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IFG - The new Government must address the real public sector pressures

This election shows that the electorate are concerned about the pressures in public services. Dr Emily Andrews says a new spending review, driven by evidence of where the problems lie, will help address these long-standing issues.

So much for the Brexit election. Schools funding, tuition fees, the NHS, social care and police numbers all played heavily into the parties’ campaigns. The very real problems facing certain public services are as much a part of the ‘job’ the new Government needs to be getting on with as Brexit.  

Theresa May has signalled that this government will address the issues that caused her problems on the campaign trail: in policing and social care. Living up to those commitments will require the new Government to be better at making spending decisions than the last one.  

That means doing the basic work of understanding where the problems are and targeting spending in ways that the evidence shows will have the most impact – not in ways that will gain the most short-term political capital.

Extra security resourcing must be carefully targeted.

In the wake of the two terrorist attacks which blighted this campaign, Theresa May came under significant criticism for her record on policing during her tenure as Home Secretary. Between 2009 and 2016, the number of police officers fell by 21, 494 (15%), while spending fell by 17%.

This provided obvious fodder for the opposition in the wake of the attacks, who trumpeted their promise of 10,000 extra police officers were they to form a Government. Theresa May has so far promised “powers” rather than “resources”, but the pressure to provide extra funding to prevent future attacks is unlikely to abate.  

The Government needs to move the debate on from “let’s have as many police officers as possible” to one which allows a more sophisticated response. If the need is to prevent attacks through intelligence, is it better to spend money on the police or on the intelligence services? If the need is to divert people from extremism, what’s the relative effectiveness of community policing versus other interventions?

If this discussion stays within the walls of Whitehall, the public debate – and therefore the political debate – will never move beyond a simplistic “more police officers” answer, even if we could be using our resources better to protect ourselves.  

New plans for social care must be clear about the problem they are trying to solve.

Social care has been a consistently thorny issue for the Conservatives under May, even before her disastrous manifesto U-Turn on a care costs ‘cap’. Widespread outcry at the Chancellor’s silence on the social care ‘crisis’ in the 2016 Autumn Statement was followed by the promise of a £2  billion emergency cash injection over three years and a green paper at the Spring Budget.

The problem is that there is more than one ‘crisis’ in social care. For example, the number of people in hospital waiting on social care has risen dramatically since August 2015 – in “bed days” it’s up 51%. The number of people receiving state-funded social care has fallen by around a quarter since 2009 – and no one really knows what’s happened to the rest. Perhaps most worryingly, there are signs of failure in the provider market, with rising numbers of care home closures potentially signalling a systemic ‘Southern Cross’ crisis on the horizon. And there is one big question looming over all of this: how will we pay for social care as the completely foreseeable demographic pressures build and build?

Whether in government or on the campaign trail, has not been clear which of these problems the Conservatives think their interventions are going to solve. If the proposed green paper fails to materialise – or if it displays similarly woolly thinking – the Government risks spending significant amounts of public money and still seeing the sector fail.

We need a new spending review to address these issues.

The previous Government’s track record of evidence-based spending decision making was poor. Settlements in the 2015 spending review were not driven by the data, which led it into an unsustainable cycle of emergency cash injections in response to avoidable crises.

Real issues surfaced during the campaign and they need to be addressed in a structured and evidence-based way. Otherwise the Government risks using up its resources without tackling the things that are causing it political pain. A mini-spending review – as soon as it is politically viable – would allow the new Government to show that it has addressed the issues which hampered it in the past. 

This exercise must go beyond departmental horse-trading: it must draw together the data on demand, scope and quality of public services, along with a realistic assessment of the scale of potential efficiencies, in order to make those spending decisions. And it should be transparent about the assumptions it is making, which will make for better decisions and better politics.  

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