In a speech given during the week, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg strongly defended introducing a diversity of suppliers to public services, saying that,
The questions that confronted me, when I came into government, were these:
How can we reinvent and strengthen our public services at a time of anxiety and stretched resources?
And how can we preserve the public sector ethos as we move to a more plural, diverse and personalised way of running our public services?…
We have to modernise our public services. And we can make them better if we do.
Clegg went on to emphasise that increasing public expenditure is not necessarily the same as improving public services and that central monopoly provision of public services is not the ethos that motivated founders of the modern public sector such as William Beveridge:
Beveridge’s report said the Department of Health should, and I quote, “supervise” the new health service, not run it.
Beveridge said the whole of the welfare state “must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual”.
Imagine how he would have celebrated the concept of personal budgets and co-production – services designed and run by those who use them. And Beveridge urged the reformers of his age – and us, through the still powerful words of his report – not to be limited, for a second, by what he called “sectional interests”.
What would he have said about a teachers’ union that tried to stop charities and parents and teachers themselves from opening new schools for our children?
Liberals have always argued for diverse provision in our public services. Gladstone’s Education Act 1870 which introduced free primary education established the new schools needed independently of government, with their own school boards.
Government paid; the people provided: a system which persisted until 1902.
Beveridge’s views were in many ways at odds with those, especially on the left, who subsequently praised the Beveridge welfare state, for he believed in both compulsory attendance at work or training centres in return for unemployment benefits and co-operation rather than top-down provision.
In addressing the issue of who provides services, Clegg was addressing a point the party has often struggled with. As I wrote in December,
The party has often had a rather unusual relationship to the question of who should provide public services. The party’s general support of diversity, love of cooperatives or mutuals, belief in local provision and local accountability and suspicions of state power could naturally lead to many forms of local provision of services through means other than staff on a public sector payroll. And yet, it never really quite has on a significant scale.
Nick Clegg went on to say,
Don’t believe the cardboard cut-out versions of what the public sector ethos is, or that it is the sole preserve of those who are directly employed by the government.
The government doesn’t have to issue your pay cheque for you to be a public servant.
What matters is that public services are delivered by people who understand the needs of the people they serve and are free at the point of use.
You must be freed from the dead hand of Whitehall to innovate, to use your judgement, and to deliver in the way you know best.
Many of the people I’ve spoken to in the public sector are positive about the opportunities ahead, the freedom from targets and bureaucracy, the chance to run your own department and design your own ways of working, the chance to do what you trained for and make a difference.
But you’re also anxious about the cuts that are coming. and anxious about the claims that what the govt is doing is privatising for ideological reasons.
I recognise that we need to be better at explaining what we’re all about. Because I am not just committed but devoted to our public services, as is this government.
Yes, we have to deal with the deficit, but this is not an assault on the size of the state.
By the end of this Parliament we will still be employing 200,000 more people in the public sector than in 1997. We will still be spending as much as Labour spent in 2006, and rightly so.
And, thank goodness, that phrase which people outside think tanks hardly ever use, “social mobility”, only featured once in the speech.