Regular readers will be aware that this blog is penned by a self-confessed grumpy probation officer, but I'm beginning to get angry now and feel the need to share my thoughts and reasoning lest I be regarded as having 'lost it.'
It started innocuously enough with an e-mail from 38 degrees informing me that the government were intent on privatising the - wait for it - Fire Service! Initially I thought it was a joke, or spam or April 1st, but no it's been quietly bubbling away for ages and I suspect like many other citizens, just hadn't noticed. It's been completely 'under my radar' and in any case, it's such a bloody stupid idea, surely no government would even consider it? - wrong!
When I got researching, the 'red mist' began to descend. We know police forces are entering into contracts with the usual suspects like Serco and G4S for all kinds of tasks including investigating crime. Where I live we've got private firms running around with blue lights for the NHS, HM Dockyards are privately run, so is RAF fighter training, Aldermaston, Fylingdales, the Royal Train - the list just goes on and on and on. Why don't we just hand over the bloody keys to G4S, Serco and Capita now and have done with it?
I suspect most citizens have no idea the extent to which the state has already been privatised. Noticing it, let alone trying to stop it is not easy because it's been incremental and done sneakily. Politicians of all hues seem to have got used to the idea that we're not noticing, and don't really care. Ok the search and rescue helicopter service privatisation didn't go ahead, but that was more due to cock-up than design. But just as we thought the matter was shelved, it turns out the government have been beavering away in secret on another scheme to be announced shortly.
Increasingly, in what we laughably call a democracy, we have to rely on internet-based campaigning groups like 38 degrees to alert us and mobilise us. It worked when a powerful message went straight to government over selling-off our forests, and it looks like it's going to happen again over protecting a public Fire Service.
When I received the e-mail three days ago, the petition stood at 33,319 signatures, but as I publish this post it has already risen to 86,734. An increase of 50,000 signatures in just a few days ably demonstrates the power of the internet, together with the strength of feeling on the subject. Any sensible politician should realise that the public mood is strongly supportive of key public services. They are just too important to mess around with, let alone consider privatising. (By way of comparison, the probation No10 petition is just approaching 20,000, a healthy figure, but one that has been achieved without 38 degree's involvement.)
Of course the government doesn't call it privatisation - that's an emotive politically-toxic term. In the case of the Fire Service, the government prefers to talk about 'mutualisation.' Of course that has a familiar ring about it for us in the Probation Service. Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, says:-
“Mutuals end the old binary choice between state and privately run public services. This is about frontline staff taking control and having power to do their jobs how they know is best. Across the public sector thousands of employees are forming mutuals and taking control because they’re fed up with the wasteful bureaucracy imposed on them by the state and know they can do better. Cleveland Fire Brigade is exploring plans motivated entirely by their determination to protect and grow services for local people.”
Yes and that's just so much bullshit Francis! I'm pretty fed up only being able to cast a 'binary' cross on a bit of paper every few years. Can I remind him that hundreds of thousands of us ignored the 'binary' option at the elections for Police and Crime Commissioners, and opted instead for spoiling our ballot papers en masse.
There is a powerful message for government here. There is increasing disillusionment with the present democratic structures and increasingly the citizenry will be turning to the likes of 38 degrees in order to flex collective muscle, free of the toxic involvement of party-political machinery. We need an urgent public debate about the appropriate boundaries between public and private delivery of key services.
And another thing! Don't think we've not noticed that MP's are now claiming more than ever before in expenses and in the process making us taxpayers pay for a ludicrously expensive and toothless bureaucracy to supposedly regulate them. Unbelievable I know, but there's even talk of voting themselves a massive pay rise. Well can I remind them of the oft-stated necessity for 'reform' of public services, especially at a time of constrained public expenditure. Remember - 'reform' means doing more for less!
Lay off the Fire Service and lay off the Probation Service. You've been warned.
Sign the No10 petition here.
Sign the 38 degree Fire Service petition here.