Dominic Lawson: This Government can't stop interfering

The micro-management has at times reached farcical levels
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The Independent Online

Until yesterday our political parties have competed for votes by claiming to be the best-qualified to run the country. All of a sudden, that has gone out of fashion. Now they are competing to prove themselves the best-qualified to not run the country.

Localism - as it is sometimes called - has long been the official policy of the Liberal Democrats. Since they knew that they had no chance of forming a government, but had good prospects of power within local authorities, this policy could aptly be described as making the best of a bad lot.

Much more recently, the Tories have proposed a similar approach, with David Cameron arguing that "localism is one of the defining characteristics of today's Conservative Party".

Finally, Gordon Brown, in an interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, declared that "the state has got to give up power. If Tony and I have learnt anything, it's that you can't just pull levers and make things happen."

Gordon's got a nerve. That is a lesson learnt at everyone's expense but theirs. In Gordon Brown's own Mastermind special subject, taxation, there has never been a chancellor so driven to determine microeconomic outcomes through legislation. Tolley's Yellow Tax Handbook, the standard reference work used by accountants, was 4,555 pages long when New Labour took power in 1997. Thanks to the efforts of Gordon Brown, Tolley's is now 9,806 pages long: not so much a handbook as a dangerous weapon.

The complaints of accountants are partly insincere: the more complex the tax laws, the greater the demand for their services. Teachers and doctors, however, have gained nothing except ulcers from the similar imposition of thousands of directives - often mutually contradictory - from central government, under the stream of education and health secretaries appointed by Mr Blair. The micro-management at times has reached a farcical level: last year the Epsom NHS Trust was summoned to give a presentation to 10 Downing Street's "Delivery Unit" to explain why it had failed to meet its centrally determined target that no one should wait more than four hours in A&E.

I suspect that NHS employees have now lost count of the number of "radical reforms" which have been demanded of them over the past nine years of New Labour rule.

On election day in May 1997 Mr Blair told the British people that we had "24 hours to save the NHS". By this he meant that we should not vote Conservative. Yet, after all the restructuring, re-restructuring and re-re restructuring, the Labour Government has ended up proposing a system identical to that left behind by the Tories, with the difference that many more services are now being opened up to private sector investment than was ever attempted by John Major's lot.

It is true that over the past few years the Labour Government has greatly increased public expenditure on the NHS, and not every penny of that has gone on creating new and ever more complex layers of management. Some of it has definitely been allowed to trickle down to the level of patient care. During such times of largesse, there are great political advantages in being seen to be responsible. Now, partly because of the introduction of more efficient private-sector companies, and partly because there are no similar expenditure increases in the pipeline, there are going to be many fewer "good news stories" to be told about the NHS. Redundancies are the order of the day. You don't have to be a complete cynic to fail to be surprised that Mr Brown now proposes that the buck should no longer be stopping in Downing Street.

In principle, as well as politically, Gordon Brown's argument is astute. As Ming Campbell pointed out at the Liberal Democrat spring conference, it is bizarre that the first elected official who can answer to the public when a hospital does something wrong is Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Health. But is Mr Brown - and more importantly, the electorate - ready for the consequences of genuine independence from political interference in the public sector? Genuine independence means there will be a growth in what is stigmatised as "a post-code lottery". Genuine independence means there will be some hospitals which will refuse to give out drugs which other hospitals will dole out.

In the field of education it is all too clear that this Government has not even the intention of allowing professionals a free hand to take the decisions they think are best for their schools. Not only has it set its face against any form of selection, but it also shows no signs of allowing the slightest discretion in the choice of curriculum. Independence without power over selection or subject matter is not independence worthy of the name.

I understand that what Mr Brown means by localism in education is more power to local authorities, but that will do absolutely nothing to encourage the "public participation" that he called for in his speech yesterday to the Labour Party conference. Only when schools report to parents rather than to politicians will true accountability be attained.

In that same speech Mr Brown announced - or rather, in true New Labour style, re-announced - that the Government would raise the level of public expenditure per state school pupil from £5,000 to the £8,000 average of the private education sector. I'd vote for that, not least because when that redistribution comes about the local education authorities will no longer have the excuse of fewer resources to blame for their appalling underperformance, in contrast to schools which are free to run themselves.

New Labour's belated realisation that it has no magic solution to the successful running of public services has been matched by the public at large. Recent opinion polls have shown a majority claiming to prefer the Conservatives' polices on health and education to those of the Government. Yet if you log on to the Conservative Party's website, and click your mouse on the icon marked "Policy" you will see nothing except lots of pretty pictures and an invitation to suggest your own policies. In other words, the public seems to be saying that it would rather have no policies at all than New Labour's.

I have a high regard for Gordon Brown's character and intellect; but he is at a big disadvantage on the new battlefield of national politics. Compared to David Cameron he is hopelessly inexperienced at not running the country.