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Public Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:22 pm on 24th October 2001.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 6:22 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford for initiating a debate on the extremely important question of service, especially in the public sector. Briefly, I want to say something about the importance of the public sector in the collective life of any society and then to say something about how we can get the best out of that sector.

During the past two decades or so, we have come to believe that the public sector is the relic of a nanny state, reminiscent of an age in which the state knew what was best for its citizens and ran their lives from cradle to grave. One may also see it as the last resort of those who have been unable to succeed in the private sector. Those are wholly false readings of the nature and place of the public sector in our collective life.

The public sector is a vital expression of our communal life, which it consolidates and nurtures. It reflects our collective commitment that certain basic conditions of the good life should be available equally to all our citizens. Although the market has a legitimate place in our lives, it has inherent limitations: it is unplanned, its consequences are unpredictable and it bears particularly heavily on the weak and vulnerable sectors of our society. It also privileges profit and efficiency over public spirit and mutual concern.

Therefore, we rightly want to ensure that the things which are essential for a good life and which should be available equally to all our citizens are taken out of the market and made the responsibility of the public sector or the state. That is the only way to ensure that the market economy does not degenerate into a market society and distort our scheme of values. Education, health, public utilities, transport and so on, which are all concerned with the quality of national life and require long-term planning and national co-ordination, rightly fall within the public sector.

The public sector binds us together as a community, forms our collective capital, which we cherish and pass on to future generations, and, inevitably, constitutes an object of collective pride. When the number of our fellow citizens taking out private health insurance rises from 2 million to 7 million in 20 years, and when the number of children turning to private schools increases threefold in as many years, we have reasons to feel concerned. Those things fragment society into different groups which have very little common interest to bind them together, limited understanding of each others' needs and little sympathy for each others' predicament. When some members of our society break away from shared communal provisions for the good life, our sense of solidarity is weakened and our character as a community is, to that extent, diminished. All that is so obvious that it hardly needs reiteration, except at a time when we are in danger of forgetting the importance of the public sector.

The quality of our public services must obviously be of the highest standard. The question is: how do we ensure that that is the case? During the past 100-odd years, we have tried out two major ways of achieving that, and each has its obvious limitations. One is what I might call the "altruistic" model. It relies on a strong public spirit among those who work in the public sector. It appeals to their professional pride, their desire to serve their fellow human beings and to deserve well of the wider society.

While there is much to be said for that model in an ideal world, it has its limitations. Not all public servants are highly motivated, and some cut corners. They also display the arrogance of expertise and tend to see their clients and consumers as passive objects who should be grateful for such services as they receive. Professional associations cannot always be relied upon to be self-governing because of their tendency to be protective about their own members.

The other model is based on mistrust. It introduces the ethos of business into public services and relies on the managerial style of carrot and stick. The Government are expected to lay down targets, prescribe performance indicators, constantly audit performance of those involved, punish the laggard and reward the successful, and demand value for money, and so on. This model, which relies on the language of business and management applied to the public sector, is fundamentally flawed. It makes sense in relation to market or material products but not in relation to human beings and human relationships. It is also cynical and manipulative. While it can prevent people from doing their worse, it can never inspire them to do their best. It is also inevitably centralist, bureaucratic and heavy-handed.

Therefore, I suggest that neither model is particularly applicable to the public sector. We need to rethink our whole approach to public service and find ways to combine the best in both. In other words, we must foster public spirit, professional pride and dedication among those involved in public service, and mobilise their better impulses. But we must also ensure that there is greater accountability, transparency, diversity at the local level, creativity and cost-effectiveness.

Countless ways have been suggested as to how we might be able to integrate the best in both, and I do not need to repeat those now. The public sector requires not only a spirit of public service but also new investment. I am glad to see that the Government are seized of the importance of that and are beginning to invest very heavily in the public sector.

Before I end, I express my sincerest apologies that I have long agreed to chair an important meeting elsewhere and that I shall need to leave fairly soon. I very much hope that your Lordships' House will extend to me the Christian spirit of caritas and see no discourtesy in my early departure.