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Shooting the troubled

Cameron and Pickles finally flipped this week.  Only they could tell the world, without a shred of humour, that they were going to tackle ‘troubled families’ by appointing ‘trouble shooters’.  Of course this might appeal to some of their backbenchers when they have finished with their Nazi-dress stag parties.
When interviewed, Pickles seemed not to have a clue what he was talking about and couldn’t even describe what the ‘trouble shooters’ would do.  Frankly, he didn’t seem up to the task set by Cameron a year ago when he said he wanted to ‘turn round every troubled family in the country’ by the end of the current parliament.
There is of course a serious point here, and no-one would complain about developing the good work done in Labour’s family intervention projects.  But many of the services that are most relevant to these families are precisely those that are being cut as the Government’s deficit reduction plan bites.
Serious doubts have emerged about the figure of ‘120,000 most troubled families’ who ‘cost the state £8 billion a year’.
Who are these families?  Well, according to much of the media, they are the ‘Shameless’ families who live on benefits, refuse to work, don’t send their children to school, adopt ASB as the family sport, etc etc, the typical everyday Daily Mail stereotype of the feckless working class.  John Redwood MP calls them ‘the worst problem families’ who use up ‘a small army of state employees’.  Even the better news organisations said these were ‘dysfunctional’ ‘problem’ families.  Sky News used examples of domestic violence, repeat offenders, people who have been in care, and children excluded from school.
Really, who are these families?  Over at Fullfact they have tried to track down the figures, stretching back to research done for the Social Exclusion Unit many years ago.  The ‘120,000 families‘ figure turns out to be a reworking of the SEU’s estimate of the number of households who scored on five out of seven indicators or disadvantages.  But none of the indicators concerned ASB or criminality or school exclusions or benefit fraud convictions, and it would be possible to be one of the 120,000 without being on out-of-work benefits at all.  The SEU indicators are not measures of bad behaviour but of poverty, overcrowding, disability, mental ill-health and low income as well as worklessness.  It’s not even clear whether we are talking exclusively about families with children at all and whether, for example, older people are included.
Cameron said the Government has estimated how many troubled families are in each area but this sounds like a very dodgy bit of arithmetic, taking an old figure based on different criteria and dividing by the number of local authority areas.  It is very different from having a list of households to work with and councils will struggle to operationalise the new policy even if they wanted to and even if they could afford to.
I’m happy to support more money being spent on co-ordinating services to low income households, although it is the height of cynicism for the Government to expect local government to put in 60% of the cost.  There are a lot of agencies involved offering a bewildering array of services with different eligibility criteria, so better co-ordination and more targeted service delivery seems like a good thing to do.  I suspect however that if the ‘trouble shooter’ starts by assessing the services received by the household then looking at what they need and what they are entitled to the cost will go up rather than down.
The ‘Shameless’ stereotype is now so strong that the automatic assumption in all debates is that it is a true depiction of the workless poor – see the newspapers but also watch/listen to the supposedly intelligent programmes like Any Questions and Question Time which are stuffed full of right wing demagogues peddling these myths.
Family intervention was indeed aimed at the tiny number of families who really could not cope with raising a family and needed intensive (and non-judgemental) support.  But this is not what Cameron and Pickles are up to.  They are on a propaganda mission, to convince the public (with the mighty media machine behind them) that the real issues are fecklessness and inadequacy and not poverty and unemployment.  In short, blame the poor and not the bankers, and certainly not the Tories.
And slightly off-piste: was anyone else rather shocked to hear Boris Johnson on the Marr show this morning say that he expected one nation to drop out of the Euro, but then comment that the upside would be that ouzo would be  lot cheaper.  Hilarious or not, isn’t he meant to be leading our capital city with a little integrity and dignity?  I wonder what the many Greeks living in London think of his little joke?

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Open and shut case: it's CCT all over again

In the middle of the phone hacking scandal David Cameron found time to launch his White Paper on ‘Open Public Services’ (see the Cabinet Office website).
This document contains more warm words than you can count about the benefits it will bring to individuals and communities, but it is remarkably reminiscent of the proposals
for the NHS: when you strip away the verbiage, it is about putting most public services out to tender to any willing provider, extending the purchaser/provider split, and reducing the role of public bodies to that of commissioners.  As the paper says: “the principles of open
public services will switch the default from one where the state provides the service itself to one where the state commissions the service from a range of diverse providers.”
 In the real world, it means more private companies running more public services, the process otherwise known as privatisation.
The implications for housing are not entirely clear.  ‘Housing management’ is identified as one of the services where the government will consult about how to open up the service to more local commissioning.  There is no specific mention of councils who still directly manage their housing stock but there may be serious implications for them further down the line as the plans develop.
There is a specific reference to arms length management organisations (ALMOs).  They are given as a good example of how public sector providers could be given ‘autonomous status’ and become like housing associations.  We covered some of the options available for ALMOs recently on Red Brick, but although the White Paper talks a lot about improving accountability and empowerment, more importantly it raises the spectre of ALMOs being forced to become ‘autonomous’ even when this is against the express wishes of the tenants.
One other reference to a housing-related service concerns Supporting People, a service
which is already largely commissioned but where the future emphasis is planned to be on the development of personalised budgets.
There are three principle fears about the White paper and none are addressed in it.
First, that this will follow the same route as Thatcher’s Compulsory Competitive
Tendering regime but with more soft soap – it is bound to involve compulsion but the likely mechanisms for achieving compliance are not made clear.  Classic Cameron.
Secondly, there is no reference to the need to undertake an EU procurement for services, which is a major issue when considering the future direction of ALMOs.
And thirdly, there is no linkage to the size of future budgets and the cuts – new rights for individuals and communities will only be worth the paper they are written on if there is the money to back them up.

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Reform or privatise?

Our guest blogger Monimbo assesses the Government’s chances of achieving ‘cuddly privatisation’.
One side effect of the coalition’s troubles in persuading people about their NHS reforms is that they also seem to be having second thoughts about wider ‘reform’ of public services.  Cameron signalled in February that he wanted all public services to be open in principle to outside competition.  But Francis Maude, in a leaked memo, has now said this would be ‘politically unpalatable’.  Instead, the government now apparently contemplates a sort of semi-privatisation, where services will be run by cuddlier voluntary bodies, mutuals and social enterprises, rather than the less-cuddly Serco or Capita.
This, to put it mildly, seems to show confused objectives.  The one virtue of the NHS proposals was that they were crystal clear in their goal of providing bigger opportunities to private health suppliers – perhaps too clear from the viewpoint of trying to convince the public to accept the reforms.  Cameron’s Telegraph article in February seemed to show a similar desire, surrounded of course by much talk about the big society and freeing services from the ‘grip’ of state control (if someone needs to have a grip on public services, shouldn’t it be the state?).
Now two things have happened. One is that the public service reform white paper has been postponed. The other is that, according to the leaked memo, in the white paper the government won’t take ‘the political risk of fully transferring services to the private sector with the result that they could be accused of being naive or allowing excess profit making by private sector firms’.
So now what seems to be on offer is half-privatisation, which is presumably judged to be more acceptable to the public. While this is possibly true, is it achievable?  Both in the NHS reforms and what is allegedly proposed for public services generally, the government seems to be unaware of or to be ignoring the EU procurement rules.  These come into play if a service is put out to tender, rather than being run in-house as a normal part of central or local government.  There is nothing discretionary about them: they have to be applied, unless (as in housing, for example, with ALMOs) the service is to be run by a company still owned by the public authority.  There are exemptions for small contracts, but it’s not permitted to split what otherwise would be a big contract into multiple small ones to get round the rules.  The rules are set out inUK law which itself is based on European law.
The effects on housing are, as yet, even less clear as we wait to see whether new rules will be imposed on local authorities and, within them, on council housing services. Given that the government has imposed a tight timetable for council housing finance reform, any further imposition on councils would be unwelcome, to say the least.  Ironically, housing associations (presumably unaffected by the latest proposals) have themselves complained about the bureaucracy associated with EU procurement rules.
Either the government is being disingenuous about its real plans for public services, or it thinks it can achieve something that in practice looks impossible: cuddly privatisation. It seems to think that this will both drive down costs and make services more user-friendly, and as usual it has a handful of examples (the one in the memo is apparently a mutual called the Sandwell Community Caring Trust) that seem to be prove its point. But of course they don’t: all they prove is that a particular solution works in one place, not that the same approach can be used for services as diverse as supplying driving licences or collecting taxes (two of the examples given in the leaked memo).
Once again we seem to be on the brink of public service ‘reform’ whose end result is likely to be full privatisation.

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Releasing the grip of state control?

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>by Monimbo</strong></span>
by Monimbo

Senior housing policy expert writing under a pseudonym.

Following my post yesterday on David Cameron’s new compulsory competitive tendering proposals, our guest blogger Monimbo, who also lived through the CCT regime of the 1980s and 1990s, penned these reflections.

Given this government’s restless urge to upend public services, arguing that the ‘grip of state control’ needs to be lessened still further was always likely to lead to more contracting out and privatisation.  Of course, as David Cameron does in the Daily Telegraph of 20 February, this can always be presented as moving away from top-down targets, encouraging diversity, delivering at the lowest possible level and, once again, providing opportunities for the voluntary sector. 

Yet it is pretty clear that the reality of his promised white paper on public service reform will be something remarkably similar to compulsory competitive tendering.  CCT is of course the discredited policy from the 1980s, whose only enduring effect has been to privatise a large swathe of low-paid jobs, such as the very bin collection contracts which on other occasions exercise the mind of the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Cameron now claims that, by reviving CCT:

‘…power will be placed in people’s hands. Professionals will see their discretion restored. There will be more freedom, more choice and more local control.’

To which one can only ask, was he around at the time when this was done before?  Does he really believe that contracting out created more diversity of providers, and more choice?  As far as I recall, the outcome was either that, after an expensive and time-consuming process, the in-house teams won – or, in a few cases, that a big provider like Serco or Capita won instead.  Whatever the virtues of a Serco or a Capita, do they really meet up to the starry-eyed descriptions of services brought closer to the people that Cameron enunciates in the Telegraph?

There are three fundamentals of contracting out of which he seems unaware.  First, there needs to be a contract. As those involved in Housing PFI contracts know only too well, a service specified in mind-boggling detail in a contract is not a flexible service.  Yet miss out the detail and what you will get is not a flexible service but a poor one.  Once contracts are signed, the only flexibility they give is whatever terms can be varied that are already in the contract, at whatever price is specified.  Anything beyond this is likely to be prohibitively expensive.

Second, contracts need to comply with EU procurement rules if they are above the minimum size.  These rules are strict.  The opportunities for including ‘social clauses’ exist, but they are carefully policed by lawyers.  Does Cameron’s view of ‘diversity’ include international firms operating British public services? It may well do, but it’s probably not what his Telegraph readers have in mind.

And finally, of course, this does not reduce bureaucracy, it increases it.  Cameron talks about ‘bureaucracy over-ruling common sense, targets and regulations over-ruling professional discretion.’  As CCT showed, you need more staff to run a service because to administer a complex contract you need a ‘client side’ to ensure that the contractor is doing their job.  Can those on the client side dispense with bureaucracy, targets and regulations? No, they are the essence of any contract. Do they largely have to give up exercising their professional discretion? Yes, because using discretion will cost money that will no longer be available.

Cameron’s vision for public services isn’t a new one.  It’s a recycled policy from the 1980s that didn’t work then and won’t work now.  It may, however, succeed in what many will think is its covert aim: to get people so disenchanted with public services that they opt out, vote for tax cuts and lose all sympathy with public servants.  Taken together with the effects of the spending cuts, that really does look like an objective that he might achieve.

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Cameron’s reforms: quick, count the spoons

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.’ 

I was reminded of this old idiom when I read David Cameron’s latest outburst on public service reform.  In his Daily Telegraph article, Cameron said:

“We will create a new presumption – backed up by new rights for public service users and a new system of independent adjudication – that public services should be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service…… This is a transformation: instead of having to justify why it makes sense to introduce competition in some public services – as we are now doing with schools and in the NHS – the state will have to justify why it should ever operate a monopoly.”

There is an obvious contradiction between the localist agenda and Cameron’s new doctrine of ‘compulsory competition’.  Cameron appears to be saying ‘you can do what you like as long as it is what I like, and not otherwise’.  There is to be a White Paper called ‘Open Public Services’.  I assume that means making public services open to anyone to make a few bucks – hence the need to count the spoons.

Competition has been an important element in providing housing services for a long time, especially to deliver hard projects like capital investment, repairs and grounds maintenance, or to deliver IT-based services like some elements of housing benefit.  In many circumstances it is the sensible thing to do.  But not in all, and much less so in the services that are highly focused on people. 

The previous attempt to bring Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) into housing management – under the last Tory government – was an unmitigated disaster and a huge waste of time and money.  CCT was an extraordinarily bureaucratic exercise requiring councils to write hugely detailed specifications of the services they wanted to deliver, and in-house teams to write hugely detailed proposals about how they would go about performing the specification.  Both sides required teams of people including lawyers and accountants (and humble housing consultants) – I know because I did both on behalf of various councils.  The fact that very few housing associations, faced with the same issues but not subject to the regime, chose to put their housing management services out to competition told its own story – they would have done so if it made any sense.

It was – still is – a fledgling market and a few private firms also wasted their time putting in hopeless bids.  Where other providers did win contracts it was invariably where the existing service was failing and the council, often with tenant support, concluded that new providers might help bring about improvements.  Some providers have done well, but that’s not my point.

A lot was written about HM CCT at the time, why compulsory tendering was an ideologically-driven waste of time and money that also held back real service improvement by diverting resources into pointless activities.  Most sensible people think these decisions should be made by landlords and tenants who know their local services.  If Cameron chooses to go down the road of centrally-directed compulsion again it will prove that the Tories don’t learn from history or from their previous mistakes.