Localism - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 213-225)


20 DECEMBER 2010

  Q213  Chair: Good afternoon. Thank you very much indeed for coming. My name is George Hollingbery. I am not traditionally the Chair of this group. I'm afraid the Chair has not yet managed to make it down to London. I apologise in advance to you and to the assembled audience because I am not as well briefed on these papers as I would have been had I known I was going to chair the meeting. Please excuse me up front for perhaps not being quite as fluent on these issues as I might otherwise have been.

  We are scheduled to finish this session at 5 o'clock, and I will be ruthless in ensuring that we do. At this time of year, everyone has other things to do. There are four of you, and if questions have been answered, please don't repeat those answers, but if you feel you have something to add, feel free to make a comment—don't feel inhibited in any way, shape or form.

  The first thing that occurred to me when I looked at your submissions was that you are all very nervous about the idea of localism, particularly as you are mostly national organisations. There seemed to be a unanimous belief among you that there were real problems for minority groups when power was devolved down.

  It is also fair to observe that lots of you talked about the spottiness in the provision of services. Even under the current system, it is fairly clear, is it not, that centralisation hasn't delivered an absence of postcode lotteries; there are different outcomes in different places. Just explain a little further for us and for the audience generally why localism could be dangerous for minority groups and why postcode lotteries are necessarily a bad thing.

  David Congdon: I am David Congdon from Mencap. As you say, localism is not new, in the sense that lots of services are delivered locally; indeed, on the one hand, most of the work that Mencap does is delivered locally through contracts with social services for housing and support under community care legislation. We then have a large number of local groups doing all sorts of things at a local level who are funded by individual local authorities and who often provide low-level support to people who fall outside the eligibility criteria set by social services under community care legislation.

  The concern generally is not so much about localism in principle, because localism is here, it's been here a long time and the trend is obviously to accelerate responsibility downward. The concern is that when decisions are taken at a local level, they are inevitably based on pressures at a local level. People at a local level—councillors, in particular—know best what needs to be done in their area, but there is a danger that minority-group interests can be missed out, although that does not necessarily have to occur.

  The generalised example that I would give is that things that are very visible tend to be—this is not always the case—the things that will be protected. I probably shouldn't mention street cleaning in the current climate, with snow all over the pavements, but things like that are very visible, as are things like town centre environmental issues. If the eligibility criteria for social care services to individuals with, say, a learning disability are cut, and those individuals see their day activity decline from, say, five days a week to three days a week, the only people who know about that are the individuals concerned and their families. That is the danger.

  A general point would be that, with increasing localism, there is a need to have mechanisms in place—a framework for accountability is the sort of thing we need. It is very hard to define exactly what that should contain, but we need something to ensure that, as far as possible, what the Government will through funding—most funding for local authorities comes from Government—actually gets delivered at a local level.

  Vic Rayner: I'm Vic Rayner. I'm the chief exec of Sitra, which is a national membership body that focuses particularly on housing care and support. A lot of the housing-related support services provided have been funded primarily through the Supporting People programme. Part of our concern, which we raised in our submission, comes from looking at Supporting People as a kind of microcosm of the impact of localism. Two years ago, Supporting People went from an essentially ring-fenced fund, to one that was not ring-fenced through the area-based grant. Our concern is that some of the things that have happened since the lifting of that ring fence, and the way that those things have impacted on the provision of services to the most vulnerable people and the engagement of those people in the development of future services and provision, could be played out on a wider scale through wider devolvement.

  Q214  Chair: I am interested in the actual evidence. Could you develop that a little further? There is no need to name names, but just tell us roughly what happened and how it affected vulnerable groups.

  Vic Rayner: In 2009, the ring fence was lifted and Supporting People became a named grant within the area-based grant. Over the past 18 months, a number of high-profile authorities took very significant cuts to the Supporting People programme, which came into effect at the end of last year and the beginning of this financial year. Some research has looked at the impact of those cuts within the localities, and we're already beginning to see some of the changes and reap some of the impact of that. I can give more information to the Committee if it would like to look at research carried out by one of the Link services in a locality that made severe cuts to SP funding in 2010-11.

  The level of cuts is talked about across local authorities, and Supporting People funding is seen as one of the budgets that may take a very significant hit. Some research carried out by ADAS came out last week. It stated that 82% of adult social care directors felt that SP funding would have little or limited protection in the round of cuts. Part of what we see is that although the nationally prescribed Supporting People funding was given "relative protection" within the spending review, as it goes out to local authorities for decision making, it is seen as a high risk and a budget that could be taken away from meeting the needs of the most vulnerable.

  Q215  Chair: But that is not necessarily a reflection of problems with localism as much as with cuts. I understand that the localism element is making those people vulnerable, rather than the allocation of the budget, but the fact that there is a context of cuts at the same time is perhaps a rather poisoned chalice.

  Vic Rayner: Potentially, having the decision about the ring fence made at a time of significant economic pressure might be part of that picture. At the same time, the level of cuts being talked about does not necessarily bear a direct relationship to the level of cuts that the authority is receiving as a whole. The impact on the most vulnerable in that setting will be more significant than the potential cut to the authority as a whole. Again, there are examples of authorities now out in consultation that are looking at cuts of between 40% and 67% to SP funding, whereas the cuts to the authority over the four-year period would not be anything like that. It feels as though there is a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable within that sitting.

  The other part of the issue concerns the engagement of those most vulnerable within the decision-making structures. A year or so ago we carried out research looking at the engagement of the most vulnerable people within the local strategic partnership framework. Already, some significant challenges were emerging in getting the voices of the most vulnerable heard within that decision-making process. As David mentioned, it feels as though, without careful support and investment in working out the right framework for that engagement and the future, the needs of the most vulnerable would be pushed out of that decision-making process.

  Chair: I am already breaking my own rules about time keeping. Sorry.

  Gemma Bradshaw: I am Gemma Bradshaw from Age UK. As we say in our submission, we raised some concerns about the idea of localism, but that was more about the limits that we want to put on localism rather than localism itself. We think that if you have more community engagement and involvement in a localism framework, you would actually improve outcomes for older people. The question is how do you ensure that that happens within a new localism framework. Unfortunately, we have seen in the past that when local authorities have been given more flexibility about their priorities, they haven't always prioritised older people. For instance, when they were given the flexibility within the local area agreement to pick indicators for what the priorities were in their area, although there were three indicators that focused on tackling poverty and greater independence for people in later life, only a handful of local authorities picked those indicators. Obviously, that was part of a different system, and there may be many reasons why those indicators weren't picked, but it showed that at a point when they had to prioritise, particularly when they had a growing and ageing population, they didn't take the opportunity to focus minds on that particular issue.

  We want to make sure that when local authorities are given greater freedom and more flexibility, there are certain checks and balances in that process. Meaningful participation is a particularly important part of this, and we need to make sure that minority groups are able to do that. Many older people also face different forms of discrimination—gender, sexuality, race—and we need to think about how we bring all these people into the process.

  I'm also particularly concerned about accountability and whether there is some possibility still to have national outcomes that all local authorities will be looking at. We're going to have outcomes for health and social care which local authorities will be looking at, and they could be coming in balance, whereas there aren't national outcomes for other services that they'll be looking into.

  Q216  Chair: We will come on to accountability a little later, so we'll move on if we can.

  Dr Berkeley: Robert Berkeley from the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank. You described us as nervous about localism, but we're really excited about the potential that localism could provide. What we would be excited about is a real form of democratic local accountability that works for everybody in those areas, but we know that there are some major challenges to get there. The leap to localism suggests that there is an end point but not much of a story about how you get there: how you get competent citizens, well informed, with the information that they might need in order to take part in that. That's going to be particularly true for those in marginalised groups, who may have a different set of experiences around public services in the past, but also educational experiences etc.

  The spectre that comes most to mind in terms of issues around race equality is Travellers and the failure to deliver Traveller sites over a long period of time. There are increasing worries in Traveller communities about localism and what it will mean in terms of the difficulties in getting those sites established.

  You mentioned postcode lotteries. We recognise that there's a massive diversity of experience of services across different spaces and places, but a lottery doesn't seem to describe it, because too often, there are certain areas that do badly and some areas that very rarely win. We find that those areas that experience high levels of deprivation are often those areas where people from minority ethnic communities are clustered. We understand that there will be a diversity of services and a diversity of outcomes, but we are very keen to understand what the minimum safeguards need to be in all areas across the country.

  Q217  Stephen Gilbert: I am struck, reading your submissions, that there seems to be a sense that all the organisations are after a remaining degree of centralised control and some centralised targets. I put it to you that you're trying to have your cake and eat it. On the one hand, you're welcoming localism, but you're saying, "Only this kind of localism is acceptable." Looking at the removal of ring-fencing for Supporting People, for example, what specific concerns are there about the removal of ring-fencing and of the national targets that go with it?

  Gemma Bradshaw: We've seen a number of examples where the removal of ring-fencing in particular around funding has meant that we have not seen the outcomes that we were looking for. I would move it away from targets and saying that there are specific numbers of things you need to a more generic understanding of what expectations people have of our local authorities. This is particularly important if we are removing any kind of performance management system, because if people, as individuals, are supposed to be challenging the local authority and saying, "This is what I expect," they don't necessarily have any understanding of what they have the right to expect. I'm talking about people having some understanding of what outcomes they may have for certain services. Maybe that's where I'm trying to have my cake and eat it.

  Vic Rayner: I'm not sure about having my cake and eating it. Certainly in our submission to this inquiry and in the previous submission about the lifting of the SP ring fence, we have been asking for serious consideration of reinstatement of the ring fence, particularly around more disadvantaged groups. Part of the rationale for that is that there are significant concerns that those particular groups—perhaps those that aren't necessarily the most electorally popular or those that don't have a voice within the electorate because they're in prison currently or are outside the electoral system—may need additional protection.

  For me, there doesn't seem to be a particular dichotomy between central Government giving some direction about the money that is allocated for Supporting People spending and then saying to the local authority, "You have some responsibility to spend that in the way that you see fit through a need strategy." In relation to Supporting People, although there was some central direction about the money and some of the processes in place, how that money was spent was very much based on a local agenda, a local strategy and local involvement, particularly of service users and those within the community, regarding the kind of services that were required. It doesn't seem to me that it's necessary to say, "Here's localism. We're stepping away completely from any responsibility."

  The other point on Supporting People funding is that the money that was put together to make up Supporting People involved a partnership of funding. It wasn't just the local authorities' money. The local authorities then became administering authorities. What needs to be in place is an understanding of how all those partners can be involved in further decision making, whereas at the moment, the way in which cuts, certainly, are being portrayed is that this is a local authority making a decision about its own money, and actually that money came from a very significant partnership including other members.

  David Congdon: May I add to that? This adds to what I was saying earlier. We've certainly always argued that we prefer ring-fencing, unashamedly. We recognise the debate has moved on, so there's no point, in a sense, in going over that, but it still leaves the fundamental question that if Parliament or a Government Department says, "We want to spend £1.4 billion on Supporting People," or says "We want to spend this money over the next four years, building up to £1 billion, on new social care reform grant," what framework is in place to ensure that money is spent broadly in the way that Parliament intends?

  We recognise we're moving into a scenario of outcome frameworks, particularly in the field of social care. Again, there is no disagreement in principle, but there is quite a challenge in ensuring that that does actually mean what it says on the tin—that you do end up with the £1 billion in that example, along with the other £16 billion spent on social care, delivering improved lives for the group that it is intended to deliver for. I don't in any way underestimate the challenge of doing that. We have regulators and inspectors who don't always identify when things are going wrong. We have the Public Accounts Committee and bodies like that, but the more money is devolved—an enormous amount of money is devolved; there is no problem with that—making sure that it does deliver in the way intended is, we would argue, very important, particularly for marginal groups, but not just for marginal groups.

  Q218  Simon Danczuk: My question relates to what you've been talking about. It is about what national safeguards need to be put in place for vulnerable and minority groups. If that is to be the case, how do Government decide which vulnerable and minority groups should be protected?

  David Congdon: I wish I could give you a definitive answer. It is easy to analyse the problem. I have read some of the previous evidence, which does highlight some of those difficulties. At one level, there has been an inspectorate that has changed its form from CSCI to the Care Quality Commission. I am slightly nervous to say that that is a panacea, because I think of some of the things that have gone wrong on its watch, if I may put it that way.

  Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, having a framework that says that we are trying to achieve certain things for this group of people and then monitoring it in not too heavy a detailed and bureaucratic way but in a broad way, has to be the way to go. Ultimately, in the field of social care, often to check what is going on, you have to have inspections on the ground, what quality of care is being delivered, both in residential care homes and in supported living situations, and then try to do that at a macro level as well. Simply to say that we have inspected some homes and they are doing well does not necessarily answer the question, "Is that group of people getting a good quality outcome from that particular social services department?" It is a challenge: I wish I could give you a more definitive answer. What we want to do is flag up that that there is a need to have mechanisms in place that ensure that degree of accountability.

  Dr Berkeley: Some groups are protected by the Equality Act 2010. It is worth thinking about how the Equality Act is put into action, particularly with the proposed cuts to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and, at a local level, what kind of local transparency and forms of accountability could be developed. We had an extensive structure of race equality councils across the country. In 2007 there were 100, now they are down to 42 and they seem to be declining. I was in Gloucester recently and there was one member of staff in the race equality council. I am keen to go with the spirit and suggest that localism can deliver, given local accountability to local citizens, but the structures need to be in place. I suspect that they are not currently. I do not hear any plans to support and establish those local organisations that might begin to hold local authorities to account a bit more on equality.

  Gemma Bradshaw: May I add a point on the public sector equality duty? That is an important piece of legislation coming through. It is a particularly big step forward for age discrimination. We want to raise the concern that, when we start to look at new models, it is not just the local authority any more, it will be community and voluntary groups. How will the public sector duty transfer to them when they start looking at running services? We are concerned that we don't lose what has been a big step forward when we start looking at the new models delivering.

  Vic Rayner: I have a couple of quick points about safeguarding. That I suppose goes to the supported people services, but the quality assessment framework has been developed and intended as a localism tool for quality management. It looks at services very much from a local perspective, involving service users within the inspection framework. From that point of view, it works as a good mechanism and tool for accountability.

  Another area of concern in the shift from Supporting People funding into formula grant is about that transparency and accountability, and about how once that money is put within formula grant, how difficult it is going to be to hold the local authority to account about the level of funding it is spending on Supporting People and housing related support services, and therefore how effective and appropriate those services are for the local community. There are big issues there about how safeguarding at a national level can be thought through in terms of how that national funding is being allocated, then taking that further to a local level to say, "Within our locality we have this much money that should be spent on housing related support, because it has been identified as a need." Yet it is going to be very difficult to hold that local authority to account. There are concerns there.

  Q219  David Heyes: The area that I was going to ask questions about has been covered to a great extent, so I think that my question only needs a brief response from each of you. Whatever your concerns or worries about the role of local authorities in this, including whether they need some direction or framework from the centre, they are still key players and will continue to be key players. What should they do themselves? What can local authorities themselves do to improve their understanding of local needs and to ensure that we avoid some of these traps that you are fearful of?

  David Congdon: One of the things is consulting very deliberately with minority groups. We would say, as a learning disability charity, that they should do more consultation with people with a learning disability. In fact, there is a mechanism at the local level, called learning disability partnership boards, which was set up in 2001 when "Valuing People" started out with the original White Paper. There was a subsequent document, "Valuing People Now", a couple of years ago.

  One of the problems with those mechanisms is that they are not on a statutory basis, and the research evidence is that they are often marginalised. So one message that we want to put across very much is that local authorities should engage very powerfully and deliberately with minority groups and listen to them, to enable them to play a part in that local democratic process.

  Dr Berkeley: I would add that just being transparent is not enough; being accountable is important too. So it is not just a case of publishing reams and reams of Excel sheets, but of trying to find ways of giving that accountability back to citizens. There are some really good examples, as in Ipswich in Suffolk, where the Race Equality Council has produced a scorecard that is very accessible for the local citizens, which is worth having a think about.

  However, the fact that those local organisations are disappearing at such an incredibly fast rate suggests that local authorities are already standing back from supporting local organisations that challenge them. I think that local authorities should welcome some of that challenge, rather than always responding negatively to it.

  Gemma Bradshaw: I would agree with both those points and I would add that it depends on how you carry out this consultation and engagement. We did some research looking at the latest NHS proposals, and 60% of the older people we surveyed agreed that local decision making is the right way to go. They also agreed that they would like to be involved in some way; but when you ask them if they want to be on a committee or involved in a consultation, the figures fall to less than 10% in many cases.

  So you've got to think about what people are getting out of this process. Do they feel like they are really influencing the change, or are they just part of another tick-box exercise? I think it's how you do this that matters.

  Chair: Simon, I think that that leads us on to the next question that you wanted to ask, so perhaps we can move on to that.

  Q220  Simon Danczuk: Yes. You were mentioning some ideas that have been used to involve marginalised groups or vulnerable groups in the local democratic process. Overall, do you think that local authorities are particularly good or particularly bad at that, and do they need to get better if localism is going to be successful?

  David Congdon: That is a really difficult question to answer. When we looked at some consultation exercises that have gone on, my criticism would be that they are often misleading in terms of what they are consulting on. So, to give you a practical example, one of the issues in the learning disability field is about day centre modernisation, which most of us would agree is a good thing. Sometimes when you read the consultation documents, the words are fantastic, the vision is fantastic, but where is the meat? What will it actually mean for, say, the 800 users of existing facilities? Is there a guarantee that they will get some alternative, because that is often the issue—which alternative is better?

  When you read the consultation documents, it is often quite difficult to know what the consultation is really saying. So, the consultation has to be really meaningful and it must be very straightforward in clear, accessible language that anybody can understand. Otherwise, you get not a lot of people responding and, if they do respond it is not terribly meaningful in terms of an answer. So there should be an honest, straightforward, transparent consultation about what the issues really are and a willingness to follow the response—not always to follow it rigidly but certainly to take on board those concerns.

  I've seen consultations where the response has been pretty negative, but you wouldn't know it when you read the report that's gone back to the council committee. That's not fair. It has to be open, fair and transparent.

  Vic Rayner: I think the other point I would add to that is that it's not a cost-free option. A meaningful consultation is expensive and involves time, and really to get to the bottom of how people feel and can get involved in the community isn't something that's going to be easy and straightforward; but there are huge numbers of good practice examples out there, and I think, just to pick up on Mr Heyes's point as well, it is about what can local authorities learn around engagement. I think it is partly about listening to partners, because there will be partners that they can work with who've got very effective and key routes into working with the more vulnerable people. There needs to be perhaps a levelling of that partnership approach that enables those voices to be heard at the right level—and getting people engaged early enough in order to have some kind of meaningful dialogue within there. But there are some very good examples out there—very creative, inspirational examples where people have made that change—and it fits into that model of encouraging active citizenship and encouraging people to move and become part of their community.

  Q221  David Heyes: Where? Can you name them, exactly?

  Vic Rayner: We've done quite a lot of work up in Bradford with the service user forum there—a very active, very engaged group of people who have contributed not just to agendas around supporting people but around a whole wide range of areas. There are other examples in Bolton and Torbay. These were all leading examples of authorities that really took on board service user engagement.

  Q222  Simon Danczuk: It does puzzle me though—this is the question—that this doesn't seem to apply across the board of local authorities, or to the majority. It's always good practice examples in a small minority of local authorities, which causes me some concern.

  Dr Berkeley: You are right to point to this, because there is a real problem with us not knowing. We know that there's a lot of activity going on. We don't know what the impact of that activity is, or what the outputs are, so there are numerous BME forums up and down and around the country. The people who take part say that they had a very nice afternoon. Whether that actually has left them feeling more involved or more engaged in decision changing, they are not sure. The citizenship survey seems to highlight that there are certain groups that constantly feel left behind, left out, of decision making, but we may not have that citizenship survey much longer.

  Gemma Bradshaw: Similarly, we have examples of where our local partners, Age Concern, or Age UK, have been involved with the local authority, helping them to point to the priority needs, but they have been also been able to help facilitate some of the discussions, which might otherwise might have been more difficult. For instance, in Rotherham, Age Concern has been working in the residential care sector, working with families and residents so that they can influence their service and change the service in Rotherham. That's an area where normally people in residential care wouldn't necessarily feel that they could communicate or change their services. But, as you say, it is trying to make sure that these good ideas are across the board.

  Q223  Chair: Dr Berkeley, you might want to stay for the next session if you have the time, because we're going to be talking to the Audit Commission about monitoring outputs and so on, so it might be of some interest to you to come along to that.

  I was going to ask about the danger of services becoming atomised in your particular fields. I think I already have the answer to that. I suspect—there's not much point in pushing this—you believe, although this may be putting words in your mouth, that there is a real risk of these services becoming atomised across the country, and so individually delivered that you lose the strategic approach. It did prompt, though, another thought in me, which is: I just wonder if you, as organisations, have been able to tease out and separate the danger that your organisations face in terms of national policies and the ease of dealing with one organisation rather than a whole myriad across the country, and whether some of your thinking might be coloured by that. It's an unfair question, to be honest, but I think we're all human beings and it's worth asking it.

  David Congdon: I think it certainly makes campaigning harder—there's no doubt about that. I reflect on the fact that you can fight very hard to get laws changed, which is a typical campaigning activity, but then actually you've got to fight 152 local battles to get change on the ground. But I think a broader point is that balance between what should be decided nationally and what should be decided locally is critical. In the social care field, all the reading of the work done on the previous Government's consultations on the Green Paper and the White Paper showed there was a strong consensus on some significant strategic changes in terms of having a much stronger national framework, albeit with a local delivery mechanism. From the provision point of view, most of our organisation's work is done through bilateral negotiation with individual local authorities, so what you're talking about doesn't really make any difference to that.

  Q224  Chair: Listening to what's been said, it occurs to me that in another area—the NHS—the Government are looking at separating a national commissioning service and a local commissioning service, so these things aren't without precedent across Government.

  Vic Rayner: This is back to the cake, isn't it? When you talk about services being atomised, meaning that it's very difficult to compare like with like, it's important to mention that we're not seeking to have a completely standardised housing-related support service that looks exactly the same and feels exactly the same in every locality. That's not what we're focusing on. I completely agree with David that, in terms of influencing policy, life will be more challenging as we think how to work with different authorities, but we do that all through our membership structure anyway, because our members work with different authorities.

  You're not talking just about changes to membership or national bodies like ourselves. Many of our providers—particularly those working in London—might work across 30 or 40 different authorities. One of the other challenges that comes from taking away ring-fencing or the national parameters that determine how funding will be applied is that bodies need to think about how to meet the commissioning structures, the different priorities and the different monitoring and regulatory arrangements for different authorities. The challenge for voluntary and community sector organisations, which are already trying to meet authorities' efficiency targets through their commissioning procurement structures, is enormous.

  So, yes, supporting our members in that will add to the challenges of organisations like ourselves, and our members are already incredibly challenged by the changes that are in effect and those that are coming in the future. You mentioned the changes around the commissioning of health services in the future and the fact that we will potentially have two local funding sections. Provider organisations and, therefore, the service users they work with will need to understand and engage with them to be effective local participants in strategy formation.

  Gemma Bradshaw: We are a national organisation. Obviously, local Age UKs and local Age Concerns have been influencing things in this way for many, many years. It will give us some challenges, but from working in partnership already—providing services, but also influencing things—we've seen that localism can work. That's why we're cautiously positive about localism.

  Dr Berkeley: We're 15 people in the corner of east London. We have always tried, and we will continue to try, to give people the evidence and information they need actually to make a difference at their local level.

  Q225  Chair: Thank you very much for coming in today. I feel we haven't really done you justice, so I apologise for that. My sincere and extended thanks for coming in on a particularly difficult day. I hope you feel you've had a chance to say everything you wished to. You've got two minutes left. If there are any burning points that you wanted to get on the record, but which you haven't been asked about, please fire away.

  Vic Rayner: You mentioned the challenge of moving to a local agenda, but we as an organisation feel that that will not stop us talking to central Government, and trying to encourage central Government to continue taking a leadership role on the protection of the most vulnerable people and honouring the direction that they set out in terms of making sure that the most vulnerable are protected. That's our continuing commitment.

  Chair: Splendid. Thank you very much indeed for your time.

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