Sunday, 18 May 2014

Privatisation: good in principle, we're told. And great for child protection

We always like our politicians to be principled. Though sometimes we forget that principles are abstract, and reality can be worth taking into account too. Detaching ourselves from reality exposes us to the danger inherent in pure principles, which is that they can be the skeleton on which ideologies hang. 

“...ideological thinking,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “becomes emancipated from the reality that we perceive with our five senses, and insists on a ‘truer’ reality concealed behind all perceptible things...”

Emancipation from reality. That’s the hallmark of ideology. Things must be this way, because that’s the principle we live by, and anything else must therefore be untrue.

Parties of the Left suffered from ideological thinking for decades. For instance, the British Labour Party became so obsessed with common ownership of the means of production that it became simply the party of nationalisation – though that meant ignoring the reality that the way the railways or gas distribution were run as nationalised industries was far from ideal, something that was obvious to their customers. The principle, nationalise the “commanding heights” of industry, trumped the reality of bureaucratic ineptitude and poorly delivered services.

Today, though, it’s the Right rather than the Left that is dominated by ideology.

It was a Thatcher/Reagan thing. Anything would be better run by the private sector than by government. And it didn’t matter how or on what basis: just get it outsourced, by hook or by crook, and hang the consequences.

The consequences were often dire. The railways pretty much hit the buffers. Labour had to renationalise part of them to get things back on an even keel – at which point they actually became rather good. Certainly better than I’d ever seen them. Expensive but good enough for me hardly ever to use the car for any trip over an hour and a half.

The railways make a powerful point. The solution we’ve reached fits no ideology. Those committed in principle to nationalisation or to privatisation both lost out: we have private train companies – and one nationalised one – running on nationalised tracks. A messy compromise, but it works. That’s reality. It doesn’t always fit any ideology.

Private train companies running services on public track
Though this private company happens to be publicly owned
Confused? That's how it is with non-ideological compromises.
The Right, however, sticks with its ideological fervour. Privatise anything that moves. Parts of the police service, parts of the prison service, increasingly large parts of the health service. Because it’s bound to be better than running those services publicly.

Except that it hasn’t been, particularly. At best, things seem little different. And at worst, they’re lousy.

  • Serco won the contract to provide out-of-hours GP services in Cornwall. That contract is to end 17 months early because the company couldn’t meet its delivery commitments. Besides, some staff were found to have falsified returns to try to make it look as though targets were being hit.
  • G4S won the contract to provide security at the London Olympics. It failed to put the service in place, and instead the army – the publicly-managed army – had to be called in instead and did an excellent job.
  • G4S also won a contract to tag prisoners on parole. After being found to have systematically overcharged on invoices, it was forced to pay back nearly £109m.
  • Now Serco faces charges of not having acted appropriately over allegations of sexual assaults on an inmate at the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, which it runs and which contains particularly vulnerable people: immigrants facing deportation.
So there are some worrying concerns about these two giants of the privatisation world, and precious few spectacular successes to allay our fears.

Despite all that, Michael Gove, the Conservative Education Secretary, is proposing to put child protection services out to private tender.

Child protection is about looking after children who are deemed at risk of abuse, physical or sexual. There are few tasks that deserve to be treated more seriously. If the inmates at Yarl’s Wood are vulnerable, surely no one is more so than a child at risk. We’ve seen sickening cases in recent years of children abused and murdered because the Child Protection services failed to intervene in time.

These are the services that Gove wants to put out to tender? To a market place dominated by organisations like Serco and G4S? He feels they should be given this immensely delicate responsibility?

Curiously, one of the few services he does not propose to outsource is adoption. He was adopted himself. Has that played a role in his thinking?

The proposal is a wonderful example of ideological thinking. Privatisation, the Conservative Party has decided, is good. So we’ll privatise anything we can. And the mere reality of poor performance, or even fraud, isn’t going to deflect us from our mission.

That needs resisting. And in case anyone feels that we need to answer the principle of privatisation with another principle, this one should do: child protection is far too precious and far too fragile to allow the pursuit of profit to have any influence over how it’s delivered.

Now there’s a principle I’m prepared to go along with. Because it’s firmly rooted in reality.

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