Roundup – National Children’s and Adults Services Conference

This year’s ‘National Children’s and Adults Services’ (social care) conference, saw contrasting perspectives on the changing role of local authorities. Peter Hay, the current President  of the Association of Directors of Adult social Services, speaking at the morning session, welcomed the new leadership role of local authorities with regard to public health.

In the afternoon, by contrast, Andy Burnham, the new shadow Secretary of State was concerned that current reforms would result in a loss of local authority powers and of local accountability. Concentrating on the NHS and on education, his view was that reforms were dominated by provider interests. They hand huge power to GP’s and Head Teachers and take it away from service users. ‘In a world with no PCT’s,’ asked Burnham ‘how can patients challenge decisions by GP commissioners?’. He concluded that Parliament has not yet woken up to the full implications of these reforms.

The current Localism bill includes proposals for independent social work practices to take over local authority social work functions, so this raises the question of whether Burnham’s concerns will be an issue for adult social care. Independent practices are already being piloted, and in August the Secretary of State for Health issued the Contracting Out (England) order 2011 to ensure that the delegation of local authority functions to these practices is lawful. The order can be found here.

Whether this order was strictly necessary depends on what independent social work practices will be expected to do. Older people for the most part do not receive extended social work interventions. Their contact with social work is more likely to be through assessment, arranging services, and if they are lucky, subsequent reviews of their care and support arrangements. Continue reading “Roundup – National Children’s and Adults Services Conference”

Local referendum scrapped

Communities lose the chance to use local referendum to debate the issues they think are important.

As the Localism Bill enters its last stages the government dropped a clause that allowed local people to instigate referendum on any local issue and concerning any local public body.

This is disappointing because it takes away an opportunity to give older people a way to be involved in local decision making and get their issues debated.

The change of heart came after a Lords debate earlier this month, which suggested the referendum process would be expensive and at risk of abuse from extreme groups.

The government could have responded to these challenges by strengthening the Bill rather than scrapping the whole idea.

In the original proposals the local authority would have been able to decide whether it was appropriate to carry out the referendum or not. There could have been clearer standards to give councils the ability to legitimately decide whether or not to take a topic forward as a referendum. This would have reduced the risk of the process being hijacked.

It’s also important to remember that in fact the Bill stated the results of the referendum were non-binding. Councils could have decided whether or not to act on the results.

This supported an alternative argument that the local referendum was too weak.

On the other hand referendums would have given another method for communities to participate in local debate, rather than waiting for the council to consult them.

Baroness Hanham claimed there was “pretty good coverage for people to have their voice heard”.

Having spoken to older people’s forums about the Localism Bill I thought this seemed a little disingenuous. More ways are needed for there people in later life to shape the neighbourhoods they live in and services they rely on.

There are other measures still in the Bill that give communities more rights, including running public services, neighbourhood planning and buying local buildings. Yet what marks all of these is the level of complexity that is neededto understand them and the commitment needed to make them work. (See previous blog – Can you take the community challenge?)

The government now needs to focus energy on making sure engagement and inclusion are at the heart of the remaining community rights so that everyone is given equal opportunity to participate.

The referendum idea may not have been perfect. It was however a fairly straightforward option for individuals to understand and be able to initiate  debate on issues that come from the community rather than the council.

Read our brefing on the Localism Bill

Setting councils free

In a speech last week Communities Secretary Eric Pickles declared ‘the sky’s the limit for localism’. And according to Mr Pickles when it comes to public services ‘there is no guidance manual’. The balance between setting councils free and making sure they are meeting the needs of all their residents is an ongoing debate (also see my blog: Is there a limit to Localism). As the Localism Bill enters Committee Stage of the House of Lords this week the debate goes on.

The Localism Bill gives local authorities a ‘general power of competence’. At first glance the general power appears to have adequate safeguards. Yes, local authorities will be given the ability to do anything an individual can do, rather than only being able to do things that Parliament specifically authorises. But they will also have to act in accordance with statutory limitations or restrictions.

The concern arises when you look at the other powers sited in this clause: the Secretary of State has the power ‘to amend, repeal, revoke or disapply’ any statutory provision that prevents local authorities from exercising the general power of competence.

For a Bill pledging to give more powers to local authorities, you may be surprised to hear that the Secretary of State gets a large share of extra powers too. These so-called Henry VIII clauses give them the power to amend or repeal primary legislation without further parliamentary scrutiny. Many services for older and disabled people are delivered under statutory provisions by local authorities. Any repeal of these kinds of provisions should be subject to public consultation and full parliamentary scrutiny. Not on the whim of the Secretary of State. Continue reading “Setting councils free”

Can you make the localism challenge?

Community empowerment is at the heart of the government’s Localism Bill. On the face of it, the community rights in the bill present a massive opportunity for older people to be more involved in the future of their neighbourhoods and local services. But when we were asked by Inside Housing whether it was realistic for older people in sheltered housing to use the community right to challenge to run warden services, unfortunately we had to say no.

The community right to challenge is designed for voluntary and community groups, charities, parish councils or local authority employees to submit an Express of Interest to run any local authority service. A local authority must consider and respond to this challenge. Then, if they accept the challenge, they will conduct a procurement process. This is part of the government’s ambition to encourage greater plurality in local service providers.

Greg Clark, Decentralisation Minister, had suggested the community right to challenge could be used for wardens services in response to a direct question about the provision of wardens from Adrian Saunders MP. In theory, Greg Clark is right. The problem is that in practice the rights are not going to be simple to use.

When we were considering whether sheltered housing residents could use the community right to challenge, I started setting out a number of questions they would have to answer and processes they go through. It quickly seemed that the likeliness of success was slim. You can see for yourself – below is a map  of the hurdles you would have to go through to get from conceiving the idea through to winning the tender to deliver. As it stands, there are going to have to be some dedicated people to get the community right to challenge to deliver its ambition.

The community rights are not a lost cause. Localism can and should be designed so that everyone has a chance to be involved.

As you can see from the community right to challenge map, if you were going to submit an expression of interest there are a range of skills needed. You are likely to need to know: how to set up a community organisation; do business planning; access capital or revenue funds; and engage with service users. And if you don’t have them already you need to know where to find them.

With this in mind we were pleased to see the Government amended the Bill during the House of Commons’ Report Stage to give the Secretary of State the power to provide communities with advice and assistance in relation to the Community Right to Buy and Community Right to Challenge. The question is what will this package of support look like? Can it meet all the demands that the process presents?

If the government wants localism to be inclusive, and to meet the needs of more vulnerable groups, they will need to develop these advice and assistance measures with a strong regard to equality. They need to ensure that the powers given by the Localism Bill are accessible to the whole community, including to disadvantaged areas and groups.

Localism: Making it work for older people

This week Age UK challenged speakers and audience alike at our policy seminar to think about how localism would improve the lives of older people. It’s fair to say there was an overwhelming sense of scepticism from the audience about the localism agenda. But, optimistic as ever, I think there were some glimmers of hope in the debate.

The day kicked off with Claire Cooper, Deputy Director for Community Action at the Department for Communities and Local Government, explaining how the government aims to put communities at the heart of their own destiny. The government sees their role as facilitative, ensuring the right conditions are in place to make this happen. In turn local government are going to have to be more responsive to local communities; facilitating more and delivering less. From the panel we heard the perspective of local government from Andy Sawford, LGiU and Guy Robertson, LGID and from an older people’s perspective from Belinda Wadsworth, Age UK.

The audience response was critical but  constructive,  as long as government is prepared to respond to these challenges. Comments generally fell into three themes: Continue reading “Localism: Making it work for older people”

Will we know when we’re a Big Society?

Blancmange. That’s the latest definition I’ve heard for the concept of Big Society. I think the speaker at the Inside Government conference, was trying to explain that it can mean anything and everything. From wholesale public service reform to looking out for your neighbour. Indeed Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has said of the Big Society: “If I had a plan, it would be the wrong plan. The big society will look a bit chaotic and disorderly.”

Photo: Peter__Brown (Creative Commons)

Despite its comparison to a wobbly pink pudding, there are some concrete activities going on in the name of Big Society that has the potential to impact all of our lives. There are proposals in the Giving Green Paper to increase philanthropy and get more people giving their time and money. More power is being devolved to local government and communities through the Localism Bill currently going through parliament (more information in our second reading briefing). Radical public service reform is being debated through consultations on modernising commissioning and supporting a stronger civil society. Continue reading “Will we know when we’re a Big Society?”