‘The Great Parliamentary Resistance’ – some of the outcomes

Chris Game

Back in early February, I wrote a blog dissecting one of two big and controversial Government Bills involved in what I slightly hyperbolically termed the “historic Monday evening of the Great Parliamentary Resistance” – Monday, 17th January, when the Elections Bill received its Third Commons Reading, while across the way the Lords were savaging the ‘flagship’ Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill by defeating the Government a Parliamentary record 14 times in the same sitting[1].

Both Bills, in being big and controversial, were fiercely contested throughout their Parliamentary progress and significantly amended – to the extent that my initial idea of highlighting and summarising such amendments in two linked blogs in, say, February and March, proved ludicrously unrealisable. Not least because neither received their Royal Assent until 28th April.

On the ball, as ever, Jason Lowther blogged immediately about the particular aspects of the now Elections Act with which he had been particularly concerned – the Government’s ‘solution’ to the undemonstrated ‘problem’ of ‘personation’, of having in future to show counter-signed photo ID at UK Parliamentary and English local and PCC elections.

This single blog, therefore, will attempt two ludicrously daunting tasks: (a) to at least mention some of the additional, less publicised, measures in or out of the Elections Act, and (b) similarly, but even more summarily, for the considerably more complex Police, Crime etc. Act.

There were two key and particularly controversial Elections Act proposals, that went down to the proverbial wire at the so-called Ping pong stage of the Parliamentary process (pp.79ff. of the H/Commons Library briefing noted by Jason).

First, obviously, the several proposed age-discriminatory and non-photographic forms of ID that had been in and out of the Bill throughout – mentioned again here frankly as a pretext for reminding anyone who needs it of just how long and how implacably opposed the PM himself has been to ID cards of any description, and accordingly what we can presumably look out for come Election Day.

election1

The other long-running dispute concerned the Act’s provision for the Government to set a “strategy and policy statement” for the constitutionally independent Electoral Commission.  Some suspicious Parliamentarians suggested this might go beyond scrutiny and accountability, and “potentially into providing guidance about how [the Commission carries out its] functions on a day-to-day basis”.

They wanted it “not bound by” the Government’s “statement”, but apparently they were guilty of a “mischaracterisation” of the Government’s intentions, and the relevant amendments were defeated.

The Government’s listing of the Act’s additional benefits appears, of course, on the relevant Gov.UK page – summarised under the comfort blanket of the several “greater protections” it provides for voters, and also for candidates and campaigners.

Protection from fraud through photo ID, of course, but also from intimidation at the ballot box – the latter by fines, up to 5-year bans, and even imprisonment for offenders convicted of attempting an extended definition of ‘undue influence’.

Voters with disabilities must in future be provided with specialist equipment, and may be accompanied by an adult.  And the 15-year limit on the voting rights of British ex-pats, retired or working abroad, will be removed. An estimated 3 million potential voters are currently affected by the limit, and – read into this what you will – it fulfils a pledge in three recent Conservative manifestos.

Finally – although it was actually the first bit of the legislation I blogged about, back last April – the Act will change the voting system for both Mayoral and Police & Crime Commissioner elections from the ‘transferable’/choice-extending Supplementary Vote to First Past The Post – on the basis of “no other plausible argument” than it might fractionally reduce the numbers of rejected ballots”.

I have views – as doubtless do Mayors Tracy Brabin (Lab – West Yorkshire), Ben Houchen (Cons – Tees Valley) and Andy Burnham (Lab – Greater Manchester), all recently elected after transfers – but not here.

And so to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act – a real pantechnicon of a Bill/Act, highly technical in places, with even the ‘short’ and definitely the ‘long’ (150-word) titles signalling how impossible it is seriously to summarise.

It makes major changes across the criminal justice system, significantly extending police powers and the treatment of suspected, arrested, charged and convicted offenders. Again, there is a substantial (100+ pages) Commons Library summary of the whole legislative process; also a detailed House of Lords account – presented, slightly disconcertingly, in reverse chronological order – covering the fate of at least some of the Lords’ 17th Jan. amendments.

I was never keen on listing Wiki on student reading lists, but in this case I might well make an exception.  For this blog, though, I have borrowed (sounds so much better than plagiarised!) the content of the next few paragraphs from the BBC’s summary –mainly because it focuses, as many of those Lords motions did, on the implications for and threats to the right to protest.

Until now, it has generally been the police’s responsibility, if they want to restrict a protest, to show it may result in “serious public disorder, property damage, or disruption to the life of the community” (emphasis added). They can also change/restrict the routes of marches. For major events, like the COP26 protests, details are typically agreed with the organisers weeks in advance.

The new Act enables particular measures to be designed for ‘static protests’, like those of Extinction Rebellion, whose modus operandi is to force governmental action on the “climate and ecological emergency” through non-violent civil disobedience, the occupation of roads and bridges, etc.  Start and finish times and noise limits will now be set, even for protests involving just one person, with fines up to £2,500.

Edward Colston, the C18th merchant/slave trader whose statue was pushed into Bristol docks gets his own clause, with damage to memorials earning up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has described the “rushed” legislation as creating “incredibly widely drawn” powers …”, allowing the police to stop and search anyone in the vicinity of a protest, including passers-by, people on the way to work and peaceful protesters.”

The Government/Home Office/Police viewpoint is set out in a Home Office Policy Paper.

[1] It appeared on 4th February, at the start of what proved a particularly active blogging month, with the consequence that, to access it, you may need to key ‘Older Posts’ at the end of the February 2022 selection.

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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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After austerity, comes the reckoning

Jason Lowther

The publication last month of the Institute for Government’s report on the impact of cuts in local services during the decade of austerity has revealed to the public what has been obvious in the sector for years – austerity was hugely unfair and hit the poorest hardest. 

Neighbourhood services under strain is written in IfG’s usual forensic style, and its conclusion is all the more brutal because of it: the most deprived areas received the biggest grant cuts, resulting in bigger reductions in local services such as libraries and recycling.  Central government grants were cut more in deprived areas because of the way cuts to grant funding were distributed ignoring councils’ different degree of dependency on this income source.  Because of the central cuts and pressures such as the increasing demand for social services, councils have been forced to cut preventative and universal services like children’s centres and housing programmes to help vulnerable people to live independently.

The report’s detailed analysis of changes in spending reported to DHCLG concludes that most councils chose to protect similar services.  ‘Relatively protected’ services included environment and regulatory services, homelessness and public transport.  At the other extreme, most councils applied higher than average spending cuts in housing, cultural, and planning services (figure 1 below).  This mirrors earlier analysis by the National Audit Office (which also highlighted the protection of social care services).

Figure 1: Local authorities that disproportionately cut, relatively protected, or increased neighbourhood services spending between 2009/10 and 2019/20, by category

Source: Institute for Government analysis of DLUHC, Local authority revenue expenditure and financing in England: individual local authority data – revenue outturn 2009/10 and 2019/20.

The IfG report hints at the innovative ways different councils responded to these pressures, from contract renegotiation and the use of new technology, to service redesign and rationalisation.  For a more detailed exploration of this, I recommend Alison Gardner’s excellent thesis on how local councils responded to austerity – including strategic asset management, shared services, commercialisation, co-production and demand management.  Whatever methods were used, however, it’s clear that by the second half of the decade of austerity the cuts were no longer into ‘fat’ but into ‘flesh’.

These new findings add to a growing library of research on the effects of the UK government choice to pursue austerity policies, including a BMJ study in October 2021 which suggested that the constraints on health and social care spend during this period of ‘austerity’ have been associated with 57,550 more deaths than would have been expected had the growth in spend followed trends before 2010.  Considering cuts to local government funding specifically, a July 2021 study in The Lancet estimated that cuts in funding were associated with an increase in the gap in life expectancy between the most and least deprived quintiles by 3% for men and 4% for women between 2013 and 2017. Overall reductions in local government funding during this period were associated with an additional 9,600 deaths in people younger than 75 years in England. Well before the pandemic, the UK was seeing a rapid slowdown in life expectancy gains in the 2010s and, although a number of other high income countries also saw such slowdowns, of large populations only the USA experienced a more severe slowdown/reversal and the magnitude of the slowdown in the UK was more severe than other large European populations.

Perhaps the most damning finding of the IfG report is that central government lacks the information to know what the impact of its spending cuts are on local services.  This echoes the assessment of the Nuffield Trust and Health Foundation back in 2014 which warned government was making decisions with ‘no comprehensive way to quantify the impact that social care cuts are having on their health and wellbeing’ and were therefore effectively ‘flying blind’.  Having abolished the Audit Commission in 2010, the government was left with no comparable performance statistics for two-thirds of local services.  Some may believe that this was quite convenient, given what we are now learning about the effects of that government’s spending policies.

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.

Tenure1

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?

________________________

⃰ 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.

What ID for Voter ID? 

Jason Lowther

Photo credit: Liz West, https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/

Last October, I wrote in this blog about the many positive aspects of the Elections Bill currently working its way through parliament.  It clarifies what “undue influence” on voters means, improves poll accessibility, reduces the risk of intimidation of candidates and requires all paid for digital political material to have an imprint.  The big problem, though, is the plan to require voters to present certain restricted types of identification in order to vote.  This month the House of Lords voted to mitigate this problem.

As part of the “Report Stage” of the bill, on 6th April the Lords agreed an amendment which radically expands the range of identification documentation which voters could use.  The new list is fairly extensive including an adoption certificate, bank or building society statement, P45 form, asylum seeker letter from the Home Office, and even a library card or National Railcard. 

In the debate, Cross-bencher Lord Woolley of Woodford claimed that the government had failed to make a convincing case on voter fraud – quoting one conviction from 47 million voters, which he likened to the chance of winning the national lottery jackpot.   He said that the cost of insisting on photographic ID could be to disenfranchise 2 million voters.

For the Greens, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb labelled the policy ‘a cynical ploy’. She went on to claim: “It is a clear attempt by the Government to make it harder for people to vote in elections. That is the only motive I can see when we have this sort of Bill in front of us. More cynically still, it will disproportionately stop BAME, working-class, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people voting. These people find it hard enough to vote already. Anything you put in their way will stop them voting completely; that is preventing democracy’.

One of the amendment’s sponsors, Conservative former cabinet minister Lord Willetts, said that there was little concern with voter personation in the mainland and raised the concern that a future government elected with a small majority could face questions if significant numbers of voters had been unable to vote due to the new requirements.  He concluded that the amendment was ‘protecting our system from a major political and constitutional risk while remaining consistent with the manifesto on which the Conservative Party fought the last election’.

The vote on ‘Amendment 8’ in the Lords was 199 to 170, with three Conservative peers in favour and 155 against.  The House of Lords has its final sitting on the Report Stage on Monday (25th April), after which it will complete the Third Reading before the bill returns to the Commons for its consideration of the amendments.  The Government is known to be concerned at the inclusion of ID which does not have a photo, so the amendment is likely to be further challenged.

UPDATE (30/4/22): As anticipated, the Government rejected Amendment 8 in the Commons as the Government’s view was the types of ID listed were not sufficiently secure and might be prone to fraud. More detail is available in the excellent summary by Elise Uberoi and Neil Johnston for the House of Commons Library here.

Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies (writing in a personal capacity).