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National problem, local solutions: openness and accountability at risk

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Coronavirus, Nolan Principles

With its remit across public life, the Committee is maintaining a close watch on standards issues arising as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Recognising the unique and unprecedented nature of the challenge for the public sector, continuing to uphold the Seven Principles of Public Life is vital to maintaining trust in government and our institutions throughout this crisis. In a series of blogs, the Committee will discuss the relevance of these principles to the current crisis. We are not considering the government’s practical response to the crisis, e.g. the availability of PPE or length of lockdown, but rather monitoring any impact on standards and the Nolan Principles.

In this blog, independent member of the Committee, Dr Jane Martin, discusses the role of local government in the Coronavirus crisis.

We know that local authorities are responsible for a wide range of public services which directly affect the quality of the everyday life of their citizens.   In our 2019 report, Local Government Ethical Standards, we reiterated the Seven Principles of Public Life as the basis for local authority codes of conduct and set out the importance of high ethical standards needed to protect the integrity of decision-making, maintain public confidence and safeguard local democracy. We concluded that although there were exceptions to the general rule which required greater sanctions and scrutiny, this was a local system we could trust.

Throughout this extraordinary period, however, it has not been clear what the role of local government could and should be in tackling the virus and the problems associated with it.

Successful navigation of the country through this crisis requires people to trust that government – both central and local – is acting in their best interests.  Based on media reports, it does seem that central-local government relations have been patchy and confused. It appears that the potential for local decision-making has not been tapped, which ignores the basic duty of the local authority to promote community wellbeing.

At the start of lockdown many local authorities closed parks and car parks to support the ‘stay at home’ message.  Local police enforced government guidelines on travel and outdoor activity. Having provided education for the children of key workers throughout lockdown, local authorities have advised on the reopening of schools based on the level of virus risk in their areas. Local Directors of Public Health will now support local outbreak plans. But it is not clear how local authority Directors of Adult Social Services, as the main purchasers of care home beds from private providers, who understand the strengths and weaknesses of the system, have been involved in policy decisions for care homes.  Central government introduced temporary emergency measures to address rough sleeping and The Local Government Association report that homelessness teams are uncertain about how to delivery their legal duties to provide accommodation. And as restrictions are eased, local authority trading standards, licensing, environment health, and health and safety could have an important role.

Parents have been confused about when their children may return to schools and nurseries.  One can only imagine the choices before those whose elderly relatives are in or are due to go into a care home. Where are shopkeepers getting their advice about virus protection as they open up? How will local councils initiate and manage local lockdowns should the need arise? The principles of openness and accountability are at risk if confusion persists, and will be hard to put into practice if responsibilities are not clear and leadership and direction lacking.

Local knowledge and experience are necessary to enable precise responses to local needs, and for local decisions to be seen as fair they need to be built on local agreement and support. There must be greater openness about how decisions are being made, on what evidential basis and by whom.  There will need to be clear accountability for those responsible.  The local scrutiny function could be usefully focused on local outbreak plans. Local people could be involved in planning the way out of the pandemic. Public trust and confidence depend on these principles of public life and will help local people work with those responsible for their wellbeing throughout this crisis to resolve the problems and repair local communities.

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