Chancellor pledges to scrap 500 Whitehall targets

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A bonfire of more than 500 Whitehall targets was announced yesterday as Gordon Brown promised a drastic slackening of central government control over public services.

Mr Brown abolished an entire tier of Treasury targets and vowed to "reduce substantially" the burden of targets on schools, hospitals and local authorities.

Ministers are thought to be considering a further slimming down of the 130 headline national targets agreed between the Treasury and individual departments, while local public sector managers will get a bigger say in setting their own targets.

Targets have been hugely controversial, with critics accusing ministers of micro-management and distorting priorities by setting ill-conceived national goals.

Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, has spearheaded opposition attacks on the system, claiming the targets stifle local innovation and distort the priorities of professional public servants.

Mr Brown said he was scrapping the system of Service Delivery Agreements, under which Whitehall spending departments have to agree detailed strategies for fulfilling national public service targets. The announcement will abolish more than 500 "lower level" targets to "increase flexibility for local outcomes".

Mr Brown also hinted at an easing of the system of public service agreements, which set headline targets for every Whitehall department, declaring that "local performance standards and local publication of performance data will progressively replace national targets".

He said: "With modernisation and reform the condition of future spending settlements, the Treasury in return will for public service agreements abolish the input and process targets and abolish service delivery agreements entirely."

Twenty-one key public sector targets, including goals for schools and hospitals, are due for completion next year. Opposition MPs will seize on any failure to meet the targets.

Oliver Letwin, the Shadow Chancellor said: "There seems to be massive confusion about what Gordon Brown is trying to do. The language suggests he is going to get rid of the targets he set and caused to be set, but as he is the main cause of the targets in the first place it seems very odd."

Dr Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said: "If it's true it is very welcome and very very good to see the scrapping of the Soviet central controls which are completely inappropriate and one of the main sources of weakness in the Government.

"He has taken on board the fact that central targets and regulations are doing a lot of damage both politically and economically. But I'm sceptical about whether the Government can carry this through."