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Cameron’s ‘Let’s sell everything’ speech – point by point.

February 21, 2011

Today’s Telegraph carries a speech by David Cameron aiming to ‘replace targets with common sense’. Notwithstanding the fact that ‘common sense’ is the most nebulous concept since postmodernism, the speech goes further than any of us dreamed in the dismantling of the public sector. It is also INCREDIBLY vacuous, in typical Cameronian style, so I thought I’d go through it point by point. This’ll be a bit slapdash, but hopefully it’ll open up questions in his thinking, and maybe I’ll come back to find more specifics when I’m not also reading about comedy in Golden Age Spanish Drama.

A week ago, I made clear that while the urgent priority of this Government is clearing up the mess Labour made of our economy, my mission in politics is to repair the breakdown in our society: the family breakdown and community breakdown that has done so much damage to people’s lives – not to mention the costs that our deep social problems load on to the state.

Within the first sentence, he’s said ‘the mess Labour made’. There has been endless debate over the extent of Labour’s responsibility for the financial crisis (and will continue to be), but regardless of whose fault any of this was it’s a bit weak for a government to mention the previous administration in EVERY speech. It hardly gives one confidence in Lib/Con ministers if they feel constantly in the shadow of the previous regime.

Then there’s the ‘broken Britain’ rhetoric. The gap between rich and poor has expanded, but none of Dave’s policies are addressing this, and his attacks on employment rights will increase economic hardship for all but the most wealthy. If society IS broken, it’s his spiritual mother, Mrs Thatcher who presided over its death, and he is dancing on its corpse by encouraging victims of abuse to remain in toxic and violent relationships.

The idea at the heart of this – the Big Society – is about rebuilding responsibility and giving people more control over their lives. But that doesn’t just apply in areas like volunteering. It’s as relevant when it comes to public services and the decentralisation of power. Indeed, I would argue that our plans to devolve power from Whitehall, and to modernise public services, are more significant aspects of our Big Society agenda than the work we’re doing to boost social action.

We will soon publish a White Paper setting out our approach to public service reform. It will put in place principles that will signal the decisive end of the old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you’re-given model of public services. And it is a vital part of our mission to dismantle Big Government and build the Big Society in its place.

Even Dave’s own party don’t believe his ‘Big Society’ rubbish. His cuts to public services are decimating the voluntary sector. In addition, it seems likely that the public won’t be the ones who have the choice, but rather the local authority, who will be hamstrung by budget cuts to choose the cheapest, rather than best, provider. Hardly an incentive to provide quality services when only cheap services will win contracts.

This change is long overdue. We all know the damage caused by centrally controlled public services. As a backbench MP, I campaigned vigorously against the arbitrary closure of special schools, which deprived so many parents of the choice they wanted. During the election, I lost count of the number of parents who complained to me about their inability to find a decent state school for their child. And though I was always so grateful for the tremendous care my eldest son received, I never understood why local authorities had more control over the budget for his care than Samantha and I did.

Here he uses anecdote rather than actual, hard evidence to justify that ‘we all know’ that the points he’s making are valid. The examples he chooses are designed to pull at heart strings, with disabled children, frantic parents, and his own son. However, his constant use of his own son to justify his political decisions seems cynical. Local authorities had more control over the budget for his son’s care because they have to balance the care needs of all constituents. He had the money to pay for full time care, which is not an option available to many parents of disabled children, and could have used more private services had he wanted to.

In the past decade, stories about bureaucracy over-ruling common sense, targets and regulations over-ruling professional discretion, and the producers of public services over-ruling the people who use (and pay for) them – became the norm, not the exception. This might have been worth it had it led to dramatic improvements, but the evidence shows otherwise. Whether it’s cancer survival rates, school results or crime, for too long we’ve been slipping against comparable countries.

That’s why we need a complete change, and that’s what our White Paper will bring. The grip of state control will be released and power will be placed in people’s hands. Professionals will see their discretion restored. There will be more freedom, more choice and more local control. Ours is a vision of open public services – and we will make it happen by advancing some key principles.

The preceding paragraphs continue his practice of assertion and repetition. The statistics used to justify the NHS reforms have been debunked by the King’s Fund and the Guardian’s Ben Goldacre, and Cameron’s continued use of them smacks of desperation. Open public services would be great, but I really doubt that it’ll work like that. Again, the only ‘choice’ will be that of the cheapest private provider, which cannot be the same value as a public service, as private providers must provide shareholder profit by law, and that is money which will not be used to provide services.

The most important is the principle of diversity. We will create a new presumption – backed up by new rights for public service users and a new system of independent adjudication – that public services should be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service. Of course there are some areas – such as national security or the judiciary – where this wouldn’t make sense. But everywhere else should be open to diversity; open to everyone who gets and values the importance of our public service ethos. This is a transformation: instead of having to justify why it makes sense to introduce competition in some public services – as we are now doing with schools and in the NHS – the state will have to justify why it should ever operate a monopoly.

The government has failed to justify competition for schools and the NHS, preferring to assert that the market is a better system in the face of all contrary evidence. Have the trains REALLY improved that much? Follow @ThePeasantPoet on twitter for up to date statistics on the problems of competition in public service provision.

This is vital to give meaning to another key principle: choice. Wherever possible we will increase it, whether it’s patients having the freedom to choose which hospital they get treated in or parents having a genuine choice over their child’s school.

No-one WANTS to choose where they are treated – they want to be treated in the closest hospital as rapidly as possible. I’m not going to be able to make meaningful decisions about care while drugged up on morphine in the back of an ambulance. And improving services across the board is better than jamming good schools with pupils whose parents have ‘chosen’ to send them there – the increased class sizes will reduce quality, and any limit totally undermines Cameron’s argument.

And to give our principle of choice real bite, we will also create a new presumption that services should be delivered at the lowest possible level. Working from this presumption, we will devolve power even further. For example, we will give more people the right to take control of the budget for the service they receive. In this new world of decentralised, open public services it will be up to government to show why a public service cannot be delivered at a lower level than it is currently; to show why things should be centralised, not the other way round.

I don’t even understand this. I don’t want services to be as cheap as possible, I want them to be as good as possible. If I’m going to pay taxes to contribute to maintenance of public buildings, for example, I don’t want the local authority to be obliged to use cowboy builders just because they’re cheapest – that’s the definition of false economy. Also, there’s repetition again – this speech could have said the same thing in about half the words.

Of course, the state will still have a crucial role to play: ensuring fair funding, ensuring fair competition, and ensuring that everyone – regardless of wealth – gets fair access. But these important responsibilities for central government must never become an automatic excuse for returning to central control. That’s why our Open Public Services White Paper is so important. The principles it sets out will make it impossible for government to return to the bad old days of the standard state monopoly.

Notice, this is ‘fair access’ not ‘guaranteed’ access. Fairness is a nebulous, subjective concept, and has replaced talk of ‘equality’ for that reason. Of course equality is also subjective, to an extent, but equal access to services is clear and specific in a way that ‘fair access’ just isn’t. Who gets to decide what is ‘fair’? Will Cameron decide that it’s ‘unfair’ for those on disability benefits, for example, to also use publicly funded services?  This language is slippery, and that’s never good coming from a politician who has used word-games to pass off the biggest reorganisation of the NHS in its history as ‘no top down reform’.

This is not about destabilising the public services that people rely on; it is about ensuring they are as good as they can be. These are practical reforms, driven by a clear rationale that the best way to raise quality and value for money is to allow different providers to offer services in an open and accountable way. Our public services desperately need an injection of openness, creativity and innovation. These reforms will bring that – and that is why I am determined to see them through.

The only creativity and innovation I can see are the ways in which Cameron’s cabinet have interpreted their manifesto promises. The ‘rationale’ he cites is not evidence based, it is based on his faith in market fundamentalism – a faith which was one of the causes of 2008’s financial crisis.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 21, 2011 5:31 pm

    I hadn’t heard this speech, but I find it really chilling. It’s one thing to find that politicians who have different priorities to you reach different conclusions about the way forward – we can all honestly disagree over many policies – but there is so much mendacity in this. This is a PR man putting a positive spin on a programme of social butchery.

    I’m not aware of anyone who thinks that our society is “broken” (still less that the Tories can be trusted to mend it), and the statistics on both crime and the NHS under Labour were on the whole very heartening.

    And if Cameron genuinely “never understood why local authorities had more control over the budget for [oh, by the way, the “tremendous care” that his son got from the NHS] than Samantha [as the whole, admiring nation knows her] and I did”, then he really is dumb. But unfortunately he is not.

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