Our public services are the pride and joy of the United Kingdom. Whether it is our schools or hospitals, our roads or railways, public services are crucial to the social fabric of our country – and making them stronger and better still is at the heart of what the Conservative Party stands for. And as the son and grandson of NHS public servants, it is at the heart of what I stand for.
Unlike many, I don’t believe that Conservatives should be focussed on an ideological pursuit. Instead, I think that public services should be run in the way that works best for the ordinary citizen – be that public, private or voluntary – and that public services are delivered efficiently for them and their families.
The Public Accounts Committee, on which I sit, counts the effective and efficient stewardship of our public services as one of our primary goals. Carillion’s liquidation in January highlighted how important outsourcing is and how critical it is that when we harness the innovation, skills and expertise of the private sector to deliver public services it is done carefully and robustly.
Thankfully, in the case of Carillion, public services continued to be delivered smoothly and without interruption. But the incident, and the investigations that are subsequently underway, have revealed fundamental issues with how our outsourcing model currently works. At the moment, things are not good enough.
Governments of all colours have often been wary of businesses making a high return on their investment – something they are perfectly entitled to do. And for their part, businesses have been critical of government only looking at bids based on pure cost alone and not factoring into account wider social factors.
What we need now is a new model of outsourcing – one that looks wider than just the basis of value for money alone.
That is why I was greatly encouraged to hear the announcements made yesterday by the Cabinet Office to strengthen the outsourcing market and diversify it so public services are delivered by an even wider range of private, public and voluntary sectors.
By requiring major suppliers to develop ‘living wills’, the government can go much further than previously by having firms develop detailed contingency plans in the event that company failure does become a concrete risk – and so make sure that public services continue to be delivered smoothly and without any risk to the taxpayer.
It is also welcome that the public will be able to better monitor and evaluate the performance of companies providing key public services. By increasing transparency requirements – specifically the regular publication of key performance indicators such as response rates and on-time delivery – the taxpayer can better monitor how their money is being spent, and so better hold companies to account.
The government has recognised that it has a duty to help better regulate and manage the market. By diversifying the marketplace in order to encourage different sorts of providers to bid for public services – such as mutuals, co-operatives, social enterprises and charities, as well as small businesses – we can build healthier, more competitive markets that will not only make the most of talent right across our country, but reduce the government’s traditional reliance on a group of large suppliers such as Carillion.
These measures today are only a start but they are a promising one; the government has shown it has listened and learned the lessons from Carillion, but has recommitted itself to the private provision of public services, something governments have championed for decades.
Bim Afolami is Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, and is a member of the Public Accounts Committee