Talk to councils first on COVID

By Bob Neill | 22 September 2020
  • Bob Neill

To some, a sensible and necessary step to help curtail the virus, to others, an egregious and damaging infringement on our liberties, the recently updated COVID restrictions are becoming a source of growing consternation on Parliament’s green benches. Whatever your position, there is a consensus forming that any changes should at least be open to an increased level of scrutiny and debate.

That’s an argument that has some force behind it. As the Hansard Society has pointed out, 14 statutory instruments have been laid using the emergency powers included in the Coronavirus Act, with 99 Acts of Parliament (many dating to the last century, and some to the century before that) being used altogether to push through various COVID regulations – all without a vote in Parliament.

Although much of the criticism of this lack of oversight has so far been Westminster orientated, local government must be treated as an equally important stakeholder in this process, a case persuasively made by recent events.

The confusion generated by the proposed COVID secure marshals announced a fortnight ago was, I am afraid, wholly predictable, not to mention entirely avoidable. For what it’s worth, I have no problem with the idea of volunteers or council staff (if they can be spared) taking on these reassurance roles. Far from the meddling busybodies they have been painted as by some media outlets, it makes sense to have a friendly face on the street to provide guidance and help ensure the safe running of things. They have already been put to good use this summer in tourist hotspots like Newquay and St Ives, as well as in cities, like Leeds, to help the night-time economy reopen in a COVID secure way.

However, I verge on stating the obvious in saying this announcement should clearly not have been made without first consulting local authorities – who will be responsible for running the scheme – and until the details of what the Government is actually proposing had been fully fleshed out. Given the plan is optional, the lack of direction provided, and the fact that no extra funding will be made available, it’s unsurprising to read that very few councils intend to oversee their introduction. If ministers are indeed serious about this, they should, of course, stump up the cash first.

I would gently say to my colleagues in Government that making policy announcements like this does little to dispel the perception of some that decisions are being made on the hoof. Their release, with no corresponding detail, is a bad habit which appears to be driven by a desire to be seen to be doing something – never a sensible basis upon which to take important decisions.

The announcement made in the same press conference that local authorities will be given tougher powers to tackle businesses flouting COVID-19 rules is to be welcomed, but publishing the legal framework that underpins the new ‘rule of six’ regulations only half an hour before they came into force will not have helped either councils or the police prepare. To make matters worse, the work local authorities have been carrying out on draft localised shielding frameworks has recently been pushed back by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, with no revised date confirmed, while the awaited Treasury announcement on the funding for a such a model has been similarly delayed.

All of this points to a system under immense strain. The interface between different arm’s-length bodies, central and local government, the NHS and care providers can be fractious at the best of times, let alone when subjected to the pressure of dealing with a public health and financial crisis. A mixture of failures in communication, a lack of joined up thinking, bureaucracy, a reluctance to share data, and the territorial outlook of some organisations over their respective remits has, in certain instances, prevented us firing on all cylinders.

There will be many lessons to take away from this pandemic, not least on how the different strands of government could more effectively interact with each other. Another must be the relative inability to react that comes from the cumbersomeness of a heavily centralised system of government. Longer-term, I hope we can put that right.

Sir Bob Neill MP is a former local government minister and is chair of the Commons Justice Committee

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