Dave Penman: Talk is cheap – we need action on the big issues like Grenfell and EU citizens' rights

Written by Dave Penman on 21 July 2017 in Opinion

Policies without adequate funds for implementation are little more than hot air, says the FDA general secretary

Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May Credit:PA

Most of us can remember a teacher who had a profound effect on us in our formative years. For me it was Mr Campbell (never dared ask his first name). He taught modern studies, for which I proudly achieved an A at “O Grade”, as it was called then in Scotland.

Modern studies at that point was a bit of everything. Current affairs, politics, public policy with a bit of international events thrown in. The class was, shall we say, mixed. There were geeks like me, interested in politics at an age when I should have had other distractions (not quite a left-wing version of young William Hague, but close enough to make me wince) and then there was a more challenging cohort. Though Campbell struggled at times to herd this particular group of cats, what and how he taught found a receptive audience in the part-time Goth that was the young Dave Penman.


In the 35 years that have followed (oh don’t be silly, I do look my age, but thank you all the same), I’ve been reminded many times of snippets from that teaching. When discussing how government works, we touched on regulation and how governments avoid it. The specific context was health and safety in that lesson. Rather than water down regulation on controversial areas, with the full glare of parliamentary scrutiny, governments simply starve enforcement bodies of funds and, over time, practices will adapt. This was the early days of the Thatcher government and, like most teachers in Scotland, he had a particular political view point that would occasionally seep through.

So whether as a deliberate measure, or simply because it does not warrant the priority of funding when difficult choices have to be made, a policy can be undermined by a lack of resources. Implementation is as critical as the policy itself.

I was trying to explain this to my son Jack, over how we could find ourselves in a situation where a national tragedy such as the fire at Grenfell Tower could happen – not only the unimaginable horror of the fire itself, but also the seemingly endless catalogue of failures that are emerging daily with regard to building safety. 

The simplest analogy I could come up with was crime. It’s against the law to steal from someone’s house, so we have policy. But it needs to be enforced, so we have police. As I developed the analogy on the impact of cutting police numbers, he tutted and returned to his iPhone, but, like Mr Campbell’s teachings, I’m sure something sank in.

These are complicated matters and require sensitive handling, but the emerging story is one of fairly widespread and catastrophic failings of policy. 

Rather than water down regulation on controversial areas, governments simply starve enforcement bodies of funds

Whether that is the policy itself or a failure to regulate (or both) will hopefully emerge sooner rather than later. The implications of cuts in funding to the plethora of public institutions that are charged with keeping us safe, will undoubtedly feature. The accountability for the consequences of budget decisions over many years is harder to pin down. There is a chance, though, that the sheer scale of this tragedy and the context of this taking place in one the richest boroughs on the planet, will drive a desire to uncover all of the factors that led us to this terrible moment.

In a very different context, the government’s proposal regarding the right to stay for 3.2 million EU citizens who currently call the UK their home, is another example of a policy being worthless without a commitment to implement it properly. 

The official No. 10 line is, apparently, that the Home Office can handle this within existing resources (cue a combination of sobs and hysterical laughing from staff). The Institute for Government reckons any significant change that required documentation would need an additional 5,000 staff. It’s as good a guess as any. Documenting over three million people, then making decisions, then dealing with appeals then correcting mistakes… and on and on.

However streamlined or digital any system is, it will creak under the weight of so many EU citizens navigating their way around it. Every qualification or rule will add to the administrative burden and lead to further challenges down the line. We know already that these issues are complex and emotive. It’s not just those that are here but partners, relatives, spouses and children.

Not only do those who have chosen the UK as their home deserve to be treated fairly and effectively, but we also expect the EU to honour similar commitments to the one million plus UK citizens living and working in the EU.

On issues of such national significance as preventing another Grenfell-style tragedy and reassuring EU citizens about their future, it’s of course right that there is a fierce debate on policy decisions.

But if well-intentioned commitments to change are to mean anything, we must also look at how those decisions are followed up with the proper resources. Otherwise, as Mr Campbell knew, it’s just empty rhetoric. 

About the author

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA union

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