This week, it was announced that security giant G4S has won the first contract in Britain allowing a private firm to run one of our nation’s police stations. Today’s article takes a closer look at the deal, and set’s it in context. Britain’s schools, hospitals, prisons and police stations are being handed to private firms, whilst the political leadership insist no privatisation is taking place. Meanwhile, Britain is for sale: everything must go!
G4S already runs several prisons in the UK, and is providing security for the London Olympics. But this week, their scope of reach extended as Lincolnshire Police Authority signed a £200m 10 year deal with the private security monolith; this time, to run a police station on their patch. The deal also offers the option of a five year extension.
The firm will run ‘policing’ services such as the control room, the custody suites fire arms licensing and ancillary services, such as HR, IT and others. Over half of the 900 staff of the police station will have their contracts transferred, becoming G4S employees. The other half will remain civil servants, alongside 1,100 police officers.
So, G4S appears to be winning in its attempts to manage the whole law enforcement pipeline. They will issue commands to police officers from the control room to pick people up. They will check them in at the custody desk and detain them while awaiting charge. They will drive them between court and custody at the time of trial. They will drive them from court to prison if found guilty. They will run the prison that houses them for the duration of their term. In fact, when the prisoner is released, they may well even find themselves with a G4S probation officer.
Yes Britain, our instruments of law enforcement have been outsourced. Why? Because Local Policing Authorities facing cuts want rid of as much direct spend as possible. Budgets are drawn up based on what G4S promises to do e.g. make a £20m saving running the Lincolnshire police station. These arguments are, of course, quite ridiculous. It cannot be cheaper to perform these myriad law enforcement activities at the requisite standard plus a profit margin, than without one. But greater than the economic myths surrounded outsourcing this critical public service, are ethical and practical concerns.
The Police Federation – the staff association for officers – has already voiced concerns over the move. Simon Reed, its vice-chair, told the Financial Times: “Our concern is the resilience of the companies doing this. When we have national emergencies or unforeseen events, will they be able to bring their staff in to work long hours, regardless of what their contracts say?”
If one were looking for a punch line, it would of course be that we will be footing the bill for this contract. The tax payer pays for the police force. Now, the tax payer will be paying for the police force, and for G4S to make a profit from it. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t see the policy of privatising our law enforcement in any manifesto. Yet another privatisation without mandate, from a government without mandate. Worse, this isn’t even purely a manifestation of the Coalition – this is merely a continuation of the sterling work undertaken by the previous government to privatise public services through the backdoor.
In astonishingly similar circumstances, private healthcare provider Circle commenced its 10 year contract to run Hinchingbrooke hospital in Cambridgeshire this month. Again under the guise of efficiency savings.
Since its inception in 1947, the NHS has been surrounded by free marketers crying ‘there’s a market here! Let us exploit it! Pleeeease!”
The NHS today employs 1.7m people – Only the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the Wal-Mart supermarket chain and the Indian Railways directly employ more people. It treats over 3 million people, in England alone, each week. The NHS budget in its first year was £437m (£9bn in today’s money) for 2011/12 stands at roughly £106bn.
In short, the nation’s sick are a potential gold mine to the private medical industry. For all our complaints of waiting lists, uncaring nurses, ambivalent doctors and horrible food – Britain loves it’s National Health Service. It isn’t the best healthcare service in the world. But it is ours. If we get sick, we get treated.
So, no government has ever been able to even moot the idea of privatising health care. We sold the gas, the coal, the water, the phone service, the postal service, and the railways. But there has never been anywhere near substantial support for selling the NHS, and moving to a system of privately run healthcare.
With a population stubbornly attached to their publicly funded institution, what were successive neo-liberal governments and private healthcare providers to do? Privatise by stealth.
Firstly, there are the much-lauded Private Finance Initiatives. This is where a private company pays for a state capital project, and the state repays an annual fee over 30 years or so. The first PFI project was implemented by the Major government in 1992, was highly controversial and attacked vigorously by the Labour opposition. However, by 1997, New Labour was in power and performed a dramatic volte-face on PFI. Now it was indeed a means of bringing together public and private in a mutually beneficial deal.
PFI spread like topsy before the reality of it had time to sink in. In the early days, as new colourful modern hospitals replaced withered baby boomer ones, PFI was looked upon mostly favourably and trumpeted in the press and media. However, for many years since, PFI has been going very wrong.
In reality, PFI is a way of masking debt. In essence, if a government takes out a loan to raise capital to build a hospital, it goes on the books. However, PFI debt is (thanks to Gordon Brown) invisible. Therefore, the private company offers up the capital and a repayment rate to be paid back through the hospital budget, but this is not counted as government debt.
Today, 22 of the 103 NHS trusts to enter PFI are facing difficulty due to the exorbitant repayments required to pay back the so-called NHS Mortgage (paying back the company for building the hospital). Some hospitals are having to handover a fifth of their annual budget on paying for the PFI deal. In fact the Department of Health’s own figures reveal the real disaster of PFI.
In return for a capital investment of £11.4bn, once the last scheme set up by New Labour is paid off in 2049, we will have paid £70bn in repayments. Annual bills are due to rise year on year for the next 18 years, due to the inflation and the structuring of the deals.
Now, the hospitals struggling under the burden of this debt are being labelled ‘failing hospitals’ and who better to rescue these hospitals than our super efficient, private healthcare provider. In the first instance, Hinchingbrooke and Circle – but the other 21 ‘failing’ hospitals have been earmarked for the same sell off, just as the Police Authorities are looking to expand the Lincolnshire example.
The Health & Social Care Bill currently going through parliament is the greatest full frontal attack on the NHS in its history. It simply takes all of the above, standardises it as good practises and lays the legislative groundwork for ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ velocity
There is no new script written for each public sector sell off. The same method was used in education as with the NHS.
First, the school building programme was handed over to PFI. An Audit Commission report in 2003 concluded that schools built under this scheme are worse than state built schools on a number of levels. They found much a higher rate of incidence of inadequate sized classrooms, poor heating, lighting and ventilation in the PFI schools than their council built counterparts. Furthermore, it found that cleaning and maintenance costs (often procured from the same PFI private partner providing the loan) were higher than in conventionally funded schools. At the time of the Audit Commissions report, there were 25 PFI built schools. Since the report, PFI school building has sky rocketed. In fact, despite the UK government’s own spending watchdog, The National Audit office advising against PFI, Education Secretary Michael Gove recently announced his plans to build a further 300 schools this way.
So, once the PFI partner has built what is likely, a sub standard school building, what then? Then the school is encouraged to lease out its field, gym, assembly hall, theatre as a venue, for profit. This has an impact on local youth and community groups used to benefiting from school premises for their purposes. Now, it is the highest bidder. It is more likely to attend a corporate expo in a school theatre these days, than the local amateur dramatics society’s rendition of ‘My Fair Lady’.
PFI Schools have also found themselves tied into excruciating repairs and maintenance agreements, which see them paying thousands of pounds merely to replace a broken window, and eye watering call out charges for lights which won’t turn on. The breakdowns are more frequent; the repairs take longer and cost more. That friendly on site caretaker is perhaps not looking such a bad idea anymore.
After this pincer movement on the schools budget, with weighty building loan repayments on one flank and repairs, maintenance and cleaning fees on the other – many schools are finding themselves unable to stay afloat financially. Some schools are closing, some schools are merging – but when the schools close – the debts don’t. In fact, once a PFI school is built, the 30 year mortgage gets paid by us no matter what. In fact, three schools which closed due to falling school numbers will be paid for until 2035 by the taxpayer, costing us £70m.
Furthermore, almost all of these PFI School are not even state school anymore. They are academies. The Labour government previously conjured the idea of the Academy, as their means of improving underperforming schools, largely in deprived urban areas. When a school becomes an Academy a school becomes a limited company, the staff no longer work for the local authority, the school is no longer eligible to utilise local authority services e.g. repairs, maintenance, back office services – and the local authority has no remit over the school. In effect, the school is handed over to be run by the private sector, funded by the tax payer and free at the point of use. Academies are publicly funded private schools.
As more schools go bust under PFI, more of them cave to the cash incentives offered by the current government to become Academies. Today, 49% of all schools in the UK are Academies. Privately built, privately managed, publicly funded entities shifting cash from the public sector into private hands while the standards of both the physical school and its fulfilment on its purpose are fatally compromised. Having recently spent some time working in a local authority, I can attest to the pressure on schools to become academies. The Council were even producing leaflets for schools on how to become an Academy with a great list of features and benefits. The Council could then make a saving from no longer supporting the school. Meanwhile, the balance of school budget between providing education and staff – and funding loans, maintenance contracts and profit margins creeps further and further askew.
This, all of it, is also merely the tip of an iceberg of global proportions. They are local manifestations of a global pandemic of market creation, by an economic system run amok. As capitalism needs to grow, existing markets must be exploited to their fullest and ever new markets must be created to replace them once eroded. So, nationalised services present an affront to this process. They are untapped markets. Our government is colluding with corporations seeking to gain from opening up public services, as new markets. To do this, they need to run the best smear campaign on our public services. They are bloated, they are inefficient, they are uncompetitive (whatever that means), they are full of ‘red tape’. Therefore we need to ‘harness the efficiency of the private sector’. It isn’t privatisation because it is still, apparently, free at the point of use. But it isn’t. Ophthalmology isn’t, dentistry isn’t, higher education isn’t. Plus, as our tax pounds are diverted to pay for these schemes, they are taken away from others. In recent months we have seen the Welfare Reform Bill, the NHS Bill, the government’s ethically bankrupt Workfare programme – all these bills are about withdrawing services from those who need them, or transferring the provision of those services to private sector vendors. We have a responsibility to stand against these bills, or we’ll be answering to generations to come when they ask ‘where were you when it all went wrong?’
We are not impotent. We have a say. We have numbers and power beyond our belief. Just take a look at the workfare providers dropping like flies, thanks to a vigorous social media campaign by people just like me and you saying – stop. We need to say stop, louder and more often. Stop selling our NHS, stop selling our police force, stop selling our schools. Stop selling our society to the highest bidder. Stop treating us like fools with doublespeak and broken pledges. Stop. Stop. Stop.
You can make it stop. In fact, only you can make it stop. It’s time to raise your voice. You can sign petitions; the government e-petition to drop Lansley’s bogus Health & Social Care Bill is now in the top 10. You could sign it and help get it in the top 5. The epetition to repeal the Welfare Reform Bill, known as Pat’s Petition, also needs your support.
But don’t stop at a petition. Get noisy, get campaigning, get involved in direct actions, get right up their noses! You can keep up to date on direct actions, campaigns and other activites by following these movements:
Save our NHS
And ofcourse…..get along to your local Occupy Movement occupation. They will be talking these issues through, holding lectures in their on site university, and you can read up on matters in their free library. More than that, you get to be reminded that you are not alone, another way is possible.