The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1992Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Service for the Citizen Conference Speech – 3 December 1992

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech given to “The Service for the Citizen Conference” held on 3rd December 1992.


This Service for the Citizen Conference is being held as part of the UK Presidency of the European Community. I am particularly glad to be able to welcome here Michel Delebarre, the Minister for Public Administration in France. For the purpose of this Conference is to enable us all to learn from each other. Minister, we look forward with great interest to what you have to say today.

Public Services – Servants not Masters of the Citizen

I have been concerned about public services long before I arrived in Downing Street. Let me pose some questions to you.

I wonder how many of you have stood on the wrong side of a counter trying to convince an anonymous official on the other side to deal with you promptly and courteously? I wonder how many of you have ‘phoned your local council only to be shunted around from department to department and to find that it’s always someone else’s responsibility?

And how many of you have appealed for common sense in response to a simple request – only to be told ‘but this is the way we’ve always done it?’

I have – and so have all too many millions of others in every country in Europe. Public services don’t have to be like that. That is why I launched the Citizen’s Charter in Britain – I was determined to get a better deal for every user from every public service. And with the help and commitment of many hundreds of thousands of people who work in public service, we are making the changes that are needed.

I want to see public services in Britain, and in Europe, that are every bit as good as those offered by the private sector. I have always said that change couldn’t come overnight, that it was a programme for ten years. But we will see it through. The users of services expect no less. And I am struck by how many of those who fail to see the importance of the Charter are drawn from among the articulate and the powerful – people who can throw their weight around, pull strings, make life uncomfortable for the service provider.

They are the privileged few. The Charter isn’t really for the man in the Rolls Royce. It’s for the passenger in the bus that’s stuck behind him in the bus lane. We want to give everyone the power to use the system. For most of us rely on public service. We always will. There is hardly a person in Europe who does not use public services in the course of their daily life. Indeed we not only use public services, we also pay for them, either directly or through our taxes. We are entitled to expect that these services are the best that our money can buy.

Dealing with public service should not be a tale of petty frustrations. People should not be on the receiving end of careless and patronising behaviour. They should not have to battle for things about which they care deeply – a future for their children – against a system that sometimes doesn’t seem to give a damn. For many, that kind of experience leads to demoralisation and despair. For me, it generates anger – and a determination to do something to change it.

The whole purpose of the Citizen’s Charter is to change the system. To open it up, to improve the service, and to give the patient, the parent and the passenger the service they want. It’s about the nitty gritty details of life. We’re very good in the public sector at dreaming up grandiose schemes. But it’s much more difficult to ensure they are delivered in a sensitive and convenient way to the citizen.

The Citizen’s Charter is about stopping people being pushed around. It’s about listening to what people want, and tailoring services to their needs. It’s about challenging the age old assumptions of the trade union rule-book and of patronising officialdom. It’s about exposing incompetence, outdated systems and shoddy services – and improving them. It’s about giving people information, power, choice and rights.

You might think, now I live in No 10 Downing Street, surrounded by public servants who could not be more helpful or more courteous, you might think my anger had cooled. But I can tell you it hasn’t. Every so often – too often – old memories flood back and it gets stirred up again. Take three weeks ago, when here in England we published for the first time nationwide school exam result league tables. The response was predictable: a chorus of protest from educationalists, from teachers’ unions and from the chattering classes who are well used to getting round the system.

‘Parents won’t understand’.

‘It doesn’t take account of pupils’ social background’.

‘It’s added value that matters, not exam results’.

The age old defence tactics: misrepresent your opponent’s case. Then dress up self interest as concern for others.

Parents are not stupid. They respect and admire the work that so many teachers do in tough circumstances with classes who have come out of primary school not properly equipped with the basic tools for learning. They know there are many factors to be taken into account when they look at schools for their children. And we intend to help by publishing even more information next year.

But parents know something else. Looking at value added is useful, but it is not value added you take out into your career in later life; it is exam results and qualifications. Results matter. Parents know it. Employers know it. And if some professors of education don’t know it, they are in the wrong profession.

Redefining the Role of the State

The Citizen’s Charter programme involves a fundamental reappraisal of what the State should do and how it should do it.

That is why the first strand of our programme is privatisation – stopping the State doing what is best done by the private sector. Since 1979, we have reduced the State sector to a smaller and more sensible size. We’ve already privatised 46 State-owned businesses – two-thirds of the State owned sector.

But our privatisation programme is by no means finished. We have further big commitments ahead, starting with the railways. The success of privatisation, now so widely copied in every part of the globe, has already been a key factor in raising quality and choice in public service in Britain.

Competition and Choice

The second strand of Citizen’s Charter reform is the extension of competition and choice. The English novelist Anthony Trollope described competition as a ‘beautiful science’ ‘by which every plodding cart horse is converted into a racer’.

Choice and competition put the citizen in the driving seat. And they bring with them a revolution in attitudes across the British public sector. Health Authorities and local doctors who manage their own funds can now choose the best service and best value for money for their patients. Parents now have a right to choose a school for their children. And to help them choose they are being given far more information about schools and how their own children are doing. Information they should never have been denied.

I want to see more choice everywhere. At local government level we are pressing through the biggest programme of competitive tendering that has so far been seen.

And in Central Government we announced last week that are increasing substantially the amount of work which is tested against the market; this year the total value will be almost £1.5bn. If the private sector can do it more efficiently, we’ll contract the work out. The key criterion will be good service for the public.

Deregulation in Britain and Europe

In Britain we see public sector agencies as standard setters, as enablers and – where necessary – as regulators of private sector activity. But I believe there is a balance to be struck between regulation which protects the consumer and enhances service, and over-regulation which imposes unsustainable costs on business.

In the UK I believe the balance has tipped too far. Some have suggested that many of the small businessmen who are so vital to our economic regeneration spend up to half their working week dealing with government requirements. This is unacceptable. Small businesses simply cannot afford large numbers of advisers to cope with bureaucratic demands or to challenge them.

It is time we stood back and looked again at the burden of regulation. It is time we heard what the public are saying about some of the regulations that are closing village shops, and threatening local businesses and products.

That is why I have asked Michael Heseltine to lead a new blitz on regulation. Over the next months we will be challenging every Government Department to justify the scale of regulation it imposes. I want to see a new bonfire of controls. We must protect the public interest in safety and fair trading. But businessmen must be given the freedom and opportunities to create the wealth that all our countries so greatly need.

Too many of the regulations people have complained about are associated with Europe. Last week the Industry Council highlighted the importance of minimising the burden on business of Community legislation. We shall build on this at the Edinburgh Summit. There we must carry forward the idea of subsidiarity. Start not just to simplify rules, but to identify unnecessary Community legislation that might be repealed outright.

The problem is partly one of our own making. National Governments do not always translate EC Directives into plain rules everyone can understand. We sometimes add extra rules simply because they seem a good idea to Departments and their advisers or pressure groups. Here in Britain we are sometimes over-punctilious in enforcing Directives when lighter controls are tolerated elsewhere. I am very pleased to be able to announce a Scrutiny, which will involve the private sector, to study these important issues. Michael Heseltine will be announcing the terms of reference shortly.

The Public Service Demand for Change

One of the most heartening aspects of the Charter reforms in Britain is that it is not just the public who have been calling for change. There is also pressure for reform from within the public service itself. Public servants want to improve their relations with the public. They want clear standards and objectives and reward for achievement.

Ideas for improvement are coming from the workforce themselves. For if there is one thing worse than being on the receiving end of shoddy service, it is knowing you are not being allowed to give the best you can.

Charter Principles

In improving public services I suggest that there are a number of fundamental principles which would hold good for any country. First, the customer has a right to know the standards which have been set and agreed. The standards must be published openly. Those standards must be measured and the results published so that success can be rewarded and poor service improved.

Second, the consumer needs choice wherever practicable. Where choice is limited, as in some big public services like schools, social work and the police, there needs to be independent inspection with a strong lay element to ensure the customers’ voice is heard.

Third, there must be swift, effective remedies for failure to deliver the promised standard of service.

And finally, we need services which provide the best value for money. The Citizen’s Charter will have succeeded when we get the public, the Press, – and the providers themselves – to understand that improvement in public service is not only achieved by extra money. It comes from new methods, greater efficiency, and an open mind. Every private business knows that. It is true for public services as well.

The Citizen’s Charter – a Continuing and Dynamic Programme

Here in Britain, the Citizen’s Charter is a continuing and dynamic programme. Across 28 services, standards are being set. And when they are met, then they will be raised again and again. I want the standards to be demanding. On British Rail for example, some lines have performed extremely well against the targets. On other lines, targets have still not been reached. In such cases we will expect the management and workforce to redouble their efforts to deliver their commitments. I will not allow BR, or any other public services, to lower the standards that the Citizen’s Charter has set.

Last week we published the first of what will be regular reports setting out the progress that has been achieved and the future programme. It shows how we are achieving at the one extreme dramatic improvements in performance in our major State services, such as health and education, and on the other the modest but vital small changes to services at a local level.

Strengthening the Democratic Partnership

This Conference offers a unique opportunity to share our different experiences of working for better public services. It is very important that we learn from each other. Because at the bottom of this worldwide concern to get a grip on standards of public service lies a deeper concern: to strengthen the sinews of a democratic society, by promoting more active partnership between Government and the citizen. As we approach the twenty-first century, there can be no greater cause than that.