Minister for the Cabinet Office John Hutton recently made the case for further reform of public services to achieve social justice and equality of opportunity.
After the electoral victory for the Government in May, so much of the public’s attention has been focused on international concerns ““ the issues of global warming and climate change, the cancellation of Third World debt, the so ““ called War on Terror (especially in light of the attack on the 7th of July in London) and most recently the tragic events in New Orleans following the hurricane last week.
However, there are also still pressing domestic concerns that the Government needs to address in the coming months. And John Hutton set forth this agenda for progress in his speech to the Social Market Foundation (SMF), stressing the importance that the Government must and intends to place on improving the flexibility and adaptability of the social services” structure to the requirements of contemporary society.
Monolithic Structures in the Rearview Mirror
The speech, entitled “Making Public Services Serve the Public”, revolved around a number of key points. One of these was a recognition of the positive progress that had been made amidst the realisation that further change would be needed. As he put it, “we must never underestimate the scale of the leap forward delivered by the post-war welfare state. The reforms that Clement Attlee’s government introduced were truly life-changing for many millions of people who had endured the hardship of war.”
But whilst the benefits that this has brought for the nation are manifest, there remains a ceiling of achievement in social equalisation that the “monolithic structures” as he calls them are inadequately equipped to remove. The Right Hon. John Hutton points out: “Despite half a century of a welfare state designed to provide essential support from cradle to grave, you are still likely to live longer the wealthier you are.” There are local differences as well, which have in fact grown worse in recent years: “¦the gap between the local authority with the lowest life expectancy, Glasgow, and the one with the highest, East Dorset, rose in the last decade.”
Stratification in Education
The education sector, in spite of improvements, retains its social imbalance as well. Hutton stated: “Although the percentage of young people from working class backgrounds getting a university place has increased significantly in the last decade, participation rates remain well below those of professional families.” This social stratification within the education sector is highlighted in a recent Office of National Statistics report that states that 90% of 16 year olds from families with professional backgrounds are in full time education, compared with only 60% of 16 year olds from families with parents employed in manual jobs.
And in education, the attainment of young people also comes into question, with John Hutton arguing that there is a stratification even here. After quite naturally stressing the improvement since Labour came to power (a statement which must be questioned, as the figures quoted came from 2002 and it must be doubted just how much of a difference can be noticed from merely five years in an education system running from age 3 in some cases!), he pointed out: “only a third of pupils from an unskilled manual background achieved good GCSE results in 2002 compared with three quarters from professional backgrounds.”
Rhetoric or Action?
After having made the problems as he saw them clear, John Hutton then turned to what lies ahead in Labour’s historic third term. He called for reform in actions and deeds rather than the safety of linguistic legerdemain: “Change and reform must continue. We must not adopt a programme and a political rhetoric that takes refuge in the language, structures and institutions of the past that is increasingly irrelevant to the modern world and has not delivered social justice.”
In a similar vein, he talked of embracing “the goals of social justice”, of using modern tools for social equalisation to fully “harness and manage the modern tools of competition and choice to create a public service delivery system equipped to deliver levels of social justice and equality of opportunity that have always eluded us.” There is reference to modern tools of choice; and he expresses the somewhat obvious belief that “¦people with the means to buy greater choice would not part with their money if that choice did not give them a better deal.”
This is all well and good. But at the same time as speaking of the need to move away from “monolithic” structures, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) are proposing to take the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) within itself, thus creating an even bigger single organisation responsible for inspections. Perhaps, after all the rhetoric of how well the government is able to cater to the changing demands of the market and the 21st Century is stripped away, perhaps we are actually left with little more than the same speech that the Prime Minister delivered to the Fabian Society in 2001. And if this is the case, then perhaps the progress made is less substantial than many would have us believe?
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