Labour must gain power so we can give it away

Labour needs to show it is serious about public service reform.

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David Ellesmere is leader of Ipswich Council and Labour parliamentary candidate for Ipswich

It would be easy for anyone in local government to be cynical when an opposition party says it has plans to devolve power from Whitehall.

I remember Local Government Association conferences before 2010 being told by David Cameron that he planned the biggest devolution of power ever. Instead, as a leader of a council I am now bombarded by emails from local government ministers telling me how we should empty our bins and conduct votes at our budget meetings.

To be honest there was never much depth to David Cameron’s localism. It only ever amounted to a ragbag of items designed to placate Tory councillors.

The first report from Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce is a much more considered examination of the benefits of devolving power and gives me more confidence that this time we have a political party that actually means it.

The emphasis on designing services around people and places is exactly the right one. Top down services, tightly controlled by Whitehall are not able to deliver these personalised services. The rigid departmentalism central control creates means it is virtually impossible reduce the demand for government services by putting effective preventative measures in place.

In Ipswich, following the murder of five young women in 2006, we delivered a very successful programme to help women get out of street prostitution. These were an extremely difficult set of individuals to work with. They had a huge range of problems and each needed individual help and support from a wide range of agencies.

The staff working for those agencies were dedicated to doing what was necessary but the larger the organisation, the more it felt as though they were working against us, rather than with us.

The biggest monolith was the DWP, with local staff given virtually no autonomy. If anything, under the current government, this has become even worse. Job Centres are a complete misnomer. They are not there to get people into jobs. They are there to stop people getting benefits.

If the operation of Job Centres was devolved to local government we could genuinely provide tailored programmes to help people into work which would be cheaper and more successful – how could it be less? – than the government’s discredited Work Programme.

I look forward to seeing radical proposals such as these in the second report of the Taskforce. It would be sure sign that there is a genuine desire by the Labour Party to gain power so that we can give it away.

One Response to “Labour must gain power so we can give it away”

  1. Gareth Millward

    Autonomy always sounds good in theory. But then you get inconsistent decisions both within and across areas, and the immediate call is for written, inalienable rights to be set down in law. See the history of social security, 1948 – 1988.

    Don’t get me wrong – I think autonomy is a good idea as it allows local communities to respond to local issues. But in the short term at least it will cost more money. For a start, it’s been so long since anyone’s been able to use “common sense” that they’ll probably have forgotten how to do it.

    As long as a Labour government is willing to spend more money and to defend “inefficient” services from target-setters and league-table fetishists, I’m all for it. The party’s recent past suggests the opposite.

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