Do new MPs struggle to properly scrutinise policies?

Dame Anne Begg is a wonderful person to interview: she is insightful, incisive, and good company.

Begg chairs the work and pensions select committee, and as well as talking about how media pressure caused her to become Parliament’s leading welfare policy expert because she is wheelchair bound, she discussed some of the troubles that new MPs have with scrutinising government policies. In particular: her committee is predominantly made up of MPs who are “still finding their feet… [and] what their role as an MP is”, Begg says. This is affecting the quality of their scrutiny: “Inevitably, when you come in as a brand new government, you’re going to think that everything your side is doing is wonderful; and when you come in as the opposition, you’re going to think the other side is dreadful,” she explains.

It’s a striking comment, but also worth chewing over. With the coalition pushing policies through at a frightful pace, are the freshly minted backbench MPs who often make up the membership of select committees ensuring that policy is well-formulated? Read the full interview here

Bickering Delays Open Public Services White Paper … again

First published on the Civil Service Live Network, May 9th. Still relevant.

What’s going on with the Open Public Services White Paper? The bill, which is supposed to set out the government’s vision for the future delivery of public services, has been delayed once again. It was initially due in January but is now due in July, according to the latest Cabinet Office business plan. The trouble is, as one very senior source whispered to me recently, the politicians “just can’t agree on anything.”

As I understand it, there are three camps in the negotiations over how to reform the public sector. In the blue camp, we have David Cameron and Oliver Letwin. Their vision was set out in the Telegraph in February, in an article which called for as much outsourcing and private sector involvement in public services as possible. “Instead of having to justify why it makes sense to introduce competition in some public services – as we are now doing with schools and in the NHS – the state will have to justify why it should ever operate a monopoly,” Cameron wrote.

In the yellow camp are Danny Alexander and Nick Hurd. They are in favour of reforming the public sector, but want to focus more on new models of delivery – rather than increased outsourcing. At present, public sector mutualisation is being pursued by the Cabinet Office, but the public services white paper is expected to set out more specific targets and support for groups of public sector workers who want to take over and run their own services.

And in the red camp is Nick Clegg. He’s cautious about any sort of reform, increasingly so as he takes body blow after body blow in the national press. A well-placed source tells me that Clegg is responsible for delays to the publication of the bill because he refused to look at it until after last Friday’s local elections. It’s likely that, alongside seeking concessions from the Health and Social Care Bill, he also plans to exert more influence on the public services white paper following his drubbing in the local elections.

It would appear that those ministers opposed to large-scale outsourcing have already won. Minutes of a meeting between Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and director-general of the CBI, John Cridland, said that “the minister’s messages were clear cut… the government is committed to transforming services, but this would not be a return to the 1990s with wholesale outsourcing to the private sector – this would be unpalatable to the present administration.”

The leaked minutes also noted that the government will heavily push for mutualised public services to set up “joint ventures” with the private sector, stating that “Government is very open to ideas for services currently provided within the public sector to be delivered under a private/government joint venture. Government is committed to new models of partnership, and private sector organisations need to offer joint ventures – joint ventures between a new mutualised public sector organisation and a ‘for profit’ organisation would be very attractive.”

These measures could mean that Cameron still gets the outsourced public services he desires.  The director of the Oxford University Centre for Mutual and Employee-Owned Business, Professor Jonathan Michie, recently told me that in the 1980s, bus companies were set up with employee ownership models – but quickly transferred into private hands when their owners were offered handsome sums. Perhaps David Cameron’s vision will win in the long run after all then.