The other big policy dispute coming along

In the aftermath of Thursday’s elections, it’s no surprise that there is plenty of speculation on how the results may affect the re-thinking going on over Andrew Lansley’s NHS plans. But there’s another significant public services dispute bubbling along, mostly unnoticed.

It’s over the forthcoming Public Services White Paper, an early draft of which caused consternation in Liberal Democrat ranks (with one senior Liberal Democrat calling it shocking) due to its enthusiastic backing for introducing widespread private provision of public services. In the latest draft, as the BBC reported during the week, the emphasis is much more on bringing in mutuals, not for profits and charities to provide services rather than private firms.

Liberal Democrat influence has been heavily responsible for those changes – so much so that Ben Brogan in the Daily Telegraph has said of these changes that, “Nick Clegg is winning the big battle” and that “it is being systematically filleted by Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is proving adept at using his internal leverage to shift Coalition policy in favour of the Lib Dems”.

Some of the debate over ‘privatisation’ gets very silly very quickly – just think of some of those who regularly shout ‘no to privatisation’ in response to all sorts of health policies from all sorts of parties but never once object to GPs being private workers; ‘nationalise all GPs now!’ is not a banner often seen at anti-privatisation protests.

But those fringes should not obscure the proper debate there is to be had over who should supply what services. It’s unexceptional that the pencils and notepads used by the police are sourced from private suppliers. Provision of cars and radios is much more sensitive, whilst when it comes to police officers themselves the sort of private employee arrangements used by GPs would cause outrage if introduced.

As I wrote of this issue last 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 …

But the party is likely to be put on the spot again and again over the [question]: who does the party think should provide services? Is it all about provision by local public bodies answerable to the council, or is it about more than just public bodies and more than just councils?

With the White Paper, here comes the spot.

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