After the G4S debacle, it's time to re-think the role of the private sector

We should be much clearer about where outsourcing is not in the national interest.

The failure of G4S to deliver sufficient security staff to cover Olympic venues has reignited the debate about the role of the private sector in delivering public services.  Coming soon after the controversy surrounding A4E, this latest scandal should lead us to ask big questions about how these contracts are designed and monitored, but also about the wider role of the private sector in delivering public services.

There have traditionally been three positions on this.  First, there are those who say "private good, public bad": the public sector is slow and inefficient because it is not exposed to competition, whereas private companies are inherently better at getting value for money.  Second, there are those who say "public good, private bad": the private sector will always put profits first, whereas those who work in the public sector will always put the public first.  Third, there are those who say "what matters is what works": let’s put ideology to one side, it doesn’t matter who provides the service, the contract should go to those who deliver the best outcomes at the lowest cost.

I occupy a fourth position, one that retains an important dose of pragmatism, but which is attentive to the wider consequences of the privatisation of the public realm.  Clearly there is a case for contracting a private company to deliver a service where this can add capacity quickly, where a public provider has catastrophically failed or where a private provider can bring innovation and demonstrably improve outcomes as a result. 

However, those of us on the left should want to see boundaries put around the extent of private sector provision of public services. Social democrats believe in a strong public realm, constituted by institutions that embody the shared values of public service and promoting the common good. Those institutions send out important signals about the kind of society we are and help to inculcate values of public spiritedness and reciprocity.  Few of us want to live in a society where almost every relationship involves the extraction of profit.

So this should give us a wider concern not to allow the role of the private sector to go too far.  But more specifically there are services that are generally unsuitable for private sector delivery.  First, there are services where the outcomes we want are far too complex to be easily contracted for.  We don’t just want schools to deliver a target for the number of children getting 5 A*-C GCSEs, we also want them to help young people become good citizens and to broaden their imaginations. It is hard to contract for this.

Second, there are relational services which engage the public very intensively and where the introduction of the profit motive may undermine the trust upon which good quality relationships depend.   This is why the public are less concerned about back office functions being outsourced but are more concerned about the privatisation of relational front line services such as schools and hospitals. 

Third, there are services which are there to uphold the rule of law, such as the police and the judiciary, where it is particularly important that private interests are excluded and that there is direct public accountability.

Finally, there are services that are particularly important for the inculcation of values.  This is one reason why we should oppose the introduction of profit-seeking "free schools": if we want young people to believe in the value of public service it sends entirely the wrong signal if the very schools we provide to educate them are run in part in for profit.

Now clearly there are some services that are currently delivered by the private sector that would count as complex and relational, including most care homes and many nurseries, for example.  However we shouldn’t let the current mix of provision lead us to take the view that almost anything is appropriately delivered by the private sector.  The way services are provided is due to a series of historical political decisions and compromises.  Adopting these principles does not mean unpicking all of that: we have to look at the current mix of provision and, while being attentive to the considerations I have set out, make pragmatic judgements about the future.

Where private providers are in principle appropriate, the G4S debacle should lead us to ask some hard questions about how contracts are designed and monitored.  Does a public sector that has pulled out of direct provision have the skills and expertise to design good contracts and properly monitor compliance?  Are there sufficient competitors in the market place to prevent ‘too big to fail’ providers posing significant risk?

There are many private providers delivering excellent services all around the country, often in collaboration with public and third sector organisations.  And there are many examples of public organisations failing to deliver and providing terrible customer service.  We should remain pragmatic about this – but we should be much smarter at commissioning, much tougher on compliance and much clearer about where outsourcing is not in the national interest.

Members of the armed forces are shown around the site of the London 2012 Olympics in east London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

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“It was like a religious ceremony”: What happened at Big Ben’s final bong?

Both inside and outside Parliament, people gathered to hear the clock’s final midday chime before undergoing repairs.

“It’s just hacks everywhere,” a photographer sighs, jamming his lens through a gap in Parliament’s railings to try and get a closer look.

New Palace Yard, Parliament’s courtyard directly below Big Ben, is filling with amused-looking journalists, waiting for the MPs who have promised to hold a “silent vigil”, heads bowed, to mark Big Ben’s final chime before four years of silence while the tower’s repaired.

About four of them turn up. Two by accident.

It’s five minutes to twelve. Tourists are gathering outside Westminster Tube, as tourists do best. A bigger crowd fills Parliament Square. More people than expected congregate outside, even if it’s the opposite within the Palace. The world and his phone are gazing up at the sad, resigned clock face.


“It’s quite controversial, isn’t it?” one elderly woman in an anorak asks her friend. They shrug and walk off. “Do you know what is this?” an Italian tourist politely asks the tiny press pack, gesturing to the courtyard. No one replies. It’s a good question.

“This is the last time,” says another tourist, elated, Instagram-poised.

“DING DONG DING DONG,” the old bell begins.

Heads down, phones up.


It finishes the on-the-hour tune for the last time, and then gives its much-anticipated resignation statement:

“BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.”

Applause, cheers, and even some tears.


But while the silly-seasoned journalists snigger, the crowd is enthusiastic.

“It’s quite emotional,” says David Lear, a 52-year-old carer from Essex, who came up to London today with his work and waited 45 minutes beneath Big Ben to hear it chime.

He feels “very, very sad” that the bell is falling silent, and finds the MPs’ vigil respectful. “I think lots of people feel quite strongly about it. I don’t know why they’re doing it. During the war it carries on, and then they turn it off for a health and safety reason.”

“I don’t know why they can’t have some speakers half way down it and just play the chime,” he adds. “So many tourists come especially to listen to the chime, they gather round here, getting ready for it to go – and they’re going to switch it off. It’s crazy.”

Indeed, most of the surrounding crowd appears to be made up of tourists. “I think that it was gorgeous, because I’ve never heard him,” smiles Cora, an 18-year-old German tourist. “It was a great experience.”

An Australian couple in their sixties called Jane and Gary are visiting London for a week. “It was like a religious ceremony, everybody went quiet,” laughs Gary. “I hope they don’t forget where they put the keys to start it again in four years’ time.”

“When we first got here, the first thing we did was come to see it,” adds Jane, who is also positive about the MPs who turned up to watch. “I think it’s good they showed a bit of respect. Because they don’t usually show much respect, do they?”

And, as MPs mouthing off about Big Ben are challenged on their contrasting reactions to Grenfell, that is precisely the problem with an otherwise innocent show of sentimentality.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.