Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.
When I go shopping, I do not aim to maximise my spending. My friends and family do not complain if I have spent £70 on goods and not £80. I take a list of what I need. I compare prices and qualities. If I tell anyone what I purchased, I might only mention what I paid if I had come across a bargain or good offer.
           Nor when I go shopping do I ask how much a shop has spent on providing its service, so as to visit the one that has spent the most. I go to shops that combines a good environment and helpful staff with value for money. It would not be a defence for a shop’s poor service or shoddy products if they told me they had nonetheless spent a lot on them. Nor would I pity them if they told me the experience was rubbish because their owner had deprived them of cash to spend on staff and stock.
           So why, then, when the government and Opposition daily hammer at each other over important public services, do they spend most of their time talking about costs?  The NHS must be great, says the government, because we have just spent £20bn more on it. That is not enough, thunders the Opposition: it would be perfect if we spent just a little bit more. Ministers rarely give us any detail over where all this extra money goes, and the Opposition rarely tell us what extra items or staff they would want to hire. It is unusual to hear a normal debate about the quality and range of services, their availability, and how they could be improved. Money is national and political. Service provision is local and outside politics. The detail of why services are poor appears beyond my fellow politicians.
           The government should change this. They should tell us what improvements in service they want to buy, and how they will do so affordably. They may need to incentivise public sector staff to align their interests with the consumer interest. Ministers may need to change the odd Chief Executive (of whom the public sector has so many) to ensure better performance. Senior managers should report openly their successes and failures so as to encourage a grown-up understanding of what needs improving.  As we address the strengthening of our nation’s  defences, we should  not debate how much money we should spend, but what extra capabilities are needed, and how they can be provided economically to the highest standard.
           The danger is that monopoly provision gives too much power to professional providers and not enough to consumers. We have a monopoly nationalised road network. The users pay many times its cost through special taxes on owning and using road vehicles. Highways England and many Council Highways departments seem to delight in closing roads as often as possible. They allow utility companies access to dig them up and put in cables and pipes in ways guaranteed to create many future repetitions of the same frustrating process. Why not place these networks in reinforced conduits for easier access and put more of them away from the centre of main roads? They often keep roads closed at evenings and week-ends when no-one is working on the closed portions. There is no sense that taxpayers have any right to expect the road to be freely available more often. Many Councils regularly change signs, paintings, lanes, junctions and crossings in ways which make motorists’ lives increasingly difficult.
             Last week I travelled to a distant city by train. These newer trains were much more uncomfortable than those they replaced. There was no hot meal service even though I was travelling at meal times. The computer system telling you where your seat was did not work. Yet poor, expensive train services like this are now subsidised. They should think more about how to make themselves attractive to passengers. The collapse of office working post Covid is partly a commuter revolt against train services they regard as poor and costly. Too many commuters have been let down by cancellations and delays, by seat shortages and increasing season ticket prices. The wrong kind of snow, leaves on the line, and the late running of prior trains pall as reasons for delays.
             Public services like health and education that are free at the point of use have plenty of demand which they struggle to meet. Public services like trains and buses with user charges struggle to fill their seats. The public sector is reluctant to close services that lack users and finds it difficult to meet demand where free offers make services very popular. Recent years have brought efforts to make the management of many of these services apolitical by delegating the use and control of resources and staff recruitment and training to expert managers. Both parties have favoured this, thinking they would not be blamed when things went wrong. Instead, Ministers are still blamed for every failing, whilst the management usually escapes criticism and keep their well-paid jobs.
Parliament concentrates on playing party politics, where the government and Opposition squabble over whether too little money was spent. No wonder the services are often costly, poor quality, and insufficiently varied. We want an NHS free at the point of use and free places for all in schools. We need better ways to debate successes and failures, with more attention on how our money is spent. Ministers who provide the cash need more control over how it is spent if they are to be held responsible.