80% of councils directly involved (again) in delivering housing

Chris Game

If you’re an academic – either a genuine intellectual, theorising one, or a more lecturing, popularising one like what I was – there’s a good chance that the week before Easter is Conference Week.

It’s easy to mock, and knock, academic conferences. Too many delegates reading, rather than ‘presenting’, their papers; no time for proper interrogation, discussion and debate; mediocre university campus food. And for overseas conferences, add in climate threatening CO₂ emissions.

However, I like them – conferences, that is.  Indeed, this recent Easter week I racked up a full half-century of attending, at least intermittently, PSA (Political Studies Association) conferences.

Like most such events nowadays, this one was ‘hybrid’ – with panels attended partly in person, partly digitally via Zoom. Which makes genuine discussion additionally problematic, and emphasises the importance of the written papers addressing subjects that ideally are appealing, topical and even newsworthy.

Happily, in the Local Politics Specialist Group this is almost the norm. And this year one paper especially – in addition, obviously, to that of the INLOGOV’s Director, Jason Lowther (from ‘Birminham’, according to p.25 of the evidently un-proof-checked programme!) – struck me as both sufficiently important and timely to bring it to the attention of a couple of slightly wider audiences⃰.

Timely because we’re fast approaching the May 5th local council elections, and, if these councils’ controlling parties choose to draw voters’ attention to it, many could boast something they might well not have been able to even four years ago when these same seats were last collectively contested.

Specifically, over four in every five should be able to claim that they are genuinely and actively involved in the business of delivering social housing.  And if that doesn’t grab you, or you’re thinking: “well, isn’t that one of the main things councils are supposed to do?” – or maybe, as a Birmingham resident, you’ve heard of the 4,000+ homes built by the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust, the City Council’s housebuilding arm, and assume that it’s fairly typical, rather than really exceptional – then I politely suggest you’ve rather lost the plot in recent years.

When I used to lecture to particularly overseas students about housing in England or the UK, I would use a couple of very basic graphs, similar to those illustrated here. The first showed the changing relative importance of our main housing tenures since 1919 – private rented, owner occupied, local authority, and housing association.

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At the end of the First World War, the ‘big picture’ was straightforward: roughly 90% of housing stock was privately rented, 10% owner occupied. Councils were empowered to build ‘corporation housing’, but few did.  But the War changed everything. PM Lloyd George promised not just houses, but “Homes Fit for Heroes’, and the 1919 Addison (Housing, Town Planning, &c.) Act facilitated it. Council housing committees sprung up, generous subsidies were provided, and council estates mushroomed.

By 1939 over 10% of the population lived in council homes, and the numbers increased steadily post-war, with the Labour Government’s Town and Country Planning and New Towns Acts. At their 1950s peak, under Conservative Governments, councils were building nearly 200,000 houses a year – one completion every three minutes, if you were wondering.

By the 1970s over a third of England’s housing stock was ‘council’. Private renting had plummeted to below 20%, with owner occupation over 50% and rising, and housing associations just beginning to take off.

The 1980s Thatcher Governments’ priorities, though, were very different: a “property-owning democracy”, with successive ‘Right to Buy’ policies – requiring, rather than allowing, councils to sell off their housing stock, if tenants, particularly of larger, better-quality properties, wished to purchase.

Coupled with Treasury restrictions on councils borrowing money for capital expenditure, there began the long-term shift from council housing to housing associations or ALMOs (Arm’s-Length Management Organisations): from 7% of all social housing in 1980 to over 60% today, including virtually all new social housing.

On my second graph, of ‘Housebuilding Completions’ – albeit scaled for dramatic effect – the local authority line by the mid-1990s was barely distinguishable from the horizontal x-axis. Council house building on any significant scale virtually stopped, new homes countable in the hundreds, rather than hundreds of thousands – until, if you peer extremely closely, you can just see the space between line and axis opening up in 2018.

Housebuilding

Sales meanwhile averaged well over 100,000 a year, re-boosted by increased discounts from the Coalition Government following the 2007/8 financial crisis. That same Coalition – or its Treasury – also imposed tightly restrictive ‘caps’ on councils’ ability to borrow against their own Housing Revenue Accounts in order to build affordable homes.

True, the 2011 Localism Act and other changes gradually empowered councils to work both like and with private sector companies. But it was really only when, several years later, Theresa May announced to her October 2018 Party Conference that she would ‘ditch the cap’ that councils’ widespread re-engagement with housing provision seriously took off.

There were and still are significant hurdles: tenants’ right to buy, planning constraints, the need for more grant funding. But the climate has indisputably changed, and at least some of the circulating local election manifestos will surely contain the evidence.

The reason I’m confident of this is that one of the York conference sessions I attended was presented by Bartlett School of Planning’s Professor Janice Morphet, who, with her colleague Dr Ben Clifford, recently completed the third of their series of biennial surveys of councils’ engagement in the provision of affordable housing.

I was aware of this work, but frankly had no real idea of its scope, depth, rigour or even of the sheer quantity of data the surveys produced and made available, in both the respective main reports and the separate desk survey reports. Seriously impressive – and obviously impossible to do any kind of justice to here.

Hence the focus on what has been one of the surveys’ particularly key and consistent findings, summarised here in a couple of quotes: first from Morphet herself, then from the recent third survey’s Executive Summary:

“The third wave of research shows how local authorities are directly engaging in housing provision [and] that this has moved from a marginal to a mainstream issue.”

“From the desk survey, we found that in comparison with 2017 and 2019, the number of councils with [housing and/or property] companies … has increased from 58% in 2017, 78% in 2019 to 83% in 2021 … From the direct survey, we have found that 80% of local authorities now self-report that they are directly engaged in the provision of housing, a notable increase from the 69% … in our 2019 survey … and the 65% from the 2017 survey.”

Who said academic conferences are an indulgent waste of time?

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⃰ A slightly abbreviated version of this blog – “Candidates will be homing in on a growing council priority” – appeared in the Birmingham Post on April 28th –  https://www.pressreader.com/uk/birmingham-post/20220428/281951726382871

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Empowering English local government to lead on sustainable and resilient development of their localities

Paul Corrigan and Paul Joyce

We have just been having a conversation about English local government and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. One of us had begun by being idealistic about it. Too idealistic. But our exchange led to this blog in which we end up wondering what local government can do pragmatically to encourage sustainable and resilient localities.

Let’s start with the realism. As a result of developments over the last forty years, as compared to much of Europe, English local government is an anomaly. To put it bluntly, English local government has a very low level of autonomy compared to local governments in Europe (and elsewhere), even though its national system of public governance is quite capable. Taxes are a relatively low proportion of local government revenue in the UK, and this is so in the context of a very low level of local government expenditure as a percentage of GDP. Surely, to have more autonomy in a locality local government needs to be able to find much of its revenue from locally set taxes. It is generally believed that if local government must rely on grants determined by central government, and especially if the grants are earmarked by central government for purposes decided by it, then there is little potential for local autonomy.

Countries such as Sweden, Finland, and Norway have reputations for much greater local government autonomy than the UK. These three are all countries which are rated as having very effective governance, high standards of living, high standards of health and education, and, on average, very happy citizens. Plus, they have enviable records in terms of public confidence in government, as compared to the situation in the UK over many years. It seems that you can have both good national outcomes and local government empowered with a lot of local autonomy.

We can see the financial situation of UK local government using OECD data for the year 2019:

Local government revenue and taxes (2019)

We should not give the impression that the only issue is one of finances. It is probably very important that English local government is embedded in a national system of public governance that is both strategic in character and operating in a whole-of-government manner. Arguably, the implication of such a governance system is that strategic coordination between levels of government is not attempted in a purely top-down way by central government. Another less obvious implication is that that there is a high level of social capital that local government can tap into so it can powerfully deliver sustainable development goals.

Now for the idealism. Local government has a long-term responsibility to its citizens to ensure that local communities survive and thrive for future generations. Consistent with this is the view that local governments (and regional governments) should be at the forefront of delivering the United Nation’s sustainable development goals. At the very least we can argue that local government has a critical role to play in their delivery.

Ideally speaking still, we can use some of the ideas of the United Nations’ Committee of Experts on Public Administration to suggest questions we might pose to local government everywhere – in every country – about their work in delivering the sustainable development goals (United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration 2022). The suggested questions are:

  • Have they aligned their visions for the development of their communities, their associated strategic plans, and their budgets and service policies with long-term sustainable development goals? 
  • Are individual local governments able to act in a way consistent with a whole-of-government approach to the delivery of their visions and strategies?
  • Are they able to track and account for their expenditures against the 17 sustainable development goals?
  • Are they able to evaluate and report to the public and other stakeholders on their performance in delivering the sustainable development goals in their locality?
  • Are they carrying out data analysis to identify the occurrence and extent of poverty and inequality as a prelude to local policy making?
  • Are they acting in their local areas to reduce poverty and inequality and to create more human development and empowerment?
  • Are they acting in partnership with citizens and other stakeholders through strategies such as community-driven development and participatory budgeting?
  • Are they able to engage the public in initiating and designing local public services?
  • Are they acting in accordance with the principles of open local governance?
  • Are they able to interact with central government and a get a cooperative response to problem solving from it?
  • Have they got the necessary skills and sufficient scale of financial resources they need to play a decisive role in sustainable and resilient development of their communities?

Finally, we arrive at the moment of pragmatism in this blog.  After the last forty years, which include the austerity years since 2010, we must recognise that English local government is placed in very challenging circumstances. We would say that they do not have the right legal framework, they do not have sufficient organisational capacity, and that they need more public support and resources to do what would be implied in the 11 questions above. They are currently exceptionally constrained in what they can do.

But the English local authorities have gained great skill in forming and developing partnerships and so they could develop stronger partnerships for sustainability. They could, for example, begin by consulting the public on community priorities. These priorities could be an input into local conferences to discuss voluntary coordination and efforts involving all the sectors (public, private, and voluntary). Finally, individual local authorities could prepare for better targeting of their highly constrained resources by auditing their expenditures against the 17 sustainable development goals.

In effect, pragmatic and idealist arguments suggested here call for the community leadership role of local government to be focused on delivering sustainable development mainly through encouraging and coordinating others at the local level.

Paul Corrigan has been a social science academic, a local government officer and a special adviser on health policy to New Labour Secretaries of State for Health and the Prime Minister Tony Blair. He now chairs Care City an innovation community interest company in the East End of London.

Paul Joyce is an Inlogov associate.  Paul has a PhD from London School of Economics and Political Science. His latest book is Strategic Management and Governance: Strategy Execution Around the World (Routledge, 6 June 2022). He is a Visiting Professor in Public Management at Leeds Beckett University.

Women in (West Midlands) Governance: A patchy metamorphosis

Chris Game

Yes, I did blog really rather recently on the topic of ‘Women in local and national governance’; and yes, I did conclude it by pledging to “retire gracefully from this particular field of research”.

But that was before I found myself fruitlessly upending my flat for anything conceivably useful to the Ukrainian refugees for whom one of my ward councillors was commendably collecting. Finding virtually nothing I could honourably offer, it was cash to the Disasters Emergency Committee, who assured me the UK Government would double my donation.

However, among the dust-covered treasures I’d totally forgotten, and spared the Ukrainians, was my 1975 Municipal Year Book (MYB) – a hefty, royal blue tome of 1,400-plus extremely closely printed pages, taking up over three inches of shelving.

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In pre-computer decades, when I joined INLOGOV, it was the proverbial local government bible – the 1975 MYB listing all 564 of the UK’s so-called principal local authorities plus, individually, their 26,467 councillors and further thousands of principal officers.

Several years later a thoughtful colleague, Ray Puffitt, bequeathed me his signed personal copy, possibly in exchange for my not pressing him to lecture to my undergraduate students.

Thoughtful because 1974/75 was, of course, the year of large-scale local government restructuring – or, in MYB-ese, ‘re-organization’. There were now far fewer councils and councillors, but these were the ‘new’ and therefore more relevant ones – which explains how I acquired my edition, though obviously not why it wasn’t binned decades ago.

Anyway, having discovered this 1975 stash of raw research data, I thought I’d share with you (and Birmingham Post readers) how much statistically women’s presence and visibility in our West Midlands local governments have changed in the past nearly half-century.

My earlier blog concluded by noting how Paulette Hamilton’s recent by-election victory for Labour in the Birmingham Erdington by-election had taken the proportion of women MPs over 35% for the first time. Moreover, that she and the six other women by-election winners since 2019 had – another first – made the Commons more gender-representative than our elected local governments, whose UK-wide proportion of women councillors has seemingly become stuck in the low 34%s.

Internationally, both percentages would get us, just, into the top quarter of the respective rankings. In educational lingo, though, it would be a “disappointing, could surely do better”.

If the Parliaments of Cuba, Mexico, New Zealand, Iceland and all Scandinavia can have more than 45% of elected women, why can’t we – or, more precisely, why doesn’t our huge Conservative Party majority comprise even a quarter? Similarly, if local government in countries as diverse as Bolivia, Tunisia, Iceland, Uganda, Namibia and Mexico can attract at least 45% of women elected members, why can we barely manage one in three?

At least, though, the picture has changed, or improved, hugely in the past half-century, which is what the rest of this blog is about – focusing on the metropolitan West Midlands.

I hadn’t moved to Birmingham in 1974/75, but I reckon that even without research I could probably have named the incumbent West Midlands’ women MPs – because, though few, they were all exceptional and established national reputations.

One, indeed, would have me as an Edgbaston constituent for the latter part of her elective parliamentary career: Jill (later Dame Jill) Knight, MP from 1966 to 1997.

The other three were all Labour: in West Bromwich another Dame-in-Waiting, Betty Boothroyd (1973-2000), latterly Speaker of the Commons. In Coventry West was Audrey Wise, and in Wolverhampton NE Renée Short. A formidable quartet.

Their successors are, necessarily, impressive too, and the reason I couldn’t immediately name them all is not just my ageing memory, but that there’s a full dozen of them. Eight Labour – including all three of Coventry’s – and four Conservatives out of West Midlands’ 28, or 43%.

Yardley’s Jess Phillips is, I’m guessing, probably best known, and she is one of just two of Labour’s eight who aren’t from minority ethnic backgrounds. Overall, another massive change from the mid-70s.

What about councillors?  Would the MYB’s council listings actually identify women members, and, if so, how?  Fortunately, they all risked the accusations of chauvinism and did – though in differing ways.

Birmingham, for example, gave first names – of all women members, while initialising the men. Then, as now, it was a Labour-dominated Council, 21 (17%) of whose 126 Members were women, including two Fredas, two Marys, and an exotic-sounding Carmen from Coleshill Road, B16. Oh yes, and a future Leader of the Council, Birmingham Lord Mayor, and wife of a Professor John Stewart.

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The other councils preferred marital status: almost always Mrs, with the very occasional Miss. Across the seven West Midlands councils Labour members outnumbered Conservatives by two to one, which was broadly reflected in women’s representation, with comfortably Tory Solihull managing just one woman out of 51 members.

However, the gender blend on Labour-run Coventry and Walsall Councils wasn’t that much better – four women on councils of well over 50, and one can only imagine how, on occasion, they must have been treated.

And no point whatever seeking empathy from senior women officers – because quite simply there weren’t any. Sorry, not strictly true. Of the 101 listed Principal Officers in the seven WM Councils, Miss H Clark, Wolverhampton’s Housing Manager, was the sole woman.

It’s here that the culture has changed most dramatically. Today, try counting the number of women in the senior managements of the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils, and the very first name you’d encounter would be Birmingham City Council Chief Executive: Deborah Cadman OBE – heading a 13-strong team of service Directors, including four more women.

Remarkably, though, that 38% female senior management puts Birmingham at the foot of this particular league table, which is headed by Dudley and Solihull with 75% and 67% women senior managers respectively, followed by Walsall with 57%, headed by CE Dr Helen Paterson. In this sphere of local government at least, there has indeed been a metamorphosis.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

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A version of this blog – ‘Equality progress – but room for improvement’ – was published by the Birmingham Post, March 24th, 2022 https://www.pressreader.com/uk/birmingham-post/20220324/textview

Women in local and national governance: the balance (at least in the UK) has shifted

Chris Game

One thing I’d expect most of this blog’s readers broadly to agree on is that UK ‘local’ government should really be given what grammarians call doubt quotes. It ceased long ago to be meaningfully local, decades before the next generation of county-based levelling-up deals.

So, I thought, where better to start this International Women’s Day (IWD) overview of women’s elected presence in local and central governance than at the other extreme: Barbuda, the alphabetically secondary part of Antigua and Barbuda, the Caribbean country comprising these two Leeward Islands plus several enticingly named even smaller ones: Great Bird, Prickly Pear, etc.

Constitutionally almost just like us, A & B is a unitary, parliamentary, representative democratic monarchy: a two-House Parliament, with only the lower House directly elected, but Labour faring rather better than they have done here lately. Here’s the thing, though. The two main islands are wildly unbalanced – Antigua with over 97% of the nearly 100,000 population, Barbuda barely 2%.  Yet Barbuda is the one, for 45 years now, with the local democratic smarts: its directly elected Barbuda Council.

The island of Antigua is run by – yes, you guessed – ‘The Ministry’; in this case MESYGA, the Ministry of Education, Sports, Youth and Gender Affairs. Barbuda has not only its elected 11-member Council, but, as you’ll see from its Barbudaful website, a majority of women members and a woman Chair.

Such councils anywhere are rare, which is why – I could sense you wondering – Barbuda’s is deservedly up front on IWD, or in UoB’s case the start of International Women’s Month.  And the remainder of this blog will draw on some of the other amassment of data in surely THE most fitting sourcebook for the day.  Entitled, with needless modesty, a ‘Working Paper’, it’s UN Women’s  Working Women’s Representation in Local Government: A Global Analysis, authored chiefly by Ionica Berevoescu and Julie Ballington, published December 2021 – and it’s a treasure trove.

The overview of new local-level data that ideally should constitute the core of this blog is inevitably pretty summary, but needs to be made even more so by at least a brief reference to the subject’s overall political context and importance. Women’s rights to equal political participation at all levels of government have for the past quarter-century been variously asserted, affirmed, and endorsed in proclamations of international goals, most importantly in the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – Target 5.5 being to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life” (emphasis added).

It’s that new indicator – extended to women’s representation in the world’s local governments, or at least 133 of them in early 2020 – that this blog was going to be primarily about.  It got kind of overtaken, though, by the even bigger question: Are women worldwide, as has long been the case in Britain, better represented in local than in national governments?

Given the nature of local governments’ usually major service responsibilities and expenditures, my personal feeling was that it would be rather regrettable if they weren’t – the more so if I was wrong on the UK figures, and, instead of simply getting closer by the year, they could be shown statistically finally to have crossed over.

SPOILER ALERT!  However, since, and probably even before, last Thursday’s Birmingham Erdington parliamentary by-election – in which Labour’s Paulette Hamilton became the seventh woman victor in this Parliament’s eight by-elections and the fifth to replace a male predecessor, bringing the total of women MPs to a record, and statistically significant, 225 – I WAS wrong.

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Here’s how. Thanks to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s annual tabulations, we’ve been able to track that part of the international picture for decades.  In the 1990s the top women-friendly countries were notably Euro-dominated, though with no help from us.  In !997, for instance, the only five Lower Houses internationally to have more than 30% women memberships were Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands. New Zealand, the Seychelles, Argentina and Mozambique were trying, but the UK was down in an embarrassing 50th place and unable to manage even double figures. Ahead, admittedly, of France and Greece, but that was about it.

Ten years on, thanks considerably to the arrival of variously legislated or voluntary gender quotas, the overall picture had improved, and Rwanda had crashed the 50% barrier, with 45 (56%) women in its 80-seat Chamber of Deputies. Cuba and Argentina were over 40% … and the UK, though still just ahead of France, was down to 60th, struggling now to reach 20%.

Today – or, more precisely, in last month’s IPU Parline rankings – the global picture has become more variegated still. The top 15, with around 45% or more women, currently comprise five countries from each of Europe (Iceland, Andorra, Sweden, Finland, Norway) and Latin America (Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina), two African (Rwanda, of course, and South Africa) and one each from Asia (United Arab Republic), Australasia (New Zealand), and the Caribbean (Grenada).

And the UK?  Up to a hardly glorious 45th alongside Dominica – with just over the one in three, which at least is better than the House of Lords’ 28.6%.

So … the big question was: Is our local government today – still, as always hitherto – more gender representative than our national elected legislature?

As you may sense, I wasn’t bringing absolute researcher detachment to this exercise. It was posed in the hope/expectation that it would prove to be what Latin scholars call a ‘nonne’ or affirmative question, expecting the answer ‘Yes.’  Of course there’d be a higher proportion of women councillors than women MPs – wouldn’t there?

I knew the 2019 General Election stats: 220 women MPs, including, obviously for the first time, majorities of both Labour and Lib Dem Members. Congrats, obviously, to them, but, with the Conservatives’ massive majority comprising under a quarter of women, local government would still have at least a narrow percentage lead – wouldn’t it?

But then began, as noted above, the striking trend of victorious women by-election candidates replacing former male MPs, and when Paulette Hamilton did her thing last Thursday, I was getting seriously nervous.  225/650 is 34.6%; rounded up becomes 35% – an all-time record, which is obviously a ‘good thing’, but worryingly close to what I reckoned the local government figure to be.

To cut a potentially tedious story short: if, as we relatively rarely do, we compare the whole of UK local government – as opposed to that of England, or sometimes England and Wales – it currently makes the decisive difference.  For the first time, authoritative, genuinely compiled and comparable statistics showed there to be proportionately more women MPs than women councillors.

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I shall now retire gracefully from this particular field of research and address something perhaps more rewarding – like whether being a plurinational, rather than merely multinational, state somehow boosts women’s electoral prospects.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

The Good Law Project – proud to be judged by its enemies

Chris Game

“I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made”. No, not Ukraine’s remarkable President Zelenskyy, fitting though it would seem. It’s generally attributed to the rather longer-serving US President Franklin D Roosevelt, an at least equally appropriate author for this column’s political theme.

But who in the last fortnight’s UK politics might have prompted FDR’s “judge me by my enemies” thought?  Well, it wasn’t exactly a ‘who’.  Rather, a smallish, youngish, not-for-profit campaigning organisation doing its best to challenge abuses of power, inequality and injustice, mostly by Government departments and Ministers, in cases bigger, better-funded organisations hesitate to take on.

And they do have an appealing name – the Good Law Project (GLP).  Which is fortunate, since appealing is how they’re largely funded – through donations and periodic crowd-funded contributions to cover specific cases, as in this instance.

In a few short years, dominated by our EU exit and Covid, they’ve also racked up a pretty appealing court record, unless of course you view it as, say, a recent or current Government minister.

You’ll recall that Boris Johnson, within weeks of becoming PM in July 2019, ‘advised’ the Queen to prorogue/shut down Parliament for an unprecedented five weeks, thereby avoiding further parliamentary scrutiny of the already thrice-defeated Brexit withdrawal agreement, and enabling the UK potentially to leave the EU on October 31st without a deal.

The Queen had little constitutional option but to accede. Others, though, did. The GLP crowd-funded an appeal, sufficient to allow lawyers to petition first the Scottish Appeal Court, then the UK Supreme Court. You can maybe even re-picture the historic, televised, unanimous 11-judge ruling, delivered by the UoB Vice-Chancellor’s most recent Distinguished Lecturer, the Supreme Court’s spider-brooched President, Lady Hale.

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Johnson’s prorogation advice to the Queen “was outside the powers of the PM”, Parliament’s suspension unlawful and unconstitutional, and it should be immediately reconvened. Score: UK Government 0, GLP several.

Then came Covid, bringing with it what was quickly tagged ‘institutionalised cronyism’, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove the biggest serial offenders.

The GLP could have chosen numerous cases, but selected three PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) contracts as illustrations: £252m to a finance company for face masks, £108m to a confectionery products agency, and £345m to a company trading as Pestfix – which, as we’ll see, is what the grudge-bearing Hancock would still dearly love to do to the GLP.

The otherwise defenceless Health Secretary – the man who broke his own social distancing guidelines in his own office – resorted to disputing GLP’s legal standing. The high court judge ruled, however, that he had acted unlawfully in respect of “vast quantities” of taxpayers’ money in failing to publish multibillion pound contracts within the legally required 30 days.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove also had cronies. Ministers in those early Covid days needed to influence public opinion, and get focus group feedback on the effectiveness of their messaging.  Unfortunately, neither Gove nor anyone in the entire civil service could think of an experienced polling company.

Luckily, though, the PM’s Chief Adviser, Dominic Cummings, knew a ‘communications agency’, Public First, run by chance by some friends. Time, regrettably, was far too short for advertising or competitive tendering, so Public First got the eventual £840,000 ‘no-tender’ contract. Job done.

What was fast becoming almost standard ministerial practice was a gift for the GLP, and they set about proving Gove too had broken the law.

In June 2021 the High Court finally agreed. It rejected Gove’s bluster that no one else could possibly do the job, ruling that any “reasonable observer” – the legal test – would reckon it was Public First’s relationships with Cummings and Gove that secured the contract. The minister had indeed broken the law … and the GLP had acquired another ministerial enemy.  And no, Gove didn’t resign either.

Time for a statement of the obvious. The GLP don’t always win, as we’ll see. They deliberately select tough cases that big, established law firms decline. They raise funding case-by-case. Considering which, their record is impressive: in 2021, “four judgements, four wins”.

Then came Tuesday Feb.15th.  Notwithstanding Ukraine and the Duke of York, most media found room for reports variously headlined: “Ex-Health Secretary Matt Hancock broke/ignored/did not comply with equality laws/rules/duty over Covid appointments”.

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In a case brought jointly by the UK’s leading independent equality thinktank, the Runnymede Trust, and the GLP, two High Court judges ruled that “the UK government failed to comply with equality law” when appointing Baroness Dido Harding as Chair of the National Institute for Health Protection and Mr Mike Coupe as Director of Testing at Test and Trace.

Specifically, the “then Health Secretary Matt Hancock did not uphold a public sector duty to promote equality when hiring officials.”

It sounds clear and crushing enough, and it was.  However, that part of the judges’ verdict was in effect directed only at the Runnymede Trust, who had what is known as the standing and entitlement to bring the case. The judges deemed the GLF not to have such ‘standing’ – now or, by implication, were likely to have any time soon.

Still, does that verdict sound to you like an ex-Minister’s judicial triumph?  It apparently did to him!  Read to the end of the Guardian report, and you’ll see he went on instant attack, in a way that readers must have found, if not confusing, then surely bemusing, or simply desperate.

“We’re delighted the department has won yet another court case against the discredited Good Law Project. Claims of ‘apparent bias’ and ‘indirect discrimination’ have been quashed and thrown out by the high court.”  Which, of course, they weren’t.

“What the judgment does make clear is that ‘the claim brought by Good Law Project fails in its entirety’, therefore highlighting the fact this group continues to waste the court’s time.”

Back, then, to President Roosevelt. Last week was undoubtedly a setback for the GLP.  But the instant glee and hauteur with which the court’s ruling was received by Hancock and some of its other critics suggest that, given its record and support, it is unlikely to prove the “existential blow” they apparently crave.

And on the FDR scale – “Judge us by the enemies we’ve made” – they’re still doing pretty well.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

This blog was originally published in the Birmingham Post, March 3-9, entitled ‘Campaign group proud to be judged by its enemies’

Monday Jan 17th 2022 – The Great Parliamentary Resistance (Part 1)

Chris Game

About the first sizable 2022-dated research-based publication I at least scanned was the alliteratively subtitled The Great Reset: Public Opinion, Populism, and the Pandemic by Cambridge University’s Centre for the Future of Democracy.  Based on massive international data sets, it finds that (summarising outrageously), while the pandemic has generally reversed the rise of populist leaders, parties and attitudes, the cost has been “a disturbing erosion of support for core democratic beliefs and principles, including less liberal attitudes with respect to basic civil rights and liberties, and weaker preference for democratic government.”

The UK Government can obviously provide numerous illustrations – from its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers to a Justice Secretary who wants to rewrite the Human Rights Act minus its “wokery”.

But then, literally following the weekend of my coming across The Great Reset, we had the extraordinary, in parts even historic, Monday evening of the Great Parliamentary Resistance.

Both Houses were involved, and two separate Government Bills, both as controversial as they are important, both the subject of consequential, even history-making action simultaneously throughout the evening – and virtually all of at least interest, where not of direct relevance, to an Institute of Local Government Studies.

This Government, even in its legislative behaviour, is greedy, disorganised and unscrupulous, and on that Monday 17th it was all on display – the problem being that, with the more complicated (House of Lords) action being summarily and potentially misleadingly reported, doing justice to the historic legislative events seemed a bit too much for a single blog.  What’s more, I didn’t come across a single stealable visual aid.

So, I took a decision: two separate but linked blogs. The second – because it makes better chronological sense – will cover the hugely controversial Elections Bill, that seeks to ‘Reset’ some of those core democratic beliefs and principles referred to above: among other things, introducing mandatory voter ID at polling stations, undermining the independence of the Electoral Commission, and changing the electoral system for Mayors and Police & Crime Commissioners.

Its intentions to restrict voting are blatantly partisan; it has been rammed through Parliament, added to and amended, minimising legislative scrutiny; and on that Monday evening it received its Third Commons Reading on more or less straightforward partisan lines (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-60037651), and thereby progresses to the Lords.

Both Jason Lowther and I have blogged previously about aspects of the Bill, and Part 2 of ‘The Great Parliamentary Resistance’ will shortly update them.

For the remainder of this Part 1, though, it’s across to the Lords and their truly historic Monday evening, when they savaged the Government’s ‘flagship’ Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – and not once or twice but an apparently Parliamentary record 14 times! 

Even the Bill’s title suggests a huge legislative gallimaufry, and it is – a classic Priti Patel production, taking the whole of the second part of last year to progress through the Lords to last Monday’s Report stage. That time lapse proving, pleasingly piquantly, the key to some of the Government’s difficulties.

For Patel evidently thought it would be a clever wheeze to use the Lords’ extended deliberations as an opportunity to add all sorts of additional clauses to the Bill, covering some of the myriad things that had enraged her since March – like Insulate Britain’s M25 traffic obstructions last September and Extinction Rebellion protests around November’s UN Cop26 climate summit.

All of which meant that there were three distinct types of Government defeats – sorry, votes – taking place at this Lords Report Stage.  First, the ‘normal procedural’ ones, on parts of the Bill as received from the Commons last July, that the opposition parties in the Lords would like to see reconsidered by MPs and ideally amended or removed. This will kick off the process so whimsically known as ‘parliamentary ping pong’ between the two Houses.

Patel’s ‘late additions’, though, are another matter entirely: criminalising protests deemed too noisy and disruptive … and protesters ‘locking on’, either to each other or immovable objects … and interference with key national infrastructure … and obstructing major transport works … and allowing police to stop and search without giving reasons … and allowing courts to ban regular protesters from even attending protests …   The Lords defeated all of these and MPs can’t reinstate them, as they never voted them into the Bill in the first place, so they’re removed altogether – or at least until Patel repackages them into another Bill for the new parliamentary year starting in April.

Then there are the Lords’ own ‘late additions’ – reviewing the prevalence of ‘drink-spiking’ crime … and crime motivated by ‘misogyny’ … and removing police powers to determine what constitutes a ‘noisy’ assembly … and belatedly repealing the 1824 Vagrancy Act, thereby establishing that begging or sleeping rough should no longer, in this post-Napoleonic/Waterloo era, constitute criminal offences.

None of these were in the Bill when it left the Commons, but they are now – and if MPs don’t like them, they’ll have to vote them down.

What concerned me about the initial reports I read of the Great Lords Monday Night Rebellion was that most seemed, albeit understandably, excited by the record 14 Government defeats, to the point of failing to note the really rather significant differences in the categories and potential significance of the defeats – even some of those with a stake in some of that detail, like Police Professional or Green World.  

So, having recently received my copy of the Inlogov Associates Handbook and being slightly apprehensive that the Director might try to inveigle me into some actual lecturing, I thought I’d prepare the first new overhead I’ve attempted for, well, a few years now – summarising at least my understanding of the current state of play. Hope it helps!

 

 

 

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.