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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:18 pm on 22nd July 2021.

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Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee 4:18 pm, 22nd July 2021

My Lords, this has been an outstanding debate on, frankly, what I thought was a really outstanding report. I thank those who worked on it and all those who have spoken to it, and I commend the spirit in which most have spoken. It has been a wide-ranging debate on a wide-ranging subject and I will respond as much as I can and as best I can in the time available.

However, I should stress, as all noble Lords have, the importance of awareness of cross-cutting services, and the interrelation and collaboration between services at all levels and across all sectors. These matters are vital and I had the privilege of chairing a committee of your Lordships’ House looking at intergenerational matters. I know that many will feel that those kinds of issues run across services and are not always adequately considered inside Parliament—or, indeed, outside it. This report makes a great contribution and I hope that it will not sail off into the mists.

I think we are all agreed that the past year has been unlike anything in living memory, and we have had to come together in an extraordinary national effort to overcome a virus which has threatened our very way of life. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed areas in our economy and, yes, inequalities in our society that mean the most vulnerable people have been hit the hardest. As we recover, we have an opportunity, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said, and as the report of your Lordships’ committee asserts, to build back and build forward better and stronger than before.

I apologise that we were not able to engage with the committee sooner. The Government take their duties to Parliament seriously and thank the committee for its work. I offered to speak to the committee in March, not on this report but on ongoing work, but that was declined. It does not serve much to throw stones at each other. We should all seek to do better in engaging in the ongoing dialogue between Parliament and government, and I shall always seek to do that.

At the forefront of all our efforts are our public services. I have spent a lifetime in public services, and from hospitals to classrooms, and job centres to courtrooms, the work of the United Kingdom’s public servants has been nothing short of heroic, as so many of your Lordships have said today. I would certainly like to add my thanks to all those, from every walk of life, who have been involved in responding to the pandemic and keeping our country going. I appreciate what the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong—who clearly did a magnificent piece of work in bringing this committee report together—said about the swift adaptations made by so many in public service. It is important that this is acknowledged.

The United Kingdom Government have worked strategically and at scale to save jobs and support communities throughout the United Kingdom, working alongside the devolved Administrations to keep every citizen safe and supported, no matter where they live. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said so eloquently, collaboration between charities, the third sector, the private sector and all levels of the public sector is vital.

The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, asked whether the Government simply had the desire to get involved in public service reform. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster chairs the National Economy and Recovery Taskforce (Public Services) Committee precisely in order to drive public sector recovery and reform. Key cross-cutting government priorities are also overseen by Cabinet sub-committees: for example, the Crime and Justice Taskforce. In addition, the Government have strengthened cross-government accountability through appointing Ministers whose portfolios sit across at least two departments. For example, my noble friend Lord Agnew sits across the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. At the Civil Service level, we have put in place multi-departmental boards. Efforts are certainly being made to improve cross-departmental working and avoid the kind of silos to which some noble Lords referred.

The Government have an ambitious policy agenda; government needs to operate as effectively as possible to deliver the recovery we need. In June, the first joint Cabinet meeting of Ministers and Permanent Secretaries agreed the Declaration on Government Reform, committing to immediate action on three fronts: people, performance and partnership. The declaration set out 30 actions that will be taken in the first year to begin the process of modernisation and reform. I am pleased to say that the response to the declaration was positive overall. The Institute for Government called it

“a statement very much to be welcomed”,

Prospect said it was a “welcome first step”, and the FDA union was pleased with the “tone of collaboration”. We are already making progress. We have already committed to early funding on a variety of projects, including over £600 million to fix legacy IT. These changes are also about increasing the skills and capability we have in government. We will do this through developing the skills and experience of existing civil servants as well as bringing in skills from outside.

We welcome the Commission for Smart Government’s contribution to the intellectual effort—the debate about government reform. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was present at the launch of the report and made it clear that the case the commission made overall is powerful. The report aligns with the Declaration on Government Reform in its focus on digital and data transformation—something which your Lordships have underlined today—and capability and accountability as priority areas for reform, and progress will be made here. I undertake that the Government will of course continue to look closely at the commission’s recommendations but also at those of other contributors to the debate on government reform, including the distinguished report of your Lordships’ committee, and we will report back on progress with reform. Yes, we should be collaborative, and government reform should not be seen a zero-sum game.

Many noble Lords spoke in the debate about the challenges we face and the task of rebuilding. In particular, we know—as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and a succession of other noble Lords pointed out—that the impact of the pandemic has been felt most heavily by disadvantaged children and young people, so it is vital that we target support towards those children. In June we announced an additional £1.4 billion to support high-quality tutoring and great teaching. This package was the next step towards recovering from the impacts of Covid. It built on the £1.7 billion already announced, providing more than £3 billion in all to support education recovery in schools, 16-to-19 providers and early years settings, whose importance was rightly stressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie. This will have a material impact in closing gaps that have emerged.

The Government are committed to an ambitious, long-term education recovery plan. The next stage will include a review of time spent in school and 16-to-19 education and the impact that that could have in helping children and young people catch up. The findings of the review will be set out later in the year to inform the spending review. We will also continue to monitor how effectively pupils are catching up. For most pupils, being back in the classroom itself will have a positive impact on learning, and evidence published in June suggests that primary pupils recovered some of the learning they lost once in-person teaching for all resumed.

Ensuring that vulnerable children remain supported and visible during the outbreak has been a critical focus of the Government’s work. That is why, from the outset of the pandemic, including the period of national lockdown announced on 4 January, the Government kept primary and secondary schools, alternative provision, special schools and further education open to vulnerable children and young people. Where vulnerable children and young people cannot attend, we have asked local authorities, children’s social care and educational settings to ensure that they have systems in place to continue support and keep in touch with them and their families.

Throughout all restrictions to date, children’s social care services and early help services have continued to support vulnerable children and young people and their families. We established a vulnerable children and young people survey for local authorities to make sure that we had an accurate picture of contact between children and their social workers, and we will continue to monitor this.

We have invested millions of pounds in charities and other services which work with vulnerable children and their families to support them and spot the signs of abuse and neglect more quickly. Doing that more quickly was underlined by so many of your Lordships who spoke; prevention is vital. This includes the See, Hear, Respond programme, backed by £11 million of government funding, which reached more than 100,000 children and their families.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked who is in charge of cross-party activity. My honourable friend the Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing leads in this area, and the Changing Futures programme is a £64-million, three-year-long, joint-funded initiative between the Government and the lottery fund, funding local organisations and working in partnership to better support those with multiple disadvantages.

Many noble Lords referred to adult social care, which of course has never been under as much pressure as in the last year; the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, spoke eloquently about that issue. Throughout the pandemic we have been working with the social care sector to ensure that all recipients of care receive the support they need. There are lessons to be learned from that experience and we are aware of the long-term challenges facing the social care system. Our objective remains to join up health and care around people and meet the needs of individuals, giving them personalised care to help them to live life to the full. We are working closely with local and national partners to ensure that our approach to reform is informed by diverse perspectives, including those with lived experience of the care sector. I agree with all those who made the point that user knowledge and experience are vital. We are providing councils with access to an additional £1 billion and more to fund social care in 2021-22. The Government are committed to reforming the adult social care system and will bring forward proposals in 2021.

Many, such as the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Pitkeathley, and the noble Lord, Lord Davies, spoke of health inequalities. This issue is at the heart of the NHS plan. All major national programmes in every local area across England are required to set out measurable goals and mechanisms by which they will contribute to narrowing health inequalities. NHS England has committed to inclusive recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. The NHS has set eight actions to reduce inequalities in its restoration of services, including reporting on providing services to the 20% of poorest neighbourhoods and black and Asian parents. We will improve joined-up local working on population health and reducing health inequalities through integrated care systems. We will reinforce the role of local authorities as champions of health in local communities and enhance the NHS’s public health responsibilities to act on prevention. Reducing health inequalities will be a core aim of the new office for health promotion. Under the professional leadership of the Chief Medical Officer, the OHP will systematically tackle the top preventable risk factors, improving the public’s health and narrowing health inequalities.

A question was asked about life expectancy. We are determined to level up health and life expectancy across our country. We are committed to ensuring that people can enjoy at least five extra years of healthy independent life by 2035 and to reducing the gaps between rich and poor.

The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and others asked about timing. The prevention Green Paper, Advancing Our Health: Prevention in the 2020s, outlined commitments with varying timelines regarding the services that we received, the choices that we make and the conditions in which we live. I acknowledge that the Government’s response to the consultation has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but we will update on the response to the prevention Green Paper in due course.

To respond to my noble friend Lord Bourne, the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, and others on prevention, I assure the House that as we begin the recovery from Covid, now is the time to redouble our efforts to transform the nation’s health. That is why in March the Government published their policy paper about transforming and reforming the public health system, setting out our plans for a refreshed public health system. These reforms will embed a stronger focus on prevention right across the system and ensure that we have the structures and capabilities in place to level up health. Our response to the consultation on advancing our health has again been delayed by the need to focus on the pandemic response. Again, I assure noble Lords that we will bring forward a response to the consultation in due course.

However, we have not waited for the response to take action; we are already taking action on the main drivers of ill health—for example, obesity, which has been referred to, including £100 million in extra funding for healthy weight programmes, and bringing forward legislation to restrict advertising of junk food and on labelling requirements for food. In January we published our mental health White Paper, which aims to reduce mental health inequalities, a subject of profound importance and concern.

Having spent all my life in local government, I agree with all that was said about the importance of public services working together to provide an integrated approach. That informs our programmes overall, including in relation to helping vulnerable families. Supporting Families was launched for this financial year in March and is backed by £165 million of new money. The next phase of the programme will include a focus on building the resilience of vulnerable families.

In March the Government launched a new £8 million local data accelerator fund and invited local areas and their partners to bid for funding to support data projects and improve services for children and families. I agree that ideas must flow up and across, not just from the top down. We hope to announce successful applicants shortly.

Later this year we will publish the levelling-up White Paper, setting out new interventions to improve livelihoods across the country. We remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK. That must be genuine devolution. Our plans for strengthening local accountable leadership will be included in the levelling-up White Paper, which will include county deals. The White Paper will be led by the Prime Minister personally. A new No. 10/ Cabinet Office unit will be set up to drive through work on the White Paper, and the Prime Minister has appointed Mr Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough, as his levelling-up adviser. The White Paper will replace the English devolution White Paper. Full details on county deals will be included in the White Paper. These again will be bottom- up, enabling local partners to come together with powers exercised at the right level to make a difference for local communities.

Central government cannot do it all on its own. Our towns, cities and regions have a greater chance of levelling up when local people have more of a say over their own destinies, and that is our objective. Devolution must go with the grain of local identity and we want to give places the tools that will bring economic, social and environmental benefits alongside improving local services. We know that a mayoral combined authority will not work everywhere, which is why we are keen to work with areas on developing other options. I am sure, from reading the report and hearing what many noble Lords have said, that that will be welcome.

Data sharing has been emphasised as vital by many, including the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Brinton. The data-sharing playbook was established as part of an objective to support a step change in the way that the Government use and share data. It works as a cross-government virtual team. The Data Standards Authority was established in April as a multidisciplinary team, working with experts across the wider public sector and helping to improve services in this area.

We are working with government departments to build services that reflect the lives that citizens live rather than the silos of government departments. For example, to start a business in the UK, a citizen now has to interact with 10 departments. That must end.

I agree with the points about social value. We are committed to that. I will write to noble Lords specifically on these issues since my time is running out, but we intend to extend the use of the Social Value Act, and that will inform ongoing work on public procurement.

I am sorry that I have not been able to cover every aspect that has been brought forward in this fascinating and, I think, hugely important debate, but I profoundly appreciate the work done by the committee and the opportunity to listen to your Lordships’ House today.