The privatisation of public services has been nothing short of a catastrophic failure. Successive governments of various political stripes have sold off services to the highest bidder, and it’s the public and those who support them who’ve been the hardest hit.
While there are those who argue that privatisation delivers better services, and say what works is what’s best, there is no credible evidence that privatisation works, even on its own terms.
Hardly a month goes by without another report showing that privatisation has either failed one community or another, led to a serious deterioration in the quality of services, cost the taxpayer millions or given workers a bad deal.
Last month, the influential National Audit Office said a cost-cutting NHS Capita contract put “patients at serious risk of harm”. Northamptonshire County Council – a Conservative authority that has pursued an extreme form of outsourcing – has been such a failure even Tory MPs want to abolish it.
Every day, thousands of people are having their lives turned upside down by the shambles at Northern Rail and Govia Thameslink, and later this month, Virgin Trains East Coast contract will be terminated. All are failures for privatised rail.
And, of course, the year began with the collapse of Carillion, where shareholders lined their pockets as the company plunged into the abyss, putting public services at risk and leaving taxpayers to pick up the bill.
This is the reality of privatisation. Over many years, our country’s future has been auctioned off in the pursuit of an absolutist dogma that says private profit matters more than the common good.
UNISON has always stood firm against those who seek to profit from public services, fighting to end the creation of two-tier workforces, which are fast becoming multi-tier ones. In too many workplaces, staff frequently do the same jobs as their colleagues, but with a multitude of different levels of pay, annual leave, sick pay and pension arrangements.
We’ve long opposed privatisation, because it’s bad for public services and those who work in them. Yet for too long, UNISON and our allies were forced to fight, not just the Conservatives but also the Labour Party, over the value of taking services back under public control.
Now, at long last, those who have seen at close hand the damage wreaked by privatisation – and who want it not just ended, but reversed – have allies in Westminster. In Jeremy Corbyn, the country has a prospective prime minister who could finally put public services back in the hands of those who rely on, and have a stake in, them. That is a huge opportunity for the UK to change radically, we must seize it with both hands.
Back in April, before the local elections, Jeremy Corbyn made a clear statement of intent, when he said: “Where they can legally be taken back in-house quickly, I know Labour councils will. Where it takes longer, Labour councils will hold the companies to account.”
The 2017 Labour manifesto similarly made a lot of the right noises, committing to bring “key utilities back into public ownership” and “reverse privatisation of our NHS”. Last year, Labour committed to ending the “scandal” of PFI.
There is no doubt these are all steps in the right direction. But compared to the scale of the problem, and the millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money lining the pockets of shareholders – which could be put to much better use in hospitals, schools, transport networks and local services – they are too timid by half. The next Labour government needs to go much further.
First, once elected Labour needs to ensure, from day one, that in-house is the default option for public services. That will stop the torrent of money flowing from the public purse to the private pocket that has become the norm in recent years.
Next, Labour must move to end the scandal of people doing the same jobs in public services being paid varying salaries and on an assortment of contracts. A multi-tier workforce is bad for staff, bad for public services and bad for all of us.
More robust measures to tackle tax-dodging and the hoarding offshore of profits from outsourced public services must be near the top of that list too. And any company that won’t comply should be stripped of all their contracts.
Finally – and most importantly – Labour must commit to ending all privatisation in our country, full stop, within its first year in office. That means bringing all outsourced, privatised and PFI services back under public control – by any means necessary. That includes all staff on subcontracts – the cleaners, caterers, caretakers and care workers.
This would undoubtedly be a significant undertaking, but it’s absolutely essential if Labour is to be the radical, transformative government we all know it can and must be.
Nothing less than the full return of public services to public ownership will solve the significant and mounting problems the country faces. Privatisation is failing those who rely on public services and those who provide them. Only by ensuring they’re run on the basis of need rather than greed, will our public services recover.
This is the opportunity our country has been waiting for. We have to grab it with both hands.
Dave Prentis is the general secretary of UNISON