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Clive Betts: Public services are stewing on the Brexit backburner

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I cannot think of another time in my life when a single issue has so debilitated policymaking, prevented vital decision-taking and comprehensively sucked the oxygen from public and private discourse like Brexit has.

Nationally, regionally and locally, large and small businesses have been deferring investment decisions for months amid sustained uncertainty. 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, businesses and jobs for years. The delays and inability to act are shown even more starkly in the public sector.

The draft long-term plan for the NHS just surfaced, many months late. But that is the exception to the rule: domestic policy development and legislation on the big issues 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, but there’s no sign of green or white papers, let alone legislation. The long-promised devolution framework proposals, spoken about by former housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid 15 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 to November, which came and went as publication was pushed back to early 2018, then summer, then autumn.

In October 2018, chancellor Philip Hammond said it would be “published shortly”. In December, we were told “it would be published at the first opportunity in 2019”. That has come and gone. Now health and social care secretary Matt Hancock says he “certainly intends it to emerge by April”.

During this period, many well-regarded and serious bodies – including the House of Commons all-party joint committees on housing, communities and local government, and health and social care – have published their own comprehensive proposals.

Meanwhile, there have been a series of late and inadequate supplementary financial allocations to health and local authorities. Tens of thousands have lost or suffered big cuts to 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 past decade, nearly threequarters with foster parents.

Meanwhile, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has recently confirmed, funding for children’s services has fallen from around £850m then to around £700m this year, nearly every council significantly overspending.

In the Budget, the chancellor announced an extra £84m funding for children’s services in 20 councils over the next five 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 also silence around the future of local government finance. What is going to be happening to national nondomestic rates, especially in the context of the precarious state of the high street and the central importance of business rate retention? And what of 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 pain to poorer, urban, northern areas. “Late spring” is the minister’s alleged date for proposals on redistributing local government finance. But which year?

When the chancellor brought forward his Budget statement last October, I said there could then be no excuse for a late or delayed local government finance settlement announcement, as had happened in previous years. I thought 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 reinstated 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 prime minister’s deal is that it will 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.

Clive Betts (Lab), MP for Sheffield South East and chair of the communities and local government committee

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