Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Brexit halts…everything!

I cannot think of another time in my life when a single issue has so debilitated policy-making, prevented essential decision-taking and comprehensively sucked the oxygen from public and private discourse as Brexit has occasioned.
Nationally, regionally and locally, large and small businesses have been deferring investment decisions for months now as the uncertainty continues. They are also finding that European customers of their products are now holding off from committing to future purchases or they are securing alternative suppliers in mainland Europe to ensure continuity. All of this is going to have a significant impact for economic regeneration and for businesses and jobs for years to come.
The delays and inability to act are shown even more starkly in the public sector. The draft long-term plan for the NHS has now just surfaced many months late but that is the exception to the rule, as domestic policy development and legislation on the big issues across the spectrum has effectively disappeared. Even within the NHS plan funding for Public Health is simply pushed back to the spending review, while further cuts are announced for 2019/20.
Public consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill was finished last May. There’s no sign of Green or White Papers, let alone legislation. The long-promised devolution framework proposals – yes, the proposals former HCLG Secretary of State Sajid Javid was talking about fifteen months ago - are nowhere to be seen.
Having ditched the earlier agreed reforms on funding adult social care, a green paper on the issue was confirmed as urgent in the March 2017 budget. Originally promised for Autumn 2017, that was then pushed November, which came and went as publication was pushed back to early 2018, then Summer, and then Autumn. In October 2018, the Chancellor said it would be ‘published shortly’. In December, we were told that “it would be published at the first opportunity in 2019”. That has already come and gone.
During this period, many well-regarded and serious bodies – including from the House of Commons all-party Joint HCLG and HSC Committees - have published their own comprehensive proposals.
Meanwhile, there have been a series of late and inadequate supplementary financial allocations to health and local authorities and tens of thousands of people have totally lost or suffered significant cuts in their social care support, and home and residential care providers are in financial turmoil.
As the structural issues about adult social care have become acute, another emergency has ridden up fast on the rails – children’s services. Since 2010, the number of Section 47 investigations – relating to the most serious concerns about child safety – have more than doubled. There are now more than 75,000 children in local authority care, a doubling in the last decade, nearly three-quarters with foster parents.
Meanwhile, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has recently confirmed, funding for children’s services has fallen from c£850m then to c£700m this year with nearly every council significantly over-expending. In the budget, the Chancellor announced an extra £84m funding for children’s services in 20 councils over the next 5 years. That’s a gnat’s bite in comparison to the £3bn shortfall estimated by 2025.
It is against this background that the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has launched a new inquiry into the funding and provision of local authorities’ children’s services.
There is silence around the future of local government finance. What is going to be happening to National Non-Domestic Rates – especially in the context of the precarious state of the High Street and the central importance of business rate retention – and the New Homes Bonus and Council Tax? And then of course, there are all those ‘fair-funding’ promises – which with no additional funding may simply transfer more of the pain to poorer, urban, northern areas. “Late Spring” says the Minister about proposals for the redistribution of local government finance. “Which year?” we call.
When the Chancellor brought forward his budget statement last October, I said that there could then be absolutely no excuse for a late or delayed local government finance settlement announcement, as had happened in previous years. I thought that the proposed date of 11 December was later than justified.
To have that statement date cancelled to facilitate a Brexit vote was unacceptable. To not have the statement re-instated when the Brexit vote was cancelled simply showed the extent to which Brexit is driving, or generally stopping every agenda.
One of my fundamental concerns with the PM’s deal is that it will simply lock the government machine into more Brexit exclusivity until the end of 2020, or whenever the backstop finally comes to an end. The many major issues affecting public services being ignored now cannot be put on the Brexit backburner indefinitely.