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England’s systemic centralisation: instinctive and fatally costly
It’s years since I taught an undergraduate British Government and Politics seminar, but I still occasionally miss them. Particularly recently. A setting in which to discuss, for example, how ‘science’ is a method and process of acquiring knowledge. Not a collection of more and less objective scientists’ opinions, or even a ‘scientifically’ collected body of data, analysed and interpreted at an arbitrary point in time.
An audience to whom I could explain how even I could call myself a ‘political scientist’ – for at least a fraction of my academic life – and, indeed, how they too can have the experience of doing a bit of political science investigation.
Let’s take the 70-odd Downing Street Covid-19 daily media briefings, and do some data gathering – well, counting – having, of course, first formulated some hypotheses that we can test and advance our knowledge by seeking to falsify.
Hypothesis Ia: The first minister, Johnson excepted, to front one of these briefings was Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary, but also, as First Secretary of State, most senior Cabinet member.
1b: … was Matt Hancock, with his ultra-relevant Health and Social Care portfolio and ever-present pink tie.
1c: … was Michael Gove, Minister for the Cabinet Office, who announced the establishment of the four Covid-19 Ministerial Implementation Groups. Etc., etc.
Other hypotheticals would include Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, possibly Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, though possibly not Home Secretary Priti Patel, despite being apparently the only woman minister capable of reading from a lectern.
In fact, it’s none of these, although they have each done their share. Raab was actually 8th minister to feature, but has since notched up 12 appearances. Hancock has re-overtaken Johnson and is fast approaching 20. Sunak, Jenrick, and Alok Sharma (Business, Enterprise & Industrial Strategy) are on five, and another half-dozen on fewer, including Gove and Patel on three.
But, returning to the hypothesis, the shooting star we were looking for – the first other than the PM himself – was actually Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, George Eustice. How short are our memories. His brief includes the food supply chain, and this was late March – panic-buying, pasta-hoarding weekend.
So to Hypothesis 2: The total number of elections to serve as a plain local government councillor – principal councils only and not London Mayor – won by all ministers fronting these briefings is relatively small, and far, far smaller than in most other European countries – say, less than five.
Low as the hypothesis bar is set, it turns out to be far too high. The answer is one. One four-year term of elected local government experience between the lot of them. It was served by then 24-year old Gavin Williamson, now Education Secretary, giving English primary schools his considered judgement on when they should reopen.
It’s easy to mock, but there are archive pictures of Williamson doing his thing as North Yorkshire County Council’s ‘Champion of Youth Issues’. Making him, I believe, alone among that TV-trusted Cabinet dozen to have even minimal first-hand insight into how local government operates in the policy field for which they are responsible.
The others can tell you lots, variously, about banking (Hancock), hedge fund management (Sunak), litigation (Raab), corporate finance (Alok Sharma), corporate law (Jenrick), public relations (Eustice, Patel), journalism (Johnson, Gove), marketing (Grant Shapps), Conservative Central Office (Patel, Oliver Dowden).
But actually experiencing what they presumably aspired to do – campaigning, meeting voters, getting elected, representing people, learning about the provision and funding of public services, the whole government and public administration thing – evidently never struck them as career-relevant.
Which today means they know virtually nothing at first-hand about some of the vital, but less visible, stuff local governments do: emergency contingency planning, air quality monitoring, water testing, pest control – oh yes, and communicable disease investigation and outbreak control, or ‘nuisance-chasing’.
‘Nuisance’ was one of my mother’s favourite words, applied frequently to my sister and myself, but to almost any usually minor upset to her daily life routine. Mask-wearing and disinfecting supermarket trolley handles would be a ‘nuisance’, not the wretched pandemic itself.
Yet the etymology of ‘nuisance’ is the Latin ‘nocere’ – to harm – and its original 15th Century meaning could quite conceivably be applied to Covid-19 and its capacity to inflict serious and even fatal harm.
A mid-19th Century predecessor of today’s Directors of Public Health would therefore have boasted the title of Nuisance Inspector – his nuisance agenda including factory air pollution, small-pox and cholera outbreaks, and sanitation, with the first generation of public urinals.
Nuisance Inspectors could not by themselves transform towns and cities, but they played a huge part. As do their modern-day successors – Directors of Public Health, a majority of whom, incidentally, are women, including 12 of the 14 in my own West Midlands region. Those successors, however – the ones that have survived the past decade of local government funding and employment cuts – could and should have been both consulted and actually doing even more.
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health reckons there are some 5,000 Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) working in UK local councils. All have job descriptions including responsibilities like “investigating outbreaks of infectious diseases and preventing them spreading further.”
That’s what they do – test, track, trace and treat people with anything from salmonella to sexually transmitted diseases – in areas, moreover, with which they are totally familiar and have networks of contacts. ‘Shoe-leather epidemiology’ is the technical term – seriously.
So presumably, as in other countries – South Korea, Singapore, Germany, Ireland – these EHOs will have been reassigned from other work and spent their time contact tracing?
Rhetorical question! For our Government, the chimera of “world-beating” apps was far sexier than local anthropology. From early March, contrary to World Health Organisation guidelines, the ‘science-led’ masterplan was to ‘delay’ the spread of Covid-19, then develop vital smartphone apps – vital, but, as conceded, still “weeks” from fully operational.
The March delay would enable the consequently desperately limited scale of contact-tracing to be undertaken centrally by staff newly recruited by Public Health England – the executive agency of Matt Hancock’s Health and Social Care Department, described again this past weekend as “not fit for purpose”.
Insufficient, inexperienced staff doing a job crying out for the skills, knowledge and contacts of council EHOs, who instead were monitoring social distancing rules in pubs, clubs and restaurants.
There are almost always costs in ‘keeping it central’, but, as we have seen, for so many ministers, it must be instinctive. It’s all they and most of their civil servants know at first hand. The alternative would be funding and at least sharing data with pesky local authorities, thereby losing some of their precious control.
Finally, on May 22nd, all other options exhausted, the Government did announce it would allocate a ring-fenced £300 million to English councils to play a leading role, starting immediately, in tracking and tracing people suspected of being at risk of Covid-19.
This time, tragically, the cost of blinkered, prejudiced, self-protective government was paid in lives. Though, no, that’s not quite how I’d have put it to my undergrad seminar.
Chris Game is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is the joint-author of the best-selling introductory text on Local Government in the United Kingdom. Image credit: Number 10/Flickr.