» Monday, June 5, 2006

PM Speech

The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that he was able to outline under a first edition embargo what the Prime Minister intended to say in his speech tomorrow on putting people first – public services for the twenty first century. He would say:

"The most superficial way in which to conduct the debate about public services is to debate whether public servants are to blame or politicians are to blame. The vast bulk of public servants do a great job, often in trying circumstances, which is why we are paying frontline workers more, employing more and incidentally protecting their pensions. The truth is we all have a common desire to improve the service we offer, but that is not really the issue. The issue is how do we do it.

"The reason I am passionate about change in public services, making changes that are difficult and challenging, including learning from business and the voluntary sector, where it is sensible, is because I believe in public services. Believe in their ethos of fairness. Believe in their purpose of serving the public so that patients, whatever their wealth; pupils, whatever their background; citizens whatever part of town they live in, get a decent service delivered in the way the twenty first century expects. I know that if having put in this extra money we can’t show clearly and demonstrably that the service has got radically better then the consent from the public for investment is in jeopardy. That is why change is not about attacking public services but saving them."

Asked whether the Prime Minister was following David Cameron’s lead on this as he had been talking about the value of public servant’s today, the PMOS said that he would not talk about Mr Cameron. He would, however, say that the Prime Minister had this event in his diary for several months, if not longer. It was a conference tomorrow about reinventing government, which he had been discussing with the Cabinet Secretary for some time. The theme of that conference had always been how we changed public services to meet twenty first century needs. This was not a matter of following somebody’s lead, this was a case of expounding the Prime Minister’s view of public services in the twenty first century and why they needed to change to meet the differing expectations that people had of public services in the twenty first century.

Asked how we could show that public services were radically better, the PMOS said that there were areas where we had to still improve but if people looked at the health service and waiting times for heart and cancer operations or A&E’s then people could see a radical change for the better. If they took another area, such as crime – overall crime was down, but we still had to make progress on areas such as violent crime. If people looked at education they could see the development of specialist schools and a vast improvement in results. If they looked at pensions clearly the government in its white paper had set out a radical change, which was designed to adapt society to modern needs not the needs of 60 years ago. Similarly on the environment and transport you did not have a dogmatic approach to public services but you did have an approach, which refitted, reskilled and retooled public services to meet modern needs.

Put that one of the problems had been persuading unions that this was the right way to go and it only worked if they were on board, the PMOS said that the health service was again a good example. If people looked at the experience of nurses who were limited in their careers by demarcation between them and doctors they now had a much better career path that also, at the same time, provided a better service for the public. It meant that they were no longer limited by what they were traditionally allowed to do. They could now carry out minor operations for example. All this meant that the public had greater access to skilled professionals who could carry out the job they needed. It was in the interests of both the public and public servants for change to happen. That was challenging and difficult but at the same time experience suggested that once you moved beyond the resistance to change both the public and public service saw the benefits.

Asked if the Prime Minister would also acknowledge that there had been poor public service results such as tax credits, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister did not in any way suggest was that public services were perfect. What he did say however was that there had been significant improvements as a result of the hard decisions that had been taken to promote change within the public service. That process of change, no matter where you looked, was well underway. In terms of tax credits on the plus side you had to also acknowledge the number of low-income families that had benefitted as a result of the policy. That number went into the millions.

Asked who was suggesting that it was superficial to talk about the public service in that way, the PMOS said that would be drawing him into party political aspects, which he would not do. The Prime Minister had been saying that we had to get away from a blame culture in terms of this kind of issue. We had to not be afraid to say where there were problems and analyse why those problems arose and then to look and see what was responsible for those problems. At the same time we had to all take a broader view, which was to say that in the public sector we needed investment, but in return for that investment we also needed a process of reform and change. The two needed to go hand in glove and not be in confrontation with each other.

Asked whether the Home Secretary’s criticism of the service were directed at the front line, the PMOS said that the Home Office itself had made clear that senior management shared the frustration of the Home Secretary at the way in which the systemic problems had arisen, but equally had the determination to deal with them. It was important that in the case of the Home Office we recognised, as John Reid had done, the progress that had been made, for instance in achieving the tipping point on asylum. On the one hand you could recognise that achievement whilst on the other hand recognise that there were other areas where you needed to see improvement. Put that the public expected the buck to stop somewhere, the PMOS said that it was right and proper that as we put in the necessary investment into areas that we expected to be judged on competence as in any field. However we should not damn an entire department, which John Reid had not done, because of failings in one particular area. We had to openly recognise those problems, analyse the reasons for them and then address them.

Asked whether the Prime Minister was saying public servants needed to try harder or whether he was apologising for blaming them, the PMOS said that he would be falling into the precise trap the Prime Minister had identified by addressing the issue in those terms. It was not a case of either/or. It was much more complex and a more substantial point than that. The point the Prime Minister was making was of course you judged public services on whether the necessary investment had gone in. Then if that investment had gone in you then judged it on the performance of those who were responsible for delivering that service. Overall you judged the public service on whether it was meeting twenty first century needs. So to simply reduce it to an ad hominem issue was superficial and missing the point. The challenge was whether you had a clear vision of how you wanted public services to develop to meet twenty first century needs, was the investment there to deliver it and finally was the performance of those who delivered the service. Asked in that case whether the Prime Minister was confident that the delivery of service was sufficient, the PMOS said that it depended on where you looked. There were certain areas where the public sector was showing vast improvements and people could see that in heath, education and in the Home Office. There were also other areas where improvement needed to go further, but a one-size fits all criticism should not be applied to the public services as a whole.

Briefing took place at 17:00 | Search for related news

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