There are two very contradictory messages emanating from the government on the role of politicians in the provision of our services. On the one hand, they talk a great deal about localisation and handing power to locally-elected officials. This is true in particular in relation to the plans for the police, who are about to receive new, elected Commissioners with the power to hire and fire Chief Constables and set police priorities.
Ignoring for a moment the obvious dangers of politicising the police, this approach seems in complete contrast to the government’s policy on the NHS and schools. Free Schools are designed to give more power to professionals, and the government has expressly condemned the excessive interference (as it sees it) of politicians in education. “Let teachers take control” is the message. “Get the local authority out of the way”. The Free Schools policy hands any political control that does remain directly into the hands of the Secretary of State and completely bypasses local accountability. With the NHS too, the plans to shift the commissioning powers to GPs (private businesses effectively, with no local accountability), again removes any local politics from the process. The council loses any influence it previously had through liaison with the PCT. Again, this is taking away local democratic control over the health service.
The government cannot have it both ways. Either professionals like policemen, teachers and doctors are best placed to provide services, or they need elected politicians to ensure they are acting in our best interests. By offering an entirely inconsistent message on how best to run public services, the government is leaving itself open to charges of opportunism and confusion.
It would be cynical indeed to suggest that while it is easier to introduce private enterprise into the NHS and education, no-one would accept a private police force, and this has motivated the two approaches. A parallel approach in the police would mean allowing Chief Constables to take control of their budget and commission services from all manner of private providers. This, the government tells us, is a dangerous approach and Chief Constables must have their powers checked by “democracy” – see Boris Johnson’s Deputy’s comments in the Guardian today. What’s good for the NHS and schools geese, is not good for the police gander, and it’s right that we ask the government “why not?”.