Paralysis at the heart of central government blocking urgent action

It is happening across multiple policy areas in the face of urgent and growing problems that ministers have been repeatedly warned about over an extended period of time

Starting with dentistry.

…because the BBC News at Ten lead with it this evening.

Nine in 10 NHS dental practices across the UK are not accepting new adult patients for treatment under the health service, a BBC investigation has found. In a third of the UK’s more than 200 council areas, we found no dentists taking on adult NHS patients. And eight in 10 NHS practices are not taking on children.”

BBC News 08 Aug 2022

To which the Department for Health & Social Care said:

“…it had made an extra £50m available “to help bust the Covid backlogs” and that improving NHS access was a priority.””

…which is a classic attempt to re-frame the problem as something a) they’ve put some money aside for, and b) has been caused not by their policy failings but by something they can say was not their fault – i.e. Covid.

The importance of resource-intensive evidence gathering and research

“BBC News contacted nearly 7,000 NHS practices – believed to be almost all those offering general treatment to the public.

Very few news organisations have the capacity to contact that many organisations – in this case dental clinics.

The British Dental Association (BDA) called it “the most comprehensive and granular assessment of patient access in the history of the service”.

And they are right.

“NHS dentistry at a tipping point, as BBC reveal true extent of access crisis” So says the British Dental Association

“The crisis facing the service across England is being fuelled by a discredited NHS contract, which funds care for barely half the population and puts government targets ahead of patient care.  NHS England recently announced modest, marginal changes to this system.

However, dentist leaders say that the changes, which come without any new investment, will not address the problems patients face accessing services or keep dentists in the NHS. “

British Dental Association 08 Aug 2022

That I can believe. Earlier this year I had to go private at my dental clinic after my regular dentist lost patience with the system the Conservatives in Government brought in, and told all his NHS patients he was going private. We had the choice to go with him or find another clinic – of which none were available within a 30 mile radius. I don’t blame him, but the move has more than doubled my expenditure on dental care – and I’m on Universal Credit. That’s just for check-ups. Two weeks ago I got a chipped wisdom tooth. I had to go in to get a filling – I couldn’t just leave it to decay. That filling cost nearly £100. On the NHS it’s far, far cheaper. But given my mobility (or lack of), the prospect of finding an NHS dentist over 30 miles away is not an option.

Cost of living crisis – former Prime Minister Gordon Brown intervenes

Former Prime Ministers of any political party are some of the few public figures that, even long after they have left public office, can still pull in the headlines when they need to. Both John Major and Gordon Brown have learnt how to do this to the strongest effect – because they intervene so rarely. And furthermore, generally they stick to policy areas that they had a close involvement in during their years in high public office.

“Gordon Brown demands emergency budget before ‘financial timebomb'”

BBC News 07 August 2022

In the case of the last Labour Prime Minister who really made his name as Chancellor of the Exchequer 1997-2007, he wrote in more detail in a newspaper column in a left/liberal leaning Sunday broadsheet – The Observer. But he also followed it through with a series of TV interviews with the broadcast media who were more than happy to give him airtime.

“The Government’s response?

“Boris Johnson rules out immediate cost-of-living measures”

BBC News 08 August 2022 (two hours ago at 22:40)

What’s striking is the normally Conservative-friendly Confederation of British Industry (sometimes seen as to the Tories as what the Trades Union Congress is to Labour) has been extremely critical of the Government’s inaction.

“The economic situation people and businesses are facing requires all hands to the pump this summer… We simply cannot afford a summer of government inactivity while the leadership contest plays out followed by a slow start from a new prime minister and cabinet.”

Tony Danker of the CBI, 08 August 2022
“How are our rivers flowing?”

Don’t ask.

Anyone for punting?

Not in those effluent-filled channels! And it’s not like ministers have not been warned. Last November, Surfers Against Sewage published their own water quality report.

“…water companies are increasing the discharge of harmful amounts of sewage into the environment with devastating consequences to the health of people and planet

Link in from Nov 2021

Note at the same time the House of Commons Library also published a research briefing on the E-petition debate calling for a ban on raw sewage discharges. You can watch the debate and read the transcript here – it got debated as over 100,000 people signed the petition. The response from ministers and regulators has been underwhelming to say the least.

“And the climate emergency generally?”

Again, nothing to demonstrate an acknowledgement of the scale of the crisis that is now with us – we’ve got another heatwave in progress. While it means I can use the sunlight to charge up my battery powerpack which is running my laptop, I’d rather be in a situation where we didn’t have a climate emergency and where our system of electricity generation defaulted to renewables generated locally, stored locally, and backed up by regional, national, and international connectors. Ditto water – with far greater use of filtered grey water systems for things like watering gardens, lawns, trees, and flushing toilets.

“Has anyone done anything about retrofitting settlements? Villages, towns, and cities?”

The UK Green Building Council did in 2020 – three months after the first lockdown. So it was easily missed.

The UKGBC also stated on 27 April 2020:

“For 2022-23 we would like to grow our capacity and scale up reach and impact. The programme will continue to focus on supporting local authorities to overcome the barriers to action. Ongoing work will include:

  • Research & production of key resources – including ongoing updating of Retrofit Playbook
  • Digital communications & network building – including online mapping of policies & programmes and the setting up of a Local Authority Retrofit Forum
  • Direct engagement with key stakeholder groups – e.g. finance sector, supply chain etc
  • Central Government advocacy
  • Demonstrators  – supporting exemplar projects, and extracting lessons learned for wider benefit of others

In the statement of 27 April 2020 they also linked to a number of outputs, one of which is their Retrofit Playbook – which continues to be updated when new case studies and technologies become available.

Above – The Accelerator Cities Retrofit Playbook.

“Are there funding pots for local councils?”

That depends on ministers, but in terms of private finance for green infrastructure, the UK Green Building Council has some pointers here.

“We are seeking a range of complementary private sector, public sector and philanthropic funding partners to support the programme in 2022-23 – get in touch with Joanna Wheeler for more information. [email in link below]”

UK Green Building Council Accelerator Cities
Trade unions balloting for strike action

“We need collective action in all its forms”

Grace Blakeley, 08 Aug 2022

It’s hard not to think that the positive responses to the broadcast interviews Mick Lynch, the General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Union (RMT) has encouraged other trade unions to take a much stronger line. Yet away from the headlines, the General Secretary of Unite the Union, Sharon Graham – elected a year ago, has done much to take one of the largest trade unions away from the party political headlines and focus her trade union’s immense resources towards supporting the very basic pillars of any trade union:

  • defending their jobs,
  • improving their pay,  
  • protecting their rights.  

Jobs, pay, conditions. Jobs, pay, conditions. Jobs, pay, conditions.

One of the things you get when you join a trade union is that you get legal protection in the workplace – in Unite’s case via – often something people only appreciate when they need it but don’t have it. Having been a trade union rep in my civil service career, I have seen the difference it has made to people.

Also, for those of you in unionised workplaces, one of the best things you can do for young, new members of staff is to encourage them to join, and then send them on all of the free training sessions that your union’s HQ provides. This is what happened with me when I first joined the civil service. It was an arrangement that worked well for both. They got a volunteer to represent staff on personnel cases that came in, and I got stack loads of training and new working experience outside of my day-to-day job that later served me well under cross-examination at the Fast Stream Assessment Centre. In the 1-2-1 interview I got a fair but firm grilling from the interviewer, but it was designed to draw out the strengths of experience for those that had them, and expose those who were ‘blagging it’. This wasn’t an interviewer you could lie to!

All of that aside, the cost of living crisis has resulted in an inflation rate that is far beyond what most mainstream commentators might have predicted a few years ago. As a result, the minimal pay increases that employers might have gotten away with in previous years simply won’t wash when inflation is predicted to hit double figures if it hasn’t already. And with essentials like food and fuel, these are the items that hit the poorest disproportionately. And this in the face of huge profits and bonuses hitting the headlines for those at the top.

The failure of ministers to take any meaningful action is driving people towards joining trade unions and agitating for action in the face of paltry pay offers – even though there are now minimum turnout thresholds for a strike ballot to be valid. That’s not to say trade unions want to go on strike – they don’t. Especially in a cost-of-living crisis because you don’t get paid when you go on strike! A workforce going on strike is a symptom of a failure of management and a failure of policy – especially when it involves large workforces. Because you have to ***really p*ss people off*** in the work place to make them so angry that industrial action is their only realistic option. Think of the efforts it takes to get people to turn out and campaign for something. Or vote in an election.

“So…why are ministers doing so little in response?”

Ultimately that’s for them to answer, but there are a few observations from history.

The Conservatives have traditionally occupied the themes of ‘small state, low taxes, personal responsibility’ in British politics. With the cohort of MPs that Boris Johnson was elected with in late 2019 having pushed out a number of more independent-minded and longer serving MPs who owed him little personal loyalty, there were few with the experience and high calibre that could take on the role of a major department of state and discharge the responsibilities competently in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic. And it showed. Not only that, it exposed the flaws of the previous decade’s worth of policies, especially on civil contingencies planning.

The present leadership contest is a barrier within itself – the outgoing PM not wanting to constrain the options that his successor will have. In normal times that’s understandable, but with the multiple crises we have now?

There is nothing to stop him from bringing the two candidates together to thrash out some immediate actions now that will be brought in whoever wins. But they have chosen not to do that. They have the option of recalling Parliament to get a feel for what the mood of the country is from MPs. They’ve chosen not to do that.

Finally, the party’s political philosophy isn’t one that sits easily with the state handing out money to the public – even in the most desperate of times. It’s that mix of ‘the market will sort this out’ in terms of the energy markets and ‘it’s your responsibility to get a better paid job and improve your own skills and qualifications’. But all of these statements rely on some very strong assumptions – like efficiently-functioning markets with no barriers to entry or exit, and workers having the perfect knowledge of where the best-paid jobs are, and the ability to move to where the work is without disrupting family life or having any problems finding somewhere to live. Which we know to be wholly unrealistic assumptions – so unrealistic that ministers have to intervene unless they are willing to accept the consequences of a ‘do next-to-nothing’ policy response.

Because Gordon Brown called them out with a specific proposed policy response (i.e. an emergency budget), Ministers cannot say they were not warned.

Food for thought?

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