My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, and all the members of the Select Committee. Although I put my name down for this debate, I seem to be one of the few people speaking today who did not sit on that committee. When I put my name down, I did not think the report would be this good—I had not read it—so I would like to say that it is an absolutely amazing report and I thank the committee for achieving it. It is wonderful to see such excellent cross-party working, which is often true of Select Committees.
It is good that the noble Lords, Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Davies of Gower, mentioned the positives about the Government because, quite honestly, looking through this it is hard to pick out the positives. The way that homelessness was dealt with was one of them, but unfortunately homeless people are now being thrown out and are back living on the streets—I see evidence of that every day. I hesitate, being one of the few speakers today who was not on the Select Committee, to comment on every issue, but there are three areas I want to speak to, because they seem so important.
The deep, ongoing inequalities in our society are well documented and clearly had an impact on our ability to deal with the disease, for individuals and for organisations. From a green point of view, we always argue for less inequality, because if people cannot feed their children, clothe themselves, pay their bills and their rent, it is very hard for them to care about other issues, such as the climate emergency. We are better as a nation if we are more equal. That has always been true, and it is something the Government have not grasped and acted upon. The report says:
“People … who live in unhealthy social, economic and physical environments are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19.”
The greater the inequality, the more people will die from a disease such as Covid-19. The Government have to be aware of that and change their actions on this issue. Their job, as a Government, is to care for us all, to reduce inequality, to lift people out of poverty and to prevent worse poverty in the future. What part of government is actually working on a plan to reduce inequality, now and for the future? Of course, many children are likely to be disadvantaged in the long-term by the first lockdown, possibly—probably—leading to much worse life outcomes for them. As a nation, we lose their potential, their skills. So, what do the Government plan to do to make sure that those children catch up as quickly as possible?
I do not get the feeling that the Government understand just how important the National Health Service is and how they need to resource it better. Better resourcing does not mean selling bits of it off. I do not know whether this is still true, but earlier I read that there was going to be a 3% pay rise for NHS staff, and it was going to come out of national insurance. Obviously, that was a few hours ago and the government policy could have changed in that short time, as it sometimes does; however, I want to know why that 3% rise might come out of national insurance when it should come out of tax, so that everybody who is on a higher income would pay more and people on a lower income would pay less. That seems much fairer to me than what the Government are planning to do.
It is a common view that the Government completely messed up on the pandemic. We have heard about a few areas where they did not, but they were incredibly lucky that the NHS did the heavy lifting, made them look better and saved many lives. Of course, the NHS is still saving lives. There are still people with Covid-19, the numbers are rising once again, and the Government have instituted a “Freedom Day”, which is essentially the freedom to get a nasty disease and possibly die.
The third area is why the Government did not send anybody to the Select Committee to give oral evidence. That seems to me to be a derogation of duty and it shows a lack of respect for the House of Lords, which clearly does immensely good work, time and again. It also fits with the Government’s refusal to launch an inquiry. They keep saying, “Now is not the time, because it would distract people”, but of course it will not be the same people dealing with the pandemic at the moment who would be looking into what actually happened. The committee has said that it is not trying to look at all the failings but to set out a road map for the future, which is fair enough. As people dealing with the inquiry would be different from those coping with the pandemic, why are the Government still resisting? Are they hoping people’s memories will have faded? Why cannot an inquiry start immediately? Why not tomorrow?
We cannot afford to deny that this has been a disaster. This report is an excellent way forward. I think the Government should learn from it and accept that the road map being offered is an excellent one. I urge the Government to follow it.