21 Aug 2013

The Public Sector is Ours

Molly Scott Cato's view on the creeping threat from privatisation:

The word privatisation is rarely used in our debates these days but the process is rushing ahead, often without people even noticing. Under the cover of an extension in service hours the job of transporting vulnerable people to their hospital appointments has been sold to a train company. As a local councillor I heard nothing of this, so who is representing the views of local people. And who is guaranteeing that the company that won the contract – Arriva Passenger Services – will do a better job here than Arriva does with its rail franchise?

There is no shortage of disasters that demonstrate how the attempt to have public services run by private companies just does not work. The most embarrassing recent example was the failure of the G4S contract to provide security at the Olympics, but there was also the failure of the Southern Cross care homes and the collapse of the rail franchise for the West Coast mainline. Earlier this month both G4S and Serco were found to have been having a laugh at public expense by charging for tagging prisoners who were no longer restricted or had actually died. It is growing ever more obvious that was well as unreliability there may also be corruption in the contracting out system. And I can't be the only person who is wondering whether the appalling revelations from some of our hospitals is the marketisation of health coming home to roost.

The problem is that you cannot write the need to be signed up to an ethos of public service into a contract. It is impossible to require people to sign up to behave in a caring way, or to enforce kindness through a system of targets. This is the reason why the most vital services like health and education were first taken into the public sector: they are just too important to be left to companies that are driven by profit. When something goes wrong lives are at stake and so we need a sense of personal responsibility rather than the profit motive as the central motivation.

As Greens we are not committed to public ownership as an article of faith, but we do think that it is sometimes the appropriate way to run things, especially when there cannot really be any sort of genuine market competition. Since there will only be one postal service or one railway service then you cannot have competition. The railways are a good example of what goes wrong: service standards do not improve, there is no real competition for franchises and we end up spending more public money: this is why Green MP Caroline Lucas has tabled a private member’s bill to renationalise the railways.

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