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Want devolution? Abolish the DWP and give Councils more powers...

Creating a new welfare state and empowering employers should have local government at the heart.

As the COVID inquiry continues and the two main political parties think about what should and shouldn’t find its way into their respective manifestos ahead of the General Election next year, it will be interesting to see what lessons the parties are learning from the pandemic.

By this, I do not mean narrow lessons in the sense of how to stockpile PPE or put a robust, accountable, and transparent procurement framework in place for emergency situations, but I mean the structural lessons around the response and the recovery.

As part of Baroness Hallett’s inquiry, I hope that she will call on the experiences of local government. As the Leader of the Council with the highest rate of COVID in the country during the winter of 2020, I learned several key lessons – some of which I believe provide positive bases to build from.

Namely that in the overwhelming majority of cases, local government was so interconnected with their communities, that the identification of vulnerable people was completed within a matter of hours, not days or weeks. These people were known to Councillors and Council Officers, support was tailored and targeted and the trust between the state and the resident was obvious.

It has led me, and many others in local government, to ask what the art of the possible is in terms of how councils could be used to go further with support for vulnerable people and empowering local economies.

As a former Head of Policy and Public Affairs at multiple disability charities, one thing I know to be true above all else is that the ‘DWP’ brand is as toxic as Nigel Farage in the chamber of the European Parliament. People distrust the DWP, are sceptical of its motives and in many cases have stopped engaging where they can.

As the political landscape evolves post-COVID and societies face complex challenges, the next Labour government has a unique opportunity to foster a more cohesive and effective approach to social welfare and local governance.

One conceivable route for achieving this is through merging the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) responsibilities into local government’s existing and new structures. By decentralising these functions and empowering local authorities, such a merger could not only better support people into work and provide for local economies, but also offer more personalised assistance and enhanced protection for disabled and vulnerable people, just as we saw in the height of the pandemic.

Integrating the DWP into local government would devolve decision-making, placing the responsibility of social welfare and employment support into the hands of those who understand their communities and local economies best – local councils. This shift from a centralised approach to a decentralised one would allow local authorities to tailor policies and initiatives based on the specific needs and challenges faced by their economies and allow them to plan with new businesses engaging with the council and choosing certain areas where certain councils were investing in certain skill sets. Greater local control will lead to better outcomes for economies and residents, meaning devolution doesn’t have to just be about creating new structures such as Combined Authorities and fancy Metro Mayors.

Additionally, integration of the DWP responsibilities into local government could streamline various processes, reducing bureaucratic hurdles and eliminating duplicated efforts. Artificial Intelligence and innovation in digital services could mean that the current system which often involves multiple agencies and departments overseeing different aspects of welfare and employment support, leading to inefficiencies and fragmented services, could be ended, saving residents from the frustration of being bounced around between departments and services. By consolidating these functions, resources could be better utilised, allowing for more targeted and responsive assistance to those in need.

Local authorities, armed with intimate knowledge of their communities and local economies, are better positioned to design employment support programmes that align with the unique labour market demands and opportunities in their regions. This tailoring of support would enable local authorities to work closely with businesses and educational institutions to identify skills gaps and develop training initiatives that match the requirements of local employers. The result would be a more skilled workforce and increased employability for job seekers.

A merger between the DWP and local government would also facilitate a more strategic approach to economic development. By coordinating welfare and employment support with regional growth strategies, local councils could ensure that individuals transitioning into work are equipped with the necessary resources and opportunities. Such a symbiotic relationship between welfare and economic development could help revitalise local economies, fostering sustainable growth and prosperity for communities across the country. We could, if you like, level up communities.

Alongside this, protecting the rights and ensuring the welfare of disabled and vulnerable individuals is of paramount importance. Merging the DWP into local government could help create a more integrated and holistic system of support. Local authorities, with their close ties to community organisations and charities, would be better equipped to identify vulnerable individuals and offer personalised care plans that address their specific needs. This approach could lead to more effective early interventions, ensuring that the right support is provided promptly.

Merging the DWP responsibilities into local government represents an opportunity for the next Labour government to transform the social welfare landscape for the better and make devolution work for every community in the country.

By decentralising decision-making, streamlining services, and empowering local communities, this approach can lead to a more effective and compassionate system that supports people into work, drives local economic growth, and provides robust protection for disabled and vulnerable individuals. This would show local government that the lesson the country learned from the pandemic is that you know your communities, your employers and your welfare need better than a Whitehall machine.

For the public, through elections to the Council, it would give residents democratic control for the running of the welfare state in a way that can rebuild trust in British politics. All told, this can be a positive policy response, that means the darkness of the pandemic can provide some light in transforming communities for the better.

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