by Michael Dugher
Across a wide-ranging front, just a cursory glance through this weekend’s newspapers suggest that so many of the government’s policies look to be in real trouble. The omnishambles is back. This time it’s coupled with a planned modernisation which is being rolled back at a pace. It has been clear for a long time that Cameron is hopelessly out of touch. But his government looks increasingly like it is out of answers to the big challenges facing Britain. On so many of the policies which were meant to define David Cameron’s government, the wheels have come off.
Let’s start with education. We already know that there is a crisis of a lack of school places in many parts of the country and that class sizes above 30 are making a big comeback. But David Cameron’s centrepiece reform was the introduction of free schools, yet in the last two weeks we have had two deeply concerning examples of the danger they pose if increased freedoms are not complemented by checks and balances as Labour proposes.
The Islamic al Medinah free school in Derby was described by a scathing Ofsted report as not being “adequately monitored or supported” and for having inexperienced teachers who had not been provided with proper training. It was branded “in chaos” and “dysfunctional”, with pupils being segregated and given the same work regardless of ability. On Friday we had reports that Michael Gove’s department sat for months on a report alleging financial irregularities worth more than £80,000 at flagship Kings Academy in Bradford.
In just two weeks, Cameron’s education experiment seems to have led to a fraud cover-up, falling standards and chaos in the classroom. Without proper local accountability, transparency and a guarantee that teachers will be properly qualified, our children will continue to be let down.
Many will remember David Cameron saying “Tony Blair explained his priorities in three words: education, education, education. I can do it in three letters: NHS”. The National Health Service was used as a symbol of how the Conservative party was supposed to have changed. In office, however, £3bn has been wasted on a chaotic top-down reorganisation which nobody voted for and which has left the NHS in a mess. At the same time, there are now nearly 6,000 fewer nurses and A&E waits have soared. This is more than a broken promise – it’s bad policy which will make people fearful of the winter ahead.
The crisis in policy-making in health is perhaps matched only by that in welfare. While Ian Duncan Smith has been engaged in a slanging match with John Major, his department has been compounding rather than alleviating social struggles such as worklessness or stagnant social mobility. Cuts to the support for which many low paid and vulnerable people rely upon have been followed only by delay to the much-talked about but increasingly doomed revolution in welfare. The delay in Personal Independence Payment this weekend is just the latest sign of chaos in a department which has already written off £34m in IT systems for Universal Credit and has pushed back its national introduction.
And of course their failure to tackle the welfare bill is in no small part a result of their failure on the economy. After three wasted years we have had the slowest economic recovery for 100 years, leaving nearly a million young people out of work. The structural deficit will not be eradicated by the end of 2015, as pledged, but in 2018 with the government borrowing £200bn more than planned.
Despite the self-congratulation and complacency that has characterised Cameron and Osborne on the economy this week, the truth is that while a return to growth is welcome it isn’t a recovery at all for most people. Since the 2010 general election, average earnings have fallen by over £1,500 a year in real terms with prices outstripping wages in 39 of 40 months David Cameron has been in Downing Street.
The failure extends right across Whitehall too. In defence, the Army faces a shortfall in personnel as reserves are not being recruited to replace the thousands of sacked soldiers. In transport, the costs of HS2 have ballooned because of a failure of ministers to get a grip on the project and backroom cost-cutting led to the fiasco that was the Westcoast Main Line franchise, which saw £50 million of taxpayers’ money going down the swanny. At Defra, a badger cull pilot has if anything helped increase the risk of spread of bovine TB rather than end it. And at the Home Office, the number of foreign criminals deported has dropped by over 13 per cent since the election and border checks have been cut with only half as many people stopped.
But it isn’t just the policies that have been shambolic. Many of the Government’s so-called big ideas – his central pitch at the 2010 election – have also fallen by the wayside. Remember when Osborne said that we were “all in this together”? Or when Cameron talked about a “modern, compassionate conservatism” where “paying down the deficit must not mean pushing down the poor”? There was a time when Cameron said with a straight face: “I want the next government to be the most family friendly Government we’ve ever had in this country”. The tax cut for millionaires, yet women hardest hit by the government and the return of rising child poverty – a Conservative Britain where we close sure start centres but open foodbanks – has finally shattered that myth.
Can anyone imagine David Cameron ever repeating his famous “vote blue, go green” line or him pledging again to lead “the greenest government ever” and to use green taxes more widely? Now, flailing around for an answer on energy, Cameron announces a back-of-the-envelope plan to “roll back” green levies (60 per cent of which were introduced by his own government). This would increase fuel poverty for families and pensioners whilst, in contrast to Miliband’s energy price-freeze, make a negligible difference on soaring bills.
And what about that other big idea Cameron used to bang on about – the ‘Big Society’? Remember that? They don’t even bother to keep relaunching it anymore.
Michael Dugher is the Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Member of Parliament for Barnsley East