Saturday, 16 January 2010

Few Tools Beyond the Brute Force of Political Edict

So what do Labour do to get things done? We according to 60 Whitehall's senior officials they have 'few tools beyond the brute force of political edict'.

Indeed the findings for the Institute for Government also say that despite their grip on power there is a "conspicuous lack of a single coherent strategy for government". Indeed they call for a radical shake up of Whitehall if it is to function after the election, whoever is in power. As Nick Clegg has been saying recently the old ways are not working, they need to chance, even the Civil Servants are saying that, not a phrase we often heard Sir Humphrey saying in Yes Minister.

In the report Shaping Up: A Whitehall for the Future there is a damning assessment of Labour.

  • Downing Street lacks a coherent strategy and is reduced to issuing "barmy ideas" as it squabbles with the Treasury and the Cabinet Office. Giving No 10 greater powers would inflict only more harm on the country.
  • Ministers have lost their grip: "The machine is starting to pull away from them. There is a sense that you are at the end of an era."
  • The Treasury has given up on its duty to control public spending because it has been "hijacked and turned into a social policy department, a welfare department, a reducing international debt department, an everything-under-the-sun department".

Indeed in the anonymous interviews with senior civil servants many of whom have served through all 13 years of Labour Government the director-general of one department said:

"What comes out of No 10 is lots of barmy ideas. It’s the worst possible kind of policy making, which is ‘here is a problem, let’s have a kneejerk reaction to it tomorrow on what we’re going to announce’ and quite frankly the less contact with No 10 the better."

Well Liberal Democrats have been saying for a while that Labour are thinking on the hoof. One example was their reaction to MPs expenses. Many of the things that Labour came up with in the interim do not make sense and lack the transparency that the public demand. For example the daily subsidence allowance is a flat rate, it is not based on the actual expense of things required. Jo Swinson told us the story last year of how post scandal she wanted to make claims for incidental food whilst travelling out of her offices etc which came to less than one day's allowance. The fees office wouldn't have it and asked her to claim for the 6 days in question in full!!!

They rejected Nick Clegg's call to discuss this, and indeed far reaching reforms. Reforms that would include reforming parts of Whitehall. Cameron of course wants to make change in Whitehall as well, however he merely wants to cut it incredibly without looking at functionality, indeed he is hinting that certain functions will be 'best' (in his opinion) carried out by being put to private tender. Don't think that is what the report is looking for in reform either when it says of the current set up.

"The fragmentation and lack of co-ordination at the centre of the civil service — the Treasury, No 10 and the Cabinet Office — leads to an administrative centre that is relatively weak. This curious situation has created a strategic gap at the heart of British government which inhibits the ability to set overall government priorities and translate them into action."

So if Labour live in the mess, and the Conservatives merely want to hive the responsibilities out, is this the way to reform governance. As Nick Clegg said on BBC's Hardtalk last week:

"David Cameron talks about change, but none of the Conservative MPs who avoided capital gains tax or made huge profits flipping their homes were forced to resign. He promised to give people the right to sack corrupt MPs but then the Conservatives voted against a law that would do just that. They have made it clear they will block attempts to make the voting system fair. They walked out on cross-party talks on party funding and refused to cap donations.

"Labour promised to clean up politics and make it fair but they failed. They wouldn't even push through reform after the expenses scandal. They went back on their promise to change the voting system.

"They failed to make the House of Lords elected and accountable to voters. They failed to clean up party funding because they rely on the unions. And they blocked attempts to give people the right to sack corrupt MPs. Labour will never change the political system."

So what is on offer to shape up Government. Again Nick said:

"We [Lib Dems] will introduce a fair voting system, ensure that MPs can be sacked by their constituents if they break the rules, return powers to local communities and stop tax avoiders from standing for Parliament, sitting in the House of Lords or donating to political parties."

There will also be plans to reform Whitehall it is part of the efficiency savings we've been crying out for since the start of the banking crisis reared its head. We recognise that of course Government departments serve a purpose but there are parts of it that need a shake up and some of the quangos are just a way to feather nests of those who want to influence. Government whatever its size isn't of itself bad which the Tories seem to think (i.e. Big is bad) but how it functions is important. That is the difference. That is real change.

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