Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Shrinking State

I noticed the following on Facebook, triggered by Polly Toynbee's recent article regarding the closure of Crown Post Offices:- 

The probation service I remember has always been run on a shoestring and has always felt like a Cinderella service compared with the rest of the criminal justice system. However I have always felt proud to be a probation officer and part of that big family that is probation. At least in the past there were offices scattered around that were reasonably accessible and in many cases were an integral part of the their local communities. 

For the first time in 30 years I am beginning to feel disconnected from my colleagues who work either for other CRCs and for the NPS not least because the ludicrous split that was imposed upon us seems to have become a divide and may eventually become a complete separation. We are entering a time when commercial considerations seem to take precedence over anything else and those working across the public sector must be feeling that their days are numbered and they too will eventually be privatised and sold down the river. 

The closure of local probation offices for instance places a cost on offenders financially and in terms of travelling time, increases risk to staff who are forced to interview in less secure/confidential environments and isolates staff from one another. It also fragments services in a very physical way that is difficult to reverse and rebuild once this has occurred. 

This came home to me recently when I was invited to an office closure reunion in Croydon. I could not help but feel a twinge of emotion regarding the closure of my old office where I had spent many an hour struggling together with colleagues to overcome IT problems, shared highs and lows, incidents and hilarious happenings, working as a team to deliver what was an award winning service to the community. The use of call centre reporting, open reporting booths, or even biometric reporting dehumanises the very human reporting experience and are a complete anathema to what we managed to achieve in that admittedly ramshackle old office day in day out. 

Everything we know about building effective and constructive relationships that seek to gently persuade and steer those we work with to make better choices and to learn the skills that will help them to do so are undermined when bean counters and profiteers take over who know the cost but forget the real value of working with someone over time human to human getting alongside someone and sticking with them on their journey towards a better life. 

Someone will always argue that what is happening to probation now is necessary progress whilst others, myself included, view what is really happening as a steady decline, deprofessionalisation, or downgrading of the essential quality of what we do and an attack on how and where we do it.

David Raho


Britain is dehumanising – Post Office closures are just the latest symptom
Polly Toynbee

Post Office staff are on strike today, protesting at the rolling closure of crown post offices. Some 60 are scheduled to go now, with many more expected to follow. More than 2,000 experienced counter staff will go too. The fine, 100-year-old crown post office I know well in Lewes always has long queues, where people talk as they wait – but now it’s to be replaced with a counter crammed into the back of a small branch of WH Smith. The CWU says that trained Post Office staff will be replaced by lower-paid shop workers.

Here’s why it matters. Post offices are a precious public face of the state, the front door to myriad things the state does. Penny-pinching and lack of imagination means they have never been well developed commercially, even as the mass sending and returning of parcels has become essential to internet shopping. Think what else these prime sites could do.

But above all, think what they are: the welcoming providers of help, information and support. However much we do online we still need a human face: someone to ask, someone to explain. Royal Mail has gone, and the Queen’s head with it, shockingly undersold at a knockdown price. Watch the Post Office ebb away too.

The human face of the state is everywhere in retreat, no longer speaking to its citizens. HMRC has closed all its public counters, where people often came for help with paying their taxes. Libraries, that great fount of civic knowledge, are closing everywhere, occasionally replaced by well-meaning volunteers without the information people need on everything from benefit applications to local planning consultations.

Even schools are no longer plainly part of our public heritage, with academy chains run and branded by business. As for “free” schools, what are they “free” of? Of us, of our councils, of public ownership.

Pools and leisure centres are privatised, costing more, while half of all parks, says the Heritage Lottery Fund, have hired out or sold off chunks of their estate to private enterprises, making hiring pitches or other resources more expensive.

Bus services have been savagely cut back in rural areas as public subsidy is slashed. Ticket inspectors are replaced by machines, stations denuded of reassuring staff in uniforms. Local museums are closing or sharply reducing their opening hours.

Deep police cuts means less presence on the street as daily reminders of a sense of order and security. Local magistrates courts are shutting, so justice is taken a further remove from everyday life.

As the armed forces shrink rapidly, local bases close – bases that used to link many communities to the life of the services. Even our air search and rescue is now privatised, run by the Bristow Group – its pilots (Prince William included) parasitically trained, of course, by the RAF, not by the company.

Public space is replaced by the growing world of shopping malls: private spaces patrolled by private guards, with limited public rights. In that private sector, the human face is vanishing too, friendly supermarket checkout staff replaced by those damned self-checkouts.

Local banks are closing, leaving just an ATM and online banking. Britain is “advanced” in dehumanised services, but it may help explain why polls show we are becoming one of the European nations least trusting of each other, suspicious and alienated.

By 2020 the plan is to shrink the state to 33% of GDP. Even if, as before, it misses that target and is 35% of GDP, it will become American-sized, far from the average of 45% in the EU, where social democratic traditions persist.

The headcount of public employees has already shrunk to just one in five. Good, say those who think the state a wastrel and the enemy of enterprise. How absurd to resist cuts. What next, bring back the lamp-lighters?

But when does the moment come when the functions of the state are worn too thin, too invisible, too impersonal? The veneer of civilisation is perilously thin. One by one, they might justify cutting a rural bus with too few passengers, a library or post office with low footfall, a museum or pool not used enough at certain times. But take it all together, and we lose communal space, owned by us all, run for our benefit alone.

Knowing something is there in our community is a reassurance. There is a warmth about something being public, for all of us. Even for those who can afford to pay, the emotional sense of civic pride is lost when a service becomes a privatised transaction. A sense of order and safety depends on plenty of public servants behind public counters or in uniforms, comfortingly visible, from park keepers to station masters, street cleaners to CSOs. A bouncer in a borrowed G4S uniform working for a temp agency, here today and gone tomorrow, is no substitute for a civic presence employed by us, working for us.

Goodbye, crown post offices. With you goes a great symbol of what we pay our taxes for: who we are, how we access the faceless state, with a friendly chat and explanation across the post office counter. The vanishing public realm diminishes us all.

Polly Toynbee


  1. Its nevertheless a very successful strategy for those who are 'money-tizing' everything & getting disgustingly wealthy on the privatisation gravy-train. I'm looking forward to the Private Eye report on those exploiting the very lucrative career path of public sector to private sector. Could it possibly be that some individuals are using their publicly funded positions of privelege & influence to help expedite privatisation of services & then transferring across to work for the profit-making bidders? It would never happen in the world of probation... (Ha-bloody-ha!)

    1. 08:49 - you've already missed it, it was issue 1427. Here's an update:

      "NO SUPRISE that the last Eye’s special report, Public Servants, Private Paydays, didn’t stop the revolving door spinning. Almost immediately, the advisory committee on business appointments announced yet another corker of a job move.
      Former Chief of the General Staff Sir Peter Wall has been cleared to join US defence firm General Dynamics, even though the Ministry of Defence has more than £5bn worth of contracts with the firm, including a large one for the supply of specialist armoured scout vehicles to the army. The advisory committee also noted that “Sir Peter had official dealings with General Dynamics and its competitors during his last two years of service”. Perhaps sensitive to recent criticism, it actually “considered whether it should advise that the appointment was unsuitable”. So did the committee change lifetime habit of approving all moves (see last Eye) and finally turn one down? Don’t be daft.

      The only constraint it imposed was to require Sir Peter to wait until 18 months after he finished in the army before starting with the company. But as he hung up his uniform in January 2015 anyway, he can now walk straight into the boardroom. The committee did insist he wait two years from the same date before advising on bidding for MoD contracts. So General Dynamics will have to wait until Christmas is over before the old soldier can really earn his keep."

  2. Outsourcing social problems has severe consequences for the recipients of services. It's something the government should be deeply ashamed of.


  3. Every word in David Raho's piece rings true. In this age when workers are fearful of speaking out, he has the courage to speak his mind, despite the possibility that he could be in breach of codes of conduct that seek to kill free speech through the allegation of bringing the service into disrepute.