A good year for reform

19 December 2016

David Cameron nailed a lot of arguments on public service reform in the first half of 2016. He showed the greater bravery that became apparent after his victory in the 2015 General Election. His first speech after that win opened up new territory on the NHS. This year, he pushed on into prison reform and life chances.

In the prisons speech, he included a paragraph that showed how his Government became confident in making the “more for less” case:

“For years, education was set back by the soft bigotry of low expectations – the idea that the most disadvantaged children shouldn’t be expected to achieve the best results. Likewise, police reform was partly set back by the false notion that the number of officers you had mattered, more than how smartly they were actually deployed. And welfare reform was set back by the lazy idea that fairness could be judged by the size of a cheque, rather than the chances you offered.  One by one, in this government we’ve taken those arguments on – and we created the platform for reform. Today, we need to do the same with prisons.”

That also showed that the former Prime Minister ended up fulfilling the reform ambitions of his early days. Public service reform was to be a big part of the project, contributing to the “Big Society” idea of a humbler and more responsive government (also described at the time as the “post-bureaucratic age”). Those ambitions were, however, knocked badly off course in 2010-11. The Open Public Services White Paper failed to lay out principles of reform as convincingly as the Blair government had managed to do. The retreat on NHS reform was a mortal blow. After that, the Government was happy to switch its focus to economic growth and recovery. To his great credit, David Cameron recovered from these setbacks to become a strong advocate in the last twelve months of his premiership.

Governments naturally find it hard to shift their basic positions during office. David Cameron and George Osborne never showed any sign of changing their commitment to protect pensioner benefits or to ring-fence the NHS budget.  This was despite encouragement from various colleagues from Iain Duncan Smith to Nick Clegg, who pointed out that much of the money was badly targeted.  Philip Hammond’s announcement (in the Autumn Statement) that he will review these commitments at the next Spending Review is the best announcement of the Theresa May Government so far:

“I can confirm that, despite the fiscal pressures, we will meet our commitments to protect the budgets of key public services and defence; we will keep our promise to the world’s poorest through our overseas aid budget, and we will meet our pledge to our country’s pensioners through the triple lock. But as we look ahead to the next Parliament, we will need to ensure we tackle the challenges of rising longevity and fiscal sustainability. And so the government will review public spending priorities and other commitments for the next Parliament in light of the evolving fiscal position at the next Spending Review.”

Theresa May has yet to show her hand on public service reform more widely. Because of the unexpected speed of the Conservative leadership contest, she only made one policy speech (on responsible business). Now in office, regular speeches on the direction of policy, as she gave as Home Secretary, would help a lot. The position on grammar schools, however, is a big misstep. No doubt the Prime Minister feels that she can give more opportunities for academic excellence to more children. That is not, however, what the evidence says. Even if it were a good idea, the large amount of Ministerial energy spent establishing 10-20 new schools would be much, much better spent on improving the 22,000 existing schools in England.

For many, 2016 will be defined by Brexit. Speaking for Reform in October, Ben Gummer described Brexit as a “cry about what [voters] felt about the state of government and their relationship with it.” He concluded: “In too many of their interactions with the state, the public is made to feel as though they are the servants of the government, rather than the other way around.” In this way, Brexit is a powerful stimulus for the right kind of change.

The Reform team sends its deep thanks for your interest in our work and its best wishes for 2017.

Andrew Haldenby, Director, Reform

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