Test 21 November, 2017

Want more equality? Encourage government to save on you

Before it was drowned out by a continuum of scandals and a worrying lack of progress in Brexit negotiations, the Government prided itself on making the case for greater equality of opportunity in Britain. As the Chancellor announces his budget tomorrow, bound to disappoint at least some of the voices calling for additional funding, we must not forget this commitment and be realistic about how it is achieved.

Inequalities remain persistently high across UK public services, or are even growing. Public sector leaders seem to be waking up to the pressing nature of this issue, with many stating inequality as an urgent concern in a survey carried out by Reform and Deloitte, for the first time since the survey began five years ago.

This shift should be welcomed. Yet as they queue up to request more money from the Chancellor, the reality that services must fundamentally transform to save money on those services enjoyed by the majority is often neglected. If the most disadvantaged are to receive the support they need, this will be necessary. Maintaining current provision as we know it, while pursuing an ambition of levelling out historical inequalities is not just ambitious, but highly unrealistic.

Instead of pretending that the occasional cash injection is going to make all the difference, leaders must show an understanding that services need to change at their core. Concerns over abandoned emergency service calls or long A&E waiting times cannot just be met by calls for greater resources to do more of the same. There are established ways of making engagements with services both smarter and more efficient, and no good reasons for delaying their implementation. Many citizens would prefer reporting crime or speaking to their GP online, a potential source of significant savings. Still, the UK is not progressing fast enough. An EU study from last year placed the country below average in an evaluation of ‘eGovernments’, behind France, Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic countries who all scored in the top benchmark.

Delaying innovation delays improvements in how the least privileged citizens are served. Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee this month, Met Commissioner Cressida Dick speculated that on current funding projections, areas most likely to suffer are prevention efforts and the tackling of child sexual exploitation. These are areas of policing largely supporting the most vulnerable, and focusing on them for cuts not only jars with the equality agenda, but is short-termist.

Some services vigorously pursue efficiency savings to redirect funding to those needing it the most. Research interviews conducted for a police report Reform published this summer revealed forces making marked improvements in efficiency, and committing additional resources to work on prevention and vulnerability. Yet leaders are reluctant to declare publicly when savings made from one group of the population are redirected to another. This may be affected by politicians across the spectrum who appear to suggest that moderately increased budgets will not only sustain services in the face of increasing demand, but also help the country overcome inequalities built up over centuries.

If we want public policy to do more than merely pay lip service to the reduction of unequal life chances, we must get comfortable with some services being the source of savings.  Citizens facing the greatest obstacles in life deserve better services, and to deliver these, the public sector needs to embrace ways to spend less on the rest of us.