams”.
“There was a really poor understanding and recognition of the role of the director of public health, the local public health system and indeed local government as a key partner in managing this pandemic”.
The Government’s response has been to recognise the importance of public services working together, saying:
“We are evaluating how Government can be more joined up for local government. The recent Spending Review outlines Government’s ‘Focus on Outcomes’ … and as part of this HM Treasury has been driving a X-Whitehall approach on outcomes, and evidencing impact and public value.”
It cannot come soon enough.
In contrast, there was a very constructive aspect of the response of government to the pandemic. I refer to the way in which the homeless were taken off the streets and found accommodation.
“The Government’s March 2020 ‘Everyone in’ initiative requested that all local authorities provide accommodation for rough sleepers in their area, often in hotels or hostels … by May 2020 a total of 14,610 people in England who were sleeping rough, or who were at risk of sleeping rough, had found emergency accommodation.”
I am bound to say that that was quite some achievement.
We heard from Revolving Doors, a truly remarkable organisation which aims to help people with substance misuse, mental health problems, domestic or sexual violence, homelessness or who have had frequent contact with police and the criminal justice system. Shay Flaherty, who I have already mentioned, a volunteer with Revolving Doors who gave evidence to the committee, is nine years into recovery from alcohol addiction and helps support homeless people in Birmingham. He was keen to tell the committee that the help the homeless were getting
“in the premises they happen to be in, whether hotels or hostels, has given them a start in life and a chance to get access to addiction services and support workers.”
“I have been amazed at how the Government and councils have managed to get the entrenched homeless off the streets … This might be the first step to getting a roof over their heads permanently.”
The important point here is that, when push comes to shove, government can be innovative. As we point out in the report,
“the Government and public services must now act to ensure that the progress made is not lost.”
Shay Flaherty told us that some innovations were being abandoned:
“Slowly but surely, the guys are coming back out on to the streets … because the accommodation is being withdrawn.”
That is disappointing, to say the least. There is no doubt that the Government’s approach to rough sleeping during the pandemic has proved what can be done by working with local authorities.
I ask—I hope—that this report will galvanise the efforts of government departments to learn from the experience of Covid-19 and acknowledge the deficiencies of a centralised government approach, in order that those less fortunate members of society may benefit. This report is worthy of recognition and of being acted upon at all levels of government. I am delighted to have been involved in the inquiry.