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Cameron: The need for public service reform

Speech in Portsmouth

"Over the past few months, I've been setting out my views on how the Conservative party should approach the challenges facing our country. The central theme which should unite all our policies is timeless and straightforward. The need to strengthen the ties that bind us: family, community and country.

Our values should be those of modern, compassionate Conservatism: in tune with today's Britain, recognising that there's a we in politics as well as a me, and true to our trusted Conservative principles. And our vision should be to help make Britain the most civilised place in the world to live, understanding that for people today, the quality of life matters as much as the quantity of money.

The importance of public services

Today I'd like to focus on what is probably the biggest political challenge Britain faces: public service reform.

We are the fourth largest economy in the world. But we don't have the public services to match.

More than one fifth of children leave primary school unable to read properly.

A quarter of 11 year-olds do not reach the level needed to tackle the national curriculum.

And less than two-fifths of 16 year-olds achieve good GCSEs in the core subjects of English, Maths and Science.

Despite nearly £2bn spent on cancer care, British cancer cure rates lag well behind other developed countries. For example, just over 50% of English men survive for five years after diagnosis with prostate cancer, compared to over 70% of German and French men.

The crime rate in England and Wales is the highest in the EU, apart from Sweden and you're more likely to be a victim of crime here than in any other developed country in the world, apart from Australia.

If we're serious about improving the quality of life in our country, we've got to offer serious answers to the problems that affect our public services.

The need for public service reform

As people's living standards rise, so do their expectations about public services. There are two aspects to this.

First, as people feel better off, they're able to improve the elements of their lives that they control - for example, by buying a bigger house or a better car. So they're frustrated by the lack of improvement in those things that they can't control, like health, policing and education.

Second, as they get used to higher standards of service in the private sector, they just don't understand why they should put up with second best from the public sector. When you can get a new mobile phone in a few hours, why should a doctor's appointment take a few days, a new passport a few weeks and a dentist's appointment a few months?

Tony Blair rightly identified the two things that were needed: investment plus reform.

Investment was necessary, for example, to build capacity in the NHS, to improve school buildings and teachers' pay, and to fund more police manpower.

Reform was necessary because our public services were monopolistic, bureaucratic, and often unresponsive to consumer demand.

But the prime minister made two big mistakes.

The first was to pretend that public spending - and, more to the point, increases in public spending - were somehow invented in 1997. In fact, public spending increased year by year through the 1980s and 90s. But Labour's rhetoric raised expectations that if only the Tories were pushed aside and more was spent, public services would be transformed.

The second, and more serious, mistake was Labour's failure to deliver genuine public service reform. That's why all the extra billions spent by Labour have not produced what we want: more police on the beat, rigour in education, and shorter hospital waiting times.

But the truly sickening thing about Labour's record is that it's the people Labour say they want to help - those at the bottom of the income scale - who are suffering most.

People living in deprived areas are more than twice as likely to be mugged as those living in better off neighbourhoods, health inequalities have widened since 1997 and OFSTED has consistently reported that the lowest school standards are concentrated in the most deprived areas. '

The very reason we have public services is to look after those without the power, wealth and opportunity to provide for themselves. We believe in a civilised society, where you can live in a safe neighbourhood, receive the healthcare you need, and get a decent education, not because you have the money to pay for it, or because you have powerful advocates who will speak up on your behalf, but because you're a citizen of Britain.

How cruelly Labour have betrayed the hopes of the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable citizens. Our public services are supposed to help them.

But, under Labour, they've got a cold shoulder instead of a helping hand. Call waiting where there should be a welcoming voice; fear in the bleak streets that no policeman ever walks down; broken lives treated as an accident but never an emergency.

We've grown used to this daily moral outrage. But there's no point any of us being in politics unless we transform it.

Why Labour have failed

There are four reasons Labour have failed. First, Tony Blair started out with the wrong strategy. He was trapped by his party. He lacked courage. He put Frank Dobson in charge of health. Everything went backwards.

Too late, the prime minister recognised the need for reform. So he came up with good ideas like foundation hospitals and city academies. But, thanks to the entrenched opposition of his own party, his reforms were faltering, half-hearted and ultimately thwarted.

As one headmaster put it to me: all the buzzwords of Labour education reform - earned autonomy, foundation status, being a specialist school, even becoming an academy - none of these things is as powerful or transformational as grant-maintained status, something that Labour abolished when they came to office.

And now that we know Tony Blair is on the way out, who seriously thinks that the Labour party will be effective in driving through reform?

It's clear that only a change of government can deliver proper reform of public services.

The second reason for Labour's failure is their attempt to impose change through centralised command and control, with targets and inspections. If you run a school, hospital or police force today, you have to respond to Whitehall, not the people who use your service.

The third reason is closely connected. Labour have wasted billions of pounds on the bureaucratic apparatus needed to operate a command and control system. Since 1997, they have established 111 new quangos. These quangos provide jobs and set their own agendas. They don't drive reform.

Ironically, some of the new quangos have been set up to try and make public services more responsive to consumers. For example, there are now at least five different ways to make a complaint about the NHS. You can try the PPF, the PCT, the OSC, the CHI or the NHS Trust ... and if that doesn't work you can still write to your MP.

It would be funny if it wasn't so serious.

The waste, the duplication, the endless advertising of non-jobs in the public sector has been nothing short of a scandal.

The fourth reason for the government's public services failure is the relationship between Labour and the unions. As the pre-election Warwick agreement showed, the trades unions act as a powerful brake on reform. You can't turn round the performance of producer-dominated institutions if the producer interests - in this case the trades unions - have a veto.

Can you imagine what it will be like with Gordon Brown in No 10, propelled there by the union bosses and with a Labour party desperate to move to the left? Things can only get worse.

For these four reasons, far from saving public services, as they set out to do, Labour's stewardship has been one long wasted opportunity. They had the money, they had the majority and - if we believe the prime minister - they had the desire. But it just hasn't happened.

So the task for a modern Conservative party is to deliver the radical reform that Labour are temperamentally and politically incapable of.

It won't be easy. We cannot try some version of Blair-lite, echoing calls for tinkering reform but dodging hard choices. Nor can we simply pledge to match spending in a hope that that alone will be enough to win people over.

We have to show, piece by piece that we have the vision, the ideas and the commitment to deliver real change. And there should be no no-go areas - we need to look at the police as well as our prisons, pensions as well as primary care.

Our commitment to public services

But there is something we have to sort out first. There's a recognition that many of the best ideas for reform are coming from the centre right - typified by the work of the think tank Reform. But the Conservative party has not been trusted to implement radical ideas for public service reform. Why not?

I believe there are two interconnected reasons why we haven't been trusted.

First, we haven't made sufficiently clear that the Conservative party are a party for everyone in our country: rich and poor; urban and rural; black and white.

Second, our proposals for reform have sometimes given the impression that we want to help those who already have advantages escape from public services. So our programme must unambiguously aim to improve services for everyone, not provide an escape route for the privileged few.

As Conservatives, we passionately support the right of every individual and every family to make their own choices about healthcare and education.

We know that choice and competition can help drive up standards. We want - quite rightly - to break down barriers between public, voluntary and private.

But we must always remember that the poorest rely on public services the most. We need to demonstrate - unambiguously - our commitment to public services and to their improvement.

I know what relying on public services means. I've witnessed it time and again in accident and emergency departments, where nurses and junior doctors work under huge pressure, but with dedication and tenderness. I've sat in a room with other desperate parents, fighting to save a special school threatened with closure.

There's no one in this country, not a single individual, who won't have to depend on public services at some point in their lives. So we must recognise, welcome and enhance the values of public service. Nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers have a vocation and a commitment to serving the public that money can't measure. We must understand, and sincerely believe, that the money we spend on public services is a necessary good, not a regrettable evil.

But we should also understand that public service goes far beyond the public sector. I've watched Macmillan nurses look after the dying. I've seen staff at children's hospices - without one penny of taxpayers' money - deliver unbelievable care, treatment and love. From reading mentors in our schools to volunteer drug workers in our youth clubs, there's a public service ethos in this country that we can be incredibly proud of. The state does not have a monopoly of compassion. Neither does any one political party.

So I want the Conservative party to show that it's serious about protecting and improving the public services we all depend on. Today I'd like to outline a modern Conservative approach to public service reform in two key areas: crime and education.

Police reform

Violent crime us up, social disorder is up, and our citizens are not getting the kind of policing they want. Only one in 10 crimes committed is actually cleared up, and on average half the police day is spent inside a police station. Over half of all prisoners - and nearly three quarters of young males - are reconvicted within two years of release. And who pays the price for Labour's failure? The voiceless, the vulnerable, the poor.

There is a huge programme of work for the Conservative party. Understanding the complex and interconnected causes of crime: family breakdown, drug dependency, illiteracy and lawlessness; setting out a clear set of measures to improve our criminal law, courts and prisons.

But today I want to focus on policing. There are two central problems with policing in Britain today, and any serious programme of public service reform must address both.

The first is the accountability problem, which prevents the public from telling the police what it wants. The second is the organisational problem, which prevents the police from giving the public what it wants.

Police accountability

In any walk of life, accountability is the best way of making sure that people and organisations do what is expected of them. In 1964, local police authorities were created to make the police accountable to the public. From the start they had too many members, too little power and virtually no visibility. Very few people know who they are, what they do, or how to influence them.

There's no mystery about what the public wants: visible, beat-based policing where police officers actively intervene to confront and prevent crime and disorder.

For years, the left has argued that putting more "bobbies on the beat" is a sentimental distraction from the real business of cutting crime. Indeed, this attitude has infected the police force itself. Earlier this year, the chief constable of North Yorkshire told me that my calling for more police undermines confidence in what they do and raises unnecessarily the fear of crime.

Well, it's worked in New York, where Mayor Giuliani and his police commissioner Bill Bratton cut crime by over 60% and it's worked in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, where Ray Mallon has cut crime by over a third in two years with a similar zero tolerance approach.

More recently, there's evidence that the increased police presence on London's streets following the terrorist attacks on July 7 has led to a reduction in crime. In fact, the reduction has been twice as great in the six areas where the attacks took place. This even prompted an apology - of sorts - from the Guardian, which commented that: "The suspicion is that the wise men who repeatedly claim visible patrolling makes no difference to crime levels are wrong, while the damned fools who instinctively welcome the sight of bobbies on the beat are right."

So if the public wants more visible policing, if more visible policing works and if even the Guardian accepts that it's the best way to cut crime, why aren't we getting it?

The answer is simple: because the police aren't sufficiently accountable to the communities they serve.

Labour's solution to this accountability problem is the instinctive top-down approach of the left. The government's first national policing plan, published in November 2002, imposed four strategic objectives, 10 public service agreements, 18 key performance indicators and 51 prescribed actions to be undertaken by chief constables under three-year policing plans.

We've seen the establishment of a new police standards unit and a national centre for policing excellence, along with a police performance and assessment framework comprising 13 headline measures and over 30 component measures.

Unbelievably, Labour seem to think that this type of manic centralisation actually helps deliver local accountability. In fact it creates perverse incentives. One chief constable is reportedly under pressure because the recording of violent offences is up. Why? Because he's delivered what local people want by coming down hard on street violence and arresting people as soon as it takes place.

Now we hear that Labour want to take centralisation even further. According to Tony Blair's biographer, Anthony Seldon, the prime minister is keen to "radically reform the police, with the introduction of league tables and other performance related measures". But there's nothing remotely radical about Labour's approach. It's old-fashioned and counter-productive, a hopeless way to deliver the visible policing that people want. It doesn't even amount to good management.

If you want to save money, reduce administration, eliminate incompetence or improve standards, then the people who will actually do this are the thousands of individuals who devote their working lives to the organisation. The job of the people at the top is to set the right objectives, not to attempt micro-management by target, press release or headline.

The worst thing about current public sector management is the extent to which it restricts managers from undertaking the most basic activities of management.

I spoke to one chief constable in the last week who told me that he is being ordered to make 3% efficiency gains when 85% of his costs are fixed by central government.

The first step in creating proper accountability is to ask what one person needs to do in order to effectively manage another. Put simply, the effective manager has to be able to put someone in a job, guide them, punish them for their failures and reward them for their successes. In too many of our public services - including the police - that simply cannot happen.

Instead of attempting to make police forces accountable to No 10 and the home secretary, we need to make the police accountable to the people they serve.

We should scrap the national policing plan and its associated targets and bureaucracy. And we should replace it with real local accountability. Our proposal at the last election for directly elected local police commissioners needs to be developed in far more detail. The principle is simple and clear. People should be able to hold one single individual to account for the performance of their local police force, and to vote that person in or out of office. But we need to recognise that there are different local government structures in different parts of the country. And that the interaction between the police and local government in delivering safer communities is absolutely vital.

Modern, effective local policing requires close cooperation between the police and those responsible for dealing with licensing, graffiti and vandalism, fly tipping, noisy neighbours, social services, even education. So in London, with one citywide police force and a directly elected mayor, it makes sense for the mayor to appoint the police commissioner. This model works well in New York. In other parts of the country, a different model will make sense, including directly elected police commissioners.

And it could go further. Some forces now have area commanders responsible for basic command units that match local government boundaries. Why not let local councils play a part in appointing the area commanders with whom they will work, and in determining local policing priorities?

Overall, the principle for reform is clear: more power and accountability over policing to local leaders that people know and identify with.

Localism is only part of the answer, however. It tackles the accountability problem, but it doesn't deal with the second big challenge: the organisational problems that prevent the police giving the public what it wants.

Reforming police organization

Police officers are among the bravest people in our country. They put their own safety - and often their lives - at risk in order to protect the public. So it's right that their terms of employment reflect their distinctive contribution to the public good. But a modern Conservative party should never let respect for the forces of law and order stop us asking tough questions.

- Are there restrictive practices which prevent police forces from delivering the kind of policing people want?

- Do police pay and conditions operate fully in the public interest?

- Should we be more aggressive in breaking down the barriers that stand in the way of a professional, 21st-century police force - whether it's political correctness from above, or ploddishness from below?

Many of the organisational aspects of policing are determined at the national level, through the police negotiating board. It has to be the responsibility of government to show leadership on these issues.

For example, national police employment contracts are so restrictive that once a police officer has completed two years of probation and become a full constable, he or she is almost unsackable. It is bad for the public and bad for their colleagues that a simpler route is not available.

Police pension arrangements mean that constables or higher ranks who have given, say, 20 years service and are either no longer fit for active service or no longer committed to it face a pension cliff edge. The choice is: leave the force and lose the pension until 60, or stay in a job that no longer suits you. There needs to be a way of moving some people on with dignity.

No modern organisation can be run properly like this. So government should reform the terms of employment for all police forces. And we need to modernise working methods. It cannot be right that in some cases officers can earn up to £100,000 with overtime payments. We need higher basic salaries, with an accompanying increase in flexible working and a willingness to move between functions.

Such vital reforms can only be enforced by national government.

Education reform

The same combination of local accountability and national leadership is needed in our schools. No one can doubt the need for urgent action. The government has spent billions of pounds more on education, and yet standards are falling far short of what we have a right to expect.

Education is the best hope for our country. It is the foundation of all aspiration and opportunity. So how shameful that Tony Blair's educational legacy will be a reversal of social mobility in Britain.

How has this happened, under an administration which promised to make education its top priority?

It's happened because Labour have failed to deliver the one thing that our education system really needs: rigour. And they have failed to challenge the amoeba-like force that seems to smother large parts of the educational establishment. The collection of professors of education, curriculum advisors and assorted experts who have for the last few decades pursued their so-called progressive agenda, with pupils being allowed to 'discover' rather than being taught; with the "all must have prizes" philosophy destroying any notion of genuine achievement; with our children let down by low expectations and lame excuses. This destructive educational amoeba has replaced excellence with mediocrity, clarity with fudge and rigour with a never-ending woolliness.

And who pays the price for Labour's failure? The voiceless, the vulnerable, the poor.

Take the publication of exam results. A combination of government targets and dodgy accounting is steadily undermining them. Bizarrely, a GNVQ today counts for four GCSEs, so schools that are desperate to meet centrally imposed targets can boost the percentage of students reaching the required standard by pushing them into a different - and, for many, inappropriate - exam.

Take the exams themselves. The A-level, in spite of all the concerns about grade inflation, remains a gold standard. Yet large parts of the establishment seem hellbent on destroying it.

Look at the effect of all this on our universities. With schools petrified of missing targets, students are discouraged from tough subjects like maths and pure science. As a result, some of our best universities, including Imperial College London, are taking an ever greater proportion of students from independent schools and abroad.

The lack of rigour is not just bad for standards, it is the enemy of social mobility.

Part of the answer to these problems lies in greater freedom for schools to manage their own affairs and a greater diversity of schools for parents to choose between.

I will continue to fight for real school freedom - not the phoney version offered by Labour. Real school freedom should mean school autonomy, over discipline, over expulsions and over selection.

And the Conservative party must be the party of real school choice for all, recognising that schools should be accountable to the people they serve, not bureaucrats in the town hall or Whitehall.

But school autonomy and parental choice are not enough. We can't just step aside and say to schools and parents: "It's over to you; we're closing down the Department of Education. Good luck."

What about those parts of the country where parents have no realistic choice of school? What about the time it will take for new schools to come on stream? What about children who are left in schools that aren't their parents' first or even second choice? And how is an individual headteacher or school governing body supposed to fight back against the destructive power of the educational amoeba? ' Britain desperately needs a Conservative government to enforce the rigour that decades of progressive theories have driven out of the system.

For example, we need to reform the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the organisation which has allowed parts of the curriculum to become a byword for political correctness and A grades to be awarded for 45% in some maths papers. It is currently far too big and has a muddled remit, both advising government and setting standards. We need to strip the QCA of its advisory role, slim it down, and implement a clear, three-part strategy.

It should have:

- An unambiguous remit to impose rigour

- Staff who understand and support that remit

- The power to sack exam boards who don't deliver

We need to reform the General Teaching Council in the same way. The GTC was set up by Labour to deal with below-standard teachers. It has been around for seven years, costing £16m a year to run. It oversees 520,000 teachers, but has struck off a total of 14. That's two teachers a year.

Conservatives need to focus on what actually matters in state schools: literacy in primary schools, standards and discipline in secondary schools and proper vocational education from 14.

On literacy, we need concrete action to enforce the use of synthetic phonics. On standards, we need to secure the future of A-levels. On discipline, we need to give heads the absolute authority to expel unruly pupils. On vocational education, we need more choice, providing a range of suitable courses.

We must recognise that some of these changes cannot be made by local schools or by local councils - they need to be made by a Conservative secretary of state.

Conclusion

In education, policing - as well as in health, a subject I will address on another occasion - Conservative public service reform should have two components. Local control and accountability so that those who run public services respond to the needs of those who use them and strong national leadership to remove restrictive practices and barriers to reform.

Labour have shown that they are congenitally incapable of proper public service reform. Instead of local accountability, they have brought centralisation and bureaucracy. Instead of strong leadership, they have brought political correctness and a tolerance of low standards and outdated practices.

High quality public services are an essential part of a high quality of life. So modern compassionate Conservatism means demonstrating that our aim is to improve public services for everyone, not provide an escape route for the privileged few.

It should be our aim because we want to help make Britain the most civilised place in the world to live.

As long as the vulnerable face the streets with fear, as long as the weak are made weaker by inadequate healthcare and as long as the poor are denied access to the ladder of opportunity that a decent education provides, this will not be the most civilised place in the world to live - not by a long way. We should not rest until we make it so."

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