Ambulances are seen at the Accident and Emergency department of St. Thomas' Hospital in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's plan to "declutter" public services is part of true fiscal responsibility

Chris Leslie's pledge to avoid the wasteful short-termism of the coalition is a good place to start. But far tougher choices lie ahead.

After being near-silent on the issue of public service reform since 2010, Labour has recently had much more to say on the subject, with speeches from Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas promising radical devolution and a restructuring of services around users. In an age when there is less money around (NB: not "no money"), this approach is not just desirable but essential. As Cruddas, the party’s policy review co-ordinator, warned in his speech on "one nation statecraft" last June, "Labour will inherit a state that in many areas has reached the limit of its capacity to cut without transformational change to the system."  

Today, in his first major speech since becoming shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Chris Leslie has taken up the theme by promising to "declutter" services in order to improve both user outcomes and to deliver savings. In his address to the Social Market Foundation, he argued that it is those on the centre-left, as the champions of a social democratic state, who have a duty to prove that they are fiscally responsible. The belief that the public sector is invariably wasteful gives the right the licence they need to permanently roll back services. He said: 

It is a long-standing project of some on the right of politics to erode trust and confidence in taxpayer-funded service provision, so that we revert instead to a society where individuals insure against their own health, education or welfare. Implying that effective budget management is anathema to the public realm is a well-trodden path on the journey of those wishing to shrink the state.

For those of us who believe that we achieve more as a society by acting together in cooperation, pooling our resources and delivering services from which we all benefit, it is important that we act now to rebut the notion that it can’t be done efficiently or effectively.

And more than this, we have a duty to prove that the foundation of successful public service provision is the sound stewardship of public finances.

This is why the centre-left should embrace the goal of balancing the books and controlling national debt; because sustainability and living within our means is at the heart of good governance, prudent decision-making and the reciprocal social contract between individual and state.

To those on the right, spending cuts are part of the long march towards the demise of what they interpret as state interference.

For those of us on the centre-left, sustainable management of public finances is proof that taxpayers can have trust in the public realm.

Through their deeds, he went on to argue, the Tories have shown their lack of commitment to a well-managed and fiscally sustainable public sector. He cited the abolition of the successful Future Jobs Fund and its replacement with the ineffective Work Programme (as he noted, the number of young people on nationally-funded employment and skills programmes has fallen by 10 per cent since 2009-10 even though the number of young people out of work for more than a year has doubled), the top-down reorganisation of the NHS, which cost £3bn and saw 3,200 staff handed redundancy payments before being re-hired, the botched launch of Universal Credit, which led the DWP to write off £40.1m of assets developed for the programme and put a further £91m at risk (and which currently costs a remarkable £190,000 per claimant), the establishment of free schools in areas with surplus places, while shortages grow elsewhere, and the recent scrapping of the Enquiry Service, designed to create a single telephone point of contact to deal with multi-benefit enquiries, at a cost of £34m. "Reform is worse than pointless if it does not improve the experience of the user and ends up costing money rather than saving money", he rightly declared. 

By contrast, rather than mimicking George Osborne's short-term salami slicing, Labour would seek to achieve "real public service reform" by recognising the duty of government "to devolve with the user in mind, and to de-clutter." To this end, he announced that as part of its zero-based spending review (one that requires every item of spending to be approved, rather than merely changes to a pre-determined baseline) Labour is looking at:

  •  Creating leaner, more efficient commissioning arrangements for health and social care
  • Using the criminal justice estate more effectively, for instance by co-locating County Courts and Magistrates Courts on the same site. At the moment only 32 Magistrates Courts are currently co-located with County Courts;
  • Greater collaboration between local emergency services, citing the example of County Durham fire and rescue service working with the police to share buildings;
  • Options for changing police structures, including locally-negotiated mergers, and whether to axe elected police and crime commissioners which are more expensive than the police authorities they replaced, following the report by Lord Stevens;
  • Greater collaboration between local councils to pool staff and resources, citing the example of North East Derbyshire and Bolsover councils which expect to save £1.5 million a year from sharing a chief executive and senior managers, as well as other shared staff and services including street cleaning, recycling and ground maintenance. 

The $64,000 question, of course, is how much money all of this would actually save. Every government arrives in power promising "efficiency savings" but almost all fail to deliver the promised sums. The real fiscal challenge for Labour remains to explain how it would meet its pledges to achieve a current budget surplus and to reduce debt as a proportion of GDP by the end of the parliament (affirmed by Leslie today) beyond reducing waste and duplication. As the IFS has warned, £12bn of tax rises will be required if annual departmental spending cuts are to be maintained at their current pace. A mansion tax (which Labour would use to fund the reintroduction of the 10p tax rate) and the restoration of the 50p tax rate would not even come close to plugging the gap. One left-wing economist, speaking very much off-the-record, recently told me that the parties may need to discuss the openly possibility of raising the only taxes that reap reliably large revenues: the basic rate of income tax, National Insurance and VAT. But that is the kind of genuinely "tough choice" that all sides seem desperate to avoid before May 2015. 

Leslie's promise of "real public service reform" is a good place to start, but with Osborne forecast to leave a deficit of £96bn, a start is all it is. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Daily Mail
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle