Magazine article Public Finance

Talking the Talk

Magazine article Public Finance

Talking the Talk

Article excerpt

Tony Blair is busy, busy. The more he is under pressure over his future as prime minister, the more determined he is to show that there is a lot more for him to do in Number 10.

He wants to disprove David Cameron's recent jibe about the government being paralysed by the feuding over the date of his departure.

At the most gimmicky, there is the 'Let's talk' consultation. This was launched at a bizarre event at which Blair and John Prescott sat at various tables talking with, as well as to, 'social entrepreneurs' about public service reform.

Apart from a few sound bites on the evening news bulletins from Blair about the need to change the criminal justice system, this was a completely pointless exercise.

More intriguing has been the publication of letters by Blair to Cabinet ministers after the reshuffle. This is the first time that secretaries of state have been set explicit public objectives, albeit in fairly general terms.

This is just the kind of performance setting which, of course, applies to most readers of this magazine in the public sector and, even nowadays, to journalists in the private sector. There is no hint, however, of linking ministerial salaries to the achievement of the objectives.

At the time of writing, seven letters had been sent: to Jack Straw, leader of the Commons; Lord Falconer, constitutional affairs; Patricia Hewitt, health; John Reid, Home Office; Ruth Kelly, communities and local government; Douglas Alexander, transport; and David Miliband, environment, food and rural affairs. Revealingly, Gordon Brown has not so far received one.

These letters are an indication of Blair's intentions, rather than of his ability to carry through his programme. The key guestions are whether controversial decisions can be taken and whether Blair still has authority in Parliament.

On the former, Blair and his allies still hope to resolve the future of civil nuclear power (a determination underlined in his CBI speech), local government, the replacement of the British nuclear deterrent, etc.

The first key test has been pensions, in the light of the wellpublicised divisions between Blair and Brown over the recommendations of the independent commission chaired by Adair Turner, the former CBI director general, now Lord Turner.

This proposed a rise in the retirement age beyond 65 to 68 or 69; a restoration of the link between the annual uprating of state pensions and earnings, rather than prices; an associated limit to means testing through pension credits; and a new low-cost national pensions scheme. …

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