Lord Kerslake

Brexit dominates our political discourse, but our country faces urgent challenges in other areas such as housing and work. Crossbench peer Lord Kerslake speaks to our Common Decency Conference.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to your Common Decency Conference this morning.

As Gareth [Thomas, Labour and Co-operative MP for Harrow West] has said, I have spent most of my working life in local and central government. I now sit as a cross bench peer in the House of Lords.

The theme of your conference – building a decent society by ensuring that people can eat enough, earn enough, and have a decent place to live and work - is a powerful and timely one.

I want to focus on two of your themes – housing and work, but it would be impossible to speak at this time without saying something about Brexit.

For some reason, the recent debates have taken me back to my father’s experience during the Second World War.

He joined Bomber Command at just 18 years old. His plane was shot down in February 1944. He survived and spent the rest of the war until liberation in a prison of war camp. Four of his crew though were not so lucky and died. After the war he came to understand the horrific impact of his attacks and devoted a lot of his time to building better links with Germany through town twinning.

I tell this story because there is a real risk that in the seemingly interminable debate about backstops and borders, we lose sight of the bigger picture.

The Second World War lasted six years and left an utterly devastated Europe. But out of it a new economic, political and social order was forged.

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Since the referendum in 2016, Brexit has completely dominated the political debate in this country to the exclusion of almost everything else. It’s sobering to ask what we will have to show for investing so much of our collective energy into this one issue - a more divided country, a weaker economy, a fractured politics, and a much less influential role in the world.

We have in my view given the supporters of Brexit over two and a half years to come up with a Brexit that works. To put it mildly it hasn’t gone well! Even if the deal is agreed and we leave, we will spend years negotiating our future relationship. It will be Groundhog Day without the laughs.

This is why I am a firm supporter of a second referendum and will be marching with others on the 23rd of March.

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One of the worst consequences of Brexit has been that other urgent and vital issues have barely got a look in. And yet we have so many urgent problems to solve.

I was fortunate to be part of the Commission for Economic Justice, which reported in September of last year. It found that the British Economy had stopped working for ordinary people.

Earnings had stagnated and work had become more insecure.

Young people could not afford a home and were on course to be poorer than their parents.

Whole communities felt left behind.

The report argued that a fairer economy is a stronger economy.

We do not have to choose between prosperity and justice. The two can and must, go hand in hand. To achieve this however will require fundamental reform.

We need to move away from the low growth, low investment, low productivity and unequal economy that we currently have.

One of the enormous challenges we face in Britain are the huge and growing inequalities between different parts of the country.

To give just one figure, in London we have the richest region in Northern Europe. But we also six of the ten poorest regions in Northern Europe.

If we are ever going to reunite the country then we need to tackle our economic imbalance and this is why I have agreed to chair a new commission, UK 2070 to look at how we could do this. This imbalance might look like good news for London but the reality is very different for those living in the capital on low incomes.

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As well as being in the Lords, I chair a major housing association in London, Peabody. Each year we do a survey of our residents to find out what life is like for them – The Peabody Index.

We have found that despite growing employment, our tenants are experiencing declining real incomes and big losses from changes in welfare:

Two fifths have no savings or investments to fall back on;

Many are on zero hours contracts;

Most are in non-unionised companies with little or no prospect of promotion or career development;

Over 40% are paid below the London living wage.

If there's one campaign we all can and should get behind it is to get employers, public and private, to pay a decent living wage. This would make perhaps the biggest difference to tackling in work poverty.

Peabody has also campaigned hard about the changes in the benefit system and in-particular, the huge problems with introduction of universal credit.

The five-week delay in payments for new applicants has caused untold hardship. Tenants quickly get into arrears from which they struggle ever to get out of.

A simple change by the government would end this misery and it in inexcusable to me that they still haven’t made it.

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In one sense though, Peabody tenants are more fortunate than others on low income. They live in secure, genuinely affordable housing.

If you go back to the 1980s, a third of all families lived in social rented, mainly council housing. Since then, this figure has fallen by a half.

It has been replaced by much higher cost and less secure private rented accommodation, which has doubled over the last decade.

A big part of that change is down to the impact of right to buy. This was why I was so opposed to the proposals for extending right to buy to Housing Associations.

But we have also built nowhere near enough homes to meet the country needs and I see this as one of the biggest policy failures of government over the last 50 years.

Shelter has called for three million new social homes to be built over the next 20 years and I think that they are right on this.

This will require massively more investment by Government than we have seen so far but will more than repay its cost in benefits over future years.

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Housing is just one public service where we will need to see a big increase in public investment.

Health, social care, local government, schools, further education, the police have all experienced big spending reductions over the last nine years and are in need of urgent repair. We will also need to do a lot more to tackle climate change.

My own view, shared by many economists, is that the current monetary policies to stimulate the economy will not be enough and we will need a major increase in public spending.

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I have talked in my speech about economic and social renewal, but we also need political and constitutional renewal as well.

Britain is one of the most centralised countries in Western Europe. What we have at the moment is an overloaded centre and a dis-empowered country. We need a radical devolution of power, not just to local government but also to local communities.

I am also a stronger supporter of changing our voter system and introducing new models of deliberative democracy.

When I was Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council I saw for myself just how powerful letting go and giving communities the opportunities to lead could be.

The council doesn’t have to deliver every service when others are better placed to do it. This includes cooperatives, mutuals and other voluntary organisations.

A year or so ago I led a commission set up by Locality on how we can reinvigorate the localism agenda.

I really hope that the ideas set out in that report can be part of your thinking in the future.

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Finally, Common Decency might also be taken to be about the way we behave towards each other. Treating people with mutual respect whether you agree with their views or not.

Recognising people’s right to live their lives free from abuse and discrimination has got to a part of the common decency agenda too.

To conclude, the scale of the economic, social and political challenges that this country currently faces is enormous.

The need for renewal is urgent.

The solutions will be on a big scale and small, national and local.

I think the biggest risk for a future Labour government therefore is not that it is too radical but that it is not radical enough.

Otherwise I fear that we will not have done justice to the sacrifice those young men made in that plane with my father some seventy-five years ago.

Thank you.