John Redwood: There is only grey

Ahead of our panel event on public service reform on Tuesday, Paul Nizinskyj speaks to John Redwood MP about the tangled web of public and private delivery in the UK, why fuel bills are high and that EU referendum.

Sunday InterviewYou never get a straight answer with John Redwood. It isn’t because he’s evasive or pushing a line or bound by collective responsibility to stubbornly disregard reality. It is because he is simply a highly analytical man. There comes a point in all things where, upon digesting a certain amount of information, one comes to the conclusion there is no such thing as black or white. There are merely minutely divergent shades of grey.

This, Redwood says, is the true state of public services in the United Kingdom today – virtually nothing is either all-publicly or all-privately provided. And, although the trend is evermore towards more privately-leaning delivery, the picture is still very much of a highly tangled web of interconnecting capillaries providing succour, for better or worse, to the leviathan of modern wealth redistribution.

“It’s not a case of public or private,” he says. “Most services are provided by a mixture. The most common idea of service provision in a competitive marketplace is by private sector assets charging for their services. Of course, some people think public services have to be monopolies and healthcare is the closest to that ideal but elements of charging and competition as well as some private sector assets exist even in the NHS.

“Probably the main thing that makes a difference to the quality of this provision is whether it is a monopoly or competitive and, if you go to the NHS, there is a lot of private competition for the delivery of services . Drugs are almost entirely provided by four companies operating in a competitive market, for example, so it’s a lot more complex than the debate suggests. Going to the NHS is essentially getting advice paid for out of tax rather than paying for it directly. But people also forget that a lot of healthcare provision is provided entirely privately by pharmacies to self-medicate aches and pains, bruises and sneezes.

Another example, he adds, is the Post Office, which has made headlines over the years for a number of attempted and eventually realised sell-offs , though Redwood regards this is as something of a red herring. “People get on their high horse about whether it should be privatised or state run but most post offices had been in the private sector for years because the Post Office is organised as a competitive, profit-making franchise.”

The closest thing the country has to a purely state-delivered service, Redwood says, is the armed forces. But even here, he notes, this is little more than a deceptive myth. “It usually makes lots of sense to have a state monopoly on the use of force in a democracy to keep control of those who would exercise force over it but, even there, there is a surprising amount of competitive for-profit activity involved.

“Bombs and weapons are all produced privately, computer programmes handling data and support services are all provided by the private sector and, while we all agree the soldier should be a state employee, he is increasingly supported by a whole network of supporting businesses. It’s completely grey. There are no pure examples. I’ve been trying to get this across for some time because the British debate is so stylised and oversimplified.”

The remarkable thing is that, for someone who was was named the most powerful backbench voice of the Right by ConservativeHome, Redwood is very comfortable with this, adding the priority for healthcare in the United Kingdom must always be the principle of free at the point of use, as opposed to the more insurance-based systems popular on the Continent. In a sense this is very much within the tradition of non-ideological and pragmatic Conservatism yet, at the same time, it is not what one expects to hear from a scion of the more doggedly red-meat Right of the party.

Redwood is also somewhat more pragmatic than one might expect on an issue with which he has probably been most identified with – Europe. Although generally seen as an arch-eurosceptic, rightly so it might be added, Redwood’s enquiring and calculating mind sees the question of In or Out in just as many varying shades of grey as that of public service provision.

“David Cameron has talked about what he would like to renegotiate and the Germans have had some sympathy with that. If it doesn’t produce much by way of improvement then large numbers of Conservatives are going to want to leave the European Union. If it gives back powers we need in certain areas that we need the party is behind the policy.”

But surely Tory backbenchers are more cut-and-dry Outers, the sort who forced a referendum on the prime minister and who would have us out in a flash? “I always find it BSRTNT reading in the paper that we are split on Europe,” he says. “We have very lively discussions on Europe, as does the Labour party, but most of us genuinely united behind this policy. We are not pre-judging on how well the renegotiations will go but most Conservative MPs wish it well and, if it produces something good and our partners are co-operative, they will support it.”

Central to this renegotiation, Redwood says, is the issue of who a government chooses to pay benefits to – arguing a union of 28 nation states with varying income levels cannot expect member states to foot the bill of emigration from poor states to rich ones without the kind of regional redistribution that comes through a unitary state. “The Germans seem to be in agreement that the issue is access to welfare, which I think has caused more unhappiness in Britain than anything else. But it’s not just about welfare for people doing nothing, it’s a debate about how much you should have to top up wages, especially when voters already complain about immigrants undercutting wages.

“The people’s argument is it’s rather odd that people can come to this country and receive child benefit for children who, in some cases, might not actually be living in this country. It’s the same with housing and, while some people say it does wonderful things for the labour market, you have large public sector costs even with private housing and education and so forth.”

One area you can rely on Redwood to stick to his caricature’s script in this interview, however, is the issue of energy prices – for which he has already accused Ed Miliband of hypocrisy in calling for a price freeze when as climate minister he implemented a European policy of closing cheap plants and increasing the use of renewables.

“Everybody in politics now thinks energy prices are too high and that it would be good if they were lower. Lowering taxes is certainly a more effective than shouting at companies to lower them. But the most important change which the prime minister and the government are now backing is extracting cheaper energy from our own country by finding out how much shale gas we’ve got under the ground. An unfortunate consequence of the unfortunate events in Crimea is that EU politicians are seeing the great weaknesses in European countries because some of them depend on Russian gas, with the resulting consequences of energy scarcity and high prices. If we want to be in a stronger international position then we need to be self-efficient.”

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