The debate over Universal Credit and the £20 additional weekly payments that the Government introduced at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic is one that has been slowly intensifying over recent weeks. This week the Labour frontbench took the opportunity to secure a lengthy debate in the Commons on the issue to urge the Government to keep the additional payments. In a similar vein to the issue of free school meals, the debate raises the wider question of how the Government both adapts and tapers away the various support mechanisms it has introduced over the last 12 months, as its broader policy response continues to evolve in line with public safety requirements. While the Government is likely – in both the forthcoming Budget and the next Spending Review, due at the end of the year – to pursue some public spending reductions, this will be tempered by rising political pressure to sustain elements of COVID-19 support beyond what was originally envisaged at last November’s Spending Review.
The children’s services sector has spent the last week digesting the terms of reference for the new independent review of children’s social care. As expected, the review is a wide-ranging one, incorporating all aspects of children’s social care provision in England and assessing the impact of funding, commissioning and regulation on the quality and sustainability of services. It is also likely to be a long process, with members of an expert panel asked to contribute for at least 12 months. This means that a final report is unlikely to be published until the beginning of next year at the earliest, and then the Government’s response and any further consultation processes will take place over the following months. Despite this lengthy timeframe, the moment for providers and other businesses within the scope of the review to act is now; a review of this scope and scale will need providers to be engaging to shape the areas of interest and future outputs that the review, and later the Government, will focus on.
The Government finally published its long-awaited further education white paper this week, reiterating its commitment to a ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ and additional investment in vocational education and training as part of the economic recovery from COVID-19. This came alongside the interim response to the Augar Review, with a fuller response expected later this year. In some areas, such as the ownership of FE colleges, proposals are less ambitious than previously rumoured; the white paper suggests greater powers for central government to intervene in failing colleges, with the Treasury having potentially prevented a more radical change and funding boost for the sector. Other measures reflect the overall trend under this Government to de-prioritise higher education in favour of technical skills and other forms of training. This will mean consultations later in the year on changes to funding and accountability rules, and the role of employers in designing technical skills qualifications. Providers in this space should be primed to engage and respond as these develop.