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Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Scotland needs strong public services

As if to prove the point I made last week in relation to the "ringfencing" of the NHS budget not necessarily equating to protection of services, the Health Secretary yesterday announced a "radical overhaul" of the NHS in England which he admitted would result in job losses in cutting "unnecessary" bureaucracy.

The move will not affect Scotland directly, so I will not comment on the specific details of the White Paper. It is sufficient to say that plans to open up the NHS to wider private sector involvement and to give more powers to GPs while ignoring the roles of other health professionals in forging a fit-for-purpose NHS will inevitably prove controversial.

What I have been concerned about in recent weeks, however, is the way in which the government has been so keen to target the public sector. Even sections of the media are keen to demonstrate how public and private sector workers are effectively working in different economies. While inevitably the public sector unions don't help themselves or their members with their inflexible approaches, I actually think that a vibrant public sector is a vital component of a thriving mixed economy and should be valued as such.

The government is understandably keen to reduce the costs of local government and public services. However, the consequence of Osborne's aggressive plans to cut the deficit quickly will inevitably be job losses and poorer quality public services. There can be no escaping from this statement of fact. The actions being taken are driven by economic pragmatism rather than the interests of quality.

The consequences of job cuts or job freezes will be felt not only by public sector employees. For example, in the recent past the public sector has provided career opportunities for new graduates who, as we have seen, are finding it almost impossible to find work in the current climate. And so job shortages affect not only graduates but others out of work with lesser skills who find it tougher in a more competitive market. Public sector cuts are also likely to have social ramifications as communities suffer when funding for significant projects is cut. None of this is rocket science.

And so, in defence of the public sector, it must first be said that it wasn't the public sector that caused the recession. However problematic the unions might be, they weren't responsible for the growth of irresponsible lending. It wasn't the public sector that created an economy based on speculation rather then production, in which the value of an employee was determined by the amount of money they could make. And the public sector didn't delude itself that the good times would always be here to stay, artificially inflating property prices and encouraging increasing personal levels of debt in the process. In short, it wasn't the public services who adopted the false belief that the market (especially a market susceptible to the cynical manipulations of the financial industry) always knew best.

Liberal Democrats knew this. Vince Cable, writing in his best-selling book The Storm, observes: "In the immediate future [the public sector] is a safe haven for employment and a necessary support for economic activity." Cable recognised that, in the long-term, the public sector required significant structural changes and would require constraints to deal with historic problems such as the pensions deficit. Like Vince Cable, I am hardly advocating further expansion of the public sector, but I have concerns at the rate in which the government is pushing through its reforms while giving relatively little thought to the responsibilities of the private sector.

Some of the near hysterical musings of the media on the subject have been less than responsible. I find it more than a little hypocritical of some journalists to be declaring war on the public sector employee. As someone who works in the NHS, I've also seen the other side. I've seen when the economy is booming and my friends working for the banks and other private sector industries were getting their huge pay raises and more than generous bonuses - while we got minute rises in return for a little more in the way of job security. Most people eager to make money wouldn't even have considered the public sector and took their abilities and ambitions elsewhere. The public sector can not and should not be derided and compromised due to the pressures of a recession it neither caused nor contributed to.

The Conservatives and their supporters in the media have to stop this relentless populist quest for easy targets, and instead adopt a more honest, supportive and even realistic position in relation to the public sector. They need to move away from the Thatcherite notions that assume the primacy of the private sector. Our Liberal Democrat colleagues in government, like their Conservative partners, are understandably anxious to deal with the legacy of the recesion and Labour's malmanagement of the economy. However, this can not be done by cutting too much too soon, as Vince Cable has expertly evidenced.

The final word comes from the Liberal Democrat manifesto, Change that works for you. "Liberal Democrats believe in investing in and improving the quality of our public services. They are the cornerstone of a fair society, opening up opportunities and providing support and help when needed." Scotland, and the wider UK, need strong public services that are supported and equipped to tackle some of the inequalities and social problems Nick Clegg frequently highlighted during the election campaign.

The Con-Lib Dem government is admittedly restrained in terms of the resources at its disposal. However, it has not only an historic opportunity to provide the imaginative leadership necessary for redesigning effective public services but - in having Lib Dems at the heart of government - the personnel with the understanding and vision to create the kind of public servcies our country and communities need. The early emphasis on cuts and the private sector is far from encouraging but, if the coalition can adopt and deliver a vision of a strong mixed economy in which an innovative public sector is a key part, then the government's long-term achievement could be the creation of a genuinely fairer society rather than merely balancing the books.

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