Covid-19 (Public Services Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:38 pm on 22nd July 2021.

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Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 3:38 pm, 22nd July 2021

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, pointed out, your Lordships’ committee wrote this paper some nine months ago—sufficient time for events to prove the committee right or wrong. Events have proved it overwhelmingly right and the Government’s response totally inadequate.

For example, the paper speaks of overcentralised delivery of public services. Thanks to a report earlier this week by the National Audit Office, we are able to compare the centralised procurement in England, using companies without experience of PPE—but, incidentally, with connections to the Conservative Party—and companies new to test and trace, with the Welsh procurement, where local authorities carrying out this work used trusted and experienced suppliers. Not surprisingly, the result was that the cost per head of the test and trace and PPE in Wales was half the cost in England, with no decline in quality and service. As a result, Welsh businesses were supported more generously. In Wales there were winners all round. Surely one of the first lessons learned must be the need for careful analysis of whether services are best delivered from the centre or locally.

The committee calls for a more flexible approach to sharing data. Surely, there is no better example of this than the speed at which an effective vaccine was produced and distributed. Years of research, financed and carried out in the public sector, produced the revolutionary RNA system of vaccines, which enabled the private sector to produce and distribute a Covid vaccine within months, instead of the years previously needed. It was this that enabled the Government quickly to vaccinate a large part of the population. Surely, the lesson learned here is to encourage this co-operation as a matter of course, not as an exception when there is a crisis.

The report also calls for radical improvement in the way government communicates and co-operates with local service providers. This means that the Government must provide clarity to local authorities and businesses. We are currently suffering exactly from this, because the 10-day stay-at-home alerts are advisory rather than legal obligations. Also, there is now inconsistency over wearing masks and social distancing, caused by abrogating responsibility to local authorities, businesses and each one of us individually. Only yesterday, the British Chambers of Commerce said that companies were struggling to make sense of which staff were defined as critical workers and so were eligible to continue working when pinged by the NHS app or by test and trace.

By asking us to make sensible decisions without clear guidance and without providing the tools to make these decisions, the Government are guilty not only of creating uncertainty by mixed messaging but of further endangering public health. Indeed, this lack of clarity has become a defining feature of this Government. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, of which I am a member, almost weekly takes the Government to task over lack of clarity in one or more of their instruments. These examples show that the committee is absolutely right to call on the Government to make public services more resilient and more able to withstand any future crises. As my noble friend Baroness Armstrong explained in her excellent opening speech, this lack of resilience has taken a huge toll on human life and caused enormous physical and psychological damage—as well as damage to the economy. The committee is right: we must learn the lessons, so that we are better prepared if it happens again.