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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A question of choice

It is not often that we get interesting philosophical discusions in Plenary but yesterday was an exception. The subject was choice in public services, however the two protagonists in the conversation seemed to be talking about different things.

For the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, choice means the provision of genuine alternatives so as to empower individuals, in other words the establishment of competing services so as to drive down cost. For the First Minister however, the word meant something completely different:

The First Minister: Yes. We believe in a wider range of choices, for instance, on whether to send your child to nursery school, with the availability of nursery school from the age of three, and on free school breakfasts. There is a wide range of areas in which we believe people will want to exercise greater choice for the benefit of themselves and their families.

Nick Bourne: I welcome that. It seems to be a retreat from his earlier statement that greater choice in public services is ‘amoral’. Is this a reflection of the fact that Gordon Brown has said that we cannot leave public services as they were, but must build them around the personal aspirations of the individual? I agree with that, and I presume that the First Minister also agrees with that and so perhaps regrets his earlier statement that choice is amoral.

The First Minister: You are confusing choice for the individual with choice between different providers and the introduction of the market mechanism. There is no retreat and no distinction between what I have said now and what I have said previously on this issue.

Nick Bourne: I cannot see that there can be any confusion about this. Choice for the individual, by definition, means a choice between two different types of service. The First Minister has previously said that that is amoral. I am glad that he seems to have changed his mind, in saying that it no longer is amoral. That, at least, is progress. Would he also go further and say that we must have a radical shift from the centre to the locality? Again, that is something that Gordon Brown has said, echoing the localism that David Cameron has been championing. Will he also nail his colours to the mast on that one and say that localism is the way forward?

The First Minister: You obviously did not hear what I said, Nick. Perhaps you would do well to read the Record tomorrow of your questions and my answers to you. I clearly said that there is a distinction between a choice between different providers of the same service, and giving people more choice of the services to be provided, as with free school breakfasts, which I take it that you now support, as you are so keen on choice, and as with the choice to go to nursery school at the age of three, at least part time, which we provide in Wales. As far as I know, we do that in advance of anywhere else in the United Kingdom. That is quite different from wishing to extend choice in terms of different providers for the same service; we are talking about more choice between different levels of service that you can opt for.

I do not agree with the Conservatives that choice in the provision of public services is always a good thing. Competition can drive down quality as well as price and often it leaves local council's unable to compete on a level playing field due to regulations that apply to them and not their competitors.

That is not to say however that public services should always be provided by the public sector. What is important is value for money and quality. If a Council can achieve that by buying in a service that they are unable to supply themselves or cannot offer at a competitive cost then they should be allowed to do so. Indeed, even the most socialist of Councils do this when they employ contractors to repair roads or Council houses.

In talking about extending public services the First Minister is not dealing with those sort of choices or, indeed, choice of any kind. He has hijacked the word and sought to re-define it to give a softer edge to his government's policies. As an act of spin-doctoring it was a very clumsy attempt indeed.
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