Mr Gove’s problem

Michael Gove was right to apologise yesterday. When he made his statement to the Commons about Building Schools for the Future he should have shared with us the list of projects affected. Where his Labour predecessors might well have tried to “bury bad news” without volunteering a statement, he correctly appeared, but unfortunately did not share all he knew. He made a fulsome apology, and took full responsibility for mistakes made by others as well as himself.

He now, however, has two other problems not covered by his misjudgement about what to say and not to say in the original statement. The first is the failure of his department and the associated quangos to provide him with accurate lists of the schools covered by the Schools for the future programme. Given the huge sums spent on the bureaucracy of these building schemes, and the generous staffing of his department and the related quangos, it is predictable but worrying that they could not supply the boss with a simple list of all the schools under the programme, and with a related schedule of which ones were currently approved for building and which were not.

This should be a timely reminder or wake up call for all Ministers. The levels of administrative and advisory competence are not always as high as they need when running a busy department. The Minister himself has to check the detail and insist on higher quality work. All the extra spending and recruitment of the Labour years has not created a more competent administration.

The second is the presentation of what the government is doing. In the statement I heard Michael Gove make he was clear in saying he was cancelling the approach of Building Schools for the future because it was an expensive, long winded and inefficient way of building schools. He did not say he was cancelling all new schools building. Indeed, if he is right and he can save substantial sums on the box ticking detailed regulatory approach of the old programme this could leave him with more moeny to spend on bricks and mortar. This message has got entirely lost in the broadcasts and newspaper stories about cuts, leading most people to think there will now be no new schools.

This needs turning round as quickly as possible. According to the figures the Coaliton government is going to spend as much on new capital projects as the outgoing Labour government. In that case they might end up building more schools than Labour for the same amount of money if Mr Gove is right about how to do it more cheaply. I asked him what savings he expected from stopping the BSF approach. He said he would write to me with the answer. The sooner I get that letter the sooner he can tell the country about the waste that is being eliminated and the extra money that should then be available for bricks and mortar.

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30 Comments

  1. Rosie Robertson
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Mr. Redwood, will you now apologise to Ed Balls for the remark you made on Radio 4 the other morning, that some schools on his list were 'fictitious'? You were quite vicious in tone and have since been proved wrong. Please apologise, now?

    Reply: You misquote me. I was not "vicious in tone", and made the point that Labour had announced headline cuts in cap ex/total spend without spelling out the implications of these cuts for individual projects going forward. They, you may remember, delayed the necessary public spending review prior to the election.

  2. Mick Anderson
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    The mistakes you make don't always matter as much as the way they are corrected, and what can be learnt from the whole process.

    The previous incumbents made lots of mistakes, but lied spun their way around the consequences. Far better to admit to the mistake, correct it, and fix the circumstances that caused it in the first place.

    With luck, other Ministers who are preparing their declarations of intent will also look and learn. A Minister responsible for education leading by example – rather refreshing, really!

  3. Michael
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I know that one should never attribute an error to malice when incompetence has not been ruled out, but one still wonders if the erroneous figures were sabotage, not mistakes?

    • waramess
      Posted July 8, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Almost without doubt

  4. Posted July 8, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    We, the public, need a full explanation of how the error occurred.

    How can anyone have any confidence in any simple list produced by the government after this?

    How were the cut projects selected? Who selected them? On what basis? How was this communicated back up the chain? Were they all assessed on the same criteria?

    I hope all the schools facing cuts get to review the background on the decision about their projects — at least then they will be sure that they are being treated fairly and are not just subject to a 'mistake'.

  5. Posted July 8, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    "The levels of administrative and advisory competence are not always as high as they need when running a busy department. "

    I think you are being very generous; I would have said that ."The levels of administrative and advisory competence are FAR BELOW THAT NEEDED when running a busy department. "
    A Minister should not have to check every little detail, that is work of his department, and whilst he was right to apologise, if it were my staff, heads would be rolling by now!
    Is he sure that someone's not trying to emulate "Yes Minister", and giving him incorrect information to make him look a fool? I would certainly want to know at exactly which point in the compilation of the data that the errors occurred.

  6. Posted July 8, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Maybe someone should have a word with the BBC and explain this principle to them?

  7. Posted July 8, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the clear and concise summary of the situation. As ever, you are a breath of fresh air in amongst the bluster and hot air of most politicians and political bloggers.

  8. StrongholdBarricades
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I agree

    The message is getting lost in the spin

    Maybe Mr Gove needs to take a moment to count to ten, reassess the battlelines and draw up a strategy to win the debate.

    He can not rely upon the removal of Mr Balls as a serious leadership contender by the Labour voters if he allows such simple own goals

    …or maybe that is the strategy. The labour Party lead by Mr Balls, who was the architect of many of Mr Brown's policies

  9. Posted July 8, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Let's hope you are right! Will you be able to share the contents of any letter that you receive? In particular, if there are aspirations to build more schools (for the same or less money) then let's hear about it quickly. It may help reassure some of the devasted educational communities up and down the length of the country.

  10. Posted July 8, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    John Redwood is right about Ministers needing to check. The late Reggie Maudling (Chancellor under Macmillan and Home) had a misplaced reputation for being laid back and slightly idle. He wasn't. He believed in effective use of junior ministers – when Maurice Macmillan wa made Economic Secretary Maurice was told that it was his responsibility to read all the detailed policy submissions to the Chancellor and warn him of civil service misdeeds. In one long Inland Revenue memo, Maurice found that the Chairman of the Board had declared 'the only socially acceptable form of savings i for old age'. Maurice marked this up and the luckles official received aswift rebuke from the Chancellor: 'Am I to understand that the Board of Inland Revenue has taken over from the Cabinet the task of determining the social priorities of HMG?' Michael Gove and othe cabinet ministers take note: junior ministers – cancel your social lives.

  11. Alan Jutson
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Very pleased that M Gove took responsibility, and was fullsome in his apology without laying blame to someone else. An event that seemed rather unique after 13 years of spin, lies, disinformation and the odd whitewash.

    Yes a Minister has to rely upon their Department giving them the correct information, in a clear and precise manner, so that the Minister in turn can inform the House and indeed the population.
    Not making excuses, but perhaps a simple request for unspun information to the Department concerned, was so unusual that they freaked out with surprise as a result.

    Clearly Mr Gove and indeed all other Ministers have to make sure that all staff working for them, are fully aware of their responsibilities, and accuracy of information in the future.

    The lesson as you correctly observe, is that increased staff numbers usually over complicate working proceedure, lower efficiency and increase cost.

    If Mr Gove and other Ministers can reduce the overheads of their Departments by removing uneccessary layers of supervision and the like, get more money to the sharpe end, then the results in cost savings and value should be forthcoming.

  12. Posted July 8, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Excellent piece Mr Redwood. Michael is badly served by the admin people. I hope the excellent Mr Gove will read your article and act quickly to put the record straight.

  13. JohnRS
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Your last paragraph does highlight a point that needs to be made forcefully to the Coalition leaders….although it is a refreshing change to have civilised, well mannered gentlemen leading the government and demonstrating true personal responsibility, they really do need to get a grip on the presentation of policy to ensure the truth is heard above the noise of Labour (and its BBC/media friends) distortion and lies.

    Also they should not forget that those in most of the senior positions in Whitehall were appointed by Labour and that more "mistakes" may well happen if they are not on their guard.

  14. Mark
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    I don't know whether it would be better if the civil servant errors were due to incompetence or maliciousness.

    Surely the nonsense is Labour planned to rebuild every single secondary school in little more than a decade, as if buildings didn't last longer. That means they were probably spending five times more than necessary, allowing for refurbishment and repair. Meantime, they were ignoring the impact of immigration policy on the rapidly increasing rolls for primary schools, which will continue to require more places for the next years as the 0-5 age population statistics show..

    • Posted July 8, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      'Maliciousness'? Please don't take this personally, because I have seen this word creeping in elsewhere, but what's wrong with 'malice'?

      This does not affect your substantive point.

  15. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    One thing the coalition isn't being very successful at is clarity of communication. This is surprising given all the media personnel employed and the background of many ministers. In this case I have a feeling that this announcement was rushed out and given a little longer the errors would not have occurred. This view is strengthened by your comment that Mr Gove couldn't immediately answer your question about the size of the anticipated savings from stopping the BSF approach.

  16. nonny mouse
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    One would assume that the responsibility of producing the list of schools fell to the Partnerships for Schools (PfS).

    The PfS Chief Executive and top four directors receive about £750,000 combined annual salary. I do hope that heads will roll if the PfS is proven to be responsible for this fiasco.

  17. Ex Liverpool Rioter
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Hi John
    Just having my Tea, spent the afternoon walking the dog & chatting to the "New" unemployed. I got people from ever age group so far, expect 25-35 year olds?

    I say your 14 months off your 1st riot.

    Anyway, i see your doing a pension "raid" just like Gordon Brown did!
    Mike

    • Amanda
      Posted July 8, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

      I take it by 'new unemployed' – you mean the ones having their benefits cut !! Well they don't need to be unemployed for long, they can soon set about improving their own communities by running local services eg library !! A little self-help can work wonders for the human aspirations that Labour can't reach!!

      PS I on its own has a capital letter; but the word tea does not.
      I think you mean 'you're 14 months' – it stands for 'you are'. Also I've (I have) not I got.
      Why is there a question mark at the end of a statement?
      Oh, and Mr Brown took pension funds to waste on state spending. That's not what the Coalition are doing to the 'hard pressed' pension funds, many of whom are suffering the recession caused by Mr Brown's wasteful spending of their money in the first place !!

  18. Posted July 8, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Gove's predicament was that of having to take urgent action to contain a situation with only an unrelaliable and chaotic department and a crew of disorderly quango's to provide the relevant information. This was always the legacy any new government had to face. I expect more and worse in other fields of new ministers struggling to make decisions with nothing making much sense from the Civil Service or other agencies.

  19. DennisA
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    This smells of sabotage, 25 projects? The Civil Service is fighting back.

  20. Posted July 8, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    OK, so I am trying, with my friends, to start up a new school here in Wisbech, Cambs.
    We were told, quite definitely, that if the local Comprehensive were receiving BSF funding that no new "build" would be possible for a Free School. I found out today, through Newschools Network that our school's BSF is definitely going ahead.
    Secondly nobody seems to know how much every pupil will get under the scheme for Free Schools, which, of course, rules out any form of budget or business plan.
    We need to get going. All rather worrying, actually. We are in the water and the sharks are circling.

  21. Posted July 8, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    An excellent summary Mr Redwood.
    There are two things that we can take away from this.
    The first is that the coalition government has made a change from the past government. Recognising ones mistakes, apologising and remedying the mistakes and moving is a return to one of the best aspects of our Christian heritage. We will also learn from experience. the alternative approach of evading or trivialising or reinterpreting the issue is something that became incredibly damaging under New Labour, both to the integrity of government and to the nation's finances.
    The second is that government is over-extended and lost in the detail. The box-ticking means that you lose siight of the bigger picture. It infected Haringay Social Services, Stafford Hospital and the regulation of the banks. It should be no surprise that the malaise also infects the school building programme.
    The positive, as you quite rightly point out, is that there is a significant opportunity to get more from less. I hope Mr Gove takes encouragement from this.

  22. Posted July 8, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    I was pondering on this myself this afternoon and decided to do some research on BSF http://bit.ly/bHnUkW was pretty damn woeful.

    May well have been a stichup by PfS as well.

  23. Amanda
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    Did you have confidence in the last Government's figures and statements then? Things like, crime down, unemployment down, best placed to ride out the recession, etc???

    We've had 13 years of lies and spin and a public sector recruited on diversity targets rather than competence !!

  24. Jim Smith
    Posted July 9, 2010 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    Did you really mean 'fulsome' apology?

  25. Ian Jones
    Posted July 9, 2010 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Now perhaps you know why Labour put in its placemen to control the civil service. The civil service are there to look after themselves and will destroy this Government in the next 6 months unless they are controlled.

  26. Colin Gardner
    Posted July 10, 2010 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Local decision making works. When I was Chairman of Governors of a Grant Maintained primary school we built 3 new classrooms, a technology block and an early years unit all within budget and on time and with no interference from the LEA. Claim back our education system from the bureaucrats and jobsworths now!

  27. Paul
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    12 years out of power and your lot have learned absolutely nothing

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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