Free our public sector workers to perform

Speech by Willie Rennie MSP, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, on the future of public services in Scotland:

It would only be right to congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on his emphatic victory on Saturday.

He has done something quite special - making it onto the ballot paper by a whisker but then securing victory by a mile.

There is little doubt the Labour Party is on a voyage of discovery. A voyage that many believe is one of hope and opportunity but it is one that is destined to take them to the hard left of UK politics.

We can expect the SNP to contest them on that left, socialist ground. Having gained support in the former Labour heartlands the SNP will be endeavouring to retain that foothold.

We reject the basic instincts of the Labour Party and the SNP that Government knows best what people want and need. Liberal Democrats disagree that central government should have ever more power and control over our daily lives.

Meanwhile the Conservatives are seeking comfort on the right with a new agenda that embraces scepticism. They have delivered a devastating assault on renewable energy, attacked our hard-won human rights and are flirting with EU exit.

Liberal Democrats have an alternative vision that embraces hope. Unlike those who are veering to the left or right we are sticking to the radical, liberal, centre ground. We offer a combination of economic discipline with social justice so that there is opportunity for everyone, no matter what their background.

Opportunity, community, sustainability and an open mind.

These values have been central to my political being.

Opportunity: helping people to get up and get on in the world to achieve their potential.

Community: where local people know best, not remote officials and bureaucrats;

Sustainability: long term solutions not quick fixes.

Open mind: prepared to help our neighbours, if they are round the corner or across the world.

I have always felt frustrated that people can be burdened by the circumstances of their birth.

I have always been frustrated that power is too often arrogantly hoarded. Power is safer shared.

I have always been frustrated that when the chips are down we are often blind to the needs of future generations and I have always been frustrated by the idea there is something to fear about the foreigner when they have so much to share.

As a liberal my core belief is in the power of the individual. I trust in the innate ability of individuals to do great things when they have power in their hands.

In short we are for aspirational Scots with a social conscience.

It is not the role of government to lift people up but to give them the tools so that they have the chance to rise up.

Government should empower and should break down restrictive barriers. It shouldn’t do for people – it should help people to do.

The Liberal agenda has freedom at its heart.

It is why Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone advanced freedom by breaking down the barriers to trade, and introduced elementary education.

It’s why the Liberal government of the early 1900s introduced the social reforms to set people free from poverty with school meals, state pensions and unemployment and health insurance.

It’s why liberals advanced social reforms in the 60s on abortion, divorce and homosexuality.

It’s why we invested in education whilst in government for eight years in the Scottish Parliament.

It is why we delivered tax cuts for workers whilst in coalition so that work would pay because work is the best route out of poverty.

In opposition in Scotland we have successfully advanced the need for early learning and a pupil premium to give children the best chance in life.

All these measures were designed to give people the tools to improve themselves and their lives and to break down the barriers that restrict their freedom.

So today I want to set out a bold, new approach to extending freedom that reflects our political drive stretching back to 1859.

Freedom in the public sector.

Too often the state dictates how public sector workers should do their jobs.

Reforming to release the potential of our public sector workers is something I wish to make the case for today. At the heart of my proposal is to tackle the target, testing and control culture that infests our public sector.

The Scottish Police Federation has captured the central problem in our national police force.

Earlier this year Chairman Brian Docherty said:

“Policing cannot be explained in pure statistical terms for what is measurable is not always meaningful and the meaningful is not always measurable. Are two serious assaults in one division better or worse than three minor assaults in another? How do you measure the value and contribution of a beat officer who takes years to build trust and confidence in a community?”

He went on:

“They demand swathes of resources and if things keep going as they currently are, we will soon have more people counting than we will actually delivering the job. We might never be free of targets, but unless they undergo major adjustments then we will continue along this road of policing for statistics instead of policing for the public.”

I agree with Brian.

It is clear that tried and tested local policies have been axed in favour of top-down policing practices in Police Scotland.

In Edinburgh, a specialist local unit dealing with housebreakings was disbanded. There was a 40% increase in incidents.

Eventually, Police Scotland set up a brand new dedicated housebreaking taskforce but the damage was already done.

There is still considerable doubt that a uniform, Scotland-wide policy on armed policing can be sensitive and proportionate to local circumstances and risks.

And the use of stop and search has also been distorted by the use of centralised numbers, targets and diktats.

An apparent 19,000% rise in the use of the tactic in Dumfries and Galloway during year one of Police Scotland is surely testament to that.

An unhealthy targets culture and a one-size-fits all approach take their toll on police personnel too.

I don’t think it is any coincidence the number of police officers taking stress-related sick leave has risen by more than a quarter since the establishment of the national force.

Such examples of good work being interrupted or undone are common. Best practice has been squandered and experience overlooked. Local discretion has been eroded because senior officers don’t seem to trust officers to know their communities.

It has been a dreadful summer for the police force.

We will discover in time if the full tragedy of the M9 could have been prevented. Two young lives were taken, families shattered, and a nation horrified. For them we deserve the answers.

But the signs of wider distress in Police Scotland were evident for a long time before that tragedy.

It is clear that the government refused to act until the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill.

Don’t forget that police centralisation was forced through by a belligerent Justice Secretary, without a costed business plan, abolishing local forces to create a one size fits all, Strathclyde writ large, top down target driven model which has knocked out the stuffing from our police officers and civilian staff and shattered the confidence of the public.

And Nicola Sturgeon was a fully signed up supporter of centralisation from the beginning. She agreed to it in cabinet and spoke up for it in public.

We must have an inquiry into the operations of Police Scotland. A review of the police as a whole, including the top down target culture, is essential to restore morale of staff and officers and confidence of the public. It needs to change before things get any worse.

The Police Scotland crisis shows that something is wrong at the heart of Government but instead the First Minister’s top priority is to create the conditions for another referendum. Taking her eye off the ball again to focus on independence will not be good for our public services.

And there are problems in the health service too.

“The current approach to setting and reporting on NHS national targets and measures, while having initially delivered some real improvements, is now creating an unsustainable culture that pervades the NHS. It is often skewing clinical priorities, wasting resources and focusing energy on too many of the wrong things. As a matter of urgency, there needs to be a more mature approach to how the NHS uses targets, standards and other performance measures to ensure better and sustainable outcomes across the health service.”

These are not my words but those of the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal Medical Colleges. And these are words I wholly endorse.

That medical and nursing organisations have united to attack the "unsustainable culture'' of targets in the health service shows how troubling the situation has become.

Audit Scotland’s report from last year issued a warning too. It read “it is becoming more difficult for NHS boards to meet these targets fully. The extent of the effort required to try to meet them makes it more difficult for NHS boards to focus on long-term planning and moving more care into the community. There are risks that too narrow a focus on targets can detract attention from achieving the wider aims.”

Our survey of family doctors found significant disquiet with the Quality and Outcomes Framework in the GP Contract. A massive 92% of the 378 respondents who answered this question thought that the Framework should be abolished or reduced with over half saying it should be abolished altogether.

Simplistic waiting time targets that are driven by political masters rather than medical professionals are undermining their best judgement leading to a waste in resources, with a narrow focus on minute improvements and therefore limiting the potential of the NHS.

And finally I want to look at another area of emerging public policy that has haunting parallels with the top down, target driven culture in Police Scotland.

On pupil testing and league tables the Scottish Government’s Programme For Government says this:

“The clear purpose of this reporting and use of assessment data is to drive accountability throughout Scottish education."

That includes school level data that will lead to teaching to the test and every child put under unacceptable pressure to make the numbers look good.

Despite what the First Minister says it is clear we are returning to the kind of testing and tables the previous Liberal Democrat Labour administration abolished.

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council has been explicitly critical. It said "testing does not raise attainment" and "parents are generally not keen on national testing".

Like many others they have also raised concerns about "teaching to the test" and comparisons between different schools.

George Gilchrist, a widely-respected headteacher and fellow of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, described the proposed changes as a "definite step backwards politically and educationally" and went on “If we get high-stakes standardised testing we will most likely get gaming of the system by schools and heads, who will soon be judged on this one criteria alone, no matter what the first minister says.”

The EIS “was emphatic in restating its long held opposition to national testing which it believes will have a profoundly negative impact on Scottish education, entrench inequalities in our schools, and reverse the progress made.”

The Curriculum for Excellence was designed to put power back in the hands of teachers so that they could use their talents to shape the education of the pupils they teach. That will be undermined by these proposals.

It takes ten years to train a GP.

It takes four years to train a nurse.

It takes two years to train a police officer.

And it takes up to four years to train a teacher.

Yet political masters think they know how to treat patients better than nurses and doctors;

know how to prevent crime in our communities better than police officers;

know how to teach children better than teachers.

Top down targets and controls are suffocating the public sector, deskilling police officers, nurses, doctors and teachers.

Our public sector workers should be free from the government diktat. To teach, to treat and to protect in line with their professional training.

It is those diktats that have brought us industrial scale stop and search, armed police, many ineffective, top down targets in the NHS and a pending return to league tables and national pupil testing.

So my proposal today is to restrict the power of government to set global management targets and return management control to the workers and professionals.

Of course government – centrally and locally – will continue to set priorities for funding and the parameters of the law but it is the cumbersome and detailed top down targets that I reject.

The approach of systems thinking in the public sector as advocated by Deming and latterly, and more controversially Seddon, is the kind of organic, bottom up management that drives real efficiency.

It does not mean an end to targets as they can often give a sense of direction for an organisation but these targets must be driven from within not from on top.

I have seen some examples in the public sector with the Early Years Collaborative that adopts that bottom up, incremental improvement in service delivery. This is being used in parts of the NHS too but we are still addicted to too many top down controls and targets that undermine this work.

I want to spark a discussion that will lead to a new model of management in our public sector. It should be a discussion led by our public sector workers.

Freeing the potential of our excellent public sector workers is something that I believe should be central to the next government's public sector reform agenda.

Giving them the freedom to work to their talent and training will create the best possible conditions for improvement in the performance of our public services.

So today, I have set out a positive agenda for freedom. Freedom from the over centralised state that dictates and a one size fits all approach, our agenda trusts public sector works to use their skills as they know best. We plan to curtail the power of government, cut the tentacles of the civil service and Ministers back and to release that power away from Edinburgh.

A state that enables people to get up and on in the world. To achieve more for them and their families whilst having a thought for the people next door who need a helping hand. Aspirational Scots with a social conscience.

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