Andrew Laird is a founder and Director of Mutual Ventures.
My biggest fear following the EU referendum was that for the remainder of this parliament the Brexit process would totally monopolise government time and energy at the expense of all else. After all, we are really only now emerging from a substantial period of public service reform stasis following last years’ election and spending review.
For sure some legislative time will need to be devoted to unpicking our membership of the EU – but the public will judge this government as much on the delivery of serious public service reform as on executing a successful Brexit.
An overbearing cross-governmental focus on exiting the EU would threaten things like the devolution agenda and the work going on across the country in areas such as Manchester and Liverpool. These areas have been making huge strides towards taking control of local services and thinking differently about how these services are delivered. There are ambitious and innovative proposals to join up children’s services across council boundaries, which would create a more seamless service for young people. This is exciting stuff which will make a real difference to people’s lives but these devolution areas are in a state of semi-reform and the momentum must be maintained or the early progress will be lost. Also delicately placed are reforms like the integration of health and social care. This is critically important as our population gets older and services face ever-increasing pressures.
However, things are already looking up.
We were faced by a summer dominated by the leadership race – but we are now in the much better position of ministers being in place quickly and able to “read in” and get cracking over the summer recess. The looming threat of an emergency budget and an early election have also been helpfully quashed.
It’s good news that several new ministries have been created to handle Brexit and what comes next. This should help contain Brexit activity and stop it from overly interfering with the work of other departments.
I’m also really encouraged by some of the new Prime Minister’s early appointments. There is a view in some quarters that the reshuffle purged the reformers from government. I don’t agree. This is a government with huge potential for delivering reform.
We have had six years of a very political Chancellor. In my view the appointment of a Chancellor with a more traditional approach to the role will provide the stability and support needed for genuine reform across government. Before continuing I must declare an interest as I worked for Philip Hammond many moons ago. He did like a spreadsheet (surely a must for a Chancellor!) but he is just as interested in the story behind the numbers and how decisions affect people’s lives. I would think he will see an important part of his role as providing the necessary support and challenge to his Cabinet colleagues to help them achieve their reform goals.
Another interesting appointment is Sajid Javid at DCLG. Some have challenged the logic of sending a business specialist to work with councils – but it doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to see how this could work. Theresa May is a fan of a mixed public service marketplace. In her famous 2013 speech to the ConHome conference, she argued that we should allow “thousands of organisations to provide public services”. Plenty of these services (children’s and adult’s social care etc.) are delivered through councils and are now within Javid’s remit. In her last speech before becoming Prime Minister, she talked about “putting people back in control” and encouraging council staff to take control of services by setting up staff-owned mutuals. Supporting councils to enable this mixed market will require a Secretary of State with a business mind – and Sajid Javid certainly has that.
A less publicised but highly significant appointment is the Prime Minister’s choice of George Freeman to chair her Policy Board. One of his final actions as Life Sciences Minister was to call for an end to the “apartheid” between the public and private sectors in the funding and provision of health and care services. This again sings to May’s tune of a mixed market place for public services.
So having been anxious about heading into a period of Brexit-inspired uncertainty, I think we should be looking to the future with more cheer. Maybe I’m underestimating the all-consuming effect of the Brexit process – but having voted remain (and been through a self-imposed period of mourning), I am now eager to be optimistic.