PM to press ahead with public service reform – but is this the right approach?

David Cameron will vow today to press ahead with plans to open up public services to private providers as he publishes the Government’s long-awaited reform blueprint.

The Prime Minister will present the shake-up as a “people power” revolution that will replace bureaucratic control with “more freedom, more choice and more local control”.

But proposals in the Open Public Services White Paper are certain to revive complaints from trade unions that he is driving a privatisation agenda that risks a return to the “divisive” 1980s.

Wide-ranging powers for parish councils to take over services, a public “right to choose” enshrined in law and personal budgets for users to buy services from any provider are among the changes expected to be included in the consultation document.

It was due for publication in February, when Mr Cameron provoked union fury by promising a “presumption” that private providers could run all but the most sensitive public services.

The delay fuelled speculation about bitter fights within the Government over the major policy initiative, including reports that Mr Cameron’s policy guru Steve Hilton came close to quitting.

But while the language may have been toned down, Mr Cameron will insist he has in no way watered down his plans.

“I know there are those who thought we might be pulling back or losing heart for the task ahead,” he will say in a speech.

“So let me assure you of this: we are as committed to modernising our public services as we have ever been. I’m not going to make the mistakes of my predecessors – blocking reform, wasting opportunities and wasting time.

“This is a job that urgently needs to be done, and we are determined to see it through.”

He will describe public services as “the backbone of the country” but complain that they still operate with a “take-what-you’re-given” philosophy that has failed sufficiently to close gaps between the life quality of the rich and poor.

“I know what our public services can do and how they are the backbone of this country. But I know too that the way they have been run for decades – old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you’re-given – is just not working for a lot of people.

“Public services were centralised with all the right intentions: to drive progress through from on high, to keep tabs on how that progress was going with targets and rules and inspections. But the impact of this has been incredibly damaging.”

He said the contribution of public services to creating a “fairer, more equal country” since the Second World War was undeniable.

“But at the same time, we’ve got to acknowledge where public services are failing on fairness.

“It is an appalling fact that in England today, people living in the poorest neighbourhoods will, on average, die seven years earlier than those living in the richest. The poorest children – those who qualify for free school meals – are half as likely to get five good GCSEs as their better-off peers.

“The last time they counted, just 40 people who had had free school meals were going to Oxbridge – out of 80,000. We’ve got a welfare state that doesn’t deliver welfare, that doesn’t get people back into work but traps them in poverty instead.

“And we’re not getting value for money either. Total public spending increased by 57% in real terms from 1997 to 2010. But on no measure can we claim that things have improved by more than 50%. Even if we weren’t deeply in debt, we would have a responsibility to do something about this.”

Setting out his vision for the future of public services, he will say: “It’s about ending the old big government, top-down way of running public services, releasing the grip of state control and putting power in people’s hands.

“The old dogma that said Whitehall knows best – it’s gone. There will be more freedom, more choice and more local control.”

Among changes proposed in the White Paper is the enshrining in law of a “right to choose” to ensure no-one can be refused the option of using an alternative provider by bodies such as local councils.

There will also be a move to force “coasting” schools to demonstrate year-on-year improvements, even if they are meeting minimum standards, and plans to involve consumer watchdog bodies in helping people choose and access alternative providers.

Gail Cartmail, the Unite union’s assistant general secretary, said: “At a time when this country is seriously concerned about what happens when one important aspect of our lives is put in the hands of the unelected – that is, the abuse of power by the media – it is utterly wrong-headed of the Prime Minister to now ask us to pass vast parts of the public realm into uncertain hands.

“Our councils, for good or ill, are elected to spend our money, and when we lose faith in them we can dispatch them at the ballot box.

“So why break this fundamental relationship of accountability, or is the real intention to replace the state with the private sector?

“The public are not fooled. They know that this is not about improving service quality. Service quality was sacrificed the day George Osborne cut council budgets by 28%.

“This is entirely about shrinking the society we have built up through our taxes and the endeavours of working people in the generations since the war to build a fairer Britain where quality services were available to all.”

Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public and Commercial Services union, said: “This has nothing to do with people power, it’s about handing more of our public services over to private companies so they can make massive profits at taxpayers’ expense.

“With ministers rumbled trying to mislead the public about the costs of public sector pensions, and the Prime Minister desperately trying to defend his decision to hire the disgraced former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, this is a Government that has lost the trust of the public.

“The Government cannot be trusted to act in the wider public interest and it cannot be trusted with the welfare state. People will see through these plans for exactly what they are.”

Bob Crow, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said: “This Government would privatise the air that we breathe if they thought that they could get away with it.

“If David Cameron seriously thinks he can flog off what’s left of the family silver to the same greed merchants who created this crisis then he will have the fight of his life on his hands.”

Paul Kenny, leader of the GMB union, said: “This is not a new idea or an innovative new policy. It amounts to a dangerous re-threading of the bald tyre that led to today’s crash at Southern Cross impacting on the care of 31,000 elderly and vulnerable residents in private sector care.

“It is also a formula for taxpayers’ cash ending up in offshore tax havens. That the Government should seek to dress up this extension of privatisation on the day Southern Cross suspended its shares shows the extent to which it has lost touch with the real world.”

The Independent

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About elaineonyc

HR generalist who is passionate about the benefits of good HR practice. Experienced in delivering strategic and operational HR initiatives to clients in both public and private sectors. Specialises in working with SMEs.
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