Friday 26 November 2010

Ring fences and Bureaucracy

Consistency and Lib Dems are not words often found together in a single sentence – at least, not in any sentence that I’m likely to write.  But sometimes they really should try at least a little bit harder.
This week, one of their AMs launched a strong attack on the cost of ring-fencing monies passed to local government by the Welsh Government.  Administering separate grants costs £35 million in administration, they proclaimed.  I cannot but agree that it sounds like a great deal of money being diverted away from front line services just to ensure that local councils spend it as instructed; it’s another form of creeping centralisation.
So the Lib Dems want to abolish ring-fencing, and give local councils a single sum which they are then free to spend as they wish?  Not exactly, it appears.  Local democracy and abolition of ring-fencing apply only to those initiatives proposed by other people, or with which the Lib Dems disagree.  They have some other ring-fencing proposals of their own.
Just a week or so earlier, their Assembly Group Leader called for the implementation of a pupil-premium in Welsh schools – a specific addition to school budgets targeted at particular pupils in particular schools.  The idea is not without its merits, but there’s no way that I can see of implementing it which does not effectively ring-fence monies passed by the Assembly Government to local councils – and then further ring-fence monies passed by local councils to schools.
There are good arguments for reviewing which decisions are taken centrally and which are taken locally - the current situation is something of a mish-mash.  The problem is that, rather than taking the bull by the horns and carrying out a thorough review of the issue, successive governments have imposed central direction by increasingly detailed control of local budgets.  There is a difference between challenging that as a process, and merely disagreeing about which elements should be decided centrally.  The Lib Dems are doing the latter - they should really not pretend that they're doing the former.

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