News and Comment

Changing Times with Professor Ted Cantle CBE

Friday 2 August 2013


After a brief hiatus our Changing Times blog series – where we ask some of society’s most prominent thinkers to give their informed appraisal of public services – is back.

This week, we hear the views of Professor Ted Cantle CBE. Ted is one of the UK’s leading authorities on intercultural relations. He is Chair of The iCoCo Foundation, which is dedicated to the promotion of interculturalism and community cohesion and his latest book, Interculturalism: The New Era of Cohesion and Diversity, is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

If you compare today’s society and the society into which you were born: what’s most strikingly different, and what’s most surprisingly similar?

I was born directly after the War in 1950 and the streets were far less crowded – it was possible to find a place to park even where I lived in London! Car ownership was low, traffic jams rare and people had more space. The quality of the public realm, however, was lower and air pollution – particularly the smog – was a real problem. Housing standards were also so much lower – dampness, limited heating, outside toilets, no bathrooms in many cases and decaying buildings. It was the poor quality of homes that took me into local authority housing in Manchester in the early seventies.

Politics was easy – either left or right, following a class-based set of ideas with the age of deference so very evident in political and social relationships. Most people voted and knew which side they were on. Now, we see not only a decline of electoral turnout but a real disaffection with mainstream politics, with the political class becoming more detached and struggling to remain relevant. Single issues and tenuous coalitions of interests seem to be the order of the day. But, politics has failed to adjust to the key challenges we now face – climate change, globalisation, depletion of resources, environmental degradation, over-population. The political model of the 20th Century is not up to the current challenge

Given difficult choices have to be made, what one public service or source of support do you think we should prioritise most highly, and why?

My real concern is that we have failed to address the decline of social mobility and that none of our public services really begin to tackle this issue. Again we need new solutions. Our social services have become less ‘hands-on’ and less willing to intervene for fear of being judgmental. But actually people who are struggling need real and tangible support if we are to break the cycle of inter-generational deprivation. We are perhaps moving in the right direction with the ‘early intervention’ project, providing that they will work intensively with families, over time and give them the aspirations and tangible support to get them to school, give them the skills to work and establish a cycle of positive growth – without worrying about imposing our middle class standards on them!

Children’s’ officers, health visitors and social workers did do some of this in the past and still do a little – but they need to be given the resources and permission to really intervene on behalf of young people locked into this cycle, especially those moving into the care system, which we fail so badly.

Schools are part of the answer and can change the directions of youngsters’ lives, but it is not really possible for them to compensate for wider deficiencies in society. It is no good berating teachers – as both this government and the last one have done – for the lack of educational achievement. Schools have to overcome the huge handicap of poor communities and poor families and if children are to break out of the deprivation cycle, we need to be prepared to provide hands-on help in their daily lives.

If you could choose one person to be the Prime Minister’s adviser, who would that person be, and why?

As I have suggested, the political class has become detached both from everyday reality (as the expenses and other scandals have shown) and cling to past political paradigms. We need to change both the way they work and the way they are advised. I would do a number of things:

  • Limit the term of office of politicians to 10 years
  • Expect each MP to have a local High Street office and work from there at least 50% of the time, using on-line access (most of us now work remotely) rather than disappear into the Westminster bubble
  • Require each MP to job share, work part-time, take sabbaticals etc (encourage representativeness, especially in gender)
  • Elect the House of Lords through an electoral college system with constituencies from every section of the community (not replicate the unrepresentative nature of the Commons through a party system of direct elections, nor maintain the status quo)
  • End the system of focus groups – they tell us what people think now, politicians should be about commitment and leadership

In order that politicians move on to the new politics of globalisation, climate change, international finance and connectivity, I would suggest that they draw advisers from people and organisations that have a world view and support international collaboration, rather than pretend that we are some sort of special island race. Perhaps, a continuously changing international group of younger people who constantly remind politicians of the need to see the world how it should be, the principles upon which decisions should be made and the limitations of the idea of ‘core’ supporters and identity politics.

Public services rely on voluntary support more than ever: is this to be welcomed?

Yes and no. I would really hope to encourage as many volunteers to support all public services and to add value to them. But public services need to be run efficiently and professionally, guaranteeing service levels which are open to all, not the preserve of a select group or dominated by particular interests. So helping libraries, museums, parks etc is great, but actually taking over and running services is more problematic. For example, free schools are being set up by vested interests (e.g. particular faith groups), deny democratic choices to local communities (e.g. over planning) and squander resources where they compete with other schools or there is already a surplus of places. Some voluntary organisations simply put power into the hands of people who are better connected with good skills and free time, rather than encourage communities to challenge and change what is there already. In other words, they find an easy way of solving a problem for part of the community rather than empowering the whole community to improve how it works.

There are some great volunteers who give back to their community – sports coaches, scout and guide leaders, conservation activists, hospital library workers, charity collectors – and many more. We need to value them more.

In the best case scenario, what will public services be like by 2023? What about the worst case scenario?

In the worst case, we will continue with the idea of ‘private sector good, public sector bad’ and keep cutting public services to the point where they are so under-funded that the middle class begin to opt out of them altogether and poorer people are set adrift.

Although many aspects of the public sector are actually pretty good, it does not need to run everything itself and can contract out services to encourage efficiency and innovation. But we need to recognise that the private sector has not done so well either – tax evasion, use of child labour, use of unauthorised data, illegal payments, interest rate and price fixing etc. More private sector involvement means a much more highly regulated sector if we are to have services we can really trust. But regulation has moved in the opposite direction in recent years and the public sector does not have the procurement skills needed to protect public interests – the health service for example is locked into some hugely expensive contracts where they have paid over the odds and face ridiculously inflated PFI payments.

There should be no more contracting out until procurement is dramatically improved and contracts are properly regulated. Further, we have to recognise that the world is changing and that energy and water security are becoming more important. We need to have a firmer distinction between public assets and public management. We need to have a real debate about our key public services, be prepared to take some back into public ownership and then re-contract out the management of them, but this time on a properly regulated basis.

Previous Changing Times contributors

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA.

Professor Kate Pickett, epidemiologist and author

Carolyn Downs, Chief Executive of the LGA

Professor Chris Drinkwater, President of the NHS Alliance

Lord Victor Adebowale, Chief Executive of the social enterprise Turning Point

Professor Richard Wilkinson, researcher into social inequalities and author