Sir George grills Prime Minister on Public Services
13 Dec 2007
This is the exchange between Sir George and the Prime Minister at the Liaison Committee meeting on December 13th:

Q18 Sir George Young: Prime Minister, can we wind back to the answer you gave to Barry Sheerman at the beginning of this session and try and tease out the role of consumer choice and the delivery of public services. One of your ministers has described consumer choice as a 'fetish', another one, Ed Miliband, has called for an end to the obsession with choice, and I read your speech at the University of Woolwich about education, a long speech, where there was no mention of parental choice at all. Was this just an oversight?

Mr Brown: I think if you read that speech closely, what I was actually saying was that we looked at educational opportunity as being absolutely crucial for the future of every child, but we had not sufficiently taken on board the need for high aspiration on the part of the child and parental involvement in education. I think you will find in that speech that I was talking about the important role of both parents and the aspirations of the children. Now, on this general question of choice, Sir George, I would just mention the social care budgets ----

Q19 Sir George Young: I want to come on to that, but can I just pin you down a bit on education. Your predecessor wrote a foreword to the Education White Paper and he praised the school choice programme of Sweden and Florida where parents can use the money earmarked for their children's education in independent schools. Would you endorse that approach?

Mr Brown: The issue about the independent sector, I have not supported the state-assisted places scheme and actually Tony Blair was the Prime Minister who abolished it, so, if you are suggesting we are going to bring back the state-assisted places scheme, we are not, but far more people are benefiting from the academy programme than ever benefited from the state-assisted places scheme. There are more children, as a result, getting an education through the development of academies and the freedoms that they have in poorer areas than was possible under the other schemes. If you look at what we are actually doing, and this is why I think we should turn our attention to the specifics of academies, specialist schools and trusts, what we are trying to root out is failing schools. What parents hate most of all is where there is a school that they do not want to send their child to, but they have got no choice, but to have to send their child there, so let us root out failing schools. In that speech that you mentioned, I set the objective in the next five years of rooting out all the failing schools in our country. Now, that is an ambitious objective which I hope you support, but that is a means by which we give parents more control over the quality of the education ----

Q20 Sir George Young: Can I then pick up the point at which I interrupted you. You were going to go on to talk about the social care budgets where in the beginning you said this enfranchised people, you gave them the money, they could decide how to spend it and indeed they could add to it. If you accept the logic of that in personal social care, why do you not accept it in education?

Mr Brown: The way that we have funded education over the last few years is to increase the diversity of choice available to parents by having academy schools, specialist schools and trust schools. In fact, in academies we are now inviting independent schools in this category, as well as colleges and universities, to play their part in the development of academies. I think that is the best way forward and I do not propose that we return to the state-assisted places scheme. I do not know if you wish to return to it or not.

Q21 Sir George Young: No, I was just pressing you on the logic of enfranchising people by giving them budgets in one part of the public sector, but denying the same freedom and liberty in another sector.

Mr Brown: You are essentially talking about, in the social care sector, adults who have got a chance to choose a range of provision that is suitable to them.

Q22 Sir George Young: Why can parents not do that with their own children?

Mr Brown: In the state sector, we are providing a range of choice, including of course the first parent-created school in Hackney that has actually been set up in the last few months, so the range of choice is available in the state sector. The question you were asking is: should we have a return to the state-assisted places scheme?

Q23 Sir George Young: That was not my question.

Mr Brown: Well, that is the logic of your position, that parents are given money. That is the logic of your position, that you return to the state-assisted places scheme, and I think that did not achieve the results that were intended for it. I think our academies programme, our specialist schools programme, our trust programme and the action that we are now taking perhaps more ruthlessly than before to deal with failing schools is the best way forward.

Q24 Sir George Young: Can I just press you finally on this. We saw your predecessor here for about 20 hours, a lot of it on public sector ----

Mr Brown: I certainly would not get to Lisbon in those circumstances!

Q25 Sir George Young: ---- a lot on public sector reform, and we heard about the scars on his back, how he always wished he had gone further and faster with reform, the forces of conservatism. Do you have the same impatience as he displayed to us to drive this agenda forward or are you slightly more cautious?

Mr Brown: No, we are just going further and faster now and I have just described how we move in increasing the diversity of supply through greater competition and contestability, extending right across the board in the Health Service moving obviously into social care, in education as well, and I think you will see announcements in the future about how we can do exactly the same in welfare, so I am describing how that can happen. I am also saying, if you take health, education and social service, let us root out failure. The culture of the second best is not acceptable to me. It is a culture of excellence that we have got to achieve and, therefore, we have got to root out failing schools, we have got to deal, as we will, with failing hospitals and failing trusts and, in every area of the public services where there is failure or where there is a toleration of second best, my motto will be, "Failure no more. Second best no more. Tolerating failure no more".
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