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MORDAUNT PENNYPenny Mordaunt is Member of Parliament for Portsmouth North.  Follow Penny on Twitter.

Political blogs and websites never want for comments on a forthcoming election, the current cause célèbre, the latest ‘ism’ of political philosophy, or the most recent opinion polls.  We read of ‘kitchen-table-Conservatives’, ‘red Tories’ and ‘blue Labour’; and that it is time for ‘common sense’ and ‘compassionate Conservatism’.  Yes, it is all fascinating stuff.  What all these aspects of the daily political discourse have in common is that they come before real action. The focus is on winning elections, not what should be done afterwards.  Competence is an under-rated political skill.

Back in 2009 David Cameron looked beyond election victory and left us in no doubt about his ambition:

It will be a steep climb. But the view from the summit will be worth it. Let me tell you what I can see. I see a country where more children grow up with security and love because family life comes first. I see a country where you choose the most important things in life — the school your child goes to and the healthcare you get. I see a country where communities govern themselves — organising local services, independent of Whitehall, a great handing back of power to people. I see a country with entrepreneurs everywhere, bringing their ideas to life — and life to our great towns and cities… And when we look back we will say not that the government made it happen… but the businesswoman made it happen… the police officer made it happen… the father made it happen… the teacher made it happen. You made it happen.


These are words of optimism, not ideology, of a conservatism that enables, facilitates and supports.  Two key elements of this conservatism would deliver the change Britain needed: localism and the Big Society – taking decisions locally and asking us all to become involved.

There are four staging posts on the journey to change Britain.

Firstly, we must recognise our unmet needs: for example, Portsmouth has a thousand residents with dementia and no care, but the Council has planned for only an additional 200 adult social care places over the next five years.

Second, we must understand how to commission effective and affordable public services.

Thirdly, we should encourage able people from all backgrounds, of either gender, of any creed or race, to participate.

And finally, we cannot be ideological about whom we ask to help us to fill the public spending gap.

My experience of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is instructive.  The NHS constitution states that a person is entitled to NICE-approved treatment if it is likely to prove clinically effective.  People are also granted access to treatment not specifically approved by NICE if they are exceptionally suitable for it.

Yet NICE’s conclusions are ignored daily.  Commissioning was supposed to facilitate tailored local responses; instead PCTs commission with one eye on the patient and another on the bottom line – and hang NICE’s well-informed, evidence-based, recommendations.  It is only when GPs become commissioners for their patients that the localism agenda can be effectively combined with David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society in action.  This is just one reason why I welcome the Health and Social Care Act and the Life Science Strategy, which will monitor and incentivise clinicians to take up the latest and best treatments medical science can offer.  But wider reform is needed to end a public sector culture which spends one pound in three deciding how to spend the other two.

The first question of commissioning is: ‘who decides who decides?’.  Too long has the public sector viewed service provision as an exercise in feeding itself without proper recourse either to the private or the not-for-profit sectors.  It must be wrong for one sector to decide exclusively whether the other two should be involved in service provision, especially when that sector can set the rules by designing the bidding process to suit its own providers.  To counter this debilitating system we should look at commissioning panels that determine whether the public is receiving value for money and that the service users are being well treated.  Such panels would minimise the opportunity for corruption created by allowing very few people to distribute resources in an authoritarian process.

People coming together to improve their communities is at the heart of Mr Cameron’s vision.  In Portsmouth, as part of a social action programme, we were able to refurbish a dilapidated local community centre without a penny from the local authority.  It was a genuinely collaborative effort of the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, driven by volunteers using materials provided by local businesses.  The cost was minimal, it just needed what you might call ‘gumption’ – and the volunteers’ combined experience is likely to lead to their participation in, and initiation of, other projects.

There is an opportunity for political parties here.  As they all struggle to reinvigorate the ‘local association’, local parties should network, encourage, train and support, not just candidates for political office, but people in public life who can make all the difference.  By separating out their traditional political campaigning, associations could and should legitimately engage potential catalysts for their community through policy forums and social action projects.

There is a symbiosis between business and government’s long-term interests, and this is particularly true when the not-for-profit sector is involved.  One example of this is in prisoner rehabilitation programmes at Doncaster prison where Catch22 and Turning Point (two specialised charities) work with Serco (a private company that runs prisons) on behalf of the Prison Service, which is a branch of the Home Office.  Similar projects could be fragmented and targeted towards lower-end charities or charities working under a suitable administrative umbrella to promote value for money and diversity of provision.

Lamentably, many small, modestly-funded, charities have become easy targets for local authority, and even government.  Often decisions are made at short notice and charities are left destitute.  Yet there are many different ways that corporations can step in to help local communities when the public sector withdraws its funding.  Non-statutory partnerships should be pursued for national projects from which funding is to be withdrawn but whose functions we would like to maintain.  Government departments should consult a small team possessing corporate and third sector fundraising expertise, perhaps based in the Cabinet Office, drawn either from the Coalition or from an external organisation such as the Institute of Fundraising.  This could become an established process for delivering services by uniting charities and corporate partners.  The Big Society would be dramatically boosted by central government’s adoption of such an approach, especially if it were replicated locally.

Conservatism recognises that most people will happily roll up their sleeves whenever there is a good cause; and despite some people’s detached derision, the label Big Society most aptly describes what the Briton’s indomitable spirit means in practice.  But there is a further critical strand to today’s conservatism: competence.  We must pass laws that genuinely empower the people; identify and focus on the real unmet need; commission effectively; seek out talent and put it to work; and change the way national and local government operate in order to integrate appropriately with the private and the not-for-profit sectors.

This is a edited version of an article published in Iron Ladies, Demos, 2012.

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