The reform of public services: the One Nation agenda.


In collaboration with the One Nation group of Labour MPs, Renewal has been organising a series of seminars on the emerging politics of One Nation Labour. Here we print the talks given by Steve Reed and Lisa Nandy at the seminar on how to build One Nation public services on 7 April 2014.

Power to the people

Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North and Shadow Home Office Minister

I've been a Member of Parliament for just over a year now, so I'm one of the newer MPs. I was elected at a by-election. Before that I was the Leader of Lambeth Council, which I think makes me one of the very few Labour MPs who has been running public services under the present period of austerity.

Of course, the financial crisis means that you have to think about doing things differently if you don't want to just cut services and withdraw them from the people who are using them. The model we came up with in Lambeth we called 'The Co-operative Council', which was about finding new ways to get stronger co-operation between the users of public services and providers.

The Guardian, when they first reported this, called Lambeth 'The first John Lewis Council.' I think they were trying to contrast it with the easyCouncil model in Barnet. We dropped that title pretty quickly, when I saw an email discussion group going round with the title, 'Never knowingly understood.' I think that flags up the difficulty that we had then, that I think we still have now as a party, in finding the language and the stories to explain to people exactly what we're trying to do, because it can seem very process-driven.

People don't want to hear about the process by which you arrive at decisions. They want to know what you're going to do for them and how that can change, but in this case, the process of decision-making is a critical part of getting to the right answer.

We do need, through debates like this, to work out the language and the story that makes that intelligible to people. I genuinely believe that whichever party can grasp the language as well as the concepts for this is going to determine politics for the next 10 years or more, because we face such a big question about how we shape public services to be sustainable into the future, given my starting point, which is that the current business model for public services is bust.

Now why do I say the business model is bust? There are two things that you cannot help but notice if you're involved in the running of public services at the moment: the first is that there is a drastic reduction in resources to deliver public services, primarily funding, but other resources as well. Councils are now looking at, over the period of the comprehensive spending review, a 50 per cent reduction in the amount of money they have available.

There is not, however, a 50 per cent reduction in the number of people needing to use those public services. In fact that number has gone up. Take, for example, one of the biggest areas of spending, which is social care, trying to look after older, more vulnerable, frail people in their homes to prevent their health situations becoming health crises. As we have a bigger and bigger ageing population, demands for those services are going up.

What do you do when you're confronted with a reduction of 50 per cent in your resources, but more people needing support? The one thing we don't want to do is just withdraw support from half of those people who need it, because that leaves them simply to sink into positions where they can no longer cope. None of us want to preside over a community that is facing that kind of a meltdown. That is the first issue we confront.

However, there was a need to look at the reform of public services even before the financial crisis hit, and in my view the reason for that is that the current model of public services, more or less the model we've had since the settlement that followed the Second World War, creates dependency: it creates individuals who are reliant on very high numbers of public services, particularly the more complex interventions in their lives. I'm not thinking here about bin collections. I'm thinking more about: how do you support families with multiple challenges and the communities that they're part of that are also multiply challenged.

The way that we've run public services over the last few decades is that professionals, who are trained over a lifetime, take decisions about your life, your household, your community, and they impose those decisions on you because they believe it's in your best interests. You may not feel the same. Over generations, across a whole community, that experience of people taking decisions about you, rather than with you, is extremely disempowering. It creates dependency, because over time you stop being able to be self-reliant because the ability to be self-reliant has been taken away from you by well-intentioned professionals, who have failed to involve you properly.

There are also difficulties with models of public services that see people merely as problems. We identify people based on particular issues that they're finding challenging in their lives, and we try and deal with that particular issue rather than engaging with them, asking them what they feel is holding them back, and then trying to tie everything together to help them achieve aspirations and ambitions that they define for themselves. Indeed, by treating people as problems, we fail to identify the abilities that they have, either individually, or the capabilities that their communities have. We fail to identify their abilities and then harness them to help get those people's lives to the place where those people would like their lives to be. The effect is that instead of encouraging leadership at all levels in our community, we tend to stifle it and crush it. If people put their head above the parapet and try to make change happen, they're very often met with such negativity or so many obstacles, they become frustrated and they go away.

One of the things that people ask me when I talk about empowerment is: 'if you're empowering a community to make decisions about itself, where are you going to find the leaders?' Well...

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