Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Public services, it's bloody Harriet again

Today I read of yet another plan by the dangerously small-brained Harriet Harman to hurt the successful. This time she wants to find ways to improve the lot of those from the least affluent backgrounds, the theme behind her move is "tackling socio-economic disadvantage and narrowing gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds is a core function of public services". Goodness me, where do we start? There are probably three essays in this, so today I'll start with the notion of "core function of public services". What is it and why?

To my mind a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of public services lies behind the last decade's breathtaking erosion of individual liberties and expansion of the needless criminalisation of the populace.

Let's take waste disposal for a start. During recent building works at FatBigot Towers an awful lot of Victorian lath and plaster was reduced to dust and needed to be disposed of, together with further building rubble. It was an unpleasant and messy task but it had to be done. The course taken was to hire a skip. The appropriate permit was purchased to allow it to occupy a parking space for a few weeks and all the old muck was piled inside. Then the skip company took it away. That which could be used again was, no doubt, sorted from the true waste at a properly licensed waste transfer station and the rest was probably sent to landfill on payment of a fee. You see, the skip company and the company operating the waste transfer station offer a service. It is no less public than local authority disposal of domestic rubbish. I pay, they take. That's all there is to it. If they can turn a few shekels by reusing material then they will do so, otherwise it will be disposed of, and all the way along the line it is a simple practical exercise involving no social engineering or bullying attempts to control ordinary everyday behaviour.

That is what domestic rubbish disposal by councils should be. The very notion of service is that it is something they do for us not something we do for them. They should not do it for free because substantial costs are involved but nor is there any good reason for it to become a burden on householders and a cause for fear that a disproportional financial penalty will be incurred by a tiny infringement of objectively unsustainable bylaws. By all means let them encourage recycling to avoid needless waste, but there is no need to get into a twisted-knicker situation over a few milk cartons or baked bean cans. The whole basis of domestic waste disposal has been turned on its head for no good reason. Not that long ago local authorities considered the primary purpose of waste disposal to be the disposal of waste. Some of us thought that eminently sensible. Now its primary purpose in the eyes of some, if not all, local authorities is to give mythical protection to an unthreatened environment. The waste paper and plastic they collect might just be piling up in warehouses, but it will still cost you fifty quid if last Saturday's Telegraph is put in the landfill bin. It's all nuts and it's all nuts because they have taken their eye off the ball and treated a service they should be providing for us as a service they are providing the great god of nature.

What about other public services? Let's take a few random examples, say road maintenance, child protection and publicly funded education.

The roads around FatBigot Towers are maintained reasonably well by the two local authorities concerned. My road is in Islington but I only need to walk thirty yards or so and I'm in Hackney. The roads sustain wear and tear and it never seems to take very long before the repair crew is rumbling away at night and we have some lovely new black stuff to drive on the following day. Wonderful, just as it should be, we pay for a service and the service is provided with reasonable efficiency.

Child protection is a rather different kettle of ballgame. The young mother who is struggling to cope with her baby and asks for help will receive a visit or two from social services and, to give them their due, the social workers will do what they can to fill gaps in the mother's learning. That is what social services are about - providing help and guidance to those who need it. Some will learn the lessons well and never seek assistance again, others will prove more difficult to help and might need regular visits. That's fair enough provided they are trying. Not everyone is lucky enough to have had dedicated parents to teach them the skills they will need as adults, it would be a cruel society that did not provide a service to fill that gap. The benefits in the long term far outweigh the short term cost. But when it comes to the parents who aren't trying, the ones who simply couldn't give a fig about their children, social service is not about the parents it is about the children. Yet this is where political interference does great harm, particularly when that interference is based on notions such as "tackling socio-economic disadvantage". It is important not to overstate this point by pretending that murderous brutality by feckless parents is widespread, at the same time, however, it is important to bear in mind that most unfit parents can be identified without great difficulty. There is no place for wishy-washy desires to leave a child with unfit parents simply because the parents are "victims of society". Give them a chance, give them help and advice, but if they don't listen and the child is suffering then the parents don't matter any more, the child must come first. Never mind their "socio-economic disadvantage" and their so-called human rights, give the child the chance its parents are willfully refusing it. Equally there is no place for otherwise suitable foster placements being denied because the adults smoke or are fat or have political views contrary to prevailing trends. The damage done by denying children good foster placements is hugely in excess of the damage that could result from them being smokers or plumpies or non-Socialists in adult life. All it takes is a proper sense of priorities.

Publicly funded education falls foul of political interference in more ways than we could ever list. It is meant to be a service - giving children knowledge and skills required in adult life. An illiterate and innumerate teenage vegan wrapped in raffia is not as well equipped for life as someone who can read and write and eats pie and chips five days a week. This is such a phenomenal failure of public education, how can it have happened that something like one fifth of the population cannot read, write and do simple sums by age sixteen? There is only one answer, namely that they have not been taught to read, write and do sums. Debate all you like about the merits of the other things they have been taught, then dump them all in the bin and get back to the three Rs. I believe I am right in saying that the average cost of the public education system for each child is roughly £9,000 a year. Education is compulsory from age five to sixteen, by my calculations that is twelve years. Call it eleven years and five weeks and the cost is £100,000. The state schools are charging £100,000 to educate a child to the age of sixteen and the service they provide for that money does not even result in basic literacy and numeracy? That doesn't sound like much of a service to me. They wouldn't stay in business long.

Public services must be just that - services. In order to identify the core functions of public services you must identify the services they are intended to deliver. And at all stages it must be recognised that those services should be for the benefit of the public rather than the provider or central government.

The problem, of course, with people like simple Harriet is that do not think the purpose of education is to teach the three Rs and they do not think the purpose of domestic waste collection is to dispose of domestic waste. They believe in the magical power of government to change attitudes and behaviour. Everything government does is fair game for that end. I'll expand on that point another day, today I just ask that we look at the word "service" and realise that an essential part of a service is that it delivers a benefit to the user. There is no benefit and, therefore, no service if the user sees it as a burden, an intrusion or an oppression nor if it fails to achieve the most basic elements of what it should achieve.


The Great Simpleton said...

If local authroities were left alone I am sure they would deliver a service, but they aren't.

My local (Tory) authority has just introduced a new scheme that requires us to spend time washing and rinsing plastic bottles and cans and putting them in a seperate box. The reason they gave was that it was "popular".

This struck me as a smoke screen, hanging would be popular but we don't do it, so I have been using FoI to get a copy of the cost benefit analysis they used before starting the scheme. From the correspondence it seems they didn't do one because they will be fined by the EU if they don't, so there was no point (I paraphrase).

It was always my undestanding that the local authority was responsible because of the public health risks associated with leaving rubbish lying around. How much, I wonder, does the policing and enforcement of all these schemes cost us, set against the cost of just land filling? And if we pick up some obnoxious disease from waste lying around can we sue them?

Anonymous said...

Not to mention all that wasted purified and treated water to rinse the bottles and cans.