Labour plans power for the people

Worth A Look, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

COMMUNITIES should have the power to sack failing police chiefs and other providers of public services, Labour’s election and policy co-ordinator said last night.

Alan Milburn’s speech, entitled Power to the People, mapped out a third-term agenda based on decentralising government and extending consumer choice. It is understood that ministers are already examining systems by which people could remove service chiefs through local petitions or other forms of direct democracy.

Citing health reforms which make it possible for patients to choose their hospital, Mr Milburn said: “It is less easy for a citizen to choose their own refuse service or police service. New mechanisms are required for empowerment here.

“Building on David Blunkett’s pioneering proposals for police reform, local communities could have new rights to challenge, or even remove, services that are consistently poorly performing.”

Some of his comments will be taken as fresh evidence of friction between him and Gordon Brown, who has called for strict limits to the role of markets in the public sector and said that greater diversity could damage the principle of equity in the provision of services.

Mr Milburn, who was brought back into the Cabinet last summer in the face of opposition from the Chancellor, told his audience last night: “Those who say there are limits to the role of free markets are right. We should be as explicit in recognising the real limits to the role of centralised states.

“Expanding choice is about enhancing equity and opportunity, not undermining it. That is why reforms to extend choice should be driven forward in education and housing, as well as hospitals and surgeries.”

Although Mr Milburn acknowledged that central government had a role to play in enforcing standards, he said: “We have reached the high watermark of the post-1997 centrally driven, target-based approach . . . the key drivers of improvement over the next decade will be consumer choice and community empowerment.”

Speaking to the Social Market Foundation think-tank, Mr Milburn said the Government must transform the relationship between state and citizen. “It is time to take politics out of Whitehall . . . to reconnect politics and public where it counts most — in local communities.”