‘If Britain wants decent and efficient public services, it should hand them over to the private sector’

The Economist/Stockholm Network debate, London 9 Feb 2006

At the moment, public services are little more than vehicles in the government’s civil renewal agenda. They are a new way to ’empower’ us all, the Minister for Communities, David Milliband, would have us believe. In this respect, a focus on the at least achievable task of improving the NHS, or starting over again in the case of comprehensive schools, would be very welcome.

But there is no reason to believe that the private sector would necessarily be any more successful in achieving this. Throwing up our hands in despair at failing services is understandable. But I fail to see how adding yet more fragmentation and disjointment to that already inflicted by two decades of market reform will remedy the situation. And throwing out the welfare baby with the ideological bathwater of New Labour’s social inclusion agenda, is no answer either. The set of values that the welfare state for all its faults once embodied helped secure an enduring collective engagement with the needs and aspirations of the public.

As Margie Jaffe of Unison put it, its not that public services are too important to be left to the bureaucrats, but the reverse. Indeed, they are too important to leave to the vagaries of the market. State delivery of welfare not only has practical ends for the present, but is the outcome of battles fought by campaigners from the mid 19th century on. It represents a public recognition of the post-war settlement with regards the principles of income security, a decent education system, health service, housing provision, and social care for children and adults. Circumstances have changed beyond recognition since and rightly demand a rethink, but these modest gains have also been under threat. This is all the more reason why they should not be undermined lightly, but defended with the appropriate critical distance. Jaffe’s was the only comment, I might add, that kept me from dozing off as the other panellists, Tim Gosling of the IPPR; Ian Smith, CEO of General Healthcare and Matthew Hancock, Economic Adviser to the Shadow Chancellor – admirably chaired by the unflappable Edward Carr, Business Affairs Editor at The Economist – failed to come up with a single insightful comment between them.

Back to ‘engagement’. This is the only game in town as far as the social policy wonks are concerned, but it apparently passed our esteemed speakers by. Indeed, the patronising attempts by government to connect with people as individuals even when they are supposedly promoting community, suggests that ‘privatisation’ has been with us for some time. By putting GP surgeries in supermarkets and insisting that parents spend more time attending to their children’s schooling (see the recent health and education white papers, respectively) the attempt to shift the ‘rights and responsibilities’ to public services into the private spheres of individual, family and community, is intensifying.

This not only has little to do with addressing the poor quality of, and ongoing sense of crisis and confusion that surround the delivery of, services; but also reveals the failure of the government to find a way of regrouping, recovering the morale of its teachers and nurses, and beginning to re-engage society as a whole. This problem isn’t susceptible to state-engineering and behavioural micro-management. Nor can it be solved by the market-led managerialism of the New Right, which reduced us all to unsatisfied consumers in the first place. Not only was this an odd debate to be having more than a quarter of a century after the original privatisation crusaders took office but, as I should have anticipated on over-hearing the excited talk about the previous ‘fascinating’ debate on flat tax, it was also horribly dull and technical. Well, you pays your money…


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