The most important election issue

Polly Toynbee has set out a devastating critique of the Coalition Government’s latest initiative in its strategy of outsourcing.

The most terrible power the state can wield is to take children away from their parents for ever. The idea that companies such as Serco and G4S, already under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, should be invited to make a profit from these agonisingly sensitive judgments horrifies the leading experts who wrote to the Guardian last week.

In writing commercial contracts there can only be perverse financial incentives either to take more or fewer children into care. Last week I reported on a private equity company promising an 18% return on investment in children’s care homes, the sales representative relishing how the “naughtier children pay more”. Everything can be monetised, even acute distress. But this one is the ultimate test: if Michael Gove can privatise child protection then anything and everything goes.

Before we do or say anything else, we need to reflect on this carefully. The Government is planning to ‘privatise’ the process of removing children from their parents. The handling of those most vulnerable, at this most difficult yet foundational period of their lives, this is going to be the subject of a contract, a payment, a negotiation, and a statement about profit. How can that be?

But even more than that, how have we reached the stage when this is not raising an outcry?

The government is deaf to warnings, as Cameron, Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude’s propel their plan for “the weightless state” at breathtaking speed. The sweeping scale of this ambition is barely remarked on in the reporting of politics. For now it passes unnoticed by most citizens, few seeing how fast firms like Virgin Care are devouring new contracts, as they cannily keep the NHS branding.

16-polly-toynbee_997297cThe only answer can be that we have now got so used to the monetarisation of everything, that we hardly notice when it is done to children and their welfare. When the Post Office was privatised, it hardly raised an objection—even though Margaret Thatcher baulked at the idea as a ‘privatisation too far.’

When I worked in an FMCG business in the 1980s, we were then experimenting with contracting things out in a similar way. When I managed a production line, we had contracted out the print packaging function. The key employees were supported in leaving the company, setting up their own business, and selling back to their services to their former employer. They could also sell to other manufacturers—and my company could buy packaging elsewhere. That was why it could lead to savings. This is the kind of principle the Government is after—but it can never work, since the kind of services they are outsourcing cannot be bought and sold in a market, as Toynbee highlights:

The [public accounts] committee warns that “Large companies such as Serco and G4S hold major contracts, creating the problem of over-dependency”, so a few contractors risk becoming “too big to fail”. The temporary ban on Serco and G4S lasted a very short time, though both are still under investigation. Avarto notes that despite the committee calling for diversity, the dominant position of the “big four” – Serco, G4S, Capita and Atos – is under no threat. David Cameron says he will “release the grip of state control”, but he is replacing the state with a few firms that could become beyond anyone’s control.

The net result, as with the Post Office sell-off, was that a small number of people in a privileged position will end up making a lot of money. And those who are being traded are the ones who will suffer. Another casualty of the whole process will be democracy. How many of us voting for this sort of thing at the last election? And how accountable are the Government in implementing this? All the evidence is that past failures will continue to be repeated.

What is a cynic?’ asked Oscar Wilde. ‘A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ By that token, we have entering a period of utterly cynical government. Yet the other half of the Wilde quotation is worth pondering too:

And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market place of any single thing.

This is the criticism often levelled at opponent of privatisation—we are just being sentimental. But the critique of the policy is much better grounded than that. The process is driven purely by ideology, and flies in the face of the evidence. From 1st June the Probation Service will be broken up, and the constituent parts put up for tender, despite the fact that all 35 existing services have been rated ‘good’ or ‘exceptional’ by the Government’s own assessment.

But today the parliamentary public accounts committee flashes a red-light warning. Margaret Hodge, the committee’s chair, warns that “the scale, complexity and pace of the changes are very challenging” following the “Ministry of Justice’s extremely poor track record in contracting out”.

Backed by the full weight of a government majority on her committee, her excoriation of the plan is formidable. “High-profile failures” of MoJ electronic tagging and court interpreter contracts “give rise to particular concern”, Hodge says, noting that there are no contingency plans for failure. The committee says that “this complex, untested” system of payment by results and fee for service needs more transparency to stop “contractors gaming the system, as has happened in the past”.

51TQKEV4ENLI have just been writing some study notes on the first chapters of Revelation. One of the most challenging of the seven messages (not ‘letters’!) in chapters 2 and 3 is the one to Thyatira. This city was not strong militarily, so relied on trade for its prosperity, and with it the trade guilds. These were religious as much as economic organisations, and most convincing way to read the indictment of ‘Jezebel’ (Rev 2.20) is that the Christians’ attachment to the ideology of economic success had compromised their faithfulness to God. As I read about the planned privatisation of children’s care, and the little objection to it, I feel I am sitting in Thyatira’s busy market square.

Some time ago, Graham Cray argued in his Grove booklet on Youth Congregations that consumerist ideology is the most powerful force undermining discipleship amongst young people. And Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gywther’s marvellous Unveiling Empire argued that the closest thing in our culture to the ‘beast’ of Roman Imperial power was global capital. (We really need to read Revelation more…)

How can we disentangled ourselves from the cynicism of this monetarist culture, in which we are all caught up? I don’t think there are any easy answers, and I am not quite yet ready to set up a self-sustaining enclosed community separate from ‘the world.’

But come Thursday, I might just be looking for the word ‘Green’ on the ballot paper.

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5 thoughts on “The most important election issue”

  1. Hi Ian, thanks for these thoughts. I’d be nervous about labelling all privatisation as worrying per se. As you know, it’s important to remember why privatisation was started, because much state-run industry was bloated, inefficient and lacking incentives to do what was necessary. I think you’re right to be cautious about this instance, but it’s a bad assumption to think that “state run equals good, private run equals bad.” Are you aware of what happened in Doncaster recently? Council-run children’s services were so horrendous that they had to be taken away from the council. In many areas including social services, the state can prove shockingly ill-equipped to provide care, need I say mid-staffs as well amongst many other examples.

    • For sure. But what is worrying in Polly Toynbee’s article is how consistently poorly these contracts have been managed.

      I read recently of a *good* example of hospital privatisation…but it turn out that the company was set up and run by doctors! Perhaps that is the way to go…

  2. Hi Ian,

    I have just come across your blog, what a delight. We should not find this news surprising of children being seen as a commodity. If there is no God, there must be some way to value what we do or produce, be it children or cars. Think on this: 550 children a day are aborted in this country. Our tax at work. There is no wailing in the streets, no mass protests, we have become neutered to this tragedy. We have become Men without Chests.

    Bless you.


  3. In the interest of balance Ian I agree with your analysis on this issue.

    I have long argued with departments politicians and clergy, that finances have to be removed as the incentive of care .Particularly when it comes to childcare. I feel in childcare the message of human commodity is a dangerous precedent. I also think that the mistake of labelling people as human resources has led to mismanagement of funds. I do not think that mismanagement is always intentional . I think it happens because the original care plans that are put in place become more complicated because of unforeseen circumstances. Because of cuts often the back up plans and funding are no longer there. The private versus national care cost a lot of money because of the undermining of departments in competition. Some people will always cost money and they will by virtue of health need things put in place more than once. Dementia is a typical example of that. One time solutions do not work for long things change constantly. It seems that that is where the problem is that the calculations do not take into account the undermining aspect .


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