How we will release the grip of state control
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.