My Lords, I was delighted to be appointed to the new Committee on Public Services. I knew that under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Armstrong it would be a lively experience, and I join others in paying tribute to her and the clerks who supported us so well.
Of course, when we began, we had no idea that we should be producing our first report during a pandemic, nor that that report would focus on how those public services we were investigating would react to that pandemic. I must record what a privilege it was to work with a group of such experienced, wise and committed Members, and to reach a degree of consensus which was, and is, part of the pleasure of our work together.
A Critical Juncture is the title we chose for our report, which we are debating today, recognising that Covid represented an unprecedented challenge to our public services to which they responded with innovation and commitment. The outcomes are critical in terms of lessons learned, what can be retained from such excellent outcomes, and how resilience against any further challenges can be built up.
We have had some wonderful and heart-warming examples of how services responded to the pandemic: huge upscaling of provision, rapid decision-making and the breaking down of long-standing barriers by the urgent needs of the moment, but of course the virus further disadvantaged those already left behind. Black and minority-ethnic groups and those on the margins suffered disproportionately, and the years of underfunding of preventative and early intervention services came home to roost. Poor children’s education attainment got worse and the ability of local services to understand the needs of their communities was sometimes ignored in favour of some overcentralised and needlessly bureaucratic national service provision.
Lessons must be learned if we are to reap the benefits we have gained and not slip back to old ways as soon as the pandemic is over. Nowhere is this more important than in the issue of co-production, already mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, where the users of services are involved in their design and planning and treated as equal partners. Our witnesses emphasised that this approach could have helped to predict and short-circuit some of the problems that came up. On the rough sleepers initiative, already mentioned by some of my colleagues, that separate sleeping accommodation was required by male and female rough sleepers would not have been a sudden surprise to providers if they had talked to rough sleepers before they set up a service which did not provide it, wasting time, money and good will. We must remember that most users when consulted—and I mean really consulted, not presented with a plan once it has been agreed—do not ask for the moon, as many providers think they do; on the contrary, their asks will usually be modest and far less than expected. If more services adopted this approach, it would be possible to maintain some if not all the innovation we saw over Covid. We must never undervalue the lived experience of users and customers—that is a very important lesson.
This lesson must be learned by public services, and they must similarly hear that the way really to engage with their consumers is most likely to be not through statutory service providers but through the voluntary and community sector. If you are single mother with addiction problems, you do not want to talk to your social worker for fear that you will lose your children, but through a local support group where you meet other mums in the same situation, share your fears and get advice and, above all, support; you will learn to deal with your difficulties, gain in confidence and become a reliable mother to your children. Time and again, we had examples of these experiences, but time and again too, we heard charities and community groups say that were treated like poor relations, did not have a seat at the table and were patronised and talked down to. Many of those barriers were broken down due to the simple urgency of the situation. The speed of acting may be much easier for a charity or community group, and many were able to mobilise services quickly without going through the various procedures and permissions which are inevitable in the statutory sector. We must commend the courage and willingness to take risks which was shown not only by staff and volunteers in charities but by their trustee boards. Often thought to be resistant to risk taking, they stepped up magnificently to support innovation and speed of delivery. The better relationships and increased respect which were gained in the pandemic must not be allowed to slip away. Not only will it provide more satisfactory services, meeting the needs of users rather than the notions of providers, but it will often save money too.
I hope the Minister will be able to confirm the value the Government place on the voluntary sector and their willingness to support it, not only in terms of funding but in ensuring that both the sector and the users on whose behalf it advocates are treated as equal partners in the provision of services, and in ensuring that the voice of users is strong and influential whenever public services are planned.