Peter Hoskin

The problem with Brown’s latest Big Idea

The problem with Brown's latest Big Idea
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There's some very readable stuff in this week's Economist (including a leader which outlines what Brown's government should – but almost certainly won't – do with its "last months in power").  But if you read only one article from it, make sure it's the Bagehot column and its dissection of Brown's latest Big Idea: public service guarantees.  

These are the pledges-turned-legal entitlements which popped up throughout the Queen's Speech – such as the "guarantee" that patients will have hospital treatment within 18 weeks of being referred by a GP.  As Bagehot points out, it's a problematic approach:

'To be worth the manifesto paper they will be printed on, public-service guarantees need to be readily enforceable. It is fairly easy to see how those that are to be bestowed on groups or communities might work. A school is failing; parents complain; something is eventually done. But the situation for individuals seeking to secure their rights in a hurry is fuzzier.

The trouble is that, if the guarantees are not enforceable by law, they will be weak; but if they are, they may lead to an orgy of litigation. The government’s answer is to make many of them theoretically subject to judicial review, but only after multiple layers of complaint to local institutions and ombudsmen. That raises two telling criticisms. One concerns time. If a patient is suffering from a painful condition, or a child is being poorly educated, only an immediate remedy will do. If they have to spend weeks or months negotiating the bureaucracy of enforcement, the result will not be the enjoyment of their rights — it is too late for that — but a paltrier sort of compensation. The advocates of guarantees argue that the threat of redress alone will be enough to ginger up teachers and hospital managers; the guarantees will work merely by existing. That is an unconvincing syllogism.

The other criticism is that, on closer inspection, the new guarantees look very like the old discredited targets they are supposed to supersede: ambitions defined by the government and policed by its servants or appointees, albeit through a different mechanism.'

In effect, this sets up a perfect dividing line for the Tories to operate along.  If they can highlight the bureaucratic aspects of this latest wheeze, then it creates more space for those policy areas – such as schools reform and the community right to buy – where they're proposing greater freedoms for communities and individuals.