Time for a popular solution to the perils of privatisation

Caroline Lucas has launched the Public Service Users Bill in parliament, a critical first step to ending Britain's nightmare of failed privatisation. Here's what it would empower the public to do.

George Woods
29 January 2014

Image: Flickr/elmada

Good news for everyone who relies on public services! (That's everyone.) Our initiative to expand the public’s powers to hold privatising local authorities and outsourcing agencies to account is gathering pace. Last week a Private Members’ Bill proposed by Green MP Caroline Lucas was presented in Parliament, and it has already attracted an encouraging amount of cross-party backing. Parliamentarians from the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru have added their voices to the call.

It’s not hard to see why so many now regard this issue as critical. The sell-off of public services and assets has accelerated in recent years, while outsourcing companies like G4S and Serco have been caught up in scandal after scandal. Last month both firms were removed from contracts for electronically tagging criminals, after allegations of wrongdoing and mismanagement. Foolishly, the government then handed the contract straight to Capita, another outsourcing company with a less-than-perfect reputation of its own.

Meanwhile, households are counting the cost of more than two decades of utilities privatisation. The profiteering of the ‘big six’ energy companies has dominated headlines over the winter. They recently came under fire from City analysts for defending their 7% pre-tax profit margin, whilst experts say that a fairer margin would be just half that amount. Heating and electricity bills have now become a crisis without end for families on tight budgets. Of course, as We Own It has said all along, there is no need for a profit margin at all: these necessities for a decent standard of living should be provided not-for-profit.

The Public Service Users Bill wouldn't go as far as we need to (where services and assets have already been sold off, it's difficult to get them back) but it's a step in the right direction, the start of a fightback against privatisation. It would cover a range of services, including the NHS, public transport, and local services such as schools and libraries.

The Bill would:

- Make public ownership the default option before any services, national or local, are contracted out to the private sector

- Require there to be a realistic and thorough in-house bid whenever a service is put out to tender

- Ensure there is full consideration of public opinion before any service is privatised or outsourced

- Give the public a right to recall private companies running public services poorly

- Require private companies running public services to be transparent about their performance and financial data (as in the public sector)

- Make private companies running public services subject to Freedom of Information requests (as in the public sector)

- Give social enterprises and mutuals, as well as public sector organisations, priority in tendering processes

Why are politicians of all stripes already lining up to support the Bill? We think there are three main reasons. Firstly, this Bill is getting cross-party support because it's about transparency. Labour MP Grahame Morris supports the initiative, saying “This Bill is a first step towards giving public service users a voice and increasing transparency and accountability. I hope MPs will give it their full backing. Public services are too important to be delivered without any democracy, without input from the people who use them. If we're serious about saving the public purse, public ownership should be one of the first options we consider, not the last. It is important that the public sector is not put at a disadvantage and it is even more important that tax-payers know who is getting their money.”

Did you know that at present private firms benefit from a massive double standard when it comes to transparency laws compared to when public authorities run those same services? The Bill would require private companies running public services to be transparent about their performance and financial data, as in the public sector, and would make private companies running public services subject to Freedom of Information requests – again, as in the public sector. If companies wish to continue to profit from the delivery of public services, it is only right that they do so on a level playing field. I am certain that if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear from this change.

If enacted, the Public Service Users Bill would halt the rise of the shadowy and unelected outsourcing giants and replace it with genuine community decision-making and transparency. It would ensure private companies running services are more accountable and transparent.

Secondly, this Bill is getting cross-party support because it's about democracy. Plaid Cymru's Westminster Group Leader, Rt Hon Elfyn Llwyd MP, supports the campaign, saying: "Public opinion is strongly on the side of this Bill, and so is the evidence. Public ownership needs to be the default option, outsourcing companies must be held to account and privatisation shouldn't go ahead unless the public supports it. I'm very pleased to back this initiative."

Polling commissioned by We Own It found that the Bill would be enormously popular. An impressive 60% of the public support public ownership being a default option before services are contracted out. 88% believe private companies running public services should be transparent about their performance and financial data, and support our demand that there should be a right to recall private companies doing a bad job. Tellingly, 48% mistakenly believe that private companies running public services are already subject to Freedom of Information legislation. Our Bill would correct that.

The Bill has attracted the most attention for its plan to give the public a right to recall private companies running public services poorly. If you consider the outsourced services you encounter on a daily basis, from waste disposal and hospital cleaners to Atos and the private rail operators, you will soon see how revolutionary a new power like this would be, returning power to local citizens and empowering the public to take responsibility for the services they use. We own it – we should get a say in how it is run and whether it even gets privatised in the first place.

Finally, the Bill is getting cross-party support because it's about evidence. Green MP Caroline Lucas who is leading the campaign in Parliament says: “Increasingly we’re seeing different ways public ownership can deliver high-quality, cost-efficient services. The publicly owned East Coast line, for example, delivered over £200 million back to the taxpayer last year. Councils are starting to bring services back in house, because it’s more cost-efficient. ” No wonder there is growing recognition of the need for public ownership.

The battle against privatisation and outsourcing is a global one, and our solution is already being welcomed on the other side of the world. Public Good, an organisation in New Zealand is now asking for its own Public Service Users Bill.

Whatever comes of our effort, it is clear that the tide is turning – in favour of transparency, democracy and evidence. The question for political parties considering their electoral manifestos for the 2015 general election is whether they break with the old failed consensus and embrace a vision of public services that would be efficient and welcomed by huge numbers of people.

Privatisation has failed. This Bill would give all of us a real say over what happens to our public services. If you ask me, it’s about time.

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