Covid-19 exposes the nonsensical structure of English governance

There can now be no doubt that our system for running the country is the wrong one

May 22, 2020
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If the world has rediscovered the importance of good national government, it is a measure of England’s governance that the nation heads the dismal European league of excess deaths. Only governments can underwrite the economy, organise health and social care and protect the public. England has discovered the need for government only to find itself with a state incapable of effective action.

Ministers’ confident British exceptionalism—we always do things better here—has been exposed. But their hubris sits on a system of government that has been steadily failing for years.

A better state might have saved ministers (and us) from their errors. But something has been going wrong for a long time. Over decades, the state steadily shifted power from the local to the centre, as councils lost resources and clout. Power moved from the public to the private, effectively privatising what we now call key workers. And power flowed from the accountable (local authority schools) to the unaccountable (academy chains). Power congregates at the centre; responsibility and accountability do not.

Every failing response to Covid-19 shows the same features. Small numbers of people take all the decisions. The information on which they act is often kept secret (and often misrepresented in public). The central state won’t properly engage with those have to implement decisions and prefers to bypass them altogether. The statutory Local Resilience Forums, created as critical coordinating bodies during civil emergencies, have been marginalised, isolated and unable to plan effectively. Local public health officials who already track and trace infectious diseases have, until this week, been ignored.

When the central state lacks capacity, it buys it from private companies rather than working with councils and others who could do a better job. The consequences are severe. Outsourcing firm Serco was handed a role in recruiting contact tracers, then promptly shared the private details of job applicants by accident. Chaotic scenes were reported at the government’s privatised PPE distribution centre, which was actually sold to new owners as hospitals ran out of kit. Other contractors ignored UK companies offering supplies. Testing was held back by civil servants’ centralising instincts and then handed to Deloitte, leaving 61,000 GPs unable to refer their own patients.The central NHS volunteer programme left most of those who signed up unused, failing to match them with local organisations needing support.

Meanwhile the police, and Conservative county councils, apparently weren’t warned about the sudden decision to encourage travel to coasts and beauty spots. Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham accused the government of ignoring the spread of the virus in the north.

Even when local actors did play a role, it was as a last defence against bureaucratic incompetence. Councils had to supplement food boxes for the vulnerable. Schools bought food for local families when the food voucher system failed. Contracts like these bypassed existing school meals services and local food distributors and wholesalers needing new outlets as hospitality closed down.

Elsewhere, the economic support programme has often fallen short because central government doesn’t know how businesses or the modern labour market really work. Government recovery plans omit the local authorities who know their area better than any Whitehall official. As a former communities secretary, I recognise the childish Treasury game of keeping local councils in perpetual financial frailty. Forcing London Mayor Sadiq Khan to raise the congestion charge and then blaming him for it, for example, is a classic tactic.

The desire for central control has created a murky and opaque parallel state of private contractor companies and inefficient bureaucracy. It does not work well, but that is not the point. Contracts with central government make providers answerable only to ministers. Commercial confidentiality ensures minimal scrutiny. By contrast, working with local authorities, public health officers, GPs, the police and other agencies opens government policy up to people who might have a better-informed perspective and be willing to say so.

Of course, ten years of deep cuts sapped at every part of the state. We’ve recently heard less from George Osborne about how his cuts left this country in the best possible position to fight the virus. As for his successors, it is a particular misfortune to have these ministers at this time. But the failing English state exposed was not created overnight, nor just by austerity.

“Government by contract” and the creation of arms-length organisations outside national or local democracy is hardly new. Cabinet government has not existed in a recognisable form for 30 years. The careers of ministers and senior health officials seem worryingly intertwined, but this, too, is not the first time that the relationship between politicians and officials has become too close.

Ultimately, local government has been losing powers for four decades. English “devolution” is largely a system to co-opt local leaders to deliver central priorities. Even when Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland gained devolved powers, neither Whitehall officials nor Westminster ministers saw any need to change the way England was governed. Much of the central state barely registered devolution at all, hence the blank incomprehension when devolved administrations took their own lockdown paths.

The central state has always prized power above its effective use. While each step down the centralist route has claimed it will be better, faster, cheaper, more flexible and more efficient, it is only sometimes so, and often not when you need the state to work at its best, as we do now.

The truth is that the people of England have responded better to the virus than the people in power. The lesson is that England can only be governed by working with citizens, and with those who choose to represent them at every level. Our services should be accountable to those who pay for them. If power were diffused, the government would function better precisely because it would have to negotiate with different points of view and engage with those who actually have to deliver.


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