Cameron hopes public 'business plans' will open up Whitehall's corridors

By Oliver Wright,Whitehall Editor
Tuesday 09 November 2010 01:00

Plans detailing the policies the Coalition intends to pursue in every government department over the next four years were published by David Cameron yesterday.

The proposals include moving the treatment of thousands of mentally ill offenders into the community from prisons and organising a national School Olympics.

Some of the more varied and eye-catching proposals in the business plans include:

* Reviewing the regulation of oil and gas exploration in the North Sea in light of the Gulf of Mexico spill.

* Investigating the creation of a UK Bill of Rights.

* Publishing sentencing statistics by offence for every court in the country, so the toughest and softest courts can be identified.

* Launching an independent review to address the commercialisation and premature sexualisation of children.

* Publishing details of delays on Britain's motorway network.

Civil servants will be required to provide fortnightly updates to No 10 on how their departments are doing in meeting their objectives, while updates on the plans will be published monthly on the Downing Street website. But some in Whitehall are concerned that areas of government not included in the plans will suffer as "the machine" concentrates all its energy on fulfilling the stated targets. Mr Cameron claimed the move would help reverse the trend towards the centralisation of power in Whitehall and encourage ministers and officials to govern for the long-term. He presented it as an alternative to Labour's culture of targets, which he said encouraged short-term thinking.

He said: "We are turning that on its head. Instead of bureaucratic accountability to the government machine, these business plans bring in a new system of democratic accountability – accountability to the people. So reform will be driven not by the short-term political calculations of the Government, but by the consistent, long-term pressure of what people want and choose in their public services – and that is the horizon shift we need."

He dismissed suggestions that the new plans were targets under a different name. "These plans are about running Whitehall effectively so public services are steered by the people who work in them, responding to the people who use them," he said.

"And publishing information about the progress we're making and the effect our reforms are having is not targets, it's just the basic information that the public needs to hold government to account." Standing alongside him, Nick Clegg admitted that not all the objectives would be met, but insisted it was better to have them anyway. Mr Clegg said: "We will mess some things up. But for the first time the process will be held in public."

Mr Cameron added that the business plans would "bring about a power shift by changing what government does". He said: "For a long time, government's default position has been to solve problems by hoarding more power to the centre – passing laws, creating regulations, setting up task forces. The result is that Britain is now one of the most centralised countries in the developed world. We will be the first government in a generation to leave office with much less power in Whitehall than we started with."

Douglas Alexander, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said he had no objection to more transparency in government. But he added that most people "probably don't think this is a transformative shift in power between government and the citizen."

Mr Alexander said: "They basically want their politicians ... to be getting on with the job of delivering decent standards in schools, a better health service and making sure there's more work in the economy. And they feel they have a pretty good accountability mechanism – it's called a general election."

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