Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Therefore it has not been privatised, has it?
  (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 example—I shall avoid the use of the word privatisation—of 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 service.
  (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.

Kevin Brennan

  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 employment—and 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 similarities there.
  (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.

Annette Brooke

  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 this—in this building I would be reluctant to talk about joy, but you know what I mean—are 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 example—and it is a very good example—what 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 standards.
  (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 reforms?
  (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 those improvements.

Mr Lyons

  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.

  36. Tendering.
  (Mr Edmonds) Let us take local authorities. Now the pressure is the best value process and maybe Mick can say a word about that.

  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.

Mr Prentice

  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 them—managers say this—from 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.

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