News from the Conservative Party Spring Forum, held on April 68

13 Apr 06
The next Conservative government will not run public services 'from a desk in Whitehall' and will give frontline organisations the freedom to make decisions in response to local circumstances, Oliver Letwin has vowed.

14 April 2006

Letwin promises decentralised services

The next Conservative government will not run public services 'from a desk in Whitehall' and will give frontline organisations the freedom to make decisions in response to local circumstances, Oliver Letwin has vowed.

The party's head of policy development told the Conservative Spring Forum in Manchester that bureaucratic control of schools and hospitals from the centre must end if public investment in these services is to generate improvements.

But the former shadow chancellor made it clear that there would be no repeat of the promises made in last year's general election campaign to provide cash incentives for individuals to opt out of state provision.

'We think it's the wrong model, because when you're spending £90bn on the NHS, as we will be shortly, you should be able to provide a first-class service to everyone,' he told delegates.

'Gordon Brown wants a monolith, but we say a monolith is wrong. Let's transform the whole of the NHS so that people on the frontline run things, not the bureaucrats.'

Letwin, who is co-ordinating six policy review groups to draw up the party's platform for the next election, used his session on April 8 to launch a statement of principles that party members will be asked to vote on next year.

The document commits the Conservatives to greater local democracy, the promotion of sustainable devolution and the fight 'to make poverty history'.

It says that public services for everyone must be guaranteed, but not necessarily provided by the state. It also contains a pledge to promote social justice.

'The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich. We will stand up for the victims of state failure and ensure that social justice and equal opportunity are achieved by empowering people,' the document states.

Letwin said that three key challenges faced the UK: a stable economy, environmental sustainability and the drive for social justice.

But one delegate criticised the document as 'mere presentational junk' with no policy content. In response, Letwin said putting forward a policy platform at this stage of the Parliament would be 'genuine junk'.

'Policies take time and effort. It's very difficult to come up with a programme that adds up to a coherent whole,' he added.

Heseltine suggests souped-up mayoral roles

Former Cabinet minister Lord Heseltine has called for councils in the major cities to be run by one person, combining the role of political leader and chief executive.

Heseltine, head of the Cities Task Force set up under the aegis of the Tories' current policy review, said cities should be run by well-paid, directly elected 'great leaders'. This would transform local accountability, he said, and attract top-calibre people to the role of running urban councils.

The former environment secretary questioned why chief executives, 'enjoying a tenure far removed from public accountability', should be paid up to £200,000 a year, when political leaders receive far less.

'I believe that the time has come to combine these two jobs. I believe great cities should elect great leaders and hold them to account,' he told delegates on April 7.

'If they are not capable of doing the job, there should be a system to replace them with someone who is. If they are capable, why should Whitehall double or triple guess every decision they make? We should give them real freedom to serve local people.'

Heseltine's call was apparent backing for a form of directly elected mayor, a policy that is expected to feature in the local government white paper in the summer.

But shadow local government minister Alistair Burt told a fringe meeting, organised by the New Local Government Network, on April 8: 'I think councillors should have a professional attitude, but I don't think they should be full-time professionals.'

Tories 'to lead the debate' on pensions

David Cameron used his first conference speech as Conservative Party leader to call for pension reform and improvements in social care.

Closing the Spring Forum on April 8, Cameron said the basic state pension should be more generous to reduce the means testing that currently underpins the system.

The retirement age should go up to help pay for more generous pensions, Cameron said, although he did not specify what the new age should be.

'We must lead the debate on pensions. A serious party must take serious decisions for the long-term good of this country and that's what I'm determined to do,' he told delegates.

Cameron also called for care provision to be improved so that as many people as possible could retain their independence in old age.

Respite care should be routinely available so that carers could have a break from their responsibilities.

'Here is a modern crusade for our party. Let us fight for the rights of carers,' Cameron said. 'Let us help them keep on caring, but let us care for the carers too.'


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