The rise of the shadow state: the truth about outsourcing

Contractors like Serco, G4S and Clearel have become "too big to fail", while it's taxpayers' money they're consuming.

People’s eyes tend to glaze over when you mention public service commissioning. It’s hardly the most sexy subject to write about. But it matters. It matters, for a start, because it’s a huge industry. A study by Oxford Economics estimates that it employs 1.2 million people, and creates or supports a further 2.3 million jobs. According to the research, the current outsourced market for public services has an annual turnover of £82bn, representing around 24 per cent spend on public services in the UK.

And it matters because outsourced public services have an impact on the entire economy, in terms of wage levels, benefit demands and spending power. It matters because these services are vital to our social fabric and have knock-on effects – effects that can help or hinder not only the people they serve, but their friends and relatives. What happens to a child in a children’s home or a prisoner in jail affects all of us.

And a report released today by Social Enterprise UK, the national membership body for social enterprise, has produced some stark conclusions about how the face of our public services has changed.

1. Rise of the giants

Here’s a list of things that one company, Serco, operates: prisons and young offenders institutions. The National Nuclear Laboratory. Transport services like the Docklands Light Railway and Barclays Cycle Hire. Security services for the National Borders Agency, and maintenance services for missile defence systems. Air traffic control services. Leisure services. Management for hospitals and pathology services.  Waste collection for local authorities. Education services for local authorities. Government websites.

If the company were to go under, it would cause severe disruption to public services. The growth of such contractors that are “too big to fail” began under New Labour and has continued apace. Why did it happen? In the report, Matthew Taylor, former director of policy for the Labour Party, provides a clue: “One of the funny stories I heard about this is that the government wanted to move into agile commissioning. And immediately, all the large providers employed a Head of Agile. Of course, smaller providers can’t afford a Head of Agile.” The biggest companies are best placed to meet Government guidelines.

In the early years of outsourcing under New Labour, the commissioners at local and national level lacked experience and confidence, so they went with the biggest firms, whom they felt they could trust. Rather than tear up these contracts, in recent years they simply expanded them with “bolt-ons”, in many cases due to fear of litigation. It’s an understandable fear – the larger the corporation, the more litigious it’s likely to be, and the West Coast Mainline debacle shows how costly and politically hazardous it is to be embroiled in such a case.

This is the situation today: in March this year, the UK Border Agency issued contracts worth £1.7bn for asylum seeker services (including accommodation). All eight contracts went to three companies: G4S, Serco and Clearel. Nearly a quarter of the £3.3bn contracts for the Work Programme went to one company (Ingeus). And cuts within the public sector have reduced the volume and skill of commissioners, meaning that they will choose to “buy safe” more often than not. This lack of genuine competition, as we’ll see, removes the main incentive to provide quality of service.

2. Goliath is killing David

It’s also forcing smaller charities and social enterprises out of the market. Many are making redundancies and turning away from public service markets in order to survive, just when they are needed most. They cite procurement policy as one of the biggest barriers to their sustainability.

I’ve already written, at length, about one enterprise which went bust as a result of signing up to the Government’s Work Programme. It wasn’t the only one - earlier this year Groundwork South West also went into administration. The deals favour the prime contractors: by June 2012, 96 charity providers had dropped out, 27 unable to make it work.

“There’s an ebbing away of confidence,” Peter Holbrook, CEO of Social Enterprise UK, tells me. “We’ve seen companies go to the wall, or being sidelined, and of course it makes you nervous. These days you increasingly have to work with a private contractor. It means small charities are getting crumbs from the table” This is the problem with the payment-by-results (PBR) system. Payments for these hard-to-reach jobless cases may be some time coming, if they come at all. Not-for-profit organisations, having failed by definition to build in a layer of profit to their business model, don’t have the capital reserves to wait for results. Essentially, they find themselves out-manoeuvred by the bigger companies that sub-contract to them. And this matters because...

3. Profit and public service don’t always mix

I’ve previously written on this with regard to one company the public does know about due to the Olympic fiasco: G4S. But the report has a lengthy section about a sector of the industry which hasn’t received quite so much coverage: children’s services. It’s an area that was highlighted by the recent Rochdale scandal, but this element of the story was somewhat buried by the other details.

It used to be the case that charities would bid for council contracts to care for vulnerable children, and would cross-subsidise themselves from fundraising and other means to do so. It was never going to last: private equity firms gradually took over. The report says: “Sovereign and 3i are the big contenders, but it is hard to pinpoint which firm owns what; their waters seem to be in perpetual motion, as they buy one another and take one another over, and offload assets.”

These companies operate by buying up cheap housing stock around the country, to which vulnerable children can be shunted. Two London boroughs now have no children’s homes at all. There are 101 homes in Lancashire alone, even though Lancashire has a population of less than 1.5 million. London has 130 homes, for a population of 7.8 million.

Ann Coffey MP is quoted: “They may take a child into care for the first time, after a final event has happened. So a child may have gone one more time, missing from home, and he or she is removed. The authority then thinks, ‘Where the hell have we got a place?’ Not ‘What does this child need?’ It’s the most terrible market failure.”

And the report cites a horrific statistic, one that shows Rochdale, much as we’d like it to be, was unlikely to be an isolated case. Ofsted figures published in May 2012 revealed that children’s homes in England— caring for 4,840 children, including 1,800 girls — had reported 631 suspected cases of young residents being sold for sex in the past five years. These are just the reported cases: it’s likely to be far higher.

It’s not hard to see how the practice of moving children around can exacerbate the problem. Once a child is removed from its own local authority, it loses contact with its team of social workers, its grandparents, neighbours and others who might be able to spot the signs of abuse. One girl at the centre of the Rochdale case was moved from Essex and placed in a one-to-one home, where she was the only resident. She never woke up with the same staff member in the home who had been there when she went to sleep.

The sector has responded to these criticisms, claiming “the simple connection of cheapness isn't accurate” with regard to the shifting of children. But it’s still hard to disagree with Coffey’s conclusion that the sector is “murky to say the least.” As Holbrook says: “There’s no problem with upscaling if you’re doing something like buying paperclips. But most public services rely on human relationships, so upscaling leads to a huge degradation in the quality of service.” And what about the staff in those homes?

4. Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Almost all the jobs being advertised by private care firms are at the UK minimum wage. This isn’t a living wage, as we all know. The staff are paid by the minute and aren’t paid travelling time. A care worker for a private company is interviewed. She was paid 14 pence per minute, and travelled from appointment to appointment on buses in Islington: “An average day that I was doing at the time, and this wasn’t very long because I couldn’t afford to keep it going, I’d start at 9, do 45 minutes with one person, another 45 minutes at 10, a half hour at 12, a break, a quarter hour at 4, another 15 minutes at 4.30, a half hour at 5 and another hour from 8 til 9. So that’s a 12-hour day for 4 hours’ money.”

Companies are making offers to contractors that aren’t mathematically possible if they’re providing jobs with a minimum wage, national insurance contributions, a pension scheme and training. Savings in one area invariably mean higher costs elsewhere:  “No local authority should make that deal: even just on the pragmatic basis that it will be their own residents who are on the receiving end of that low wage, their own housing benefit department making up the carer’s rent shortfall, their own health and children’s services that come under strain when poverty is rife.” We’re seeing a degradation of service for short term profit gains.

As the anonymous care worker describes: “The public face of the company is all very welcoming. They’re always very hazy around money. It’s all, ‘Don’t you worry, there’ll be lots and lots of work for you’. We were all on zero-hours contracts, so basically they weren’t obliged to give us any work. There are hundreds of people out there working like this, I’d meet people all the time, for jobs that required two carers, and I never met anybody who was being paid any differently. I know the hours for tax credits have changed now, but most people were on housing benefit.”

This also means there’s a large section of the workforce that isn’t preparing for old age and retirement: a problem that will also have to be dealt with further down the line. It’s no surprise staff turnover is high, and this feeds into the quality of care.

5. We reward failure. All the time.

Again, I could cite the catalogue of failures I wrote about prior to the G4S debacle. Or the £529,770 that was lost from staff fraud or abuse from the Flexible New Deal 2010-11. Or the chaos that followed the privatisation of our court translation services. Or A4E’s company director payments, which saw the-then CEO Emma Harrison pay herself £8.6m, in a year when fewer than 4 in every 100 unemployed people seen by the firm managed to secure jobs for longer than 13 weeks. Or the nine prisons put out to tender in November in 2011 in spite of high-profile failings in the private sector (as the report says, in the very same bidding round the Wolds was returned to the public sector following the expiration of G4S’s contract, having seen poor inmate behaviour and high levels of drug abuse). Or the closure of Southern Cross as a result of complex financial deals designed to maximise financial gain, which left taxpayers picking up the pieces. Or...

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a market. But cases like these show that we’re getting all the downsides of privatisation – the stripping away of money through profits, above all – and none of the upsides, because there isn’t genuine competition. This is market failure, pure and simple.

6. The profits don’t even stay in the UK, let alone improve services

Social enterprises reinvest the money they make in service improvements. Private companies don’t: for every level of sub-contracting, profits are taken out in the form of shareholder dividends. The total amount of money being taken out of the social economy as a result is hard to quantify.

But one thing’s clear: money which has been allocated by Government to communities and issues that need it is being stripped away. Here’s one example: “Private equity companies work to extract as much financial value as they can from the companies they take over, in a relatively short timeframe. One of the ways they do this is through sale-and-leaseback deals on residential care homes for children and adults. This leads to extreme volatility in a market where stability is a fundamental requirement.”

But perhaps the most galling thing is that nearly half the money raised by this practice doesn’t even stay in the UK. A 2010 report by the Office for National Statistics showed that more than 40 per cent of shares in UK companies are held by overseas investors: this had increased by almost 25 per cent in just two years.

7. We can’t hold these companies to account

There have been moves towards openness - through the FOI Act and the publication of every contract worth over £100,000. But this legislation has been trumped by commercial confidentiality laws. You can find out how much a company has bid for a contract, but not how much lower it was than that of the next lowest bidder, so the number has no context.  

As the report says, in business, there are mechanisms for accountability. A company’s CEO is answerable to non-executive directors, who can ask questions on behalf of shareholders. MPs don’t have the same power. And as Holbrook tells me: “I was involved in a Dispatches programme on Virgin’s move into health care, and an ex-employee emailed me to say she’d wanted to speak out but couldn’t due to a confidentiality agreement. There’s far less opportunity for whistle blowing within large providers.” On top of this, the service giants regularly make use of Britain’s defamation laws - which like the bidding process, favour those with the most money behind them - whether confronted by traditional media or online scrutiny.  

Equally murky is the “revolving doors” culture – both revolving in, with corporate staff appointed to government posts, and revolving out, with public servants taking on high-ranking private sector jobs once they leave office. Alan Cave, a central architect of the Work Programme as a civil servant, left to join Serco, one of its main beneficiaries, this year, while Phil Wheatley, former head of the National Offender Management Service, is now a G4S adviser.

8. This is the Shadow State

Only one in five people polled by Social Enterprise UK knew that the majority of children’s homes are now owned by private companies. The majority of people polled for the report had never heard of Atos or Serco, yet these firms and others like them, are receiving and are responsible for many billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

This is an argument that can and should be depoliticised. There’s nothing left wing in saying a local community should benefit from a local contract. And there’s nothing in traditional conservative thought to encourage private companies, say, buying up assets, loading them with debt, and passing that debt back to the service users. Yet it’s quietly, inexorably, grown over the last few decades. Tomorrow, I’ll describe what can be done to fight it.

The second part of Alan White’s work on the shadow state will be published on his blog tomorrow.

UPDATE 3 January 2013 13:45 This article originally stated that clinical failures had lead to London hospitals being forced to lend money to Serco. This was incorrect and has been removed.
 

A security guard working during the London Olympics. G4S's failure there is just one chapter in the outsourcing story. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty Images/Ian Forsyth
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The big battle in Corbyn's Labour party will be over organisation, not ideas

Forgotten and near-moribund institutions of the parliamentary Labour party will become vital once again, explain Declan McHugh and Will Sherlock. 

“Decidedly downbeat” was Chris Mullin’s assessment of the first Parliamentary Labour Party meeting following the 2001 landslide General Election victory. Blair was “received well, but without elation … the managing director was treated to some blunt warnings that this time around the boys and girls on the shop floor expect to be treated with more consideration.”

Assuming he wins the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn’s first PLP meeting will be anything but downbeat. The ‘shop floor’ will be more akin to a Lions’ Den. Labour’s new figurehead will face a PLP overwhelmingly opposed to him. Many will question the legitimacy of his election and some will reject his authority. From day one, he will face a significant number of Labour MPs not merely against him but actively out to get him. There has probably never been a situation where a leader of the Labour Party has been so far removed from the parliamentary party which he supposedly commands.

The closest historical parallel with Corbyn is arguably George Lansbury, another ardent socialist who took charge of the party after serious electoral defeat. But the comparison doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Lansbury may have been on the left but he had been a leading figure at the top of the party for many years. Corbyn has never been anything but part of the Labour fringe – rarely even attending PLP meetings.

Nevertheless an immediate move to oust him is unlikely. Whatever their concerns about the circumstances of his election, the scale of the contest will make MPs nervous about executing a coup. And crucially there is no obvious alternative leader waiting in the wings.

The internal battle against Corbyn will instead be more drawn out and fought through the internal structures of the party. The number of Labour MPs showing a sudden and hitherto undiscovered interest and expertise in the PLP Standing Orders is an indication of what is to come. When Labour is in government, journalists pay little notice to obscure internal committees. Now they are going to be the centre of attention. The PLP may be energised on an organisational front in a way that it never was during the Blair, Brown and even Miliband years. Conflict is likely to be focused in the following arenas:

  • Shadow Cabinet

Corbyn is now understood to populate his shadow cabinet by appointment, but opponents in the PLP are seeking a return to the system of elections. That will not be straightforward. Although the 2011 decision to end elections was primarily achieved by means of a PLP vote to change Standing Orders, it was subsequently agreed by the NEC and passed into party rules by Conference. It will be harder to undo that constitutional knot than it was to tie it. The PLP can vote to change Standing Orders again but the NEC and Conference will need to reflect that in further amendments to party rules if the decision is to have constitutional authority. That sets the scene for a messy clash between the PLP and the NEC if Corbyn chooses to defy the parliamentary party.

 

Even if elections are restored, it is not clear how Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP will respond. MPs seeking the return of shadow cabinet elections hope to run a slate of candidates who will work to emasculate the new leader. But others have already resolved to boycott the front bench, regardless of how it is selected. Corbyn’s opponents face a dilemma. On the one hand abandoning the shadow cabinet may be viewed as walking off the pitch at a time when others are prepared to get stuck in and organised. On the other, it will be impossible to take a shadow cabinet post without signing up to some level of collective responsibility. That means undergoing the daily grind of defending the party line in front of the 24 hour media spotlight, with all statements scrutinised and recorded by Conservative researchers for future use.  How many Labour MPs would be willing to support a Corbynite line on foreign affairs, defence and economic policy? The new Labour leader will soon find out.

 

  • PLP meetings

The Monday evening meetings of the PLP are a weekly arena in which the frontbench and the party leadership are held to account by the wider parliamentary party. In the Kinnock, Smith and Blair days, although occasionally raucous, there was a degree of deference to the Leader. That has waned of late but will likely be non-existent under Corbyn. No one can remember the last time the PLP voted on a matter of policy, but Standing Orders permit it to so – expect opponents of the leadership to use this device.

 

  • PLP Chair

John Cryer, the current PLP Chair, will have his work cut out trying to manage what are likely to be stormy meetings. Moreover, the annual election of the Chair is an important barometer of the parliamentary party’s mood and the easiest means of organising a proxy vote on confidence in the leader. Importantly, the Chair of the PLP approves what motions can be tabled at the weekly PLP meeting. 

 

  • Parliamentary Committee

The parliamentary committee are effectively shop stewards for the backbenchers and the election of representatives is similarly a reflection of political sentiment in the PLP. New elections won’t happen until next May but the PLP could decide to initiate earlier elections. Labour MPs will ask whether the current committee, which includes one Corbyn nominator, is representative of the majority view. If not, a slate opposed to the leader could be organised. The Parliamentary Committee has executive powers that it rarely uses but this may change and will be significant. 

 

  • Departmental Groups

The PLP’s internal policy committees have been in decline since the early years of Tony Blair and have rarely made waves but have potentially important powers, including the right of Committee Chairs to speak from the Despatch Box. MPs may use these bodies to challenge frontbench policy positions in a way that no leader has experienced, promoting alternative agendas at odds with the leadership line on foreign affairs, defence and the economy. The Chairs have not yet been elected and this could be a key focus in the autumn.

 

  • Whips Office

The idea of Jeremy Corbyn directing the PLP to follow three-line whips is, to many, a source of amusement. A man who regularly topped the charts of rebel MPs will struggle to maintain the traditional system of party discipline – and indeed he has already indicated that he has no intention of “corralling” MPs in the traditional way. Most likely the whips will play a distinctly different role in the future, acting more as shop stewards for backbench MPs who want their concerns made clear to the Leader’s Office. And the likely deputy keader Tom Watson, who hails from the right wing union tradition but is close to some of the left, will play a major part in trying to balance the needs of the new leadership with the real anger of backbench Labour MPs.

Corbyn’s lack of authority and support within the wider parliamentary party puts a major question mark over his long term prospects as Labour leader. He would certainly lose any direct trial of strength against the PLP.

But the Corbynite group will seek to avoid confrontation inside Westminster. They believe their strength lies in the party outside Parliament and in the new influx of members and supporters. Their agenda will be to capitalise – though they might not use the term – on the leadership triumph by instituting rule changes that will revive the left within the party machine. Not just inside the NEC, the Conference and the party HQ but in the regional and constituency party organisation.

Most particularly, they are likely to seek to convert supporters into members, with a role in the selection of parliamentary candidates. By such means they will seek to apply external pressure on MPs from their own constituency parties. Labour members may be understandably wary about moving to decapitate a new leader so soon after his election. But they face a race against time to prevent him and his supporters from reshaping the party machine in ways that will undermine them from below.

 Will Sherlock and Declan McHugh are former Labour special advisers who now work at Lexington Communication.