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29 January 2007

The silent slip to destruction

Public services have been taken over by unelected bureaucrats. David Blunkett says we are all ill se

By David Blunkett

Ambitious young people could be forgiven for pondering the best way to make a difference in the world. While politics should be the obvious place to take forward ideas, to gain influence and the tools to make change, the route of “officialdom” may instead now hold a false appeal. We cannot allow a situation to develop where a seat on a quango is seen as preferable to taking on the real challenge – for we are in danger of taking the politics out of politics.

This drift is linked to the debate on further reform of the public services. As we move away from the one-size-fits-all era, where one job lot of paint did for the whole housing estate, the argument is no longer whether reform should happen, but how. Yet the debate is rife with contradictions. There is increasing pressure for local, rather than national, flexibility in decision-making and delivery. At the same time, demands are made to avoid a “postcode lottery” in services.

The public’s demand for accountability is growing but at the same time there is pressure to take key decisions out of the hands of those who hold genuine accountability through the political process. A distrust of politics and politicians is leading to the emergence of the notion that officialdom is the answer – this takes us down a dangerous route where authority and responsibility locally and nationally are slipping away from those who will, in the end, be responsible. A failure in the delivery of public services is leading towards a greater reliance on the traditional managerial and administrative structures of national commissions and boards.

This gives rise to a fundamental problem: how to keep the credibility of democracy, the belief that change is brought about through the representative political process – and restore faith in politics? The first task must be to make parliament work more effectively to hold decision-makers to account.

But it goes further than that. We are heading towards a situation where those who “declare” their political allegiances are disqualified from key appointments, while those who do not, or have none, are held in high esteem.

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We cannot slip silently into a system where those who have no politics and affiliations, who ultimately do not engage with the public or have to be transparent, are the holders of power. For instance, how would an independent NHS commission make it any easier for the public to influence decisions by politicians? What, in future, should the role of the Appointments Commission be, and who should appoint the appointers?

The NHS is not alone, but has gone furthest. It is increasingly difficult for MPs to raise problems their constituents are having locally with those who are understood to be accountable for the NHS nationally. Being referred back to local officials is of no use to those who need answers from their elected representatives.

A pause is required to review progress and map future direction, to ensure continuity with reform and be clear about expectations. Work is needed to produce clear lines of accountability for delivery and commissioning agencies, such as primary care and hospital or community care trusts. There should be no further outsourcing until this is done.

Power to change

We cannot expect ministers to be held to account for decisions taken by others, where the interpretation of regulation and policy lies in the hands of those who are not accountable to the government or to parliament. Both have the power to change this.

Financial rewards for those delivering services have been substantial. We must ensure that these are linked to tangible improvements – for instance, GP surgeries opening on a Saturday morning to help those in work. Changes in nursing practice are required to restore old-fashioned care and nursing – feeding patients, sitting and talking with them – and, alongside this, a reduction in bureaucratic tasks. Furthermore, if a cap in doctors’ pay had been proposed, it would be hard to justify against a backdrop of a global labour market where no attempt is made to block obscene bonuses in the City of London.

Historic deficits in public services should not be confused with current account failure to balance the books. Special arrangements must be put in place to protect the public. Punishing the management by imposing bigger cuts only punishes the service user.

However, administrative and managerial competence is, of course, crucial and cannot be achieved simply by dividing departments, as has been proposed with the Home Office. We should be much more ready to engage those who work in public services in the reform process. Their contributions should be welcomed in order to take the process forward, rather than slow it down. A strong foundation has been laid, but the government must think, not as though it were ten years into office, but as if it had just begun. A stable economy is the ideal bedrock for a revitalised drive to link investment with better results, thereby improving public services and quality of life.

Gordon Brown is right to say that public services must be built from the bottom up. From neighbourhood policing to tenant decision- taking, from cottage hospitals to community and voluntary action, it is only by engaging at a level to which people relate that public faith in mutual progress and genuine solidarity can be restored – and the risk of officialdom taking the politics out of politics can be thwarted.

These are extracts from a speech delivered by David Blunkett, the former home secretary, on 24 January 2007

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