Targets are important in life and I admire a politician who’ll set them

Prisons minister Rory Stewart said that if he doesnt meet his target of reducing prison violence wit

Prisons minister Rory Stewart said that if he doesnt meet his target of reducing prison violence within 12 months, he will resign his post. Iain Dale likes the fact that he is prepared to stick his neck out - Credit: Ian Burt

Politicians often fail to keep promises - but those who set targets and stick to them command plenty of respect, says Iain Dale

There is nothing wrong with setting targets. We all do it in our lives and careers, even though we may not achieve them. Aspiration is a good thing. In government, however, failing to achieve a long–stated target can cause huge political embarrassment, especially if the target is unrealistic. Take immigration, for example. For eight years the government has stuck by its target of reducing immigration 'to the tens of thousands'. Has the government ever once hit that target? No. It's not even come close.

Net immigration in all those years has averaged a quarter of a million. The target is now widely ridiculed given that it's impossible to meet. Even around the cabinet table, Theresa May is the only one still to believe the Tories should keep it. It should be ditched as it is totally unachievable.

Look at another area where targets have been imposed – education. Successive governments have been obsessed with increasing standards and the quality of education in our primary and secondary schools, and rightly so. It is an incontestable fact that standards in education have indeed risen both nationally and locally over the last two decades. Would this have happened without targets and without league tables? I suppose we will never know, given that there are many other factors involved too, not least the quality of leadership in a school, resourcing and organisational status.

One school I know well was a failing school only five years ago, with only 17% of 16 year olds achieving five GCSEs of a C Grade or better. The school was turned into an academy, a new head teacher was appointed, she got rid of all the existing teachers bar three and five years on the school's fortunes had been transformed. Last summer 64% of 16 year olds achieved five GCSEs at Grade C or better.

This came about in part because of micro targets she set her staff and pupils.

This week we learned that NHS England is to abolish the target for A & E departments to treat 95% of patients within four hours of arrival. This target had been introduced in 2004 but hasn't been met since 2015. Last month only two Trusts in the whole country met the target. In 2014 all three Norfolk general hospitals were there or thereabouts on meeting the target. Four years on, at the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital only 61% of A&E patients are now being treated within four hours.

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In King's Lynn it's 75% and at the James Paget in Great Yarmouth things are markedly better, but the figure is still only 83.4%. This is despite the actual numbers of people attending A&E being relatively constant. In Ipswich the situation is much the same, although the per centages are a bit higher. NHS England has decided, it its wisdom that the 95% target is 'outdated' and that new systems are being introduced which will mean that the sickest patients will be prioritised for quick treatment. Really? You'd have liked to think that would be happening already!

I've run several businesses in my life and I've always set targets – whether financial or in terms of staff performance. I now present a radio show and I set myself targets each year for increasing my audience. Targets are a good thing if used properly. But if you set unrealistic targets no one will buy in to them and just treat them with disdain, and this is something that civil servants and politicians don't seem to understand. There is, however, one politician who has set himself a performance target. Prisons minister Rory Stewart has said that if he doesn't meet his target of reducing prison violence within 12 months, he will resign his post. Brave man. I remember David Blunkett did something similar when he was education secretary. He said he would resign if literacy and numeracy rates hadn't improved within five years. Clever man. He set the target and made the promise knowing full well he wouldn't be in the job by that time.

And we wonder why we've lost trust in politicians to keep their promises…

Email Iain at or follow him at @iaindale