Decentralisation, Transparency and Accountability

Guest Blogger: Oliver Letwin

This pamphlet is based on a speech given by the Rt. Hon. Oliver Letwin, at an Unlock Democracy lecture in the Houses of Parliament on 24 November 2009. Our lecture and pamphlet series are intended to provoke debate on and interest in issues relating to democracy and human rights. As an organisation promoting democratic reform and human rights, we may disagree with what our contributors say - but we are always stimulated by and grateful to them.

The views of the authors of this work should not be presumed to be the opinion of Unlock Democracy or its staff.

I am a tremendous proponent of the Sustainable Communities Act and of what lies behind it – and indeed of what lies ahead of it.

But I want to sketch the general framework of ideas into which, from the Conservative Party’s point of view, the Sustainable Communities Act fits.

From our point of view, the question of whether we should engage in some effort to decentralise Britain is not a matter of choice but of necessity. The next government, whoever it may be, is going to have to do an enormous amount of work very quickly to try to put the nation’s finances back on a stable footing because of the massive structural deficit which is currently in place. That won’t be enough. It’s almost inconceivable that any government could achieve the kinds of shifts in the relationship between revenue and expenditure which are required simply through tight expenditure control.

The pressure for actions that will lift people out of poverty and get people into work, improve their schools, their local communities and their hospitals will be enormous. Our view is that the only way in which those pressures can be met over a five to ten year period is by ensuring that the tight expenditure control in early years is accompanied by a profound structural reform that can get more for less and deliver what people want with efficiency in-built. Our view is that the only structures which will ultimately do that are not centralised bureaucratic structures which we think are inherently inefficient, but structures which instead have three main features - decentralisation, transparency, and accountability.

We have a kind of hierarchy in our minds. Wherever possible, we want to decentralise to the limit; that is to say, to empower the individual citizen or family - to provide accountability quite directly to the individual or family. So for example in the case of schools, our view is that the direction in which Andrew Adonis when he was schools minister began to move, in which a dedicated school grant follows a pupil to the school of his or her choice, needs to be taken much much further. We therefore envisage ending what is effectively a monopoly of local authority education in a given area and creating a competitive framework in which the accountability of the Head is to the parents and pupils because if they choose to walk they take the taxpayer’s money with them. Only by attracting them, maintaining them and keeping them can the Head continue to run the school.

We have a very similar view about the operation of the NHS. We don’t believe that you can continue to run the NHS as a monolith and we would move to a situation in which there is open competition within the NHS between one hospital and another, and with new providers coming in who are willing to offer the NHS tariff. Accountability directly to the patient. Clear information, so that you can look online at the performance of your chosen GP; and, when you go to the GP’s surgery, you can look with the GP online at the performance and reported patient outcomes for each individual hospital, make the choice, and go to the hospital of your choice. The hospital is accountable quite directly to you and to your GP, who is directing the taxpayer’s money on your behalf to that hospital. And the GP, too, is accountable. If you go to a different GP, then the taxpayer’s money goes with you.

So there is a range of public services in which we believe that decentralisation can go right down to the level of the individual or the family, and the accountability can be from the provider to the patient or pupil.