Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has strongly defended the government’s public service reforms, insisting that they were not intended as an “assault” on the size of the state.
In a speech to public sector staff, Mr Clegg said that while ministers wanted to open up services to new providers, there would be no repeat of the “blanket privatisation” of the past.
He said he would take a hard line against any attempt at “skewing” the market against existing service providers in favour of private sector rivals.
Addressing the Guardian Public Services Summit in St Albans, Hertfordshire, Mr Clegg sought to put a distinctive Liberal Democrat stamp on the reforms - many being driven by Conservative ministers.
Changes to services such as schools and healthcare were, he said, intended to enable the “genius of grassroots innovation” take off, opening them up to a range of new providers including parent groups and staff co-operatives.
“These principles aren’t plucked out of thin air. They’re based on a liberal distaste for the idea that officials in Whitehall always know better than the people on the ground,” he said.
“You must be freed from the dead hand of Whitehall to innovate, to use your judgment, and to deliver in the way you know best.”
The Lib Dem leader acknowledged that staff were “anxious” about the impending changes but he insisted that they were not driven by the need for cuts or a belief that private firms were “inherently better” than the public sector.
“Yes, we have to deal with the deficit, but this is not an assault on the size of the state,” he said.
He argued that he was determined to ensure the coalition did not repeat the mistakes of previous Conservative and Labour governments.
“I will take a hard line against the kind of blanket privatisation which was pursued by governments in the past. Because replacing a public monopoly with a private monopoly achieves nothing but reduced accountability,” he said.
“And I will take a hard line, too, against any attempts to replicate the mistake of skewing the market against public sector providers, effectively bribing private companies by offering them more money to do exactly the same job as you. That was wrong.
“We will not repeat the rigged market in the NHS with higher tariffs for private providers. I categorically do not believe that private providers are inherently better than public sector providers, and I would not support an approach to reform that implied that they were.
“Moving from a monopoly to diverse providers doesn’t mean closing you down and bringing in someone new to do your job at half the salary with half the training as it did sometimes in the past. It means putting you in the driving seat.”
Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman dismissed his assurances, warning that services were being undermined by the government’s cuts.
“Nick Clegg and this Tory-led government cannot be trusted with public services - what they are doing with the NHS, with schools and with savage cuts to council services is damaging not reforming,” she said.
“Their front-loaded cuts weaken services and inhibit innovation.”
Responding to the speech, Susan Anderson, CBI Director for Public Services, said: “The deputy prime minister is right to focus on reducing bureaucracy in the public sector and the need to incentivise employees.
“But it is important to remember that freedoms for public-sector staff are only a means to an end. The ultimate prize is the achievement of better outcomes for the public, in the form of a healthier population, reduced re-offending, and a return to sustainable employment.
“We would like to see all members of the community, be it local groups, public servants or businesses having the right to challenge public services when they see under-performance. It is open and fair competition which will spur innovation and help deliver the best outcomes.”