Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 330-349)



  330. Well, that is back to my Capita question?
  (Mr Prentis) Yes.

Kevin Brennan

  331. Perhaps I could follow up on that, Chair. Do you think it is possible, Mr Prentis, to have a public sector ethos, you said it was in the voluntary sector, but do you think it is possible for there to be a public sector ethos in the private sector?
  (Mr Prentis) From what I was saying before, I think the public service ethos actually rests in the ethos of the institution.

  332. So it is possible that there could be a public service ethos in a private company running a public service?
  (Mr Prentis) No; well the analogy that I made was that when it comes to the private sector their ethos is different, their ethos is based on the shareholder, is based on maximising profit, rather than delivering good quality public services.

  333. So your members who work for Capita, for example, do not have a public service ethos when they go about their jobs, delivering public services?
  (Mr Prentis) I think, as individuals, they will try their best, but, I think, in any organisation, you would expect the staff to work to the ethos of that particular organisation. And over a period of time the people who are transferred out into, say, Capita or the private companies, after a contract has been signed there is a very big turnover, something like a 10 per cent turnover, in the first few months of a contract being signed. New people come in who do not have that ethos.

  334. Okay; well I put it to Capita, earlier on, that actually what they were all about, all they were claiming, all these wonderful ethos-related things that they were about, I put it to them that, really, essentially, they were, at essence, about making a profit, and that was what everything that they were going to do was driven by. What if I put it to you that, in fact, you are not interested in the public service ethos as much as in a public sector ethos, and, in fact, what you are about is defending the interests of your members and your officers and the union itself, and that that is really what you are driven by, at root; would you accept that statement, or not?
  (Mr Prentis) It is too much of a glib statement. We are a public service union, a very large public service union, we want to enter into the debate on the reform of public services, and we think we are a major stakeholder in that particular debate. I would not be arguing for reform from within if I did not believe it could be achieved; and, despite all the involvement of the private companies, most of the reform will come from within, I have got no doubt whatsoever about that. But I will be quite open with you, I am also General Secretary of a trade union which protects its members when they are faced with moving to a private company.

  335. On that very point, could I read to you a bit from the UNISON Public Services Manifesto, which says: "workers have the right to be treated with dignity and respect at work irrespective of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability or age. In a service where harassment of staff goes unchallenged, service users will probably also face harassment." How do you square that with the report in today's Western Mail, that the General Secretary of your trade union in Wales is back at his desk, in work, following the union having been fined £90,000 for bullying his secretary? How does that fit in with that kind of statement?
  (Mr Prentis) I feel there are two issues, very, very separate. As regards the issues in Wales, obviously, I am not here to comment on that, and will not comment on an internal staffing matter. The thing that you can be assured of though is that our organisation does have in place all the procedures to deal with issues like that, and the two are not comparable.

  336. So there is no question that, in your actions, you are acting in a public service ethos, in your view, rather than in defence of a public sector interest in—
  (Mr Prentis) I understand the nature of the questioning. I am not a public service organisation and UNISON is not a public service organisation, it does not pretend to be.


  337. Could I, again, just produce a second; you are suggesting, somehow, that, and leaving aside the Welsh dimension—
  (Mr Prentis) And it is the Regional Secretary, not the General Secretary.

  338. You are somehow suggesting that, the pitch you give for public services, and this ethos, this ethos that informs them, I suspect, would not be shared by the great bulk of the British public, who do not recognise these wonderful, consumer-sensitive organisations, full of people who spend all their lives, from morn to night, thinking only about service to people. They recognise them as being monopolistic organisations, full of self-interest, not sensitive to consumer need, secretive, bureaucratic, people who say to people, `you can't go anywhere else so you're stuck with us.' It is not just that the private sector ethos may be of a particular kind, we live with this mythology, do we not, of how the public sector is? The reason why it has to be reformed is because it is not how you describe it; and the idea that somehow, when I travelled on a airline, as a passenger, owned by the state, it was a splendid, customer-sensitive organisation, that when I travel on one owned by a private operator it is not, it is a ludicrous proposition?
  (Mr Prentis) Okay; is that a question? I am not here talking about state airlines. We are talking about delivery of public services, essential services, the monopolistic, not-sensitive, bureaucratic organisations. Handover of service to the private sector, and the contract is done under a preferred bidder status, so there is no competition at the beginning, something which the European Commission do not agree with, you then give them a 30-year contract to provide that service. Where is the monopoly? It is with the private company. Does it become more sensitive? Of course it does not, it is just as bureaucratic as the organisation it replaces. When we look at the voluntary sector, we move housing out into housing associations, a very good idea, but all the evidence now is that they can be as bureaucratic as the organisations that they have replaced. No-one is arguing that our public services are all excellent and that there should be no change; we are saying that there has got to be change, there has got to be reform, there has got to be improvement. And I will say, very strongly, that one of the reasons why privatisation came in in the 1980s was because the public would not defend our public services, because they thought the things that you are saying now. Now I do not necessarily believe that that is the public perception of all our public services today; and only yesterday we launched an advertising campaign, based on MORI polling which had been undertaken over the last four months, on four occasions, which showed that 83 per cent of the people of this country did not believe that their public services should be run by private companies. So, actually, I think there is some support for public services in this country; and it was borne out at the last election, when the Labour Party, very upfront, went through the election on a programme of investment in and reform of public services.

  339. But you are telling us that when an elderly lady at home is receiving domiciliary care, if she receives that care from the social services department it is going to be informed by the public service ethos, if she receives that care from a private sector organisation, it is not; surely, this is just not sustainable?
  (Mr Prentis) I do not think that can be put in such simplistic terms. If you take the care of the elderly, you are referring to home care, care of the elderly, 70 per cent of that is now provided by the private sector, long-term care of the elderly, private homes. When it happened, we were told that they could do it more cheaply than the public sector, than the public service, they could do it better than the public service; now that nearly all of the homes have moved from local authorities into the private sector, we are now told it is in crisis, that £700 million is needed to get us out of the crisis in looking after our elderly people in long-term care. And then what does the private company do when it is faced with these problems, if it does not get the money, it is in a position where it can actually sell the homes as real estate, if there is more money in selling the home as real estate, they do it, that is why provision is so poor in the South East. So this idea that the two equate, the private sector and the public sector, in the provision of services, is not necessarily there; the public service has to provide that care, the private sector may provide it, may provide it well, if they are not making profit from it the service goes. Now the local authority cannot absolve itself from responsibility for the care and the private sector can. So there are major differences between the way in which services are provided from the public service and can be provided from the private sector, and it is not just simply saying, `well if they do it here within the public service you can do it as a private company,' and everything is the same, because over the longer term it is not. And the private company and the private sector will look for profit and the balance-sheet, and if it is better actually to sell the homes, rather than to provide a service, they will do that, and the risk is not really borne by the private sector, it is still borne by the public service.

  340. I am not sure we are entirely talking about the same thing, but . . .
  (Ms Jones) Can I just supplement that, and just go back to your specific example about domiciliary care. I would take issue with that. I think that most people's experience, and the elderly lady, if we stick with your one example, is that the public provision of that service always has been very much a valued service, and where there have been cases where those services have been privatised it has been very much at the expense and the dismay of those people in receipt of the service. And one of the reasons for that is that the home care service, for example, has always provided the service well, over and above anything that you could write down in a contract or a specification, there has always been a very close relationship between the service providers and the clients, which has been very much valued. And it goes back to the point that we were making initially, how do you capture some of those acts of kindness that are way above anything you would put in a specification, in a contract, or how could the private sector ever do that; they would always seek to do it in the cheapest and most efficient way, which, understandably, they are expected to do, but they miss out on a lot of the kind of care and provision for which the public service is, quite rightly, I think, recognised and valued. And it goes back to the whole issue about public service ethos, which we would say, certainly, in areas like social services, can be seen and is valued; you can go so far as defining it, but, obviously, you cannot write it into a contract.

  341. So, no acts of kindness in the contract, no acts of kindness?
  (Ms Jones) You cannot do it, can you, you cannot write that in.

  Chairman: It is an interesting idea.

Mr Prentice

  342. I want to speak about Tony Blair, briefly, and what you think he means by the public service ethos?
  (Mr Prentis) What he means by it?

  343. What he means by it?
  (Mr Prentis) He has made a number of speeches, quite recently, in which he has said, very, very strongly, that there is a public service ethos, and he has defined it in the way, well, very similar to the way that I have defined much of the public service ethos, but then goes on to say, and there is a role for private companies. That does not really define how the public service ethos is generated within the private company.

  344. Okay. I remember the `scars on my back' quote of the Prime Minister, and I think, in that context, he was talking about the difficulty of getting change in the public sector. Do you believe it is very, very difficult to get change, and accelerated change, in the public sector without the involvement of the private sector? Because Rod Aldridge, from Capita, told us, just an hour ago, that public sector bodies need partners to achieve change, and he was talking about the situation in Blackburn, was he not?
  (Ms Jones) I think, just on how you achieve change, which I suppose is the core issue that we are all trying to consider here, there was a lot in what the Prime Minister has been saying more recently that we would subscribe to, that what you have to do is set very broad goals at a national level and then enable the front-line staff, the professional staff, you need to free them up, and perhaps move away from the stifling kind of specification and contract culture, and free up front-line professional staff, in order to enable them to make the change that they know is needed on the ground. And one of the things that you cannot do is regulate that all from the centre, which, I think, to be fair, the Government in the first four years attempted to do, and I think they are now realising that you cannot drive it all from the centre, that there will be different local circumstances, in a different community, in a different hospital, which those people on the ground have to, in some way or another, be enabled to be sensitive to and to be able to deliver reform. And, of course, you have to hold them accountable, at the end of the day, you cannot just say, `it's over to you, guys,' you know, `just get on with it,' you have to set standards at a very broad level, you have to monitor and you have to make sure that those people are held to account, at the end of the day. But you do have to free those public servants up, on the front line, and encourage them and enable them to reform, which I think they are perfectly capable of doing.

  345. The Capita people painted a picture of them coming along and giving local authorities a shot of adrenalin to get them to respond, and I just wonder what you would argue for, in a practical sense, about how we train public sector managers into this mind set where delivery is important and delivery in a very short timescale, because that is part of the Capita argument, is it not, that only they, in partnership with a local authority, can get this accelerated change?
  (Ms Jones) I thought it was quite interesting, what Capita said, of course, where is change really coming from, it is coming from strong local leadership and political leadership. And, obviously, what happens where you have got that democratic drive, if you like, for reform then you can deliver it and you have got the people on the ground there who, in our experience, are prepared to go along with reform to help innovate, and are keen to make changes. That was what was so depressing, really, about Tony Blair's `scars on the back' speech, that it did not ring true to anyone that was working in the public sector, who have been open to change, inventive, innovative, over many, many years, and they just wanted somebody to say, `well done, that's the way forward,' not `we just see you as a block to change, as a barrier to change.' So, I think, if you have got that political drive and political leadership you can reform, and the people are there who are keen to be part of that partnership. I think bringing in the private sector is, I would say, a short-cut to some of that, it is `we haven't got the time to work this out so let's bring somebody else in and they'll cut through some of that.' But there are a lot of downsides to that, which we have rehearsed some of the arguments for, and I am sure you know some of the other arguments.

Mr Lyons

  346. Clearly in the interest of UNISON membership, but I do not want him murmuring `that's a pity.' I thought the question of, for years we were told, `we need to invest in public services,' and they were debating it to some extent, a debate about the level of it; why are we not getting improvements at the other end, for this investment, if we are not getting improved public services, the Health Service?
  (Mr Prentis) With the investment that is going in?

  347. Yes?
  (Mr Prentis) There are a number of issues around investment in public services. The Government is committed to investing in public services, but all the information that is coming through is that the investment has not taken place yet.

  348. Let me interrupt you, to give you a particular project then, school truancy, millions of pounds put into it, and it fell flat on its face, not one bit of improvement; why not?
  (Ms Jones) There is a problem, as we have identified, of investment actually finding its way down, and, to be fair, in all other aspects of education then, the money that has been targeted in education, there has been a real improvement in standards. So I think there has probably just been a failure at a local level, perhaps we have got initiative-itis, really, and maybe it has been too much to expect a lot of people to bring back reform on too many levels at the same time, in terms of education reform. But understand I am not an expert on school truancy.
  (Mr Prentis) It is still truancy, and it is not just what the local authority can do or the school can do, it also depends on the parents as well, it really is a societal problem, which we do have to address, we cannot leave it as it is. But when we talk about money going into our public services and the investment coming in and nothing coming out at the other end, it is quite clear now that the investment has not gone in up to now. Our members say to us, very strongly, and they say to Government Ministers when they see them, `where is this money?', and we talk about the mind set of the workers or the managers in the public services, there is also a mind set in the Departments. And I think what is unforgivable is that 30 per cent of capital budgets, even over the last two years, have been underspent, even the Departments do not know how to lever in the money that they have got to actually improve the public services. And it may well be that we have had 20 years where everything has got held down, where money cannot be spent, and it is very, very difficult to change the mind set to actually say that we are going to bring in investment and we are going to reform. And I think there really has got to be a serious training programme, for managers as well as for workers, within the public services; and it has got to be based on the programme that we are going to invest in the public services, and these are the types of services that we now want delivered in this century. And I think we have got a lot of work to do. What I think is being shown to us is that the enforced use, which is what it is, of private companies is the right way forward. I do not think we have ever argued for more than a level playing-field. If the local authority wants to invest in its workplace, in the workforce, we should give them the means of doing that, and at the moment we are not; what we are saying is that you have got to go out and use the private company, who can then use their money to invest but then charge you for doing it.

  349. Can I just go back really to the question of Capita, I do not know if you heard the evidence at this stage or not, they have made the point that their workforce comprises about 13,000 people, 7,000 people who came from TUPE transfers, but they declared, and it will be recorded somewhere, that they have no interest in seconded staff. Does that give you a major problem, in terms of Health Service reform?
  (Mr Prentis) I think it may be a problem for Capita, not for ourselves, because we reached agreement with the Government yesterday that, as far as catering, portering, cleaning services are concerned, security services as well, 85 per cent of the staff who would have transferred into the private company will now be on a seconded arrangement, will continue to be paid and have conditions of service and pensions the same as NHS workers, and new entrants coming in will also be on NHS pay, conditions and pensions. The private company will take over the supervisory grades, about 15 per cent of the total, in order to manage the contracts. So we have reached an understanding with the Department of Health, only yesterday, that that will be the way forward as far as PFI hospitals are concerned; it will be piloted in three hospitals, Roehampton, Havering and Stoke Mandeville, and if it does work it does give some protection to our members. But I have got to say again, then hopefully I have got it over to the Committee, our interest is not just in protecting our members, we do protect them, we do negotiate for our members, I will be seeing the Managing Director of Capita after this, to talk about our members who are employed by Capita, but the issue of public service provision is far wider than the protection of our members who are facing transfer because of it.

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