Looking at some bigger picture issues on a news item that has engulfed Westminster – and examining the principles of some local government roots
Part 1 – Education
Both the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary made statements to Parliament (here in response to an urgent Q by the former, and here in a separate statement by the latter). Birmingham Council have made statements published here. Rather than focusing on the story, I want to look at some wider principles around local government and accountability.
Health and education – political hot potatoes
Understandably so – one is dealing your day-to-day existence while the other is about the future life chances of those that are dependent on you. Directly outside of local government, it’s health and education that people tend to be most passionate about at a local level when it comes to public services. Being a school governor over the past few years has given me an insight into what this passion looks like on the ground from parents, teachers and volunteers on the ground – the sort of passion you don’t get to see inside public policy world.
The incentive to centralise
It takes a brave and competent politician to resist the urge to micromanage when they are being blamed for things that go wrong. If you find yourself in an organisation being blamed in such a way, there is an incentive for you to take direct control of things and manage them yourself. Yet the sheer size of our education system – think of the number of schools, colleges and universities that we have in total – means that the sort of micro-management we’ve had in recent times has been a source of the problem. This is one of the reasons why I regularly advise younger political activists and politicians seeking higher public office to get an understanding of how large organisations function.
The faith vs secularisation debate
I’ve gone on record saying I prefer a secular education system – for which I give my reasons here while acknowledging the problems of delivering it. The complexity of our education system means even with the greatest political will in the world, you could not secularise it overnight. As far as the cases in Birmingham are concerned, the schools at the centre of the political firestorm are not faith-based ones. Some of the concerns raised (and the principles linked to them, such as segregation on gender) are ones that go beyond that one geographical area.
Holding up the political mirror to politicians
This pic from Private Eye (various people on Twitter) speaks volumes
This was something that came up on Question Time earlier on as well. Should private schools be allowed to opt out of some of the basics safeguards that politicians are now talking about? (for example the Deputy Prime Minister here. This was also an issue Ed Miliband raised at Prime Minister’s Questions – see here & Cameron’s response).
On the private vs state-funded schools, there are those that want to see the former abolished. Nationalise the lot. This was sort of touched upon by playwright Alan Bennett (summarised in the Independent here, and in full at the LRB here – in the latter effectively calling for the nationalisation/merging of private providers with state providers to reduce the class divides). On the other hand, private institutions are becoming a big export earner as the global elite send their children to England for education – Cambridge being one of the prime destinations. Competing priorities: A growing UK export earner (& the jobs they provide) is solidifying the class divisions not just within UK societies but across the world too. There are other policy examples too Arms sales boosting export earnings but enflaming conflicts abroad (creating refugees)? Some global financial services that support speculation on food commodities that hit farmers in poorer countries?
On the faith vs non-faith schools, as far as ministers past and present are concerned, their figures show faith schools produce students achieving better exam results. (They also ignore concerns about ‘selection by the back door’ when data on free school meals shows differences between high performing faith schools and national averages – i.e. is it a ‘faith ethos’ that drives the results or selecting children of parents from more affluent backgrounds?).
There are also numerous problems with exams – not least the media regularly reporting concerns from employers about falling standards and/or not understanding the complexity of what qualifications actually mean. This is where the almost infinite choice of courses available is a market failure because employers (who are one of the main targets for the system) don’t have the time to find out what each qualification means. If employers either don’t understand or trust the qualifications, what’s the point of having them?
Issues with the regulators
OfSted hasn’t come out well either – why are were we outsourcing inspections in the first place? It simply creates another institutional barrier between the main inspector and sub-contractors. Those barriers create communications barriers – hence issues with consistency of inspections – see here.
Gove vs Miliband/Hunt
The Shadow Education Secretary’s response to the Secretary of State is here. While watching this on TV, I tweeted that Labour might be quickly re-writing their education policies on the back of this. Gove seems happy with the current structure, Hunt and Miliband are not, but as the latter indicated in Prime Minister’s Questions said Labour see local ‘directors of education’ accountable to the Department for Education (and not to local councils) as the policy response. The more difficult policy option is to strengthen local government and local councils to deal with these issues. But given that more schools are being taken out of local council control (under both Labour and the Coalition), what role is there for local accountability?
Part 2 – Local Government
Do the roots of these issues lie within local government (and local housing policies?)
This was something picked up in the aftermath of the riots in 2001 – see here. Given the nature of primary schools which (certainly with state ones in Cambridge) tend to serve small local communities, it’s easy to see how the data on the backgrounds of those attending don’t show an even consistent picture. With Birmingham, various news outlets showed charts cross-referencing the location of schools with geographical data on ethnicity and religion. This was also an issue I found out about when speakers talked about it at various conferences I went to during my civil service days. One councillor said that while in London she mixed with lots of people from a variety of backgrounds, where most of her family lived in one of the northern cities were able to live their lives without engaging with people from different backgrounds.
How do you undo decades of flawed local government housing policies?
It’s not just that, it’s also a wider issue of local government and its place within our political system. Compared to other countries, the UK one of the most centralised – especially when you look at the powers UK cities have compared to other countries. Ditto when you compare their powers during the 1800s vs what they had during the 1990s/2000s. The problem over the past few decades is that Whitehall has seen local government as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
It’s not helped by a civil service culture that has not understood local government. In the training and development for civil servants, certainly until very recently local government experience was undervalued. There was a lack of people with experience in local government working in the civil service. The Fast Stream in particular was one where the ‘glitz and glamour’ of working with ministers and Parliament was promoted, but where looking into the whites of the eyes of people in most need of support on a day-to-day basis was not. (Note that the Fast Stream system has since been overhauled & is a different beast to what it was when I was on it in the mid-late 2000s. The questions of how diverse the intake is vs the wider population (and the culture of the network) remain outstanding.
Local government improvement put in the ‘too complicated to do’ pile
That’s what’s happened over the past few decades. I don’t like using the term ‘reform’ because all too often it means privatise, outsource, reduce terms and conditions, and cut jobs & services. In the case of local government, whether Thatcher’s decision to abolish the Greater London Council & cap local authority taxes or the centralisation under Blair in the late 1990s (again, irrespective of the political/policy merits), both weakened the powers and the role of local government to that of administrators. For ministers who are very ‘hands on’, this is very appealing. Take policy control outside of your political opponents at a local level and hand it to a government agency whose boss you get to appoint. If you’re a Conservative minister, why would you want to let a Labour council have unrestricted local tax raising powers? If you’re a Labour minister who prides him/herself as being strong on law and order, why would you want to allow a Liberal Democrat council have a ‘hands off’ approach to problems at a community level?
How do you make local accountability work?
How do you make local government strong enough to resist policies that fragment and polarise communities? Those at the top of their own communities & who like exercising their power/influence without being accountable for their actions. TV over the years has spoofed this brilliantly, whether Hyacinth from ‘Keeping up appearances’ or Mr Khan from ‘Citizen Khan’.
I’m looking at this through the microcosm of Cambridge reflecting a wider picture. We have a fragmented public sector. We know this. Trying to get some level of co-ordination and co-operation was something I campaigned on during the election and have been following through since. The problem is that we are starting from a very low base. For example we have local institutions that don’t even talk to each other. Few people follow what happens in local democracy here, let alone actively and regularly engage with it – particular if they are outside party political networks. Too many of us are ‘free-riding’ on the back of the efforts of too few people to make local democracy work and local government function efficiently. Cambridge residents hold a wealth of skills, yet so few people and residents for whatever reason apply them to local democracy. We the people are part of the problem. We are also part of the solution.
When you have such a small group of people taking on such big burdens of local democracy, it’s easy to see how small but well-organised groups of people can be seen to have a disproportionate influence by others. In Cambridge, some motorists complain about the influence of the cycling lobby for example. Even though my personal view is that many of the proposals from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign would significantly improve transport in Cambridge, the impression some get is this group is more likely to get its way than the others.
This in part is where I’m sympathetic to the general Liberal Democrats view of bringing local public services under wider local council control. So rather than having healthcare, job centres, the police and education bypassing local councils, bring them under the control of local councils. For somewhere like Cambridge, having a unitary authority rather than a separate city/county divide would go a long way. Making as many of our local public services directly accountable to a local council and people will have a greater incentive to engage. Why shouldn’t my doctor, dentist, hospitals, schools and police officers be directly accountable to my local council? Why is the combination of:
- the mess that is Lansley’s model for healthcare
- the farce that is the system of police commissioners (look at the turnout and look at how easy it is for commissioners to give ‘jobs for the boys’ without proper scrutiny)
- the system of free schools outside local council control
…better than having everything under the scrutiny of one local democratic institution?
If you’re a secretary of state, or an MP looking for a ministerial red box, why would you want to give away so much power and control to a local level? In the case of the above-three-mentioned policy areas, ministers have given away just enough power to distance themselves from bad things that might happen while at the same time ensuring that no other party-political institution can take control. Healthcare messes up? Blame the faceless clinical commissioning group. Police mess up? Blame the commissioner that hardly anyone voted for. Schools mess up? Blame…exactly.
“Why did the Lib Dems sign up to this mess when their original policy of local accountability seems to make more sense?”
Exactly. I guess there are a couple of things. One is the compromises they made inside the Coalition. Another is that they’ve taken such a hammering over being in the Coalition that a lot of talent inside the party has either left or is lying low. Another is that they simply have not made the case for what they want in a strong, clear and persuasive manner.
Ministers and politicians have got to stop bashing local councillors over expenses
It’s an easy target. For the workload that local councillors and executive councillors have to undertake (& the abuse that all too often goes with it), you don’t do it for the expenses. But given the costs of living, who could afford to set aside 20 hours per week for local council business? Again, this links back to the mess that is UK housing policy. The huge pressure of high rents & mortgages mean that families have to work full-time just to keep their heads above water. Few have time to invest in their local communities in the way they would like to. If costs of living were lower, if people didn’t have to work full time to make ends meet, would people invest more time in their communities? What would the impact of a citizens income be? (Frances Coppola discusses this here).
My view is that councillors should be paid – and as a starting point on what that level should be, for simplicities sake I’d go with the median wage. Given the complexity and demands of what they have to do combined with the costs of living, I don’t think the current system is sustainable. Yes, it’s a noble principle to say that councillors should not need to be paid, but then that means fewer people in lower paid jobs can afford to consider standing for election, let alone be a councillor given the time it requires to be good at it. Given the age we live in – with the rise of ‘portfolio careers’, 20 hours a week on council duties plus 20 hours a week working part-time in an unrelated job elsewhere seems like a reasonable compromise.
Food for thought?