25 years ago, when I was Leader of Kingston Council, Margaret Thatcher was planning to introduce Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) for services like bin collection and road sweeping. The Council Director responsible for these services started working out what measures he would take to improve efficiency and cut costs. But then the government announced a delay in CCT so he proposed shelving these plans. I said no.
I often recall this incident when the subject of competition in public services comes up. Liberals should never be afraid of competition where it is likely to lead to better public services. Nor should they be afraid of individual choice as this helps to achieve more responsive public services with better value for money. But care must be taken to ensure equal access and positive action to help disadvantaged groups as the pupil premium and the planned health premium seek to ensure. And promoting competition should not be the primary duty of a regulator. Competition is a means to the end of better public services not an end in itself.
The party’s Huhne Commission on public services (of which I was a member) almost ten years ago established the principles of a level playing field between providers and services being delivered at as low a level as possible with democratic accountability.
There is also emerging academic evidence, summarised in my recent CentreForum report “Your choice: how to get better public services” that competition and choice are driving better performance across public services.
So it is with this in mind that Liberal Democrats should consider our response to the much delayed “Open Public Services White Paper” due to be published on Monday.
Is accountability by choice promoted? Is democratic accountability preserved and ideally enhanced where services are commissioned? Will the potential role of employee ownership, mutuals and the voluntary sector in providing public services be supported? Will the government as far as is sensible be securing a level playing field between different providers?
If it does then Liberal Democrats should give it a wholehearted welcome.
Chris Nicholson was Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for Streatham in the 2010 General Election and a former Leader of Kingston Council.