PPPs could be Blairs Railtrack

28 Jun 01
The controversy over the future of public services continued to rage this week with warnings that Tony Blair's plans for widespread private sector involvement to drive up standards could become 'Labour's Railtrack'.

29 June 2001

The spectre of ignominious failure for the party's grand second-term project was raised on June 27 ahead of a Downing Street summit between the prime minister and public sector union leaders, who are threatening to mutiny over the hotly contested policy.

Malcolm Wing, head of local government at Britain's largest public sector union Unison, told Public Finance that Labour's plan to go all out to promote partnerships between public bodies and private companies was doomed to failure.

'We need reform but not privatisation. At the moment the only option for the public sector is to find a private sector partner, and that has got to stop,' he said. 'Otherwise this is destined to become Tony Blair's very own Railtrack fiasco.'

At Unison's annual conference last week, delegates backed a motion calling for a review of the £1.3m paid annually to Labour, in protest at the 'privatisation' policy. Wing said general secretary Dave Prentis will press home to Blair members' opposition. 'We are asking him to work with us. If he gives us the tools we will deliver.'

The debate over the private sector's role in managing and providing public services has moved to the top of the political agenda, following publication of a report on public-private partnerships by Blairite think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research. It controversially recommends extending the number and scope of partnerships and rejects having 'no-go' areas for private companies, such as clinical services in the NHS.

Wing welcomed the IPPR's criticisms of the Private Finance Initiative, but said he was 'appalled' by the report's overall tone.

'The general direction of travel is towards privatisation. It's more of the same, just rebranded,' he said.

Other senior union officials voiced similar complaints about the report. Bill Morris, general secretary of the T&G, condemned it as a 'Trojan horse' that heralded a 'no-holds-barred privatisation' agenda. 'Private sector involvement should never be a substitute for proper public investment and good value public services should be publicly owned and accountable,' he added.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, rejected the idea that opponents of more private sector involvement were motivated by ideology. 'The dogma belongs to the privateers who want to raid the public purse pretending that private is superior,' he said.

In the wake of the IPPR report's publication, Health Secretary Alan Milburn tried to quell opposition to greater private sector involvement in the health service with a charm offensive on NHS managers. He said the private sector would not be allowed to take over whole hospitals as they did not have the experience to manage many of their crucial departments, such as casualty and intensive care units.


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