19 December 2018

The Government’s operational and political energy has been swamped by Brexit. But ignoring public services will make post-Brexit politics even harder, argues Emily Andrews.

Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill admitted publicly last week that some government departments were pausing aspects of their domestic policy agenda to focus on Brexit. The stepping up of ‘no deal’ preparations means that even more civil servants will be diverted towards Brexit planning.

Yet the biggest delays we have seen so far – on the adult social care green paper and NHS reform plan – owe as much to limited political capacity as to limited civil service and legislative capacity. The Prime Minister’s choice to focus her political energy on Brexit is understandable, but ultimately a false economy. Public services need concerted change – or they will drift into a deteriorated state that will make a post-Brexit political consensus much harder to build.

The Government is backing away from tough choices

The social care green paper was originally due to be published in autumn 2017, and has been put off repeatedly. There is no ideal time to deal with the politically toxic question of social care funding – solutions are easy to label as ‘dementia taxes’ or ‘death taxes’ – but the current context makes it even harder.

Our analysis shows adult social care is already at the precipice. Unless the Government intends to funnel vast amounts of money away from other services, or radically reduce eligibility for support, the funding question needs an answer.

The dual challenges facing public services – rising demand and rising expectations – leave all politicians with unpalatable choices: increasing central government taxes, lowering expectations of services or radically changing the way we interact with them, or asking more of individuals. These trade-offs are not being tackled.

Take the local government financial settlement, which was delayed to make way for the meaningful vote. Despite fears that it would be held back until after Christmas, its publication was in fact delayed only by one week. Councils and police forces will go into the New Year knowing they are going to have an extra £1.3 billion to run social care, libraries and leisure centres in 2019/20.

But that announcement reveals a deeper level of government prevarication. The big plan is to use a council tax precept to pay for extra police funding – a move that disproportionately burdens those with less money (as people with lower-value properties pay proportionately much more than those in the most expensive homes), and dodges the bigger question of how to fund this national service over the longer term.

Domestic policy cannot be separated from Brexit

If public services are left to drift in their current direction – squeezing their belts ever tighter, without cover to do less, or work differently – then the pressures will intensify. People will be waiting longer, paying more and travelling further, without any explicit statement from the Government that this is what ‘controlling public spending’ means. The mismatch between Government’s promises to improve public services and reality will further fuel the mistrust and dissatisfaction which drove some of the Brexit vote in the first place.

We cannot blame the Prime Minister for using every ounce of her political legitimacy to try to find a way through Brexit. But building consensus around what public services will look like in our post-Brexit future cannot be separated from that task.

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