Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 78)



  60. Under one third of your members are actually in the public sector. Is that right?
  (Mr Edmonds) It is about 40 per cent.

  61. Say 40 per cent; thank you very much for that. Therefore a majority of your members work presumably in the private sector.
  (Mr Edmonds) Yes; that is right.

  62. Are you therefore, as a union General Secretary, not actually undermining the majority of your workers? Presumably a major percentage of those workers came from the public sector in the first place.
  (Mr Edmonds) No, they did not actually. The vast majority of those people who work in the private sector are private sector workers. We are a general union and we organise people in that particular way. Am I expressing here the view of only our public service workers? No. We have debated this at all levels in the organisation. We have carried out opinion polls on our members, we have surveyed our members. What I am representing to you is the view of the members of the union. It is true that we have a majority of people who are not producers but are on the receiving end of public services. They want public services to be delivered by public service workers. They want improvements but they are as sceptical as the rest of the British public that these improvements will come from private companies.

  63. You have 2,000 local councillors and 80 Labour MPs and 13 MEPs. Is that correct at the moment?
  (Mr Edmonds) Actually it is rather more than 80.

  64. Fair enough. No disrespect, do you find you are losing the argument? We have talked about the ethos and all the rest of it, but you have an enormous number of affiliated members—they are affiliated, are they not, if they are MPs, or are they sponsored?
  (Mr Edmonds) We are affiliated to the Labour Party. We do not have sponsored MPs.

  65. Do you feel that you are not getting your argument across to Government in any way or form at the moment?
  (Mr Edmonds) We are getting our argument across; it is quite clear we are.

  66. They are not listening. You are knocking on the door, or hammering on the door.
  (Mr Edmonds) Perhaps it would not be discreet to indicate how I know that we are getting the argument across.

  67. Try to be indiscreet for a little bit.
  (Mr Edmonds) We have pretty regular contact with Government Ministers and they seem in private at least to feel the obligation to respond to our arguments. During the Labour Party Conference reassuring statements were made about some of these issues. I imagine that actually what is having its biggest effect on the Government is the result of their own polling. Presumably when we pay MORI to do something we get the same result as when they pay MORI to do something. Our polling shows that this is a very unpopular policy.

  68. It depends on the question you ask them, with no disrespect.
  (Mr Edmonds) We have asked the question in all sorts of different ways.


  69. This is interesting; we like you to be indiscreet. You believe you are winning the argument with Government on public service reform now.
  (Mr Edmonds) Since the announcement was made during the election campaign the Government is thinking much more seriously about the implications of the introduction. One indication of this was that the Government set up pilot schemes about the employment of Health Service workers, whether they should be employed by contractors or whether they should maintain their employment in the Health Service under a PFI scheme. That was undoubtedly a helpful development. The Government looks as though it might review rather more widely than they originally intended, the best value system. We are discussing with them the extension of TUPE. They have been at pains to demonstrate that what they are suggesting is not a wholesale introduction of private companies but a private company introduction in four specific areas. We think that is far too wide. There have been several public indications that there is a response to these arguments. Who knows? The Government can write its own questions for MORI and provided MORI thinks it is a reasonable question, they will poll on it. What they found was deep scepticism and although the analogy with Railtrack is regarded by most senior politicians as not applicable, the great British public, when they look at privatisation issues, do not reach for the crystal ball, they just go and stand on a railway platform. There is no doubt that privatisation has been substantially undermined as a policy by what has gone on in Railtrack.

Mr Trend

  70. Given the chance the Government has not renationalised.
  (Mr Edmonds) We shall see.
  (Mick Graham) Ask any Londoner about the future of London Underground and they certainly would not be supporting the Government's proposal.


  71. Is not the truth that the people just want better public services and they do not much care how that is provided, but by golly, they are going to punish those politicians who do not provide them.
  (Mr Edmonds) Yes, that is absolutely right. What we have been arguing is how you deliver those improvements. On the basis of evidence we do not believe that the best way to deliver those improvements is by the increased introduction of private companies. That is what we believe and we have the evidence. We believe that PFI is a high cost option which usually produces, on the basis of evidence, a lower quality than would be secured by a rather more direct investment and direct control of the management of the facility and we have lots of evidence to support that. We have been asked what the blockage is here. It looks like the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement. That is our judgement. It is all about improvement. Of course it is about improvement. We are suggesting that the way the Government are going about it might not be the best way to improvements.

Brian White

  72. Apologies for having to leave earlier but I had Question 3 in Education Questions this morning. In response to one of the questions on PFI, the Minister just said that there is no evidence of problems with education PFIs. You are saying that you have the evidence. Have you provided it to Government?
  (Mr Edmonds) Yes. We have a little dossier on PFI in education which I am quite happy to share with the Committee. PFI in education is less fully developed than PFI in health and there are fewer contracts and certainly fewer large contracts but the message looks very similar. We have done this work and we are very keen to give it to Government and we are very keen to give it to you. If there are mistakes in it and it is wrong, then the best thing to do is to expose that. At the moment it does not look too good.

Mr Prentice

  73. Just to go back to the very beginning when the Chairman was asking you about nurses working in local authority residential homes for the elderly and the private sector equivalent, I read in the material you left with the Clerk that the GMB welcomes the new national care standards for residential homes. Given that this is a Government which has a fixation with targets and so on, I just wondered whether you could tell us whether this provides part of the answer to the public sector/private sector dilemma. You have standards not just for residential care homes for the elderly, but across the whole range of provision. It is up to the private sector and public sector to demonstrate that they are capable of delivering those standards which are laid down by the centre.
  (Mick Graham) Just on the national care standards, we certainly welcome those and we have been campaigning for a long time to get vetting, regulation, training within the care sector. The proposals start at the wrong end, saying that everybody has to be registered. Fine. They are starting with the social workers. They are already registered. It is the tens of thousands of carers out there, where there is no training, no vetting, no regulation. We welcome the Government's proposals to train and register all staff in the care sector. Yes, there has to be standards and we want to see continually improving standards. We want to see flexible services because the demands of communities change over time. Yes, but it is how those standards are delivered. We could go on ad nauseam with examples we have of the failings in the private sector. What happens when the private sector has failed on these? The service reverts to the public sector to pick up the pieces and start delivering an improved service to the communities. One last point I would make. A member of the Committee mentioned costs and the investment. If you look at the massive amounts from the public purse which have been spent on consultancy fees in the preparation of PFI and partnership projects, it is absolutely astronomical. I would suggest that the money would be far better invested in frontline direct service provision.
  (Mr Edmonds) We believe £53 million from the first 18 PFIs; £53 million which is not spent on the patient care. Incidentally, the consultants we are talking about are management consultants not the consultants we like to see in the Health Service.


  74. May I try to pursue a little more the area Gordon Prentice raised with you, which is the question of the kind of reform you think you are attached to and where you think it might come from? You do say in your document that reform is essential. Yet when you come and talk to us, all you describe really are the things you do not like. You want a bit more money, you want all this nasty stuff to end. There was talk of freedom, being left alone. That is not how people approach this, is it? People want to see things happen to public services. I want to know from you where you think the drivers for reform really come from if it does not come from these kind of external interventions. Given the fact that public services in the experience of many people are pretty lousy and in addition the so-called public service ethos as experienced by many people is not something which drives people who work in the public services to go the extra mile but is actually reflected in a state monopoly which says you cannot go anywhere else so I do not have to treat you as a user because I am simply the monopoly provider, if I do not want to open at hours convenient for you, I shall not, it was not a driver of service in many respects, it was a driver of producer interests against those of users. If this is not the path and if there is an imperative to improve public services which need improving and you say you are committed to reform, where is that vision of reform which is different from the hands-off stuff?
  (Mr Edmonds) Thanks for this. I should have liked that question earlier. We were asked earlier on a bit about the vision. First of all, public service jobs are by and large defined far too narrowly. They are defined in very old fashioned terms about work to be done, the mechanics of the work, rather than in terms of the satisfaction of the person receiving it. That is what we need: a massive change in the way jobs are defined in the public services. That needs to be supported by a very considerable initiative on training, because we are talking mostly about people who are undertrained. The irony, particularly in local government, is that those people who are least well trained are those people who are most likely to be in contact with the residents. By and large the professionals in the background tend to be really rather well trained, but the people involved in service delivery are really badly trained. How do we move forward from those two positions? What we need to do is to follow the model I was describing in the Health Service in reply to Mr Prentice's question. What we need is some very sensible discussion about what needs to be improved. In the Health Service you can do this pretty easily, can you not? You know what the problem is with A&E and we ought to be able to do something about that. People feel very badly about dirty hospitals, most of which are cleaned by the private sector incidentally, and the cross infection problem in hospitals is enormous: over 100,000 examples of cross infection. We do not know how many people die but over 100,000 and some of the infections are very serious indeed. You have to be very healthy to go into hospitals nowadays. It was a joke, but it is serious, very, very serious. Our president went in for a serious operation and she spent the last two months recovering from an infection she got from St Mary's Paddington. Thanks, St Mary's Paddington. Everybody has that experience. Major problem with outpatients. There needs to be much greater flexibility in designing outpatients' departments and in ensuring that outpatients' departments are responsive to people's needs so that they can go when they want to go. Much greater flexibility in the timing of operations and whether theatre facilities are sufficiently intensively used. I can go on and on. Those are some pretty good objectives. Let us work out how we are going to improve those. Work them out with the staff. They are the only people you are going to have over the next five year, so you might as well talk to them and work out a proper plan forward with them and do that in local authorities as well. You do have to take off some of the restrictions; some of the restrictions on structure, some of the restrictions under best value. The key thing is that people have to be trained. We do not want out people to be underskilled and undertrained, we want them to be trained. I started at the beginning by saying that what people want is job satisfaction. They want security so some of the cycle of constant re-tendering, which just destroys team work and makes everybody feel miserable, needs to come off. Fine, let us have that vision and let us have a discussion about that vision, but let us not have it against the background of saying, by the way never mind the vision we are still going to bring in some private companies where we know that bringing in the private companies will demoralise the staff and probably undermine the quality of service.

  75. I am not sure from that answer where you think the drive for reform is going to come from. You are describing the infirmities of the traditional public sector. It did not do these things which you are saying now should be done.
  (Mr Edmonds) Yes.

  76. You do not like the external interventions which are designed to change things.
  (Mr Edmonds) No; no.

  77. We can agree about the need for change. What I do not see, as you have described it now, is where you think this drive for reform is going to come from.
  (Mr Edmonds) Within the Health Service. I was not talking about being against external intervention if the Government are regarded as external. Surely a debate has to take place with the Government about the priorities for these changes, what measurable changes we are looking at, how we are going to deliver them. Of course the Government is a player in all of this and Government will actually have to be a player in local government reform as well in view of the fact that they provide so much through taxation, through national taxation of the resources. Yes, of course the Government needs to be a driver in all of this. In driving it, they need to discuss how they are going to drive it with the people who work in it, otherwise it will be regarded by the people who work in the services as something which is imposed on them from outside. There has to be some ownership of this change. Just taking one group, if you talk to nurses about the things I have just said, they will agree with all of it. Okay, you have a staff in the Health Service which is up for change in the most obvious way. You have a Government that want change. It should not be too difficult to bring the stakeholders together and start trying to talk about it. Ironically, that was exactly what was going on in the Health Service before the debate was all short-circuited into what I would call additional privatisation. Some others would call greater use of private sector companies. We actually damaged something which was good that was going on. That is crazy.

  78. In the past the Committee has floated the idea that if there is something called a public service ethos we should actually try to mobilise it a bit more than we have done in the past so the people who work in the public sector know what it is and indeed could be trained properly in it, maybe through some kind of code even or something like that. Is this an idea? Public service workers having this ethos in their back pocket. Is that something which would appeal?
  (Mr Edmonds) You made this point in your report. We should be very happy with that approach. You have to overcome some cynicism built up over 20 years and we talked a lot about that, but I am sure that can be done. What does it mean to be a public service worker? What sort of behaviour is expected. What set of values. I think that is a good starting point. We would be up for that.
  (Mick Graham) First of all we have to rebuild the morale in the public sector work force. Certainly on a code within local government in England and Wales, the Local Government Association and the trade unions are already in discussions on establishing a code of principles for local government workers. We would actually see, because of the interface between local government and health, that there is the basis there for that new code. We do not want to go back to the 1960s and 1970s. Remember that our members as well as being service providers are also service users.

  Chairman: That is probably the note to end on. We are really grateful to you for coming along. We shall look carefully at your evidence. It is extremely important for us to get the trade union movement's view on the whole area of public service reform in all its aspects. If we press you on some of it, it is because we want to be sure exactly what you are saying. We are extremely grateful to you for all that. It has been an extremely valuable session. Thank you very much indeed.

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