Keep striking and we’ll give G4S yet more jobs22 July 2012
The old-school socialist leader of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), Mark Serwotka, is an impressive rhetorician. Only one aspect of that art eludes him: irony. Thus, with a straight face, he gave “threatened privatisation” as a principal reason for scheduling a strike of his members in the Identity and Passport Service on the day of maximum pressure from arrivals for the Olympic Games. It seemed not to occur to Serwotka that it is precisely the tendency of public sector unions to exploit their residual monopoly power in vital services that has galvanised their employer — us, ultimately — to contract out to the private sector.
In fact, the chaos liable to be caused by this, the third strike the PCS has called over the past nine months, is limited. Lives will not be ruined, even if the consequence is a certain amount of humiliation for the country as the eyes of the world turn to London. While it may encourage visiting journalists to file reports about the dire state of Britain, those who live here know this is a far better country than when the unions really could hold the nation to ransom.
In his recent book on the 1970s, the historian Dominic Sandbrook reminded us of just what it was like during the winter of discontent, when even the gravediggers went on strike and cancer sufferers were sent home from hospital: “The port of Hull came to symbolise everything that was happening. Easy to picket because of its geographical position, it was characterised as ‘Siege City’ or the ‘second Stalingrad’, a battleground where the shop stewards’ word was law. The TGWU set up a ‘dispensation committee’ where every morning local farmers and businessmen came cap in hand to beg the shop stewards for supplies. A coffin-maker sat nervously before this ‘tribunal’ to ask for wood ... Strikers revelled in this new-found ability to dictate. ‘It’s not whether the country can afford to pay us,’ said one. ‘It’s whether they can afford not to.’”
In his diaries, the then head of the No 10 policy unit, Bernard Donoughue — like his boss, Jim Callaghan, anything but an enemy of the unions — fulminated that for many strikers this would be the first time they had ever done a hard day’s work, as “they certainly never do a day’s work for whichever local authority overpays them”.
I like to imagine Serwotka reading such accounts with a nostalgic tear coursing down his cheeks — ah, the good old days, when every service for every council was a closed-shop monopoly, and the word “competition” was excluded from the lexicon, as if it were an obscenity. Well, it was farewell to all that, once the Thatcher governments got to work; and although privatisation remains a term of abuse for millions who feel their livelihoods threatened by it, and “outsourcing” is an even uglier word for the contracting-out of services previously carried out only by public sector workers, the truth is that there is no possibility of a return to the old status quo.
Nevertheless, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has used the G4S Olympic security guard debacle to question the government’s proposals to introduce the private sector into so-called “back office” aspects of policing.
“Policing,” Miliband told a conference of Labour police and crime commissioner candidates on Thursday, “is too important to be left in the hands of multinational companies unaccountable to taxpayers.” It’s a good soundbite; but as far as we know, the coalition is not proposing to ask G4S to bid to supply bobbies in competition with the local authorities. It might be worth a look, though — if only to wipe a little of the smugness off the faces of spokesmen from the trade union known as the Association of Chief Police Officers, who have spent the past week wallowing in G4S’s embarrassment.
Actually, any such smugness should have been removed by the revelations following hard on the trial of PC Simon Harwood for the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson, a bystander during the G20 demonstrations in London. Harwood was acquitted, which only goes to show that our fair-minded juries are not swayed by appearances, since the defendant had the physiognomy of a thug.
The key, as ever, is competition: lack of it leads to casual or even vicious exploitation of the consumer Immediately after the trial, what had been kept from the jury as prejudicial was disclosed. Harwood had somehow remained in the force despite 10 misconduct allegations, one of which — for assault while off duty — he had ducked by retiring on full pension on grounds of “ill health”. Having thus “retired” from the Metropolitan police, he was promptly re-employed by the Surrey police (resulting in a number of further complaints), before joining the Met’s allegedly elite Territorial Support Group — in which capacity he came across the unfortunate Mr Tomlinson. On Friday the Met conceded that the force had “got it wrong” when it re-employed Harwood. That’s all very well; but if you wanted a demonstration of why the “jobs for the boys” culture within the police needs comprehensively shaking up, the remarkable career path of PC Harwood provides it.
This is not an argument for handing everything over to G4S (which actually enjoys a very good relationship with the GMB union); though when Miliband cites its conduct over the Olympics security contract as an example of “the danger of private firms that are too big to fail”, he is missing a rather big point.
While it is true that the army has had to be called in to provide the 3,000 men by which G4S undershot the 10,400 it had promised to provide, the fact is that the private firm will reimburse the full cost of employing those soldiers, and pay a significant penalty, too. It will actually lose money on the contract — quite rightly so; and given that “outsourcing” of public service contracts has now spread from meals on wheels to the maintenance of the nation’s nuclear ballistic missiles, it is hard to see why the hiring of security guards at a sporting event should not be put out to tender in the private sector.
The same goes for the National Health Service, a point made clear by the example of the private company Circle, which took over an NHS hospital in Cambridgeshire that was failing not just financially but also clinically. The hospital has been transformed, now receiving the highest approval ratings from its users of any in the region. As the director of the Reform think tank, Andrew Haldenby, observed last week: “Other countries would be surprised at the UK’s caution over the use of the private sector in healthcare . . . in Germany, which has an outstanding health service, companies run two-thirds of hospitals, the public sector only one-third.”
The key, as ever, is competition: lack of it — in the private sector as well as the public — leads to casual or even vicious exploitation of the consumer, especially when the goods or services provided are essential. That is why the large bonuses awarded last week to the directors of the private monopoly Network Rail grate so much.
Still, even that is much better than the system Serwotka pines for, which brought this country close to breakdown. It didn’t succeed, which is why we were denied the sort of black humour Russians employed at that time to satirise their lives under a system without competition or profit, such as the joke about the man who goes to buy a car and is told by the state company salesman he can collect it on a particular date in 10 years’ time. The buyer thinks for a moment and then says: “Morning or afternoon?” The salesman is astonished and asks: “What difference could that possibly make?” “Well, the plumber is coming in the morning.”
If you are attempting to travel through one of our airports on the day that Serwotka’s men are striking against the evils of public service competition, you might find that some slight solace.
To view original article please click here.