Andrew RT Davies: Voters deserve a full, separate inquiry into the Welsh Government’s handling of Covid-19

7 Sep

Andrew RT Davies is the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and MS for South Wales Central.

Throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Welsh Government has gone its own way on a number of crucial decisions.

Labour’s First Minister and his cabinet colleagues have consistently stressed that they are responsible for public health decisions in Wales, and that things are done differently here.

Every time the Prime Minister addressed the nation, Mark Drakeford would be at pains to tweet how the announcements would not apply to us in Wales.

To me, to outsiders, and to the public at large, these differences of approach often weren’t grounded in science and were instead simply cosmetic, and were implemented at times just for the sake of it.

However, as the speed of the vaccination rollout provides light at the end of the tunnel (made possible by the British Government’s decision to buy up vaccines early) and restrictions are eased, our attention is turning to how we can learn lessons from the pandemic through a public inquiry into the handling of Covid-19.

Strangely, the Welsh Government is unwilling to go their own way on this issue, instead arguing that their handling of the pandemic should be considered as part of a wider UK inquiry. They want the power but they do not want the scrutiny that comes with power in a democratic society.

There are of course cross-border implications of the way the UK and Welsh governments have handled the pandemic, and it is right that these implications are assessed and lessons learned, but that can be done on a British and a Welsh level.

The fact is decisions taken in Wales have had a dramatic impact on peoples’ lives, from whether they can see their loved ones, how far they can travel, and even what they can buy at their local supermarket. These decisions have had a unique impact on Wales and, regrettably, Wales has the highest Covid-19 death rate of any home nation.

It’s therefore imperative that the measures and slogans that were deployed in Wales are assessed thoroughly, and not left to make up just a footnote in a wider UK inquiry, which is what the First Minister wants to happen.

It may be more convenient for him and his team to have the Welsh Government spin of ‘keeping Wales safe’ as the narrative when we look back at the way they handed the pandemic, but the death rate means that that slogan does not ring true.

There are many successes of the Welsh Government’s handling of the pandemic, and they need to be recognised, but there will also be mistakes and moments where things should have been done differently. These mistakes can become valuable lessons, but only if the Welsh Government allows us to properly analyse them.

During March and April 2020, over 1,000 hospital patients were released into care homes without being tested for the virus. One care home owner near Port Talbot told Wales Online that they were under pressure to take patients from hospitals, even though care homes were concerned about the risk to residents of taking untested patients.

Only in late April did the Welsh Government decide to introduce testing for people being discharged from hospitals into a care setting and only in mid-May could care homes request testing. This was some time after England. These are the kinds of decisions that must be assessed in detail and not lost in a UK-wide inquiry.

We also learned that nearly a quarter of people who’ve died from coronavirus in Wales were infected while in hospital being treated for other conditions. This is despite the Welsh Government telling us in the first lockdown that lessons were being learned from major outbreaks in Welsh hospitals and that measures were being put in place to protect patients and staff. Then, in the second lockdown we saw greater numbers of hospital acquired infections.

Ministers have ducked scrutiny for too long, refusing to make announcements in the Welsh Parliament and instead opting for media briefings, and they are now refusing to have their actions put under the microscope.

There is support across the opposition benches in the Welsh Parliament for a Wales-only inquiry, and on Welsh Labour’s own backbenches. But although when the Welsh Conservatives tabled a motion in the Senedd calling for a Wales-only inquiry, the single Liberal Democrat Member of the Senedd voted against the motion. It is worth remembering that up until this May, a Liberal Democrat served as the Welsh Government’s education minister. Exam fiasco anyone?

There is also support across various charities and organisations from Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation to Medics 4 Mask Up Wales.

In recent days, the First Minister of Scotland announced that there would be a judge-led public inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic. As a result, Wales is now the only nation on British mainland that has a government unwilling to subject itself to proper scrutiny of its actions.

I’ve since written to Drakeford asking him again to commission a Welsh inquiry, and warned that I fear if he does not do so, the Senedd and the Welsh Government will be brought into disrepute. I believe that my calls for a Welsh public inquiry will grow in support. It is only logical that these decisions taken in Wales are scrutinised at a Welsh level. The Welsh Government cannot continue to dodge effective scrutiny in this anti-democratic fashion, making a mockery of the devolved institution they profess to respect.

Ministers in the Welsh Government are always calling for more powers, most recently on policing and criminal justice. How can those calls be taken seriously when the Welsh Government is not prepared to be scrutinised on the big calls they’ve made during the Covid crisis.

Vaughan Gething, who was the Health Minister in Wales until recently, has said that he would have made different choices at different points throughout the pandemic. I think that is an honourable admission, but it does demonstrate that even the Welsh Government don’t think they got everything right over the course of the pandemic. We deserve to know which choices he regrets and how he would have done things differently.

With a Welsh public inquiry we can learn from these mistakes and be better prepared if we ever have to face another situation like this.

Andy Street: How devolving power to metro mayors delivers better transport for local people

7 Sep

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Devolution isn’t a topic that excites people. The subject of local government structures, combined authorities, city regions, county councils, districts or unitary authorities is of little interest to most.

What people are interested in, however, are things that make a difference to their daily lives. So when it comes to infrastructure, delivering better transport can provide tangible improvements for residents.

First and foremost, transport gives us the ability to get to where we need to be as quickly and easily as possible. But it also connects citizens to opportunities and jobs, opens up new corridors for investment, provides visible improvements to boost civic pride, and can make a real contribution to our green ambitions, too.

Devolution is thus playing a key part in a transport revolution here in the West Midlands and across the UK. I want to use this column to write about how transport investment is getting the economy on the move, and how this reflects the effectiveness of the mayoral model, as well as growing confidence in devolved decision making.

There can be no doubt that the Government recognises the transformative effect of transport investment. The Prime Minister, as a former Mayor of London, understands this better than most, and has been a huge champion of better transport. As Mayor of the West Midlands, I’ve welcomed him regularly to our region to highlight all kinds of transport investment, from huge HS2 projects to bike hire schemes.

Well, this month, the West Midlands is about to reach another significant waypoint on our journey to building a world class transport system, along with seven other mayor-lead Combined Authorities.

Transport is the one aspect of devolution shared by all of the UK’s ‘metro mayors’, and the Government has promoted combined authorities to develop their own visions for local networks. Now they are putting serious cash on the table for City-region Combined Authorities to make a real difference – £4.2 billon shared amongst eight mayors.

First, let’s be clear: this is on top of other funding for the regions, such as the Levelling Up Fund and town centre revival investment. It is also on top of cash already flowing in for specific projects, such as supporting green bus technology – as we are seeing here, with Coventry set to get the first all-electric bus fleet in the country. So this new pot of money is a big step.

Naturally, we will be pitching for our fair share – and maybe a little bit more. But this isn’t just about the West Midlands: it’s about this Government demonstrating its clear support for the mayoral model, with a very substantial new sum of money for eight of us. It is a vivid example of the how devolution can make a massive difference to delivery on critical things to our daily lives.

It is also a vote of confidence in the combined authority model. Here, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) is made up of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. In the past, these communities were often set against each other, competing for investment, despite being economically intertwined.

Inevitably, this led to accusations that the big cities gobbled up the ‘big ticket’ investments. Now, under the unified approach of a combined authority, places like Solihull and our Black Country boroughs are getting their fair share. This approach of ensuring no areas get left behind has been a key pillar of my time as mayor.

Of course, our bid for cash from this latest investment pot is still under wraps. However, it won’t surprise anyone that it aims to progress my transport vision, which was memorably illustrated by a colourful ‘tube map’ linking our seven boroughs. The choice of a tube-style lay-out sent a message about our ambition to create a world class network, backed by the kind of investment enjoyed by the capital.

Is that fanciful? I don’t believe so. By extending our Metro lines, rebuilding major railway stations and reopening others that have been closed for decades, this network is taking shape.

In fact, since I became Mayor, spending on transport has increased seven-fold. The year before I took office, we spent £38 million. Next year, we will be spending £403 million.

The progress is there for all to see. Wolverhampton’s new station is now open, Coventry’s is about to join it and there are many more to follow – including Perry Barr which will serve the Commonwealth Games. Metro extensions in Birmingham and Wolverhampton are set to open this year and our teams are powering ahead with brand new routes through Sandwell into Dudley and in Birmingham linking the whole network with HS2.

We will also be backing our bus and bike users with improvements, too. That means working with bus operator National Express to deliver the cheapest fares in England, as well as a fleet of next generation vehicles. It means pressing forward with our growing cycle hire scheme, which has seen great success since I launched it with the help of the Prime Minster, who knows a bit about bikes. Plus, there will be one or two surprises, as well as money to improve our most congested roads.

As we plot our way out of the pandemic, spending on infrastructure will be vital to stimulate the economy – but it is also essential we use that money strategically, delivering tangible results our citizens expect.

That’s why this new investment to eight mayor-led combined authorities underlines confidence in the local decision making brought by devolution. While people may not get excited about devolution itself, it is now providing improvements that they recognise and welcome.

The Department for Transport clearly recognise the essential point of devolution, resulting in a multi-year settlement for the regions, which once agreed in principle will be governed here locally by the WMCA, and by devolved authorities across the UK. I want to thank Grant Shapps and the DfT for taking this principled approach.

For us, it will mean hundreds of millions of pounds to help transform our infrastructure and build the network that will underpin our economic success for years to come. It will also bring jobs as we develop and build the network which, in itself, will better connect our residents to the opportunities we are creating. And, as the network expands and more stops on my tube map are completed, it will also make our public transport ever more attractive as a viable alternative to the car.

So, if you use a train, tram, bus, bike or car in one of the Mayoral Combined Authorities you can be confident of seeing improvements in the next few years – thanks to devolution in action, and thanks to billions of Government funding being ringfenced to city region Mayors.

Karl Williams: Ministers should await better evidence before rushing yet another round of NHS reform

4 Sep

Karl Williams is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies think tank. His new paper, ‘Is Manchester Greater?’, is published tomorrow at cps.org.uk

It’s taken a long time for the public to come round to the idea that maybe, just maybe, the Tories aren’t out to get the NHS. Persuading people of that fact is arguably one of Boris Johnson’s great personal achievements as Conservative leader.

True, the Tories are never likely to be seen as “the party of the NHS” in the way Labour are, but perceptions have certainly come a fair way since the much-reviled Andrew Lansley reforms of the Coalition years.

Things have come so far, in fact, that the Government feels able to embark on the most significant top-down NHS reorganisation for a decade. The direction of travel is going to be very different to the Lansley reforms – in fact, the explicit aim is to roll many of them back – but the scale of the planned restructuring is such that it deserves to be scrutinised very carefully indeed. Particularly since the two people who agreed and devised the reforms, Matt Hancock and Simon Stevens, will no longer be around to see them through (and take any flak).

The Health and Care Bill has been pitched as a response to the Covid crisis. But in fact, the bulk of it is based on Stevens’ long-held ambition to integrate the NHS more effectively, and see competition replaced by collaboration as its driving force.

Already the NHS in England has been subdivided into 42 “Integrated Care System” (ICS) regions, of which 13 are at a more advanced stage. But the Bill will go much further, not only giving all of these a legal basis, but making them the main bodies through which the NHS in England is run. Managed by an “Integrated Care Board”, overseen by an “Integrated Care Partnership” and populated by a proliferation of joint NHS-local government committees under a shared “duty to collaborate”, each ICS will have as its raison d’etre greater health and care integration.

The basic idea here is actually pretty appealing: everybody – GPs, hospitals, social care providers, local government, health charities – should be working closely together to meet patient needs, breaking down barriers between different institutional silos. This should smooth the flow of patients around the system, directing them to where they can get the most appropriate treatment or support, and (crucially) taking the strain off frontline workers on hospital wards.

There’s also a population health element to integration, prioritising prevention over cure. The net result is supposed to be better health outcomes, delivered in a less resource-intensive way.

England isn’t the only place to have come up with this idea. Integration as a solution to the pressures of an ageing population has been tried in New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Scotland and elsewhere.

However, the model developed by NHS England, promulgated through The NHS Long Term Plan in 2019, is based on surprisingly little evidence. Back in 2017, a National Audit Office report on health and care integration warned that:

“Departments have not yet established a robust evidence base to show that integration leads to better outcomes for patients. The Departments have not tested integration at scale and are unable to show whether any success is both sustainable and attributable to integration.”

That is, in essence, still the case today. Ministers seem inclined to take the purported benefits of the ICS reforms largely on faith – perhaps because, unlike the Lansley reforms, they are the brainchild of NHS bosses, not the creation of politicians.

This is why I have spent the past few months evaluating the data emerging from the 13 pioneering ICS regions – most notably Greater Manchester, where integration is most advanced and the data is richest. And the picture is very far from encouraging.

As part of “Devo Manc”, Greater Manchester was the earliest region in England to integrate its care systems, taking charge of health and care for 2.8 million people from April 2016. If the ICS approach is going to work well anywhere, it should be somewhere like Greater Manchester: a densely populated, well-connected conurbation with a distinct regional identity, strong local political leadershipm and a good track record of healthcare organisations working together.

More formalised integration was also smoothed by a chunky £450m “transformation fund”, the equivalent of 7.5 per cent of the region’s £6 billion annual health and social care budget.

Despite these manifest advantages, the best that can said is that results have been mostly quite poor. Take for instance “delayed transfers of care”, a key indicator used to gauge “bed-blocking” at the interface between hospitals and social care. This was 65 per cent higher on average in the years after integration (until just before the pandemic) compared to the years beforehand. In the ICS areas as a whole, this increased by 24 per cent – compared to just nine per cent across the rest of England.

Before the pandemic struck, Greater Manchester was also falling short on the concrete targets it had set itself, for instance around mortality. There were supposed to be 580 fewer respiratory disease deaths by 2021, a drop of about 16 per cent. In fact, by 2019, respiratory disease deaths were up by seven per cent. In 2016, there were seven more respiratory disease deaths per 100,000 people in Greater Manchester than in England as a whole. By 2019, this had doubled to 14 more.

It’s not just Greater Manchester where things don’t seem to have gone to plan. Other regions such as West Yorkshire have progressed the ICS model under the supervision of NHS England, rather than elected local leaders. But a preliminary survey (the data is more imperfect because formal integration started later) points to limited overall improvement at best. On bed-blocking, the region does well. But some other indicators – like emergency readmissions – have weakened.

And however you slice it, there is no evidence, across either West Yorkshire or the 13 pilot areas more broadly, of the sort of large scale improvements the ICS reforms are supposed to bring.

Given the scale and complexity of the Integrated Care Systems, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this is. But that complexity might itself be part of the answer. It’s notable that while both Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire saw their NHS workforces expand at a much faster rate than the national average in the four years before the pandemic, the proportion of clinically qualified NHS workers fell more quickly. Perhaps new integrated structures and processes are absorbing resources – personnel, time, energy and money – that could better be spent elsewhere.

Supporters of the ICS reforms will say that more time is needed: in ten to 15 years, once reforms have bedded in, they will be transformational.

That’s all very well. But in the meantime, there are pressing problems facing the NHS, including a massive treatment backlog cause by the pandemic. Already waiting lists are at five million.

The Government’s determination to address the to tackle the long-term problems facing health and care provision is to be welcomed. But it is important to take the time to get things right, rather than intensifying the current pressures on the NHS through costly and disruptive reforms that are not supported by national or regional data.

Our paper suggests that instead of rushing off down the road to deeper integration as per the ICS model, ministers should take a step back, pause to look at the data in more detail, and demand to see a more convincing evidence base for the approach proposed in the Health and Care Bill.

This would mean letting the 13 more advanced ICS regions carry on with integration for the next five years or so, while reserving judgement on whether the approach should be driven forward across the rest of England. In the meantime, ministers can focus on the more immediate pressures on the NHS likely to build up as winter approaches.

If the ICS reforms eventually work out, the Conservative Party isn’t going to get the credit. But if they go wrong, it’s pretty clear who’s going to get the blame. The public might be prepared to forgive one Lansley-esque healthcare misadventure in a decade. They might not be so willing to forgive two.

Carl Les: North Yorkshire’s opportunity to become a rural powerhouse

3 Sep

Cllr Carl Les is the Leader of North Yorkshire County Council

2021 will be a landmark year for North Yorkshire and York. A once in a lifetime opportunity to pave the way for real and lasting change that will allow us to punch our weight regionally and nationally as a rural powerhouse.

On July 21st, Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, responded to the Government’s consultation on how local government should look from April 2023 for North Yorkshire. The Government backed the new single unitary model for the county – preserving the current unitary City of York as a separate entity which would work closely with a new council across the border providing all services on North Yorkshire County Council’s current footprint. The decision will go before parliament early next year.

The programme to create a single new council from the eight currently operating will be huge – but the aim is to align that programme with long-awaited devolution to kick-start sustainable economic recovery.

Change is never universally comfortable, but done right, it can deliver great benefits for all. Those rewards remain our focus as we prepare for the biggest change to local government since 1974. This is an enormous task and to overcome these challenges we aim to maintain strong and effective partnerships and to harness the expertise and knowledge that exists across all eight current NY councils. Through close collaboration and hard work, we will deliver not just a good, but an exemplar, council capable of providing more resilient public services. One that is able to deliver a joined-up approach on the big-ticket items like planning and economic development, transport, pathways to employment, connectivity and health.

But how can a larger organisation deliver at scale and remain local? It’s a fair challenge and one we have been very clear on. The current county council has a very strong track record in delivering countywide services at the most local of levels. In practical terms our staff live and work across communities, including many of our most rural places, delivering adult care and helping people live healthier, longer and more independent lives. Our children’s services educate, support and strengthen families – protecting our most vulnerable – and they are nationally recognised as outstanding. Our highways crews look after your street. However, we must not forget that our excellent district colleagues have a wealth of local knowledge and expertise that will add huge value to all service delivery. Far from an acquisition, this new unitary council will be built on teamwork and collaboration. Staff across these organisations are right to take pride in what they have achieved – and remain passionate about innovation and improving lives.

The new council will be extremely visible with an office in each former district, supported by at least 30 face to face customer access points. Staff will continue to be based throughout communities – more than 80 per cent of our staff live in the county, and that’s important in helping us to understand what matters at the grassroots. Local delivery is carried out by local staff working to locally based managers. Alongside this presence, the new council will establish 25 community networks. Based mainly around market town areas they will bring together business and community representatives, local elected members, town and parish councils, council officers and broader health and blue light partners.

Six area committees, based on MP’s constituencies, will oversee local decision-making; they will be real local powerhouses.

For those town and parish councils which would welcome it, there will be the opportunity for more management of certain local services and assets and the proper resources to deliver them. Done with them and never to them, no dumping of responsibilities on them. Already more than 50 town and parish councils have expressed an interest to work with us to get this right. Across all the councils involved in working together to deliver a stronger local government for North Yorkshire there is a clear commitment to localism.

This joined-up approach will mean that the new organisation has not just a focus on what matters locally, but the substance and scale to step back and see the bigger picture. To protect and strengthen local plans and projects that will deliver on local needs and to align them with strategic investment and infrastructure opportunities. To establish a joined-up programme of arts and culture that will showcase the county as a vibrant place to live, work, visit, and invest in. Supporting a better-connected county on every level.

Our strong leadership during the pandemic has made good partnerships great. It has necessitated significant and sustained joint decision-making and wide multi-agency working. The impacts of Covid-19 are broad but there is also learning of significant value.

Maximising the use of the latest technologies and reducing travel presents many opportunities around the low carbon agenda – as do the possibilities around renewable energies. There are also the huge benefits of reconnecting our communities with a workforce able to balance effective productivity with a good quality of life – and surrounded by countryside that’s good for the heart and mind.

There is a huge social and economic value in the globally recognised brand of North Yorkshire and we know from listening to people and businesses that there is much more that can be done to utilise this to drive green and lasting economic growth.

We can deliver all this by continuing to listen to our businesses, organisations, partners, and people; by building on these established relationships and using the incredible resilience this county is famous for.

A formal alliance with the Greens shows that the SNP are on the defensive

1 Sep

Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to bring the Scottish Greens into government is the surest sign yet that, despite almost securing an overall majority in May’s elections, the Nationalist regime in Edinburgh is in trouble.

Because why do it? The Greens have served as loyal foederati to the SNP for years. There was some theatre of brinkmanship ahead of key votes, occasionally, but the smaller separatist party always fell into line behind the larger.

Officially, this is about creating a Scottish Government with a Holyrood majority for another independence referendum, which will thus increase the pressure on the UK Government to grant another vote.

But this isn’t especially plausible. It isn’t obvious why Boris Johnson will take the existing separatist majority more seriously on the basis that its two parties are put their working arrangement on a slightly more formal footing. He is under no pressure to sign off the one thing that would pull the fraying Scottish nationalist movement together, not to mention likely consume the rest of his premiership.

If that nominal gain is illusory, the costs to Nicola Sturgeon are real. Even commentators minded to give her a sympathetic hearing have been quite clear that many of the Greens are cranks. By giving them a formal stamp of approval by bringing them into office, it will be much harder to distance herself from their views on issues such as the economy which will be central to winning over voters sceptical about independence.

The First Minister, for all her flaws, is an extremely capable politician and will know all this. So if she doesn’t need a formal agreement to legislate, there must be some other motivation for taking the risk. I suggest it is sharing the blame.

Most pro-independence voters are at least centre-left. This means that if the SNP starts to lose support over the next few years, the Greens are the natural home for any defectors who aren’t prepared to switch to a unionist party such as Labour. (The much smaller share of right-wing nationalists have Alex Salmond and his Alba Party.)

But if the Greens are part of the Scottish Government, that both restricts their freedom of manoeuvre and makes them culpable for its failings, on everything from management of public services to securing a second independence referendum. Not only might this stem potential defections amongst the voters, but it could even see Green voters go SNP as the distance between the two parties narrows further and their separate appeal is eroded. As Angela Merkel reportedly said of coalitions, its the little party that gets smashed.

If this is the reasoning, it means that Sturgeon is making moves which hinder her efforts to reach out to swing and pro-UK voters in order to shore up the SNP’s dominant position within the existing separatist electorate. This would be of a piece with her party allegedly spending a ring-fenced referendum fighting fund on office improvements, and strongly suggests the Nationalists don’t think a second referendum is at all imminent.

Henry Hill: Westminster can thwart the SNP’s attempt to entrench their emergency Covid powers

19 Aug

It is said that there is nothing so permanent as an emergency expansion of state power. True to form, the Scottish Nationalists have made a spirited defence of their claim to be the United Kingdom’s most enthusiastic authoritarians with a push to make many of the Scottish Government’s coronavirus powers permanent.

Due to the absurdly ill-planned nature of the current devolution settlement, there was no UK-wide pandemic response and Holyrood was left to devise its own pandemic control procedures. Two emergency acts were passed last year, both in single-day sittings, and MSPs subsequently voted to extend the provisions.

But now John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, has launched a consultation on keeping many of these on the statute books permanently. According to the Daily Telegraph, he:

.”…unveiled a public consultation on removing the March 2022 expiry date for a host of extraordinary powers, including the ability to impose lockdowns, close schools and require people to wear face coverings.

“Controversial rules allowing more prisoners to be released early could also be extended, along with the wider use of fines as an alternative to prosecution.”

The Scottish Conservatives are up in arms about this, as are other civil society groups. There are several grounds to object to what the SNP is trying to do, both within the context of Scottish politics and in terms of the broader constitutional debate.

On the latter point, entrenching the Scottish Government’s pandemic powers would (and this is surely the intention) pre-empt any post-crisis review of the UK’s crisis-response architecture and vastly complicate any attempt to replace today’s balkanised arrangements with a proper, nationwide system. Moreover, since the financial measures that make lockdown viable are controlled by the Treasury, we can expect this move to be followed by yet another round of demands for devolution of borrowing and other financial powers.

Setting that to one side, it is not unproblematic to try and simply carry emergency legislation – subject to truncated debate and voted through at a moment of crisis – into ordinary law. Inertia is a powerful thing, as anyone who’s taken months to cancel a subscription they aren’t using can tell you.

There is thus a case to be made that if Scotland really does need laws such as these, there is no harm in allowing the emergency provisions to lapse and then introducing new legislation via the normal procedures. This is especially the case for laws which will touch on such liberties as freedom of assembly, which these will. Again from the Telegraph:

“SNP ministers also want to make permanent their power to make public health protection regulations, for example by limiting the number of people in gatherings, introducing lockdowns and requiring face coverings.”

Nor should MSPs discount the fact that by making permanent provisions which they promised would be temporary, voters will be completely justified in being more suspicious of them the next time emergency powers are required. Lockdowns as an extraordinary response to a novel pandemic virus are one thing; lockdowns as a normal tool in the Scottish Government’s public health arsenal are quite another.

That the Treasury has to underwrite the use of these powers may give the Government the cover it needs to override these provisions, should they become law. With new research finding that the ‘Union dividend’ to Scots is now higher than ever, there is no harm in not only emphasising the positive role the financial might of the British state plays in Scottish life, but using that power to justify a better-harmonised, more national approach to related parts of the constitution.

Barry Lewis: County Councils can drive county deals. We don’t need more layers of government through Metro Mayors.

9 Aug

Cllr Barry Lewis is the Leader of Derbyshire County Council and the Vice-Chairman-Elect of the County Councils Network.

When the Prime Minister made his levelling-up speech last month, he said:

“We need to re-write the rulebook, with new deals for the counties. There is no reason why our great counties cannot benefit from the same powers we have devolved to city leaders…”

You would be hard-pressed to find any county council or unitary leader in the country who would disagree with that statement. Just three county areas in England – Northumberland, Cambridgeshire, and Cornwall – have a deal at present. As we look to economic recovery, I know many county leaders will have been casting envious glances at the levers the metro mayors have influence over.

The forthcoming levelling-up White Paper may present counties with the opportunities we have been looking for. The County Councils Network (CCN) has been at the forefront in arguing that the levelling-up agenda cannot bypass the shires. The perception that these are all affluent areas has long been misguided – our places contain some of England’s most left-behind communities – and we are pleased that Ministers have recognised this reality.

Most important, is the acknowledgement that, to level-up places in all four corners of England, we need to empower local government to lead the recovery charge. The Prime Minister’s promise for a more flexible approach to devolved governance recognises county areas need an alternative to the combined authority model, whilst giving the option of a different kind of local figurehead to provide strong local leadership.

This flexibility is crucial, with the imposition of yet more layers of local government through Metro Mayors – clearly more suited to urban areas – a sticking point for county devolution deals in the past. Ministers have put further flesh on the bones of the government’s county devolution vision by confirming that negotiations for county deals will be led by county councils and unitary councils, working closely with district councils. Importantly, deals will span entire county footprints – either the whole county council area or with neighbouring upper-tier authorities – putting a halt to endless debates on the right geography for devolution outside of our major cities.

Using counties as the building blocks for devolution is the most effective option if the government wants local areas to take the initiative quickly on levelling-up and drive powers down to our communities. County and unitary authorities have the size and scale to do business with government – allowing for a single point of direct accountability – and the intimate knowledge of their communities to know where to prioritise support.

With the geographies of county devolution deals locked in, many of us will be spending the next few weeks and months working with local partners on the types of ambitious proposals that the government is looking for.

In Derbyshire, we are fortunate that we will be able to do this from a standing start thanks to our Vision Derbyshire model, which is a collaboration between the county council and participating district and borough councils in the area. Over the last few years, we have worked together on issues as broad as business development, climate change, and preventative services such as homelessness, through closer integration and a creative approach to leadership on priority areas of work across councils.

The work we have done in Derbyshire has given us a shared vision and helped us identify key areas to progress the approach across the county – with these being further put under the microscope during the pandemic. Work is now underway on implementing and putting in place formal governance arrangements which will fulfil the government’s aim of streamlining decision making and reducing duplication – key expectations of any county deal.

This model has given us an excellent starting point for a devolution deal and, of course, it is just one example of a collaborative local approach. I know across England that county areas will be doing the same by putting together their own visions and aspirations for their area and turning these into concrete proposals for devolution deals with partners.

The key question then is what type of devolution will be truly transformative for our areas? In thinking this through, we must focus on the powers local areas want, and not just blank cheque arguments for more funding.

In recognition that each area has its individual challenges and opportunities, many deals will be bespoke – but across the CCN member council areas there are some key asks that are applicable to us all.

We have all begun to think about how our communities recover from the economic shock of the pandemic, but we lack the tools to make a difference in re-skilling people to do the jobs of tomorrow. If we are given devolved budgets and powers in skills then we can work with our further and higher education providers to target support towards what our local people and local economies need – providing hope for young people currently looking at an uncertain future.

Equally, we want to move away from one-time and ad-hoc bids for new roads and infrastructure. Powers over transport and infrastructure will help us shape the places of the future, connecting our local economies and providing impetus for us to leverage private investment, done in a climate-friendly way.

Finally, we would like to see devolution deals that ensure that all councils in an area work together on planning for new development through strategic planning arrangements.

This collaborative approach would mean we can better join up housing and infrastructure functions, ensuring that new developments are located in the right places, and with the necessary roads, public realm improvements, and medical centres, to ensure local infrastructure is not overwhelmed.

These are just a few examples of the types of the devolved suite of powers that would enable us to shape the places we represent and the communities that elect us.

CCN is extremely positive about this Government’s renewed agenda and, working with partners, we are determined to make sure it is a success.

Henry Hill: The UK Internal Market Act empowers Johnson to take the fight to Sturgeon on drugs policy

5 Aug

One of the big questions that has to determine whether or not devolution is a worthwhile experiment in how to govern the United Kingdom is whether or not devolved governments are held accountable for devolved failures. The row over Scotland’s abysmal drugs deaths figures may be a chance to find out.

If you missed the story, the latest data has seen Scottish drugs fatalities soar yet again. As the Guardian reported: “Scotland continued to have Europe’s highest per capita rate of drug deaths, at 25.2 fatalities per 100,000 people, more than three-and-a-half times higher than the rest of the UK.”

This is just one of many fronts in which the Scottish National Party’s woeful record of domestic governance has started pushing to the fore since May’s devolved elections, but probably the most tragic.

Nicola Sturgeon has, entirely predictably, tried to shift the blame onto Westminster. The SNP blame Scotland’s figures on the fact that the Misuse of Drugs Act, which is reserved Westminster legislation, prevents them from introducing so-called ‘shooting galleries’ – safe consumption rooms where addicts can be sure of clean needles and so on.

Suffice to say, this doesn’t stack up. The prohibition on shooting galleries applies across the UK, so it cannot explain why Scotland’s drugs deaths are running so far ahead of those in England and Wales. Nor are drugs policy experts convinced that safe consumption rooms are the ‘silver bullet’ it suits the SNP to pretend.

Much more obviously to blame is the Scottish Government, which over the ten years it has been in office has repeatedly cut funding for rehabilitation services. Ruth Davidson, in a long piece for UnHerd, sets out the charges with cold clarity:

“Scotland has some of the best residential rehabilitation facilities in Europe. So good, in fact, that Dutch authorities and insurers pay to place patients in facilities such as the Castle Craig hospital in the Scottish Borders. In 2002, Castle Craig admitted 257 patients funded by the NHS; in 2019, the number dropped to just five. There’s no shortage of demand for services, but they aren’t accessible to the Scots most in need. Currently a quarter of Castle Craig’s places are being filled by Dutch patients, with most of the remainder being funded privately or via health insurance.

“Meanwhile Glasgow’s largest residential rehab centre, Phoenix Futures, was forced to abruptly cut its number of beds from 54 to just 14 in 2019, after a Government tender was revoked. The Mungo Foundation’s Cothrom Eile service — in Nicola Sturgeon’s own Glasgow constituency — was forced to close its doors completely in 2019 due to funding cuts.”

This is entirely in keeping with the SNP’s track record, which compasses the repeatedly-delayed ‘Sick Kids’ hospital in Edinburgh. the appallingly mishandled CalMac ferries contract, and not one but two different scandals over bridges. The Nationalists are just bad at running Scotland.

Yet time and again, they have been able to evade a proper electoral reckoning by hiding behind the constitution. Sturgeon looks set to do so again by picking a fight over shooting galleries, threatening to try and introduce them in spite of the Misuse of Drugs Act. This would force the Government to take her to court, as it did over another ultra vires bit of Holyrood legislation – both carefully chosen by the First Minister to create bad optics for Boris Johnson.

(So too, it goes without saying, is her claim that the Prime Minister has ‘snubbed’ her by refusing to meet as he visits Scotland this week. In fact, the Government is deliberately trying to normalise British ministers’ visits to Scotland, and prevent the SNP casting them in the role of visiting dignitaries.)

If the First Minister does decide to press ahead with illegal policy, Westminster must obviously act to defend the constitution. It should also explore ways of tackling this sort of behaviour before it comes to court, for example by prohibiting Scottish civil servants – who are part of the Home Civil Service – from working on business that lies outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament.

At the same time, ministers could explore ways in which the Government could provide direct support to Scottish rehabilitation services via the new spending powers authorised in the UK Internal Market Act, and contrast the SNP’s posturing with immediate, practical support from the British state.

Henry Hill: Sunak must always remember that the Treasury is one of the few truly British departments

29 Jul

A subject we have returned to time and again in this column over the last year or so is the way the pandemic has exposed the chaotic state of the UK’s ‘territorial constitution’ – who governs what, basically.

Rather than being able to pursue a joined-up approach to combating Covid-19, the Government was instead reduced to trying to stitch together a ‘four nation’ strategy with the devolved administrations.

But Rishi Sunak’s visit to Scotland this week shows that these tensions may yet have some distance to run. Alison Thewliss, the SNP’s ‘shadow chancellor’, has urged him to apologise for winding down furlough and other economic interventions ‘early’.

The root of the problem is as follows. Control over lockdown and other pandemic control measures is in the hands of the devolved governments – that’s how Mark Drakeford managed to close ‘non-essential’ supermarket isles. But control over the financial assistance that makes things such as furlough possible is controlled by the Treasury.

Even in the most fevered devocrat imagination, it could scarcely be otherwise – not unless Edinburgh and Cardiff wished to finance the pandemic on their own resources, which seems doubtful. We could not have devolved administrations simply voting themselves British cash without accountability to our British Parliament.

But it does raise the prospect of yet another row, with Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon accusing the Government of dragging Scotland and Wales out of lockdown on England’s schedule.

Nor is this the only constitutional minefield the Chancellor will have to navigate. Assuming it isn’t abandoned for other reasons (including basic generational justice), Whitehall sources suggest he could face a backlash over the constitutional dimension of his proposals to hike National Insurance in order to fund social care.

What constitutional dimension? Well, NI is a tax collected on a UK-wide basis, whereas social care is a devolved competence for which the Government is only responsible for England. This is thus, apparently, the first time a British tax has been increased explicitly to pay for an England-only spending commitment.

Of course, any increase in social care spending will generate Barnett consequentials, so the other nations would get the money ‘back’. But nobody likes a tax hike, especially when the SNP can weave a grievance into it. It’s also a bit of an unforced error, as the link between the tax increase and the spending is only in the Government’s rhetoric and could have been avoided.

Sunak is talking up the ‘strength of the Union’, and rightly so. As Chancellor, he commands one of the few truly powerful British departments, with the ability to make its presence felt in every corner of the country. It is therefore especially important that he is properly prepared to do battle with the nationalists – be they SNP or Labour.

Johnson puts the case for more localism in England. Now he must deliver it.

19 Jul

The unconvincing plan for growth apart, and the aftermath of Coronavirus not withstanding, ConservativeHome identified three main areas of policy weakness in the Queen’s Speech: social care, the delivery of net zero and English localism.

The first two turn out to be connected to the last – as are the whole country’s future prospects for growth and recovery.  Why?  Because, as David Lidington put it recently

“Whether it’s delivering an industrial strategy, or high quality apprenticeships, or integrated transport or a joined-up plan to implement net-zero carbon, we are likely to get better and faster results, and to encourage innovation and experiment…

…if these things are done by the central government of the UK working in genuine partnership with elected devolved, local and regional leaders…

…who in turn are able both to use their convening power to rally business, education, cultural and third sector organisations and through their endorsement give additional democratic legitimacy to the plan”.

Boris Johnson began to correct that weakness in his speech last week, in which he sketched out what may be taken from the postponed devolution white paper and put into the coming levelling-up white paper.

The nub of the Prime Minister’s case was that the mayoral experiment is working for cities and their suburban hinterland, and that the towns and countryside could do with a bit of it.

“Local leaders now need to be given the tools to make things happen for their communities, and to do that we must now take a more flexible approach to devolution in England,” he said.

Which could mean “a directly elected mayor for individual counties”; or devolution “for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses”.

Ideas on a postcard, please, to our recently-departed columnist, Neil O’Brien. Or, as Johnson put it, “come to Neil O Brien or to me with your vision for how you will level up, back business, attract more good jobs and improve your local services”.

Put like that, the Prime Minister’s case sounds lamentably underdeveloped, open to fresh thinking, or simply cautious, depending on how you look at it.  But he, Robert Jenrick and others will have to make the following decisions.

At the outset, whether or not to push for uniformity, or something very close to it.  Both of the main schemes that would ensure it are out: regional government and an English Parliament.

Labour tried to make the North East a start-up zone for regional government, and the project was duly trounced in a referendum – the event which gave politics early sight of James Frayne and Dominic Cummings.

An English Parliament would institutionalise potential conflict between a First Minister for England, who would run the bulk of the country, and a Prime Minister stripped of responsibility for nearly everything other than foreign affairs, defence and security policy.

Which returns us to the options on Johnson’s table.  He could sit back and wait for local leaders to come to him.  And the map of local government in England would continue to look much like the patchwork we see today.

There is a good case for this approach.  “A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome,” as Johnathan Werren wrote on this site.

The downside is that if that, with so many cooks preparing the broth, nothing much might be served up: experience suggests that county, district, town and parish councils don’t easily come to agreement.

Some senior Tory figures in local government, and elsewhere, are keen on unitarisation – some has already happened (as recently in Buckinghamshire); more is happening (as in North Yorkshire), and more may happen still.

But ConservativeHome finds no appetite near the top of government for an attempt to force amalgamation on unwilling Conservative-controlled authorities: the whips have enough trouble with agitated councillors and backbenchers, thank you very much.

Nonetheless, experience suggests that if the Government wants more local mayors, it will have to push for them – and, if local people are given a say in a referendum, they tend to push back.

Remember May 3, 2012: the day on which ten cities voted for or against new mayors.  Only one, Bristol, went for change.  Since then, some authorities, such as Hartlepool, have voted to abolish their elected mayors; others, like North Tyneside, have not.

There are further problems about political legitimacy.  The Tees Valley has a population of about 1.2 million people.  Kent has one of approximately 1.8 million.  It follows that if an elected mayor can work for it might for the other.

Government sources also named other well-populated counties, such as Lancashire and Warwickshire.  But would it be practicable to  bundle ones with smaller populations together under a single mayor?

One of the problems that is wrecking the police commissioner project is the sense that there is no real local ownership of whoever is elected to the post.  Might not enforced, multi-county, amalgamated mayoralities run the same risk?

But if, to use the Prime Minister’s own example, a county or city comes together “to improve local services like buses”, who or what is to take charge, if not a Mayor?

Mention of an actual service is a reminder not to put the cart, structure, before the horse, services.  The first question is what to make more local.  The second is how to do it.

Which takes us to the mayors in place already.  Consider Ben Houchen in Teesside.  He already controls education for people over 18.  Wouldn’t it make sense for this to be joined up to that provided to people over 16 – given the stress he places on skills?

Andy Street made the same case for the West Midlands in a recent column on this site.  Why not go further, and let Houchen, Street and some of the other mayors pilot more local control?

For example, they could retain a slice, say, of airport passenger duty, vehicle excise, and VAT.  Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan recommended the full devolution of the last in The Plan, opening the door to tax competition between local authorities.

Johnson said that counties could “take charge of levelling up local infrastructure like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution and to unlock new job or new bus routes plied by clean green buses because they get the chance to control the bus routes”.

“Or they can level up the skills of the people in their area because they know what local business needs.”  The Prime Minister was careful to add that “we need accountability”.

But the thrust of his case was there are fewer “irresponsible municipal socialist governments” and that “most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

Johnson has no experience of running a major domestic department.  His sole government experience at Cabinet level was in the Foreign Office.

Nonetheless, he has been mayor of the biggest city in the whole country, serving two terms.  He will need to draw on that experience as he decides which localist options to take.

One thing is certain – though it won’t be what anxious MPs and councillors want to hear.  If the mayoral experiment had needed existing councils’ and sitting councillors’ agreement to happen, it wouldn’t have happened.

So since the Prime Minister wants more localism, and rightly, he must ready himself for a row – to add to the one already raging about housing and planning.  One can’t serve up a muncipal omelette without breaking eggs.