Open Public Services White Paper – What Cameron doesn’t want you to know

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“ History has known many great liars”[i]. Fans of the BBC’s cult comedy series Black Adder will be familiar with this quote from the opening narration of the first series. Talking of great liars, people who have watched David Cameron’s recent speech outlining the contents of the governments ‘Open Public Services White Paper’ will be left wondering if he is attempting to deliberately mislead the public, or if this happened accidentally; perhaps due to a mistake made by his director of communications (after all he does have a history of employing future criminals). Whilst what Mr Cameron said in his speech and his repetition of certain words and phrases is both interesting and important, it is what he didn’t say that is most enlightening.

Cuts. At no point in his speech did Mr Cameron use the words cuts, or the phrase spending cuts. In fact there was no mention what-so-ever that changes to public services would include spending cuts. The closest Mr Cameron gets to saying this is linking ‘better value for money’ to ‘modernisation’ of our Public Services. In fact he likes to use the blanket term ‘modernisation’ throughout to allude to cuts. Perhaps it’s unjust to accuse Mr Cameron’s speech of being misleading, perhaps he’s unsure as to the actual meaning of the word modernisation – he is a politician not an English teacher after all – and the West does have a recent precedent for electing barely literate leaders (George Bush). Questioning Mr Cameron’s intellect is unfair on him, by my own admission I am no big fan of Mr Cameron, but will admit that, unfortunately for him, he is probably the most politically talented and able current leader of any of the mainstream parties in British politics. It’s hard to deny that, in terms of political skill, he compares favourably to Mr Clegg or Mr Milliband. However, that does not change the fact that his speech is misleading.

Petty recriminations aside, Mr Cameron’s omission of the word cuts from his speech is an obvious political move to lessen his association with this unpopular policy. I find this to be quite an ironic thing to do in a speech where Mr Cameron also calls several times for greater ‘transparency’ in Public Services and, by extension, government as a whole. Though it may be unfair to suggest Mr Cameron does not quite know the meaning of the word modernisation, it feels increasingly necessary that someone should remind him the meaning of the word hypocrisy. He even uses the phrase ‘we should be open and honest’, although apparently not about spending cuts; we should dishonestly hide them behind words like modernisation, apparently.

Though it is politically sound to give misleading terminology to unpopular policy, in an attempt to lessen the public agitation it will likely cause, it was perhaps unwise of Mr Cameron to do so at the same time as calling for greater transparency. Luckily for Mr Cameron he usually appears next to this man…

Clegg – I’ll never join the conservatives

Clegg – I’ll oppose any rise to tuition fees

Clegg – Let’s end broken promises

… Nick Clegg, whose name has, for some, become a byword for hypocrisy and lies. When next to Clegg, one could be forgiven for overlooking Cameron’s penchant for playing fast and loose with the truth. The videos above show Mr Clegg promising, on the 9th of March 2008, that he would never join a conservative government; his pledge to oppose any tuition fees rise; and his 2010 election video, where he calls for an end to broken promises in politics.

But what is this white paper all about? Mr Cameron starts his speech with the auspicious words, “The contents of this white paper will be felt in every state school, every hospital, every prison, by every doctor, teacher, parent and citizen” – so all of us then. Though Mr Cameron himself may shy away from saying cuts, you have to look no further than the second line, of the second page, of the actual white paper itself before you find the phrase “services for less money” [ii]. The second page is entitled “Scope” and comes before even the contents page or forward.

Mr Cameron seems determined to point out that this isn’t just about cutting costs – although it is largely about privatisation or, as he likes to call it, ‘Diversity’. Diversity meaning greater variety in the provider of public services, instead of them just being the government it is now private companies too; already this week 6 prisons have been ‘diversified’ (or privatised), as well as a further two being closed. For one thing, he doesn’t want to mention that it is about cutting costs. He goes on to say that “even if we weren’t deeply in debt we would have a responsibility to [change public services]”, after pointing out the perceived failings of the current system.

These failing being that “in 10 years we’ve fallen almost 10 places in world ranking for maths and literacy… it’s a similar story in health care” (where 5,000 extra cancer patients per year die in the UK against the EU average).

“In England today people living in poorer neighbourhoods will on average die seven years earlier than those in richer neighbourhoods.”

“Children who receive free school meals are half as likely to get 5 good GCSE’s as their better off peers… Just 40 recipients of free school meals go to Oxbidge out of 80,000.”

“‘Too often it feels like us against an impersonal bureaucratic machine.”

Cameron even talks about going out on the beat with a police officer as he has to make arrests to fill a quota – although I personally would question if the leader of the country would actually be allowed to walk around on a beat, observing a police officer arresting people (it would seem quite dangerous). Throughout his explanation of the problems he continually makes reference to how they are not “value for money”, ”the need to get more for less”, and refers to the large amounts of money that labour put into public services.

The changes to public services are broken down into 5 policy buzzwords

- “Choice – wherever possible we will increase choice

– Decentralisation – Power should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level

– Diversity – Public services should be open to a range of providers

– Fairness – We will ensure fair access to public services

– Accountability – Public services should be accountable to users and taxpayers.”

Cameron certainly makes a strong case about the problems facing public services. Few would disagree with him that changes need to be made.  However, what I would disagree with is the effectiveness of some of the government’s planned remedies. For example, patients will be given direct control over their choice of hospital and treatment – the average patient has little to no medical training and is perhaps not in the best position to make informed decisions. On top of this several aims appear to be contradictory. How can citizens fairly and equally receive the same quality of public services if they are privatised; diversified; and then each individual can chose, where possible, which provider to pick from. The danger here is that some providers are going to offer better public services and everyone will naturally want to choose them. Whilst this seems less likely in say medicine, it seems a distinct possibility in education.

After complaining that students from low-income backgrounds are being left behind, it seems as though our Prime Minister wishes to create a system that will foster inequities across a broad range of public services.

Furthermore, Mr Cameron has claimed some odd results of this new policy. For instance, he states that open public services will give the people more of what they want, such as “more on the ground policing from your local force”. This seems irreconcilable with the huge cuts to police force numbers – tens of thousands of police jobs are expected to be lost due to governmental cuts to their budget [iii].

Mr Cameron says “this isn’t about Ideology it’s about the best way of getting things done”. Instead, it would seem more likely to be the cheapest way of getting things done, whilst implementing the ideology it’s supposedly not about. Continually, Mr Cameron made reference to how these changes would bring about his ‘vision’ for Britain and create ‘the big society’ that he seems so set on, despite no one really knowing what it is.

If you wish to see this speech for yourself, or to read the white paper, please follow this link:

http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/resource-library/open-public-services-white-paper

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[i] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Blackadder

[ii] http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/open-public-services-white-paper.pdf page 2

[iii] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/7859813/Big-cut-in-number-of-police-on-the-streets.html