Tuesday 24 January 2023
Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
Thurrock Council: Financial Functions
On 2 September 2022 my right hon. Friend, the then Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Greg Clark), announced that after due consideration he was using his powers under the Local Government Act 1999 to intervene at Thurrock Council (“the Authority”), in recognition of grave concerns about the scale of the financial and commercial risks potentially facing the Authority. As set out in Directions made under section 15(5) and (6) of the Act, Essex County Council was appointed to the role of Commissioner and powers have been granted to it to oversee the financial functions of Thurrock Council. Alongside this work Essex County Council was also appointed as a Best Value Inspector in order to assess whether there is best value failure in other functions of the Authority.
The Commissioner began its work to support the Authority with immediate effect and submitted its first report to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), on 5 December 2022. The Best Value Inspection is ongoing, and on 13 December the inspection team provided the Secretary of State with an update letter which contained key findings and recommendations from their work so far and requested an extension to complete their final report. On 14 December it was agreed that the inspection team will have more time to complete their report and will now provide their report to the Secretary of State by 17 February 2023. The Secretary of State and I have reviewed both documents in the context of the intervention.
Taken together, the Commissioner report and update letter lay bare the profound weaknesses in this Authority’s financial function, which has resulted in unmanageable budget gaps in this financial year and in future years. This situation is primarily a result of the failure of the Authority’s commercial investment strategy. The Best Value Inspection update letter sets out that in order to achieve value for money going forward, the Authority will need to undertake a programme of radical transformation in relation to its service delivery. The documents also reveal significant weaknesses in The Authority’s governance function and raise pressing concerns about lack of capacity at Thurrock Council. The Best Value Inspection update letter posits that the Authority’s financial failings are a manifestation of deeper systemic weakness in the historic and recent running of the Council.
Having carefully considered these two documents in the context of the intervention, the Secretary of State is satisfied that the Authority is not meeting its best value duty, both in terms of its known financial issues, and in relation to its governance and staffing functions. He is therefore considering further exercising the powers of direction in the 1999 Act to expand the intervention. While we have not yet received the final Best Value Inspection, the Secretary of State and I agree that the evidence and recommendations presented in the Commissioner report and update letter are serious enough to warrant taking steps to expand the intervention now, in order to prevent further best value failure.
The proposed changes centre on the need to expand the scope of the Commissioner’s existing powers, which are currently limited to oversight of the financial function. The proposed expansion to the intervention package would give the Commissioner powers over the Authority’s governance and staffing functions and would instruct the Authority to take further actions to support its recovery, and the work of the Commissioner, in order to carry out the improvement and transformation work that is so urgently required.
In detail, the Secretary of State is minded to issue further Directions to permit the Commissioner to exercise powers over:
All functions associated with the governance, scrutiny and transparency of strategic decision making by the Authority to ensure compliance with the Best Value Duty. This will include oversight of an audit of the Authority’s governance.
All functions associated with the Authority’s operating model and redesign of council services to achieve value for money and financial sustainability.
The appointment, suspension and dismissal of staff in the top three tiers of the organisation, including powers to determine the process for making these appointments and dismissals, and to design a new officer structure.
The development, oversight and operation of an effective performance management framework for senior officers.
The Secretary of State is minded to make further Directions to the Authority, instructing Thurrock Council to undertake the following actions to the satisfaction of the Commissioner:
To prepare, produce and implement an enhanced improvement and recovery plan—building on the existing improvement plan.
To take steps to ensure that the role of Accountable Body to the Thames Freeport is exercised to the satisfaction of the Commissioner. This should be reflected in the improvement and recovery plan.
To undertake any action that the Commissioner may reasonably require to avoid, so far as practicable, incidents of poor governance that would, in the Commissioner’s reasonable opinion, give rise to the risk of the Authority failing to comply with its best value duty.
The Secretary of State has also reviewed the model of the intervention as a whole and is minded to additionally appoint a Commissioner to act as managing director at the Authority. This appointment is intended to strengthen the intervention model and to increase the Authority’s capacity to deliver vital improvements.
It is important to us that all interested parties, especially Thurrock residents, can express their views on these proposals before a final decision is made. We are inviting representations on the Commissioner’s first report, the Best Value Inspection update letter, and the Secretary of State’s proposals by 7 February 2023. In line with procedures laid down in the 1999 Act, officials in the department have written to the Authority today to notify them of the Secretary of State’s proposals, and the Authority have been invited to submit representations to the same timeframe.
Should the Secretary of State decide to expand the scope of the intervention as set out in this statement, he will make the necessary statutory Directions under the Act. Pending a formal decision after the representations period, the Department would issue new Directions to supersede and replace those issued on 2 September 2022, and an updated explanatory memorandum.
The challenges facing Thurrock Council are unprecedented and will require extensive work over many years to resolve. The Authority is at the beginning of a long journey to improve its finance and governance functions, and the Department stands ready to support the Commissioner in any way necessary as part of this vital work.
We look forward to receiving the Best Value Inspection report in February, which will provide an opportunity for the Secretary of State to consider if any further amendments to the Directions are needed. We also look forward to receiving the Commissioner’s next report in June 2023, per the Directions issued on 2 September 2022.
A copy of the Commissioner’s first report, and of the update on the Best Value Inspection, will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly: UK Delegation
The hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) has been appointed as a full representative of the United Kingdom Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in place of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara).
Health and Social Care
Major Conditions and Diseases
As this House is aware, the health and social care system faces long-term challenges to ensure the public enjoy longer and healthier lives. Currently in England, 5.4 million people live with cardiovascular disease, around 8.6 million live with chronic respiratory disease and 8.2 million live with mental health issues.
An increasing number of us live with one or more major conditions. People with diabetes are twice as likely to have depression. Nine in 10 dementia patients have another long-term condition. Half of people with a heart or lung condition have musculoskeletal disorders.
Tackling the major conditions that lead to people spending more years in ill health is a significant opportunity to improve the lives of millions of people. That is why today, I am announcing that, in consultation with NHS England and colleagues across Government, my Department will develop and publish a “Major Conditions Strategy”.
The strategy will set out a strong and coherent policy agenda that sets out a shift to integrated, whole-person care, building on measures that we have already taken forward through the NHS Long Term Plan. Interventions set out in the strategy will aim to alleviate pressure on the health system, as well as support the Government’s objective to increase healthy life expectancy and reduce ill health-related labour market inactivity.
Our approach will be rooted in the best understanding of the evidence to tackle the major conditions that contribute to the burden of disease in England, namely:
Cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and diabetes
Chronic respiratory diseases
Mental ill health
These areas account for around 60% of total disability adjusted life years in England. Tackling them is critical to achieving our manifesto commitment of gaining five extra years of healthy life expectancy by 2035, and our levelling up mission to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy by 2030.
Our approach will harness the potential of whole person care, addressing the fact that our health and care system has been built in silos, often focused around specific diseases or organs in the body. Our workforce model needs to adapt, reflecting that the NHS is caring for patients with increasingly complex needs and with multiple long-term conditions. We need greater emphasis on generalist medical skills to complement existing deep specialist expertise in the NHS, supporting clinical professionals to heal with whole person care. The Major Conditions Strategy and the upcoming NHS Long Term Workforce Plan work together to set out the standards patient should expect in the short term and over a five year timeframe.
This is about shifting our model towards preserving good health, and the early detection and treatment of diseases. We have a proud record of opening new treatment possibilities in the NHS. Diseases that were once a death sentence have become conditions that can be managed over the long term. By harnessing innovation and technology, we are increasingly capable of detecting diseases at an early stage, in some cases before symptoms emerge. Intervening at this point will reduce demand downstream on health and care services.
Healthy, fulfilled, independent and longer lives for the people of England will require health and care services, local government, NHS bodies, and others to work ever more closely together. People living in England’s most deprived places live, on average, 19 fewer years in good health than those in the least deprived places. The strategy will set out the supporting and enabling interventions the centre can make to ensure that integrated care systems and the organisations within them maximise the opportunities to tackle clusters of disadvantage in their local areas where they exist, informed by the Hewitt Review. This will include addressing unwarranted variation in outcomes and the care people receive in the context of the recovery from the pandemic.
This work combines our key commitments in mental health, cancer, dementia and health disparities into a single, powerful strategy. It will align to the Government’s ambitious life sciences missions. We will take forward a separate suicide prevention strategy this year.
Alongside work on common diseases, the Department and the NHS also continue work on rare diseases, under the 2021 UK Rare Diseases Framework. All four nations of the UK have now published their first action plan, and England’s second Rare Diseases Action Plan is currently being finalised.
As we develop this strategy, I continue to be grateful for the thoughts and contributions from colleagues across the House, stakeholders, citizens and industry. I will set out opportunities to contribute further in due course. We also intend to publish an interim report on the strategy in the summer.
Strategies alone will not change outcomes. Delivery will require concerted effort from Government and the NHS working in tandem, alongside social care, patient representatives, industry and partners across the health and care system.
Strengthening the Response to Serious and Organised Crime
The Government are today launching a consultation on two proposals to strengthen the law on serious and organised crime.
Law enforcement agencies frequently encounter articles which they suspect are being used in serious crime but which they are unable to act on under existing legislation. The Government are therefore consulting on a proposal to create new offences to criminalise the making, modification, supply, offer to supply and possession of articles for use in serious crime. Such articles include, for example, vehicle concealments or “hides” used to transport illicit commodities, sophisticated and bespoke encrypted communication devices, templates for 3D-printing firearms components, and pill presses used to make illicit drugs.
The Government are also consulting on proposals to improve and strengthen the existing powers on serious crime prevention orders under the Serious Crime Act 2007. This includes enabling a broader set of law enforcement bodies to apply for such orders, as well as strengthening their monitoring arrangements.
The consultation seeks views to inform the Government’s policy development. The consultation will run for eight weeks and will close on 21 March 2023. If taken forward, both proposals would require changes in legislation when Parliamentary time allows.
A copy of the consultation document and two related impact assessments will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses and are available on www.gov.uk.
The Government are also announcing a package of measures to strengthen how police forces in England and Wales tackle serious and organised crime and protect our communities from harm. The approach is being led jointly by the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s serious and organised crime lead, with implementation supported by the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, the National Crime Agency, the College of Policing and the Local Government Association.
We are investing around £2 million to support the roll-out of “Clear, Hold, Build”, which is an evidence-based, end-to-end local partnership approach that will reduce serious and organised crime in the highest harm hotspot areas in England and Wales. This includes new serious and organised crime community co-ordinators in the Regional Organised Crime Units to support police forces to deliver the most effective and efficient partnership response, and a performance management and information system to enhance police forces’ ability to understand, capture and respond to their local serious and organised crime threat.
Later this year the Government also plan to publish a new strategy to update the “Serious and Organised Crime Strategy”, which was published in 2018.
Inspectorate Reviews into Serious Further Offences
Today the chief inspector of probation has published his independent review into the Probation Service’s management of Jordan McSweeney, who murdered Zara Aleena on 26 June 2022 as she walked home after an evening out with friends.
Today’s report follows another independent review into the management of Damien Bendall, who in September 2021 murdered an entire family—killing pregnant Terri Harris, her two children, John Paul and Lacey, and Lacey’s 11-year-old friend, Connie Gent. Bendall also pleaded guilty to rape.
Immediately upon learning that first Bendall and then McSweeney had been charged with murder while subject to probation supervision, Ministers asked the chief inspector to undertake independent reviews.
Before I address the chief inspector’s findings, I wish to express my deepest sympathy towards the families and friends of the victims. They have suffered the most awful loss and continue to endure unimaginable suffering.
The chief inspector found serious failings in each case. The Probation Service did not assess the level of risk posed by McSweeney and Bendall properly—and that fundamental flaw meant that neither offender was managed as closely and robustly as was necessary to protect the public. I wish to apologise unreservedly to the families for these wholly unacceptable failings. We are determined to make sure that they are not repeated.
I have accepted the 10 recommendations made by the chief inspector in the case of McSweeney, having accepted his 17 recommendations in the case of Bendall. His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has already implemented a comprehensive action plan to address the failings in the case of Bendall, including new mandatory checks with the police and children’s services before a probation officer may recommend to the court that an offender may be sentenced to an electronically-monitored curfew. And HMPPS has today published its action plan to address the failings in the case of McSweeney, including mandatory training to improve the quality of risk assessments and new processes to ensure the swift recall of offenders who have breached their licence conditions and are no longer safe to be managed in the community.
Over and above the specific actions taken to implement the chief inspector’s findings in each of the two cases, I should set out the action this Government are taking to strengthen the Probation Service and ensure that it is equipped to manage offenders effectively and so protect the public.
We have unified the Probation Service in order to raise standards. We recognise that the Probation Service needs more staff, which is why we have invested heavily, injecting extra funding of more than £155 million a year to deliver tougher supervision of offenders, reduce caseloads and recruit thousands more staff to make the public safer.
This has helped us boost our trainee probation officers by 2,500 over the last two years and we plan to recruit a further 1,500 by March this year.
Beyond these changes, we are reforming the parole system, as we announced in March last year, including increasing ministerial oversight of release decisions for the most serious criminals.
I recognise that the action we have taken and continue to take cannot bring back Terri Harris, John Paul Bennett, Lacey Bennett, Connie Gent and Zara Aleena. However, I can assure their loved ones, this House and the public that we are determined to do everything in our power to make sure that these kinds of tragedy can never happen again.
I commend this statement to the House.