Politics

'Levelling up is impossible with so much change': Despair as government chaos impacts actual work

Away from the circus that is the government falling apart, campaigners have been left wondering what on Earth is going on with their work.

Empty benches in the house of commons during the coronavirus pandemic

Empty benches in the house of commons during the coronavirus pandemic. Image: UK Parliament/Flickr

The downfall of the UK government – and the way it’s taking place – is providing entertainment to much of the country right now. But for campaigners trying to get vital work done it’s infuriating.

Even setting aside the position of prime minister, we’ve had five housing secretaries in five years, three health secretaries in 13 months, three chancellors in just over two years and seven education secretaries – soon to be eight – in eight years.

And that’s before we get to the ministers. With more than 50 resigning in the last 48 hours, bill committees set to take place on Thursday were adjourned because there was no one to attend. On Thursday morning, the Department for Education has zero ministers.

One of the bill committees cancelled is the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill Committee, which works on the government’s flagship policy.

Elsewhere, Green Party London Assembly member Zack Polanski had a meeting with an air pollution minister cancelled because she had resigned.

Polanski tweeted: “Apart from the ludicrousness of it all, it’s an important reminder that these selfish Tory games are distracting us all from vital work particularly as I wanted to discuss with her @GreenJennyJones new Clean Air Bill.”

Reacting to the news of yet another education secretary leaving, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of teachers union the NEU, said the constant changes do “nothing to imbue confidence”.

“Teachers and other education staff are crying out for a shift on the issues that matter so critically in education,” he said.

When Nadhim Zahawi was moved from education secretary to chancellor on Tuesday, the NEU welcomed Michelle Donelan as new education secretary. Less than 48 hours later, she resigned.

Kourtney added: “It is simply not credible to claim a government is still governing when the education department almost entirely empties itself of ministers in a little over 24 hours. At the rate of resignations, there is no prospect right now of an education department fit to oversee any of the challenges of the coming weeks.

“There are many issues that are vital to our young people and those who educate them. We need a secretary of state to fight a battle with the chancellor for schools funding. We need a secretary of state to deal with the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention and support staff retention.

“We need a secretary of state looking at the STRB [School Teachers’ Review Body] report who can also decide to award a pay rise which at least matches inflation. The last of these is perhaps most pressing, as the summer term ends soon and school leaders must be in knowledge of the pay rise and any additional funding in order to plan their budget for next year. It is deeply inconsiderate and insulting to everyone not to resolve this matter by the end of term.”

Influential education blog Teacher Toolkit also hit out at the constant changes in the country’s top education post – and that was before Donelan’s short-lived tenure.

It tweeted: “Well, @nadhimzahawi was a flash in the pan! I’m yet to see any English SoS make their mark on the profession for a number of years. I’m starting to believe that the position is a waste of time and has very little impact on teachers (other than paperwork and day to day reporting)!”

In another post, it said: “Three, yes, 3 education secretaries of state to serve this academic year. 

“#LevellingUp is impossible with so much change at the top. Our young people have no chance.”

And when it comes to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove was, by all accounts, having a positive impact. But his sacking on Wednesday night left the government’s flagship department with just one minister and an uncertain future for long-awaited bills to tackle the housing and building safety crises.

Since taking charge of the department in September 2021, Gove had made progress in protecting leaseholders facing sky-high bills to fix dangerous cladding and fire defects. He was also bringing through bills to tackle second homes, make long-awaited reforms to the private rented sector and improve the state of social housing.

His departure left campaigners fearing the progress would be lost with all three bills due to go through parliament in the next year.

Kwajo Tweneboa, a social housing campaigner who worked with Gove on the Social Housing Regulation Bill, said: “This is so worrying for the thousands/millions of tenants across the country that began to see some sort of light at the end of the tunnel.”

Stephen Barclay was quick to step into the void left by Sajid Javid’s resignation as health secretary on Tuesday evening, becoming the third person to take the role 13 months on from Matt Hancock’s resignation.

Former Brexit secretary Barclay had been serving as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and chief of staff after previous cabinet reshuffles following the partygate scandal.

Barclay’s appointment was not quite the way the government would have wanted to mark the NHS’s 74th birthday.

Nor was it good news for nurses who may well be wondering how the change at the top impacts on their pay review.

“Before the government started to crumble, it had long been happening in the NHS and social care,” said Royal College of Nursing chair of council Carol Popplestone last night.

“The next NHS pay award is three months late already and the two people responsible have walked out tonight – on the NHS’s 74th birthday. The nursing staff, struggling to pay the bills and going to food banks, will wonder when and if it’s coming.

“After a decade of pay cuts, this award needs to be a big one – 5 per cent above the level of inflation to make people feel valued, prevent them from leaving and keep patients safe.”

Ministers resigned at lightning pace in the last two days as Boris Johnson’s position became increasingly tenuous.

Will Tanner, director of think tank Onward and former deputy head of policy to Theresa May, told The Big Issue that tackling long-term issues needs senior ministers in post for longer periods to take on long-term issues. 

“We are living through a period of unprecedented political volatility and turnover of cabinet ministers is one very visible symptom of that,” said Tanner

“Whoever succeeds Boris Johnson, and whoever wins the next election, will need to redouble their focus on those priorities to reassure a weary electorate. Keeping senior ministers in their posts for longer to develop long-term strategies to deliver on those priorities would be good place to start.”

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