Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
THURSDAY 25 OCTOBER 2001
20. Therefore it has not been privatised, has
(Mr Edmonds) I am not sure how valuable that particular
discussion is but I would say that it has been privatised. That
is what I believe privatisation is, where you have a service which
is delivered by public service workers directly employed and then
becomes delivered by a contractor. That is not good or bad. I
can understand that the people who support that development are
sometimes unhappy with the label of privatisation on it because
all the polls show that British people dislike privatisation very
greatly. People who support it would not want it to be called
privatisation but that is what we call it. There is another sort
of privatisation and that is when something which is in the public
sector is sold into the private sector and that is what happened
with Railtrack. I would not accept that narrow definition of privatisation,
no, but the problem still exists whether you call it this or that.
21. You have been calling for and told us just
now that you want this calm rational evidence-based discussion,
yet when it comes to it what you do is take out big advertisements
in the newspapers and you show a nurse with a newborn baby in
an incubator and next to that you have a shady-looking businessman
with a Wall Street sign up and then you have a big slogan which
says, "Who do you trust to run the NHS". Is that the
kind of calm debate you are calling for?
(Mr Edmonds) First of all, we can find people who
look a lot shadier than this, believe me. This is a very clean-cut
yuppie and this is exactly the way many people in the private
sector like to be portrayed. I am afraid we have to have the argument
in the terms that the Government set it. I have been arguing now
for six months for an evidence-based debate. No-one seems to be
inclined to take issue with or engage with the evidence we produce.
If it is going to be knock-about stuff, we can knock about with
the best of them. That is not the best way to make policy. We
have said we can produce example, after example, after exampleI
shall avoid the use of the word privatisationof where the
use of private companies to deliver public service work has been
dire. Hundreds of examples. During a recent platform question
and answer session at the Labour Party Conference we saw that
when the three most prominent Ministers in this area were asked
whether they would give us some example of where this type of
private sector involvement has led to good outcomes, there were
quite a few pauses. If you had asked Mick that, he would have
been talking for 24 hours. If you had asked me about bad examples,
with my greater knowledge I should only be speaking for ten hours.
We have examples galore of disasters. When is the side which argues
for increased private sector examples of involvement in public
services going to start producing the examples of good practice?
For goodness sake, the Prime Minister was taken along to the Edinburgh
Royal Infirmary to see a PFI hospital. Presumably no-one takes
the Prime Minister along to see a bad example. This must have
been a flagship. Within half a dozen days, the announcement was
made by the health authority that there were cost overruns and
cuts in employment in that particular PFI because it was running
into the sand. We can find examples galore like that. If we are
going to have an evidence-based debate, let us have examples of
the good outcomes. We cannot find too many.
22. My constituents tell me that since their
grass cutting service was contracted out they get a much better
(Mr Edmonds) Then perhaps you can pass that piece
of evidence to the Government. No doubt they will use it extensively,
because they do not have too many others at the moment, and I
hope that in considering the wider issues, they will balance that
example off against the hundreds of examples of dire outcomes
which we can parade.
23. The housing repair service of my local authority
has been inspected by a best value inspection team and given no
stars on the basis that it had been systematically putting the
interests of the organisation above those of the users. They had
not been doing planned repairs, they had been doing emergency
repairs which were in their interests and not the interests of
the tenants themselves. We can trade examples but we are trying
to clear away some of the ground here to see whether there is
something essential about whether it is publicly provided or privately
provided or provided by anybody else which gets at this matter
of the public service ethos.
(Mr Edmonds) With respect, there has not been much
trading of examples. What has happened is that those people who
are against the increased use of the private sector produce lots
and lots of examples. Those people who have a different approach
have not produced too many examples, at least if they have they
have not reached the Ministers, otherwise they would have put
up a better performance on the platform.
24. Are you saying that your members who empty
bins and work for a private sector contractor do a worse job than
people who empty bins and work for the council because they do
not have a public service ethos when they are emptying their bins?
(Mick Graham) They are not allowed to do the job which
should be done because of cutbacks in numbers; the quality of
the service is not what those individuals want to provide to the
residents. Because it has been cost driven we are seeing crazy
arrangements where it is now kerbside collection, whereas previously
it was from the premises. We are seeing no efforts made for recycling
in many authorities because the contract is purely price driven.
25. What we are trying to identify is whether
there is a public service ethos. I accept that there might be
a different specification when a service is privatised, but what
I am interested in is whether you are saying that the public service
ethos does not survive when a service is no longer directly provided
by the public sector because there is a profit motive involved
which demotivates the workers in some way? I accept there might
be cost cuttings, there might be changes in terms and conditions,
but what we are interested in is whether there is such a thing
as a public service ethos which means that even if you have the
same terms and conditions and you are delivering a service to
the same specification, somebody does not do as good a job simply
because they are working for a profit-making organisation or even
a not-for-profit-making organisation which is not the Government
or a council.
(Mr Edmonds) The way you have set up the argument
you have left out lots of areas of flexibility and whatever. If
you have one single specification then our experience is that
people working directly for the public service will be pressed
to abide by that specification and will be required to deliver
on that contract of service delivery, but that in the private
sector, there will be pressure to go beyond that point to maximise
delivery of profit. That sometimes has its effect in terms of
the terms and conditions of employmentand Mick has given
some examples there. Sometimes it has its effect in terms of the
speed of work and sometimes it has its effect on quality.
26. You are talking about a public sector ethos
rather than a public service ethos. Is that right? You have to
be working in the public sector to be motivated in this way that
serves the public and you cannot have a public service ethos working
for a private company delivering a public service.
(Mr Edmonds) The pressures on the individuals are
such that it is extremely difficult to do that. The Chair quoted
an example of his authority. Let me quote the example of mine.
When my refuse collection system was delivered by the council
directly our obligation was to put out bins and they were collected
from our door and they were emptied and replaced. It then went
private and we were then given bags which we put the rubbish in
within the bins and the bags were taken out. That was fine. Then
we were not given the sacks, so we had to provide our own sacks.
Then we had to put our sacks on the kerbside because if we did
not put the sacks on the kerbside, they would not be collected
at all. That is the downward movement of quality. That is all
right. We now provide our own bags and we take them to the kerbside
and if we do not do that they are not collected. That is an entirely
different quality of service.
27. Is it profit that is the issue here?
(Mr Edmonds) Yes.
28. If that is the case, then it does not matter,
does it, if public services are provided by not-for-profit voluntary
sector organisations, or does it?
(Mr Edmonds) In this debate so far we have not been
talking about a voluntary not-for-profit organisation, but the
sort of social values I am talking about and was talking about
earlier on can survive within voluntary not-for-profit organisations
provided the service is not for profit and there are no pressures
which come to deliver on the bottom line. Yes, there are some
(Mick Graham) There are examples. Many authorities
have set up leisure trusts; several of the London boroughs. They
are within the public sector and that is an important principle
which has to be maintained. You make reference to the voluntary
sector. Yes, there is a bit of a dilemma on service delivery for
certain groups within the voluntary sector because certain of
the voluntary sector groups are actually the advocates for the
under-represented groups, the elderly, the disabled. There is
a possible conflict of being an advocate for a group of people
and also being the service provider for that group of people.
There has been conflict in several areas in respect of that.
29. I want to explore the concept of joined-up
thinking. Maybe it is a rosy picture but one has an image of the
traditional park keeper who certainly had joined-up thinking in
terms of the number of particular functions he or she might have
performed. If we are talking about public service now, it does
seem to me that joined-up thinking is just all important and we
are widening our framework. To a certain extent you could argue
that it is just a matter of re-defining the contracts. I should
like to know how you could not see a contribution, taking the
agenda forward when we probably all accept more than ever that
we have to break down the barriers and particularly the unions.
In the past the park keeper used to do all those jobs. Authorities
are now decriminalising parking and it would be wonderful to have
those wardens doing lots of jobs but it is not very easy with
the union contracts to move to that. Could you just outline to
me what the real contribution is towards what I feel is the public
service of the future with the joined-up thinking?
(Mr Edmonds) May I make a general comment here? One
of the troubles about the over-specification of many of these
jobs, the jobs done by employees as well as the job done by a
contractor or by a particular part of a council, is that the job
tends to get narrower because when you write it down, you tend
I am afraid to narrow it. The whole point of specifying is to
be precise, narrower and narrower and narrower. You do not get
specifications which say that the job of someone who is supervising
a park is to make sure that this park is a delight for local residents.
You do not get that. You get how often this has to be cleaned,
how often that has to be emptied, how often this has to be painted
and so on and so on. Some of the important elements of all of
thisin this building I would be reluctant to talk about
joy, but you know what I meanare just written out. This
is part of the corruption of the spirit which I have seen over
a number of years. At the end of my road there used to be a very
pleasant piece of grass and flowers which was nicely maintained
with a few football pitches and so on. It is now gang mowed and
that is all that happens to it. The football pitches have gone,
the flowers have long since gone, the fences have fallen over
and we gang mow the litter. If you gang mow it often enough you
can break those little fast food containers up into tiny little
pieces so they look like snow. That is what happens. That is a
downgrading of the spirit and it is a downgrading of the job but
that is often what happens when you over-specify.
30. My real point here is whether you could
take this agenda forward. I am throwing you something which I
probably see as quite idyllic and I am thinking in today's scenario
there are so many opportunities but I keep seeing them missed.
I recently felt very frustrated when a head teacher said to me,
"What have libraries got to do with me?". There is a
contribution there towards the public service ethos and I am asking
whether you see that role in the future.
(Mr Edmonds) Yes. Widen the job descriptions, widen
the specifications and talk about delivery to the customer in
a rather more general sense, whether the customer is the student
or the patient or the local resident. If you start talking about
delivery to citizens in its widest sense, I think we may have
something here. It would mean a widening of job descriptions,
it would mean different levels of responsibility, but the level
of satisfaction for the employee and for the citizen would be
that much greater.
(Mick Graham) Using the park as an exampleand
it is a very good examplewhat we have seen over 20 years
is a decline in a lot of historic parks in this country. The park
keeper has gone, the wardens have gone, it is now a mobile team.
I do not know whether you have ever seen a contract specification
under compulsory competitive tendering for grounds maintenance
but it has nothing to do with the actual service delivery or the
outcome of the service. Grass has to be cut even if it does not
need cutting. The contract has more in common with a train timetable
in the former Soviet Union than it does with maintaining and improving
parks. What we have seen, which is not joined-up thinking is that
the parks were vandalised, people were not using them, people
were frightened of muggers, crime on the estates increased quite
dramatically, social misbehaviour increased. Put those park keepers
and those wardens back, make it a decent environment and people
will respect that environment. It is the same on housing. A healthy
nation, results in less cost to the Health Service if people are
in decent affordable social housing.
31. Is it just a matter of re-writing the contracts
with new vision or is there some genuine public service ethos?
That is what I am trying to grasp.
(Mr Edmonds) It is the vision rather than the contracts.
The vision gets to be more important than the contracts. If you
overspecify and the responsibility is to cut the grass every ten
days, then the grass will be cut every ten days. If the responsibility
is to make the place look nice, then that seems to be a better
way of approaching the issue. The resource questions which were
put to us earlier have driven us all in the opposite direction:
save money, save money, make savings. So we go down into minimum
(Mick Graham) There is no statutory responsibility
on a local authority to provide some of these services and those
are the ones which get cut first.
32. What if there are reforms to public services
that we might want in the public interest but they were felt to
be against the interests of your members? Would you support such
(Mr Edmonds) We would have a debate. It is almost
impossible to answer the question in those terms.
33. Why? It is fairly straightforward.
(Mr Edmonds) With respect, if we think it is in the
interests and we are convinced that it is in the interests of
citizens at large, of course we shall respond to that. This has
to be a subject for discussion. It would be much easier to answer
the question if an example were quoted.
34. I gave you the example of the housing repair
service, direct labour organisation.
(Mr Edmonds) Absolutely; fine. Housing repair services
tend to be grossly under-resourced and if they are found to be
operating simply for the producer side and not for the consumer
then that is wrong and we have committed ourselves in the second
paragraph of our document to the improvement in service. That
is wrong, of course it is, and we have a responsibility to deliver
35. Most of us can follow the narrative of public
to private and you have given us some examples of ground maintenance,
cleaning, catering and so on, both in local government and in
health. That was a particular pressure councils and trusts were
under at a certain time. What is the pressure they are under today
to make them do the same thing?
(Mr Edmonds) It is the same pressure.
(Mr Edmonds) Let us take local authorities. Now the
pressure is the best value process and maybe Mick can say a word
37. Not tendering, just best value.
(Mr Edmonds) It sometimes comes to much the same thing.
Compulsory competitive tendering was replaced by best value. The
idea was that best value would include quality issues and work
force issues but then we find of course that those tend to be
second order issues rather than first order issues. It is a bit
like the no statutory requirement to provide the service. There
is no requirement to consider such issues when you are tendering.
Mick is a much greater expert on this than I can ever be.
(Mick Graham) We support the principle of best value,
of continual improvement. That is where there is a bit of a dilemma,
some mixed up thinking by certain Ministers. A local authority
has to review all of its services every five years, to continually
improve them. How does that fit in with a 25-year PFI project?
Where is the flexibility? Where is the room to improve? A 25-year
contract prevents change from service providers, yet if you tie
it in to a long-term contract, where is the flexibility to be
responsive to the needs of the residents. In respect of best value,
we campaigned long and hard to get rid of the obscenity of the
Dutch auction of CCT. What we are seeing under best value are
services, which were never subject to the CCT rules, have been
externalised wholesale without any consideration. Then we end
up with a two-tier work force, the attacks, job losses, reduction
in service. It has been quite interesting under the best value
regime. Certain authorities have actually now said that they are
bringing services back in house because the private sector has
not delivered. Housing benefit is a very good example. In one
London borough 30 residents were actually threatened with eviction
because the private company had bungled their housing benefit.
This is increasingly happening. It has been proved in local government
that the private sector has failed. One London borough in particular
took the view that they would bring all their services which were
in direct contact with members of the public back in house under
democratic control. In their view the best way to ensure that
they were delivering services, which were responsive and responsible
to the residents, was by directly employing the staff, not by
a third party.
38. We are suffering. We have a residual problem
from tendering, we have a problem over best value. May I give
you a completely different example? You mentioned in your introduction
that delivery was an important issue. We could look to the report
about A&E departments, additional doctors, additional funding,
but we still do not have a delivery at the end of the day. What
is causing that problem if it is not best value and it is not
tendering? What is the difficulty there?
(Mr Edmonds) I have not had the opportunity of reading
the report which I shall do during the course of the day but I
have not read it yet so I am just relying on secondary reports
of it. As I understand it, there is a very wide variation in the
delivery of the A&E service in various parts of the country.
Clearly part of that must be management problems because if it
can be got right here and not here, then there is clearly a management
issue. When I heard that a major area of problem was London in
A&E departments, and we know the problems of holding on to
staff in London, I just wondered whether we might not be seeing
a major staffing difficulty. We shall just have to look at the
report and we shall look at the report very carefully and if we
can contribute, as we have said over and over again, to a solution
to this problem, then we have a responsibility as a trade union
to do that and we shall honour that responsibility. I cannot go
into details because I have not read the report.
39. The Prime Minister famously said that the
public sector is resistant to change and he has scars on his back.
Is that a valid criticism that for all its virtues those in the
public sector do not respond well to change?
(Mr Edmonds) If you talk to people in the public sector,
what they will say to you with great vigour and with many examples
is that it never stops changing. There is never a moment to pause,
they have new targets, new budgetary changes, new legislative
requirements, new pieces of advice from the ministries and so
on. What they feel is that they are subject to a barrage of demands
which prevent themmanagers say thisfrom making reasonable
management decisions about service delivery because they are facing
a plethora of targets which seem to be in conflict and to which
they have to respond. I just do not know where this point about
the public sector not changing comes from. We have all been talking
about the changes in contracts all the time, changes in financial
regime and so on, day after day, week after week after week. The
point is: why are public services not getting better? This is
not because the employees are not changing, it is because in many
cases the employees do not have the resources and the discretion
to make the changes because politicians centrally get very frustrated
that things are not delivered so they issue another directive.