Cameron's Big Society White Paper Launch Overshadowed By Murdoch Manoevers

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The government has published its long-awaited White Paper on reforming public services - but unfortunately for ministers the announcement was eclipsed by the breaking news surrounding the future of BSkyB.

The Open Public Services White Paper has been delayed for months - first mooted for publication last autumn, then delayed at least twice by coalition infighting.

David Cameron was speaking in East London at the same time as the news broke that the takeover of Sky by Rupert Murdoch was being referred to the Competition Commission.

The Prime Minister said:

"I know what our public services can do and how they are the backbone of this country. But I know too that the way they have been run for decades - old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you're-given - is just not working for a lot of people.

"Ours is a vision of open public services - there will be more freedom, more choice and more local control. Wherever possible we are increasing choice by giving people direct control over the services they use."

Cameron used a press conference after the announcement to comment again on his hiring of the former News of the World Editor Andy Coulson, who was arrested last week.

Using seemingly stronger language than he did when asked about Coulson at a press conference on July 8, Cameron said: "At no stage did anyone give me any evidence that he knew about the phone hacking at the News of the World. If they had done, I wouldn't have employed him, if they had done subsequently, I would have fired him. I never had that information. I gave Andy Coulson a second chance; I employed him. I did it in good faith on the basis of the assurances he gave me."

Cameron added that "if it turns out these assurances are untrue I will be incredibly angry and incredibly let down". He said that Coulson is still "innocent until proven guilty" and that he employed Coulson "in good faith".

As David Cameron was announcing the big picture, the Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin was expanding on the details before MPs.

Among the proposals listed in the White Paper:

  • Every adult receiving individual social care will, by 2013, have their own personal budget and choose how that money is spent.
  • A Health Premium will be paid for health authorities who achieve the best outcomes for the poorest in society. It's part of a general principle of "payment by results" which will affect many areas of government spending.
  • Parts of the White Paper will roll out access to official government data. In addition to the existing Crime Maps, new "Health Maps" will be introduced, so people can see which hospital in their area is performing best. There will also be official government online road maps ; Oliver Letwin announced there would be real time-data on road conditions and average speeds.

Responding for Labour, Tessa Jowell said there was nothing new in the proposals. She accused the coalition of "lagging behind" the actions of the Labour government she used to belong to.

In reply, Oliver Letwin said Labour had to decide whether the government had too few ideas, or if ministers were trying to do too much at once - suggesting to Ms. Jowell that both couldn't be true.

The publication of the White Paper will be closely watched by Conservative MPs, who fear that much of their agenda on decentralisation and widening of competition has been watered down to appease the Liberal Democrats. Some Tory commentators have already predicted that the final draft of the White Paper will be a missed opportunity for genuinely radical reform.