The battle against privatisation

Outsourcing of public services continues apace as austerity bites.

Last week, a group of public sector workers, supporters and others who've had enough of the neoliberal mantra that "public services improve if they're run by the private sector" protested outside a Capita conference called "New Models of Service Delivery - Opening Up Local Government Services to New Providers".

That was Capita - one of the country's biggest outsourcing firms, playing host (at more than £300 per head, behind closed doors) to senior council people who are in the process of deciding which private companies should win contracts to provide council services.

"There's no transparency - these big outsourcing plans are being discussed behind the backs of the residents and staff who are most affected," said Barnet Alliance For Public Services protestor Vicki Morris. "It's wrong for the companies who will profit from outsourcing to have privileged access to those making outsourcing decisions." Morris's group is fighting a Barnet council plan (called One Barnet) to mass-outsource council services. Capita is bidding for a £750m contract to provide services like finance and revenues and benefits as part of One Barnet.

There's every reason to suppose that Capita will get that contract. If there's a manual on snorkelling cash out of the public sector, Capita wrote it - every page. Last year, Capita's profits increased by 12 per cent to £364.2m, with dividends up by 19 per cent (you can read the rest here if you can stand it).

No matter that the questionable achievements of some of the outsourcing giants have frightened a few councils off. More ought to be terrified. Sefton council recently decided to terminate a £65m contract with Capita Symonds (a division of the Capita Group), because it failed (spectacularly) to deliver expected savings. Mouchel, another of the UK's biggest outsourcing companies, is in a tight spot. In October, chief executive Richard Cuthbert resigned when a £4.3m hole was found in the company's accounts. Mouchel reportedly has a net debt of £879m. The European Services Strategy Unit has an excellent document cataloguing some of Capita, Mouchel and BT's larger contracts and failures, as does almost every edition of Private Eye.

Still, the goldrush goes on. The public services industry is not just big business - it is and has been colossal business. Figures vary, but Unison reports estimated a worth of £79bn in 2008 with growth expected to put that figure near £100bn round about now. Wherever the total settles in so-called austerity, you can rest assured that the likes of Capita will fling themselves at it.

None of which is good news for those at the rough end of the trade. Public sector workers and service users know only too well what happens when services are outsourced. Staff salaries and leave allowances are slashed (often drastically in already-low-paid sectors like care), working hours extended (often to the detriment of a service) and unions sidelined as private companies look to destroy workers' terms and squeeze every pound out of contracts to pass to shareholders and senior managers.

Barnet Unison branch secretary John Burgess describes privatising in the austerity era as "outsourcing cuts" - councils offloading public services to companies which slash services and staff numbers, and diffuse political heat. Burgess would know. He and his members have already taken strike action in protest at Barnet council's radical, and unstable, mass-outsourcing plan (hard questions have been asked this year about the council's ability to manage big contracts with private sector companies).

Southampton council workers are gearing for a similar fight. That council wants to turn itself into a commissioning council - which means it would exist mostly to engage private companies to deliver services, rather than provide services directly itself.

Other councils are taking an incremental, rather than whole-hog, approach to outsourcing. Bristol council is chipping away at care homes and services. Nottinghamshire is doing the same. And, as Vicki Morris says, far too much of it is happening out of the public eye. Contracts fail and money is tight, but ideology prevails.

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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution