What does the word ‘open’ mean to you? To me it’s linked with a few things — it means something that everyone can get hold of and get involved in, that everyone can see how it works, and that is open to people’s feedback, and their criticism. It shows you exactly what you’re going to get, and how you’re going to get it. However, to me this is more or less the opposite of what the government are proposing White Paper (that’s the kind of paper they put out to show their big ideas before they talk about them in more depth) on Open Public Services — for a good number of people in the UK they could be shutting the door and locking it.
Why? Firstly, the paper explains that the UK’s poor are suffering because of a lack of decent services in their area. Not many people would dispute that — it’s absolutely true that for healthcare and education, where you live massively affects the quality of the services you have.
Secondly, the paper sets out the areas the government wants to improve and sets out a number of ways it thinks it can achieve:
- Choice â€“ Wherever possible we will increase choice.
- Decentralisation â€“ Power should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level.
- Diversity â€“ Public services should be open to a range of providers.
- Fairness â€“ We will ensure fair access to public services.
- Accountability â€“ Public services should be accountable to users and taxpayers.
All very nice. However if the government really want to do what they promise to do at the very beginning of the paper and bring real choice and great services to poor areas, what they propose simply does not go far enough, and in my opinion could leave the poor and vulnerable even more exposed to bad practices and unfairness than ever before.
A big part of their plan is about encouraging businesses to fight against each other making them more efficient or better at healthcare, or education, or running a care home. Fair enough, that might work where there are enough people to support loads of companies, but what about where there aren’t? In the countryside, for example, or on a run-down estate where having two cornershops just means one quickly goes out of business — a choice of one isn’t really much of a choice.
There are other examples of ways this paper disadvantages people outside of a certain income bracket or even a postcode, for example the government wants the UK citizen to do almost everything online, a crushing disadvantage to people who can neither get nor afford broadband.
But the main thing that occurs to me is that in places that have this real lack of choice, you could get some really concerning things happening. The government has already shown itself to be broadly in favour of things like faith schools — what if they were your only choice for educating your child? And what if health services followed suit, leaving your area’s only sexual health advice centre in the hands of a rigidly ‘pro-life’ or anti-gay company.
The paper talks about places you can complain to, certificates for companies offering services, low levels of support for people who can’t afford treatment or care, and a promise that companies will have to look after the disadvantaged just as much as those who can afford to pay on their own, but they’re being very vague about what any of that means.
So I urge you to tell them that poorer and less populated areas need more protection than they’re offering, that choice should always mean real choice, and not the lesser of the remaining evils, and that fair in areas that can’t afford choice could well mean keeping existing services in place and giving them what they need to offer the people they look after the best possible care, education and advice.