David Cameron must not shelve public service reform

Despite some early successes, parts of the public sector are in desperate need of overhaul, writes Andrew Haldenby.

Almost exactly a year ago, David Cameron wrote in the Daily Telegraph that a revolution in public services was at hand. He said that he would publish a white paper that would “signal the decisive end of the old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you're-given model of public services”. Because of the “damage caused by central control”, every public service would be opened up to competition and choice.

This was the right vision. It learned from the mistakes of the last Government. Tony Blair tried to force public services to do certain things (literally from an office in Number 10 Downing Street). He quickly realised that targets might deliver one narrow goal but would slow down progress in everything else that public services were trying to do.

In addition the costs were out of all proportion to the results. With the benefit of hindsight, Blair argued in his autobiography that public services needed more local initiative and no more money. It was that more intelligent vision that Cameron sought to take on.

A year on, there has been real progress. Theresa May and Nick Herbert have fundamentally altered the debate on policing. Even confronted by the riots of last summer, they argued that what matters is not police headcount but how it is used. While their union is opposing cuts in spending, police officers themselves are arguing that the cuts are a reason to do things differently and better. Ken Clarke is changing the culture of prisons (and also imposing cuts in spending). Before he resigned last year, Liam Fox was pushing for radical change in the Ministry of Defence to drive out the “enemies of enterprise” about whom Cameron complained last year.

Unfortunately that is not the whole story. In other parts of the public sector, it is as if a different Government is in charge – one that still plays by the old rules. While police Ministers argue that cuts will benefit the police, health Ministers say that the NHS budget must be protected. While Clarke argues for the benefits of competition, health and education ministers argue that the private sector is a toxic commodity to be used with caution if at all.

The heart of Government – the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and Number 10 itself – have left it up to the spending departments instead of giving a consistent lead. The Treasury may be exploring ideas such as regional pay in the public sector but this is a pale shadow of the kind of reform that the Home Office is pushing through. David Cameron himself has begun to step in personally to address problems of public services, with clear echoes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown too.

Public service reform is difficult. I’m sure in part the Prime Minister is tempted to leave the whole thing to a second term or even to a successor. I would urge him to come back to it and to regain the initiative. A year ago, he rightly argued that wholescale reform is the best way to deliver a stronger society and a smaller government. It also perfectly complements his programme of deficit reduction (because it makes public services more efficient). His successes, such as policing, show what can be done.