Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy today launched an attack on the government for making Britain one of the most centralised countries in the democratic world.
In a speech to the ippr, he said that Labour’s reforms of public services were all about increasing Whitehall control through national targets and priorities.
Not only were these measures undemocratic, but they were also ineffective, Mr Kennedy said, explaining: “The people who deal best with the complexity of front-line services are sidelined and disempowered.”
The Lib Dems, by contrast, he said, would decentralise health and education, giving people back power and, in turn, the responsibility to take a more active part in society.
“Liberal Democrat localism is about crafting a new contract between the public and politicians. We Liberal Democrats believe in active citizenship. This means making patients, parents and pupils partners in their healthcare or in their education,” he said.
The government insists that in giving NHS trusts and schools more freedom to govern their affairs, as in the case of foundation hospitals and city academies, they are reducing Whitehall control and increasing participation of service users and local people.
However, Mr Kennedy today rejected this, focusing in particular on the government’s new schools white paper, which aims to give all schools in England and Wales the freedom to manage their budget, and to give greater power to parents to effect change.
Local authorities would be given a strategic role as ‘champions’ for parents and pupils, but the Lib Dem leader said the plans did not give councils any power to do this, and consequently took power away from locally-elected politicians.
His party wanted local authorities “to be real commissioners – procuring education from diverse providers but with the financial clout to decide what they want to commission”.
Mr Kennedy said he wanted to maximise “real choice” in education, which meant freeing up the curriculum so it was responsive to the needs of all pupils, whether academic or more vocationally-inclined.
The party was working on how the Tomlinson review of 14-19 education could be introduced, “focusing on putting pupil choice at the heart of future learning”, he said.
On the NHS, localism would also be key, Mr Kennedy added: “Accountability and activity in the NHS should be radically decentralised so that local people know what’s going on in their local health service.
“If one local idea for running that local health service doesn’t work, others with better ideas will be elected to replace them.”