THE BLOG

Whose State Is It Anyway? Day of Reckoning Over Public Sector Looms

22/12/2014 07:19 GMT | Updated 18/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Big questions about what the modern British state actually is will be asked next year, because whoever wins the general election promises to cut the cost of the public sector.

But we are not in a good position to answer them.

Most commentators agree that through the fog of what will actually happen on polling day, substantial spending reductions are visible whoever gets the keys to 10 Downing Street.

Deficit reduction on the scale being discussed means changing the shape of the state. Surely we need to see some consensus before the axe falls and the new model Britain emerges? But what we will probably get is electoral self-interest meaning no specific proposals in the months to polling from any party.

Still, a day of reckoning seems at hand about what sort of country we want for ourselves and our children, and about how much responsibility individuals must take for providing it.

A reasonable, non-contentious starting point is that cost-efficiency should not be a principle, but a practical goal. From here it get complicated, mired in political agendas and tangled in special interest groups.

The private sector is often more inventive, efficient and good value than state provision. But not always.

It does not have social obligations, but contractual ones; and yet paradoxically, its executives often seem more answerable and responsive than local government officials. Confusion at every turn.

What certainly does not feel right is facing the prospect of piecemeal cuts, or piecemeal privatisation, and wherever is less politically awkward at the time. Certainly not without a wider debate, one not just about the cost of a service, but its value against a range of indices: social and cultural, for instance.

Instead, the suggestion is allowed to hang in the air that public sector is a Santa's sack full of dispensable, sellable or scaleable activities, many of which could be done by private companies or paid for directly by beneficiaries.

There is nothing wrong with the private sector providing, say, care for the elderly in principle, but there can be in practice. Similarly with making people pay directly.

But already, services that are close to defining if not the state then the fabric of local communities are disappearing or relying on volunteers, all without any national discussion about where this migration of responsibility ends, or what ultimately it is for.

Everything from libraries to lollipop ladies, food parcels to flu jabs increasingly rely on charities or individual payments. Schools need parents to help not just with luxuries, but increasingly with basics. Grandparents are relied upon for work hours child care.

All of this comes against a backdrop where local authority grants have been cut by 28 per cent since 2010, and will be cut by another nine per cent next year, according to the National Audit Office. Council tax collection has fallen by 29.4 per cent over the same period. This must put further strain on resources, already pared to protect adult and social care in most areas.

It is not a political point to state that this could impact on services and communities significantly, and it should not be one either to suggest that we need a discussion.

The private sector has delivered many public sector services from state inertia and we take them for granted now. But the low-hanging fruit has all gone.

In some ways the hard choices that are last and left are more ideological than the first choices made by Margaret Thatcher when she began to roll back the state in the 1980s. That is why we need a debate free of ideology. As the late comedian Joan River used to ask: Can we talk?