Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Political Context

I thought it was worth taking a moment to reflect a little on wider political matters, not least to be reminded of the direction of travel. First off, it strikes me that Theresa May doesn't seem to have read the No10 memo suspending ordinary politics during the lead-up to the referendum, and especially not to pick a fight with anyone. Here she is laying down the gauntlet yesterday to firefighters in a speech to that favourite Tory think tank Reform, as reported in the Guardian. She'd better be careful though, because unlike the police, firefighters can go on strike:- 

Theresa May accuses fire and rescue services of significant failings

The home secretary, Theresa May, has criticised fire and rescue services for being 96% white, 95% male and allowing a “culture of bullying and harassment” in some parts of England and Wales. May said this lack of diversity, the existence of what she described as a “toxic” and “corrosive” culture in some parts of the fire and rescue services and a lack of accountability made necessary a programme of reform that was as “radical and ambitious as I have delivered in policing since 2010”.

In a speech to the Reform thinktank in London, she confirmed her intention to allow elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) to take over fire and rescue services, where a local case to do so is made, and to introduce an independent inspection regime, which she said was currently impossible. The speech was May’s first major statement of direction since the Home Office took over responsibility for fire and rescue services this year.

She acknowledged the “fine tradition and proud record” of firefighters who were held in “profound affection” by their local communities. But she argued that their achievements were in spite of the framework they operated within and not because of it. “A fire and rescue landscape still beset by poor governance and structures. A workforce lacking diversity and still bound by many of the old ways of working. A service that requires further reform to improve accountability, bring independent scrutiny and drive transparency,” she said.

The home secretary said the overall size of the workforce had not changed in the last 10 years despite a 42% decrease in the number of incidents attended. But she said greater use of flexible shift patterns and relying on-call firefighters even in major towns and cities could secure significant savings without reducing the availability of frontline firefighters.

May said the fire and rescue workforce had to modernise and that she hoped she could work with the Fire Brigades Union to tackle the lack of diversity and end the culture of “bullying and harassment” in some parts of the country. But modernisation had to also extend to chief fire officers who, she said, could no longer be allowed to retire one day only to be rehired in the same job just a few days later with financial benefits that the rank and file could never expect. “It looks wrong; it erodes public confidence; it undermines the respect of firefighters and staff in their leadership. It must stop,” she said.

The existing fire authorities, which are made up of appointed councillors, bore “all the hallmarks of the flawed police authorities that I abolished in 2012”, she added. May said making the fire and rescue services accountable to PCCs would not amount to a police takeover or a top-down merger of the roles of police officers and firefighters.

“The important distinction between operational policing and firefighting will be maintained; fire officers will not be given the power of arrest and the law will continue to prevent full-time police officers from training as firefighters. Funding streams for police and fire will not be merged and PCCs will raise a separate fire precept, so local people can hold them to account for how their money is spent,” she said.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: 

“The home secretary may be surprised that we agree with her on some of the issues she raised. We have been calling for an independent inspectorate for some time, as the current system had led to huge imbalances on the standards imposed on services across the county. We support any move that will mean all fire and rescue services are inspected, validated and held accountable in a standardised fashion. We are all however surprised about the claims that the home secretary has made about the size of the fire and rescue workforce not having changed in the past decade. The record cuts that this government have imposed on the fire and rescue services have resulted in far fewer frontline firefighters and is contributing to a poorer and less reliable public service. Whilst we want to work with the home secretary for a greater diversity in our fire and rescue service, it needs to be pointed out that it was her government who in 2010 chose to remove the diversity targets that were in place, sending a clear signal to employers that diversity was of being downgraded.

This article in the Guardian serves as a reminder, if one were needed, of the direction of travel:-

Austerity is far more than just cuts. It’s about privatising everything we own

Almost everyone who gives the matter serious thought agrees that George Osborne and David Cameron want to reshape Britain. The spending cuts, the upending of the NHS, even this month’s near-miss over the BBC: signs lie everywhere of how this will be a decade, maybe more, of massive change. Yet even now it is little understood just how far Britain might shift – and in which direction.

Take austerity, the word that will define this government. Even its most astute critics commit two basic errors. The first is to assume that it boils down to spending cuts and tax rises. The second is to believe that all this is meant to reduce how much the country is borrowing. What such commonplaces do is reduce austerity to a technical, reversible project. Were it really so simple all we would need to do is turn the spending taps back on and wash away all traces of Osbornomics.

Austerity is far bigger than that: it is a project irreversibly to transfer wealth from the poorest to the richest. It’s doing the job very nicely: while the typical British worker is still earning less after inflation than he or she was before the banking crash, the number of UK-based billionaires has nearly quadrupled since 2009. Even while he slashes benefits, Osborne is deep into a programme to hand over much of what is still owned by the British public to the wealthiest.

Privatisation is the multibillion-pound centrepiece of Osborne’s austerity – yet it rarely gets a mention from either politicians or press. The Queen mentioned it in her speech last week, but the headline writers ignored it. And if you don’t know that this Thursday is the closing date for consultation on the sale of the Land Registry, our public record of who owns what property, that’s hardly your fault – I haven’t spotted it in the papers, either.

But without getting rid of prize assets, Osborne’s austerity programme falls apart. At a time when tax revenues are more weak stream than healthy flood, those sales bring much-needed cash into the Treasury and make his sums add up. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility has ruled that the only reason the chancellor met his debts target last year was because he flogged off our public assets. And what a fire sale that was, with everything from our last remaining stake in the Royal Mail to shares in Eurostar shoved out the door in the biggest wave of privatisations of any year in British history.

And more, much more, is to come. The all new and mostly grotesque housing bill will force local authorities to sell “high-value” council houses once a family moves out – which will basically hand over whatever remains of social housing in central London to investors. Osborne also wants local authorities “to dispose of potentially surplus assets”, of which he calculates they have £60bn “in property not used for schools or housing”. That would be property such as our public libraries and swimming pools – but to a government hellbent on asset-stripping such communal necessities are merely unsold inventory.

At Whitehall, ministers plan to sell a big chunk of Channel 4, and the public stake in the national air traffic control. And that’s just the start, because here’s something else you probably won’t have read about: Osborne has bundled up all of our public holdings – in every company from the collapsed banks to the Royal Mint – and put them under the control of a government organisation called UK Government Investments. Its CEO (what else?) is a former doyen of the City called Mark Russell. In a rare interview in 2013, Russell declared: “We don’t believe government makes for a particularly good shareholder. Our belief is that unless there is a good policy reason for government to have a shareholding then really we should be seeking to divest those shareholdings.” Everything must go is no longer the cry of distressed shopkeepers – it is now public policy.

As an employee of the taxpayer, Russell earns up to £159,999, which is far more than the prime minister’s salary. Yet the one thing he has done that you will have heard of was an unmitigated disaster. He was among those in charge of selling 70% of Royal Mail three years ago – a sale that, even the government now admits, brought in less money than it should. We let a 500-year-old public service go at a £1bn discount, a select committee of MPs calculated in 2014. And that takes us to the heart of the problem with such sales.

At best, privatisation is a short-term gain for a long-term loss. The public sells one of its prize assets in order to enable the chancellor to bank some cash immediately. In a report published on Monday, the campaign group We Own It calculates that if Osborne sells the Land Registry, National Air Traffic Services, Channel 4 and the Ordnance Survey the public will kiss goodbye to control over £7.7bn in dividends and profits in the next 50 years. Sure, we pocket a couple of billion now – but we lose far more in the long run.

These are services that have taken many decades, even centuries, of public investment and management to build up. The Land Registry dates back to Victorian times; the Ordnance Survey’s aerial photographs of enemy territory helped Britain win the first world war.

All that accumulated effort and ingenuity will be handed over to a small group of investors – and for what? Better management? A recent study of the evidence by the University of Greenwich concludes there is “no significant difference in efficiency between public and privately owned companies in public services”. For more investment? Ministers selling off everything from railways to water have promised privatisation will bring greater investment. It comes – but it’s always the public that ends up paying for it.

Thatcher claimed that selling off BT, British Gas and the rest would turn Britain into a shareholder democracy. Official figures show that Britons now own less than half as much of the UK stock market as they did before Thatcher’s first privatisation.

Osborne’s privatisation, like the rest of his austerity programme, will enable him to transfer wealth from the public to a far smaller group of private investors. The employees can look forward to cuts in jobs, pay and conditions – as we have seen across the privatised utilities. The rest of us, the customers, will endure higher bills and paying for hidden subsidies. And the chancellor? He will have brought in enough cash to enable him to make some pre-election tax cuts – to literally buy himself votes.

Osborne calls this privatisation. I treat it as part and parcel of austerity. But there is another term you and I might use. Because this making off with our public property is nothing more than legalised larceny.


Finally, a reminder from the past with Zoe Williams writing in the Guardian, February 2013. Harry Fletcher gets a mention with the London UPW contract that of course proved to be the trailblazer for much worse to come :-

This obsession with outsourcing public services has created a shadow state

The government has "finally woken up from its post-election slumber",notes Caroline de la Soujeole, from investment bank Seymour Pierce, "and is open for business … determined to find new, efficient ways of delivering services rather than cutting them". Huh. Who ever heard of a government that could cause this much damage while still asleep? But that is by no means the most wrong part of a short but entirely wrong statement.

By "open for business", the analyst means the government is outsourcing public services – at a huge rate. The value of such contracts has risen from £9.6bn in 2008 to £20.4bn in 2012. Seymour Pierce estimates that public sector outsourcing could hit (deep breath) £101bn by 2014-15.

You can see the existing contracts wherever you look – helping unemployed people find jobs has been entirely privatised. It's known as the "welfare market", a peerless example of double-speak in which people's welfare is ignored and market forces dominate. The Work Programme doesn't work at all on its own terms – though if, as I suspect, the true aim is to destroy the standing and the self-esteem of the unemployed, it is working quite well. That's worth between £3bn and £5bn over five years. Atos has £3bn worth of contracts, also over five years. The UK Border Agency issued contracts worth £1.7bn, all to three companies and running for five years. Probation services are outsourcing 60% of their work, valued at about £600m a year.

This is all based on the principle that the public sector is inherently inefficient. Hand it over to private companies and they will swoop in with their efficiency, their economies of scale, their incentives and their competitiveness, winnowing it down into a dart of perfectly targeted public spending.

In practice, when they say efficiency, that generally means lower wages. When they say economies of scale, that generally means constructing the contracts in such a way as to leave only the largest companies eligible to bid for them. When they say incentives, look closely and you will mainly see perverse incentives. And when they say competition, what you're actually left with is four or five – sometimes only three – companies, who barely compete with one another at all but instead operate as an unelected oligarchy.

Most public services are not about producing microchips, they're about human relationships – care work, parole, job-seeking, even assessing whether or not a disabled person is really disabled; they are about one human being spending time with another. The economist Ha-Joon Chang's famous example of the pitfall of efficiency is that it mainly means making things faster – and yet if you played a minuet at three times the speed, would that improve it?

A much less romantic example, but one that exists across the country, is being given a bath by a careworker. Your local authority has signed a contract for care work that's much lower than they were previously paying in-house. Now your bath has to be undertaken by someone who doesn't have time to take her coat off. You probably don't know her, because staff turnover averages 30% in this sector. Whoever she is, she's probably having to claim housing benefit and in-work benefits, so the public purse is paying one way or another anyway. Who wins from all this humiliation, the low-wage trap, and the isolation? Who wins when a waste management company takes over a contract and bin men are simply paid 25% less than the bin men three miles away? The shareholder, the private equity firm that bought out the waste management outfit and sold it on: not you, not us.

However, it is wrong to suppose that outsourcing only erodes wages at the bottom. It is a classless foe, and attacks people right up the pay spine (except at the top). According to Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, when Serco won the probation services contract in London it did so by massively underbidding the public sector with a view to stripping out 100 of the 550 jobs. Not to worry, you might think – the others will be covered by Tupe legislation that protects employees when ownership is transferred; pay, terms and conditions will be unaffected.

But possibly not – when Liberata won the education maintenance allowance and adult learning grant contract from a number of local authorities in 2007, scores of people were transferred from the public sector. It turned out their pensions weren't always protected. Then the company "restructured", a process that trumps Tupe, and the "scheme leader" tier was simply removed, which meant a pay cut for many of the most qualified staff.

Then it turned out that Liberata couldn't handle the contract, but by this time it was so large that the only other company capable of taking it on was Capita. When the present government came in and canned EMA, citing "unaffordability", the galling thing was that private sector bungling had made it quite expensive. So a government scheme that the data showed had a positive effect on young people's life-chances was trashed; skilled people were left unemployed; unskilled people, unemployable. And Capita probably walked away with a wedge because the coalition broke the contract. "Probably," I say, because this comes under the umbrella of so-called commercial confidentiality, so we will probably never know.

What happens when these firms, with their inexorable expansionist logic, bite off more than they can chew? We pay anyway. We paid G4S; we will pay it again when its prisons catch fire. We will pay A4e when it finds no jobs, we will pay Serco when its probation services fail. We will pay because even when they're not delivered by the public sector, these are still public services, and the ones that aren't too big to fail are too important. What any government creates with massive-scale outsourcing is not "new efficiency", it is a shadow state; we can't pin it down any more than we can vote it out. All we can do is watch.


  1. You may say this is not relevantbut in my view it is because it demonstrates the greed and corruption in the private sector. This is about care homes classed as failing or being closed because they are unsafe. Meanwhile i know for a fact that there are small carehome owners living in luxury in virtual mansion with stables, the best horses and land, oh and also another holiday home abroad etc. Meanwhile a sneaky look at his carehome shows a badly kept building with peeling paintwork! Wake up public. These people need naming and shaming! Why are we allowing this? Privatisation is a national scandal and if the bbc wasn't running scared of getting the same treatment they would be reporting on this! Where is the money going? Into the pockets of greedy and corrupt individuals.this needs to get out into the public domain. Roll on with the referendum to make some space!

  2. Keep the info coming, Jim. Wouldn't it be a pleasant change for someone to blow the gaff on the whole privatisation scam? In these current turbulent times of EU-logising about leave or remain, maybe one or two brave souls with knowledge & an agenda could spill the beans? For example, which MPs and/or senior mandarins are benefitting from share ownership or directorships linked to the contract-winning companies; who has suddenly found the resources for a plush London flat, or a Mediterranean villa, or unlimited use of a box at football/opera. I understand Mrs May's husband hasn't done too badly out of his share ownership of companies winning government contracts.

  3. Lol is this Theresa May's answer to everything - PCC's will take over.

    1. Meanwhile she is nicely placed to have a good chance of taking over running the Tories - possibly staying away from the Party Euro fray is in her plan, who, husband apart, are her business friends?

      Sadly probation seems political flotsam in all of this as the once great State "Great Britain and Ireland (latterly just the Northern Branch)" flogs off its very foundations - The Land Registry will be almost gone by Friday

      "Land Registry" - whats that - how long did it take to build up, readers may ask. Now is probably too late to research - they had us looking the other way as Boris said - what was it now - staying in is best no I meant staying out - with the media ogling - whilst we ignored Supermac's advice about family silver.

      Ah well - the former HMGov owned "Royal Mail" are due to deliver my latest issue of "Private Eye" today - I really will try to read it cover to cover this week to keep up with the shenagins - but I am old and will be dead soon - sadly my children will reap the disasters my generation has sown and whilst we did not well manage the crops that were here when we arrived - and they have to cope with climate change and, and - how long will fossil fuel last, will the power supply get us thought next winter without having to do deals with Putin's Russia.

      WAKE UP - please!

  4. Is it true that Theresa May's hubby is a director of G4S ?

    1. Its not clear, but this from Vox Politics website in Nov 2015 might assist:

      "Security firm G4S has vehemently denied that Theresa May’s husband has any involvement with it, following claims on this blog and many, many others.

      The first article This Writer could discover linking G4S with Mr May was in July 2012. It has since been removed and in the absence of any solid evidence, VP‘s article has also been taken down.

      However, it should be noted that G4S has made no official statement – beyond the tweets – and did not get back to me.

      It seems clear that the allegation cannot be supported at this time. It may have been a mistake; it may have been a practical joke. If so, it has worked extremely well, because not only has This Writer been taken in by it but many more, across the social media, over that more-than-three-year period."

  5. Po told me today my breach report needed not happy.

    1. What?! Is that all you have to worry about?!!

    2. Why are you not happy? I presume it was said in a supportive way, with an explanation of what s/he meant by 'more work'. I trust you were given guidance perhaps on the the structure, or the wording, or maybe your proposal, which I would have hoped you could accept in the spirit of personal development of your practice. In my area, clerical staff moved in to PSO roles seem to have been given very little guidance or training in managing clients, including completion of breach reports.

  6. Yet there is still hope. The middle class vote for the elite that has destroyed all their professions. They along with the working class need to wise up, the Tory elite are laughing all the way to the bank we have got to take them on. A Left wing Labour party that uses monetary and fiscal policy to invest in manufacturing could turn this nation around in five years. But you have got to get political, start arguing and knocking on doors. The Labour Party needs to spell out the way its going to save the public sector and expand our manufacturing base and we "the shafted" need to sell it to all that can hear.

    Get political or get ready to collect your benefits.


  7. British Steel Corporation was established under the Iron and Steel Act 1967, which vested in the Corporation the shares of the fourteen major UK-based steel companies then in operation, being:
    * Colvilles Ltd;
    * Consett Iron Company Ltd;
    * Dorman Long & Company Ltd;
    * English Steel Corporation Ltd;
    * GKN Steel Company Ltd;
    * John Summers & Sons Ltd;
    * The Lancashire Steel Corporation Ltd;
    * The Park Gate Iron and Steel Company Ltd;
    * Richard Thomas and Baldwins Ltd;
    * Round Oak Steel Works Ltd;
    * South Durham Steel & Iron Company Ltd;
    * The Steel Company of Wales Ltd;
    * Stewarts & Lloyds, Ltd; and
    * The United Steel Companies Ltd.

    At the time of its formation, BSC comprised around ninety percent of the UK's steelmaking capacity; it had around 268,500 employees.

    British Steel (its subsequent name) was privatised in 1988 by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. British Steel merged with the Dutch steel producer Koninklijke Hoogovens to form Corus Group on 6 October 1999. Corus itself was taken over in March 2007 by the Indian steel operator Tata Steel.

    Now, after oiling the wheels of the privatisation & subsequent change of hands with vast subsidies &/or promises of public money, the UK Tory govt says steel workers have to surrender their pensions to make the abandoned Tata Steel UK businesses saleable.


    1. Did you know?

      "Tata Steel's Netherlands unit is a profitable business and it is not up for sale even though it would likely attract plenty of potential buyers. But the steelmaker's UK unit has suffered almost a decade of losses amid poor demand and cheap Chinese imports. The company has made it clear that it wants to complete the sale process in a 'time-bound' manner given the severity of the funding requirement in the foreseeable future." (Source: Times of India).