Cameron promises 'people power' in public services plan

David Cameron: "We want to see democracy on a properly hyperlocal scale"

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David Cameron has vowed to "put people in charge" as he unveiled his plan for changes to public services in England.

In a speech in London, the prime minister said public services were the "backbone" of the country but too often their results were not good enough.

A different approach would give people "more freedom, more choice and more local control" in schools, health and other services, Mr Cameron argued.

Labour said there was "nothing new" in the government's proposals.

And business leaders have accused Mr Cameron of moving too slowly on the changes - which are central to his vision of the Big Society - in the face of union and Liberal Democrat pressure

'Old dogma'

The Public Services White Paper had been due to be unveiled in January but has been held up by Whitehall wrangling over its contents.

The key elements of the plan, outlined by Mr Cameron, are:

  • Companies, charities and community groups to bid to run everything from local health services to schools, libraries and parks
  • People to be given new legally-enforceable "right to choose" services
  • State to have to justify retaining monopoly service in most areas
  • Councils to be given new funding streams
  • Providers to be able to make profits in some areas like getting people off benefits and into work, but not in others such as health care.

Unveiling the proposed legislation on Monday, Mr Cameron said it was about "ending the old big-government, top-down way of running public services, releasing the grip of state control and putting power in people's hands".

Start Quote

It is not about ideology. It is about the best way of getting things done”

End Quote David Cameron

"The old dogma that said Whitehall knows best - it's gone," he said. "There will be more freedom, more choice and more local control."

Mr Cameron said he had seen first-hand "how good" many public services were but results were too varied and for many people the current approach "just isn't working". Replacing a "take what you are given" culture with a "get what you choose" ethos was vital to making the UK fairer and more competitive, he argued.

"It is not about ideology. It is about the best way of getting things done," he said.

Leaked documents earlier this year suggested ministers were scaling back the role of the private sector in their plans amid concerns that the public would find widespread outsourcing of services "unpalatable".

But Mr Cameron dismissed suggestions that the government was "pulling back or losing heart" over the plans, describing the task as "urgent" and saying ministers were "determined" to see it through.

"We are as committed to modernising our public services as we have ever been," he said.

'Postcode lottery'

Labour said public services faced "significant challenges" in the current financial climate but that ministers were not advocating anything that had not already been tried by the last administration.

"It appears from the way in which this White Paper has been launched that the Cabinet Office are more preoccupied with spin and presentation than the provision of substantive proposals," said shadow Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell.

"Because this White Paper contains few new ideas and even fewer new proposals and in most of the cases referred to, the government are lagging behind the actions of the last Labour government."

Start Quote

When he talks of fairness he means new opportunities for the sharp-elbowed middle classes to push others aside”

End Quote Brendan Barber TUC General Secretary

And the trade unions accused Mr Cameron of attempting to break-up public services.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "Of course they are skilfully wrapped up in warm words, but when the prime minister talks of charities and voluntary groups, he means parcelling up public services for private companies.

"When he talks of ending top-down control, he really means introducing a postcode lottery with few winning tickets; and when he talks of fairness he means new opportunities for the sharp-elbowed middle classes to push others aside."

'Frustrated'

The CBI said it had been "frustrated" by the pace of public service reform since the coalition came to power.

"We have seen opportunities for transformation not being grasped," its director general John Cridland said.

But he said he was "encouraged" by the tone of Mr Cameron's speech and that more choice and competition in services would increase innovation and raise standards.

And he added: "It is only right that they (businesses) should make a fair profit in extending fairness to the citizen."

One think tank said ministers were right to give local communities the power to determine how services were run in their area and this should extend across a wide range of central government functions such as job centres and parts of the criminal justice system.

"The presumption that services should always be run by the public sector died a generation ago in local government," said Simon Parker, from the New Local Government Network.

"More than half of all highways, housing, environmental and social services are already outsourced and the proportion is likely to rise as cuts bite. The government's had a rocky time of late...but ministers need to hold their nerve on public sector reform."

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