Linking the Test and Trace scandal to local election campaigning

Conservatives despise local government.  English local authorities have been starved of funds since the coalition government began, with a sharper downward curve since 2015. The one-size fits-all model of elected mayors has been imposed on successive ‘city regions’ – in the case of Yorkshire, against the settled preference of almost all the local authorities in the region.  Worst of all, ministers bypassed local authorities when the pandemic struck, ignoring local public health officers and the local knowledge that councillors and staff embody, and spending huge amounts of money on contracts with outsourcing companies. When Russian spies poisoned the Skripals Salisbury’s public health officer efficiently led the complex response.  But ministers ignored that lesson when COVID-19 struck.

The Test and Trace scandal is potentially one of the worst that Britain has suffered since the war.  £37bn has been committed over two years, with £23bn spent so far.  Let’s put that into context.  The total estimated cost of renewing the UK’s nuclear deterrent is £30bn..  The Department of Transport’s annual budget for England in 2020-21 is £16.6bn.    £23bn is almost 10% of the annual central government transfer to local authorities, spent on a project that local authorities could have provided for a fraction of the cost.  We do not yet know how much excess profit the contractors made, but we do know that the scheme has so far been less effective than in comparable countries – and that it would have been more effective, as well as far less expensive, if it had been run by local government.

Remember all those volunteers who came forward – and who were often ignored?  And those small companies that offered to provide PPE for local hospitals, whose proposals were forwarded to central government and then left unanswered?  It’s a mark of how far the careerists who run today’s Conservative Party are from politics on the ground that it did not occur to them to use the resources of local government and communities rather than exorbitant consultants and multinational companies.

The National Audit Office has just published a highly critical report on central government’s attitude to local government finance in the pandemic.  It notes that a rising number of Councils are in danger of ‘financial failure’, that sources of income have withered and business rates shrunk, while the government has doled out emergency funds only on a short-term basis – making budgetary planning ahead impossible.  Worse, packages of funding have been awarded on a competitive basis, with criteria bent to favour Conservative constituencies over others – which comes close to political corruption.

Rather than tackle the reform of local taxation and the financing of social care, ministers have forced Councils not only to raise Council Tax but also to bear the weight of additional funding for social care.  60% of this year’s rise in Council Tax is due to the social care precept.  So Councils will be blamed by their voters for higher rates, without being able to allocate much money to other local services.

I hope our campaigns at local level will go hard at Conservative candidates for their support for a party which is gradually destroying local government.  Popular disillusion with democracy in the UK – above all in England – is fuelled by the distance between voters and politicians, with so many decisions decided in Whitehall and Westminster without reference to local conditions or wants.

It’s a Liberal principle that decisions should be taken as close to the people they affect as possible.  Westminster Tories see local governments as agents for central rule.  Even when thinking of sending some civil servants out of London, sections of central departments are to be parcelled out.  Cameron abolished the regional centres of government, and his successors are determined to resist any devolution of authority and finance within England.  Elected city mayors outside London have little influence or autonomy, as Andy Burnham in Manchester has discovered.

We are the party of local democracy. This Conservative Party is the party of pluto-populism, distracting a passive and disillusioned electorate with imperial nostalgia and culture wars.  Can we persuade voters that they need stronger local democracy, against a government that is reducing local authorities to providers of minimal services dependent on selective patronage from ministers in Whitehall?

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He has taught at Manchester and Oxford Universities and at the LSE.

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9 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 17th Mar '21 - 1:13pm

    The scandal in this picture is the normalisation of the forced medical testing of healthy people and of mass house arrests.

    Anything else is fluff.

  • Simon McGrath 17th Mar '21 - 1:25pm

    £23bn hasnt been spent so far – that was the budget . the PAC says 5.7bn spent to end Nov, the majority on testing.

  • Do we contest the Hartlepool by election? There is case for avoiding this one and the inevitable lost deposit.

  • Joseph Bourke 17th Mar '21 - 4:12pm

    Simon McGrath,

    this is a full fact update https://fullfact.org/online/37bn-test-trace-spending/
    “Actual spending on Test and Trace was £5.7bn up to the end of November 2020, and is expected to be close to £20bn by the beginning of April.”

    The key issue William Wallace raises is Local government funding. The NAO report https://www.nao.org.uk/press-release/local-government-finance-in-the-pandemic/ writes;
    ““Government’s support to local authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic has averted system-wide financial failure. Nonetheless, the financial position of the sector remains a concern and authorities are setting budgets for 2021-2022 with limited confidence.
    “Authorities’ finances have been scarred and won’t simply bounce back quickly. Government needs a plan to help the sector recover from the pandemic and also to address the longstanding need for financial reform in the sector.”
    Gareth Davies, head of the NAO

  • Thanks for posting the link to the FullFact article Joseph.

    There’s no doubt that a lot of money has been wasted in this, and it’s an easy button to push amongst the public, it frustrates me how often the figures on this have been misquoted, and I think it’s really important we remain factually correct. I’ve lost count of how many prominent voices I’ve lost respect for over the last year or so for repeating misleading information, and getting the numbers wrong on this is one of the most common mistakes.

    That said, regardless of the actual figures not being as awful as commonly quoted, it’s still bad. There’s been clear waste, and more importantly, the tracing side of things could have been more effective if it had been put into the hands of local Health Authorities and councils, with back-up where required from supplementary staff from the private sector.

    This is a story about the dangers and inefficiencies of centralisation, and of ignoring effective local resources.

  • Helen Dudden 17th Mar '21 - 5:01pm

    The Government, felt spending vast amounts of money was acceptable on a system that clearly was flawed.
    I like many other’s, can’t understand why it was allowed to happen. Our grandchildren, will pay for the incompetence.

  • Brad Barrows 17th Mar '21 - 6:17pm

    I have nothing against Lord Wallace as an individual but the Liberal Democrats should not be nominating people to the undemocratic House of Lords. The 3rd largest party in the House of Commons, the SNP, already refuses to nominate to the House of Lords – the Liberal Democrats should do likewise.

  • The SNP are only the “third largest” because they benefit from First Past the Post, which we don’t support because it’s not democratic. They’d probably be 5th if MPs were allocated in proportion to votes.

    Their reason for not appointing Lords is because they want to severe ties with Westminster, and love nothing more than blaming Westminster for stuff. So long as the Lords exists, parties that are pragmatic and realise the value it has in improving UK legislation should want to stay involved. Leaving it to others, then moaning about it, is irresponsible.

    Of course it’s right that we continue to campaign for an overhaul of the House of Lords, but unless we’ve got a new policy of scrapping the second chamber because we think the House of Commons with a government elected on a minority vote produces top notch legislation on the first reading, then we need to maintain our influence as best we can.

  • William Wallace 17th Mar '21 - 9:29pm

    Brad Barrows: The UK has a semi-democratic political system. The large Tory majority in the Commons was won with 43.5% of popular votes. They preach ‘parliamentary sovereignty’, but it’s the government that controls the Commons agenda. I hoped when appointed to the Lords that I could stand for regional election when the next stage of reform came through – but BOTH Tories and Labour opposed LibDem proposals. Meanwhile, the Lords manages to amend much more legislation than the Commons – as this week. Should we stop doing that?

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