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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The Daily Mail’s reaction to Tom Daley’s baby is a reminder we’re not all equal yet

Columnist Richard Littlejohn seems to find it hard to cope with the idea of a gay couple having a moment of happiness.

Seeing as it’s LGBT+ history month, you would be forgiven for thinking that, just maybe, Britain could make it through 28 short days without a homophobic media controversy. But sadly, where optimism appears, the right-wing British press too often follows.

After the news that British Olympic diver Tom Daley and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance-Black are expecting their first child via a surrogate, radio station LBC quickly found itself in hot water. The station asked Twitter users whether, in their opinion, there is anything “sinister” about the woman carrying Daley and Lance-Black’s child being absent from the majority of media coverage. While there has long been a debate about the ethics of surrogacy, there are plenty of straight couples who have also turned to this option, and many nuances depending on the context, so the timing and wording of the question seemed pointed. LBC subsequently apologised for the “badly worded debate”.

But meanwhile, the printing presses were whirring.The main course to LBC’s starter, the Death Star to its Vadar and the hot dog to its mustard was springing into action. Otherwise known as: The Daily Mail.

Seemingly unable to cope with the idea of a gay couple having a moment of happiness, the paper employed its most un-lethal weapon, Richard Littlejohn, to put things right. In a piece entitled “Please don't pretend two dads is the new normal”, the columnist condemned the pair’s social media announcement, before expressing his discomfort at women being treated as “breeding machines” (again, note the sudden interest in the surrogacy debate). Next he takes aim at the media, lambasting them for covering this news just like any other baby announcement. Littlejohn then asks a series of erratic questions in quick succession. “Is Daley or his husband the father? Was it Bill, or was it Ben? Or neither of them?” Like a GSCE candidate who failed to revise for the exam, he soldiers on: “More pertinently, never mind Who's The Daddy? Who's The Mummy?”

By this point, you can practically picture Littlejohn, sweaty and misshapen, frothing at the mouth as he pummels his keyboard. Sensing that he’s out of material but still has half a page to fill, he haphazardly directs his hostility towards a trans woman who appeared in the news earlier this week, because why bother being homophobic when you can be transphobic too? Concluding the piece on a crescendo of awfulness, he “jokes” that he’s looking forward to the pictures of Daley breastfeeding, because apparently you can’t be a parent if you don’t breastfeed.

I suppose I should thank Littlejohn for proving, yet again, that the best way to transform male right-wing columnists into strident feminists is an opportunity to remind gay or trans people that they’ll never be seen as equals. Pre-emptively defending himself against accusations of homophobia within the article, Littlejohn claims he supported civil partnerships (but notably not same-sex marriages) long before “it was fashionable” to do so. Yet in 2004, the year that civil partnerships were introduced, Guardian columnist Marina Hyde dedicated an entire column to tracking his obsession with LGBT issues. “In the past year's Sun columns, Richard has referred 42 times to gays, 16 times to lesbians, 15 to homosexuals, eight to bisexuals, twice to 'homophobia' and six to being 'homophobic' (note his inverted commas), five times to cottaging, four to "gay sex in public toilets", three to poofs, twice to lesbianism, and once each to buggery, dykery, and poovery.” She writes, concluding: “This amounts to 104 references in 90-odd columns.”

The reaction to Littlejohn's latest piece was quick. Several organisations pulled out of advertising in the Daily Mail, a signal that the days of men like Littlejohn may soon be over. But whether published or not, this brand of homophobia is still prevalent in Britain. It appears when people claim not to have a problem with LGBT+ people, until one of their children comes out as gay or has a gay friend. It appears every time a person starts a sentence with “I’m not being homophobic, but…” It appears when gay parents, even those who have won Olympic medals and Academy Awards, are still only seen as a marginally better option that children being left to, as Littlejohn puts it, “rot in state run institutions where they face a better-than-average chance of being abused”.

As I suspect Littlejohn knows, no one is claiming that two dads is the new normal. Two gay parents is still a relatively new image for media and the public to digest, which has enabled this “debate” to happen. When 58 per cent of gay men are too afraid to hold hands with a partner in public, the idea that gay relationships are accepted enough to be considered anywhere close the “new normal” is ridiculous.

Yet Daley and Lance-Black’s announcement has revealed that, while homophobia is still mainstream enough to make it on to major platforms in the UK, it does not go unchallenged. We might not know what the tomorrow’s “normal” will be, but relics like Littlejohn represent the very worst of the past.