BBC Green Paper: a hint that Ministers want a smaller State?

20 July 2015

A recurring question in the Reform blog in recent weeks is whether the Government wants to shrink the State or not. Arguments in favour include reductions in public spending and taking the cost of free TV licenses off the national books. Arguments against include new regulations on training and wages.

Some have suggested that Jeremy Hunt and David Prior are questioning the future of the NHS. Both Ministers have said that the NHS will face great difficulties if it cannot make the £22 billion of efficiencies envisaged by the most successful scenario in the NHS England Forward View. In both cases, journalists argued that they were opening up a debate on the new funding model that would inevitably follow. That is too much of a stretch in my view. The Ministers are trying to focus minds on the urgency and importance of the challenge, understandably so if people within NHS England are now doubting that it can be achieved.

The Green Paper on the BBC is stronger evidence. It asks whether the BBC’s output should be universal or should be narrowed in scale and scope. It asks whether the BBC should specialise in areas where commercial broadcasters are less strong. It considers a subscription model (when technology allows) rather than the licence fee. The BBC does share some characteristics with parts of the public sector, which is why I was so pleased to hold a recent series of events on its impressive record in driving efficiency and productivity. These questions are at least a hint that Ministers will consider a narrower role for public services.

Reform’s argument is that the real question is the role and effectiveness of the State. The Sunday Times echoed that view in its leader (£) yesterday:

“We are beyond the era of high-spending government. But this does not mean we cannot have smart government …. Many successful interventions are not costly. A smaller State can also be more effective, intervening in areas of teenage births, cycles of welfare dependency, prisons, crime and health. Too often in the past, government has been big and dumb. Small and smart is the way to go.”

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Reform’s excellent conference on cyber crime last week, held in partnership with BT and KPMG, revealed the new focus on this issue within various parts of government: digital services, criminal justice, security and business.  Some of the discussion reminded me of our work on exports. Government would like the millions of small businesses to take cyber security more seriously (and would like them to consider exporting) but finds it impossible to engage with such a large group. On exports, we concluded that small businesses would be best supported by their own networks and advisers.

Andrew Haldenby, Director, Reform

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