To avoid the pitfalls of botched Tory policymaking we must be rigorous in our implementation and delivery
Our country needs bold ideas and brilliant execution – let us harness the energy of party conference into delivery, writes Meg Hillier MP
Party Conference is a time when we have detailed debates about policy and what we want to do to change our country. This is exciting and stimulating, but on its own is not enough. Unless well delivered, the best policy ideas have little impact. While a bad policy can sometimes be dressed up and made presentable, get the delivery wrong and even the best of policies can become a fiasco.
In recent years ministers have chopped and changed faster than football managers. This lack of continuity can mean that we see rapid changes in policy direction.
At the Ministry of Justice, for example, we saw Chris Grayling ban books for prisoners and privatise probation services. Michael Gove arrived to undo some changes and introduce others, only to be followed by David Gauke who announced that Grayling’s probation reforms would be reversed.
As chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), it’s no wonder that the Ministry of Justice is on my list of departments to watch – it is a huge challenge to deliver so many wide-ranging, complex change projects at the same time. And as we have seen, the impact on those at the sharp end can be severe.
In politics we are impatient for change. We want to see the changes that we have promised for our constituents. But rush the implementation and it can go badly wrong. Poor contracts, mediocre management and over-optimism can happen anywhere but can often be traced back to rushed decisions where implementation has been an afterthought.
The Government’s botched purchase of extra ferries for Brexit was a result of a rushed and risky approach to procurement. This hit the rocks, sank taxpayers’ money and opened the Government up to legal challenge.
The Emergency Services Network (ESN), led by the Home Office, has been a saga repeatedly examined by the committee. ESN is intended to replace the ageing Airwave system and allow emergency services to communicate with each other over mobile data. However, the Home Office’s approach was far too optimistic. The result is a delayed programme with forecast costs set to increase by £3.1bn. And, crucially, confidence at the frontline has been dented, adding another hurdle to delivery.
Universal Credit is a stark example of the very real human cost of getting this wrong, resulting in hardship for many.
We need to avoid making the same old mistakes. All major government projects go through reviews – assessments by technical experts, business cases agreed by the Treasury. Too often what is missing is a straightforward ‘real world’ test – will this actually work?
Most ministers and shadow ministers are not personally challenged about the detail of delivery. I’d like to see a ‘star chamber’ approach – where Cabinet Office (or a group of veteran MPs) challenge ministers rigorously in private about how a policy will work. I am also keen to see ministers offer public pre-scrutiny of policies (at committees like the PAC) before legislation is drafted.
This kind of approach may have spotted issues with the Green Deal home energy efficiency project. Too little thought went into establishing the scheme’s appeal to households. This resulted in a dismal take-up for Green Deal loans, costing taxpayers £17,000 for every loan arranged.
Such a change may also have helped with the bedroom tax. The Department for Work & Pensions did not believe it could anticipate or model the impacts of the reforms. Tenants in many cases were trapped as they could not downsize locally to a smaller home. The reality of social housing, particularly in areas of high demand, is that most tenants cannot just choose to move. Reality and policy were far apart and tenants who could least afford it paid the price.
This conference will help shape the policy manifesto we take to the country. Let us put as much energy into making sure we successfully deliver what we promise. Our country needs bold ideas and brilliant execution.
Meg Hillier is Labour MP for Hackney South & Shoreditch and chair of the Public Accounts Committee
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