‘Those are my principles – if you don’t like them I have others’ Groucho Marx

Alan Milburn and James Purnell are two Labour cabinet ministers who resigned earlier this year as revelations about expenses claims and payments for outside jobs accelerated the decline of electoral support for Labour. Since then both men have criticised Labour’s record – not a difficult task. Purnell – who wants to charge the unemployed 26% interest for crisis loans – argues that ‘we will be a more successful country if we open up to free trade; we need to say that immigration is good for the country’. Milburn – who supports the privatisation of the NHS – takes the line that personal education vouchers of £5,000 are necessary to ‘unleash aspirations’ for education and training for those whose parents are not rich (the Tory voucher scheme). This thrashing around for soundbite politics is not just the noise of those who are leaving a sinking ship. It is the sound of electoral opportunism as Labour manoeuvres to win the next election. For Cabinet Minister John Denham the problem is just that ‘the number of people who sign up to a traditional egalitarian view of society is simply too small to construct a strong, viable and inclusive electoral coalition’.

Education in the unplanned economy
Disagreement over electoral tactics is one thing, but what are we to make of contradictory statements that come out of the mouth of just one minister? Cabinet Minister Ed Balls’ July statement on the future of education is just such a mess. First he decreed the death of Key Stage 3 SATS, and then announced the end of the National Strategies on numeracy and literacy because the government wants ‘to move away from a central view of school improvement’ – at the same time as announcing a new set of directives based on ‘a central view of school improvement’! These include a national standard school report card, grouping schools into federations and relicensing teachers every five years. This parcel of new initiatives is gift-wrapped with the vision thing: ‘parents are to be guaranteed an education tailored to their child’s needs’. In fact Balls can say anything he thinks his audience may want to hear because, in the final analysis, the future of state education in Britain is at the disposal of economic interests that Labour is not prepared to challenge.

Passing the buck
Indeed, on winning the 1997 election, Labour opted to sell off government responsibility for education provision on a huge scale with a massive privatisation and outsourcing programme. It produced central government management targets and national dictates for the public service sector but at the same time broke up big spending government departments like education and health and to a large extent dismantled local government control. Its favoured vehicle for running the public sector is the quango. A quango is a half-government, half-business organisation, or ‘quasi-autonomous non governmental organisation’. The Tory government of 1979-1997 encouraged the growth of quangos as a deliberate policy to undermine what it regarded as ‘big government’. Labour seized on this and accelerated this move with the result that today there are an estimated 1162 quangos employing about 700,000 workers at a cost to the government of about £64 billion a year. These groups are nominally independent but rely on government funding –  for example the British Council and the Equal Opportunities Commission. Today teacher training, public payroll services and prison security are just some of the functions that are privatised or quangoed. Job Centre Plus has 70,042 staff and an income of £3.5 billion to provide employment services. Hundreds of smaller quangos support a bureaucracy that makes special bids for selected clients, like City Spaces or Addaction. Together they undermine the principles of universal benefits, replacing this with the anarchy of the market place.

Quangos rule
Quango directors are unelected, usually very well paid and are often ‘insiders’ – retired politicians, people in the know. This has been described as the ‘revolving door’ between government and business. David Blunkett, the MP for Sheffield Brightside and former Secretary for Work and Pensions, is also a director of A4e, a leading employment and training firm that is bidding for multimillion pound contracts in the UK from his former department and is expanding its business around the world. There was a fuss over Blunkett’s delay in registering a paid trip to South Africa in his record of members’ interests. A4e’s income is paid for by the government according to the number of people they get back into employment. The system is ripe for corruption and creative accountancy. Another quango, Train to Gain, gets government money to offer employers free training schemes in local colleges. Recently Further Education college heads have seen their income dry up because Train to Gain has been accused of paying employers ‘inappropriate incentives’ (money) to join the scheme which then limits the places available because college budgets have been diverted into the pockets of private business.

Today it is impossible for the government, any government, to plan the state provision of education with even the appearance of accountabil-ity and democratic involvement. The ideological attack on state welfare has led to chaos where government policy must be mediated through private sector business interests, unaccountable quangos and authoritarian ministries. The system thrives on the vested interests and the financial success of thousands of education ‘providers’. Conservative leader David Cameron is setting out his election stall and although he announced a ‘bonfire of the quangos’, Tory plans would mean setting up 17 new quangos, including two for further education and an all-age careers service. Whatever the result, we can be sure of one thing: forthcoming cuts in public spending will be deep and attack the working class and their children.
Susan Davidson

FRFI 210 August / September 2009


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