Blair Plans New Social Contract

{mosimage}A new contract between the state and the citizen setting out what individuals must do in return for quality services from hospitals, schools and the police is one of the key proposals emerging from a Downing Street initiated policy review.

Examples include an expectation that a local health authority will only offer a hip replacement if the patient undertakes to keep their weight down. Parents might also be asked to sign individually tailored contracts with a school setting out what the parents must do at home to advance their child’s publicly-funded education.

The police might also promise to achieve a specific response time in a local area, so long as an agreement is struck on the local law and disorder priorities.

The aim is to build on the government’s rights and responsibilities agenda, and papers released yesterday by the Cabinet Office speak of seeking “a new more explicit contract between the state and the citizen on agreed public outcomes”.

Mr Blair set up the six cabinet-level policy reviews a month ago, and has made a major presentation to cabinet setting out the challenges facing the country over the next decade.

Each policy group is due to hold at least three sessions, with papers produced by Whitehall departments, the prime minister’s strategy unit and the Cabinet Office.

The papers are not due to be published in one place but instead feed through into the budget, recast departmental targets, ministerial speeches and the summer comprehensive spending review led by the Treasury.

There had been concerns in the Treasury that the process was designed to bind the hand of Mr Blair’s likely successor, the chancellor Gordon Brown, but Mr Blair has made it clear he is not necessarily seeking to mark out detailed policy prescriptions in every area. Mr Blair is also clear that the process may continue after he leaves.

The involvement of junior ministers is being overseen by two Cabinet Office ministers, Ed Miliband, seen as close to Mr Brown, and Pat McFadden, a former adviser to Mr Blair.

The prime minister believes that 10 years into government and close to midway through the parliament is the right time for the government to look at strategic challenges. He argues if the right decisions are taken now, Labour can still win the next election with a large majority.

The policy review, more ambitious than previously recognised, also frankly admits that the growth in current public spending will fall to 1.9 % in each year of the new year of comprehensive spending review at a time when the economic challenges facing the UK from China and India are about to reach their most intense level. Papers prepared for the review admit that spending on research and development in the UK is falling and the UK’s skills level is poor at a critical time.

The review is likely to examine fundamentally the future relationship between citizen and state. The public service commission has been asked to consider “whether it is possible to move from an implicit one-way contract based on outputs, to one based on explicit mutually agreed outcomes”. It asks “should we be aiming for a more explicit statement of the contract that covers both the service offered by the public sector (what is in and what is not) and what is expected from citizens (beyond paying taxes and obeying the law)”. It also asks “whether these explicit and binding contracts could work not just for individuals and communities”.

Mr Blair hopes the review will also examine how to form a smaller and strategic state, admitting that in his period of office he felt it necessary too often to push from the centre.

The review is also likely to lead to a major rethink on the drive against child poverty, defined by government as relative rather than absolute poverty. The papers point out that although inequality is now falling, the UK remains among the most unequal societies in the EU. The very poorest, the lowest 10%, have not shared in recent growth.

The papers also suggest some of this has been caused by the lack of housebuilding in the UK and the fact that Britain experienced the most rapid house price increases in the world between 1997 and 2005.

The economic review, chaired by the chancellor, is also likely to refocus on the threat posed by China and India. The papers released yesterday argue that Britain “has a good stock of science, engineering and technology graduates, but the undergraduate stock is falling, as has participation in maths and physical science A-level. Performance in science GCSE remains lacklustre.”

This low skills base comes at a time when wage competition from China, India and the former Soviet Union is becoming a reality, the papers say.

Although Mr Blair is understood to believe a massive cut in waiting times will keep the NHS as a Labour issue at the next election, the Cabinet Office papers show a concern at the way in which lifestyle problems have contributed to the emergence of new social problems.

The charts show on average people walk 22% less per year than 15 years ago, the most deprived will live on average six years less than the least deprived and most of the population is now overweight, with 50% more children overweight than in 1996.