Cameron prepares attack on Civil Service for failing to sell Big Society

  • @oliver_wright

David Cameron is preparing to give his own version of Tony Blair's famous "scars on my back" speech amid fears within the Government that it is failing to effectively sell its reforms to the public.

Downing Street is concerned that some of its key ideas, such as the Big Society and NHS reorganisation, are becoming confused in the minds of voters with public sector cuts. Mr Cameron wants to separate the two and argues that vested interests and bureaucracies are trying to thwart reform by blaming the Government for cuts in services.

Tony Blair famously infuriated civil servants, Labour's union supporters and some of his own ministers when he made a speech in 1999 describing "the scars on my back" left by two years of trying to reform the public sector. A decade on, senior cabinet ministers privately admit that they too have found it harder than expected to make their writ run in Whitehall.

Decisions they think they have made are not always acted upon, while they also feel that some initiatives are being "quietly dropped" when civil servants think ministers have "forgotten them".

One cabinet minister said: "I've found you've got to put your foot on their throat and keep it there. It's not that you can't get things done it's just that you always have to be vigilant that it is still being done."

Mr Cameron is thought to be planning to express some of these frustrations in his speech, a date for which has yet to be set. He is likely to argue that reform is vital, not just to offset the pain of the cuts but also to improve public services.

The Prime Minister's speech comes as Downing Street attempts to fend off a crisis of confidence over its Big Society initiative. Last week it emerged that Liverpool – chosen as a pilot area for the scheme – had pulled out, claiming that cuts to the funding of voluntary organisations made it impossible for them to participate.

Yesterday, Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the outgoing head of Britain's largest volunteering charity, claimed that spending cuts were "destroying volunteering". Downing Street sources pointed out that Liverpool is a Labour council and Dame Elisabeth is a former Labour councillor. But there is anger and frustration in Number 10 that as budget cuts bite, councils are cutting services rather than reducing their own bureaucracies. However, so far it appears it is the Coalition rather than the councils whom the public blame for cuts to local services.

A radical option would be for central Government to order councils to ring-fence funds in politically sensitive areas. But this would run counter to the Coalition's "localism" agenda and represent a difficult and controversial U-turn.

Labour were yesterday keen to capitalise on Tory discomfort. Ed Miliband wrote to every major voluntary organisation, inviting them to join a policy review to create a "good society".

He insisted he wanted the party to build a stronger civil society to counter-balance the forces of what he described as an "over-bearing market" and "overly bureaucratic" state.

"I am deeply concerned that these reckless cuts are likely to do severe damage to this country's great tradition of community support," he wrote.

"I believe that civil society works best in partnership with government. I want to make clear my genuine commitment to building a Good Society, with the voluntary sector at its heart."

Unite, which has 60,000 members in the not-for-profit sector, said it had experienced a 40 per cent cut in public sector funding – equivalent to £5bn – but the Government has provided only £100m in transitional funds.