Enough. We are being held hostage to the interests of a tiny elite and being fed a pack of lies to stop us from complaining. Any day now, the government will unveil its White Paper on public sector reform and the spin is already on, with the papers full of stories about the desperate need for change. But it’s a steaming pile of ideological bull.
The Prime Minister says public sector reform is urgent, implying that anything less than a complete overhaul will cripple this country. It might be unfair of me to characterise that as a lie: he may actually believe it. One thing is certain, though, his claim that the changes will “shift power to the users of public services and support the judgment of public sector professionals” so that “everyone can play a greater role in shaping services” is a lie.
The author of the forthcoming White Paper makes no bones about what it’s all about: he wants to end the “state monopoly” of public sector services by opening contracts to outside providers. This government want to privatise public service.
If you aren’t already planning to take to the streets on March 26, this is the issue that should get you to pull on your boots. We all love to moan about how inefficient public services are. God knows the NHS could be improved. But if you think privatisation is the way to get more, better nurses and doctors in hospitals, get better care for the elderly or disabled, or get a better education for your children, think again.
It’s not even true that the state has a monopoly on the delivery of public services. Check out this list of the government’s top 100 suppliers: you don’t need to be especially well-informed to recognise many of the names as the private companies that have already been contracted to run services on behalf of the government, and they all have one thing in common.
Private companies exist for one reason and one reason only: to deliver shareholder value. Oh, they might witter on about the triple bottom line in business schools and glossy annual reports will proselytise about the amazing works done in the name of corporate social responsibility but all of that is smoke and mirrors. Delivering shareholder value is the sole purpose of all private companies. Nothing else matters.
How do you measure the success of the police? The number of crimes they solve? The speed at which they respond to crimes which threaten life or property? The number of complaints by the public? If private companies were involved, there’d only be one true measure: how much money is returned to shareholders each year?
Politicians and lobbyists will say that the contracts these private companies sign give them success measures against which they are assessed. How long do you really think it would be before the owners of these companies, holding the government hostage by threatening withdrawal of service, would have those obligations whittled away, so that their capacity to make profit is protected?
If you think I’m being alarmist, think about the banks. We’ve just goggled collectively at the news that a bank bailed out by the public paid £900 million in bonuses to staff despite the fact they made a loss of £1.1 billon. Even in the midst of the financial sector’s meltdown, any suggestion of tightening up regulations was met with cries that the banks would take their money elsewhere. Meanwhile, are you even getting the service you need from your bank?
And what about the rail service? How’s that working out for y’all? Are you getting a good, reliable service or is Victoria Coren’s experience more typical? The trouble is that ‘efficiency’ in the private sector doesn’t mean ‘we served more people better for less money because we are clever at business’ it means ‘we figured out how to give our shareholders maximum value because we are clever at working the system’.
The NHS is not broken. The government are in a big hurry to privatise the NHS, despite the fact that just about every medical authority thinks their proposals are flawed. Yet, international comparisons show that, comparatively, it’s doing pretty well.
Note that in the US, where the private sector is heavily involved in health care, they spend twice as much as the UK and get worse outcomes. Babies born in the US are more likely to die within a year of birthand have lower life expectancies than other OECD countries. Worse, groups in the US have lower life expectancy than their peers in developing countries [data from The Spirit Level].
The public sector is not to blame for state of the economy. Even the Governor of the Bank of England is surprised we’re not angrier that we’re paying for a crisis caused by the financial sector.
Nor is public sector expenditure out of control. Public spending has increased for a lot of very good reasons. The population continues to grow, and all those pesky people need services: schools, hospitals, roads, traffic lights etc etc. The needs of the community are growing more complex, too. Our police services can’t do their job by wandering up and down the street giving directions and helping old ladies across the road. Cyber crime, sophisticated international criminal gangs, advances in forensic sciences and so make policing substantially more complex than it was. Medical advances mean we can cure more illnesses than ever before but this has caused the cost of health care to soar. And because we are now able to save babies born prematurely and correct birth defects that would have once been fatal, we are seeing more children enter the education system with increasingly complex needs, which means education costs more.
Of course, the indications so far are that the Tory’s have a magic wand that will make these costs disappear: they are simply not going to care for anyone who can’t afford to care for themselves. They are cutting the Disability Living Allowance, which provides the funds for disabled people to live independently, and closing care centres. Westminister Council are even trying to ban homelessness.
The Chancellor likes to declaim that ‘there is no plan B’, that the cuts he’s forced on the people of Britain are necessary because of a crisis situation but actually, there is no crisis. Even after the financial sector were bailed out to the tune of trillions of pounds, the UK’s national debt is well within acceptable limits. Action needs to be taken but cutting the heart out of the public sector is neither necessary or in the public interest.
But Western governments no longer look after the public interest in the way we expect and believe. Instead, they are looking after the interests of the wealthiest people in the world. While community groups are protesting outside the town hall to protect the job of a part-time lollipop lady, the City of London Corporation has £3 billion in assets to fund its lobbying of the government. And there’s no need for them to stand out in the cold with a placard: they do their lobbying in the finest restaurants and most exclusive private clubs. Increasingly, you need to be a millionaire to get a seat in government in the West.
As I said at the beginning, we are being held hostage to the interests of a tiny elite and being fed lies to keep us from protesting.
This is not to say that there aren’t problems and it’s certainly not to say that Labour are blameless: Reagan and Thatcher may have started the rot by deregulating the banks but Clinton and Blair et al didn’t deviate from the course they set.
But spending on public services is not the problem.
And we don’t need more private operators in the delivery of public services to have more say in how they are run. We already own the public services because they are funded by the taxpayer. And that’s us. The factory workers, the nurses, the teachers. The minimum wage shop assistants, the knowledge workers, the artists. It’s certainly not the private companies who exploit every legal loophole to avoid contributing their profits to running the country. We already own the libraries, the forests, the NHS and everything else David Cameron wants you to believe would be more efficient if only we let his millionaire mates have a go at them.
So don’t believe the spin. And fight for our services – for your services – because once they fall in private hands, we will all be powerless.