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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Deep Impact

By Henry Kippin

Todays figures on NHS primary healthcare trust overspends are a sharp corrective to the idea that cuts to public spending will hit the back room only.  Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne is apparently impressing upon department heads the need to find big savings, but the scale of overspend in some trusts (Enfield being the largest) illustrates the challenges of making this happen – and the likelihood that institutions will feel the pain as well as service users. 

In the same article, the Kings Fund’s John Appleby uses Manchester as an example – “in Manchester you have 25 acute hospitals.  That is probably too many and it underlines what big questions the real funding cuts entail.” 

These are massive choices to be made, with real human consequences and long-term (social and behavioural) impacts for communities.  

This speaks to a key tension in the current debate on public services – and one that has not really been explored in depth by any of the parties.  Cuts as an end in themselves seem to be necessary in the short term.  But the question is: how do they fit into a longer term perspective? 

In the next couple of weeks the Commission will publish its interim report, which will set out such a vision.  It wont be everyone’s cup of tea, but it will at least try to force a conversation that gets beyond the short term, and asks politicians and the public to think about ten years time as well as tomorrow.  If this really is a ‘moment of historical discontinuity’ as Vernon Bogdanor has said, we need to do both.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 11:26 am
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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Is fairness back in fashion?

By Ben Lucas

No one knows what the long term effect of this recession will be but there is an interesting debate to be had about whether one consequence could be a change in society’s values. Mark Easton had a good piece about this on the Today programme this morning, prompted by a call from Oxfam for the Budget to prioritise tackling inequality.

The conventional assumption is that recession will worsen poverty and inequality. This view comes out strongly in John Hill’s magisterial study of poverty, inequality and policy since 1997 (Towards a more equal society?). He concludes that whilst modest gains have been made in reducing inequality over the last 12 years, these may well be undone by a combination of recession and a very tight fiscal squeeze on public spending. The fear is that child poverty targets will be missed by an even bigger margin, as they recede into political impossibility, and that a new wave of mass unemployment will simply add to the long tail of intergenerational disadvantage which was already there at the outset of this recession.

But there is an alternative and more hopeful reading of the situation, which Oxfam, and the JRF, through its social evils project, are encouraging us to adopt. This is that the crash was caused by greed and the worst excesses of an irresponsible form of capitalism and that now is an era in which people will want to see much greater social responsibility and fairness. In support of this view it is interesting to note that whereas Margaret Thatcher was happy to talk about the ‘tough medicine’ that Britain had to swallow in the recession of the early 1980s, no party this time round wants to suggest anything as socially divisive.

Whilst the Conservatives are taking an increasingly financially orthodox position about debt, David Cameron has been at pains to say that they will not cut public spending like ‘robotic accountants’. And today, speaking at the RSA, George Osborne, once again underlined his party’s commitment to tackling inequality. Of course, the real test for both parties will be what they say in their manifestos and what they would do, faced with debt at 10% of GDP, after the next election. Maybe a public mood for fairness and greater social responsibility will force a new approach to spending which prioritises tackling inequality and which shares the post recession pain more equally across society. In that context Liam Byrne’s new fund to empower charities to campaign more effectively (also announced today) could help anti-poverty organisations make it very hard for any government to preside over rising inequality.

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