Sweden’s recent reforms have been hugely successful
David Cameron would do well to follow Stockholm’s centre-right government, says Gunnar Hökmark
Polly Toynbee, reporting from Sweden, provides a peculiar account of the policies of its centre-right government (Beware the lesson of the Tory wolf in liberal clothing, April 8). She claims the government is ”extremely unpopular”, but evidently she has not seen recent Swedish polls. They suggest the government is gaining in popularity, as the positive effects of tax cuts and reforms are increasingly apparent.
Growth is strong, unemployment is down and, unlike Alistair Darling, Sweden’s minister for finance is enjoying a record budget surplus in government finances. And, indeed, only one day after the publication of Toynbee’s article, the government announced further cuts in income tax rates.
If Toynbee’s ambition is to damage the British Conservatives by associating the party with the Swedish government, she will probably accomplish the opposite.
Toynbee’s claim that Swedish GPs are now ”free to charge for the first time”, which has caused them to move ”out of poor areas to richer places where they can earn more”, is not true. In her search for information she appears to have paid a visit to the headquarters of the Swedish Social Democratic party, rather than to a GP’s office.
The truth is a reform has been introduced by the centre-right-run Stockholm county council, where tax money now follows the patients. Patients can choose which GPs they want to see, and GPs are paid by the council per patient they treat. GPs are not ”free to charge”, and they have not moved from poorer areas. On the contrary, services have improved and the number of visits to GPs in some of the poorest areas of Stockholm has gone up by 32%.
I doubt Toynbee has ever set foot in one of the Swedish ”free schools” (ie private schools) she describes. ”It is an irony that the Swedish conservatives no longer promote the ’free’ schools that Cameron will make his centrepiece policy,” she writes. This is not the case: the free-school reform has been an immense success since its launch by a centre-right government in the early 90s. Successive Social Democratic governments had 12 years to abolish the reform, but did not do so. It is true the present government is improving ordinary state schools, and education generally, but this is due to years of Social Democratic neglect. The free schools will continue to provide freedom of choice and will probably grow in number.
The free-school reform provides parents and children with a choice suitable for their specific needs. Tax money set aside for education is divided per child and can be used for any school following the national curriculum and approved by the authorities, whether it is a state school or a free school. There are now about 900 free schools in Sweden, which have become an excellent option for parents, and teachers, who are not satisfied with state education. In addition, all research shows that where there are free schools, the state schools perform better.
Gunnar Hökmark is an MEP for the Swedish Moderate party, and vice-chairman of the EPP-ED Group in the European parliament