Another View - Don't make cuts in haste and repent at leisure

6th August 2010 at 01:00
Redundant staff will move on, so who will make all-age careers service a success?

The conservative objection to Government intervention is that no bureaucracy can possibly have enough information to decide how best to allocate resources. What is becoming clear as the Government pushes through its agenda of cuts is that the same applies when it comes to deciding how not to spend money.

News that Connexions services are being cut to the bone by local authorities is a significant blow (page 29). It is not just that pointy- headed policy wonks have been pointing to the central importance of effective advice and guidance for students for years, because a demand-led system needs informed demand.

It is also that this Government, or the 85 per cent of it which is Conservative, had placed an all-age careers service at the centre of its strategy for skills. The decision had a lot to recommend it: ending the arbitrary cut-off point at 19 would help advisers respond to paths through education into careers that do not necessarily follow traditional patterns. It may even prove to be more efficient.

But in dictating cuts from the centre, the Government risks that its imperfect knowledge of how services are implemented and valued by users will be exposed, and that something it wants to preserve and build on will be decimated. The case of Connexions may be one such example.

If local Connexions branches lose half of their staff, that entails a massive loss of skills and experience. When the time comes to implement an all-ages careers service, those people may well have moved on: the Government cannot count on them waiting forever like itinerant labourers in the Great Depression.

Similarly, once young people have lost contact with the system, finding them again will be worse than looking for a needle in a haystack; it will be like looking in a haystack for a specific piece of hay.

A fatalistic streak means people soon get used to not having services: they just do without, and who knows how much better things would have been otherwise? All of that means when the new service is finally established, it will face an uphill struggle to engage with the public, rather than a smooth transition with an established client base.

How far should local authorities take the blame? Their freedom of action has been chipped away over decades: most of their income comes from central Government, making raising council tax as ineffective as it is unpopular.

With so many services ringfenced for legal or political reasons, those that can be cut must be cut more heavily. Devolving decisions to local authorities certainly makes decisions such as this inevitable if one council decides, for instance, that it can make do with a sparsely staffed online service.

And so if we are to have a universal service, it is probably going to have to be funded at a national level. Of course, advisers need to understand the local job markets. But we also need a mobile workforce, not least because successive Governments have left huge regional inequalities in job opportunities.

Aspirations are also not necessarily local: if your dream is to work building jet aircraft, you cannot do it from rural Dorset; if you long to work for the BBC, you may need to move to London.

We need to act fast. The Tories were right first time about the need for an all-age careers service, and so they need to start implementing it before too much damage is done. The risk to this Government is that they cut in haste, and repent at leisure.

Joseph Lee


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