MPs question Blair agenda

18 Oct 01
Public services were firmly back at the top of the political agenda this week as the Commons Public Administration Select Committee announced a full inquiry into the government's reform programme.

19 October 2001

Ministers were also busy launching initiatives promoting partnerships with the private sector.

In the first inquiry of its kind, the cross-party select committee will focus on 'foundation' issues such as the concept of the public service ethos and the implications of using the private sector. The investigation will be carried out over the lifetime of this Parliament, with an interim report expected by Easter.

In an equally unusual move, the committee, chaired by Labour MP Tony Wright, sent out a number of questions it expects witnesses and the public to address. These include whether public bodies are best placed to make their own arrangements for improving public services, and if more private involvement in services threatens to reduce public accountability.

It is also expected to examine service delivery, along with Whitehall's newly created reform bodies, such as the Forward Strategy Unit.

A source close to the committee told Public Finance that the inquiry was an attempt to gather evidence to produce specific guidelines on what constitutes the public service ethos. 'The MPs are trying to fix some guidelines which they can extrapolate and use to measure future developments,' the source said.

Prime Minister Tony Blair himself took the initiative in re-igniting his campaign to widen the use of the private sector, while attempting to placate its detractors, with a speech praising the public services.

Speaking at the British Library on October 16, Blair said he was struck by the dedication and commitment of public servants. But reform had been held back by 'ideological clashes'. He added: 'The private and voluntary sectors can play a role. But where use of them can improve public services, nothing should stand in the way of their use.'

Blair also said he would make a number of personal visits to the spending departments for briefings on how they intend to meet targets, and would lead new negotiations on civil service reform.

The Trades Union Congress gave a surprisingly warm welcome to Blair's speech although it asked for 'clarification' on the use of the private sector. But Unison again called for an independent review of the Private Finance Initiative.

On the periphery of the debate, the Treasury appointed consultancy Mott MacDonald to investigate the procurement of major projects. The firm, already involved in a number of PPP schemes across the country, will examine 60 projects exceeding £100m to see if they delivered their 'intended benefits'.

Schemes under examination include the British Library and the Great Ormond Street Hospital. The Treasury is also to review the role of the voluntary sector in public service delivery.

Local authorities were invited to bid for yet another set of pathfinders, this time for strategic partnerships.

Up to 30 local authorities will be selected to try to ensure that future partnerships with the private sector are 'more flexible' than the current ones.


Did you enjoy this article?