12 March 2004
The government's radical plans for introducing choice across the public services are to be put under a spotlight in a wide-ranging inquiry by senior backbench MPs.
Members of the public administration select committee want to shed light on some of the most vexed questions plaguing the government's controversial public sector reforms.
PASC chair Tony Wright said the inquiry would define what is meant by choice in relation to the public sector and examine its implications for service users. 'The challenge is to develop practical models of public service choice that do pass the test of equity and empower people who are currently disempowered,' he said.
'This does not mean that all choice is good or that it may not be deployed to provide exit routes from public services.'
Wright added that supporters of collective public service provision had an obligation to understand the vices as well as the virtues of monopoly providers.
MPs will consider whether the rhetoric of choice is 'simply a euphemism for competition and market mechanisms', according to the consultation paper published on March 9.
They are also set to examine the most contentious issue of all: whether choice can co-exist with equity of provision and, if not, what limits should be imposed.
Many critics of the government's agenda fear that choice will benefit articulate, well-informed service users at the expense of those less able to negotiate the system, even though they are often in greatest need.
'The main concern is that greater choice and diversity will create inequalities within sectors of public service and across different parts of the country,' the document says.
MPs will consider, too, whether extra capacity is needed to ensure that choice is a reality for all users. A source close to the committee told Public Finance that members were particularly interested in the financial impact.
'This is one of the biggest issues for the inquiry. If you have a system with lots of choice, it requires a lot of spare capacity, but that costs a lot of money. How will that be funded?'
This is the latest in a series of inquiries by the PASC on public services, since the committee declared shortly after the 2001 general election that it would spend this Parliament scrutinising the government's ambitious reform programme. It has already published hard-hitting reports on the use of targets to measure performance, the machinery of government and the public service ethos.
Written submissions will be accepted until April 16, and hearings are expected to get under way in June. The report is likely to be published in the autumn.