Friday 26 March 2010

Ring fencing

The E-coli outbreak five years ago was a very serious matter, and justified the holding of a public inquiry. But public inquiries are only of any real value if lessons are learned. From the Consumer Focus Wales report published on Tuesday, it appears that not enough has yet been done.

One particular point which emerges from this is the question of resources – who supplies them and how they are used. There seems to be a difference of opinion on whether adequate funding has or has not been supplied to councils; but whether the funding was adequate or not, it seems not to have been directed to the necessary activities.

Consumer Focus Wales argue that this topic is so important that money must be ring-fenced to ensure that it is spent in the way required. I think this raises two issues.

The first is that merely ring-fencing the extra cash doesn't necessarily ensure that it achieves the desired result. To ensure that the money really is extra, the whole budget for relevant activities probably needs to be ring-fenced, otherwise authorities can simply add with one hand and take away with the other.

The second issue is that merely spending the requisite amount of money does not, of itself, guarantee the outcomes required – and I think it's the outcomes which are more important to us.

The whole issue also takes us back to the point I've raised a few times recently – what is local government for, and what is the right balance of centralisation versus local control?

In the case of food hygiene, central government already sets the standards and rules under which it operates. If it is also going to decree exactly how much each council spends on the issue, and how that is spent, and then monitor performance, what exactly is the input from locally elected democratic representatives? If the answer is, to all intents and purposes, none, then why not say so and run a single national food hygiene service?

I'm not necessarily advocating that, simply pointing out that that is a logical outcome of ring-fencing money. On this issue, as on so many others, we really need to decide whether, and to what extent, local variations are acceptable - if we decide that they are not, then there is no real value in pretending that this is a locally run service.

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