By Joshua.Chambers

03 Jun 2010

While civil service salaries come under pressure, the government has announced a bold legislative programme. Joshua Chambers picks out the key bills which will affect officials’ work – including the plans for welfare reform.

The Queen’s speech stirs the spirits like a wooden spoon in cold porridge; it may be unheated and perhaps unappetising, but it is packed with policy protein that civil servants must quickly digest.

“Enough with this gastronomic metaphor,” as Boris Johnson once exclaimed, but the point is clear: the new government’s agenda presents a challenge which requires the civil service to adapt – not least because some measures involve changes to the machinery of government within which officials must operate.

Many elements were predictable, especially given the advanced leaking of the draft speech in the Sunday papers. For example, Parliament was primed for the announcement of the government’s plan to reform the House of Commons and hold a referendum on a new voting system.

While it may seem a measure of less interest to the civil service, the proposed reduction in the number of MPs could affect the makeup and organisation of select committees, whose reports and scrutiny often focus on the work of officials.

Other bills seek to reduce the amount of data the state holds on its citizens, and to bring about the election of civilian police chiefs. These measures will require much planning and will have a large impact on how Whitehall operates.

Below, CSW outlines four bills that give a flavour of the aims of the new regime; each of them have the potential to drastically alter the ways in which departments and civil servants do business.

Public Bodies (Reform) Bill

The incoming government, like so many before it, dislikes so-called ‘quangos’ and wants to reduce their number. The mission statement of the bill is clear: “The cost of bureaucracy and the number of public bodies will be reduced.”

All quangos are under scrutiny, and the function of each body will henceforth have to be assessed every three years (previously, it was every five). The new government has already started its cull by abolishing Becta, the national body to promote technology in schools – a move which will save £65m.

The government wants to cut £1bn from the quangos bill annually, but Professor George Jones, emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics, argues that cutting quangos doesn’t necessarily reduce the cost of government. The simple “fact of dismantling these bodies”, he argued, won’t necessarily reduce costs because “you’ve got to employ civil servants to do the job.”

When David Cameron set out his policy last year, he questioned the “accountability, public spending control, and sheer effectiveness” of quangos. Indeed, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have long aimed to remove “unnecessary” bodies – but previous governments that have pledged to attack quangos have ended up finding the format rather too convenient to dispense with.

Quangos allow ministers to develop centres of expertise, hand politically sensitive decisions to external bodies, and move parts of government closer to the front line, points out Professor Jones. “It won’t be long before they come back, as ministers find they are extremely useful,” he predicts. Indeed, the direction on quangos is not all one-way; the government has just established its new Office of Budget Responsibility.

Decentralisation and Localism Bill

A key theme for the Conservatives is devolving responsibility to local communities, and they released a number of green papers on it while in opposition.

Regional Spatial Strategies – which set housing numbers – are to be scrapped, with housing and planning being devolved to local councils. According to Dermot Finch of think tank the Centre for Cities: “The government thinks that will encourage new development because it will be engaging people more often, but there is a risk it could also incentivise no action at all – there’s always been a risk of ‘nimbyism’ being given encouragement.”

The structure of the planning process will change, with the newly minted Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) – which only came into being in March – being abolished to make way for a Major Infrastructure Unit within the Communities and Local Government department.

Forty people work for the IPC and, while the department has said it is “committed to retaining the expertise of the IPC”, as yet there has been no decision on whether they will all keep their jobs within the new unit. The IPC scrutiny process will be retained, with recommendations on nationally significant infrastructure projects going to secretaries of state for final decisions.

There are also plans to allow communities to bid to take over state-run services. Phillip Blond, who has advocated these ideas for some time, told CSW: “It has hugely transformative effects and will genuinely deliver more for less. It’s another option rather than the old outsourcing; this will be contracting-in and will be hugely beneficial to local communities.”

He added that civil servants “should be excited by it. What’s actually going to happen is that those civil servants will be able to work more closely and more effectively with the communities that they’re there to help.” The bill will be published in June, with a view to becoming law in early 2011.

Academies Bill/Education & Children’s Bill

Two education bills were included in the Queen’s speech: plans to encourage schools to become academies were announced almost immediately, while the much publicised plans to bring in Swedish-style ‘free schools’ will become clearer when announced in the autumn.

The Conservatives say that making more schools into academies will give power to those who know best how to run them. Education secretary Michael Gove said: “Teachers know how to run schools, not bureaucrats or politicians. That’s why this government is committed to giving all schools greater freedom.”

The plans are designed to shift power from government to society, yet responsibility for approving academy schools is moving from local authorities to central government. This will increase the workload of the academies team in the education department, which will be taking on extra staff.

Local government organisations differ on the changes to the approval process. The Local Government Information Unit maintains that local bodies should be given a role within the process of establishing schools, and in supporting them. However, the Local Government Association emphatically greeted the change because, it says, academy status offers “more freedom from central government rules”.

Michael Gove’s much trumpeted education reforms were a flagship policy for the Conservatives throughout the general election, and the Education and Children’s Bill will introduce the Liberal Democrats’ “pupil premium” – rewarding schools for taking on poor students. But Lib Dems may not be happy with schools’ removal from local authority control: they fought an election campaign calling for greater powers for local education authorities.

Welfare Reform Bill

The new work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, believes that streamlining the welfare system will achieve big savings and encourage more than five million people on benefits to move into employment.

He said when launching the bill: “We will create a work programme which will move toward a single scheme that will offer targeted, personalised help for those who need it most, sooner rather than later.”

The bill also aims to accelerate incapacity benefit assessments, although former welfare minister Jim Knight told CSW this may not be possible. In order to move more people off incapacity benefit, he said, “you’ve got to recruit more people in to do the medical assessment. There are already issues around the one contractor, Atos Origin; whether they had enough capacity to do as much as we wanted them to do.”

“I’m not aware that there’s anybody else that could do that work, unless you take people out of the NHS treating patients to assess ability to work.”

Welfare reform has long been a priority of the Conservatives, and is something that unites both wings of the party – a factor that is particularly important given that the party has had to compromise other policies in order to forge a coalition. The sticking point of the policy is cost – altering the benefits system to remove the poverty trap could involve increasing the level of some benefits.

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