As part of the Open Public Services reforms the Government is proposing a new initiative to support people to have direct control over the services they use through a ‘Choice package’. The Government is currently consulting on whether the Right to Choice should be enshrined in law. There is a call for evidence on the proposed changes closing on 22 June. The Right to Choice will apply to health, adult social care, childcare, schools and further education.
Supporting the Right to Choice seems to be a given: we all want empowered learners to input into the planning, to control and shape the design of the services they use and to make the best informed choice about which services to use. Not only is this motherhood and apple pie stuff, it’s also a fundamental tenet of local accountability. But let’s unpick this to see what it will actually mean for our sector.
Before we consider whether this should be a legal requirement or not, let’s consider the wider Right to Choice proposals. The Cabinet Office explains this as a range of initiatives combined into a package illustrated in the diagram below:
Thinking this through at NIACE as we shape our response to the consultation, it rapidly becomes obvious that it’s not quite as clear cut as it initially appears. Whilst the ideology is pellucid, there is an absence of the details that are needed to grasp the practicalities of its implementation. Outlined below are my top five issues that need to be worked through in more detail:
- Who does this apply to? We are told it applies to public services and education through early years to Further Education, but Higher Education is excluded. What about HE in FE or vice versa? In the draft regulations a ‘further education institution’ means an institution within the further education sector as defined by the Further and Higher Education Act, 1992. This appears not to have taken into account more recent legislation and the guidance from the Office of National Statistics to reclassify Further Education Corporations outside of the public sector.
- How are we defining public services? Does it apply to private and voluntary sector providers delivering contracts for the public sector? Are there issues about transferring risk from a central to a local level?
- How does this interact with other legislation? How does the Right to Choice interact with the Community Right to Challenge? How will it work with wider local accountability for learning and skills? How does it interact with the new legislation for public bodies to commission for social value? Are these proposals being considered at the right level? Should it not be about integrating choice into commissioning frameworks alongside social value?
- What is the proposed role of the Choice Champions? I became quite excited when I first read about this. If we think about Community Learning Champions, Union Learning Reps and the new National Careers Service, our sector has in place many of the critical ingredients to make a system of Choice Champions work. However, there is a gap between what already exists on the ground and the new proposals. Choice Champions will be organisations not individuals, these organisations can be private or voluntary sector, but cannot be public sector. It is unclear if there are any restrictions on a Choice Champion organisation bidding for and providing public service contracts. The Government currently has an ‘incubator group’ testing how these organisations will champion those who feel that their choices have not been meet. Surely this is a missed opportunity? I would argue that this initiative should be used to proactively promote choice through the people who can make it happen on the ground, irrespective of the sector, rather than a reactive network to deal with things when they go wrong. I thought we had already established that ‘up-streaming’ of activity through earlier interventions is more cost effective in the long term and a basic principle of the social justice strategy.
- What will the choice framework do? It appears that the new Choice Frameworks will not instigate any new powers but will pull together all the existing powers for each of the specific area into one place as a framework. Do we need legislation for this or is it a communication issue for government? People delivering on the ground are pretty smart at joining up and making sense of multiple government initiatives with and for local people.
Now to turn to the issue that is being consulted on: should the Right to Choice be made a legal a duty or not? I find this a little disconcerting in the context of the whole thrust of the policy debate being focussed around deregulation and freedoms and flexibilities balanced with responsibilities and social justice. Setting that aside, I have three major concerns:
- As framed it appears that this legislation will only apply to local authority adult learning and skills providers, which I am sure isn’t really the intention.
- The cost of the infrastructure and bureaucracy that will surround this - in these times of austerity we need every penny possible to go into learning and teaching – we cannot afford money to leak on the additional bureaucracy this will involve.
- This is a communication issue rather than a legislative one: let the government effectively communicate the rights and responsibilities for both learners and FE organisations through its new choice framework to support local decision making and accountability and then trust local people and organisations to discuss local priorities and meeting local needs within the current resource allocation – only if we get to that stage and it doesn’t work then we need to consider legal recourse. It cannot be a model of transferring risk from central government to other public bodies.
NIACE is currently drafting its response to the consultation. If you have thoughts you would like to feed in please email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @NIACEPennyL using #Right2Choice by 18 June 2012.