Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 314-329)



Brian White

  314. Can I welcome Dave Prentis and Maggie Jones here from UNISON. You have obviously heard Capita there, and I am sure you will want to make a few comments on the things that they were saying. But is there any opening statement that you would like to make?

  (Mr Prentis) Yes, if that is possible. First of all, can I introduce Margie Jaffe, the National Policy Officer from UNISON, who is with us here today; and you know Maggie Jones, our Director of Policy and Public Affairs. We obviously welcome the opportunity to discuss public service reform with the Select Committee. UNISON has got 1.25 million members providing public services, 700,000 are in local government, 400,000 in the Health Service, we have nearly 100,000 now providing public services from the private sector, because of various Government privatisation policies. We are the largest union in education, with a quarter of a million members; we have got members in the civilian side of the police force, in all of the utilities, gas, electricity, water, and in transport. So that when we speak about public services we are speaking from a position that we do recruit and organise public service workers across the whole range of public services that you are looking at today. What I would like to do at the beginning is actually address three specific issues, which I think the Select Committee has been looking at, and hopefully will address in their report. The first issue that I want to deal with is the principles and strategy that are needed to reform public services, and our starting-point, obviously, is that we welcome the Government's commitment to public services and the commitment to invest in public services. We believe that the underfunding of our public services needs to be addressed, we want world-class public services, just as much as the Government says it wants. We recognise that there is always room for improvement. We agree that failure must be addressed, and we accept that investment must be matched by reform. So these platitudes that are put forward, this idea that we come from the position of the status quo is completely wrong. When we are talking about reform and improvement, we believe that there are common principles for the development and reform of our public services; the prerequisite has got to be adequate funding. When we talk about world-class public services, in reality, we are talking about trying to get spending on our public services up to the European level, so the aim is not that high. When we are talking about reforming public services, we are talking about not just investing in the service but also investing in the people who provide the service, the two cannot be dissociated, they go cap in hand, they are together, they are as one.

  The Chairman resumed the Chair.

  So if we are talking about reform, we are talking about the need to include all staff in that reform, the need to bring people in and make them part of the solution. And part of the problem with the debate that we are having at the moment is that public service workers have been made to feel part of the problem, and, in many respects, have been scapegoated for the underfunding that has taken place in our public services. And when we talk about reform, we are talking about training and learning opportunities. And how many people in this room realise that for local government workers the average training is one and a half days per year; how do you expect to have an efficient, effective, modern public service when we put so little into training our people who provide those services. And when we talk about the use of the private companies, I am not coming at this debate from an issue of public good, private bad, or vice versa, they are just slogans that make good copy for the press following any speech that is made. What we are talking about, if we are talking about reform, what we are saying should be allowed is to give the public service, a local authority, for example, a genuine choice on the procurement route, and what you have at the moment is an enforced use of private companies. The only way in which you can get investment in, the only way in which you can reform, the only way in which you can bring about a better service, is by pushing that service out to a private company. And we are saying, very, very strongly, that is not in the public interest, it is not in the interests of our members, but equally it is not in the interests of the users of those services, and it is not in the interests of public service provision in the future; and that is the crux really of the debate, and what we should be centring on, rather than some of the more silly statements that have been made about the public service workers and private companies. And it does lead me on to the final point, just on that part, that, during the debate, public service workers do feel scapegoated. After a number of years of underfunding, all of a sudden we are told that the electorate wants to improve our public services, they are on board for spending more money on it, and at the very, very same time we are told that public service workers cannot deliver that reform, and it is an actual nonsense. And I think, in the debate, there has to be some recognition of the achievements of public services up to now, which many times is neglected, and it can be from the introduction of wheelie-bins to the development of domiciliary care, sheltered housing, and the imaginative use of classroom assistants, the innovation of NHS Direct, there is a whole wealth of innovation within public services that appears to be ignored in the debate that is taking place. And one of the things that has tended to happen, which we think has to be addressed, is that we are talking about public services, and I am saying we need reform of public services, whatever they may be, and we do not want to get into the nitty-gritty and the hard work of what goes into reform, so we come up with a panacea, `oh, the private companies can lever in the reform, they can lever in the management expertise, they can do all the things that the public service cannot deliver,' when what we should really be doing is far more difficult than that, it is much more hard work. You have got to look at each individual service, you have got to look at the functions within each of the services, and you have got to say what is required to improve that service to make that particular service more responsive and to bring in any reforms that are required; and that takes hard work, it takes a lot of drudgery and it does not get headlines. So if we are talking about reform we believe that we should be talking to the Ministers, the Secretaries of State, the chief executives of the individual services, we should have a programme within health that we talk about on the detail of how you get investment in, we should be talking about why the number of beds is not increasing, we should be talking about the fact that it is not just about getting more doctors and nurses into the Health Service but getting more of all workers into the Health Service and training them. And it is those types of issues, that do not really get addressed in this debate. And at local government level, we really do have to talk about the freedom to develop more options for service delivery, better options of service delivery, and give them the ability to actually bring in the money required to carry out the work. And, at the moment, there is no level playing-field, the local authority is pushed into the arms of a private company and then we call that partnership. We talked about more money going into local government, it is ring-fenced, and we are not talking about all the other areas that are not getting the money, where services are continuing to decline because money is not being made available. We get the headlines for where money is being put in and nobody talks about the areas which have been neglected as the money has been ring-fenced for certain functions. So there is a whole range of issues that we believe have been neglected, when we are talking about reforming our public services, which do need addressing and, hopefully, the Select Committee can point us in the right direction. The second issue that I do want to raise, and I will be quite upfront about it, is about the public service ethos. I know that the Committee have been asking questions about it, I know there was a question asked of Capita, at the end, and I know that people find it difficult to say what the public service ethos is, we say, `oh, there is a public service ethos,' but then you say `define it,' and they say `well it's a bit difficult to define that.' But I think it is quite clear what the public service ethos is. I will just start off with one quotation, it is a sense that caring for people, whether pupils, patients or passengers or the elderly, should come first, a sense that there is a willingness to do what is right without knowing the balance-sheet or this quarter's profits. And that is not my definition, that is the Financial Times's definition of a public service ethos. Lord Puttnam, quite recently, referred to the public service ethos, and I will not quote all of it, but he said, "it actually makes ordinary people do extraordinary things," when he was talking about the public service workers going back in to the buildings in New York, as other people were actually trying to flee what was happening there. But we can go a little bit further, when we are talking about public service ethos, and it is quite integral to our approach, and I think the approach of many organisations involved. For a start, why do you have public services; public services are there to provide an essential and a uniform service and a universal service. So the start of the ethos comes from the compact between the citizens and the Government that forms the basis which underpins public services and why they are actually provided, and it exists in the trust that citizens place in the Government to spend their taxes to provide services, it underlies everything, the trust that people put in the Government to provide public services. And then it exists in the values that underpin those services, they exist in equity, social justice and the distribution of the service, and then it exists in the wider responsibilities that are placed on public authorities. In the local councils, you have got the duty of well-being, which is placed on the local authority. The core principle of the NHS is to provide a universal service for all, based on clinical need and not the ability to pay, compared with in a private hospital, which does not deal with A&E, that does not deal with the major operations, they are pushed back onto the NHS and back into the public service ethos. And public service ethos is not just talking about employees, people who work in the services, you see the public service ethos in the thousands and thousands, armies, of volunteers who give up their own time to work within public services. The WRVS, people like my sister who work in hospices, comforting people as they are dying, they would not do this type of work in the private hospital environment, in an environment where that public service ethos does not exist, it exists in not just the workers but within the communities themselves, and we tend to neglect that. I was a little astounded, within my own union, when we ran industrial action for nearly six months against the PFI hospital being built in Dudley, and our members there were low-paid women workers, many of them part-time, the cleaners, caterers, porters, and I went up to talk to them, some 700 of them, and I thought the issues were about pay, conditions, protection, but the thing that came over, from the people, as you talked to them, very, very simple things, `I've worked in the NHS for 28 years; I get dignity from working within the NHS; I do not want to work for Rentokil or IFS.' And there is a dignity, and there is a feeling of benefiting people from working in public services which you cannot equate to pay and conditions, and the norms that you do get within the private sector. And I would just add one thing. Even vital services, like the Blood Transfusion Service, depend on selfless volunteers, all believing that there is a public service ethos. And the corollary against that, or the weight against it, is that there is also a private sector ethos, and I am not denigrating the private sector, as I said at the beginning, it is not an issue of public good, private bad, but there is a private sector ethos, and it was mentioned by Capita just a few minutes ago, where Capita said their job is to maximise profit for the shareholder. The private sector runs on a contract basis, the private sector does not share good practice because it is confidential information; and, again, within a capitalist society, I understand that the private sector is in business to make money. And I think the Managing Director of Corus, the steel-maker, rejected ever saying it but I think he put it in a nutshell some years ago, when talking about steel-making in this country, and he actually said, "I'm not in this business to make steel, I'm in this business to make money." And that is why private companies are in the business of providing public services, to make money, not to enhance the public service ethos, not to deal with the common good of the citizen and of society, but to make money from the provision of our public services. And that leads on to another area, which UNISON is very, very concerned about, that in the provision of public services we do have to talk about accountability and transparency, which underpin our public services, we would have to talk about democratic accountability, and that goes out of the window when you have contracts which last 30 years. Whatever change of administration, whatever they stood for election on, they cannot change anything, because they have got contracts lasting 30 years, and it is has already become a problem. For accountability, you need information, there is no access to information on what is going on, the PFI the PPP are shrouded in secrecy. There is no simple system of regulation; we have regulation for our public services but not for the private companies carrying out those services. Systems of regulation that have been built up over many years go out of the window and just apply to one part of the provision. We have movement between public and private sectors, it is not a case of the private sector coming in with managerial expertise, what they do is poach public service managers to run the companies. There are 29 Directors of Education and Senior staff who have gone out into private education companies in the last few months.


  315. I do not want to stop you in full flow, but do you think we could perhaps tease out some of these points through some questioning?
  (Mr Prentis) I will say one final point, and that is conflict of interest. But on that point I am going to stop at this stage.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. It is just that I know colleagues will want to come in and ask questions, and we do not want to run out of time. I apologise for not being here at the beginning.

Mr Liddell-Grainger

  316. Best value; do you agree with it?
  (Mr Prentis) I agree that public services do need best value reviews to ensure that we are getting value for money from our services. So, yes, I do agree with the best value approach.

  317. But do you think it undermines the public service ethos?
  (Mr Prentis) No, not in any way whatsoever. I think it would be completely wrong of me to try to defend poor practice and bad services. The best value approach is intended to improve our public service provision, which is intended to share best practice, it is one of the ways forward by which we can reform our public services. What has happened with best value though is it has become a means, a vehicle, for externalising our public services, which was never intended when it came in.

  318. I think you have hit the nail on the head; and is that a route that you see it going?
  (Mr Prentis) It already has gone down that route.

  319. And you disagree with that?
  (Mr Prentis) Yes. It has become a tool to privatise our services, so that even where we do get good reports under the best value regime, and there are massive amounts of inspections now within public services, but even where we do get good reports the inspector has still got the power to say they want to look outside and consider externalising the service; and that cannot be right.

  320. The Government, at the moment, are looking at strategic health authorities; if that goes ahead, do you feel that—one of the things you want to see is public services, publicly owned, locally accountable, do you feel that the ethos of putting a strategic health authority together, which is a much bigger area, is actually going to undermine the smaller area—I come from a rural patch—where the ethos has been to a smaller unit, to a fairly small area, but now it is going to get much bigger? Do you think that will undermine the way that the public service ethos actually works; it is difficult to define, as you said?
  (Mr Prentis) With the Health Service, we have been through reform after reform, we have gone down to Trust level, we have gone back to regional level, on a number of occasions. I think, as far as Scotland and Wales are concerned, we do accept that, under devolved government, the responsibility for the Health Service will be devolved to Wales and Scotland, but we do believe in the National Health Service. At this stage, if the strategic health authority is a better way of providing health provision and will lever in change then we would not object to it. One of the problems with services being too devolved is that there becomes a lack of fairness in the overall provision of the service.

  321. But you talk about local accountability, that is presumably through councillors and other bodies, do you feel that a strategic health authority will be able to have local accountability?
  (Mr Prentis) I think we need to look at the Health Service to decide how we can get more accountability within it. I do not necessarily believe that the strategic health authority will either increase or decrease accountability within the Health Service, I think it is far more complex than that.

  322. That I do not disagree with, that is why I asked you the question. You say that you will not defend services that are failing the communities they are meant to be serving; how would you then see those services being resurrected, unless you go potentially to the private sector, or through some sort of PFI, or whatever, if it is failing and you are not going to support it?
  (Mr Prentis) When we are talking about failing services, the glib response is, `well, we'll bring in the private sector to actually sort them out,' as if they have got the expertise; the point that we are making is that we have worked with private companies for over 20 years and that is not necessarily the case. And a lot of the reform, if the debate centres on the use of the private companies, will come from within; so we do deal with failing services, on a number of occasions. But when you look at the private sector, I believe that they have turned round one failing school, through the public services whereas 776 failing schools have been turned round by LEAs. Liverpool got a very, very bad report, through Ofsted—it has turned itself round, you can turn round from within. What you have got to look at is actually how you improve the service from within, not necessarily say, `we've got an easy answer,' which is to bring in the cohorts from the private company; nearly all of the reform will be generated from within. What you have got to find a way of doing, under the best value regime, under other regimes, is finding out where you have got good practice and making sure that that comes in in other parts of the public service. If you take Camden, it has got an excellent record, not a perfect record, on housing benefits, and yet we have got other councils failing, as far as housing benefits are concerned; the good practice in Camden has got to be replicated in the other authorities.

  323. Surely, that comes down to the ethos, and Camden is better than elsewhere because they have a better ethos of public service within there; is it not a sort of leadership and confidence in the leadership which is failing elsewhere, potentially, and how would you bring that back?
  (Mr Prentis) We place great store on improving management in public services, and we are at one with people who say that we do have to improve our management. But the answer is not just passing it to a private company, which usually does not have the management expertise to actually carry out the service, the answer is in training, in looking and seeing where things work well and where they are not working so well. Why do we have a hospital in one part of the country which is providing an excellent service, and a few miles away there is another hospital that is failing; and you have got to find out what is working well in one hospital and transfer that into the practice of the other hospital, which is what Alan Milburn is attempting to do at the moment. But this idea that the private company, or PFI, will do that for you is wrong, that is merely a means of financing the building under Treasury Rules, rather than a lever for putting in reform.


  324. Are not Capita doing a good job?
  (Mr Prentis) I think you had better ask Capita that.

  325. No; you are making judgements about the operation of private sector organisations, and they just told us that they are producing huge savings, greater efficiencies for the public sector, a better quality service, and they have documented that in a variety of cases. I just would like to know whether you think this is true or not?
  (Mr Prentis) I think, in certain respects, certain companies, in individual areas, may be doing a good job; but we are talking about improving the whole of the Service. Where a private company, such as Capita, may have come in, they could be keeping to the contract, they could be doing all the things that were asked of them in the contract, but there are still many areas which could be improved upon. And one of the problems with using companies like Capita is that you are bound by the contract, and additional things that do need doing you do pay for or the company will not provide it, and I think that actually came out in the questioning as well. So I am not going to come here and say that Capita are a bad company, or that in any way they cannot provide a service; but what I will say, very, very strongly, is that, if we are talking about overall reform of our public services, Capita, and companies like them, are not the vehicle for getting that reform in.

  326. Just so we are absolutely clear on this, but if private sector involvement can produce improvements of quality, performance, efficiency, in the public services, surely you would not be against it, would you?
  (Mr Prentis) There are individual instances where private companies may well be working well, and then it may well be that in one council the bins are being emptied well by a private company.

  327. So it is not a matter of principle, it is just a matter of being pragmatic?
  (Mr Prentis) I am not ideologically opposed to a private company, but what I do actually believe is that because it is just working well in one council, you cannot just extrapolate from that and say that is the model by which we improve our public services. And, to give you another example, in Scotland, in cleaning the hospitals, if you come across it, and it is not our report, it is the Walker Report, is it not, that says that, as far as cleaning in hospitals is concerned, in Scotland, there has been a five-fold reduction in the number of domestics since hospital cleaning was privatised, one domestic for every 60 patients treated in 1985, gone to one domestic for every 306 patients now. And, at the same time, the amount of infections in hospitals has increased, at the cost of £160 million to the NHS, including 457 deaths. Now, within that, you may well get good examples of a particular contract in the private sector where the cleaning is okay, where the cleaning is fine, but when you look at the overall picture then you have only got to see how we have benefited from it, the picture is not that clear. And we have no evidence, that has ever been put to us either by the Government or the individual Departments, that says we are creating a model which will improve our services, and all the evidence that we have got is that, when you look at the macro level, services do decline in a very big way; four out of the five dirtiest hospitals in this country have got their cleaning provided by private companies.

  328. Just as a matter of principle, we should use, should we not, any mechanism, whether public or private or voluntary, third sector, whatever mechanism we might want to use, if it produces improvement in the performance of public services?
  (Mr Prentis) The question is the `if', a very little word but a very big question. Nobody yet has shown us the evidence where it is leading to overall improvement in our public services, and overall it is leading to a deterioration.

  329. No, that is not the question. The question is, we should, in principle, use any mechanism that would bring about that objective?
  (Mr Prentis) I am not saying, in principle, that we can only use the private sector; what I am saying is, if you look at what the Government says, about what matters is what works, we are saying that it is not working to use the private sector to bring about reform of public services. There is no evidence whatsoever being produced that it is leading to a reform of our public services.

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