The kindest cuts of all

Published in The Guardian (October 1st, 2010)

Here is a question for all who believe our public services are sacred. Why is there no suitable education or housing for my profoundly disabled daughter within an hour’s drive of our London home once she turns 18? We go to multi-agency meetings where loads of public servants agree that such places should exist, but nothing gets done. So we may have to build a centre ourselves with other families whose children need 24-hour care.

And here is another question. At the time of our last major meeting on my daughter’s transition to non-existent adult services, we were also trying to get delivery of bigger nappies following a growth spurt. A simple thing, you might suppose, given that she has been provided with pads for more than a decade. So why did this require two visits from community nurses, who must have better things to do, combined with endless form-filling, six phone calls and a five-week delay that left a distressed child and vast amounts of extra laundry?

The answers reveal two truths about our public services as we gear up for the defining political battle of our generation over cuts. First, for all the fine intentions, they remain wasteful and inefficient. Second, there is nothing progressive about public services that persistently fail the most disadvantaged people despite the best efforts of many on the frontline.

If you still think the vast debts run up by the last government were well spent, here are some more questions. Why is social mobility falling; why are entire families trapped on welfare; why do schools fail so many of the most impoverished children; why do so many prisoners re-offend? And why does the NHS spend £110bn a year but, as a report last month revealed, still manage to let down abused and disabled children, perhaps its most vulnerable patients?

The answers are many, but lack of money is not among them. Indeed, it is possible we could end up with better services once the smoke clears from the autumn spending battles. This is the ultimate prize for the government, “the silver lining to the very dark clouds hanging over us”, as one senior figure put it. “The scale of the deficit gives us the chance to do things that would have been unthinkable two years ago.”

The coalition has already announced major reforms to schools, welfare, policing, housing and the health service. Some see the ghost of Margaret Thatcher in this mesh of reform and cuts, but these are different times. She took office three years after the IMF had bailed out Britain, and followed a government that tried to push through an austerity programme. The coalition succeeded an unbelievably profligate government that took state spending from 34% of GDP to over 45% in a decade.

The proposed cuts will take public spending back to where it was five years ago at worst. Already public bodies are offering up sizable savings as they are forced to confront internal inefficiencies, like any private firm. Why, for example, does one big French supplier of outsourcing have operating margins almost twice as high on British contracts as on French ones? Get rid of that marginal difference and we save £7bn a year, instead of lining big business’s pockets.

Public servants know there is too much waste, too many pointless meetings, too many layers of bureaucracy, too much absenteeism. This is why 64,000 “whistleblowers” came forward with suggested savings in response to the Treasury spending challenge. And why services can be improved with fewer staff if power is put in the right hands, even in the most surprising places. Tony McGuirk, chief officer of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, recently disclosed that he had reduced fire-related deaths by 60% and injuries by 70% while cutting the number of firefighters by nearly half.

If the reforms are to work, there are two key questions for the government. First, can it face down the forces of conservatism on the left, in unions and in the media who believe the public sector should be preserved in aspic? Privately, ministers talk boldly about a change in the entire culture of public service. But they backed down over stopping free milk for schoolchildren.

Some ministers fear the furore over cuts will make the fight for deep-rooted change harder. That may be true in the most ossified areas, such as the police. But in criminal justice, for example, the cuts make it easier to win arguments for rehabilitation against those wedded to failed strategies of jailing more and more offenders. There is a danger, however, that fear may encourage the protection of inadequate existing services.

The second question is whether the coalition will have the strength to slaughter the sacred cows that litter the political landscape.

The battles that determine the future shape of Britain will not be easy for those caught in the middle, whether users or providers. But the distant prize is worth fighting for: to emerge from the biggest cuts in recent history with services that genuinely serve the public and don’t let down the disadvantaged.

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