The next government must commit to public service reform

19 Apr 17

The prime minister has been dogged in her determination to focus on running the country.

“Politics”, she told her cabinet shortly after arriving in Downing Street, “is not a game”.

This has been Theresa May’s consistent argument against holding a general election before 2020.

Yet yesterday, in a spectacular u-turn that appeared genuinely to catch Westminster by surprise, the prime minister “reluctantly” announced that the country will go to the polls on 8 June.

That day - 8 June 2017 - will be as much about Brexit as June 23 2016.

But whilst the next seven weeks look set to re-run, at least partially, the debates of a year ago, there has never been a more urgent need for domestic reform.

‘Full employment’ is masking vast demographic and geographical disparities. Wages are stagnating.

Social care is in crisis and the NHS is unsustainable in its current format.

The welfare system is both unaffordable and intergenerationally inequitable.

Each party manifesto must therefore present a vision for public services that address these issues.

That will require an ambitious agenda of reform – and tough decisions.

The first of these decisions should be to abandon the triple lock on the state pension. Introduced under the coalition government, cumulatively its cost above an earnings link will reach £20bn next year.

This a huge, unnecessary expense.

Pensioners are now the group least likely to be in income poverty.

Poor working-age families on the other hand are suffering from frozen benefits and wage stagnation.

Some of the savings from scrapping the overly-generous triple lock could go towards supporting those struggling to make ends meet.

The second is to move to a pre-funded social care system.

This requires an honest conversation with a public whose awareness of their potential future care needs is low. With the number of people aged over 85 set to double between now and 2035, citizens are going to have to pay to protect against their future needs.

Without radical reform the Office for Budget Responsibility expects expenditure on long-term care to increase by 50%.

With finite resources that means less spending on the things most likely to keep Britain competitive – education, skills and infrastructure.

The third is to refuse any further cash injections for the NHS absent serious reform.

A new government should pledge their political backing to local health economies seeking to shift investment into community care by closing hospitals.

They should also pool and devolve health budgets to elected representatives – either metro mayors or a health equivalent to police and crime commissioners.

Local commissioners are better placed to deliver care that meets the needs of their local populations, rather than the priorities of the Whitehall machine.

Elections are not typically a time for pledging to give people less, but this is not a typical election.

Tackling head-on the third rails of public service reform is essential not just in protecting those services for future generations, but also in enabling an economically stable, competitive post-Brexit Britain.

A strong electoral mandate enables tough decisions to be made in the national interest – no party committing to such reform could be accused of playing politics.

  • Charlotte Pickles
    Charlotte Pickles

    Charlotte Pickles is deputy director and head of research at think-tank Reform. She tweets at @ce_pickles

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