Consistent craving

By Jonathan Werran | 05 April 2022
  • Jonathan Werran

Consistency from beginning to end can be a fine thing in life. 

To know where one stands in relation to any situation or authority allows us to plan and trim action accordingly. 

In our constitution the sovereignty of Parliament remains sacrosanct, as all those procedural headaches from the water torture Brexit years will have taught us.  And indeed, the notion that no parliament can bind the hands of its successor is also a golden thread worth following.

 To which end, recently, and without too much fuss, the Fixed Terms Parliaments Act was quietly abolished.  Designed as an expedient means to hold the 2010 Coalition together for the duration of a five-year term, its predictably unforeseen consequences kept Theresa May’s zombie government chugging along - despite the astonishing series of parliamentary defeats.

Consistency between three successive Conservative administrations has been harder to nail.  Kwasi Kwarteng was able to dismiss May’s industrial strategy, her flagship domestic policy, to his predecessor as BEIS secretary and its very architect, Greg Clark as ‘a pudding without a theme’.  Despite this, Kwarteng’s unmade over department still bears the branding of industrial strategy, the bulk of whose policy framework seemed to survive direct translation from BEIS into the Levelling Up White Paper. 

Similarly, look at the fate of the Ox-Cam-Arc. This government supported scheme to go gangbusters for growth via research and innovation – with a million home build ambitions to match - across a swathe of the south east and east has been literally, if not figuratively, flushed down the toilet of history by Michael Gove.  From a localist perspective, this may not have been the most direct and accountable way of going about directing growth.  But given this was government guaranteed and repeatedly so, when seen from the perspective of all the time, effort and expense in investment from both public and private sector, this must be a maddeningly frustrating experience from those heavily invested in the project.

Finally, as evidence, let’s look at social value.  In his newly created position as minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, Jacob Rees-Mogg has flown a kite with the Daily Telegraph on the use of government commerce to drive better social outcomes.  In short, the man dubbed the ‘minister for the eighteenth century’ seems to consider anything more than lowest price in adjudicating bids as tantamount to the onerous gold-plating of public contracting, possibly for malign woke Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) purposes.

In this, many among the social value community fear this heralds a shift to reverse course from the Act Chris White – see The MJ issue March 8 – brought into being as the most efficacious piece of backbench legislation in recent memory a decade ago. 

There is also the sense of momentum in the drive to deliver wider returns from £300bn of annual spend on buying goods and services – which makes up around one third of total public expenditure.  This month alone Ben Wallace, unless he was deceived again by Kremlin pranksters, put his name to the National Shipbuilding Strategy.  This document pledges to double the weighting attached to social value in those bidding to supply the Royal Navy’s fleet from 10% to 20%.  In like manner, the NHS issued guidance applying net zero and social value in the annual procurement of goods and services to the tune of £86.5bn - more than three times larger than defence spending, the next largest area.  And it was only in February that the Levelling Up White Paper cited social value some 24 times to ‘support communities’ and weave ‘a thread of social improvement and civic responsibility’ by dint of being outside the EU.  Which, in this circuitous fashion, is where Jacob Rees-Mogg is to come for the half of his brief concerned with Brexit opportunities. 

Since social value is an agenda over which the Cabinet Office lacks anything like total control, what this suggests is that the beef isn’t with social procurement per se, but the share central government spending takes of GDP and, ultimately, the ideal size of the state.  These are good and valid political arguments to have around cabinet and air in public, especially after the unravelling of Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement. But please.  Although officials advise and ministers decide, a little more consistency for local economies and public service reform would make for more efficient government all round.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis


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