Oral Question: Public Services

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Clive Betts:

I want to deal first with the myth that is perpetuated about the so-called economic mismanagement of the last Labour Government. Until 2008, that Government had an excellent record of controlling both the national debt and national deficit as a percentage of GDP. From 2008 to 2010, the increase in deficit and debt was not due to overspending; it was due to the collapse in revenues because of the banking crash, which affected every Government in the western world—that is the truth of the situation.

I will concentrate my comments on matters relating to the remit of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, not because I am not interested in matters to do with the police, education and the national health service—of course I am—but because of time restrictions.

I want first to deal with local government spending. The Government have said that there will be extra spending power for local councils. It has now become clear that that depends on councils putting their council tax up by 4%. A 4% council tax increase is what the Government are requiring of councils to deliver the spending power that the Government say they will have, including a 2% increase to fund social care.

As Councillor George Lindars-Hammond said the other day, 2% for Sheffield is very different from 2% for Westminster. The position is even worse for some other small authorities, which will simply not be able to raise the money to provide the social care their citizens need. Of course, it is all right—isn’t it, Mr Speaker?—because we will have social care reform. The Queen’s Speech says that we will have legislation on social care. I welcome that, as I have welcomed the similar promises on the seven or eight occasions they have been made before. When will we get at least a Green Paper on social care? Will social care be kicked into the long grass once again?

I welcome the reference in the Queen’s Speech to devolution, which has been on the back burner for too long. Good work was done with the deals and setting up mayoral combined authorities. I am just a bit disappointed that the Queen’s Speech refers to more of the same: city deals, other sorts of deals or enhancing those already in place. We need a comprehensive devolution framework, which as of right devolves powers to all local authorities—urban or rural, cities or towns— throughout the country that want to take them up. We should move towards that, and the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government is holding an inquiry on devolution. I am sure all members of the Committee will push for devolving powers to local authorities. We want more progress on devolution, but I welcome at least the mention of it in the Queen’s Speech and the commitment to doing something about it.

John Stevenson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Clive Betts: I will because I know that the hon. Gentleman is very interested in devolution.

John Stevenson: As the hon. Gentleman will know, I am quite sympathetic to what he has just said. Does he agree that, if we are to have a White Paper, no council should necessarily have a veto on any changes in its locality and that, if a number of councils want change, one should not be allowed to stop it happening?

Clive Betts: I am very sympathetic to the point the hon. Gentleman makes about the situation in Cumbria. Having one council holding everything up certainly needs addressing, and I understand the problem he highlights…

…later…

John Stevenson:

I welcome the focus today on public services and, in particular the recent announcements about funding for the NHS, education and the police. We also have to acknowledge that increasing funding is only possible if we have prudent financial management, which is what we have seen over the past 10 years. We must never lose sight of the fact that a strong economy underpins all our public services. That is why I welcome things such as the deficit now being down and under control, debt falling as a percentage of GDP, unemployment being back to figures that we last saw in the 1970s and the existence of growth in the economy.

Quite clearly, the greater the growth we have in the economy, the more we have to spend on public services. However, the provision of public services is not all about money. It is also about standards and ensuring the provision of quality services. It is about innovation, new ideas and ensuring we do things in a different way that might be better and more modern. It is also about productivity and ensuring that we actually can get value for the money that the taxpayer is putting into our public services. Ultimately, it is about outcomes that really matter—better healthcare, less crime and improving education. Specifically, I am pleased to hear the Government’s intention to tackle the long-standing issue of adult social care. It has been a long time coming and definitely needs to be addressed.

I want to concentrate on one aspect of the Queen’s Speech: the reference to a White Paper on unleashing regional potential in England by enabling decisions that affect local people to be made at a local level. I believe that this has the potential to be transformational. It is about devolution and infrastructure investment. We must remember that many public services are provided by local authorities and local government up and down the country. Sadly, we are a heavily centralised country. Many local decisions are in fact made in Whitehall rather than in our localities. Carlisle is a case in point. Recently, there have been significant decisions about road infrastructure, garden villages and so on. Although they are very important locally, those decisions are being made in Whitehall rather than in the town hall.

The northern powerhouse initiative has started to change the narrative in this regard and it is very relevant to my region. We have had what I would call our own northern powerhouse—namely, the borderlands growth initiative. This brought together councils, MPs, Ministers and officials at both local and national level, all working in a positive manner. I would specifically like to thank the Minister with responsibility for the northern powerhouse and also the former Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend David Mundell, for all their hard work in ensuring a successful outcome to the growth initiative. It demonstrates what can be done. I would like to think that the White Paper could be an opportunity to truly transform our regions and our local government system, and thereby deliver public services in a better and more efficient manner.

At present, if we are honest, our local government system is unbalanced. It is disorganised, with too many different structures, and it lacks the real power to make a difference in the locality. The proposed White Paper is therefore a huge opportunity. It gives us a chance to move towards unitary authorities. It gives us a chance to have proper structures with more power and more responsibility, and greater expectations of our local authorities. To some extent in the north, we have started that journey with the northern powerhouse, but in my view it needs to be accelerated and it should be as radical as possible. I therefore have one suggestion to make to the Government. There would be no harm in their revisiting the Redcliffe-Maud report from the 1960s, which I think is as relevant today as it was then.

Any approach the Government have with regard to a White Paper must involve proper consultation and discussion with local government. In my view, there should be no vetoes that would allow one council to hold up change in a particular area, as has been seen in Cumbria. Such reforms also need to be balanced with an economic programme to help to rebalance the national economy. The key drivers to achieve that are clearly infrastructure investment—rail, road, air and technology. Let us also see incentives that can help to develop particular parts of the country, utilising ideas such as freeports or altering the tax code.

Carlisle is a very good example of where we are starting to see some real change. We have a really good story to tell. If we are to achieve our true and full potential, it needs continuing help from the centre, but we also need to release local talent, which can then drive positive change. Such change will drive the local economy, produce greater tax receipts and provide the opportunity for better public services.

The headlines from the Queen’s Speech may be about proposed Bills, law and order, and Brexit. However, it is often the small print that can lead to the greatest change. I very much hope that the introduction of the White Paper will lead to something truly radical and transformative that will really change this country for the good.

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