Tag Archives: laissez faire

Wall Street, the Wolf of Wall Street  and the decline of moral sense

Robert Henderson

 

Wall Street (1987)

Main cast

Michael Douglas  as Gordon Gecko

Charlie Sheen as Bud Cox

Daryl Hannah  as Darien Taylor

Martin Sheen as Carl Fox

Terence Stamp as Sir Larry Wildman

Hal Holbrook as Lou Mannheim

Sean Young as Kate Gekko

James Spader as Roger Barnes

Director Oliver Stone

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Main cast

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff

Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia

Matthew McCaughey as Mark Hanna

Kyle Chandler as Patrick Denham

Rob Reiner as Max Belfort

Director  Martin Scorsese,

Twenty six years lie between Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOWS) hitting cinema screens. Wall Street is fiction, although there are reputedly people in real life from whom the film’s main characters were developed, for example  Sir Larry Wildman is supposedly drawn from  on the British financier Sir James Goldsmith. The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOWS) is based upon the autobiography of a Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort. How much of that is fact  is debatable, although the general tone of the man’s life given in the book  is plausible.

Both films  begin their action in 1980s. Both deal with the shady world of finance. Both are vehicles for the unbridled egotism of their main characters.    There the similarity between them ends.  Wall Street is about  corporate raiders, men who seek to take over companies and then  asset strip them,  sell them on  quickly for a profit or run them as a business for a while, reduce costs (especially by cutting jobs ) and  then sell them . The main criminality involved in the film is insider dealing.

TWOWS  is simply about making a fast buck and the faster the better, with not even a show of doing anything beyond making money.   These people use   any method from the huckster selling of penny shares to insider dealing and celebrate each success in the spirit of the man successfully  running a hunt-the-lady scam in the street.  They are the masters of the universe and those who lose out are suckers.   There is zero concern for or even awareness of the greater general good of a society in the film.

The protagonists in Wall Street are a young stock trader Bud Fox, and a corporate  raider  Gordon Gecko.  Bud idolises Gecko and manages to work his way into Gecko’s circle by passing on privileged information to him, information which he has received from his father Carl who is a union leader at Bluestar Airlines.

Once inside Gecko’s circle  Bud  sheds  his morals and is content to help Gecko  engage in insider trading until the point where he discovers that he is being used as a catspaw by Gecko , who is trying to take over Bluestar  to dissolve the company in order to access cash in the company’s overfunded pension plan. Bud rediscovers his conscience after a fashion and outmanoeuvres Gecko by making an agreement with  Wildman – whom  previously he had helped Gecko to  defraud  through insider trading when Wildman wanted to take over a steel company –  to buy a majority shareholding in  the airline on the cheap  and run it as a going concern.  In doing this his  motivation is more revenge for being betrayed than suddenly being disgusted with what he had become under Gecko’s influence.

DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is a trader who loses his job  with a Wall Street broker when the firm crashes, moves into boiler-room trading in penny shares (which are barely regulated and allow for huge commissions to be charged to naïve investors who are often buying shares which are next to worthless). He makes a small fortune doing this.

Belfort then decides to strike out on his own account in rather more up-market  surroundings. With a friend , Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill),  he sets  up  a suitably Ivy league sounding firm of brokers Stratton Oakmont.  They operate on the principle of “pump and dump”  (artificially inflating a company’s share price by tactics such as spreading false rumours or simply buying heavily and then selling the shares rapidly). Stratton Oakmont is given lift off by an article in Forbes magazine which calls Jordan a ‘twisted Robin Hood and the “Wolf of Wall Street”,  which appellations prove a first rate recruiting sergeant for Stratton Oakmont  with hundreds of young stock traders flocking to make money with him.  From that point on he becomes seriously rich.

What the films do admirably  is show the difference between the cinematic portrayal of  the American financial world  in films released  in 1987 and 2013.   To refresh my memory I watched Wall Street again before writing this review. The striking thing about the film is how restrained it is compared with TWOWS.

Michael Douglas’  Gordon Gecko is far more disciplined than DiCaprio’s Belfort.  He  has some semblance of intellectual and arguably even moral  justification for what he does, most notably in a scene where he is addressing a shareholders’ meeting of a company he is trying to take over. This is where Gecko utters the most famous words in the film “Greed is good”. The words have serious context. Gecko is peddling  the laissez faire  line that competition is an unalloyed good because it is the agency which creates natural selection amongst companies and it is only that which keeps an economy healthy. He also  puts his finger on a real  cancer in big business: the development of the bureaucratic company where the company is run for the benefit of the senior management rather than the shareholders. Gecko  rails against  the huge number of senior managers on  high salaries  in  the company he wishes to buy, a business  which has done little for its shareholders.  Whether you agree with the raw natural selection argument in business  – and I do not – at the very least it shows that the likes of Gecko feel the need to  justify what they do, to provide an ethical cloak for their misbehaviour.

There is also a serious difference in the general behaviour of  Gecko and Belfort.  Gecko  for all his faults is not a libertine. For him money is both an instrument and an end in itself. It gives him power and status, a medal of success in his eyes and the eyes of the world he inhabits.  There is purpose in Gecko.  He enjoys the material trappings of wealth but is not overwhelmed by them. In Belfort there is merely an ultimately empty grasping of licence  with drugs,  whores  and absurd status symbols such as an outlandishly large yacht , which his ego drives him to wreck by ordering the ship’s captain to sail in weather which the captain tells him is unsafe to sail in. He acquires a trophy girlfriend , He dumps his wife. There is no solid foundation to any part of his life.

The other big general difference between the films is ethical.  Wall Street has a moral voice which acts  as a  foil to Gecko’s amorality.   Bud Fox’s father Carl puts the case against capitalism red in tooth and claw. After Bud’s  discovery of Gecko’s attempt to buy Bluestar Carl’s dissenting ideological  voice  is added to by Bud. In TWOWS there is no moral voice or pretence by Belfort (or any other character) that what they are doing has any social function or ethical content. Instead the public are simply viewed as a bovine herd to be milked as ruthlessly as possible.  The fact that what is being done – whether it be selling penny stocks in a boiler room or using insider information in more sophisticated company –  is no better than a confidence trick does not cause Belfort and his fellow participants the slightest discomfort only unalloyed joy. They are getting rich at the expense of suckers. It’s all a game whose only end is to make the individual rich and to be rich is a validation of their existence.

Gecko and Belfort end up in prison, so in that respect at least they honour the old American  film tradition of never showing the criminal getting away with it, although  in the case of Belfort he ends up in a place which is not so much a prison as a country club.

Both films are strong in all the technical ways – script, plot, characterisation and acting – that are used to judge films. Michael Douglas’ is a more studied performance than that of  diCaprio who brings an amazing energy to the role.  But arresting as Douglas’ performance is  the film the film has ample space to fill out other characters. Indeed, in terms of screen time it is Bud who wins out.

DiCaprio’s   Belfort has strong claims to be the  best performance in an already  long career, but it utterly dominates the film and consequently the other characters have little room to develop than TWOWS.  They either remain one rather dimensional or like Matthew McConaughey  appear only in cameos.

The quality of the films as films is reason enough to watch them, but their primary value , as a pair,   is their charting, unwittingly,   of the decline of moral  sense between the 1980s and now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How the BBC fixes the political bias of Any Questions

Robert Henderson

The programme is fixed generally because all those invited will on subjects such as race, immigration, homosexuality and feminism  toe the pc line to a large degree. (Ask yourself when was the last time you heard someone on Any Questions saying that mass immigration is an unalloyed ill). They will do this either from ideological conviction or the fear of the consequences if they become accused of a pc “crime”.

There is also a more particular built in bias which will generally result in preponderance politically correct  and left leaning answer. To demonstrate this I have compiled  the details of panel members  for a couple of recent two month runs of Any Questions – June-July 2013 and January-February 2014 (17 programmes). These details are shown at the bottom of this blog post.

Then there are  the biases produced by race, ethnicity and employment. Those who are there as right leaning representatives,  but are immigrants or the children of immigrants, members of a racial or ethnic minority or compromised by receiving public money or favours such as those bestowed on the quangocracy will often be left leaning in certain areas such as the desirability of mass immigration or the worth of public service, regardless of their nominal political orientation.

In the four months covered by the two periods chosen, the leftist, politically correct bias is clear: on every panel at least two (half the panel) of the participants are formally left leaning and in a number of cases more than two. A good example is the 28 2 2014 programme where at least three members (Hughes, Eagle, Greer)  are of the left and arguably all four because Chua being the child or immigrants and a member of an ethnic minority will in many areas automatically be pc (for example immigration)  even if she has some non pc ideas as well.

There is no example of any programme with more than two right leaning members  on it. Moreover, many of those classified as right-leaning will be right leaning only in the area of economics and even there someone who supports laissez faire economics is veering into the leftist world because the effects of globalism feed into the liberal left internationalist credo.

It is also noteworthy that although there are a few members of panels who may  reasonably be categorised as of the hard left, for example, Diane Abbott and Laurie Penny,   there is no one who represents the far right.

It is reasonable to suspect that the BBC packs all its audiences for political and current affairs programmes in a  similar way.

28 2 2014

The Bath Literature Festival with Justice Minister Simon Hughes MP, Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Maria Eagle MP, Yale Law professor and author Amy Chua, and writer and broadcaster Germaine Greer.

Political count: two left-leaning MPs (Hughes and Eagle), an immigrant and radical feminist (Greer) and an ethnic minority representative  and child of immigrants to the USA (Chua).

21 2 2014

Blundells School in Tiverton, Devon, with Secretary of State for Scotland and Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael, Conservative backbench MP Nadhim Zahawi MP, New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny and Labour backbench MP Frank Field.

Political count: two left leaning MPs (Field and Carmichael ), one ethnic minority  immigrant  and right leaning MP (Zahawi) and one member of the hard left (Penny).

14 2 2014

Central Hall Methodist Church in Walsall with Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee Keith Vaz MP, Fisheries and Farming Minister George Eustice MP, Pauline Black from The Selecter and UKIP Party Director Lisa Duffy.

Political count: ne Left leaning MP, immigrant  and ethnic minority representative (Vas), one right leaning  MP (Eustice), one ethnic minority  representative  (Black) and  one right leaning representative from a minor party (Duffy).

7 2 2014

Altrincham Grammar School for Girls with Defence Minister and Tory MP  Anna Soubry, journalist and poverty campaigner Jack Monroe, the Liberal Democrat MP Jeremy Browne and the Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw MP.

Political count: one Tory MP but with a strong streak of political correctness (Soubry), two left leaning MPs (Browne and Straw) and one leftist journalist and campaigner (Monroe).

31 1 2014

Purfleet in Essex with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles MP, Labour backbencher Diane Abbott MP, author and columnist Simon Heffer and the new Green party peer Baroness Jenny Jones

Political count: one centrist Tory MP (Pickles), one hard left MP who is the  daughter of immigrants  and an ethnic minority representative (Abbott), one right leaning journalist (Heffer) and , one hard left peer, (Jones).

24 1 2014

Gwyn Hall in Neath, with the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, Jill Evans Plaid Cymru MEP for Wales, Conservative Vice Chairman for Campaigning, Michael Fabricant MP, and the former leader of the Liberal Party Lord Steel.

Political count: two  left leaning politicians (Jones and Evans) and one right leaning  MP (Fabricant) and one left leaning peer (Steel).

17 1 2014

Greenbank High School in Southport with the former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Health Andy Burnham, Supermarket Ombudsman Christine Tacon and Liverpool based textiles businessman Tony Caldeira.

Political count:  one right leaning MP (Mitchell), one left leaning MP (Burnham), one member of the Quangocracy (Tacon) and one businessman who is a Tory Party supporter (Caldeira).

10 1 2014

Heythrop College in London with Justice Secretary Chris Grayling MP, Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan MP, Patrick O’Flynn the new Communications Director for UKIP and former coalition minister the Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather.

Political count: two left leaning MPs (Khan and Teather), one right leaning Tory MP (Grayling) and one rightist representative for a minor party (O’Flynn).

27 7 2013

Endellion, Cornwall with Lord Hattersley, writer Jessica Mann, Times columnist Phil Collins and Jacob Rees Mogg MP.

Political count: one leftist peer (Hattersley), one rightist MP (Rees-Mogg), one immigrant  who has been part of Quangocracy (Mann), one left leaning journalist (Collins) .

19  7 2013

Bridport in Dorset with Lord Ashdown, Kate Hoey MP, Baroness Julia Neuberger and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lawson.

Political count: two left leaning peers (Ashdown and Neuberger), one centrist Tory peer (Lawson) and one left leaning MP (Hoey). Neuberger is the daughter of an immigrant mother and a member of an ethnic minority.

12 7 2013

Bushey in Hertfordshire with Chuka Umunna Shadow Business Secretary, Vice Chairman of the Society of Business Economists Bronwyn Curtis, Grant Shapps Chairman of the Conservative Party and the Speaker’s Chaplain the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin.

Political count: one left-leaning immigrant and member of an ethnic minority MP  (Umunna), One immigrant Australian economist (Curtis), one right leaning MP (Shapps) and one ethnic minority immigrant representative (Rose Hudson-Wilkin).

5 7 2013

from Keswick in the Lake District with Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron, Shadow Europe Minister Emma Reynolds MP, Deputy leader of UKIP Paul Nuttall and Leader of the 1922 Committee Graham Brady MP.

Political count: two left leaning MPs (Farron and Reynolds), one right leaning member of a minor party  (Nuttall) and one right leaning MP (Brady).

28 6 2013

Titchfield in Hampshire with John Denham MP, Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Bar Council Maura McGowan QC and Minister of State for Justice Lord McNally.

Political count: one left leaning MP (Denham), one right leaning MP (Jenkin), one criminal lawyer  with no obvious political affiliation (McGowan) and , one left leaning peer (McNally).

21 6 2013

Purley in Croydon. The panel are Labour peer Baroness Oona King; editor of Prospect magazine Bronwen Maddox, Foreign and Commonwealth minister Alistair Burt and the novelist, journalist and human rights activist Joan Smith.

Political count: one left leaning ethnic representative peer (King), one right leaning journalist (Maddox), one right leaning MP (Burt) and one left leaning journalist (Smith).

14 6 2013

Great Yarmouth Racecourse in Norfolk with Daniel Hannan MEP, commentator Mehdi Hasan, Communities and Local Government Minister Don Foster MP and Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Mary Creagh MP.

Political count: one right leaning MEP (Hannan), one son of immigrants and left leaning ethnic minority representative journalist (Medhi Hassan) and two left leaning MPs (Foster and Creagh)

7 6 2013

The Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales with Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson MP, Labour’s Peter Hain MP, Leader of Plaid Cymru Leanne Woods, and commentator James Delingpole.

Political count: one right leaning MP (Paterson) one left leaning MP (Hain), one hard left representative (Woods)  and one rightist journalist (Delingpole).

1 6 2013

Slough in Berkshire. The panel includes the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers MP, the director of the think-tank British Future Sunder Katwala, Business woman Julie White and Labour peer Lord Adonis.

Political count: one right leaning MP (Villiers), one left leaning ethnic minority representative who is the son of immigrants (Katwala), one business woman whose company D-Drill gets a good deal of its work from government (White) and one left leaning peer (Adonis).

What the British people want from their politicians… and what they get

Robert Henderson

What do our politicians think of the electorate: precious little. All the major mainstream parties either ignore or cynically  misrepresent  the issues  which are most important to the British – immigration, our relationship with the EU, the English democratic deficit,  foreign adventures , the suppression of free speech and the precarious state of the economy. . These issues are  not addressed honestly because they either clash with the prevailing internationalist agenda or because to address them honestly would mean admitting how much sovereignty had been given away to the EU and through other treaties.

This antidemocratic failure to engage in honest politics is an established trait. The wilful removal from mainstream politics of vitally important issues has been developing for more than half a century. The upshot is that the British want their politics to be about something which is not currently on offer from any party with a chance of forming a government. The British public broadly seek what these days counts as rightist action when it comes to matters such as preserving nationhood, immigration, race and political correctness, but traditional leftist policies on items such as social welfare, the NHS and the economy (has anyone ever met someone in favour of free markets and free trade who has actually lost his job because of them?).

The electorate’s difficulty is not simply their inability to find a single party to fulfil all or even most of their political desires. Even on a single issue basis, the electorate frequently cannot find a party offering what they want because all the mainstream parties now carol from the same internationalist, globalist, supranational, pro-EU, pc songsheet. The electorate finds they may have any economic programme provided it is laissez faire globalism, any relationship with the EU provided it is membership, any foreign policy provided it is internationalist and continuing public services only if they increasingly include private capital and provision. The only difference between the major parties is one of nuance.

Nowhere is this political uniformity seen more obviously than in the Labour and Tory approaches to immigration. Labour has adopted a literally mad policy of “no obvious limit to immigration”. The Tories claim to be “tough” on immigration, but then agree to accept as legal immigrants more than 100,000 incomers a year from outside the EU plus any number of migrants from within the EU (350 million have the right to settle here). There is a difference, but it is simply less or more of the same. Worse, in practice there would probably be no meaningful difference to the numbers coming whoever is in power. The truth is that while we remain part of the EU and tied by international treaties on asylum and human rights, nothing meaningful can be done for purely practical reasons. But even if something could be done, for which serious party could the person who wants no further mass immigration vote? None.

A manifesto to satisfy the public

All of this set me thinking: what manifesto would appeal to most electors? I suggest this political agenda for the What the People Want Party:

We promise:

1. To always put Britain’s interests first. This will entail the adoption of an unaggressive nationalist ethic in place of the currently dominant internationalist ideology.

2. The reinstatement of British sovereignty by withdrawal from the EU and the repudiation of all treaties which circumscribe the primacy of Parliament.

3. That future treaties will only come into force when voted for by a majority in both Houses of Parliament and   accepted in a referendum . Any  treaty should be subject to repudiation following  Parliament passing a motion that repudiation should take place and that motion being ratified by a referendum.  Treaties could also be repudiated by a citizen initiated referendum (see 29).

4. A reduction in the power of the government in general and the Prime Minister in particular and an increase in the power of Parliament. This will be achieved by abolishing the Royal Prerogative, outlawing the party whip and removing the vast powers of patronage available to a government.

5. That the country will only go to war on a vote in both Houses of Parliament.

6. An end to mass immigration by any means, including asylum, work permits and family reunion.

7. An end to all officially-sponsored political correctness.

8. The promotion of British history and culture in our schools and by all publicly-funded bodies.

9. The repeal of all laws which give by intent or practice a privileged position to any group which is less than the entire population of the country, for example the Race Relations Act..

10. The repeal of all laws which attempt to interfere with the personal life and responsibility of the individual. Citizens will not be instructed what to eat, how to exercise, not to smoke or drink or be banned from pursuits such as fox-hunting which harm no one else.

11. A formal recognition that a British citizen has rights and obligations not available to the foreigner, for example, the benefits of the welfare state will be made available only to born and bred Britons.

12. Policing which is directed towards three ends: maintaining order, catching criminals and providing support and aid to the public in moments of threat or distress. The police will leave their cars and helicopters and return to the beat and there will be an assumption that the interests and safety of the public come before the interests and safety of police officers.

13. A justice system which guards the interests of the accused by protecting essential rights of the defendant such as jury trial and the right to silence, whilst preventing cases collapsing through technical procedural errors.

14. Prison sentences that are served in full, that is,  the end of remission and other forms of early release. Misbehaviour in prison will be punished by extending the sentence.

15. An absolute right to self-defence when attacked. The public will be encouraged to defend themselves and their property.

16. A general economic policy which steers a middle way between protectionism and free trade, with protection given to vital and strategically important industries such as agriculture, energy, and steel and free trade only in those things which are not necessities.

17. A repudiation of further privatisation for its own sake and a commitment to the direct public provision of all essential services such as medical treatment. We recognise that the electorate overwhelmingly want the NHS, decent state pensions, good state funded education for their children and state intervention where necessary to ensure the necessities of life. This promise is made to both reassure the public of continued future provision and to ensure that the extent of any public spending is unambiguous, something which is not the case where indirect funding channels such as PFI are used.

18. The re-nationalisation of  the railways, the energy companies, the water companies and any  exercise  of the state’s authority such as privately run prisons which have been placed in  private hands.

19. An  education system which ensures that every child leaves school with at least a firm grasp of the three Rs and a school exam system which is based solely on a final exam. This will remove the opportunity to cheat by pupils and teachers. The standards of the exams will be based on those of the 1960s which is the last time British school exams were uncontaminated by continuous assessment, multiple choice questions and science exams included practicals as a matter of course. .

20. To restore credibility to our university system. The taxpayer will fund scholarships for 20 per cent of school-leavers. These will pay for all fees and provide a grant sufficient to live on during term time. Any one not in receipt of a scholarship will have to pay the full fees and support themselves or take a degree in their spare time. The scholarships will be concentrated on the best universities. The other universities will be closed. This will ensure that the cost is no more than the current funding and the remaining universities can be adequately funded.

21. A clear distinction in our policies between the functions of the state and the functions of private business, charities and other non-governmental bodies. The state will provide necessary public services, business will be allowed to concentrate on their trade and not be asked to be an arm of government and charities will be entirely independent bodies which will no longer receive public money.

22. A commitment to putting the family first. This will include policies which recognise that the best childcare is that given by the parents and that parents must be allowed to exercise discipline over their children. These will be given force by a law making clear that parents have an absolute right to the custody of and authority over their children, unless the parents can be shown to be engaging in serious criminal acts against their children.

23. Marriage to be encouraged by generous tax breaks and enhanced  child allowances for children born in wedlock.

24. Defence forces designed solely to defend Britain and not the New World Order.

25. A Parliament for England to square the Devolution circle. The English comprise around 80 per cent of the population of the UK, yet they alone of all the historic peoples are Britain are denied the right to govern themselves. This is both unreasonable and politically unsustainable in the long-run.

26. A reduction to the English level of Treasury funding to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This will save approximately £17 billion pa because the Celts receive overall approximately £1,600 per head per annum more than the English.

27. An end to Foreign Aid. This will save approximately £11  billion.

28. A written constitution to ensure that future governments cannot abuse their power. This will be predicated on (1) the fact that we are a free people, (2) the belief that in a free and democratic society the individual can be trusted to take responsibility for his or her actions and to behave responsibly and (3) that politicians are the servants not the masters of those who elect them. It will guarantee those things necessary to a free society, including an absolute right to free expression, jury trial for any offence carrying a sentence of more than one year, place citizens in a privileged position over foreigners and set the interests and safety of the country and its citizens above the interests and safety of any other country or people.

29. Citizen initiated referenda shall be held when ten per cent of the population have signed a petition asking for a referendum.

Those are the things which I think most of the electorate could embrace, at least in large part. There are also other issues which the public might well be brought to  support if there was proper public debate and a serious political party supporting them such as the ownership and bearing of weapons and the legalisation of drugs.

The positive thing about such an agenda is that either Labour or the Tories could comfortably support it within the context of their history.

Until Blair perverted its purpose, the Labour Party had been in practice (and often in theory – think Ernie Bevin), staunchly nationalist, not least because the unions were staunchly protective of their members’ interests and resistant to both mass immigration (because it reduced wages) and free trade (because it exported jobs and reduced wages).

For the Tories, the Thatcherite philosophy is as much an aberration as the Blairite de-socialisation of Labour. The true Tory creed in a representative democracy is that of the one nation nationalist. It cannot be repeated too often that the free market internationalist creed is the antithesis of conservatism.

The manifesto described above would not appeal in every respect to ever member of the “disenfranchised majority”. But its general political slant would be palatable to that majority and there would be sufficient within the detail to allow any individual who is currently disenchanted with politics to feel that there were a decent number of important policies for which he or she could happily vote. That is the best any voter can expect in a representative democracy. People could again believe that voting might actually change things.

Royal Mail privatisation – an act of ideology not of necessity or prudence

Robert Henderson

The announcement of the privatisation of the Royal Mail  by  the Business Secretary Vince Cable (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/royal-mail/10172284/Royal-Mail-lined-up-for-3bn-float.html)  is the marriage of the Thatcherite  privatising Zombie which has infected the whole of the mainstream British politics linked to the mania for “competition” exhibited by the EU (http://ec.europa.eu/competition/sectors/postal_services/overview_en.html).  The two ideologies – that of market economics and the goal, pursued with pathological determination,  of an ever expanding equalisation of trading conditions throughout the EU dovetailed perfectly.

The public sees Royal Mail as a public service. This is unsurprising because it has been in public hands since the 17th century and the provision of a universal delivery service to every part of the country for a standard charge existed from the time  Rowland Hill invented the postage stamp and the penny postage in the mid 19th century until the EU  interfered and ended the monopoly on letter post and small parcels in 2010.

There are clearly much broader questions of social  utility  than the cost or otherwise to  the taxpayer.  But even on the narrow and vulgar question of cost to the taxpayer there is no solid case for privatisation. Provided the letter post and packages up to a size which encompasses  the large majority of packets sent is  kept as a state monopoly,  the service could be relied upon to remain in the black whilst keeping postal charges low.  Even with the considerable weakening of Royal Mail’s monopoly over recent years it is still delivering healthy profits, viz: “ The state-owned delivery company said pre-tax profits jumped to £324m from £201m last year and a loss of £165m in 2011. Underlying operating profits soared 165pc to £403m from £152m in 2012” ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/royal-mail/10070998/Royal-Mail-delivers-profits-fit-for-flotation.html).

It is true that letter numbers have  declined  considerably in recent  years, by 25% between 2006 and the end of 2012. Nonetheless, the volume is still considerable  with 16 billion letters being sent to 28 million addresses  in 2012 (http://media.ofcom.org.uk/2012/03/27/ofcom-announces-measures-to-safeguard-the-uks-universal-postal-service/). Even with the ever growing use of digital communications, it is difficult to see letters dwindling to an insignificant number in the near future. Moreover, a good deal of the recent letter decline can be attributed to the ever growing cost of postage,  with second class mail for small letters now being 55p (large letters 69p) and first class  mail  60p (large 90p) (http://www.royalmailgroup.com/first-and-second-class-stamp-letter-prices-unchanged). In 1840 when the penny post was introduced a letter of any size could be sent for one old  penny. At 2012 prices that would be 87 old pence today (7/3) , or 36 new pence.  (http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/Pages/inflation/calculator/).  In real terms the  modern cost of a first class large letter is nearly three times as much as its 1840 predecessor. Bearing in mind the benefit of modern sorting technology  and transport and a great reduction in the number of deliveries per day,  it is rather surprising that the cost of post has risen hugely in real terms in modern times rather than dropping.

Parcel post costs have also risen sharply for those sizes of parcel  most likely  to be used: “2kg [parcel] was previously £5.30, but this will now rise to £8 if it is bigger than 45cm by 35cm by 8cm.” (2013  –  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9965562/Cost-of-posting-parcels-to-rise.html and http://internetretailing.net/2013/04/online-retailer-speaks-out-as-royal-mail-changes-parcel-pricing/#sthash.4EFUCLqr.dpuf) )

These price rises have been permitted by the regulator Ofcom simply to prepare the Royal Mail for privatisation. If Royal Mail remained in public hands, with the old letter post and small parcel monopolies restored, the cost of postage could be reduced considerably because profit would not be a prime driver of the cost . In fact, with the current profits being made, even if the present situation was maintained substantial postage price reductions could be made.  The current large profits are only needed to make Royal Mail  attractive to prospective buyers of the business.

But even If the worst came to the worst and Royal Mail regularly made a loss, and the taxpayer had to  directly subsidize the cost, this would still be a benefit to the general public because it would ensure that an important public service was maintained at a price the public could afford.

The really good news for those who want  Royal Mail to stay as a public service is the immense growth in parcel post because of the already hugely expanded and ever expanding increase in Internet buying. In May 2013 this accounted for 9.7% of all retail spending excluding automotive fuel (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/rsi/retail-sales/may-2013/stb-rsi-may-2013.html#tab-Internet-Sales). There is every reason to believe it will continue to grow substantially as people get more and more comfortable with buying online and the opportunities to buy in shops diminishes as more and more close The Centre for Retail Research estimates that stores will decline  from 281,930 today to 220,000 in 2018, a decline of 22% (http://www.retailresearch.org/retail2018.php).  This growth in parcel post will more than cancel out the reduction in revenue from  letters.

Practically allied to Royal Mail is the Post Office . Until  April 2012 Royal Mail and the Post Office were  effectively part of the same organisation, albeit as agencies of varying status. (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmbis/84/8405.htm).  Now the Post Office is to be, legally, an entirely separate state-owned organisation.

A Commons committee in 2012  recognised  its public service function: “The Post Office remains an essential service which is extensively used. A third of the UK population—just under 20 million people—and half of all small businesses visit one of over 11,500 post offices every week.] The Post Office is one of the country’s largest cash handlers, processing around £70 billion of cash and £636 million of coinage every year. “
(ibid)

The official view of the Post Office networks future is rosy: “[In 2012] Paula Vennells, Chief Executive of Post Office Ltd, supported the proposals and set out her ambition for the Post Office:

If I have a vision, it is to have 30,000 post office outlets, not 11,500. It is to have standalone electronic drop boxes for mail packets. It is to have ATMs in railway stations. It is to have identity kits in town halls and libraries, all branded ‘Post Office’. But until we transform the current network and make it more sustainable, that becomes just an ambition.” (ibid)

This seems wildly improbable in the context of a privatised Royal MailAlthough  a ten year deal to maintain the existing Post Office network was agreed by the government in 2012,   it is probable that the network will be severely reduced in the not too distant future . It has already suffered a considerable contraction –  there are 11,500 Post Offices now compared with 20,000 in 1990. Many of the remaining offices,  and especially the  sub-post offices,  are struggling   because government services such as TV licence renewal have been removed from the Post Office remit and  there is a  general move towards online government services (in which the user increasingly has no choice but to use the online service) will worsen  the lot of Post Offices, especially the sub-post offices. (http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/news/article-1678139/Post-offices-death-by-a-thousand-cuts.html).   Politically it will be much easier to reduce a stand alone state-run Post Office network  in size or even do away with all together than one attached in some way to the Royal Mail, especially if the privatised Royal Mail and its other private competitors decide not to use  Post Offices  as parcel pickup points and the government can keep pointing the Post Office network as “a burden on the taxpayer”.   The network It does require a public subsidy but this is minute in the context of national expenditure – it was  £150 million in 2010/11 ((http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmbis/84/8405.htm)

There is little experience of privatised postal services  because there are few anywhere  in the world and those that have been privatised – Sweden, Finland and New Zealand – have only done so within the last 20 years.   However, a 2007 European Commission report on the liberalisation of postal services within the EU  found a common theme, namely, a reduction in post offices and increased postal charges (http://www.boeckler.de/pdf/wsi_pj_piq_post_europe.pdf).  That is exactly what is to be expected when private operators are allowed  into a state service.

Does anyone  honestly doubt that privatisation will make matters worse? After all, every major British privatisation of public  services,  apart from telecommunications  where there can be real competition,  has resulted in higher charges for at best unimproved and at worst inferior services.  Why should this privatisation be any different?

Here is a media doubter Vikki Woods writing for the free market Daily Telegraph  : “ Vince Cable said in the Commons that the time had come for the Government to step back from Royal Mail and allow its management to focus on growing the business. The sell-off “is practical, it is logical, it is a commercial decision… It is consistent with developments elsewhere in Europe where privatised operators produce profit margins far higher than the Royal Mail but have continued to provide high-quality and expanding services.” Oh, yes? He says “expansion” but I hear “shrinkage”. The universal service obligation was only five days across Europe back in 2011, and now various national mail companies are sucking their teeth and suggesting three days a week would be good. “(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/countryside/10176212/Our-postman-delivers-a-sack-of-bad-news.html).

I suspect that many will have the same fears.

The Royal Mail is already much diminished from what it was. There is only one delivery a day; the cost of postage has risen massively  and much of the Post Office counter service which includes a good deal of postal work – recorded and registered letters, airmail, special delivery and so on –  has gone because of the massive reduction in Post Offices.   How long before the universal letter post obligation is reduced from six days to three days or two days? How long before a single universal charge for the whole country is abolished and hard to service areas such as the countryside are charged much more than the cities?  How long before door-to-door letter post  deliveries are replaced by deliveries to central collection points ?

Privatisation is a fraud on the public for its is selling that which belongs to everyone.  Where privatisation of state assets involves selling them  to the general public  it is a confidence trick on a par with the conman who “sells”  Nelson’s Column to  tourist.   Britons  who purchase shares in a privatised company are buying what they already own.  Think about that fact and don’t be a sucker.

The public is being doubly stung with this privatisation.  Not only will they almost certainly have, based on the experience of privatised postal services abroad, a more expensive and less comprehensive service within the foreseeable future, the funding of accrued Royal Mail pensions up to 31 March 2012 will remain as a charge on the taxpayer (http://www.royalmailpensionplan.co.uk/) rather than the new privatised company.  In short, the taxpayer is left with the debts while the buyers of  Royal Mail walk away unencumbered with the historical pension obligations.

This is something which does not need to happen. It would be perfectly possible to retain a state-owned universal postal service which would not make a loss, would make sufficient money to keep modernising  and would be much cheaper to use. All that would  be required is the political will to say no to the EU and revert to the old letter and smaller parcel monopoly.  This  privatisation is simply an ideological decision and has nothing to do with the  viability of a state-run postal service in this country.

This could well be a highly unpopular privatisation because the public  overwhelmingly view  Royal Mail as a service and have become jaundiced by previous large privatisations such as the energy and water industries, all of which have  resulted in raised prices and no great improvement in the service they provide. It could  well cost the Tory and Lib Dem parties dear at the next election.   (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/royal-mail/10050074/Poisonous-privatisation-of-Royal-Mail-will-cost-the-Conservatives-votes-in-2015-Bow-Group-warns-Tory-MPs.html). If it does, they will have only themselves to blame.

How much public money is being stolen and wasted because of the privatisation of public services?

Robert Henderson

In June this year I attended a talk given by Michael Heseltine. It was embarrassingly limp re-hashed Heseltinian fare from the 1980s,with Heseltine airily advocating localism in place of centralised government with precious little idea of how  to engineer his envisaged  utopia of local politicians free from the Westminster party embrace mixing with banks,  Chambers of Commerce and other trade bodies to bring about a Nirvana of self-help and self-determination. (http://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/michael-heseltine-rebalancing-the-british-economy/).  Thankfully,  the Coalition thought so little of Heseltine’s proposals in his Government commissioned report No Stone Unturned that only the derisory sum of £2 billion (Heseletine had asked for £49 billion) was allocated to his recommendations for devolved power and expenditure  to promote growth (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/spending-review/10144584/Spending-Review-2bn-to-boost-regional-growth.html). It would have been less insulting if the Coalition had allocated nothing.

When the opportunity came for questions I raised  the matter of  increasing corruption in the spending of public money.  This is a consequence of taxpayers’ money going to private contractors at an ever more alarming rate as the mania for putting out public services to private companies and not-for-profit organisations such as charities  continues  unabated,  despite the ample evidence that contracting-out is generally very poor value for the taxpayer.  My argument was simple: the greater the number of public contracts being put out to tender by commercial businesses and not-for-profit organisations, the greater the opportunities for corruption by either public employees and contractors colluding or contractors fixing things amongst themselves.  Human nature being what it is, greater opportunities for fraud inevitably means greater instances of  fraud.

Heseltine reacted with considerable vehemence to my suggestion that serious corruption might exist in public service saying that he “took great exception” to the idea.  His denial rang hollow because sadly there is a constant flow  of publicly reported frauds by those receiving public money.   Here are a few recent examples of  alleged frauds:

1. Pharmacists and drug companies colluding to overcharge the NHS for drugs http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10133557/Pharmaceutical-scandal-The-NHS-the-drug-firms-and-the-price-racket.html.    The amounts in this case are potentially very large: “The Daily Telegraph’s investigation has found that companies are privately offering discounts of up to 70 per cent on drug tariff items to high-street chemists, with the pharmacist keeping the difference. For example, the NHS would agree to pay £100 for a drug that would be supplied to a chemist for only £30.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10135897/Pharmaceutical-scandal-firms-boast-of-profits-on-drugs-that-cost-pennies.html).

2. Former government education adviser Tim Royle  arrested on suspicion of fraud when he was a headmaster ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/10130632/Former-government-education-adviser-arrested-on-suspicion-of-fraud.html).

Sometimes  misbehaviour  is judged to have fallen short of the criminal, but it still costs the taxpayer money.  A good example is that of  one-time award-winning  head teacher Jo Shuter  who  left herself open to suspicion and criticism by  inappropriate spending  and the employment of  relatives. She resigned but not before   being given a final warning  for “financial and human resource mismanagement”  (http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/jo-shuter-there-was-a-blurring-of-my-personal-and-professional-worlds-it-was-incredibly-stupid-8664781.html)

I can give two examples of questionable public contracts involving a great deal of money  which I personally tried unsuccessfully to bring to public notice. Both involved Camden Council, the London borough in which I live. The first occurred in 2003 when the Council announced that they were to replace 14,000 kitchens and bathrooms in their council housing stock.  In response to a question I put to him at a public meeting  Neil Litherland, the then director  of Housing in Camden , quoted me £6,000 for each room (£12,000 for a kitchen and bathroom combined).  The bathroom and kitchen units Camden  proposed to fit were pretty basic. The total cost at that price was £168 million (at 2003 prices).  This struck me as outlandishly expensive, so   I went to a local high street fitted furniture retailer to get a  quote.

At the retailer  I  selected units of the same quality as those proposed by the Council and  was quoted £1,500 for each room, including the installation of the kitchen and bathroom units.   That was for a single retail sale. A contract for 14,000 properties should  result in a very substantial discount below a retail sale, but even at the retail price quoted the contract would have been a quarter of the Camden quoted figure.

When I made my complaint to Camden,  I doubled the £1,500 quoted by the retailer because Camden were doing other renovation work such as re-wiring and laying new vinyl on the floors in the kitchens and bathrooms as well as fitting the new kitchen units and bathroom suites.  The extra  £1,500 per room for this  renovation work was almost certainly far too much,  but even  at £3,000 per room  Camden  would have been halved their actual bill saving £84 million.

A  disinterested person reading that account might think the local politicians and the MP for area would have been biting my hand off to take up the case and stop the grossly overpriced contract going through. I could not find a single politician to take up the matter. Nor could I get even the local papers to investigate the matter.

The second case involved what is now known as the Francis Crick Institute. (http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/links-to-all-ukcrmi-blog-posts/).  This is a gigantic medical  research laboratory currently being constructed on land behind the British Library. The site is  a road’s width from the Eurostar terminus.  There are excellent grounds for opposing the building of such a laboratory because it will be dealing with level 4 (the highest biohazard level) toxins.  This poses a risk of dangerous materials being released  (through a terrorist attack or carelessness)  into an area which is both heavily residential and arguably the busiest transport hub in London.  However, that is not the important thing in the context of corruption.

In an attempt to stop the building of the laboratory I used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to gain details of the sale of the land on which the laboratory is being built. The land belonged to the taxpayer and was under the stewardship of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The site   was put out to competitive tender and a good deal of interest was shown (27 bids, including the likes of Barratt Homes and   Oracle Group  – http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/the-full-list-of-bidders/).  The decision was solely in the hands of the Secretary of State for the DCMS who was exercising a quasi-judicial role in the matter.  Despite this, documents I obtained using the FOIA unambiguously show Gordon Brown when PM illegally interfering with the bidding process  from before the closing date for bids and carrying on interfering until the sale was complete (http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/gordon-browns-involvement-in-the-sale-of-the-land-to-ukcrmi/).   Here is an example extract from a Treasury document  dated 1 August 2007:

The PM is also most recently stated that he is very keen to make sure that Government departments are properly coordinated on this project [the laboratory] and that if there is a consensus that this is indeed an exciting project then we do what we can to make it happen. This is extremely helpful from a DIUS and MRC perspective, but, formally a NIMR relocation project in London has yet to receive Lyons approval from Treasury (for either the first planned NTH site or the possible BL site).

This was before the initial bidding process was closed.  The process was a sham, the other bidders having bid with no prospect of success. Brown should not have interfered at all,  even to say whether he thought X or Y was or was not  a promising project, but here he is  issuing a direct instruction to favour the laboratory consortium by getting all the government departments with some future or immediate interest in the laboratory to put their weight behind it. (When a Prime Minister says he is “very keen” on something that is an order to move heaven and earth to achieve it).

As with the Camden contract for kitchens and bathrooms I was unable to get any politician, local or national, to take up the matter. Every Camden councillor and the local Labour MP Frank Dobson  had the information but refused to act. Camden granted planning permission in principle, but this had to be agreed by Boris Johnson in his role of Mayor of London because the Institute building  is over the height which can  be sanctioned by a London council. Johnson  granted permission despite having the details of the corrupted bidding process (http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/notification-of-planning-irregularities-to-boris-johnson/) and refused to comment on Brown’s illegal involvement in the decision.  Equally telling in this case was the failure of the national media to take up the story despite Gordon  Brown’s involvement.  The nearest I came to getting the story up and running in the media was a single  short piece in the London Evening Standard (http://www.standard.co.uk/news/no-10-interfered-to-push-through-600m-plan-for-virus-superlab-6557759.html).

The nature of public  fraud

Much, probably the large majority,  of the fraud consists of inflating contracts. This can be done with or without the collusion of public servants and politicians. Collusion between  contractors, public servants and politicians  speaks for itself.  Fraud without public servants or politicians being involved is more complicated. It requires a conspiracy by a number of contractors to fix a bidding process.  The larger the contract  or the more specialised the  work to be done, the more likely a bidding process can be fixed, because often there are only a handful of bidders  capable of taking the contract on. This leads to corrupt agreements between the companies to share out public contracts between themselves at inflated prices. This is done by the bidders  putting in bids to a supposedly competitive bidding process structured so that the company who is to take the contract puts in the lowest priced bid. However, this lowest bid is much higher than it  should be if it was pitched simply at a level to  guarantee a level of quality and provide a reasonable profit for the successful bidder.

The practice is probably very widespread. The Office of Fair Trading concluded an investigation in 2009 which showed widespread fixing of prices: “The OFT has imposed fines totalling £129.2 million on 103 construction firms in England which it has found had colluded with competitors on building contracts.” (see   http://www.oft.gov.uk/shared_oft/reports/Evaluating-OFTs-work/oft1240.pdf and http://www.oft.gov.uk/shared_oft/business_leaflets/general/table-of-infringements.pdf).

Where public servants and/or politicians agree to accept an overpriced contract they may be  bribed either directly or indirectly. A favourite indirect method  is not to pay the politician or public servant at  the time of the fraud but later with lucrative sinecures after they have left office .

The current rules regarding ministers and public servants taking posts in private industry are so lax as to be next to meaningless – they can take up posts after a year or two, regardless of how closely the private sector job is linked to their previous post.  A recent eye-catching example was that of Dave Hartnett who has just taken up a post with the accountants Deloittes. . The Telegraph Daily telegraph  recently reported “Until last year, Mr Hartnett headed operations at HM Revenue and Customs. His new role will involve him working one day a week at Deloitte, which acts as auditor for companies – including Starbucks – which have been accused of using legal loopholes to avoid paying tax.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/10083254/Former-Revenue-boss-lands-tax-advice-job-at-Deloitte.html). I am not  suggesting there is corruption  in this case,  but is it really acceptable to have such a senior and important public servant turning from  gamekeeper  to poacher so rapidly?  Like Caesar’s wife, politicians and public servants should be above suspicion.

Waste through incompetence and lack of alternatives

Some of the fraud will be accomplished because the public servant or politicians involved in making contract decisions are simply not up to the job of judging what is a reasonable price for the work being put out to contract.  This is a common enough state of affairs because public servants often find themselves asked to negotiate contracts  even though they  have no experience of  doing so because work which has always been done by direct public labour is suddenly subcontracted to the private sector.   To cover their ignorance the public servant  will often judge bids not on their objective merits, but on who is the cheapest within the criteria set for a contract.  Whether the bid is a reasonable price  for the work done is ignored. This has a knock on effect, not least because  of the widespread lack of honest competition in bidding.  Those accepting bids will justify their acceptance by referring to other contracts for similar work.  Because of this inflated prices become the norm. The politicians who have to make the final decisions on the contracts are as ignorant as the  public servants who negotiate the contracts and simply take what is put before them in the vast majority of cases.

But even where politicians or public servants do realise a price is too high, they can be in a very difficult position which makes them  accept the price quoted.  The problem is that if they refuse all the bidders for a contract on the grounds of cost , then how is the work to be done?  They cannot go elsewhere often enough because there is no public organisation which could do the job rather than a private company or not-for-profit  institution. This is a particular danger with really large or specialised contracts which can only be undertaken by a few companies.  An inflated price may have to be paid by the taxpayer because there is no longer a  public sector alternative.

How much money is being lost?

Total UK Government expenditure for 2014 is £715.3 billion (http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/total_spending_2014UKbn). However, that does not include all of the Public Private Initiative (PFI)  liabilities because  Governments want to keep the full  PFI/PPP indebtedness off  the official national debt.  A report by the Office for Budget Responsibility in August 2011 notes that many PFI deals are not recognised in the National Accounts.:

“ As well as lacking transparency, this has fuelled a perception that PFI has been used as a way to hold down official estimates of public sector indebtedness for a given amount of overall capital spending, rather than to achieve value for money.[27]

The report details the scale of the problem noting that “at March 2010, PSND [Public Sector Net Debt] included about £5.1 billion (0.4 percent of GDP) in respect of PFI deals that were recorded as on balance sheet in the National Accounts.” However the OBR considered that “the total capital liability of on and off balance sheet PFI contracts was closer to £40 billion (2.9 per cent of GDP).”[28] They estimate therefore that if PFI contracts were all recognised as debt in the National Accounts this would increase the level of debt by around 2.5% of GDP.[29]” (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmtreasy/1146/114605.htm)

In 2012 The Guardian using ONS figures put total PFI liabilities at £301,343,154,097 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/jul/05/pfi-contracts-list).

It is clear that  a substantial figure should be added to  the headline £715.3 billion to account for the full PFI liability for 2014.

In the nature of things it is impossible to say exactly how much of taxpayers’ money will have been spent on overpriced contracts. However, the examples which are public knowledge suggest that it must be very considerable, because so much of what used to be done in-house by the British state, at both national and local level, is now put out to contract.

Take the NHS as an example.  If you spend time as an in-patient in the present day NHS you are likely to find that the cleaning, laundry, catering and provision of multimedia installations are  contracted out. The NHS will also spend immense amounts on equipment which will be supplied by a private contractor. Staff will often be recruited by a private agency for a hospital.  If they need temporary doctors and nurses they will pay a private agency.   The hospital may well have a Starbucks or a Costa Coffee instead of an in-house café for visitors. There is fair chance  that  hospital car park will  be run by a private company. Most expensively, if the hospital is recently built it will almost certainly be the  subject  of a PFI contract which stretches way into the future (twenty years or more). This,  and apart from costing the hospital a good deal of money  to pay for the building,   will almost certainly entail a costly management contract to run and maintain the building. This means in practice no one will be in definite overall charge,  because if something goes wrong with the building the contractor has to be left to undertake the maintenance as they see fit

The NHS is one of the most comprehensive examples of contracting out. But most government departments and much of local government displays the same tendency.  Schools and universities are within the contracting out net.  Defence procurement is  depends  very largely on  private contractors, foreign and British.  Police forces around the country  have either privatised much of their administration or are thinking of doing so.  Even the translation service used by the courts has been put out to a private contractor (with disastrous consequences).  Local government services such as waste  collection and disposal and street cleaning are frequently in the hands of contractors. The most disturbing and absurd example I have come across is the privatising of the quasi-judicial  District Auditor post which oversees local government and deals with complaints about their financial probity(“ Following the outsourcing of the Commission’s in-house Audit Practice, all auditor appointments are of private firms “ http://www.audit-commission.gov.uk/audit-regime/appointing-auditors/).

If only ten per cent  official Government expenditure is creamed off by fraud, that would mean £71 billion  of taxpayers’ money will be lost this financial year.  That is more than half the current government deficit.  But the figure  could well be much more because of the omitted PFI costs and the incentive of contractors to be as greedy as they can get away with.  Putting on twenty or thirty per cent to charges for supplying goods and services to central and local government might seem reasonable if you are the supplier and have good reason to believe  prices are likely to be accepted even if they are high. If the Telegraph reports of the grossly inflated prices charged  through collusion by pharmacists and drug companies are to be believed, the sky is the limit in the right circumstances for ramping up prices.

 Why do politicians do nothing?

It is little wonder that politicians in Britain are so willing to tolerate corruption because so many of them are happy to have their snouts in the public trough themselves in illegitimate ways. The information published by the Daily Telegraph on MPs expenses in 2009 was sufficient to show that the majority of MPs were engaging in expense claims which should never have been counted as legitimate expenses by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in normal circumstances . This was because they did not meet the HMRC test of being  expenses “ wholly, exclusively and necessarily “ incurred in the performance of a job.   Very few MPs faced criminal charges even though quite a few repaid money they had claimed. Nor does the public know how many of the MPs faced fresh assessments  by HMRC or the penalties if any HMRC imposed.

Two criminal offences are committed by those who evade tax by illegitimately describing expenditure they have incurred as tax deductible expenses. That  counts as a false declaration. They are effectively claiming money by false pretences. A second criminal offence arises if the bogus expense claim is made without an employer knowing that it is bogus (effectively theft from the employer) or a business which  is paying a sub-contractor expenses as part of the contractual arrangement  and the business does not know the claim is bogus (effectively theft from the employing business).

Depressingly, MPs appear to have learned little if anything from the Telegraph’s 2009 exposure of their shameful behaviour  because they are still thrashing their expenses (15 May 2013  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/10059243/Have-MPs-learnt-a-thing-since-2009-Their-greed-suggests-not.html).

There is also the widespread  practice of politicians being employed on lucrative contracts by organisations whose interests they have either surreptitiously  promoted as a backbencher or , in the case of ministers,  had an area of responsibility which coincided with that of the organisation giving them the job  (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1387791/Corruption-risk-ex-ministers-walking-straight-private-sector-jobs.html)

Finally there is  the scandal of still active politicians openly acting as paid lobbyists,   including providing ready access to Parliament  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/apr/10/lobbying-professionals-parliamentary-passes).

How things used to be

Until fairly recently the British Civil Service was remarkably free from corruption (local government is a different matter), a fact made all the more surprising because of the truly colossal amount of money Government  disposes of each year . There were two reasons for this. The first was the hard-won tradition of public service which in which the Civil Service is an apolitical institution and as such serves no political ideology or party but provides politicians of all stamps with disinterested advice and executes their policies. This tradition has been underpinned by the lifelong working careers which public servants, especially senior ones, have commonly had. Of course, that was merely the ideal and, as with any human institution, the reality fell some way short of the ideal. Nonetheless, such sentiments and conventions have in the past affected the behaviour of public servants for the better, especially in the area of honesty. Sadly, the public service ethos has been largely lost because of the constant upheaval in terms of employment, the loss of  career security  and thirty years of politicians and much of the mainstream media reciting the false mantra that private is good, public is bad.

The second reason for a lack of corruption was  the direct provision of most the services provided by central government. This meant that the number of large central government contracts offered to private business  was  small in relation to the money spent on the direct provision of public service in all its aspects. In such circumstances serious fraud becomes difficult going on impossible for most civil servants because they do not have access to large amounts of taxpayers’ money. (Where they do have access, for example in the Inland Revenue, in most instances there are strict accounting procedures which make the embezzlement of large amounts of cash extremely difficult). Moreover, where there are few government  contracts, most civil servants are not in a position where someone  would find it fruitful to bribe them because they have nothing to sell.  Unsurprisingly, where serious corruption amongst public servants employed by central government has occurred in the past, it has been overwhelmingly in those areas where large government contracts exist, most notably in Defence Procurement and building contracts. It is a reasonable assumption that the more public contracts offered to private companies, the greater the corruption will be simply because the opportunity for corruption increases.

It would be impossible to reinstate the public service ethos quickly, but taking work back into the  public  service fold  would have an effect on fraud and waste through incompetence.  It would  definitely reduce fraud and should allow costs to be controlled because it would be the public sector setting the prices for the work.

Here is a question for the supporters of privatisation in it various forms to puzzle over. Ever since Thatcher began the privatisation of public services governments have insisted that this was saving the public money.  Yet  government expenditure since 1980 has risen substantially  in real  terms.  In 1980 total public spending was £104 billion (http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/total_spending_1980UKbn). Using the Bank of England inflation calculator, £104 billion at 2012 values would be only £377 billion. (http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/Pages/inflation/calculator/flash/default.aspx).

The cruel truth is that the £715 billion of  government expenditure  in the present financial year is almost double what it would be if the UK had maintained public expenditure at 1980 levels in terms of the real value of the Pound.  If the true PFI/PPP figure for 2014 was included it might be double. The huge increase since 1980  is very interesting because in 1980 the UK  not only had a serious unemployment problem,  but owned vast swathes of British industry, everything from British Leyland and coal mining to the public utilities and , believe it or not younger readers, a national bus network which meant that to live in the country did not mean you had to run a car.  1980s  UK also had armed forces which were considerably larger  than they are now and the putting out to private contractors of public sector work in  national government and council services was rare except in areas such as road building and defence procurement.  For example, local councils only routinely  employed direct labour on items such as road maintenance and cleaning.    In addition much of  private business then was, we were constantly told,  supposedly hideously uncompetitive . Yet despite  these alleged  crippling disadvantages, the British government in 1980  was able to maintain a level of public services  better and more comprehensive than that we have today whilst spending, in real terms,  little more than half of what government spends today.

Why has British government spending rocketed?  It is reasonable to put forward as the primary culprit the mania for privatising everything  because of the near doubling of government expenditure since 1980, the high cost of privatised services  and the many individual examples of public contracts, especially the PFI contracts, which seem outlandishly expensive.

 

These things have not been understood by the privatisers:

1. The public service ethos did exist and was most valuable in maintaining standards, continuity and honesty within public provision.

2. Multiplying the opportunities for fraud results inevitably results in more fraud.

3.  That public services cannot be run on commercial lines  because public provision is normally universal provision.  Unlike a private company losing business, a public service provider such as the NHS cannot turn round and say we will not treat these patients because we need to cut costs.

4. For public services to run properly need to be focused not on the bottom line but the provision of the service.

5. Once a public service has been contracted out to a private provider,  the private provider has the government over a barrel because there is no alternative to a private provider once the public service option has been done away with.

6. That public employment gave those so employed secure lives and indirectly increased the sense of  security in those employed by outside of  public service  because  having a substantial proportion in secure jobs in itself made society more stable and certain.

7. That public money is a recycling of money and however it is recycled it has a value because its spending supports local economies.

8.   That public expenditure has increased steadily during the privatising of public service activities.

Robert Henderson 30 6 2013

Technology out of control

Robert Henderson

I have previously examined  how robotics has the potential to make unviable both consumer based  economic systems based on the market and free trade between countries and the vast potential they have for creating economic and social  upheaval  in any industrialised society (http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/robotics-and-the-real-sorry-karl-you-got-it-wrong-final-crisis-of-capitalism/).  A short recap of these difficulties will set the scene for the less obvious threat posed by other emerging technologies.

When general purpose robots are available they will not only be able to do the jobs humans do now but any new jobs arising from the technology. This is a wholly new situation because all previous technological advance has created new jobs which can only be done by humans.

In such circumstances there will be a choice for any  society: ban robots in the society  and  goods produced by robots in foreign countries or suffer  a catastrophic and unmendable unemployment and the subsequent catastrophic loss of demand.

Alternatively, a society could be organised predominantly on a command economy basis with  the robots producing most of the goods and providing  most of the services with  human beings acting purely as consumers apart from those needed to do whatever jobs robots cannot do or  it is deemed dangerous for them to do. There could also be a peripheral human economy consisting of those producing art or artisan goods for a niche market.

General purpose robots are the most obvious and comprehensive threat to the  economic arrangements of the advanced world, but there are other emerging  technological advances which either already exist as practical tools for general use or will do so in the not too distant future.

3D Printers

A favourite SciFi  invention is the universal replicator, a machine which produces whatever a person wants. We are not there yet but the first significant steps have been made with the 3D printer.

3D printing has the potential to undermine any society based on mass production for high volume  consumption.  If everything can be reduced to an electronic blueprint, in principle anyone can  produce anything. This is  because  3D printers will not only print from ready-made programs. Any object can be scanned and then the scanned information in digital form may be used to print the object.  All that will be required is the requisite printing equipment with the physical materials to create the object required.

This will raise a number of problems for private business, both in terms of what they will be producing and supplying and because of the intellectual property implications.  Imagine a world in which, say, the individual human can produce 75% of the manufactured goods they require simply by printing them.   That is not so far-fetched as it might seem. Consider your own life. What would you think it obviously  impractical for a 3D printer to produce?  Almost certainly a house, quite probably a car.  Perhaps anything large and complicated.

Large is not an insuperable problem even for the present  because  parts  of any object could  be produced with a 3D Printer and then assembled, quite probably by a robot.  A Dutch company DUS Architects are already testing out the proposition that a house could be printed out (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/ultratravel/the-next-big-thing/10110195/The-worlds-first-3D-printed-house.html)

Complexity would not be an absolute  barrier  because a printer could print from the centre to the perimeter or an object.  Using that technique  a complete car could be printed out.  A house would be a stretch because of the problems of foundations,  but it might be possible to print a house in its entirety on foundations created by  humans or robots.  In principle anything could be produced whole provided it was not larger than the capacity of the printer used to print it.

3D printing  has the potential to create immense economic difficulties.  If it was used widely traditional manufacturers would at best find the demand for most of their goods either vanishing altogether or dropping very sharply.  Wholesalers would be rendered unnecessary in great swathes of industry because they only thing they would have to deliver would be a computer programme to the individual 3D printer. Retailers might still have a life as showrooms for the printed product, but it would be a much reduced service because people would probably be more and more content just to view a model on the Web or one printed out by a friend. Perhaps a holographic representation of the article to be printed  would be provided before printing.

Price would also be a consideration. There is good reason to believe that items printed would be cheaper than those made in factories because there would be no overheads beyond the machine’s purchase, its maintenance, the materials used for printing and the energy used. A parallel with 2D printing can be made. It is much cheaper to print text or images on your home printer than give the work to a commercial printer.  There is also the possibility that the materials for creating 3D printed artefacts could be reused, just like  plasticene, over and over again. If  an item was not liked or a  print went wrong there would be only the cost of the energy used to print to be borne.

But 3D printing could go way  beyond the manufactured goods we have now. If anything can be reduced to a computer programme and the correct ingredients by way of the ink substitute created to put into the 3D printer why could not anything physical not be created including food?  Organic material has already been used in 3D printing as we shall see. It might even  be possible in the more distant future to manipulate atoms to create whatever elements are required, just as the  sun causes different elements  to form.

The macro economic effects   of widespread 3D printing would be catastrophic because there would be, as with general purpose robots,  a huge loss of demand  due to a widespread  loss of employment as  industrial, wholesale and retail activity was severely reduced.  A company which makes and  supplies  computer programmes rather than making and supplying physical things is going to need a  tiny workforce  compared to a manufacturer with their  factory or the wholesaler or retailer with their warehouse.

In the beginning when 3D printers are  very expensive less than user-friendly,  there would  be businesses which would set up 3D printing shops  just as there are 2D print shops now.  But the likelihood is that as time goes on and 3D printers become cheap and user-friendly ,  businesses  doing the 3D printing for customers will become defunct or at least very much reduced. In any event such businesses  will  indubitably require far fewer staff than traditional manufactures.

What is it to be human?

3D printers represent an existential  threat as well as an economic one. The reproduction of human parts has already taken its first tentative steps using  3D printers – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/9849212/New-3D-printing-technique-could-speed-up-progress-towards-creation-of-artificial-organs.html)

If it is possible to print a kidney why not a complete human being ?  Assume there is a situation where a complete body could be replicated. Think further and imagine that not only the physical construct of the body can  be replicated but also the  mental element of a person. This might be done by simply replicating a brain with the replication process exactly copying the brain in all its facets, including the brain’s  operational state,  at a point in time so that the resultant artefact would be an exact copy of the original just as a copied computer file is an exact copy of data at a point in time.  Even more removed from the original person would  be a means of reducing  the entire mental construct of a person to a digital representation which could be stored as a computer file and then downloaded into other machines, artificially created bodies  or even other human beings.

That might seem something which is way into the future, but consider the speed with which technology is already advancing, how we have moved from physically huge computers fifty years ago to tiny devices with many times the power of the most advanced  computer made in the 1960s. The temptation to offer a modern version of “It’ll never replace the horse” is strong but equally doomed to ridiculous failure.

Think on two questions:  (1) if  individual humans can be replicated  what is it to be human?   (2) Once everything  can be  reduced to digital data or indeed data in any form, where does reality begin and end? I would suggest only in the concept of things rather than the physical reality of them.

Self-Organising materials

Another future disrupter of  market economies is self-organising materials. Imagine a material which did not have a fixed state but could assume different states to perform different tasks. Such a material could perform as a  wondrously enhanced Swiss Army knife  without the need to have  any permanent specific tools, viz:

 A. System Functionality

We aim to create a system of sand grain sized modules that can form arbitrary structures on demand. Imagine a bag of these intelligent particles. If, for example, one needs a specific type or size of wrench, one communicates this to the bag. The modules contained within first crystallize into a regular structure and then self-disassemble in an organized fashion to form the requested object. One reaches in, grabs the tool, and uses it to accomplish a meaningful task. When one is done with the tool, it goes back into the bag where it disintegrates, and the particles can be reused to form the next tool. Such a system would be immensely useful for an astronaut on an inter-planetary mission or a scientist isolated at the South Pole. Even for the average mechanic or surgeon, the ability to form arbitrary, task-specific, tools would be immensely valuable in inspecting and working in tight spaces.(Self-Disassembling Robots Pebbles: New Results and Ideas for Self-Assembly of 3D Structures (http://groups.csail.mit.edu/drl/wiki/images/5/5d/RobotPebblesWorkshop-GilpinRus-ICRA10.pdf).

This system uses electromagnets and a subtractive system. It begins with a quantity of the grain sized modules and removes those which are not needed for a specific item, just as a sculptor starts with a block of marble and creates by removing material. Unlike a sculpture when the object is no longer required the totality of the grain size modules reforms until it required to form  an object again.

That is self-organising materials as tools, but any object could in principle be so created, even complicated machines. All that would be required is a form of self-organising  material  flexible enough to  translate any  digital map into a real object.

The effect of widespread use of self-organising materials  would mean that much of traditional manufacturing would become unnecessary. That would have serious effects on demand because employment would be substantially reduced.

Intellectual property

The wholesale removal of production and supply by innovations such as 3D printing and self-organising materials have  serious  implications for intellectual property.    If everything is reduced to a digital representation,  where will ownership of ideas and physical  creations lie?  At present it is possible to have patent(s)  in an object, but what if anything can be scanned and  a 3D print made from the scan? Who could claim that a patent had been infringed if the item complained about  was the results of a scan produced by the person making the 3D print?  That would not be the equivalent of someone taking an object or process and simply reproducing it by physically duplicating by an act of copying.   Rather, it would be akin to the situation where someone photographs a painting then mass reproduces the photograph.  There would be no obvious breach of patent  because the copies would be of the photograph taken of the painting not of the painting itself and the creation of a photograph is an act of artistic creation in itself .

In such circumstances patent rights would become effectively null and void.  If there was an attempt to reform patent law to include replication of an original patented design,  however reproduced, if it was identical or even merely  had a large degree of similarity with the scanned object,   it is unlikely that it would be enforceable. That is  because  all any person wishing to replicate an object would have to do to put themselves arguably beyond a patent would be to manipulate the data from the scanned object  to make it other than identical with the original object which was scanned and then argue the changes were sufficient to constitute something different in quality to the scanned original object.   That would be a never ending playground for the lawyers as people squabbled over what constituted a significance similarity.

There would also be an obvious reason why enforcement would fail: the sheer numbers of people copying things, with most of them doing it simply for themselves or at least on a very small scale. The patent holders would be faced with a similar problem to that faced by the creators of digital material such as films or music who still suffer massive breaches of copyright.  Patent holders  would  be overwhelmed by the numbers  of breaches.

There could also be problems over copyright. A person who scanned an object would be creating a digital data map of the object. That would be an original creation. Who would own the copyright of the data map? Presumably the person who scanned it, for the data map they have created is original.  If the data map was then sold to others there would  be a direct conflict between the rights of the patent holder of the scanned object and the rights of the copyright holder who created the data map. How could that be resolved? Frankly I doubt whether it could be in any coherent or effective legal manner. If copyright was legally denied to those who created a data map by scanning, such a law  would almost certainly have general implications for copying anything by any means, even including the copying of a painting by painting a copy.

Disruptive technological advances  do not have to dramatic or completely novel

General purpose robots and self-organising materials  are genuine  novelties in the sense of having no antecedents, but less novel  and exotic  technological advances  also contain threats of social and economic disruption.  Think of the effect that the automation of a single machine dedicated to one general type of  activity might have. An automated sewing machine  meets  that description and there are serious attempts being made to produce one:

Fully Automatic Sewing of Garments Using Micro-Manipulation

FBO – DARPA has provided $1.25 million for Softwear Automation to develop a complete work-cell called a Beta Unit for fully automated sewing. That includes a numerically controlled sewing machine that tracks fabric movement by observing passing threads and under servo control moves the fabric under the needle stitch by stitch. Complete production facilities that produce garments with zero direct labor is the ultimate goal.

The military’s annual clothing budget at $4 billion dollars and employs about 50,000 people.

The US annual import of sewn items is approximately $100 Billion per year.

The technology proposed appears to allow cutting and sewing at costs LESS THAN in China. There is only one basic innovation required; that the metric of motion should not be meters or inches but rather thread count in the fill and warp directions. (Wovens and leather like materials need a slightly different measure.) This leads to THREE fundamental technical issues that have largely been solved and discussed below as well as more routine engineering development.

“The automation process proposed by Dickerson works something like this. First, an “overhead, pick-and-place robot” grabs the necessary pieces of fabric and places them at the head of a sewing machine. The appliance itself would be equipped with “machine vision” capabilities, specific enough to spot and track individual fabric threads. That intel would “provide fabric location information” to actuators that operate the sewing machine’s needle and thread, and “budgers” — motorized balls, underneath the sewing machine that latch onto the fabric via vacuum seal — that move the material to and fro.”  http://nextbigfuture.com/2012/06/fully-automatic-sewing-of-garments.html

If such a machine is invented much of the emerging economies of the developing world would be lost  because of their  very heavy reliance on producing clothes. And that is just one machine. Other basic manufacturing processes currently relying on cheap labour in places such as China and  India  could be and almost certainly will be invented.

What should be done?

Governments should be considering  the implications of any disruptive new technology and planning to deal with the problems they create, for example, by deciding now whether to ban or restrict the use of general purpose robots or to rejig the way a society produces goods and provides services, rather than wait for the reality of the new  technology to be upon us.

Dispiritingly,  governments  are, with the notable exceptions of GM foods and alleged man-made climate change,  ignoring the potential  dangers technology can  present.  In most instances the potential dangers are not even part of the  mainstream political discourse, not least because  there are no powerful and well funded  interest groups lobbying  about technologies such as robotics.

The irony is that GM foods and man-made climate change either present no proven danger (GM foods) or have no proven foundation (man-made climate change),  while dangers posed by technologies such as  general purpose robots and  3D printing contain  very real and obvious dangers

Why do GM foods and man-made climate change appeal to many while  fears over technologies such as robotics and 3D printing lack a  public voice? Probably because digital technology has become so much a part of our lives.   Most people simply think of the idea of robots and 3D printing as simply a development of what they already use and increasingly interact with on a quasi-human level.  Green issues are set apart from such everyday experience.   There is also probably an element of people thinking they will be treated as SF addicts at best and  unbalanced at worst if they start  raising fears about robots, 3D printers  and suchlike. They should put aside their fears of being embarrassed and think about the practical  implications of such technologies.

The EU: Making the going good for getting Out

ROBERT HENDERSON  suggests some ways in which the No side can maximize its chances of winning the referendum on EU membership

Amidst all the confusion and excitement of bringing about a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, it is easy to forget that there are considerable risks associated with the vote. The government will almost certainly campaign to stay in, as will the Labour Party, and many institutions, lobby groups, media groups, foreign governments, and influential individuals. Public opinion, although hardening towards leaving, is fickle and cannot be relied upon. A decision to stay in would probably destroy the UKIP, and would also seriously undermine Conservative Eurosceptics. It is therefore essential that we should think about the likely shape of the campaign, and how we who believe in leaving can improve the odds.

The general strategy

A) How to leave

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty states

1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.

A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

5. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49. (http://www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/treaty-on-european-union-and-comments/title-6-final-provisions/137-article-50.html).

It is strongly implied in in  para 3 of  the Article that unilateral withdrawal is possible :

“ The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2”.

However, the clause does not explicitly  give the right of unilateral secession and could be interpreted as merely referring to how any agreement might be scheduled to take effect. The other EU members could adopt this interpretation to thwart the UK leaving without declaring UDI.

The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties cites two legitimate  instances where a party wants to withdraw unilaterally from a treaty which does not make any provision for withdrawal : (1) where all parties recognise an informal right to do so or  (2) the situation has changed so substantially  that the obligations of a signatory are radically different from that which was originally agreed to.   The informal right patently does not apply in the case of the EU. As for radical changes to the obligations of a signatory, that would be difficult to sustain. It is true that the organisation (the EU) the UK belongs to now is radically different from that which they originally joined in 1973 (the EEC), but the  UK has signed  new treaties to agree to the new circumstances as they have arisen.  Hence, there would be no radically changed obligations which had not been taken on formally by the UK.

The only precedent  of any sort for withdrawal is Greenland’s  secession  in 1985 from the European Economic Community (EEC).  The was facilitated by the Greenland Treaty. However, it is not  an obviously relevant precedent because Greenlanders retain Danish citizenship for  Greenland has home rule not full independence from Denmark. They are consequently full  EU citizens.  Because Greenland is also one of the  Overseas Countries and Territories of the EU it  is also subject to some EU law and regulations, mainly those relating to the Single Market. .

Even if it is accepted by the other EU members  that there is a unilateral right of secession,  the fact that it  could only  take place legally after two years would give the remainder  of the EU the opportunity to run the UK ragged before the UK left.

As for getting an agreement which would allow the UK to generally re-establish its sovereignty, especially over the control of its borders, this is most improbable.  A  Qualified Majority in the European Council  is required  and even if such a majority is obtained the European Parliament can block the secession. The potential for delay and blackmail by the EU of the UK is considerable.

In any event it is likely is that the EU would  drive a bargain which is greatly to  the UK’s disadvantage because the  Eurofederalists would be terrified of creating a precedent for any other EU member which might wish to radically change their relationship with the EU.  That would make them demand conditions of the UK which were so unappealing it would deter other member states from following suit. There is also  the danger that  the Europhile UK political elite  would take the opportunity to agree to disadvantageous terms for the UK simply to keep the UK attached to the EU in the manner that Norway and Switzerland are attached. The treaty arrangements of  Norway and Switzerland  are routinely portrayed  by supposed  Eurosceptics  as purely trade relationships. They are not. Both countries are firmly within the EU straitjacket. Indeed, the Europhile BBC  ran a story in 2012 entitled Non-EU Norway ‘almost as integrated in union as UK ‘ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16594370). As for Switzerland, a glance at their treaty arrangements will show their close EU embrace http://www.europa.admin.ch/themen/00500/index.html?lang=en.  Most importantly they have no control of immigration from the EU . If the UK signed up to the Single Market after formally leaving the EU  we should be in the same boat.

The OUT camp must make it clear that  it would be both damaging and unnecessary for the UK to abide treaty requirement. Even if the UK did not try to sign up to  the Single Market, it would allow the EU to inflict considerable damage on the UK both during the period prior to formally  leaving and afterwards if  the price of leaving with the EU’s agreement was  for  UK to sign up to various obligations – for example, to continue paying a large annual sum to the EU for ten years.

There is also the danger that the stay-in camp could use Article 50 to argue that whether the British people want to be in or out, the cost of leaving would be too heavy because of this treaty requirement.

The Gordian knot of Article 50 can be cut simply by passing an Act of Parliament repealing all the treaties that refer to the EU from the Treaty of Rome onwards. No major UK party could  object to this because all three have, at one time or another,  declared that Parliament remains supreme and can repudiate anything the EU does if it so chooses.

If the stay-in camp argue that would be illegal because of the treaty obligation, the OUT camp should simply emphasise (1) that international law is no law because there is no means of enforcing it within its jurisdiction if a state rejects it and (2) that treaties which do not allow for contracting parties to simply withdraw are profoundly undemocratic because they bind future governments.

The OUT camp should press the major political parties to commit themselves to ignoring Article 50. If a party refuses that can be used against them because it will make them look suspicious.

Before the vote

B) The parties’ plans of action if there is a vote to leave

It is important that all the parties likely to have seats in the Commons after the next election are publicly and relentlessly pressed to give at least a broad outline of what action they would adopt in the event of a vote to leave. Left with a free hand there is a serious danger that whatever British  government is  in charge after a vote to leave would attempt to bind the UK back into the EU by stealth by signing the UK up to agreements such as those the EU has with Norway and Switzerland which mean that they have to (1) pay a fee to the EU annually, (2) adopt the social legislation which comes from the EU and (3) most importantly agree to the four “freedoms” of the EU – the free movement of goods, services, capital and  labour throughout not merely the EU but the wider European Economic Area (EEA).

It is probable that the Westminster parties will all resist this, but that would present them with two problems. First, a refusal to do so would make them seem untrustworthy; second, if one party laid out their position but the others did not, that would potentially give the party which did say what it would do a considerable advantage over the others which did not. If no party puts its plans before the public before the referendum, there should be demands  from those who want the UK to leave the EU that  any new treaties with the EU must be put to a referendum and, if they are rejected, the UK will simply trade with the EU under the WTO rules.

C) Repudiate re-negotiation before the referendum

Supporting the negotiation of a new relationship between the UK and the EU before a referendum is mistaken, because it would seem to many to be giving tacit approval for renegotiation and legitimize the possibility of the UK remaining within the EU. It is also rash, because  the likelihood  of the EU giving nothing is very small. Indeed, they might well give something substantial, because the UK leaving the EU would be a very great blow to the organisation. The UK is the country with the second largest population within the EU with, depending on how it is measured, the second or third largest  economy and the country which pays the second largest contribution to the EU budget. For the EU to lose the UK would not only be a blow in itself, it would also create a very strong precedent for every other EU state, especially the largest ones. If  the UK left and prospered, the temptation would be for other EU states to leave.

If the EU offered  a big carrot such as the abolition of benefits  for migrants to the UK  from the rest of the EU until they had lived in Britain for ten years, that could  seriously  undermine the resolve of those wanting the UK to leave the EU because it would dovetail with British fears of mass immigration from the EU and the mainstream media representation of the immigration  problem as being essentially a welfare problem. The Europhiles would then be able to represent the immigration threat as no longer a threat as they bleated their  mantra “the only immigrants will be those who are working and paying their taxes”.  That would be difficult for any mainstream British politician or party to counter because they have all be peddling the line of welcoming “hard working immigrants” for years.

But even if negotiation produced nothing of substance, as happened with Harold Wilson’s “renegotiation” of 1975, it would be a mistake to imagine that it would not influence the referendum result. The electorate is divided between the resolute come outs, the resolute stay-ins and the wavering middle. A claim by the stay-in campaigners that something had been conceded by the EU, however  insignificant, would provide the waverers with an excuse to vote to stay in because they could convince themselves they were voting for change. If the EU were to offer nothing, waverers might see this as evidence that the EU was too powerful to oppose.

Those who want the UK to leave should unambiguously put the case for no renegotiation. Dismiss anything Cameron (or any other PM) brings back from the EU by way of altered terms as being irrelevant because the EU has a long record of agreeing things with  the UK and then finding ways of sabotaging what was agreed. In addition, a future British government may agree to alter any terms offered at the time of the referendum. The classic example of this changing of agreed terms happening in the past is Tony Blair’s giving up of a substantial amount of the Thatcher rebate in return for a promised reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a promise which was never met. That episode produced my all-time favourite amongst Blair’s penchant for lying. Two days before he went to the EU meeting at which he  gave away a substantial part of the rebate he declared during Prime Minister’s Questions that the rebate was “non-negotiable – period”.

It is difficult to envisage any British prime minister not trying to  negotiate with the EU before a referendum, but it might just  happen if whoever is in power when the referendum is announced were to be told privately by the  major EU players that nothing will be given and the prime minister of the day concludes it would be best to pretend that a decision had been made not to negotiate rather than risk the humiliation of getting nothing, perhaps not even a pretence of negotiation before nothing is given. Why would the EU do this? They might calculate that it would be a gamble worth taking to send a British PM away with nothing, whilst hoping the referendum vote would be to stay in because then the power of the UK to resist further integration would be shot.

If the EU offers nothing, the OUT camp should welcome the fact and stress to the public that if the referendum is to stay in,  the EU could force any federalist measure through because not only would any British government be much weakened in its opposition to more federalism, the UK political class as a whole would more than willing to go along with it because of their ideological commitment to the EU.

D) After the vote

Ideally the government which deals with the EU after a vote to leave will have committed themselves to a plan of action before the referendum vote.  However, as described above, it is quite possible that this will not happen because  the UK’s overwhelmingly Europhile political class will try to re-entangle the UK with the EU. To prevent them doing so there should be a concerted campaign after the vote to ensure that the British public understands what is being done on their behalf with a demand for a further referendum to agree any new treaty.

The terms of the debate

It is essential that the Europhiles are not allowed to make the debate revolve around economics. If they do it will effectively stifle meaningful debate. As anyone who has ever tried to present economic ideas to an audience of the general public will know it is a soul-destroying experience. Take the question of how much of UK trade is with the EU. The debate will begin with the stay-in camp saying something like 45% of UK trade is with the EU. Those wanting to leave the EU will respond by saying it is probably less than 40% because of the Rotterdam/Antwerp effect. They will then be forced to explain what the Rotterdam/Amsterdam effect is. That is the point where the general public’s concentration is lost and the debate ends up proving nothing to most of the audience.

But although nothing is proved to the general audience by detailed economic argument, the audience will remember  certain phrases which have considerable  traction. In amongst the serious debating on the issue of trade there will be phrases such as three million jobs in Britain rely on the EU and dire threats about how the EU will simply not buy British goods and services any more. This is nonsense, but fear is not rational, and many of those who vote will enter the voting chamber with fear of losing their jobs  in their heads regardless of what the OUT camp says if the debate is predominantly about economics. Shift the debate away from economics and the fear-inducing phrases will be heard less often.

National sovereignty

How should those wanting to leave the EU shift the focus of debate? They should put the matter which is really at the core of the UK’s  relationship with the EU  – national sovereignty – at the front of the  OUT camp’s referendum campaign. Campaign under a slogan such as Are we to be masters in our own house?

Making national sovereignty the primary campaigning issue has the great advantage of  it being something that anyone can understand because it is both a simple concept and speaks directly to the natural tribal instincts of  human beings.   Being a simple concept readily  and naturally understood,   it is a far more potent debating tool than arguments attempting to refute the economic  arguments  beloved of the stay-in camp.  The fact that the natural tribal instincts have been suppressed for so long in the UK will increase its potency because most people will feel a sense of release when it begins to be catered for in public debate.

The appeal to national sovereignty has a further advantage. Those who support the EU are unused to debating on that ground. That is because uncritical support for the EU has long been the position of both the British mainstream political class as a class and of the mass media. That has meant that the contrary voice – that which wishes Britain to be independent – has been largely unheard in public debate for thirty years or more. Where it has been heard, the response of the pro-EU majority has not been rational argument but abuse, ranging from patronising dismissal of a wish for sovereignty as an outmoded nationalism to accusations that national sovereignty amounts to xenophobia or even racism. These tactics – of excluding those who want to leave the EU from public debate and abuse substituted for argument – will no longer be available to the  pro EU lobby.

Immigration

The most threatening and energising subject relating to the EU for the general public is immigration. The public are right to identify this as the most important aspect of our membership of the EU because immigration touches every important part of British life: jobs, housing, education, welfare, healthcare, transport, free expression  and crime besides radically changing the nature of parts of  the UK which now have large populations of immigrants and their descendants.

The public rhetoric of mainstream politicians and the media is changing fast as they begin to realise both what an electoral liability a de facto open door immigration policy is, as the effects of mass immigration become ever more glaring. The argument is shifting from the economic to the cultural.  For example, here is the Daily Telegraph in a leader of 25 March:

“The fact is that, for many in Britain (especially those outside the middle classes), it is not just a matter of jobs being taken or public services being stretched, but of changes in the very character of communities. Those changes may not necessarily be for the worse: as the Prime Minister says, Britain’s culture has long been enriched by the contributions of new arrivals. But as long as ministers treat immigration as a matter of profit and loss, rather than the cause of often wrenching social change, they will never be able fully to address the grievances it causes.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/telegraph-view/9952717/Immigration-and-the-limits-of-the-possible.html)

This new frankness in public debate means that the OUT camp can use the immigration argument freely, provided they keep the language within the confines of formal politeness. The subject will naturally dovetail with the emphasis on national sovereignty because the most important aspect of sovereignty is the ability to control the borders of the territory of a state.  Judged by their increasing willingness to talk publicly about immigration, it is probable that the mainstream UK parties will be content to go along with  ever more frank discussion about immigration.

The economic argument must be kept simple

It will not be possible to avoid  economic arguments entirely. The OUT camp should concentrate on repeating these two facts:

The disadvantageous balance of payments deficit the UK has with the EU

The amount the UK pays to the EU

Those are the most solid economic figures relating to the EU. There is some fuzziness around the edges of the balance of payments deficit because of the question of where all the imports end up (whether in the EU or outside the EU through re-exporting), while the amount the EU receives is solid but it has to be broken down into the money which returns to the UK and the amount retained by Brussels. Nonetheless these are the most certain  figures and the least susceptible to obfuscation by the stay-in side.

The best way of presenting the money paid to the EU is simply to say that outside the EU we can decide how all of it is spent in this country and to illustrate what the money saved by not paying it to the EU would pay for.

It will also be necessary to address the question of protectionist measures the EU might take against the UK if the  vote was to leave. It is improbable that the EU would place heavy protectionist barriers on UK exports because:

1. The massive balance of payment deficit between the UK and the rest of the EU, which is massively in the EU’s favour.

2.  Although the rest of the EU dwarfs the UK economy, much UK trade with the EU is heavily concentrated in certain regions of the EU. The effect of protectionist barriers would  bear very heavily on these places.

3. There are strategically and economically important joint projects of which the UK is a major part, like Airbus and the Joint-Strike Fighter.

4. The Republic of Ireland would be a massive bargaining chip for  the UK to play. If the UK left and the EU rump attempted to impose sanctions against Britain this would cripple the RoI because so much of their trade is with the UK. The EU would be forced to subsidise the RoI massively if protectionist barriers against the UK were imposed. The EU could not exempt the RoI from the sanctions because that would leave the EU open to British exports being funnelled through the Republic.

5. The EU would be bound by the World Trade Organisation’s restrictions on protectionist measures.

The economic issues which are not worth pursuing in detail are those relating to how much the EU costs Britain in terms of EU-inspired legislation. It may well be that these load billions a year of extra costs  onto the UK  but they are not certain or easily evaluated costs, not least because we cannot in the nature of things know what burdens an independent UK would impose off its own bat.

Getting into detailed discussions about such things will simply play into the hands of  the stay-in camp because it will eat up the time and space available to those promoting the OUT cause.

Other issues

Apart from the economic questions, the stay-in camp will use these reasons for staying in:

That the EU has prevented war in Western Europe since 1945. This can be simply refuted by pointing out that the EU was not formed until  twelve years after WW2; that until 1973 the EU consisted of only six countries, three of them small,  and  of only nine countries until the 1980s. Consequently it would be reasonable to look for other reasons for  the lack of war. The two causes of the peace in Western Europe have been the NATO alliance and the invention of nuclear weapons which make the price of war extraordinarily high.

That nation states such as the UK are too small to carry any real diplomatic weight in modern world. That begs the question of whether it is an advantageous thing to carry such weight – it can get a country into disastrous foreign entanglements such as Iraq and Afghanistan – but even assuming it is advantageous, many much smaller countries than the UK survive very nicely, making their own bilateral agreements with other states large and small. It is also worth remembering that the UK has such levers as a permanent seat on the UN Security  Council (which allows the UK to veto any proposed move by the UN) and considerable influence in institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.

ROBERT HENDERSON is a London-based freelance writer

 

Originally published in the Quarterly Review

Published in http://www.quarterly-review.org/?p=1737

Richard North: useful idiot or Europhile wolf in Eurosceptic’s clothing?

Campaign for an Independent Britain meeting 4th May 2013

Dr Richard North: The way forward

His  contribution was very odd indeed for someone who is supposedly strongly Eurosceptic.  His “way forward” is for the UK   to remain entwined in coils of the EU for the foreseeable future.  Of course, North does not describe his suggestions as leading to this, but that is the practical consequences of what he advocates.

North’s strategy for the UK’s departure from the EU is this:

“….invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, leading to a negotiated exit based on UK membership of the EFTA/EEA as an interim settlement. To ensure short-term continuity, we would have all EU law repatriated, giving time for examination and selective repeal, and the enactment of replacement legislation as necessary – all over a period of some years.”

He wants the UK to sign up to the type of arrangements Norway and Switzerland have with the EU. This requires them to  adopt a large proportion of  EU regulations (not least because of the ever broadening bureaucratic demands of the EU obsession with competition and harmonisation ), pay large annual sums to the EU to subsidize the poorer members of the EU and,  worst of all, subscribe to the four EU “freedoms”, the free movement of   goods, services, capital and labour across not only the EU but also the larger European Economic Area (EEA).

That would be bad enough but his naivety  over what Article 50 entails is startling. Here is the article in full:

1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.

A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

5. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49. (http://www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/treaty-on-european-union-and-comments/title-6-final-provisions/137-article-50.html).

It is strongly implied in in  para 3 of  the Article that unilateral withdrawal is possible :

The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2”.

However, the clause does not explicitly  give the right of unilateral secession and could be interpreted as merely referring to how any agreement might be scheduled to take effect. The other EU members could adopt this interpretation to thwart the UK leaving without declaring UDI.

The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties cites two legitimate  instances where a party wants to withdraw unilaterally from a treaty which does not make any provision for withdrawal : (1) where all parties recognise an informal right to do so or  (2) the situation has changed so substantially  that the obligations of a signatory are radically different from that which was originally agreed to.   The informal right patently does not apply in the case of the EU. As for radical changes to the obligations of a signatory, that would be difficult to sustain. It is true that the organisation (the EU) the UK belongs to now is radically different from that which they originally joined in 1973 (the EEC), but the  UK has signed  new treaties to agree to the new circumstances as they have arisen.  Hence, there would be no radically changed obligations which had not been taken on formally by the UK.

The only precedent  of any sort for withdrawal is Greenland’s  secession  in 1985 from the European Economic Community (EEC).  The was facilitated by the Greenland Treaty. However, it is not  an obviously relevant precedent because Greenlanders retain Danish citizenship for  Greenland has home rule not full independence from Denmark. They are consequently full  EU citizens.  Because Greenland is also one of the  Overseas Countries and Territories of the EU it  is also subject to some EU law and regulations, mainly those relating to the Single Market. .

Even if it is accepted by the other EU members  that there is a unilateral right of secession,  the fact that it  could only  take place legally after two years would give the remainder  of the EU the opportunity to run the UK ragged before the UK left.

As for getting an agreement which would allow the UK to generally re-establish its sovereignty, especially over the control of its borders, this is most improbable.  A  Qualified Majority in the European Council  is required  and even if such a majority is obtained the European Parliament can block the secession. The potential for delay and blackmail by the EU of the UK is considerable. In any event it is likely is that the EU would  drive a bargain which is greatly to  the UK’s disadvantage because the  Eurofederalists would be terrified of creating a precedent for any other EU member which might wish to radically change their relationship with the EU.  That would make them demand conditions of the UK which were so unappealing it would deter other member states from following suit. There is also  the danger that  the Europhile UK political elite  would take the opportunity to agree to disadvantageous terms for the UK simply to keep the UK attached to the EU in the manner that Norway and Switzerland are attached. The stay-in camp could use Article 50 to argue that whether the British people want to be in or out, the cost of leaving would be too heavy because of this treaty requirement.

The Gordian knot of Article 50 can be cut  simply by passing an Act of Parliament repealing all the treaties that refer to the EU from the Treaty of Rome onwards. No major UK party could  object to this because all three have, at one time or another,  declared that Parliament remains supreme and can repudiate anything the EU does if it so chooses.

If the stay-in camp argue that would be illegal because of the  treaty obligation, the OUT camp should simply emphasise  (1) that international law is no law because there is never any means of enforcing it within its jurisdiction if  a state rejects it and (2) that treaties which do not allow for contracting parties to simply withdraw are profoundly undemocratic because they bind future governments.

The OUT camp should press the major political parties to commit themselves to ignoring Article 50. If a party refuses that can be used against them because it will make them look suspicious.

How much of the vote does UKIP command?

North also addressed the question of UKIP’s  share of the vote in the recent council elections. This he represented as  trivial because although they took 25% of the vote  the turnout was very low (around 30% overall).  He ignores one important fact about turnout: if the turnout is shrinking then the potency of those who vote rises. UKIP voters and those willing to vote to come out of the EU at a referendum may be much more inclined to vote than those who want the status quo or at least are not motivated to vote for the UK’s independence.

Based on objective facts North  is far too pessimistic about obtaining a vote to leave. There are two great  differences between now and the 1975 referendum. In 1975 the British public had only two years’ experience of the EEC which was a vastly less intrusive body than the EU is now. If a referendum is held in the next few years the electorate will have 40 odd years of ever greater interference by Brussels with British politics and in  the lives of Britons.  To this can be added the growing number of prominent voices, both political and from the media and business , which are calling for either an outright campaign to leave the EU or at least a reshaping of the EU in such a radical  fashion that it has no chance of success. Both factors  will lend vastly greater potency to the OUT camp campaign now than was the case in 1975.

North’s  tactics before a referendum

Much of this was driven by fear, fear that a the British electorate would not vote to come out.  The consequence is that North proposes a complex, expensive and above all time consuming schedule of preparatory work before any referendum is held.  There are also conflicts between his desired ends and proposed means.

North  addressed the subject under five separate heads. I comment separately on each.

Reassurance for business

North argues that because the EU is first and foremost a political construct, business has no right to have a say in whether the UK is in or out of the EU. I have sympathy with that view, but North  immediately capsized this position by stating:

“…business has a right to expect a predictable and stable regulatory and trading environment, the status of which is affected by our membership. Therefore, we need to be able to assure the business community that, should we leave the EU, there would be no adverse effects.

“In effect, that would mean “protecting” membership of the Single Market – which could be achieved through EEA membership. And, as long as that membership is assured, business has no locus in the broader debate.”

By taking this position on the Single Market North is effectively granting business a very large say in how we are governed,  because continued membership of the Single Market will require at the least subscription to the four “freedoms”  and the acceptance of  EU laws relating to the Single Market. That will greatly impinge upon the UK’s sovereignty.

An alternative to the EU

North believes that we should not merely take back power from Brussels but also stop the power regained being grabbed by Westminster. He starts from the claim that  the UK has never been a democracy.   That is true in the sense that there has never been direct democracy – that is no more than a commonplace – but for a century before the UK was signed up to the EEC in 1973 there was a good deal of democratic control because the UK’s politics were national. British politicians then could not routinely hide behind supranational agreements such as those  governing the EU to avoid responsibility for unpopular policies or be forced to adopt policies which were in the interest of foreign powers and to the UK’s disadvantage  simply because of  Treaty arrangements.  If the UK leaves the EU utterly and  our relationship with the EU becomes the same as we have with any other foreign power British politics will again become national not supranational. That is the most certain way of re-democratising the UK.

What does North want?  He is much taken with the Harrogate Agenda  (HA) (http://harrogateagenda.com/).  This has six demands which are similar in tone to those of the 19th century Chartists and the 17th century Levellers before them.  Here are a couple of the demands to give a flavour of the HA:

2. local democracy: the foundation of our democracy shall be the counties (or other local units as may be defined), which shall become constitutional bodies exercising under the control of their peoples all powers of legislation, taxation and administration not specifically granted by the people to the national government;

4. all legislation subject to consent: no legislation or treaty shall take effect without the direct consent of the majority of the people, by positive vote if so demanded, and that no legislation or treaty shall continue to have effect when that consent is withdrawn by the majority of the people;

Whether or not these are practical (which I very much doubt if put forward in this extreme form) , there is irony in the fact that North espouses such ideas  because his proposals for a new relationship  between the UK and the EU would utterly undermine  the thrust of the HA demands  for a  UK  entangled in an EFTA or similar arrangement would still be subject to decisions being made by foreigners with,  doubtless,  the willing complicity of Westminster politicians.  The Europhile British political class is not going to vanish overnight so the only realistic way of making them behave reasonably is to force them to operate within  a national context.

 A network for dissemination

Here are North’s proposals:

“ Spreading the message is an essential part of any campaign, but reliance on the media is not going to be sufficient. Formal and informal networks will have to be built, some not dissimilar to direct marketing networks. Activities should include formal training and education, as well as more general propagandising.

Many revolutionary organisations have acquired their own newspapers, or news magazines, as a means of better spreading the message.”

Even if all this was possible, which is very doubtful  because it would need serious money as well as willing hands,  it would take far too long to establish as an effective propaganda tool.  A referendum if it comes will not be that far in the future.   What is needed is a simple readily understandable message such as “Are we to be masters in our own house” repeated as often as possible through the national and local media. With more and more politicians, mediafolk, businessmen and various celebrities making Anti-EU noises this is not a forlorn hope.

 Agitation

North proposes a campaign of civil disobedience, including the late payment for “Council Tax, water bills, BBC license fees and other such fees” and  visiting every “agency, every employment office, etc. and remove all information (leaflets, brochures) not in English”.  He goes on to say that there are “A very wide range of activities is in fact possible, many entirely risk-free and totally within the law”.

I doubt whether in these politically correct and increasingly authoritarian times that there would be  many which are “entirely risk-free and totally within the law”. Late payment of the BBC license could get you a criminal record; removing information leaflets not in English would probably get you investigated for  racial harassment because there would not be much point in removing them without running a campaign saying what you were doing and why;  failing to pay many official bills on time could result in late payment surcharges.  If civil disobedience is urged it is important that the possible consequences are spelt out to prospective candidates for such action.

Nonetheless that is not my main concern with civil disobedience committed in this random fashion. Civil disobedience is only effective if it is (1) focused, (2) publicity worthy (3) does not greatly inconvenience or disgust the general public and (4) does not make the protestors look ridiculous.   A good example of a serious single issue campaign blighted by clownish antics is that of Fathers for Justice. Leaving people to engage in acts of civil disobedience (particularly on a local scale) as they choose will not meet those criteria.  If it is to be used, civil disobedience must be a national act. The Poll Tax disobedience is the best example in modern British history of such action. A readily understandable single issue: we won’t pay the tax. It was perfect because it blocked up the magistrates courts and brought the everyday system of justice to its knees.

Sovereignty and opposition to  immigration are the two strongest cards the OUT camp has  to play. If it is used , civil disobedience should be designed to focus public interest on those two issues.

 A coalition of allies

North tried to make a distinction between umbrella groups (bad) and coalitions (good).  In practice the two are indistinguishable.  What determines the unity of purpose of  any coalescing groups is not what they are called but the nature of the groups and their leaders.

North’s response to being challenged

During questions from the audience I said that North’s proposals were an excellent recipe for remaining within the EU for the reasons I have already given. North became very animated and spoke at considerable length to refute what I was saying.  People only behave in such a manner during debate if they feel their position is under real threat.

The kindest interpretation of North’s position is that he is acting as a useful idiot for the Eurofederalist cause in the mistaken belief that things can be resolved to the UK’s advantage  by talking, by being “reasonable”; the unkindest interpretation is that he is a Eurofederalist wolf in Eurosceptic clothing attempting to undermine the campaign to remove the UK from the grip of the EU.

North  has condensed the   views  espoused in his speech into  written form on the CIB website – see  http://www.freebritain.org.uk/_blog/Free_Britain/post/an-eu-free-future-for-all-by-dr-richard-north/

And

http://www.freebritain.org.uk/_blog/Free_Britain/post/turnout-by-dr-richard-north/ ).

Robert Henderson

Public and private confusion (and, yes, there is an alternative)

I wrote Public and Private Confusion in 2006, before the credit crisis, before even Northern Rock was saved by the taxpayer. NuLabbour’s mania for privatising anything in sight was in full spate, mostly, because the Tories had privatized all of the great state industries,  through contracting out public services piecemeal and the greatly expanded use of private money in public projects to build things such as new schools and hospitals using the Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). Public spending was still burgeoning , although anyone who looked closely at the still continuing fool’s paradise which was Gordon Brown’s boom could see that NuLabour’s public spending was seriously out of control as they looked at the deficits Labour had been running since 2002 – http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2011/10/02/labour-re-writes-the-past-their-economic-management/ . But the British public did not know the half of it when it came to the government debt being built up, because the frighteningly large PPP and PFI obligations were  still largely hidden as they were mostly off the government books Enron-style.

The latest quantification of PFI liabilities alone is £300 billion (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/jul/05/pfi-cost-300bn) and that could well be an under estimate because of many of the contracts have renegotiation clauses at certain points and the PFI contractors,  or those who have bought PFI contracts as they are sold on by the original supplier,  hold the taxpayer over a barrel because the state no longer has the capacity to either undertake the work itself.  Even where a re-negotiation clause does not exist or does exist but the point is years away, it is a common PFI practice for contractors to threaten to walk away from a contract unless their terms are improved. There are also the costs arising where contractors do walk away from a contract and the state has to step in or pay another contractor even more inflated prices for the work.

The most troubling result of PFI costs is hospital trusts unable to fund themselves adequately because of the ludicrous amounts they have to pay for PFI work (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2165011/PFI-Cancel-contracts-MPs-signed-dock.html), but there is another major problem: the inability of PFI contractors to undertake work efficiently or, as we have seen with the G4S fiasco and their inability to provide security for the Olympics. So lax were their recruitment methods their chief executive could not say if all those recruited could speak English fluently  or even at all (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/news/9399841/Olympics-I-dont-know-if-guards-speak-English-says-G4S-chief.html).

Despite a change of government, PFI contracts are still being signed in large numbers by the Coalition (http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/press_22_11.htm). More and more public core services which the vast majority of Britons would think naturally belong in public hands such as police support and large scale security operations are being taken from the public sector and given to private contractors. In addition, strategic assets such as the Government’s stake in stake in nuclear power giant Urenco continue to be sold off (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/8817089/Taxpayers-3bn-windfall-as-Urenco-nears-10bn-sale.html). In short, nothing but nothing, including even the armed forces, can be considered safe from the mania for turning public service into private business. The situation is substantially worse now than it was in 2006  in terms of the PFI debt being run up, the privatisation of essential public services by stealth (especially the NHS) and the intention to sell off  what remains of substantial public assets, most notably the Royal Mail,  in the medium term.

The purpose of Public and Private Confusion was and is to examine what needs to remain in public hands, what should be brought back into public hands, how public service might be improved and the effects of privatisation in all its guises.

Robert Henderson 23 July 2012

————————————————————————————————————————————–

Public and Private Confusion

(And, yes, there is an alternative)

Robert Henderson 2006

Contents

1. Introduction

2. What are governments for?

3. Why do we need public provision?

4. Public provision is a good deal

5. The moral value of general provision

6. Why should those who can pay for themselves pay for others?

7. What things should be public?

8. What should be provided directly by the state?

9. What should be provided indirectly by the state?

10. The railways – a classic public service

11. Safety

12. Public and private efficiency

13. What do we mean by efficiency?

14. Private enterprise providing public service

15. Public service inefficiencies and politicians

16. Other public service inefficiencies

17. What should public service workers be paid?

18. The right to strike

19. The ability of private companies to manage public services

20. Private money in public projects – “Buy now, pay later”

21. The London Underground – PPP in action

22. Capita

23. The morality of privatisation

24. Our general experience of privatisation to date

25. Private money in public service = a democratic deficit

26. When private becomes public by default

27. Corruption in public service

28. The behaviour of private companies

29. Charities

30. Does the market produce greater choice generally?

31. How government takes on obligations

32. Making personal private provision – the problems of investing

33. Supporting old age

34. The housing crisis

35. Social housing

36. Education ?

37. Healthcare

38. The Post Office and Royal Mail

39. How do we pay for better public services?

40. Does social provision corrupt?

41. Why is public provision being repudiated?

42. The nation state – the only vehicle for democracy

43. The future of public provision

44. Conclusion

1. Introduction

I was provoked into writing Public and Private Confusion both by the Blair Government’s manic dismantling of directly provided public services and increasing signs that political support for public services however provided is waning.

Those with a public voice who oppose such developments all too often wail and gnash their teeth and say how unfair and immoral it is but fail to provide detailed arguments against those who have swallowed the propaganda of private is always best. They lament privatisation and the increasing introduction of private money and

companies into public services, yet defend their position solely by moral exhortation and displays of emotion, as though to merely be on the side of direct public provision, any public provision, is argument enough.

How did we reach this state of affairs? The four decades after 1945 seemed to have made substantial public provision part of the national furniture. Even the Thatcher years did not seriously suggest that it would be generally undermined. The privatisation of the nationalised industries were one thing for Thatcher; services such

as the NHS and the Post Office quite another. Her government was driven by the batty idea of introducing entirely inappropriate private enterprise practices such as the NHS “internal market” into public service, but there was through her long period in office no reason to fear that fundamental services like the NHS and Post Office would be privatised. Indeed, Thatcher said that the privatisation of the Post Office would be “a privatisation too far.”

The consequence was that the supporters of public provision became smug. They assumed that the core elements of public provision were inviolate and consequently not in need of defending. Most damagingly, at the political level they failed to prevent both the Labour and Tory Parties from being firmly captured by those determined to introduce the supposed panacea of the disciplines of the market into public life. By the time Blair came to power in 1997 the supporters of direct public provision in politics and the media found themselves marginalised.

Since 1997 it has become increasingly clear that direct public provision is viewed by those in control of the major political parties as a bad thing in itself and that the only way forward is to subcontract private companies to do the work the state was previously doing. This is a consequence of several things: the failure of greatly increased public spending since 1997 to improve public services; the increasing demands of the EU to reduce direct state funding; and the seemingly religious belief in globalism displayed by Blair himself. (I expand on these issues in section 41).

To facilitate the move from direct public to subcontracted public provision, the public is being fed a continuous diet of bad news about the directly provided public services by the mainstream media, the majority of which is all too willing to climb on the “public service bad, private enterprise good” bandwagon. (The mainstream media has overwhelmingly bought into the free-market propaganda – ask yourself, when did you last read a newspaper article or watch a TV programme which concluded that “free markets” and “free trade” are undesirable because of their adverse consequences for substantial parts of the populations of the First World, whose natural employments are lost and whose lives are made generally insecure).

Because of its natural importance and central place in the hearts of the electorate, the NHS is the biggest and most gory source of “shock horror” stories. Every horror story about the NHS is paraded on the front pages, while the frequent errors made by private medicine rate barely a mention. The fact that any organisation as gigantic as the NHS – it employs the better part of a million people – will inevitably be the source of regular errors is barely mentioned and almost no attempt is made to place the level of failure in that context. Not only that, many of the “scandals” are less than scandals when they are looked at in detail.

There is also an increasing loud and ever more unguarded attempt by politicians and sections of the media to suggest that the Welfare State is “too expensive” in its present form to survive and that people must make much more private provision for things such as pensions and healthcare.

Sadly, the direct public provision case is now largely going by default, which is enraging because it is very strong, both as a moral necessity for a civilised and free society and as a practical necessity to maintain the efficient functioning of a modern industrial state. That is case which I have attempted to supply.

2. What are governments for?

The traditional areas of government have been defence, foreign affairs, policing, the provision of justice, the execution of legal judgements including criminal sentences, the collection of taxes and the allocation of those taxes to the public enterprises mentioned above. But long before the rise of the modern industrialised state, the more organised and effective governments recognised that something beyond this minimalist role of government was desirable, not least because underlying any society is a fear of civil disorder (which might overthrow the status quo) and crime if there are too many have-nots (this was one of the primary reasons for Imperial Rome providing a daily dole of bread to its citizens.) England has had a legally enforceable national welfare system since 1601. In the sixteenth century, enclosure of mediaeval open fields and the dissolution of the monasteries drove many from the land and removed most of the informal welfare system which had long existed through the charitable works of monasteries. The consequence was the creation of a large number of “sturdy beggars” (a substantial rise in the population of England at the time was a considerable aggravating factor). This drove the Tudors to introduce various Acts which attempted to both restrict the movement of the poor and to provide for them. These efforts culminated in the 1597 and 1601 Poor Laws. These Acts, for the first time anywhere in the world, created legally enforceable provision for the poor for an entire nation (although it took half a century or more to get the Poor Law generally enforced).

Along with the fear of social disorder ran the natural feelings of pity and moral obligation, feelings bolstered by the custom of hospitality and of a religion which enjoined a duty of alms-giving to the poor. Such sentiments were gradually assimilated into public policy.

Of course, the national and political desire to provide for the poor and the unfortunate has been massively enlarged in the centuries since the Elizabethan Poor Law was passed. In Britain, we think that everyone in our society should have the necessities of life – food,shelter, warmth, clothing, preferably from their own efforts in part or whole, but where necessary from the taxpayer. The vast majority of Britons believe that these things are desirable, although there are differences of opinion over the extent and nature of the provision.

But most Britons – both at the political level and as a large majority of the population – also think that a good deal of other state provision should exist, not merely for the poor or unfortunate but for every citizen. We recognise that there are other things which the state should do beyond maintaining the integrity of the state and providing the basic means of subsistence. These are enterprises which are deemed to be both for the public good and in need of public action because private provision will not do them at all or only do them inadequately.

We expect the roads to be maintained by the state because that increases the efficiency of commerce and industry and enhances private life (most of the population probably think the same of railways.) We believe that no one should be left without medical treatment within the limits of what can be reasonably afforded. We think it necessary that the population should be educated to a certain level because that is essential for the individual’s chances in life and because a modern industrial society requires educated people. The more thoughtful see education as a civilising process which has general value for a society.

Equality before the law, or even justice itself, is a special case of social provision because it requires social provision for it to exist. Unless the state provides the means for each individual to have equal access to the law to remedy a wrong and to have equal access to professional legal assistance when they are a defendant in either a criminal or civil case, there is no equality before the law. All legal assistance must be free, because otherwise there is no equality for an individual will either not be able to afford the assistance or be deterred from seeking it because of the cost.

Law exists to provide a peaceful alternative to private action to right hurts and no defendant has a choice of whether they are defendant. Those two facts should be remembered by those who balk at the idea of universal legal aid. Sadly, legal aid in Britain, although still generous compared with many countries, is inadequate and is being reduced.

All social provision, from the supplying of basic needs such as food and shelter to education, has a further role. In a reputed democracy, each person is supposed to be an autonomous human being capable of both existing and of making decisions about who shall govern and what shall be done. A person constantly wracked with the uncertainty of poverty and the fear of ill-health or insecure employment will have little time to devote to anything other than surviving. A person denied a formal education will probably be illiterate and have a poorly developed intellect. To possess such disadvantages in our world is effectively to be excluded both from the more comfortable and influential parts of society and, consequently, from politics. And such disadvantage follows down the generations, with the children of the poor taking on the privations of the parents.

If we are to have a meaningful democracy, or more exactly a representative system (elective oligarchy) which allows the masses to exercise meaningful democratic control over the elite through their votes, every member of the electorate has, ideally, to be in a condition whereby they both have the time to consider matters beyond the everyday and the education to understand matters of public policy. The ideal is of course unobtainable, but many more will be brought closer to such a condition if supported and encouraged by public provision than if left solely to the vagaries of private provision. It is worth noting that historically elites have generally been opposed to expanding the intellectual world and material standing of the masses. There is a good if immoral reason for this: the poorer and less educated a population, the easier it is for the elite to control it.

3. Why do we need public provision?

Why do we need public provision? Why cannot we live in the type of world envisaged by extreme libertarians, who imagine that everything could be supplied through private arrangements and charity? The short answer is that private provision never provides universality of provision or anything approaching it. We know this because all the experience of history shows no case where private provision has met the general need.

Most societies at most times have had no state provision for welfare. In those societies private charity has invariably fallen not merely short but far short of meeting need. Periodic famine, illiteracy, untreated illness and poverty have been the all too common lot of the masses throughout history. Unless a society is willing to allow people to starve, suffer and remain uneducated – and no politician in a modern western country would openly espouse such an idea – the only answer is state provision to assist those who cannot afford to pay or who are unable to find charity. Consequently, it is pointless asking the question could private charity and individual effort provide a better general service in the provision of this or that vital service than public enterprise because private charity and individual enterprise will and can never provide comprehensive provision.

The extreme ideologues who advocate private action as the only legitimate means of providing social goods invariably fail to meaningfully acknowledge the elephant in the room, namely, what happens to those who are unable to buy what they need or who cannot obtain charity? When pressed they claim that the abolition of tax, or at least its reduction to the low levels needed to maintain a minimalist state, would allow charity to rise to a sufficient level to meet all demands for social provision. The fact that this has never happened in the entire history of the world does not concern them. Like Marxists who still claim that communism only requires the right circumstances to be realised, the supporters of private provision remain convinced that their utopia is just waiting to be realised if only society was ordered by their rules (It is worth noting that a utopian libertarian society could only exist if all other political ideas were suppressed).

What can we say to these vaulting optimists who appear to be oblivious to the facts of human psychology and sociology? These extreme disciples of the free market, civil society and private charity should remember that even the Messiah of laissez faire economics, Adam Smith, allowed that there were things of purely economic concern which could not be left to private provision because it was inadequate, for example the maintenance of the roads. Smith also recognised that there was more to life than economic relationships and that the social consequences of economic decisions sometimes mean that unfettered economic arrangements are unacceptable, for example, in the provision of war materials which have a strategic value as well as an economic one. In more modern times, one of the creators of neo-liberalism, F. A. Hayek, acknowledged the need for public support of the needy, for example, “We shall again take for granted the availability of a system of public relief which provides a minimum for all instances of proved need, so that no member of the community need be in want of food or shelter” (The Constitution of Liberty Routledge pp 300-301).

It is difficult going on impossible to envisage a time when the poor (relatively speaking) will not be with us. In the most benign social circumstances, there will always be substantial numbers who through illness, injury, age, bad luck or general incapacity will need and deserve taxpayer provision. To take but one example of a widespread and unalterable disadvantage: approximately 10% of the population of Britain have IQs of 80 or less. An IQ of 80 is the point at which most psychologists consider an individual begins to struggle to live an independent life in an advanced modern state such as Britain. Because of the way IQ is distributed – more or less as a Bell Curve – most of that 10% will always be drawn from the poorer sections of society (attempts to boost IQ with enhanced environments, for example Headstart in the USA, have persistently failed to do so by more than a few points and often the gain is not permanent. The implication is that IQ is to a large extent genetically determined). The low IQ poor will be likely to need substantial social provision because their families and friends will not have the resources commonly available to the low IQ individuals within better-off families. If substantial public provision is not available to them, the likely outcome will be increased anti-social behaviour from those unable to cope or earn a living capable of supporting them. The moral to be drawn is that any society should, simply as a matter of prudence let alone morality, provide a viable life for all of its people, not merely the fortunate or able.

There is a further consideration: the responsibility of governments for the general conditions in which people live. For example, the position of low IQ individuals in poor families is considerably worse now than it used to be. British Governments over the past 25 years have changed, primarily through a commitment to free markets and free trade and increasingly uncontrolled immigration, have removed many of the circumstances which previously gave Britons with a low IQ the chance of living an adult life largely independent of the state.

Manual jobs, especially in heavy industry, long-established working-class communities, cheap housing and a tight labour market have all been greatly diminished or have vanished altogether.

Mass immigration, especially from the new EU members, is especially disadvantageous for the low IQ, low skill Briton. The immigrants, even the well-qualified, are happy to take the low paid unskilled jobs which would be suitable for those Britons with low IQs. They do this because the money they can earn in Britain doing a menial job is considerably more than the average wage in their own countries. For example, £3,000 a year in Poland is a good professional salary. A Pole earning even the minimum wage in Britain can often save that in a year because his money will probably not be taxed and he will be living either in squats or in very overcrowded conditions which cost him little. (Give native Britons the chance to save the equivalent of a doctor’s salary in Britain by working in a menial job in a foreign country and watch them flock there.)

The consequence for the low IQ, low skilled Briton is not only competition for the sort of jobs he or she has traditionally filled but reduced wages and even exclusion from part of the British job market altogether, because certain types of job become effectively reserved for immigrants of a particular ethnicity – this is particularly the case where foreign gangmasters operate for they commonly employ only people of their own ethnicity.

Of course, the effects of the actions of governments go far beyond the low IQ individuals in a population. To take another example which affects most, if governments engineer, as has happened in Britain, a decline in the state education system through demands that the same formal school exams must be sat by all pupils or that 50% of school-leavers should go onto higher education, then the politicians who introduce the policies take upon themselves the responsibility for any inability of the ill-educated to lead productive and socially useful lives. (A fully discussion of the problems with education can be found at section 36).

4. Public provision is a good deal

The essentials of life are food, water, clothing, shelter, healthcare and a livable income in times when a person cannot work through want of a job, disability, illness or old age. Most people most of the time can afford to pay for shelter, food, water, heating and clothing from their private resources. Most could not afford the rest of the essentials and very few indeed could survive long term unemployment without state aid.

It is important to realise what small incomes the majority of Britons have. Take these figures from the Government’s Regional Household Income Comparison 2004:

“Inner London had the highest disposable household income (after tax) per head of population (£16,500) in 2004. The area continued the trend of previous years and in 2004 was 29 per cent above the UK average of £12,800. This was lower than in earlier years. In 2000 it was 36 per cent higher than the UK average. Tees Valley and Durham in the North East had the lowest household income per head at £10,800. This was 16 per cent below the UK average in 2004.” (http://www.statistics.gov.uk).

The uncomfortable truth is that even the average disposable British household income is insufficient to comfortably bring up a couple of children, pay an average mortgage and make substantial pension contributions. Worse, much of the population has less than average household incomes, many very substantially less. But even those with household incomes substantially above the average – many of whom support the idea of private provision for those “who can afford it” – would find themselves deeply embarrassed if they did have to meet the cost of everything they now receive from the state.

To take a concrete example, that of a middle class husband and wife with two children with a net annual household income of £40,000. At present they can, if they choose, educate their children free at state schools. The entire family can be treated under the NHS. Until they are sixteen, the children will not even pay prescription charges. If their children go to university, as they probably will being middle class, much of the cost of the education will still be met out of taxes (tuition fees even at their new levels do not come near to meeting the full cost of a university education). If either parent falls ill or is injured, the taxpayer will provide basic support. The same applies in the case of unemployment. If any member of the family isunfortunate enough to be the subject of a criminal assault, the Criminal Injuries Board will compensate them. The family will receive child benefit which is not a means tested benefit.

Just imagine what it would cost to either provide such services by buying them directly or through insurance if one could find an insurer willing to issue cover.

A decent private day school education would be at least £12,000 for two children and could well be a good deal more. A university education would cost tens of thousands of pounds. Private health insurance for a family to cover everything covered by the NHS cannot be obtained, but even the best that could be purchased – and it will provide a much inferior cover to that of the NHS – would cost several thousand pounds a year and will not cover existing conditions either at all or for several years – those who doubt this should check out the BUPA website and see what even their most expensive plan does not cover (you will get a very nasty shock). Drugs, including prescription drugs, will have to be purchased at their full cost. If the family has a member with a chronic condition requiring regular treatment or a condition requiring expensive one-off treatment, they will soon find their private insurance will not cover the treatment or will do so for only a restricted period. Mental health problems and long term nursing care are rarely if ever adequately covered by private insurance. Where private insurance will not pay, the family will be left with bills which at best will severely constrain their lives and at worst bankrupt them. (The most common cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States is medical bills.)

Private insurance for sick pay and unemployment pay is both very expensive and strictly limited in the time it is paid – a year is normally the longest period covered. The same applies to mortgage insurance cover. There would be no child benefit or criminal injuries compensation available without public provision.

If the cost of providing for the family is restricted to just the items discussed above the family would be hamstrung by the bills even if no major disaster such as a serious operation hit them. A mortgage to purchase even a modest house in most areas would be out of the question. University education would become a very big gamble for the children.

If a major disaster did hit the family, they would not be able to cope for an extended period because any private insurance they could purchase would soon run out.

The family I have described is by normal standards comfortably off. It might be able to struggle along provided it did not hit a catastrophe which robbed the household of its breadwinner(s) or an emergency such as a serious medical condition which swallowed up vast amounts of money, but it would not be a materially comfortable or psychologically secure family. Most families (and individuals) have considerably less income than this fictional family and a substantial minority live on an income well below the average, while half the British adult population have no meaningful savings or occupational pensions. The large majority of the population would be utterly unable to provide for themselves in times of hardship such as sickness, old age and enforced unemployment.

Those who claim that all the poor in Britain are only relatively poor should reflect on this stark statistic: the latest Inland Revenue figures for marketable wealth distribution ( 2002) show the top 1 per cent own 23% of national wealth and the bottom fifty per cent of the population have a staggeringly small 6% (Office of National Statistics (ONS) website – published 2004).

In short, the majority of the British population live as they have always lived: from one pay packet to the next. They do not have the resources to withstand the withdrawal of state provision and are very vulnerable to the competition of immigrants and offshoring, which either destroy their employment or reduce their pay.

What applies to what might be termed social provision applies to all other public charges – such as defence, policing and the justice system. Most individuals do not have to bear the full cost of these because they pay far less tax, direct and indirect, than is needed to finance a per capita share of total public expenditure. A quick calculation will demonstrate this. The projected public expenditure for 2006/7 is £488 billion. There are approximately 45 million adults in Britain. £488 billion divided equally between them runs out at nearly £11,000 per adult head.

The future is even bleaker because of the absurd cost of housing, the rising cost of a university education and the likely high cost of energy and water supplies. There are even suggestions in current price movements that cheap food may be a thing of the past and the price of manufactured goods from China and its Asian cohorts is also showing signs of inflation as their populations’ wages and living standards rise and they consume more of what they make.

The effect of everyone “paying their way” just for things such as education and healthcare would have a severely depressive effect on already dangerously low Western breeding rates as people had fewer children because of the increased costs falling on the individual.

5. The moral value of general provision

If public provision is necessary should it be available to all? Why should it not be granted only to those who through a means test show that they cannot support themselves from their own resources? The answer is threefold: personal dignity, practicality and the engendering of social cohesion.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to claim means tested benefits or who has assisted someone to claim will know what a frustrating and degrading experience it can be. The rules relating to claiming are Byzantine in their complexity and a simple error on a form (which can run to 20 pages or more) can result in benefit being withheld or delayed. But even when the forms are correctly completed and the criteria for the benefit are met, the delivery of the benefit is frequently seriously delayed because the volume of claims and their complexity simply overwhelms the administrative capacity of the public servants dealing with them.

If all public provision was means-tested, including NHS treatment and education, the administrative cost would be massive and the efficiency of the delivery of the provision greatly reduced. The additional administrative costs would have to be set against any saving gained by denying provision to people.

General provision also underpins social provision. Where all are eligible, all feel that they have a stake in the Welfare State. That improves social cohesion. Exclude the better off and the odds are that eventually political circumstances will arise which allow those with the power to reduce or even destroy utterly public provision. At best, if social provision is seen as only for the poor, it will gain a stigma and the quality of the provision will be of little or no account to those who do not benefit from it.

The provision of public services gives everyone rich or poor the assurance that if the worst comes to the worst they will not be utterly without the means to live. That is the bottom line of having the privilege of being a British citizen.

Apart from simply making life more pleasant and secure, a socially cohesive society has considerable cost benefits, because it will experience less anti-social behaviour. That translates into fewer police, fewer trials, fewer people in prison and, indeed, fewer laws to moderate social behaviour to administer – regrettably many laws are passed in response to moral panics.

6. Why should those able to pay for themselves pay for others?

The most obvious reason for not allowing anyone to opt-out from that part of taxation which is devoted to public provision is that no one can be absolutely certain that they will not meet some calamity in the future which will leave them unable to pay. The experience of medical care in the USA shows how easy it is even for the rich to find their wealth shrinking to a point where they cannot get all the treatment they need – the Superman actor, Christopher Reeve, one of the highest paid Hollywood actors, found his resources exhausted within a few years of suffering the injury which paralysed him.

But there is a more subtle reason. The wealthier members of society should always remember that they owe their privileged position to the restraint of the have-nots and the power structures of society which are overwhelmingly weighted in favour of the haves. Individual effort and talent do of course play a significant role

in the lives of everyone, but it is also true that most people’s lives are to a large degree determined by the circumstances of their birth. If you are born into a wealthy family, the odds are you will live the life of the wealthy throughout your life. A person born into poverty will probably remain at the bottom end of the social spectrum. The same applies in varying degrees to those born between the top and bottom of the social pile.

No one needs academic studies to prove the truth and potency of inherited advantage. All people require is the evidence of their own experience. Let any man examine the lives of all those he knows and he will find that most will occupy a similar social position to their parents.

A simple way of understanding how much inherited social position determines lives is to consider crime. Proportionately, the working-class commit crime much more often than the middle classes (and even within the working class the frequency of offending rises with the degree of poverty). That cannot be because the working class are innately less able, intelligent or self-controlled, because we know that many of the middle class are also dim, incompetent and socially inept, yet they rarely end up with a criminal record.

The only plausible explanation for the greater criminality of the working class can be their different material and social circumstances. These are much more precarious than those of the better off. They lack money and the social network which eases access to better jobs, while the opportunities to intellectually develop that are commonly open to the middle class are denied them. Give every person the means to live a middle class life and crime would drop dramatically simply because the press of material necessity would not be there and because the alienation of the poor through being poor would have been removed.

The better-off also need to admit to themselves that there is no moral basis for inherited wealth. The person who inherits money and possessions has by definition done nothing to earn it. The person who earned the wealth, if it has been gained through moral means – and often wealth, particularly great wealth, has not been so gained – has a moral right to it, but no one else. The same applies to non-material advantages such as social connections.

There are, of course, those who attempt to treat inherited wealth as a moral matter. They claim that a person has the right through the consequence of ownership to pass on what he or she has to whoever they choose. That, of course, begs the question of how the wealth was obtained. But let us assume it was achieved entirely morally and by the direct efforts of the person – the best possible case for the supporters of inherited wealth. Even in that instance the effect of the transfer of wealth to others is to create a situation which is manifestly unfair, namely, the establishment of privilege for someone who has done nothing to earn it. Taken at the level of a society, that rapidly results in a permanent class privilege for the haves and their descendants. The fact that the development of hierarchies is an inevitable consequence of human society is neither here nor there when considering whether the consequences of a hierarchy is moral. Clearly the deliberate disadvantaging of some to the advantage of others is not a moral act, any more than enslaving a man is (the group now living who have by far the greatest moral claim to reparations are not the descendants of slaves but the descendants of the poor).

The American philosopher John Rawls in his book A theory of justice resurrected the idea of the social contract which was much in favour in the 17th and 18th centuries. He posed, in so many words, the question “Suppose a group of people were to form a society from scratch, what society would they favour if each person knew nothing about the other people and had no idea where they personally would fit, socially and economically, into the society?” He concluded that the only rational choice would be one in which people had equality because no rational man would chose an inferior position for himself and no agreement would ever be reached which created an unequal society, whether in terms of social status, rights and duties or material circumstances.

Note that Rawls did not rule out a man or woman choosing an unequal state – some might do so thinking it would be worth the gamble to have a chance of gaining one of the favoured positions in an unequal society – he merely thought that it would not be a rational or normal decision.

Although Rawls’ hypothetical state (“The Original Position”) was not realistic, his thought experiment does demonstrate that what we have now as a result of the organic development of society is not what many, if any, would risk for themselves if they had the choice Rawls’ offered them.

Why not take away all inherited wealth? All of historical experience shows that such a cure is worse than the disease. Where the state controls (at least in theory) the totality of people’s lives, such as in the Soviet Union, the consequence is privilege and abuse not by the possession of money but by the wielding of state power. There

is also something peculiarly degrading about the idea that everything a person does is to be ordered and permitted by the state. A degree of private wealth is a bulwark against state power. The trick is to ensure that wealth does not become too concentrated in the hands of the few, producing an uncaring and oppressive plutocracy.

As for the wealth which individuals create for themselves, to tax to produce material equality would plausibly have a deleterious effect on society generally. If a person is not to benefit from their own legitimate enterprise, why should they bother to make any extra effort or take risks? The obvious answer is they have no incentive to do so. However, that is to take to nakedly a material view of humanity. Even in circumstances where what someone did had no effect on their income, people would vary considerably in their willingness to work regardless of the material outcome because personalities differ and there are rewards other than material ones such as the approval of others and celebrity. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume from the experience of communist societies that the overall effect would be to substantially reduce the individual will to work and take risk.

Of course, absolute material equality is improbable in any society, but the disincentive effect applies incrementally as the personal tax burden grows. Once tax reaches a certain level people either work less or become dishonest and evade the tax. That applies not only to the obvious case of the entrepreneur but to jobs generally, for people will be generally disinclined to take the more demanding jobs if the material rewards they offer are not significantly better than those for unskilled and easy employment.

It is also true that Man being a social animal will always form hierarchies because social animals necessarily organise themselves in that way (if they did not, sociality would never arise because the members of a species would be in constant antagonism to one another and could never reach the point of sociality). Even if all material advantage was removed there would still be the advantages and disadvantages of genetic inheritance, the differing qualities of individual parents and pure accidental circumstances, such as the work available at a particular time and place, to create a socially layered society with patterns of dominance and dependence.

But that does not mean that societies should simply be allowed to develop without any state intervention to ameliorate socially determined disadvantage. Without social provision of necessities the poor are left to live hopeless lives which struggle from day-to-day, while untaxed or very lightly taxed wealth of the most successful results in a plutocracy within a few generations.

Plutocracy at best produces wider private charity – which is always inadequate – and at worst an uncaring attitude towards the masses which sees nothing wrong in allowing them to starve if that is a consequence of the economic circumstances of the society and times or even simply God’s will. Plutocracy is in fact one of the most oppressive forms of society and one of the most difficult to end because it cunningly presents itself as being the society of individual opportunity (“the Ritz is open to all”) and is not nakedly oppressive in the same way that, say, Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia was oppressive. Consequently, there is no obvious focus for discontent, no single hate figure and it has a much greater enduring power than an overt dictatorship.

What a society can safely do to narrow the differences in life chances at birth is to act to ensure that all have access to education, healthcare and the means to live in a decent manner. That is the minimum. A society can go further with the greatest public resources being directed at those in the poorest circumstances, for  example, more money for schools in “sink” areas. It would even be possible to devise a scheme for those who inherit little or nothing by way of money or possessions to receive a payment from the state to remove to a degree the disadvantage of inheriting nothing.

7. How should public service should be determined?

It is easy in principle to decide whether something should be left to private or public enterprise. Simply ask five questions:

(1) Is the service or product generally considered to be a necessity?

(2) Will profit compromise safety?

(3) Is the service obviously inappropriate to be left in private

hands, for example policing or defence?

(4) Can the service be provided by private enterprise without subsidy?

(5) Can free enterprise be reasonably expected to deliver the necessity universally?

If the answer to any of (1)(2)(3) is YES or the answer to either (4) or (5) NO, then it should in principle be provided either directly or indirectly by the state.

8. What should be provided directly by the state?

Certain things should be reserved to the state as a matter of absolute principle. They are defence, foreign policy, policing, justice, the implementation of judicial sentences and decisions and the administration of welfare. They should be reserved absolutely because either they involve the use of force or the threat of force, punishment or the distribution of taxpayers’ money in areas such as unemployment benefit.

For reasons which I shall shortly examine, the state should also directly control any essential service which is a natural monopoly. What counts as a natural monopoly? Railways and utilities such as water and energy are examples They are natural monopolies because it is simply not practical to have competing lines running to the same destinations or competing utility pipes and cables supplying the same area.

It is possible, as has happened in some of the British privatisations, to allow different companies to compete to supply services such as trains, energy and water, but that is at best an insufficient or incomplete competition and at worst a wholly bogus one because the actual lines of supply – the railway track and the pipes or cables – still have to be maintained and owned by some organisation, private or public. That means the infrastructure has to be either owned publicly or, if owned by a private company, the company must be rigorously controlled by the state, as is the case with the British telephone landline infrastructure which is owned by the privatised British Telecom.

British government interference with natural monopolies since privatisation has gone far beyond controlling the infrastructure. In the case of the railways, a considerable public subsidy has been paid and continues to be paid to the private operators. In every monopoly industry a regulator has been appointed to control both prices and, in theory at least, to force companies to do things such as provide a certain level of investment in new equipment and to be conscientious when it comes to maintenance and operation of the infrastructure. To pretend that these monopoly industries are private companies working in a free market is patently absurd. They are effectively public services contracted out to private contractors.

A few services only work as monopolies, the classic example being the universal letter post, that is, letters delivered to any part of a territory for the same price. This only works if it is a monopoly because if there is competition from private companies or municipal postal services they will take sufficient of the profitable trade in the towns and cities to make it impossible for the universal supplier, in this country the Royal Mail, to subsidise the loss making deliveries to parts of the country outside the main urban centres. No private company would ever provide universal coverage unless they had a monopoly.

Why should the state directly control essential monopolies? Firstly, because there is no opportunity for meaningful competition and consequently the state must step in to prevent abuse of the monopoly position. To do that, as we have seen, it has to interfere very strongly with the running of the monopolies. In practice, it can only efficiently do this if it directly controls the monopoly.

If the state subcontracts an essential monopoly to private business or allows private business to buy a monopoly two general problems arise. The first difficulty is that a private business may at any point fail as a business or simply refuse to continue with a contract if it is not making money for the business. If that happens the state is over a barrel because it does not have the resources to immediately take over the enterprise, nor is it probable that another private company would be able or willing to step in at a moment’s notice – the worst outcome would be the cessation of a vital industry. Nor, if a company failed, is it obvious how a Government would prevent its assets being sold by a liquidator. In principle when Railtrack failed – the company which after privatisation had the responsibility for maintaining the infrastructure of the British rail network – the shareholders owned the assets (the railway infrastructure including much highly profitable land) and the creditors had a legitimate charge on them.

Clearly no government could allow the railway or vital industries such as water, gas and electricity simply to go under, either at the national or regional level. Hence, any government will, when shove comes to push, have to pay through the nose (your taxpaying nose in fact) to maintain the threatened industry, whether that be through enhancing a contract to make it more profitable, granting more profitable contracts to a new private contractor or through the payment of outright subsidies. A government is in a similar bind if a company is doing a bad job: they cannot simply sack them because who is to take their place?

Natural monopolies also raise other problems if they are in private hands. There is insufficient public control over areas such as maintenance and strategic planning. Good British examples can be found in the privatised water and energy industries. In the case of water the privatised companies have failed to invest adequately to stop the considerable loss of water from cracked pipes. Nor has a single major reservoir been built in England since privatisation. These investment failures have occurred despite the water companies consistently making healthy profits. The Water Regulator huffs and puffs but achieves little because the water companies know he can do little. Indeed, he has to date not even fully used the powers he has despite issuing many warnings to the water companies. And the Government? Well, they could pass a new law giving them direct powers over the water industry but what then? If a water company simply refuses to do what is needed where does the Government go? Nowhere fast is the answer.

With energy it is the strategic planning which is emasculated. Successive British governments have allowed Britain to sleepwalk into a position where the country went rapidly from being self-sufficient in energy to becoming a net importer. This was entirely predictable as it was known long before it happened that North Sea oil and gas was going to decline substantially from the beginning of the century. Despite this no meaningful strategic planning has taken place since privatisation with governments until very recently childishly claiming that it was not for them to interfere in the actual provision of energy now the industry is privately owned (the Blair Government has just woken up to the strategic danger of being dependent on foreign supplies but even now -2006 – no definite decision has been made on future British energy policy). The upshot of this lack of planning has been rapidly rising energy prices since 2005.

If water and the energy utilities had remained in public ownership, the fact that politicians had ultimate responsibility for them would have ensured that maintenance and strategic planning was not neglected because no politician or government could afford to be blamed for a water crisis or soaring power prices. Government could also subsidise  prices, something it cannot do now even if it chose to because of EU  competition rules. . The same principle applies to most of the privatised industries – take away the political responsibility and the profit motive rules.

Certain things are simply too important to be left to private efforts. Natural monopolies such as the railways, water and gas are literally essential to the survival of an advanced state such as Britain. Because of that stark fact alone they need to be treated as something much more than a commodity which can be simply left to the market. They should to be seen for what they are, strategic assets, and placed firmly under national control.

There is a further general reason why essential monopolies should be in public hands – the need for general provision. Left to private enterprise, even with an unfettered monopoly only the profitable parts of an industry would be supplied. Roads and railways would only be maintained if the traffic warranted it. Gas, electricity, water and telecommunications would only be supplied where sufficient profit could be made. The problem is we do not want roads and railways only over profitable routes, or the utilities such as gas and water supplied only to urban areas. We want them over the entire country. Only public provision can truly satisfy that need. Of course, private companies can have a duty to provide a general provision placed on the them but what if none is willing to take it or they take on the responsibility but then fail to meet it? The government then has to decide to either subsidise the company directly or to loosen the contract conditions to which the company has agreed.

The final type of enterprise which the state should always take in hand are those which experience tells us are beyond the resources of private business. Private enterprise can never be trusted to handle Tunnel. Margaret Thatcher insisted that no British public money would be involved and that private enterprise would bear the entire cost. It soon became clear that this was a nonsense. The Tunnel itself was completed but the companies which built it were not so much bankrupt as on another planet called Debt. And this was despite the very serious amounts of money pumped into the enterprise by the French Government,  both directly and indirectly. The situation was rescued, if one can dignify what happened with the word, by the banks and other  creditors rescheduling debts so far into the future that they all but vanished and the French Government surreptitiously pushing in more money via the French banks. To this day, the Channel Tunnel is the whitest of white private enterprise elephants, with the latest ” debt restructuring” always just around the corner.

Direct provision also has a further benefit. While assets are publicly owned and employees directly paid by the state, it is politically much more difficult to reduce or abolish that part of public provision. If the provision is supplied by a private company their contract can simply not be renewed or cancelled. If the provision is directly supplied, the government has the ticklish problem of having to take responsibility for the redundancies, something which greatly raises the profile of the removal of the provision.

The best example of the dangers of losing direct provision is the gradual privatisation by stealth of the NHS. To suddenly privatise the entire NHS would be impossible, but salami slice it over ten or fifteen years by continually increasing the private sector involvement and the position is completely different. Then the politician can use excuses such as “So much of it is in private hands now that the rest might as well be,” “We can’t have such a comprehensive service because private companies can’t provide it” and “Costs have risen so much that we have to cut this or that”. The whole system will be such a confused mess of public and private that the public will not know what to think. Also, the privatisation by stealth may have surreptitiously changed the way the public view the NHS so they see it no longer as a national institution but merely as a provider of medical care through disparate means. That in itself would reduce the moral outrage needed for any successful public protest.

9. What should be provided indirectly by the state?

Just because something is a necessity does not mean that the state must or should provide it directly. In fact, the less direct provision the better, because in a free society government should only touch that which it needs to touch. For example, whereas there are not many possible suppliers of air traffic control systems or railways, there are many possible suppliers of food. Government may safely leave food distribution to the private supplier and provide assistance where it is needed through payments to those in need. It should be noted that it is not the market or private enterprise which provides the general provision in cases such as food but the giving of taxpayers’ money to those who need it which provides the general provision.

Service is really the crucial criterion. Governments should become directly involved in industrial work very rarely – the exceptions are defence suppliers, utilities such as water, gas and electricity because of their status as natural monopolies and their immense importance. No nationalised industry making or extracting anything has ever been an economic success. Governments running manufacturers, farming or the extractive industries such as coal mining are neither necessary nor desirable, because private enterprise will always do the job adequately and more efficiently provided the economic circumstances are right,that is, vital industries are protected through tariffs, quotas or subsidies to the extent necessary to make them profitable.

But such vital industries are the Government’s business because they have both a strategic and a social and economic value. Consequently, governments do have is a responsibility to ensure that they are maintained.

Any country which cannot feed itself, produce all essential manufactured products and services, is not self-sufficient in energy and does not have substantial reserves of essential raw products such as iron ore, is constrained in what it may do both nationally and internationally and the greater the reliance of imports, the greater the constraint. Of course any advanced industrial state will not be completely self-sufficient, but it is possible for a country to have a large degree of self-sufficiency in the essentials especially food. With modern crop yields and modern animal husbandry, Britain could feed itself at a pinch if her market for food was protected to allow reasonable profits to be made by farmers using not merely the best or most convenient land, but the more marginal land as well.

Where a country is severely dependent on imports, as is the case with Britain, they are utterly at the mercy of international blackmail and events. Even the most powerful state in the world, the USA, is much restricted because of its reliance on imported oil. Such constraints have the most serious of consequences. Would George Bush  have invaded Iraq if the USA was not reliant on Middle East oil? I doubt it.

The free trade dream of buying where a product can be produced cheapest is based on the absurd premise that never again will international circumstances arise which will place any country at risk of war or blockade. There is also the question of what happens when raw materials run short and the scarce materials either remain in the countries of origin or go to the richest and most powerful countries with the rest left to go hang. Free trade is not merely a fantasy but a dangerous one in the long term.

There is also the economic and social case for protection. Cheap imports from countries which have labour costs many times below those of the mature industrial states, goods made cheap by state subsidies and plain old-fashioned “dumping” means that no company in the West is able to compete with the imports. The effect of allowing such imports is twofold: either the workers in the importing countries must take lower wages or, more probably, watch the obliteration of the domestic industry.

The same thing happens where mass immigration is permitted. If the immigration did not occur the wages for the type of jobs which immigrants take would be higher. That in turn would lessen or end the shortages of native workers willing to do them. For most jobs all that is needed to solve a shortage of labour is a wage sufficiently competitive with other employments to attract enough applicants. A good example in Britain are nurses: a shortage of native applicants a few years ago has been turned into a surplus now by a substantially increase in their pay.

The loss of jobs and suppression of wages through cheap imports, outsourcing, or large scale immigration has considerable social and economic effects. Those who lose their jobs either remain unemployed or take jobs which pay much less, are less secure and have lesser benefits. Those who remain in their jobs but whose pay is suppressed suffer similar difficulties. Both groups find their spending power is reduced. They pay less tax. If they are unemployed the Treasury is a net loser. New immigrants compete for scarce public goods such as free healthcare, education and social housing. Most particularly they compete most directly with the poorer native members of society who have most need of such social supports.

Poor pay, insecurity, unemployment and competition from mass immigration all place a severe strain on the social cohesion of a country.

Neither the Left or Right need recoil in horror at the idea of a judicious protectionism and a strong immigration policy. The Labour Party has been strongly protectionist throughout most of its history. The Tory Party was protectionist before the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and protectionist again between 1931 and the advent of Margaret Thatcher. For most of their history both parties have been in practice opposed to mass immigration.

10. The railways – a classic public service

The railways in Britain are not simply a private enterprise. They are a necessity to maintain general economic activity. Take away the railways and a substantial part of those employed in London could not continue to work there because the roads will not take the extra traffic. The same applies, to a lesser degree, to other large cities and towns.

The railways also fulfill an important social functions in providing transport to those without cars, by reducing car use generally and moving much heavy goods traffic from the roads. Finally, railways have a strategic value in times of war or blockade.

Without massive public subsidy the railways could not be maintained. No national railway system in the First World operates without taxpayers’ subsidy. Parts of systems may be profitable but not the entire system. It is not that our railways would simply shrink if left entirely to private enterprise, most of the system would not run

at all. Commuter traffic is running at near capacity in the South East of England and fares are already so high generally that the massive price hike needed to meet the full cost of rail travel would result in a vicious circle of decreased traffic and decreased revenue.

The cost of maintaining Britain’s railways is simply beyond the private sector. Profit can be made on some intercity routes but that is about it. Even with the massive subsidies given to private companies since privatisation – ironically substantially larger than the pre-privatisation subsidies in real terms – private companies have signally failed to invest adequately. Indeed, the companies have radically reduced staffing levels – which may well have contributed to some crashes – and have constantly failed to meet their timetables.

The farce of the company with responsibility for railway maintenance immediately after privatisation in Britain, Railtrack, is a cautionary tale in itself. It created a completely different culture from that under the nationalised railways. Instead of employing most of the labour directly, they engaged subcontractors to do most of the work. The army of skilled workers built up by the original private companies and inherited by the nationalised British Rail was dispersed in reckless fashion and, inevitably, control over standards of maintenance became much diluted as it always does with subcontracting.

To put the cherry on the Railtrack story, the financial resources of the company, even with public subsidies, proved hopelessly inadequate. In 2002 the plug was pulled and it went into administration to eventually re-emerge restructured as a not-for-profit company  Network Rail. But before the administration was done and dusted, the taxpayer had to cough up a great deal of money to compensate  shareholders because the government was faced with legal  action by the shareholders alleging maladministration, an  action which looked as though it might not only succeed but in the  process wash some very dirty government linen in public over exactly why and how Railtrack went into administration.

11. Safety

There is a further consideration with public services – safety. It may be that the public will have greater confidence in, for example, a state run railway simply because it is state run. The public’s confidence might be completely unfounded but that would not matter: theconfidence itself is a valuable thing.

The experience of all privatisation has been to make money by enforcing massive job cuts. Of course there was overmanning during the nationalised industry days. The trouble is that the cuts made since privatisation have often gone beyond improving efficiency. They went to the limits of safety, and probably past it, in pursuit of profit. Maintenance staff were reduced and consequently maintenance was reduced. The facts which have emerged since the Watford train crash in 2000 shows beyond doubt that many of the people involved in rail track maintenance are inexperienced at best and completely raw at worst.

When the state does not take direct responsibility for a service which has inherent safety consideration, the danger is that governments will respond to any safety fears by imposing ever more onerous obligations on the private suppliers of the service. The private companies are also susceptible to being overly cautious after an accident has happened or a possible danger becomes the subject of public comment.

Train crashes in Britain have been thankfully rare under both nationalised and privatised regimes, but when they happened under the nationalised industry the government was able to keep the show on the road because the public had confidence that safety was not being compromised simply to save money. Since privatisation crashes have been met with absurd caution by both the bodies responsible for the infrastructure and the Government, with the national rail network being reduced to a farce after cracks in some rails were found after the Watford crash mentioned above. For the better part of a year, rail travel became a misery as hundreds of emergency speed restrictions were introduced and rails were tested for cracks and a massive programme of ail replacement was begun. The consequence  was horrendous delays and vast numbers of cancelled trains. The effects are arguably still being felt in 2006.

Perhaps the classic industry to which the safety consideration applies is the production of nuclear energy. Despite this this Government is saying that if a new generation of nuclear power stations is built it must be with private money and run by private companies. A clear case of  ideology – private is best – driving common sense out of the window. (It should be added that Labour said the same when in office.)

Foreign ownership further complicates matters. When a massive explosion devastated a fuel storage and refinery complex in Hemel Hempstead in 2006 and further parts of the complex were thought to be in danger of exploding, it was impossible to get the necessary information quickly because the company which owned the complex was French and no one with  sufficient authority could be immediately contacted.

12. Public and private efficiency

Having worked both as a civil servant and for private companies, large and small, I always raise a wry smile when the advocates of private enterprise claim, with a look of religious certainty in their eyes and the ringing voice of the true believer, that private enterprise is by definition much more efficient than public endeavour. In fact, private enterprise can be every bit as wasteful and often far more reckless than public service.

Take a couple of blatant examples of crass incompetence by private enterprise from the past ten years. The directors of a major defence and electronics company Marconi managed in a few short years to reduce the company from one with several billion pounds in cash reserves and astock-exchange value of some £30 billion to a company with billions of pounds worth of debt and shares which were effectively worthless after the creditor banks took ownership of what remained of thecompany.

How did Marconi management accomplish this stupendous feat? They decided that their highly successful core business of defence equipment was just too boring and “not now” for words and sold off most of this highly profitable business. They then ploughed into telecommunications, a business in which they had little experience, which was “utterly now” and “obviously” on the brink of a mobile phones bonanza. There they caught not so much a very bad cold butcommercial double pneumonia.

The second example is the assurance company Equitable Life. In the 1980s and early 1990s this firm offered financial products with an attractive guaranteed return. Unsurprisingly, they proved very popular. Come the time to meet these obligations Equitable found they could not do so. They tried to renege on the guaranteed return promise but, after several years of legal battles, the House of Lords decided against them. At that point they were arguably insolvent. Instead of going into administration, they began a series of actions which made a mockery of that for which they supposedly stood – assurance.

For fear of trading fraudulently or even whilst insolent – any new business might well have been considered fraudulent because of the possibility of a failure to meet existing obligations – they closed their books to new business. Then by stages – the torment for the policy holders was extended – they reduced payouts to those who had not had the guaranteed return and by stages considerably raised the penalty for clients taking their money out of the Equitable. Their customers were left with the ghastly choice of losing a large slice of what was already a reduced pot of money or taking a much lower income. Most choose the latter course. Equitable said in so many words take what we offer or be fined (or even worse, drive us into liquidation and lose most or even all of what is left). Those unlucky enough to be coming up to retirement during this time were left with pensions and lump sum payments much less than they reasonably anticipated when they took out the policy and substantially below the level which could be blamed on the general stock market fall. All of this was of course quite legal, but the shareholders who did not have the guaranteed return could have had no inkling of what might happen to their policies when they took them out.

I do not claim that public service is wondrously efficient and economical. Rather, I say that private business, at least at the larger end, is much the same. In fact, any big organisation displays the same characteristics of bureaucracy, a lack of imagination, organisational inertia and less than optimum manning. Marks and Spencer, until the late 1990s one of the reputedly best run of British firms, suddenly fell prey to just these traits and has only just got back on the rails.

But large organisations also have their advantages. They are capable of providing a wide range of services. They can provide those services over a large area. They have a degree of “slack” which allows emergencies to be dealt with and bottlenecks due to variable demand to be managed when they arise. Such “slack” is very important in industries such as gas and electricity and services such as the railways. As we shall see when I turn to the experience of privatisation, the slack in many of the privatised industries has either vanished altogether or been reduced to dangerous levels.

13. What do we mean by efficiency?

There is also the question of what we mean by efficiency. Private business ultimately judges that by profit. But is profit a good indicator of efficiency generally? More particularly, does it have any place in public service?

Many a company does well for a period because it strikes lucky with a product and then plummets when the good luck runs out. Or a company may have a good profits run simply because there is a general boom in the economy and it is easy to make profits.

Then there are businesses where it is virtually impossible not to make large and regular profits, for example, the clearing banks, because the goods or services they are supplying are too essential for people not to purchase them and the number of competing companies is small, either because a few companies have been able to destroy the competition or because the cost of getting in the business is too great for new competitors to emerge. The problem of greatly reduced competition through expansion of an existing company rather than takeover of other companies is a growing one, a problem exemplified by the relentless march of Tesco in Britain – in practice British anti-monopoly law only deals with takeovers – the only thing which halts Tesco is planning permission. Once a company has a really large share of a market efficiency becomes less of a pressing problem because customers in an area dominated by the likes of Tesco often have little choice but to use the dominant company because it has destroyed local competitors.

It can also be very difficult to find out from the published accounts the true state of a company, vide Enron and WorldCom. Even where outright fraud is not practised there is still a great deal of scope for accountants to engage in “creative accounting” and massage accounts to inflate the profit in a given year. As directors are commonly paid a large part of their remuneration in the form of shares which they canpurchase at a later date at a discounted price (share options), companies have every incentive to inflate the share price in the year when the share option can be exercised.

But even if it is allowed that profit is a good yardstick of efficiency for most enterprises, a highly debatable proposition, it does not follow that it is a good yardstick for all enterprises. The provision of universal public services is by its nature not susceptible to the notion of profit because the unprofitable work must be undertaken as well as the profitable, for example the Post Office delivers letters to hideously costly rural addresses as well as to highly profitable city haunts for the same price (that service incidentally subsidises all private business in the UK because they can deliver anywhere for the same price).

If profit is not the yardstick what should be? I suggest that the real tests for public service competence should be (1) is the service being delivered to all who need it? and (2) is the cost reasonable in comparison with equivalent operations in other countries? By these tests, the NHS, for example, still compares well with the health care in other advanced countries, providing both a universal service for the vast majority of treatments and operations and doing so at a significantly cheaper cost than most, despite the great amounts of extra money pumped into it since May 1997.

14. Private enterprise providing public service

What is rarely if ever taken into account when complaints about the inefficiency of public bodies are considered is how efficient private enterprise will be or is when it is offered the opportunity to provide a public service. Take the Post Office as an example. For a century and a half it has turned a profit and ensured a level of universal service well nigh unique in the world. It has done this because it is a state monopoly.

No private company would ever provide a universal one-price service without massive public subsidy and the halfway house of part private part public merely weakens the public provider. The government first loosened the rules governing private delivery of parcel, then bulk letter mail went to full competition and in 2006 private companies moved into the delivery of letters over a certain weight. That competition alone will cripple the universal post. The Post Office has already been forced to drop the second delivery as a general service and will now provide it only for a fee, whilst the last time for collection has become earlier and earlier in the day and the single free delivery later and later.

As a second example take the BBC. Suppose the licence fee was abolished or reduced and the BBC had to introduce private finance on a large or an entire scale. The inevitable result of that would be the BBC increasingly turning from its public service role, not immediately but in time, towards commercial programming. The dismal example of how commercial terrestrial television “meets” the public serviceobligations written into their prospectuses when they bid for licences shows you what the BBC would rapidly become (the obligations/promisesmade when gaining licences are substantially ignored once the licences are granted).

There is nothing wrong with employing private businesses to perform specific functions such as road building because that does not produce a conflict between public service and profit. A road is simply a road,which will be used regardless of who built it. Once it is built,there is no ongoing direct service to the public beyond whatever maintenance is required and the maintenance of roads is completely different from the maintenance of railways, because the use of roads is free in all but a few instances and the safety issue is nothing like so important for a car can be driven on a potholed road while a train cannot be run on a faulty piece of track. Where conflict arises between the provision of a general service and the profit motive is in cases such as the NHS where the delivery of the service is directly to the public.

Private business is poor at providing services where there is no direct link between the provision of the service and the payment for it. If a service is provided to a person and they pay the provider, private enterprise will generally do a decent job if the customer has a reasonable choice of provider. Where a private business provides a service on the basis of a contract signed with a contractor, that is, it is a sub-contractor, the relationship between the customer and the provider becomes nebulous. It is true that the sub-contractor may have a contract cancelled or not have a contract renewed if too many complaints are received by the contractor, but often enough the contractor will wear any number of complaints provided profits remain healthy.

15. Public service inefficiencies and politicians

We can all recount bureaucratic horror stories and in truth there are a host of them. What most people never ask is why they exist. The answer is very often found in the irresponsible behaviour of politicians. They pass too many laws, introduce laws or other measures not requiring legislation which are administrative nightmares and demand action such as the meeting of “targets” which are simply beyond meeting.

A fine example of the “too many laws” syndrome is tax law. No living human being is a master of British tax law in its entirety or anything approaching its entirety. There is an excellent reason for this, it is beyond the capacity of any person to encompass so vast and complex and ever changing labyrinth of legislation. When the public deals with the best trained and most experienced Inland Revenue inspectors or employs the highest-powered tax consultant in private practice, they will still be dealing with people only competent to advise in particular areas of tax law. Worse, the law is frequently less than lucid because of the poor drafting of Acts of Parliament or of the statutory instruments which give administrative power to enforce Acts.Consequently, tax law is frequently open to plausible differences of interpretation. The upshot is that the Inland Revenue can often appear incompetent or unreasonable, despite the best efforts of its staff, simply because politicians have created an impossible situation.

The same applies to Customs and Excise (now amalgamated with the Inland Revenue).

To the complexity and opaqueness of most laws and regulations can be added the fact that most of the administration of such laws and regulations is not undertaken by highly educated, highly trained, highly intelligent people, but by the rank and file who find the complexity and opaqueness far more difficult to cope with than the highly educated, highly trained, highly intelligent few.

It is rare to encounter a politician who considers the administrative implications of laws before they are passed. Many laws on the statute books are largely dead letters because if they were enforced generally the effects on policing, the justice system and prisons would be dire. Imagine the numbers of prosecutions if the police religiously enforced the law on wearing seat belts for example. The magistrates courts would grind to a dead halt. Our present prison overcrowding is to a substantial degree the consequence of ever more laws with severer prison penalties being passed blithely by Parliament and the practice of Home Secretaries, both Tory and Labour, encouraging courts to be more severe in their sentencing. Either policy would be administratively defensible, whether one agreed with the principle or not, if governments ensured that the additional prison places were made available before the laws were passed or the instructions to courts on sentencing policy were issued by the Lord Chancellor’s Office. This has not been done. Extra provision is either inadequate or non-existent.

The prison population has also been significantly boosted by other government decisions. The first was the “care in the community” which closed most long-term accommodation for psychiatric patients and the seriously mentally deficient. Many of the people who fall into those categories unsurprisingly now end up in prison. The second was allowing massive immigration in the past ten years which has driven the foreign component of our prison population up to over ten per cent. To these causes could be added the government sponsored destruction of many of the jobs available to the lower IQ and poorly educated members of the population and the inadequacies of the state education system (see section 37). .

A classic of “unjoined up” Government thinking was the Community Charge known more popularly as the Poll Tax. To produce the required tax, around 90% of the adults living in Britain had to pay the tax. To anyone who understood the general problem of the tax collection, this was a non-starter. It would have been a non-starter had the system generally been seen as fair simply because people will understandably avoid tax wherever they can and tracking people to their private addresses is the devil’s own job, both in terms of identifying the addresses and in having the manpower to chase up non-payers.

The fact that the tax was seen as generally unfair provided its opponents with a ready made propaganda tool. Apart from the obvious difficulty of justifying a new tax not obviously linked to ability to pay, many suffered genuine hardship because people on very small incomes were suddenly asked to pay two or more times what they had previously paid under the domestic Rates system, which the Poll Tax replaced. Opposition politicians and parties quite naturally did everything they could to oppose the tax and soon magistrates’ courts were overwhelmed by hordes of non-payers and the receipts from the tax fell well short of what was anticipated. The coup de grace was given by a violent protest in Trafalgar Square.

A current administrative nonsense is the recent introduction of AS Level exams. For our purposes forget about whether not these are a good idea. It may seem obvious that if you introduce additional new general exams for schoolchildren you will need many more examiners. Not to our politicians. The upshot is that there is a crisis in ourpublic examination system because of overstretched examiners.

Then there are the laws which have unintended consequences. There is a beauty currently wrecking havoc throughout the land. In his 2002 budget, Gordon Brown announced changes to allow sports clubs to claim rate relief by becoming charities. The consequence has been that local authorities in many places have withdrawn or reduced the discretionary rate relief they were allowing sports clubs unless those clubs become charities. But becoming a charity is a complicated and expensive business and most sports clubs cannot afford it. To take one example of additional cost and complication. Charity law does not allow charities to sell alcohol. Most sports clubs gain a good deal of their income from bar receipts. To maintain the ability to keep a bar, the club would have to set up as a charity and then run a separate limited company for the bar takings.

Governments in the past twenty years have introduced two new forms of interference which are destructive of public efficiency. The first results from the mistaken belief that private enterprise methods can be generally applied to public services. The second is “league tables” and “targets”.

Private business practices, that is commercial practices rather than merely questions of efficiency common to both private and public organisations such as the utilisation of staff, are completely inappropriate in public service. Take the introduction of the “internal market” to the NHS and its effects on hospitals. This was a scheme introduced by the Thatcher Government with the idea of making the NHS more accountable and cost-efficient. Before it was introduced Governments decided how much was to be spent on health in a given year and, broadly speaking, the money was spread evenly throughout the country. NHS hospitals were given a budget and left to operate within it. Accounting for the expenditure was to use a favourite civil service term “broad brush”. This system worked because hospitals knew where they were at the start of a year and had the further advantage of seeming fair – everyone, NHS staff and the public, could see that each part of the country got more or less the same provision. GPs referred patients to their nearest hospital as a matter of course – which naturally set a fairly constant level of demand for a hospital – and administrative costs were low.

The “internal market” and subsequent reforms changed all that by making money follow the patient – which meant a hospital did not know exactly how much money it had to spend – and consequently required very detailed monitoring of expenditure. Worse, it also created competition between hospitals. The result is a massively bloated NHS bureaucracy which is both very expensive and a major cause of poor morale amongst medical staff, who object both to the added paperwork and procedures and the constant administrative supervision of their activities.

Similar “value-for-money” accounting schemes have been introduced elsewhere into public enterprises with similar dire results. The experience of these suggests strongly that when dealing with public service it is best to decide what is desired and what the taxpayer can afford to pay and then pay it. That does not mean money should be given out without regard to how it is spent. Rather, it means that costs should be determined by rational criteria before funding is decided upon and then the organisations should be trusted to spend the money provided they deliver what they are supposed to deliver. Provided the costing is realistic, the taxpayer can be sure that the money is being spent reasonably efficiently and no-corruptly. Gross inefficiency or corruption on any scale would show up through funding shortfalls within the budgetary year of the public institution concerned. Funding based on proper estimated costing is in effect a pre-audit which achieves essentially the same result as an audit but does so at the other end of the financial process. If a degree of inefficiency or corruption is not identified by this process, the loss both in terms of money and misapplied man power will be far less than the cost of an inflated bureaucracy and the demoralisation of public servants which arises from close scrutiny of expenditure.

Realistic costing requires that funding within an organisation is broadly similar for equivalent parts of the organisation. For example, in present circumstances any NHS hospital outside London of a similar size and range of medical treatment should cost broadly the same to run because national wages are paid in all places but London where a “weighting allowance” tops up the national salary.

League tables are an idea which has a superficial attraction. What could be more reasonable than to know which are the best local schools through their exam results being publicly available so parents can compare schools? A great deal. The effect of league tables has been to lead to a substantial rise in exclusions from schools, increased de facto selection of pupils and the restriction of the exams children may take. Faced with parental and state judgement of their performance, schools have understandably been unwilling to have children in their schools who will perform badly in exams. Inferior exam results at a school equals fewer and less able children applying which equals fewer pupils which equals less state funding. Nor, of course, are private schools immune from the pressures, for the lower their position in the “league table” the more difficulty they have in attracting pupils, especially the brightest.

The consequence of league tables in schools is that education is distorted. Children are denied the opportunity to take exams if it is thought they will do badly. 16-year-olds who do less than well in their GCSEs are denied an opportunity to take A levels at their school. Children who are seen as academically unable or disruptive are excluded from the better schools and effectively left to rot either in a state of permanent truancy or in schools which are essentially doing no more than child minding. More profoundly, the concentration on passing exams, including the National Curriculum tests, has not only narrowed the academic curriculum as schools “teach to the test”, but has led to the exclusion of non-academic activities such as sport and music. The broader idea of education has been largely lost.

Of course, unfairness and ineffective education existed prior to the “league tables”. The point is that the position has been made ineffably worse by the “league tables.”

The “league table” distortion which has arisen in schools will be and, indeed, is mirrored elsewhere because the same general pressures apply. Hospitals seek to avoid operating on high risk patients, councils want to divest themselves of “tricky” work such as running council houses and school examination boards and universities inflate exam marks to both attract students and to guard against a growing tendency for students to demand good exam results because “they have paid for them”.

The first cousin of league tables is “targets”. Government targets are of course not new. In the immediate post war years Governments delighted in announcing that so many hundreds of new houses would be built. What is new is that “targets” have become so prevalent that they seriously effect public policy. Targets to reduce street crime force the police to divert resources regardless of whether it is the greatest priority. Targets to reduce hospital waiting lists force hospitals to manipulate their waiting lists and concentrate on non-urgent treatment at the expense of more serious conditions.Targets to expel failed asylum seekers lead to the reclassification of asylum seekers. And so on for any number of public agencies.

On the privatised industry side, targets set by the various regulators are largely cosmetic and are inexorably downgraded when their honest application would severely damage or even ruin a company.

Of course, most targets, whether for public or privatized organisations are not actually met even with the strenuous massaging of figures. They are then swept aside as being of no consequence. The result is a growing public scepticism about any government plans or promises which they increasingly treat as Russians treated “five-year plans” and “potato harvest figures” in the Soviet Union. This is decidedly unhealthy because if the electorate cannot trust any promise made by a politician what is the point of elections?

16. Other public service inefficiencies

It would be idle to pretend that public service does not have substantial shortcomings which have nothing to do with political decisions. These are an over-extended a command chain, the cult of the generalist and the too ready movement of staff.

The modern British Civil Service was founded in the nineteenth century with a tripartite division based on Plato’s Republic. (This is not asbizarre as it sounds because most of those in public life then had a classical education). The Administrative Grades were the philosopher kings who planned and directed, the Executive Grades were the mechanics who put into operation and administered the plans of the  Administrative Grades and to the Clerical Grades were left the task of being the metaphorical hewers of wood and drawers of water.

This consequence of this structure was that chains of command and responsibility became ridiculously extended. In modern times there have been 13 mainstream Civil Service grades (and others peculiar to particular departments and offices). In addition, the distinction between the Administrative/Executive/Clerical general grade functions produces an artificial separation. Many jobs cannot be neatly fitted within one of Administrative/Executive/Clerical, yet the Civil Service attempts to do so. The result is that instead of having one person doing a job in the most efficient manner, the job is arbitrarily divided between different grades.

In recent years attempts have been made to reduce the numbers of grades, but without great effect. They need to be reduced to six or seven. That would put them broadly in line with large private corporations.

When the Administrative/Executive/Clerical division was devised the idea was that the Administrative Grade would be staffed by generalists who could apply themselves to any task without needing any particular expertise. Rather the Admin Grade Civil Servant would be of high intellect which he would apply to analysing any problem and producing solutions to the problem. There is of course a place for such people, but it is very limited. The trouble is that the Civil Service still largely operates on the idea that the Admin Grades should be generalists. Worse, the idea has spread to the other grades to a considerable degree. The consequence is that Civil Service jobs tend to be allocated by grade rather than the relevant experience of a civil servant. The position is aggravated by the fact that people are often placed in positions novel to them without adequate training. Much greater attention needs to be paid to both the suitability of people for posts and to the provision of training.

The frequent placing of unsuitable and untrained people in posts produces a “culture of incompetence”, whereby those in positions of authority are reluctant to criticise their subordinates. This reluctance stems from (1) the fact that they are not often insecure in their own ability and knowledge and (2) because they know that their subordinates are often in posts for which they are unsuited or untrained.

The other great structural bugbear is the all too frequent movement of staff (anyone who has had regular dealings with public bodies will recognise the frustration of dealing with a new person every time they write or phone and the immense amounts of time and effort wasted.) Most Civil Service work is administrative. Continuity is a boon when it comes to administration. Where staff are working to implement very detailed regulations, as is the norm in the Civil Service, continuity becomes vital.

Regular movement of staff, human nature being what it is, is also a device to avoid responsibility. Once a public servant has moved to another position his successor can simply say “nothing to do with me guv. Now, let’s start from scratch”. It is also rare for a civil servant to be meaningfully disciplined once they have moved jobs.

Civil servants know this and it affects their behaviour for the worse while in a job because they know that if they make a horlicks of it, they will simply be moved elsewhere or even promoted to resolve an embarrassing situation. This reinforces the “culture of incompetence” . Keeping people in post for a reasonable length of time and holding them to account for error after they move would concentrate the minds of civil servants wonderfully.

In varying degrees, the defects of the Civil Service are found in public service generally.

Any large organisation requires periodic shaking. Small businesses rarely need it because they are always subject to the pressures of the market in a way that a large company is not. A large company has greater reserves both of capital and credit than a small concern and can weather economic storms more easily. The consequence is the gradual accretion of inefficiencies and costs. What applies to big business does so with greater force to government departments, which have even less external pressure on them to be efficient. However, the shaking should always be within the context of a public service ethos not a private business one.

17. What should public service workers be paid?

“Tube drivers, who now earn £31,300 for a 36-hour week, along with six weeks’ holiday a year, a final-salary pension and free travel for their families….The Tube drivers’ salary is almost twice as much as a nurse or an ambulance worker gets for working longer hours on more complex jobs. It is half as much again as a bus driver, who works 50 hours a week, a firefighter, who works a 42-hour week, or a police officer, who works a 40-hour week – each of them doing very stressful work for the payment they get.” ( The Evening Standard commenting on a prospective tube strike 02.10.02).

Driving an underground train on a partially automated system cannot  realistically be considered as more skilled, dangerous and stressful than that of a firefighter. Most people would say the Tube driver had the easier job by far. But is the firefighter’s job more stressful than that of a bus driver who has day in day out to deal not merely with London traffic but in many cases has to take fares as well? And what of a nurse or ambulance crews? Is the emotional distress they suffer more of a burden than the fear a firefighter may feel when goinginto a fire? Going outside public service jobs, a trawlerman’s job is considerably more dangerous than that of a firefighter’s and the ordinary crew member will not earn as much as an Underground driver. In short, comparability is a minefield.

All our experience shows that “fair” job evaluation never works because no one engaged in the employment evaluated can ever objectively agree on their place in the job hierarchy. Hence, even where deals are struck, dissatisfaction soon breaks out again about “comparability”. As for the public, the pay and conditions arrangements of public service workers are generally so opaque that most people can make neither head nor tail of them. The result is an unstable situation which satisfies no one for long and leads to the general public having an unrealistic conception of what public employees earn, both by underestimating and overestimating pay.

Even in a society where there is a strong natural commitment to public provision, as was the case in the quarter century after WW2, the public servant has a vested interest in working to retain public confidence. Unless the taxpayers generally continue to think that the money being spent is worthwhile, there will come a time when a government will be elected, as happened in 1979, which will substantially reduce government expenditure and the opportunities for public service. Worse, circumstances can arise as they have done now, where not only the government but also the main opposition party are hostile to direct public provision. Therefore, it is especially important at the present time for public servants to persuade the public that they are both necessary and giving value for money. The best way of doing this is to arrive at a pay structure which is both simple for the public to understand and constructed in such a way to ensure that pay and conditions are adjusted automatically by reference to an objective standard to keep them in line with wages and conditions in private business.

What is needed are criteria based on broad similarities, which the general public can understand and support. Most jobs are much the same in terms of the general demands they make on people – stress, responsibility, intellectual effort and special knowledge or skill. Moreover, those jobs which demand more than the norm also fall into readily identifiable categories. (Anyone who doubts this should try an experiment. Produce a list of twelve disparate jobs of the same general status – all non-management or all management and so on – and which have no emotional plus or minus against them in the public mind – exclude nurses, estate agents etc. Then get people to assess their worth in terms of wages. Most people will judge the value of the jobs to be similar).

Public service jobs are even more readily categorised than the totality of occupations in a society because the range of work in public  service is much more limited. In a way the civil service already recognises this because the standard civil service grades cover an immense variety of job titles. The civil service division of grades into administrative/executive/clerical provide a starting point for the broad criteria mentioned above. These could then be augmented with categories based on danger, stress, responsibility etc. If recruitment becomes a problem in a particular area, the problem can be solved byraising pay through re-grading.

The second problem with public pay is keeping it up to a realistic level. Previous attempts a pay formulae have not been linked to the average male wage and that has been the primary cause of their failure. It has meant that periodically public sector workers have fallen behind private sector workers as governments run into financial trouble.

What is required for all public service jobs is a formula which uses the average male worker’s earnings as a baseline, with the various public service grades being a percentage of the average male worker’s earnings – the percentage could be less or more than 100% depending on the grade of the job. Such a system would mean regular upgrading of pay and avoid the demands for very large percentage increases when pay falls behind.

Should pension entitlements, holiday entitlements and security of employment be taken into account when calculating public sector pay? Only to the extent that they differ from the arrangements of large private corporations. Historically large private companies have offered non-salary benefits very similar to that enjoyed by public servants. That is changing, in particular final salary pensions are rapidly becoming extinct in private business, and any grading of public service jobs should reflect any difference which arises between public and private in the future. However, care must be taken to avoid a situation where public servants cease seeing public service as a secure career. Most of what Government does benefits from having career employees because continuity is a great deal in administrative work, which forms the great bulk of public service employment.

The third major problem is national pay. This is perhaps the most sacred of cows of public service workers and unions, but there is no logic or fairness in such arrangements. If everyone in the NHS receives the same pay for the same job regardless of where they are living, there is in reality no national pay because of the considerable regional differences in cost of living. There are parts of the UK where, for example, teachers earn below substantially below the local average and others where they earn well above the local average. Hence, we have regional pay but quite perniciously the lowest pay is paid in the highest cost areas. The consequence is that there are often staff shortages in the higher cost of living areas and the quality of staff employed in such areas may be below the standard required simply because no one else can be recruited at the pay levels. The answer is to introduce regional RPIs (Retail Price Indices) – which would include housing costs – and vary wages according to those.

Regional RPIs would solve much of the present difficulty for public service workers in high cost areas. It would not be politically possible to reduce the pay of existing employees, but it could be held static in the lowest cost areas and differential increases given in other areas until regional pay was established. For example, suppose area A is the cheapest area and area Z is the most expensive. Area A gets no increase until its pay level reaches that which matches its Regional RPI, while Area Z immediately gets an increase which raises its pay level to that required by its Regional RPI. Ditto for all areas between A and Z. If their pay is beyond that required by their regional RPI, it remains pegged until pay and cost of living equalise: if below their Regional RPI, they get a rise to match it. As time goes on, the higher pay of the higher cost areas will be balanced by the lower pay of the lower cost areas. There would be no massive extra ongoing expenditure as eventually the lower and higher pay levels would broadly cancel each other out. However, there would be an initial cost because no one will have their pay immediately reduced while some will have it increased substantially.  [RH 2012: although I am still in favour of regional pay, this is something which should be accomplished in good economic times not the times we have now. That is because some areas are much more dependent on public sector jobs than others, something which affects the economy of the area generally.  Even though the reduction in money would be gradual under my scheme it might still in present circumstances be the straw which breaks the camel’s back in areas struggling to move out of recession.]

Much of the problem of regional cost variations could be obviated if the cost of housing was substantially reduced. Government can take the lead by making more housing available in the areas in which it is scarce – see section for detailed suggestions. In particular, a ready supply of housing both to let and buy at reasonable prices would largely overcome the problem of the young who have yet to buy. A middle-aged person who brought their home 20 years before requires far less to live comfortably than someone trying to buy their first property. The latter have near insuperable problems in many places.For example, in inner London, an income of £50,000 would not be enough to buy the most basic family home because a three bedroom property would be in excess of £300,000 in even the cheapest areas.

The cost of any re-grading could also be offset by reducing the numbers of public servants in some areas. This would naturally meet with resistance from public servants, but if it is done without compulsory redundancies – and it could be – the objection to it is not strong. Staff can be redeployed to other posts and new recruitment to the remaining departments reduced to accommodate them. Attention has to be paid to the age structure of a workforce – no large organisation wantsto find itself in the position of having a sizeable proportion of its staff retiring at the same time – but with an employer as large and diverse as the Government, this should not be an insuperable problem.

Why not simply have wages set by what the market will bear  in any particular place? If there is a shortage of nurses in London why not pay them £30,000 if that is what it takes, but only £10,000 if that is a competitive wage in, say, Cornwall? That begs the question of the quality of the recruits you attract and their long term retention. You may get enough recruits at the low rate but they may be of poor quality. There is also the question of motivation once employed. Poor motivation equals less efficient working. Pay should be high enough to avoid those two evils. If higher wages produce greater motivation and ability in the staff employed, the number of staff could be reduced.

The great advantage of adopting a system of broad definitions – tying pay to the average full time wage and Regional RPIs – is that it would be both stable and largely self adjusting. Problems could arise where recruitment becomes an issue. Then, as mentioned above, re-grading might have to occur to raise pay in a particular area of work or region.

All the Public Service Unions and many public servants will instinctively reject what I have suggested because such things as national pay scales and the preservation of jobs are part of the emotional scenery in public service. But public servants do not have a right to determine how many people will be employed by the Government and they should always remember that a public servant must have a necessary and useful function to maintain public support.

What public servants do have is a right to a decent living wage for what they do and to reasonable working conditions which includes the assured opportunity for a career and staffing adequate to carry out the tasks Government sets them. If they start from those two premises they have a much greater chance of achieving their ends than they have in merely maintaining the status quo.

Above all, it should never be forgotten by the public servant that the taxpayer is the paymaster for all government spending. A statement of the blindingly obvious perhaps, but one which tends to be glossed over by governments who speak as though they are spending their own money when they talk of “an extra £3 billion for the NHS” or “£200 million to  take crime off the streets”. Public money is not unlimited nor is the level of public spending without consequences for the general economic health of the country.

Most public servants know that there are pluses and minuses in public service and that moving to private employment has its disadvantages as well as being very difficult in areas where private businesses are not thick on the ground. There is also the example of public sector employees who have had their jobs privatised. They have frequently found that their new conditions of work are inferior to those they enjoyed when in public service. Public servants also know in their heart of hearts that security of employment is still considerably greater in public service than in private business. Consequently, the government has a strong card to play if they choose to play it, namely, continued security of employment in return for the radical changes described above.

18. The right to strike

Some public service workers do not have the right to strike – the police and the armed forces. Is it unreasonable to deny them this right? I think most people – myself amongst them – would say no. They would see that the right to strike has to be balanced against the public good of having the streets policed and soldiers,sailors and airmen who will be unquestionably available to provide national defence and to attend to national emergencies.

If we decide as a society that the police and servicemen cannot strike, there is no reason in principle why the removal of the right to strike cannot be more widely extended for we have already decided it is not an absolute right. The question is how far to extend the denial of the right.

There is a case for a general ban on striking by public service workers because they are funded by the taxpayer and ultimately responsible to the taxpayer or at least the electorate. But before any such ban could be reasonably considered the general pay and employment conditions must be made fair and secure in the manner described in the previous section – their pay and conditions would have to be such that the majority of the population would think them reasonable. That would leave the problem of union action over unfair dismissal or other disciplinary action, but it is difficult for a union to argue that there is not adequate recourse through Employment Tribunals or, if the union wishes to fund a case brought by one of their members, through the courts.

If a general ban is thought too severe, there is good reason to ban strikes in those organisations which provide services which are both vital and immediately necessary. It would be difficult to argue that all-out strikes by NHS staff or firemen would cause less public damage and chaos than strikes by the police or servicemen.

Because of privatisation there are also private companies whose employees in principle need to be banned from striking, particularly the utilities such as gas, water and electricity. That raises another objection to the placing of utilities in private hands: it makes action such as ruling strikes illegal for certain workers very difficult, even impossible in practice. The utilities being private companies,  governments cannot control their wages and  conditions of employment  as they can those of public bodies. Or rather, they could do so, but then they would be taking so much of the control of a fundamental part of a private business out of its management’s hands (this would be in addition to the areas already covered by the various utility regulators) that two questions would arise: (1) could any private  company operate under such constraints? and (2) if a company has to be so constrained by government, what is the point of it being a private company? The answer to (1) is probably no and to ((2) no point.

19. The ability of private companies to manage public services

Take the case of the NHS. It is the largest employer in Europe, employing not far short of a million people. No private company has any experience of managing an organisation anything like that size. In fact, very few private companies have any experience of managing a workforce of even 20,000. A fair number of Government departments and agencies are considerably larger than the 20,000 employee business. On the grounds of size alone the transfer of large scale public service activities to private sector control is problematic because the private sector simply does not have that many people with experience of running such large concerns.

An even more fundamental difficulty is the fact that much public service work is specific to public service. The administration of complex legislation and rules present an employee with a far higher learning curve (for even rank and file staff) than would be found in the vast majority of similar level private sector posts. To this is added the need to keep up with the ever more frequent changes created by government to the law (this is partly driven by the innumerable EU directives). Consequently it is not a simple matter to substitute private sector workers for public sector workers because the private sector workers have to be trained from scratch.

Of course, when public sector work is shifted to the private sector public sector staff often move to the private employer. But private companies are profit driven and when moving into public sector work almost always seek to maximise profits by severely cutting staff. This both reduces the number of experienced staff and frequently demoralizes those who remain because they have an ever increasing burden. This in turn leads to many of the experienced staff leaving and the expertise available to the employer to continually diminish.

20. Private money in public projects – “Buy now, pay later”

The introduction of private money into public projects, whether under the title of the Public Private Partnership or its successor the Private Finance Initiative, is a fraud on the public. As Hire Purchase used to be advertised in my youth, it is “Buy now, pay later”.  Private companies put up the money for, say, a hospital, build it and  then lease it back to the NHS.. The taxpayer then pays through the nose for twenty or thirty years as the lease is serviced. For example, Tory health spokesman Andrew Lansley has just elicited the truth from the Government about the cost of the new hospitals built under PFI. For hospitals worth £8 billion the taxpayer will pay the private sector companies responsible for them a total of £53 billion over thirty years, a return on capital of 540% (Daily Telegraph 27 10 2006).

The honest way for Governments to finance projects is to raise taxes or increase the national debt. Then the public can see clearly what is being done and judge the cost. With PFI and its ilk, the cost does not appear as government spending immediately. It is “Enron accounting”, the removal of expenditure from the balance sheet for the present but not the future. The expenditure only appears gradually as the debt is met by charging the government for the services provided or alternatively by charging the customer directly. For example, if toll roads are built and/or maintained by private capital, the contractors could charge the motorist directly to recoup their costs.

But the deceit goes beyond the hidden deferral of expenditure. Much of the detail of the contracts made with private companies is not being made available to the public on the spurious grounds of “commercial confidentiality”. Even the Government has had to admit that the cost of PPP and PFI projects will be considerably more than if they were undertaken directly by the Government using taxpayers’ money. The deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, made such an admission in his speech to the 2002 Labour Party Conference. What we cannot be sure of, because of the lack of public openness in revealing the contracts, is how much more expensive PFI and its ilk will be. What we can be sure of is that the difference is likely to be considerable.

The Government’s justification for paying over the odds is that it allows things to be provided quickly rather than having to wait for the money for direct public funding to become available. As more public money will have to be found in the future to fund PFI projects set in train now, the consequence will be much less money for public provision when the PFI bills come in. Therefore, at best, future generations will be paying more in tax for less in public services. The real justification for PFI is of course that it allows a government to claim credit for what is provided now in the knowledge that when the bills come in the people making the decisions cannot be held responsible.

Many of the contracts being granted to private companies are for periods of 15, 20 even 30 years. The life of a politician in government is short on average, either because of election defeats or sacking by the PM of the day. Five continuous years as a cabinet minister is good going. In the vast majority of cases the politicians who made the decision to go ahead with PFI will be out of office not merely long before the final bills are paid but in all probability by the next Parliament after a contract is signed. Once out of office, they can ignore any problem which arises and the sad truth of the matter is  that nothing can be done to make them take responsibility for their decisions as things stand. At worst, all that will happen is the electorate in a constituency throwing them out at the next election, which for an ex-minister is no great loss. It should be added that it rarely happens that an individual MP is thrown out by the electorate for his or her personal failings because the power of party label is too great.

Why are private finance schemes so much more expensive? They have to make a profit of course but there are other reasons. The private concerns financing the projects have to borrow money at a higher rate of interest than the Government can, perhaps 1-2% more. That is because the risk is greater for the lender . The borrower has to make a profit on the borrowed money so he must charge more than he is paying for the money to finance the scheme. That is the obvious extra cost. But there are many hidden additional costs.

Most problematic is the fact that private business will not accept all risks. For example, the company bidding for the Tube maintenance contract will not accept the financial risk of tunnels under the Thames being flooded. The consequence of this is that contracts exclude the really high risks. The Government has to cover them. So it ends up with both the major risk and paying more for the construction work.

The actual position is even worse than that. Private companies may accept risks and obligations in their contracts which they simply cannot meet. The Government is then forced to step in. Thus the Government in practice underwrites the whole business, either officially or unofficially.

Much of what is happening is a halfway house to public disengagement. Hospitals can be granted “Foundation Status”. This allows them to raise whatever money they can on the private market on terms they decide upon with the lenders. That in turn implies that they may l have to start charging for services if Britain’s economic circumstances  alter seriously for the worse – thus reducing tax revenue – or a government’s attitude to the NHS changes. . The difference between an unambiguously privatised NHS and what is likely to occur some years down the line is very narrow. And, of course, the closer the situation gets to full privatisation, the more probable will become full privatisation, because the financial structures required for it will exist and the moral argument against it will have largely eroded by the failure to stoutly defend the principle of public service.

21. The London Underground – PPP in action

Christian Wolmar’s book “Down the Tube – the battle for London’s Underground” points the way to the shape of public/private things to come. It is a truly depressing future.

Ignoring the shambles which are our privatised railways, the Labour Government has forced a PPP on the London  nderground, one of the largest Metro systems in the world and a transport conduit absolutely necessary to London’s functioning, carrying as it does millions of people a day. They have added insult to injury by retaining the running of the trains in public hands while putting the maintenance of the infrastructure – track, stations, signalling etc – in the hands of private companies. The fact that it is the maintenance of the infrastructure which has caused the most serious of the problems in the privatised overground railways has simply been ignored.

This PPP has just about every flaw that one could imagine. The contract is very long – 30 years. Even if everything goes to plan, the cost to the public is unknown. Right from the start the taxpayer will be paying a subsidy to the private consortium of œ1 billion a year, despite assurances originally that no subsidies would be paid. Worse, even the Government admits that it does know what level of subsidy will be required throughout the 30 years of the contract. Nor can it give any figure of cost to the taxpayer if the PPP fails, that I, the private companies either liquidate or walk away.

“Walk away?” do you say? But surely the companies have accepted the risk and are legally liable for any failure to meet performance targetsor for any catastrophic events such as flooding of the tunnels under the Thames?  Actually, no. Their liability for cost overruns is capped, more or less, at £50 million for each quarter of the 30 year deal and they have written into the contracts a disclaimer for events such as flooding. If the private companies really run into trouble, the taxpayer takes over responsibility for 95% of the loans taken out by the private companies.

Then there is their profitability. The private companies have a “guaranteed” rate of return on capital of almost 20%, a return twice that considered to be a good commercial profit.

On top of all that cost and potential risk to the taxpayer, there will be a truly daunting administrative burden. The contracts to set up the PPP run to some two million words.  Responsibility is diffuse and the criteria for assessing the performance of the private companies opaque. The PPP will require a large additional bureaucracy just to oversee the workings of the contracts and the inevitable disputes between the private companies and the public body as to interpretation of the contracts will be a bonanza for the lawyers.

22. Capita

We already have a great deal of evidence of the effects of private enterprise on public services. The results generally have been less than sparkling. Remember the Criminal Records Bureau fiasco of September 2002 when schools were prevented from opening for the new term because those working in the schools had not been vetted for criminal convictions in time? Or how about the Individual Learning Accounts scheme which resulted in a loss of at least tens of millions of pounds in the past few years? If you are a resident of the London Borough of Lambeth you may recall housing benefit being so badly run by a private company that it was rapidly returned to the control of the council. Or how about the maladroit administration of the London Congestion charge which makes London drivers’ lives a misery? All these are examples of a private company taking over the administration of public matters and making a pig’s ear of things.

More worryingly, they were all the responsibility of a firm called Capita. I say worryingly, because Capita, far from being shut out from other public contracts, is positively cornering the market for such business. In addition to the contracts mentioned above, Capita collects the BBC’s licence fee. It also runs the written part of the Diving Test in parts of the country. The “Connexions” card being promoted to schoolchildren by the Government, a Trojan Horse for a general ID card, is run by Capita, who also supply management software to 23,000 UK schools. Capita even have the contract to run the pension scheme of the Inland Revenue.

Had Capita proven itself to be a model of competence, such a concentration of work in one company would be disturbing for it suggests at best that the competition for these contracts is extremely limited. It would be interesting to know who else tendered and what the tendering process was. But even if these details were made public, the old cry of “commercial confidentiality” would almost certainly prevent any meaningful public examination of the merits of the various tenders.

Capita is far from being the only company rewarded with new contracts despite clear evidence of incompetence . The people who brought you the Railtrack maintenance fiasco, Jarvis, have just been awarded the contract to build a new surgical and heart care unit for an NHS hospital in London, the Whittington at Archway.

There are two possible reasons why poor performance does not disqualify a company from future contracts. The first is structural. Many of the contracts being offered are of a size and complexity to reduce the number of realistic bidders to at best a few and at worst one. Thus the idea that private input into public business will ever generally equal greater efficiency is doomed. All that has been created is a form of public/private monopoly.

The other possible reason for continued contract winning regardless of performance is corruption. That is not to suggest that corruption has occurred to date, merely that the possibility exists. It deserves a section to itself (see section 27) .

A company bidding for public contracts may well quote a price which is simply too low to maintain performance. They may deliberately bid too low. Having gained the contract, the company confronts the Government with a claim that they can only make a profit (or even break even) unless they reduce the service from that for which they have contracted or receive more favourable payment terms. The government is then left with a decision: can they afford to drop the contractor? Is there another contractor which could take over? The answer to both questions is almost certainly no.

23. The morality of privatisation

Does a British government have the right to sell off industries and property owned by the state? In Britain the answer legally is yes. Barring restrictions agreed to in treaties, most particularly the Treaty of Rome and its successor treaties, a British government may legally do what it wishes. It may also repudiate existing treaty obligations. Parliament may in principle pass any law it wishes. That demonstrates the danger of having a political system without any constitutional bars to government action.

But if privatisation is legal, it does not follow that it is morally justified. These are enterprises and property which were either developed from scratch by government or were taken over by the state, often from municipal undertakings which were public developments in themselves. In each case taxpayers’ money was used to either start or acquire them. For Britons who bought shares privatisation was a form of taxation. They paid money for that which the state already held on their behalf. Non-British taxpayers purchased that which was not morally the State’s to sell. But the deceit went beyond this. By selling that which was held in common for the British, they robbed those Britons who did not purchase shares and the future generations who would have no stake in that which was sold before they were born.

Privatisation could perhaps have been morally justified if every British citizen had been issued free shares in each privatized industry, which they could then have held or sold as they chose. The Government would not then have had the proceeds, of course, but it should be remembered that the prime reason given by Margaret Thatcher for privatisation was that it would modernise great British industries through the invigorating blast of free enterprise. Ostensibly at least the raising of money for the government was not the prime motivation.

The money received from privatisation has simply vanished into general government expenditure. Had the money been earmarked for particular projects dear to the public’s heart, such as new hospitals and schools or placed in a separate fund to help pay the state pension in the years when it is anticipated that those working will substantially decline in relation to those who are retired, at least the public would have something concrete and identifiable to set against the loss of public assets. As it is the public as a whole has nothing.

It is of course impossible to prove whether taxes would have been higher or that government expenditure would have been lower if there had been no privatisation proceeds, but it is a fair bet that extra money in government coffers has simply meant additional government expenditure without a proper regard to whether the expenditure was warranted. That is the common experience of governments and public money.

The money obtained through privatisation should not be viewed as pure gain in terms of government expenditure. Privatisation has caused agreat deal of what private business euphemistically call “downsizing”. The resultant unemployment costs – unemployment pay and other benefits – have to be set against the privatisation receipts. In addition, a large proportion of those who have gained alternative employment have found themselves earning a good deal less than they did previously. That equals less tax paid.

24. Our general experience of privatisation to date

The prime problems with privatisation are (1) the provision declines,(2) the taxpayer has to pick up the bill when things go seriously wrong and (3) privatised industries are often left in a situation of naturally restricted competition.

The best example of what happens when the state simply opens up amarket to private interests is probably bus deregulation. This happenedin the mid-eighties. The consequence has been predictable and devastating, with the countryside being virtually denuded of buses and even the big cities apart from London – where a massive public subsidy has continued – have experienced a decline in services as bus operators concentrate on only the most profitable routes. In addition, on the profitable routes, there are so many competing buses that the buses themselves can become a cause of congestion themselves – Manchester is a good example of this phenomenon.

The railways are the most disturbing example of cost to the taxpayer after privatisation. Not only has the taxpayer paid larger subsidies to the rail companies since privatisation than were paid to nationalised British Rail, and absurdity in itself, several billions of taxpayers money have been required to rescue the company responsible for maintaining the track and associated equipment, Railtrack, after it became insolvent and was put into administration. (The company has now been reborn as a strange hybrid creature, anon-profit making company called Network Rail.)

Another example is the immediate difficulty suffered by the National Air Traffic service (NATs) after partial privatisation in 2002. The new company had barely started trading before the Government had to extend a £30 million loan to it.

As for competition, the government appointed regulators are supposed to remove the natural abuses of restricted competition by controlling prices. Whether it is possible for even a genuinely disinterested person to determine objectively what a reasonable or efficient price for a product or service is in such circumstances is dubious,  because what constitutes legitimate profit, the right level of investment or the desirable level of service to be offered are ultimately matters of opinion.

But these problems of definition are in practice redundant, because regulators are subject to pressures from politicians, the public, the industry they regulate and business in general. The result is that pricing frequently bears little relationship to any considered view of what is necessary, but is variously a response to what the government wants, a reaction to higher than anticipated profits being made by the regulated industry or threats from the private companies of dire consequences if prices are not raised.

What are the unambiguous successes of privatisation? Telephones, perhaps, most older people would probably say as they remember the absurdly long wait for a new line and the complete lack of choice of phone in the days of the nationalised British Telecom. Beyond telephones, it is difficult to see any privatisation in which the balance of advantage has been clearly in the country’s or the individual’s favour. The railways have been an unmitigated disaster, basic industries such as coal and steel have either collapsed or effectively been exported – with a massive loss of jobs inducing structural employment in places. The gas and electricity companies produced cheap power for a while but that was largely the result of Britain’s because of North Sea gas. When that self-sufficiency began to wane energy prices rose dramatically. In the case of water, prices have risen substantially since privatisation while shortages have grown and customers are now facing the prospect of compulsory water metering – some areas already have it. Investment has been inadequate – for example, no new reservoir has been built to serve the water starved SE of England since the privatisation of the nationalised water utility – and service, especially on the maintenance side, is widely perceived to have declined because of the dramatic cuts in the workforce.

Even in the case of telecommunications the picture is blurred. Nationalised British Telecom might have been a something of a disaster on the marketing and customer front, but it did ensure that coverage with landlines was near universal in Britain, something which would have been impossible had their provision been left to the market – how many private companies would have laid and maintained lines to small villages or even small, isolated towns? So when BT was privatised it started with the immense advantage of a near universal infrastructure which existed because of public provision.

But the rise of the mobile phone has made any proper comparison between the pre and post privatised situation virtually impossible. Even if BT had never been privatised and the landline phone market had remained a  monopoly, they would still have had to face private competition from mobiles. In other words, privatisation in that case largely pre-empted what would have happened naturally.

25. Private money in public service = a democratic deficit

The employment of private companies to carry out public tasks necessarily involves heavyweight contracts between the companies and the Government. These invariably carry a large compensation provision in the event of a government or a lesser political authority such as a Borough council deciding that it does not wish to honour a contract to its end. If they did not carry such compensation provision no private company would accept the contract.

The practical effect of such contracts is to create a democratic deficit. Because the compensation to be paid is very substantial, politicians are understandably reluctant to cancel contracts. Consequently, it becomes very difficult for a party to change a policy if it involves the cancellation of a contract. A first rate example is the introduction of the Congestion Charge in London by the Mayor of London , Ken Livingston. In the next mayoral election his principal rival, the Tory Steve Norris, promised to abolish the charge. It is dubious whether he could have done so if he had won because, according to Livingstone, £80 million in compensation would have had to be paid to Capita.

If an enterprise is run directly by public servants, it is in principle much easier to change policy because there are no contracts which require compensation if they are cancelled.

26. When private becomes public by default

Any really large private company by virtue of its size takes on aspects of the public. It does this because it becomes too important to be ignored by Government. If Barclays Bank was in danger of going bust no British Government could allow it to liquidate because of the effect on general confidence, both national and international, in the British economy. To confidence may be added cases where very large job losses would result from a liquidation or a vital domestic industry would be severely damaged by a company’s failure.

The implications of this for government are clear: they cannot simply stand back and ignore the behaviour of large private companies. That means governments should recognise that they may need to act to protect domestic industries – even in rare cases taking them over – and, where there is a strategic interest such as arises with a major domestic defence supplier, to place legal restrictions on what the company can do, for example by requiring export licences for weapons.

27. Corruption in Public Service

In modern times the British Civil Service has been remarkably free from corruption (local government is a different matter), a fact made all the more surprising because of the truly colossal amount of money it disposes of each year – government spending for the financial year 2006/7 will be around £500 billion. There are two reasons for this. The first is the hard-won tradition of public service which in which the Civil Service as an apolitical institution and as such serves no political ideology or party but provides politicians of all stamps with disinterested advice and executes their policies. This tradition has been underpinned by the lifelong working careers which public servants, especially senior ones, have commonly had. Of course, that was merely the ideal and, as with any human institution, the reality fell some way short of the ideal. Nonetheless, such sentiments and conventions have affected the behaviour of public servants for the better, especially in the area of honesty.

The second reason for a lack of corruption has been the direct provision of most the services provided by central government. This has meant that the number of large central government contracts offered to private business has been small in relation to the money spent on the direct provision of public service in all its aspects. In such circumstances serious fraud becomes difficult going on impossible for most civil servants because they do not have access to large amounts of taxpayers’ money. (Where they do have access, for example in the Inland Revenue, in most instances there are strict accounting procedures which make the embezzlement of large amounts of cash  extremely difficult). Moreover, where there are few government contracts, most civil servants are not in a position where someone would find it fruitful to bribe them because they have nothing to sell.

Unsurprisingly, where serious corruption amongst public servants employed by central government has occurred in the past, it has been overwhelmingly in those areas where large government contracts exist, most notably in Defence Procurement and building contracts. It is a reasonable assumption that the more public contracts offered to private companies, the greater the corruption will be simply because the opportunity for corruption increases.

The Thatcher and Major Governments began the attack on these two anti-corruption pillars of public service – the public service tradition and direct provision – by appointing people from outside the civil service to senior posts within the civil service, introducing private enterprise culture to public bodies (for example, the NHS “single market”), privatisation and by increasing the use of private finance and contractors in public services. But what they did pales before the Blair Government’s behaviour, which has done the same things but on a much greater scale. In particular Blair’s Government has shown a truly obsessive drive to replace direct public provision with private money and private firms. Literally nothing seems to be off limits, with public provision as disparate as the Prison Service and logistical support for the NHS being treated as suitable.

The Blair Government has also done two things the Thatcher and Major Governments did not do. First, it has radically altered the terms of employment of new civil servants, especially with regard to their retirement age and pensions, thus undermining the unspoken pact between government and civil servants that relatively poor pay was balanced by a relatively generous pension. Second, the Blair Government has classified “special advisers” that is political advisors, as civil servants, the most notable of whom is Blair’s erstwhile Press Spokesman, Alistair Campbell. These people have been given authority over career civil servants.

All this change is undermining the British public service culture. The appointment of special advisors as civil servants is destroying the apolitical nature of the civil service. The idea of a career civil servant is falling into disuse because no one can be sure what is next to be privatised or where a department may be moved to. The morale of civil servants is generally depressed. All of that translates into less commitment to the job, on average less time in a job and probably the employment of fewer able and trustworthy people as civil servants because the more able and trustworthy are now less willing to come into public service and standards have had to be lowered to recruit sufficient staff.

The weakening of the public service ethos and the probable lowering of the quality of the people employed is likely to have increased the number of civil servants willing to behave corruptly if the opportunity arises is increasing at the very time that the opportunities for corruption are multiplying because of the large number of private companies being given government contracts. Put those two circumstances together and it is odds on that civil service corruption has increased substantially.

What is applicable to national politicians and civil servants applies to other public servants, at both the national and local government level, and politicians below the national level.

In theory competitive tendering for public contracts should be a guard against corrupt practices. The problem is that in most instances the number of firms tendering will be small. Quite often there will be only two bidders. On occasion the process lapses into farce and only one firm will bid. This happened in the London borough of Camden where a £62.5 million contract for renovating an estate called Chalcots attracted only one bidder, a consortium going under the name of United House. The council’s housing director Neil Litherland claimed bizarrely that talking to just one bidder would lead to “better uses of [council] resources by reducing the negotiation and evaluation period” (Camden New Journal 12 12 2002).

There are good reasons why the number of bidders is often small. First, the size of the operations and their frequently unusual nature (often there is no comparable private sector work) means that there will only be a few private companies able to plausibly bid for a contract. Second, the bidding process is very expensive both in terms of money and time, especially management time. These two entirely rational and legitimate reasons for a paucity of bidders build great opportunities for corruption into the system of bidding. Where there are, say, only four companies capable of undertaking work in a particular area such as social housing, they can act as a cartel and effectively deal out public contracts amongst themselves by agreeing who will put in the highest bid for any contract.

Corruption is more than people receiving money in brown envelopes or material benefits in kind such as  expensive holidays. It is also the  granting of jobs years down the line, directorships for politicians and civil servants who have controlled the granting of Government contracts or who have used their influence to progress things such as planning applications.

The current rules regarding ministers and public servants taking posts in private industry are so lax as to be next to meaningless – they can take up posts after a year or two, regardless of how closely the private sector job is linked to their previous post. Moreover, the definition of which private industry posts are sensitive enough to demand even that slight obeisance to common decency is open to an elastic interpretation by those supposedly enforcing the rules if the secret view of politicians and senior public servants is that the rules are simply a public fig-leaf to cover their indecency. In effect, successive governments have legalised corruption and of course the more government contracts offered to private business the more opportunity there is for this type of “legalised” corruption.

Corruption can also be the giving of an honour or public service appointment in return for corrupt behaviour. For example, a contract could be granted to a private contractor corruptly through a conspiracy between the contractor, a cabinet minister and a senior public servant near retirement. The public servant corruptly facilitates the granting of the contract, retires and is rewarded with a quango sinecure. Again, the increase in contracts offers greater scope for such corruption.

That which is corrupting national politicians and the Civil Service is also evident in other public bodies, both national and local.

28. The behaviour of private companies

The blurring of lines between the public and the private arguably has a general effect for the worse on the behaviour of those in the public sphere, the bad practices of private enterprise being imported into the public sphere.

Private business is very prone to corrupt practices, from outright bribery to the formation of cartels and tricks such as industrial espionage, but the legal behaviour of private companies is frequently morally scandalous.

Directors of even the largest and ostensibly most publicly accountable companies commonly act in a manner which to most people’s  minds is immoral. The executive directors have absurdly generous and long-term contracts which are so undemanding that no matter how  badly a director performs, if they leave the board they can expect  the outstanding period of the contract to be paid in full. In many cases they receive more than their contract entitlement to persuade them to resign and go quietly.

While on a board, they executive directors receive performance bonuses set at targets which are simple to achieve. They will probably have  share options which, even if accounts are honest, are a one way bet for the director. If the shares rise above the discounted price of the option, the directors sell and pocket the profit. If the shares fall below the discounted price, they simply do not buy. It is of course easy enough to manipulate shares to boost their price at a particular time.

Why do directors get away with such behaviour? Simple: they can effectively control the company for their own purposes. In large public companies, directors’ remuneration is normally decided by a remuneration committee, which is normally composed of non-executive directors. Non-execs are supposed to act as a restraint and a check on executive directors. In practice they do not – try to find a case where a non-exec has blown the whistle on even criminal action within a large company. When it comes to directors’ remuneration, they know the score, produce the right executive director contracts or run the risk of being excluded from the lucrative non-exec gravy train.

The matter is complicated by the fact that many non-execs are executive directors with other companies where they have overly-generous contracts. What more natural than to think that because I earn this someone in another company should be similarly paid? Finally, especially in the largest companies, there is also a good deal of you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours. Executive directors of one company will expect to be non-execs of companies in which their non-execs have an interest.

Most of these practices cannot of course be imported directly into public service – inflated salaries, perks, bonuses paid on soft targets and generally overly favourable contracts are three which can and have been imported, for example, Johnston McNeil, the former head of the Rural Payments Agency, left his post after farm payments to English farmers were left in chaos early in 2006 but is still being paid his £114,000 salary in October 2006 (Daily Telegraph 18 10 2006). But the mentality rubs off on public servants (particularly the senior ones) who now deal with private business far more often that they use to and are urged by government to follow supposedly superior private enterprise practices. Sometimes the values are directly imported by the parachuting of people from outside of public service into senior public service positions. Where some part of public provision is subcontracted to a private contractor the ills of private business are imported wholesale.

29. Charities 

Most people when faced with the word charity attached to an institution are inclined to be well disposed to the organisation regardless of what the charity is supposed to do or how efficiently it does it.  If it is a popular area of work, such as medical research or the provision of services to disabled children, rationality goes out of the window. Hardly anyone questions how the money is spent or how much of it actually goes to the people the charity are supposedly helping. Nor do people distinguish between the sources of charitable income and many perhaps most are unaware that much of it is public money. This means that governments can support unpopular policies, such as those associated with political correctness, without the general public being aware that public money is being used to promote the policies.

The use of charities by politicians has other pernicious effects. It allows a government to evade responsibility even more effectively than the employment of private companies does because charities, especially popular ones, throw up a moral shield. As mentioned above people feel that money spent by a charity is a good in itself. That applies even when it is taxpayers’ money. A government can also make charitable donation part of their PR because they can gain kudos from the public by publicising their donations of taxpayers’ money to popular charities.

There is general  objection to the use of charities as publicly funded providers. They have a moral and civic role. The whole point of a charity is that it is the product of the individual will, a conglomeration of the active decisions of those who choose to make a contribution. It is part of what academics like to call civil society, those institutions which men naturally form in a free society and which fall outside the ambit of the state. Lose or even seriously diminish those institutions and the state determines all, for there is nothing to oppose it or offer an alternative.

Making a charity simply or largely a client of government undermines the very idea of charity. There is every chance that if charities are seen as arms of government, private donations to them will begin to dry up. That in turn would have spending implications for the taxpayer, because although often inefficient, charities do fund a considerable amount of what would otherwise be described as public provision. The taxpayer would end up footing the bill for extra public provision. State funding also makes charities forget their original role and become dependent on the state funding.

Government already channels gigantic wads of public money to charities for the purposes of research and active provision of services. This fits in with the drive to subcontract public provision which is now officially supported by not only the Labour Party and Tories but half-heartedly by the LibDems. Whoever is in power for the foreseeable future, it is a fair bet that the relationship between charities and the Government will broaden and deepen.  That will remove charities ever further from their original moral purpose.

Charities also epitomise the practical difficulties of mixing private and public. It is true that as non-profit making bodies they share some of the ethos of public service and the profit motive is absent. The problem is that charities, even large ones, are often very inefficient. The poorly run ones spend a great deal on administration. Many of the largest use professional fund raisers who take between 15-50% of what they collect from the public (the young men and women who increasingly infest our pavements on behalf of charities are paid employees of a professional fund raiser). They spend inordinate amounts on advertising. They hoard money rather than spend it. They manage their money poorly. They fail to modernise their service. Their accounts are inadequate.

Take the case of Scope, the charity previously known as the Spastics Society, which aids those with cerebral palsy. It is a mainstream charity of just the sort to attract public sympathy in large measure. The first thing to note is that it changed its name in 1994 from something everyone could immediately understand – the Spastics Society – to something which most people would not have a clue about. The charity had allowed itself to be seduced by the marketing sirens. It is difficult to imagine this confusion did not have some effect on fundraising.

In January 2006 Scope announced it was shutting 50 of its shops because it had a predicted £310 million deficit. (Daily Telegraph 13/01/2006). The Telegraph account went on to disclose that Scope’s last accounts showed that it was budgeting to spend £35.6 million more than it received in the financial year 2006/7, that there was a hole in its pension fund and that its buildings suffer widespread dilapidation through lack of investment. I think most people who think about it would be somewhat disturbed by the idea that a charity had a pension fund of any size and that a substantial part of their donations are going to fund it. Charities in the public mind are thought of as institutions where people offer their services either free or at a discounted rate. The idea that their paid employees are just like any other employee does not fit comfortably with the public’s idea of charity.

One of the directors of Scope Jan Hildreth (also a former director-general of the Institute of Directors summed up the mentality of his and many other charities: “Like many charities, the concern of the society has always been its activity and not its finances.”

Interestingly, Scope blamed part of its plight on ‘the Government for underfunding services it provides, such as residential and school places. “It wants our services, but it doesn’t want to pay for them,” the spokesman said. “This is a drain on our coffers.” ‘

The idea that charities will generally be more efficient than direct public provision is simply laughable. Not only do they suffer from the structural ills of public service they lack any proper public accountability. Charities are audited each year, but that audit is much less demanding than the audit required of large public companies. Moreover, their frequent failure to keep adequate records makes any audit of the use of public money very difficult. It would also be a very expensive job to monitor their spending of public money meaningfully.

As the Scope complaint quoted above suggests, governments may also see charities as a cheap means of public provision. Whether it is or not is another matter – personally I would doubt it because of the widespread incompetence in the charity world.

There is a further problem wih charities, namely what is a legitimate charity? Take our public schools. They are overwhelmingly charities. They also have in most cases a history of one hundred years or more. This means that the profit motive is absent and a quasi public-service (civil society) ethos has had time to evolve. Yet public schools – which get around £100 million tax relief – have always subsidised the education of the poorer middleclass children rather than the education of the truly poor. Why should they have status of a charity?

There are also many questionable cases where the charity exists to fund something which is essentially, even in principle, a private or sectional interest, for example the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Why should the taxpayer subsidise such institutions?

[RH in 2012 There are more than 200,000 charities in the UK. Does anyone honestly believe that there can possibly be that number of good causes? http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/networking-discussions/blogs/116/09/10/06/how-many-charities-are-there. Many disburse little of the money collected or, in quite a few cases nothing, to the causes they ostensibly support. Quite a few are set up by the wealthy who gain tax relief on donations to their charity and then use the money donated to finance their pet projects and/or draw substantial payments in the guise of expenses or pass on some material benefit to friends and relations by getting the charity to employ them].

30. Does market competition produce greater choice generally?

One of the prime arguments for introducing business practices, private money and private business into public provision is that it improves choice. British citizens, increasingly referred to as consumers or customers rather than patients, passengers or any other appellation which emphasises the public nature of the provision, supposedly want choices of schools for their children and to go to the “best” hospital or to enjoy the “superior” service coming from private companies with public provision contracts such as those running the railways or utilities such as water or gas.

Take the case of the privatised railways. Before privatisation all a passenger had to do was buy a ticket and get on a train. The only thing the passenger had to consider was whether there was a time or date restriction on the ticket. Now, the passenger has to not merely worry about time and date, but whether he or she is getting on a train run by a particular company – how many people have been on an intercity train when the ticket inspector has got into a dispute with someone who has bought a ticket for the train’s destination but it is the wrong ticket for that particular train? The customer is also besieged by a bewildering array of pricing, far more than was on offer when the railway was state owned.

I doubt whether the average passenger welcomes either the multiplicity of carriers or ticket prices. A person can have too much choice. Human beings want some but not a vast amount, which merely becomes confusing. If you want to travel somewhere you do not want it to be a demanding exercise in both finding out what the cheapest fare is and ensuring that the terms of the ticket are not inadvertently breached.

Does market competition produce greater choice even in a “free market”? There is a good argument to say it does not. The natural tendency of a free market is to produce reduced competition. Governments of all colours in countries which have a large free enterprise component to their economy recognise this by maintaining anti-monopoly legislation. (What are called free market economies are in fact state regulated economies and regulated in the most fundamental way, that is,  the prevention of increase of market share beyond a certain point).

But anti-monopoly legislation only prevents the worst anti-competitive excesses. There is still very wide scope for anti-competitive forces, especially in capital intensive and technologically advanced industries – think Microsoft and operating systems or airliners in a market of two or three suppliers.

But the process is a general one. Even enterprises which are not innately capital intensive are affected. Retailing is a good example. A hundred years ago department stores were still in their infancy. Supermarkets and shopping Malls unknown. The vast majority of purchases  were made from small, privately owned shops or from open air markets.  Most of the shops specialised in a narrow trade.

Today we have far fewer shops and markets. Supermarkets and Shopping Malls abound. The chain stores of at most a few dozen companies become  ever more pervasive. There are many fewer specialist shops. The private retailer is assaulted from all sides by the large  multiple-store retailers and increasingly succumbs as the public is seduced by the immediate temptations of price and convenience without regard to the social long-term consequences of what they do. The  =privately owned shop does not even have to be in the immediate vicinity of a giant chain store to suffer. It merely has to be within reasonable driving distance of the chain store. The consequence is that the poorer areas of larger towns and cities and country villages and small towns are denuded of their shops. The choice of the poorer residents of such places is tremendously reduced. The wealthier do not of coursecare about this because it has no direct effect on them. They have the wherewithal to either live in areas well serviced by stores and services or can afford to drive to the large supermarkets or have goods delivered from far afield. Such developments fall within the remit of government. It is not for Government to operate supermarkets but it is within their remit to prevent commercial behaviour which is anti-social.

What constitutes choice anyway? Is it, for example, having more shops offering a smaller range of products or fewer shops offering a greater range of product? In practice fewer shops will mean reduced variety of product as well as service. But what of all the choice in giant supermarkets you say? Do they not have a much greater range of product? Surely they provide more choice. They may provide a greater range in one place but that is all.

The advent of industrial-style agri-farming, the bringing in of increased amounts of imported food from around the world and introduction of new manufactured foods may give the impression of greater choice, but is an illusion. The number of varieties of staple fruits and vegetables has been massively reduced, as have the various breeds of farm animals.

Of course, the providers of anything which sells can always say “If people didn’t want it they wouldn’t buy it”. But that begs the question of what alternatives are available. If only three types of washing powder were available doubtless they would sell massively more than any one brand does now. That does not mean they are more popular merely that people have to have such a product and were forced to buy one of the three brands available. Such restriction of choice is increasingly commonplace.

31. How Government gratuitously takes on obligations

Governments regularly make rods for their own backs. Social policy is an area more prone to this sickness than most.

When a government urges the electorate to take action it places itself under both a moral and democratic  obligation. It may even in certain circumstances place itself under a legal obligation when a government sponsored supervisor such as those supervising the financial services industry, fail to act to prevent the mis-selling of pensions.

Since the 1980s British governments have pressed people to buy houses, take out private pensions, pay for private healthcare and insure themselves against unemployment. The consequences have been at various times, negative equity in houses and widespread repossessions, pension scandals ranging from the Maxwellian hand-in-till to an attempt to renege on the conditions of policies by the Equitable Life and ever more expensive private health care and unemployment insurance. The consequence has been that time and again the taxpayer has had to come to the rescue either by paying compensation in cases such as Barlow Clowes or through increased benefits paid to those who have lost their saving or investments. In those cases where the Government has forced private companies to compensate people directly, such as the various mis-selling scandals in the pension industry, the result has been higher premiums for all and frequently reduced pensions, annuities and endowment payments for many.

The sensible course for a government is to allow people to make private choices completely unhindered by state propaganda. That way they do not incur any moral obligation if things go wrong. It also ensures that the electorate does not automatically blame the government when investments turn sticky.

Of course, the state does have to regulate those who offer private insurance, mortgage and pension schemes to prevent outright criminality, such as that which occurred in the Robert Maxwell Mirror Pensions Fund scandal. This regulation should consist of (1) laws laying out what can and cannot be done, (2) very strict auditing rules

for such businesses and funds, (3) laws placing responsibility firmly on the shoulders of those who administer the businesses and funds and (4) the efficient enforcement of such laws – those responsible for the businesses and funds must believe that there will be no walking away from a mess if money goes missing or reckless mismanagement occurs.

What, no regulators for financial institutions? Well, experience shows that having a regulator to licence such businesses is pointless at best – think of BCCI and Barlow Clowes – and may even help fraud and gross mismanagement by giving a spurious respectability and solidity to the firms they licence. Moreover, the rules which regulators operate by are frequently bent as circumstances dictate, for example, the solvency rules by which Assurance companies operate have been relaxed several times in the past ten years simply because, with the fall of the stockmarket, many of the largest companies would probably have gone under if the original rules had been enforced.

32. Making personal private provision – the problems of investing

To expect the vast majority of human beings to be expert enough in financial matters to make wise private investment decisions is absurd, as absurd as expecting every man to be his own lawyer. Therefore, all but a few of us will turn to supposedly expert advisors for advice. The problem with such people is twofold: they often have a vested uniters in selling or promoting a particular product and even when they do not, they are frequently bad judges of the financial future. (If investing was easy and certain for the so-called experts, all financial institutions would be permanently hugely successful).

When someone sells you a private pension plan or insurance, he does not do it out of the goodness of his heart. He does it because he earns a commission or fee from it. As the pensions mis-selling scandal of the Thatcher years showed, that incentive drives many, probably most, financial service consultants to sell the product most beneficial to their income rather than to the customer.

The customer can also get misled if he takes reputedly independent advice, whether this be from a self-described independent financial adviser or out of the financial pages of newspapers and magazines or investment newsletters. The advice given may be anything but independent. Unbeknown to the client, an advisor may get a commission for recommending an investment and media share tipsters often have no scruples about recommending shares which they know to be poor performers, either because of direct inducements from the companies or because they work for a company which gets business from the share tipped. Share tipsters can also make a profit by “ramping up” a price in shares they hold by recommending it or depress a share by criticising it and then buying at the depressed price.

Those recommending shares or financial products are in a wonderful position: they can tip to their heart’s content without taking any responsibility for their tips. No tipster has a consistent record of predicting successful investments. Quite a few have utterly dismal records over years. Indeed, so poor is their general performance that one might ask whether it is any worse than randomly selecting investments. It may even be worse. As Woody Allen once remarked, “A stockbroker is someone who invests your money until it is gone”.

The Daily Telegraph put the matter of share tipping to a sort of test in 2001. It employed a professional tipster, an astrologer and a four year old child to notionally invest £5000 in the stock market. The professional tipster applied his supposed expertise. The astrologer selected her shares using her star charts. The four year old child chose by repeatedly tossing (at the same time) a number of pieces of paper in the air with the names of shares written on them. At each toss she caught one. After a year all the investments had lost money, but the four-year-old-child lost least, followed by the astrologer with the supposed financial expert bringing up the rear quite some way behind.

A rational examination of the actual performance of tipsters and advisors could only lead to the conclusion that predicting the future economy is a mug’s game. Why would an expert do worse than a four-year-old child and an astrologer? Well, it could have been a fluke, but an unlikely one as both the child and the astrologer did better. More probably the financial advisor’s knowledge is a positive hindrance. A parallel is with the football pools. Many people have a very considerable knowledge of the form and general state of professional football clubs. Yet these people do not appear to be any better at predicting results than the punter who knows nothing about football and does the pools by putting a pin in the matches or has fixed numbers.

The truth is that no one can guarantee investment for a secure future or even come anywhere near to it. All calls for private provision replacing public in whole or part should be placed in that context.

33. Supporting old age

The most problematic of all public provision is what to do about the old. The value of actuarial calculations – the statistical analysis of risk based on instances of the risk occurring – made sense for pension calculations when life spans from generation to generation were fairly stable. Because of our ever increasing ability to cure and prevent disease and to provide a more materially certain livelihood for the majority, life expectancy in the future is no longer easily predicted. Even if the wilder extremes of SF are avoided, it is reasonable to assume a significant rise in life expectancy in the next forty years. The rise does not have to be dramatic to make a nonsense of pension provision made today – even a five year rise in the average would have dramatic consequences for pension planning.

A substantial rise in the average lifespan does not necessarily imply some major scientific breakthrough to slow or even reverse ageing. All that would be required is for scientific advances to reduce the diseases which kill many before they reach the average age of death. In other words, more people survive to the ages which are now the average lifespans. It is quite conceivable that within the next 40 years simply reducing early death could extend the average lifespan by ten years.

More dramatically, it is conceivable that science may extend human lifespans substantially beyond their current limits. Work on animals such as mice have resulted in greatly extended lifespans simply by restricting food intake from early in life. If human lifespans are extended greatly all pension bets are off. In such circumstances no meaningful actuarial prediction for pensions could be made for the odds would be that further, unforeseeable increases in life span would occur continuously after the initial scientific breakthrough was made. The fact that such scientific advances are possible in itself makes current pension planning hideously uncertain.

What should we do as a society to plan for the future lives of the old? Let us assume that average lifespans are extended simply through the diminution of early death rather than from any radical scientific discovery, what then? If the average lifespan of Britons rises to, say, 90, over the next 40 years, an obvious move would be to delay retirement. But that raises a problem. Most people could probably work to 70, but beyond that the incidence of severe but non-fatal disease rises steeply. Keeping people alive longer does not at present equal keeping them fitter. More 70+ year-olds means more people suffering from various forms of dementia, crippling diseases such as arthritis and people simply too physically weak to undertake work which could provide an income to support them. Hence, extending the retirement age, for both state and private pensions, is only a partial answer unless science advances enough to massively reduce the infirmities of old age.

It is also true that many people are struggling to cope with their job long before the current age of retirement. People in manual jobs cannot be expected to work to 70 and those in heavy manual jobs or those in jobs which require physical strength and fitness such as grassroots policing, are probably past useful employment by the age of 50, certainly by 55. In principle they can retrain to lighter work, but in practice this is very difficult. People who have spent their lives working with their hands in a workshop or in the open air often do not take easily to working in an office or shop. Moreover, the pay they will get from such “second career” jobs is likely to be low, which is both a disincentive to work and may leave the person unable to support themselves fully.

But even if a person can adapt to new ways or has been throughout their lives in the type of employment which can be carried on into old age, the odds are that they will struggle to remain in employment as they reach late middle age. Employers are prejudiced against the older worker for various reasons. Part of that reason is financial – the cost of employing them is high compared with a youngster – but it is also in large part to do with the adaptability and energy of the young compared with the old. In a time of ever increasng technological change the natural resistance to change and learning becomes ever more of a handicap than it was in the past. Government can pass whatever age-discrimination laws it wants but employers will still find ways to employ who they want to employ without falling foul of the law (short of a law which insists that a percentage of people in an organization had to be in various age categories).

However much as we may like to believe – and I write as a budding wrinkly myself – that experience compensates for youthful enthusiasm, the truth is that all of us become much less receptive to new ideas as we get older, energy falls, physical strength fails, our memory diminishes and concentration becomes harder. Consequently, employers have good cause for employing younger people in most jobs. Of course experience does count and in some jobs can be valuable well into old age, but in most jobs it does not count for much after the age of 60. Even in “people” related employment, which the older person is supposedly better equipped to handle, experience may be a positive disadvantage. For example, suppose an employer wants to employ someone serving the public. It may well be that the average customer for the business prefers to be served by someone young and employing the old would be the kiss of death for the business.

The position of the older worker is being further undermined at present by the high levels of immigration, both official and unofficial. Most of this immigration is of the young, much of it young males. These young workers will tend to take much of the work which would otherwise be available for the old.

Even in the most benign likely circumstances – an extension of the average lifespan by five or ten years through the deduction of early death, it is clear that many people will require support for a very long period of retirement or reduced employment. Some of that may well come from private pensions and savings. But clearly for a very large part of the population adequate private resources guaranteed to support someone for 30 odd years will be beyond their grasp. Hence, state provision sufficient to allow people to live in old age is a must.

If great scientific advances are made which greatly extend life we shall simply have to start planning again from scratch. Obviously if average lifespan was increased to, say, 150, the whole perspective of a life would have to change. There are any number of exciting or disturbing possibilities. For example, it might be that only the newly conceived or newborn children could have their lives increased by a new treatment. We would then be in a position where that generation and succeeding generations had the increased lie span while anyone born before the treatment became available lived to an average age of 90.

The other great concern about pensions is demographic. The population is ageing and the British birthrate is substantially below (around 1.7 children per woman) the replacement level (roughly 2.1 children per woman). The doomsday scenario is insufficient working people to pay the pensions of the old in the future. If we were talking about a demographic change which was going to take place overnight I would be worried. However, we are not. Rather, the demographic effects will be worked out over thirty or forty years. Past experience suggests that society will evolve to make the necessary arrangements. We cannot foresee what the birthrate will be in five years let alone twenty or thirty.

However, we should not put all of our eggs in basket. It would be wise now for the Government to begin a state pension fund into which one per cent of GDP (currently around £11 billion) was put each year. This fund would not be touched for 20 years at least and would be used to ease any future pension problem arising from a tax shortfall due to a smaller working population.

The currently fashionable solution for the future pension bottleneck – importing large numbers of young immigrants – would be no answer in the long term. The young people who arrived in this generation would eventually grow old and would need people of working age to support them which would mean more immigration which would mean more old people  to support in the next generation and so on ad infinitum, a literal absurdity because any territory has a limit to the number of people it can support. In other words, confronting the problem of a demographic  imbalance would merely be delayed for a generation or two by immigration.

34. The housing crisis

Because it is one of the essentials of life, government clearly has a moral responsibility to ensure, directly or indirectly, that there is sufficient housing. It also acquires responsibility because it interferes considerably with the housing market, often with the effect that new building is discouraged, for example, by overly strict planning laws.

The government sets the rules for building new homes, renovating old ones and adapting non-residential buildings for residential use. The provision of taxpayers’ money for social housing is dependent on government. The rules by which social housing is allocated are the government’s rules. Planning permission is in the gift of politicians. The terms on which property may be rented and leased are set by them.

Then there are the measures which indirectly the housing market. To a very significant degree the government still controls the economy by the use of taxation, the indirect setting of interest rates through Bank Rate (the targets for the so-called independent Bank of England to meet – at present merely the inflation rate – are set by the Chancellor), the obligations placed on employers, subsidies to industries such as farming, the size of the public sector and the acceptance or otherwise of free trade obligations. All of these things feed through into the housing market by increasing or diminishing the amount of money in the public’s pockets and their confidence or otherwise in the future. Governments also determine the level of net immigration into a country – when it is running at the level Britain is currently experiencing substantially affects the demand for housing. In short, the cost and availability of housing is to a considerable degree determined by government policy.

The ongoing and seemingly inexorable rise in British property prices is rapidly making many parts of the country a desert for first time buyers (according to a Halifax survey the average house price has risen from £62,453 in the first quarter of £1996 to £179,425 in the third quarter of 2006, a rise of 187% – Daily Telegraph 28 10 2006) ). A combination of very low interest rates, lax lending rules by mortgage providers (some are lending up to 5 times salary), the introduction of easy to obtain “buy-to-let” mortgages, rising wages for substantial parts of the population, the continuing right-to-buy policy (RTB – the right of tenants to buy their council or other social housing properties at a discount) for those in social housing and a great diminishment in the building of new housing, both public and private, has led to a shortage of housing which can be bought by someone on average earnings in a majority of counties. In some areas of the country, most notably in the SE of England, prices have been further substantially inflated by the massive and ongoing immigration into Britain, most of which ends up in the South East.

The position in the rental sector mirrors that of home ownership. Social housing is in desperately short supply in those areas with higher property prices, particularly London, while reasonably priced private rental property is effectively non-existent. Every London Council has a waiting list of thousands for social housing.

The provision of housing, whether rented or purchased, that most people can afford is necessary for the simplest of practical reasons: every community, no matter how wealthy, requires large numbers of people who are not well paid. They must of necessity live fairly close to their jobs because, apart from considerations such as travelling time, those on small wages will not be able to afford the fares if they have to travel a long way. That means there must be reasonably priced homes for them to buy or rent not too far from their work.

There is also the moral and political case. There will always be housing segregation of people by price, but there is a big difference between not being able to afford to live in the most expensive parts of a town or city and not being able to live there at all. That is the point which is being rapidly approached for people on even above average incomes in a surprising number of English counties. In such circumstances free movement – one of the defining practices of a free society – becomes practically a dead letter. It is also very socially divisive, which is poison to the democratic process.

What can and should a government do to ease the problem in those areas where houses are in dangerously short supply? The first and most obvious move would be to stop mass immigration and restrict social housing to British citizens. Whether that could be done either legally or in practice if it could be done legally, while Britain remains within the EU is extremely dubious. However, other things could be done.

A Labour government of old (indeed, a Tory government of the fifties and sixties) would have turned to fiscal and practical measures to relieve the problem. They would have put controls on the amount of money mortgage providers can lend, used compulsory purchase to acquire  land in the property hotspots and engaged in an extensive programme of  council house building. Instead, we have the Blair government tortuously twisting and turning within the limits of the free market ideology with ill-thought plans to provide an inadequate number of “affordable homes” in the South East, without any mechanism to ensure  that they remain available to the people they are supposed to cater  for, that is, the likes of teachers and nurses. But even if the scheme for these “key workers” was successful, it would not address the general problem of house prices being out of the reach for the large majority of people working in the South East and it cannot be morally sustainable to say that only those with vital functions should be subsidised, a subsidy which would in effect subsidise those wealthy enough to live in the area who can afford to buy or rent a property at market rates because the services they received would only exist because of the public subsidy of “key workers” homes.

In areas with a shortage of housing, the Government should begin a massive programme of social house building with truly affordable rents, It should use compulsory purchase to acquire land being hoarded by private builders. If a builder has not built on land within a given period, it should become available for public housing or for another private builder who is willing to build on it. The Government should limit the amount of money a mortgage lender may advance to a level whereby a borrower can continue to pay if interest rates rise considerably. It should relax the planning controls for private developments. It should give priority in social housing to those local to the area and to workers with scarce and needed skills.

The question of RTB is a difficult one. I do not criticise anyone for exercising RTB because once such a scheme is in operation, for an individual not to exercise RTB is to place themselves at a massive disadvantage. It is also a fact that in a council tenant in a large block of flats may have a very real fear that if they do not buy, at some point in the future control of the block in which they live may be transferred to a less sympathetic and politically responsible landlord such as a housing association or a private developer, and they as a tenant would have absolutely no control over the landlord.

In areas where there is substantially more social housing than can be let, it makes sense to sell them and give purchasing priority to their tenants to maintain a community. But the selling off of council houses is self-defeating in areas where demand exceeds supply, which is now much of the country after twenty years of RTB and much diminished building of homes both publicly and privately owned. If council properties were sold at their full price it would be damaging enough, but the discount given pours oil onto the flames.

The Blair Government has (since January 2003) restricted the value of the RTB in areas of high demand such as London by reducing the maximum discount available to tenants. Such reductions are arguably open to legal challenge by existing tenants with a RTB. The RTB is a form of property in the same way that an option-to-buy can be considered a property. The question is whether the Government is entitled to arbitrarily reduce the value of the property. It has not been tested in the courts to date.

Similar considerations would arise if the RTB was simply abolished. The Government could certainly remove the RTB from future tenants, but if they were to try to remove the right from those who already have it, they could leave themselves open to legal challenge on the grounds that they were being dispossessed of property. If the courts upheld such a challenge, the Government would then be left with a choice of depriving only new tenants of the RTB or compensating those from whom they take an existing RTB. In the first case, this would greatly distort the effect of abolishing RTB – its full effect might not be felt for 40 years – or would result in a truly horrendous bill for the taxpayer as all those with the RTB would have to be compensated, not merely those who were actively seeking to exercise the right.

The desperation of the Blair Government is epitomised by their announcement on 6 January 2003 that it was considering taking to itself the power to compulsorily seize empty residential properties and let them. It is still kicking this idea around. This would probably be illegal because of the protection provided for private property under the Human Rights Act. Even if it is not, it is highly questionable whether property owned by private individuals should be compulsorily taken by the state in such an arbitrary manner. It is true that compulsory purchase has existed for many years, but this is different. It appears that the Government is thinking not of purchasing the properties for letting, but merely taking them for an unspecified period and letting them.

But even if these properties were to be compulsorily purchased before letting, it would go against the normal principle of compulsory purchase, namely that it should only be used where it is impossible to achieve a clearly defined general public good such as a new road or railway line which cannot otherwise be achieved. That is not the case with housing. To be a meaningful public exercise the forced seizures would have to be very substantial and thus not exceptional, and the increase of housing could be achieved by other means such as I have described previously.

35. Council housing

Nowhere is the hostility to direct provision seen more clearly than in the provision of council (municipal and state funded) housing. This type of housing was created to provide secure tenancies for decent accommodation at a rent the poorer members of society could afford. In the years after 1945 both Labour and Tory governments were committed to building a great number of such properties and ironically in view of their later Thatcherite policy it was a Tory Housing Minister, Harold Macmillan, who boasted in the mid 1950s that the Tory Government intended to build 300,000 council houses and flats in a year.

The rot for council housing set in under Margaret Thatcher. Many council properties (unsurprisingly disproportionately the more desirable ones) were transferred to private hands through Right To Buy (RTB). Most of the money from these sales was not used to build new council properties because central government forbad councils from doing so.

RTB had two consequences. It reduced the social housing stock and complicated the ownership and running of council properties. Councils were left with a housing stock which was gradually honeycombed with the private purchases of freeholds and leaseholds. This meant that a council had to establish a new relationship with their new leaseholders – a particularly fraught business in large blocks of flats where disputes over service charges, ground rents and external repair charges have been legion – which increased the costs of managing the properties.

More importantly RTB blurred the relationship, both legally and in the public’s mind, between what was public and what was private. There is a good deal of difference between saying here is a public asset and here is a part public part private asset. To move the entire housing stock of a council out of council control when it is just council housing is politically difficult because it is seen simply as the transfer of a public asset. That was particularly true in the 1980s when the public at large still had imprinted in them the idea that the state owning public goods for the public good was natural. But let that housing stock be sold off to private buyers bit by bit until, say, a quarter is privately owned, and the public no longer sees the council housing stock simply as a public asset. Indeed, with RTB much of the public sees possession of a council house as not a social good but something akin to a lottery win because of the substantial discount it brings – RTB has created a great deal of envy from those who have not been able to get a property. (This envy is misplaced in the majority of cases because, as many tenants who have bought properties in less desirable locations – especially on large council estates and in large blocks of flats – have found to their cost, the charges made by councils for service charges, grounds rents and most particularly external repairs – these are capped only for the first few years after purchase – are extortionate and the properties often next to impossible to sell at a reasonable price or even at all).

This blurring of the relationship between councils and council housing and the change in public attitude towards council housing has fitted neatly into the strategy of all governments since 1979 which has been to diminish the direct control of council housing by councils. The primary tactic used apart from RTB and a diminution of state funding for low rent housing, has been the transfer of government funding of most new build social housing from councils to Housing Associations which are non-profit self managing corporations. These, unlike council housing, are not subject to any degree of democratic control.

There has also been a push by governments to get existing council housing transferred to Housing Associations. This is somewhat tricky because tenants have by law to vote for such a transfer. To get round  this awkward and annoying piece of democracy the Blair Government has  been attempting transfer control of council housing stock into Arms Length Management Organisations (ALMOs). These are limited companies (limited by guarantee not by shares). The council housing stock is still owned by the council but the management of the housing stock is transferred to the ALMO board which is bound by company law. Thus the relationship between tenant and the council is completely changed because (1) local councillors no longer have any responsible for the management of the housing stock and (2) the ALMO board, being bound by company law, have to operate according to that law not a political agenda. Again, democratic control is broken.

A third tactic is to allow PFI companies into the management of part of a council’s housing stock. This again ties the hands of politicians because the contract with company means the council cannot act of its own volition.

The experience of tenants in Housing Associations and ALMOs has been mixed but there have been too many instances where rents and service charges have been raised to levels higher than those in directly owned council properties and where management of the property has left much to be desired. Worst, some Housing Associations and ALMOs have got into financial trouble. The only ways out of such a mess, after rents have been raised as high as they can, is for either a council to rescue the properties by taking them into direct control or for the properties to be placed in the hands of a private company, either through some form of PFI or outright sale of the property. The private option is the one almost all councils go for in such circumstances.

Whatever tactic is used – ALMOs, transfer to a Housing Association or PFI – it is always sold to tenants by councils insisting that remaining in direct council control is effectively a non-starter because central government money for renovations will not be available if that happens.

But even where council housing stock remains within council control there are an ongoing problems. The “affordable” rents plan of the Blair government will raise rents to considerably over the next ten years. In addition, council are increasingly seeking to charge additionally for services such security, cleaning and caretaking.

Service charges have the advantage for politicians of allowing them to say they have kept rents down to a lower level whilst effectively raising the rents. In addition, there are probably fewer legal restrictions attached to levying and raising service charges than there are attached to raising rents.

Council housing was never intended to make a profit for central Government or even local councils. It was social provision for the poor. This appears to have been lost sight of by Government, viz: “Your average council home generates roughly £2,500 a year in rent, £1,000 of this goes on management costs, £500 for repairs, leaving £1,000 being siphoned off by Government. Why can’t councils keep this sum?”. (Labour MP Austin Mitchell “Defend council housing” Camden New Journal 30 Jan 2003).

If nothing is done to prevent the privatisation/commercialisation of council housing, I sincerely wonder how long it will be before the poor are unable to afford council housing in London.

36. Education

Education is a first rate example of how quasi-commercialism can corrupt. It was a pincer movement from the bottom and the top, from schools to universities.

Prior to the end of the 1980s our universities had been funded for decades by the University Grants Committee (UGC) which was made up  academics. The UGC received an annual sum of money allocated by the Government to higher education. The UGC then allocated this to the universities. This was not a perfect system because the academics tended to favour the older universities over the older regardless of performance. However, broadly speaking it worked and most importantly there was no pressure on universities to tout for students regardless of quality. This in turn meant that academic standards were maintained. Indeed, the newer universities were very sparing in their granting of degrees because they wished to build their academic reputation.

The Thatcher Government changed all that. They first cut in real terms the funding of given to the UGC, then abolished the UGC in 1987 to be replaced by the University Funding Council (UTC) which was manned not by academics but businessmen. The money was then primarily attached to  the individual – a second criterion based on the quality of research was also introduced but it was the numbers of students which brought in the large majority of the money. This forced universities to actively compete for students. This might not have mattered too much if the numbers of students had remained static but it did not because the Thatcher Government began the push towards dramatically expanding student numbers without a corresponding increase in funding. This meant that spending per student was reduced and universities had to get as many students as they could to maintain income. That alone caused universities to drop their standards, both in terms of who they accepted and the class of degrees they awarded, because universities with a reputation for high entry standards and strict marking of degrees risked being shunned for those with a reputation for being laxer. To take on stark statistic: in 1970 less than 40% of degreesawarded by British universities were firsts and upper seconds: the figure for these classes of degree awarded in 2006 is over 60%.

The massive increase in student numbers from the late 1980s meant that the average quality of student was lowered. This is not a subjective judgement. IQ is distributed within the British population approximately as follows: IQ below 90 25%, IQ 90-110 50%, IQ Above 110 25%. In 1970 less than 10% of school-leavers went to university. They could all comfortably come from those in the 111+ range (they will not have done but most would). Raise the numbers to the current level of around 40% and as a simply matter of arithmetic, many must have IQs of less than 111 and because a significant part of those with above average IQs will not go to university, there must be significant numbers now going to university with IQs below of 100. The difficulty of degree courses had to be lowered to cater for the lass able.

Because the increase in student numbers has not been met by a proportionate increase in state funding,  staff-student ratios have increased, teaching time for each student reduced, both in terms of direct instruction and the time available to staff for marking.

To these attacks on university standards were added eventually the toxic effects of the poison injected into the opposite end of the education system. “Progressive, child-centred education” really gained a hold in the 1960s. Anti-competitive and ideologically driven, the grammar schools were first almost destroyed, ironically rescuing the public schools which were on their financial knees by the mid-sixties because of the drain of middleclass pupils to free grammar schools, and teaching methods gradually corrupted so that children were not challenged over errors and all opinions (at least the politically correct ones) became equally “valid”.

The progressive ideal was greatly furthered by the introduction in the 1980s of a single school-leaving exam (the GCSE) to replace the CSE and O Level’. Had assessment remained entirely by final (synoptic) exams, The introduction of the GCSE would still have been mistaken because no examination can meaningfully assess the broad range of ability displayed by those who sit it – there has been a tacit recognition of this by the inclusion of questions and course tasks of different difficulty within a GCSE subject and candidates can choose to do the hard or the easy and this is reflected in their grades. The exam consequently says nothing about the standard of the candidate as such because the mark tells you nothing about the difficulty of the tasks attempted: for example someone taking just the harder questions in an exam could score the same mark as someone attempting only the easy  questions.

Mistaken as the exam was in principle, it was further damaged by the inclusion of substantial amounts of coursework – cue plagiarism and third party out-of-school help – and coaching by teachers, licit and llicit (the licit includes teachers being able to take an initial piece of coursework by pupils and making suggestions for its re-writing) and the use of modular exams (exams which tested only part of the course) which can be retaken several times during a course.

The school examination system has been further contaminated by the various examination boards becoming nakedly commercial bodies who compete greedily for candidates. The result is similar to that experienced by universities: standards have been dropped to attract business. The old practice of setting percentages for those gaining a grade and for those passing was dropped allowing any number of people to gain any grade. Freed of this constraint grades have inexorably risen year after year for both GCSEs and the university entrance A Levels. So bad has the inflation become that A* grades had to be introduced because A grades were so plentiful that they allowed no distinction to be made between the better candidates. Predictably, theA* grade has now met the same fate as the simple A.

Finally, because so many more pupils were taking GCSE than O Level, the standard of the exam had to be reduced for the same reason that the standard of the degree was reduced: the number of less able students taking the courses increased dramatically. The dire failure of GCSE has begun to be acknowledged by even the Blair Government with first the Education Secretary Alan Johnson announcing that coursework would be reduced in some subjects and abolished in a few such as maths (the Times 6 10 2006) and then a junior education minister Lord Adonis announcing that consideration was being given to allowing state schools to substitute the International GCSE (IGCSE) for the GCSE (Daily  Telegraph 25 10 2006). The IGSCE is an exam closer to the old O  Level and is taken by pupils outside Britain and increasingly by private schools in Britain.

The upshot of all this is a decline in academic standards generally. The decline of GCSE standards meant A Level pupils began their A Level courses less well prepared than they had been previously which meant A-Levels had to be reduced in difficulty which meant that those arriving at university were less well prepared and the degree courses had to be made easier.

A further pernicious consequence of the gigantic expansion of university numbers is the abolition of student grants and the imposition of tuition fee to fund the much greater numbers. . This is not only discouraging students from poorer homes – there is now a lower percentage of workingclass students  in the British university population than there was in the 1960s (although many  more because of the increase in student numbers)  – and leaving most students with considerable debts, but also creating a mentality amongst students, politicians, educationalists and indeed the general public, that education is only a tool to obtain a better job, that it has no general value.

The irony is that even at the economic level this mentality is at odds with reality. Successive governments have claimed that the lifetime earnings of a graduate are on average £450,000 greater than that of a non-graduate. This may have been true of graduates before the great expansion in student numbers but it is not now. The £450,000 has been revised to £150,000, a pretty small sum divided by the 40 years of the average working life. Of course that figure, even if it is true, hides a multitude of difference, with some degrees being next to worthless either because of the subject or the class of degree obtained.

37. Healthcare

The NHS was founded on the principle that all treatment should be free at the point of use regardless of income. The amazing thing is that 58 years after its foundation the principle is essentially intact. We have prescription charges and charges for dentistry and the work of opticians. However, even these charges for the poor, old age pensioners and children are either considerably mitigated or waived completely. For the vast majority of illnesses and injuries NHS treatment is available and no one who is entitled to and receives it need fear that they will be bankrupted by the cost of the treatment and care or that at some point the NHS will say no more treatment because it is too expensive. There are increasing disputes over the funding of expensive treatment, especially drugs, but these affect only a tiny minority of patients. The sole major NHS blot is dentistry where it is difficult to find dentists who take NHS patients in many parts of the country.

But the NHS ethos is under severe attack. The introduction of the “single market” by Margaret Thatcher and then the Blair government’s version of “money following the patient”, league tables of medical outcomes at hospitals and schemes such as hospital trusts being granted “foundation status” (which allows them greater freedom of action) are seriously damaging the idea of a national health service, the stress being on “national”. Hospital trusts are now competing with each other for both patients and the “right” type of patients, the “right” type being those most likely to be easily treatable and to have a good response to treatment.

“Money following the patient” has also resulted in a significant number of hospital trusts running into financial trouble and different areas of the country offering varying levels of treatment, the “post-code lottery”. The variation has been amplified by devolution which allows the devolved assemblies, especially the Scottish, to allocate money independently of Westminster. This has resulted in some treatments being offered in Scotland and Wales but not in England, for example drugs such as Aricept, Reminyl and Exelon which are used to treat Altzeimers are being denied to early stage Altzeimers sufferers while it is available to such people in Scotland and Wales (Daily Telegraph 18 10 2006).

Then there are the targets for waiting times which distort clinical judgements because hospitals begin to treat the conditions which reduce government targeted waiting lists rather than the conditions which clinical judgement would suggest should be given priority. Waiting list targets also result in hospitals fudging figures by devices such as putting people on waiting lists on lists euphemistically called something else, or moving people in Accident and Emergency out of A and E when they have exceeded the target waiting time and putting them onto trolleys in corridors to wait for treatment, which device allows the person to be classified as having been dealt with in A and E within the target time. So desperate has the Blair Government been to reduce waiting lists that it has even adopted a policy of exporting patients to continental hospitals where their treatment will be paid for by the NHS. (This policy could lead to far more NHS patients being referred abroad with the taxpayer paying than the Government anticipated because challenges are being made in the British courts to refusals by individual British health authorities to fund particular foreign treatment.)

In the past twenty years the NHS has almost certainly been subject to more politically initiated upheaval than any other taxpayer funded body, with both Tory and Labour governments forcing major change after major change on the NHS. The introduction of policies such as “the single market” and foundation status” for hospitals have caused profound administrative changes, with people having to re-apply for their jobs over and over again as each new regime is introduced and a general sense of impermanence and staff insecurity has been created. This sense of uncertainty and insecurity extends to new medical staff such as doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. Some years ago the Blair Government correctly identified the underproduction of such people in Britain and quite correctly acted to increase their numbers, both by providing training places and by significantly increasing NHS pay scales. This has had the effect of producing large numbers of these previously scarce medical staff from Britain. All well and good. But supply is only one half of the equation. The Government neglected the demand side and the upshot is that in 2006 there are large numbers of expensively trained medical staff unable to find work within the NHS.

The reasons they cannot find work are four. First, large numbers of foreign medical staff have been recruited and they are still in position. Second, Britain’s membership of the EU means that any medically qualified person from any EU state can compete with the British for jobs within the NHS (large numbers from outside the EU are also competing for the jobs because of Britain’s generally lax job entry requirements for non-EU foreigners coming to the UK). Third, the shortage of money in many hospital trusts and the demand by the Government that each trust balances its books, means that trusts are cutting staff, for example, the Epsom and St Helier Hospital Trust which serves 650,000 people in Surrey and South London, are looking to lose 25% of their staff by early 2008 (Metro 24 10 2006). Fourth, insufficient numbers of particular types of posts have been created, for example, training posts in hospitals for junior doctors.

The general utility of the NHS for patients has been reduced and will, if government plans go through, be much further reduced by a policy of “consolidating” hospital care by closing smaller hospitals and concentrating resources on a relatively small number of “super-hospitals.” Many smaller hospitals have already been much reduced – especially their A and E services – or even closed and many more cuts are in the pipeline. For example, the Daily Telegraph reported (17 10 2006) that 80 cottage hospitals in England were marked for closure. The rationale for such “consolidation” is that smaller hospitals cannot provide the same range of sophisticated treatments as a much larger hospital. This may be true but most treatments are of the simpler kind which can be dealt with in the smaller hospitals and any really difficult case sent to a specialist centre. The consequence of such a policy is that patients have to travel further and further for hospital treatment, often fifty miles or more. There is also some grounds for believing the closures are politically motivated because the Sunday Telegraph (22 10 2006) “surveyed 177 hospitals already affected or likely to be affected by cuts, [and] revealed that Conservative and Liberal Democrats seats are two and a half times more likely to be affected by cuts than Labour seats.”

A special case of hospital closures for “clinical reasons” are the military hospitals, all of which bar one have been closed and the one remaining is waiting decommissioning (Daily Telegraph 17 10 2006). This has meant troops returning injured from places such as Iraq and Afghanistan have been forced to use ordinary NHS hospitals. This has caused problems of morale, security and access to treatment – servicemen best recover psychologically when they are with their fellows, there is nothing to stop any anti-war radical attacking or abusing them in hospital and the treatment they need is not always immediately available, with servicemen having in some cases to join NHS waiting lists.

An unpleasant mentality is also distorting the notion that the NHS is a national health service. Increasingly, politicians, the media and medics are taking the line that treatment can be legitimately withheld from people wicked enough to disobey the official disapproval of smoking, drinking, getting fat and so forth. For example, Norfolk Primary Care Trust has decided that confirmed smokers are to be taken off waiting lists for “all non-urgent operations such as hip replacements….[because] Smokers have three times the complications as non-smokers”. (Metro 23 10 2006) I think anyone needing a hip replacement would dispute the operation’s definition as non-urgent. It is worth adding that the story mentions the Trust is “£50 million in the red” and an unkind soul might conclude that the withdrawal of treatment to smokers is connected to the debt. Nonetheless, the fact that smokers have been targeted speaks volumes for the ideologically driven mentality within the present day NHS. It is only activities which come within the ambit of official disapproval and moralising that are the subject of such withdrawal of treatment – it is noticeable that no politician or health trust has suggested that treatment for AIDs or HIV should be withheld because it is in most instances the consequence of the individual’s behaviour.

The moralising which bolsters the supposed clinical case for withdrawing treatment from certain groups runs along the lines that people are being selfish and irresponsible by smoking, drinking,getting fat etc. Wild claims are made for deaths supposedly due to such behaviour – any smoker who dies at a ripe old age is as likely as not to be classified as dying from a smoking related disease. All this supposedly self-inflicted illness is portrayed as being a massive burden on society and especially on the NHS. Most absurdly and dishonestly, smokers are claimed to be a drain on the taxpayer despite the fact that tobacco taxes greatly exceed any additional costs smokers might place on the NHS.

But do smokers, drinkers and the fat, who on average die younger than those who do not display such traits, actually impose extra costs on the taxpayer? Writing in the Sunday Telegraph (22 1 2006) the historian Niall Ferguson baldly and erroneously claimed those who smoked, drank and got fat are being antisocial because they “tend to expire slowly and expensively”. Most do not and whatever cost to the taxpayer arises from such people it pales into insignificance compared with those who live to a ripe old age. Not only do the latter draw pensions and benefits for far longer than the shorter lived smokers, drinkers and the fat, but the most costly of NHS patients are those who live to extreme old age for they frequently end up in hospitals or nursing homes for months and years. The most antisocial thing a person can do from the taxpayers’ point of view is live to an extreme old age.

The most fundamental threat to the NHS is the creeping privatization of the NHS which ranges from the logistical and administrative to the medical. Hospitals are being built under PFI and their maintenance placed in private hands. Hospital meals are provided by private contractors. Medical supplies to hospitals will soon be distributed by the German firm DHL. Most disturbingly, private medical firms, often American, are being granted massive contracts to take patients away from the NHS, a policy made all the more dangerous for the long-term security of the NHS because the treatments the private firms take are the simpler ones. The NHS are left with a reduced patient base for the simpler operations, which can result in the closure of NHS departments or even hospitals, and leaves the NHS with the more difficult and expensive cases to treat.

But even after the chaos wrought by governments over the past twenty years and the vast amounts of additional money pushed into the NHS to no great visible benefit by the Blair Government – the Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt recently made the astonishing admission that “For all the extra money, all the extra staff and all the extra patients treated, NHS productivity has remained almost unchanged” (Daily Telegraph 21 9 2006) – the NHS still represents magnificent value. Anyone who has ever had private medical insurance will know how incomplete the cover is. Common exemption clauses are a two year waiting period for existing complaints to be covered, a complete exclusion of psychiatric treatment and severe restrictions on aftercare, which is frequently excluded when active medical treatment ends.

Those who have had chronic and serious illness soon discover that the amount of private active treatment and aftercare they can obtain is considerably less than they imagined. Many begin courses of treatment which end before the utility of a treatment is exhausted. They then transfer to NHS care. Frequently operations are funded by their insurance but not the subsequent nursing which is undertaken by the NHS.

Those in Britain who laud the idea of private insurance as a substitute for taxpayer funded health service should examine the effects of such a system in the richest country in the world, the USA. Around 40% of the population have no health insurance. Even those with insurance find themselves left high and dry more often than not. Here are the words of a British journalist living in New York, Zoe Heller,from the Daily Telegraph London 6/5/2000:

“One of my best friends was short of cash one month and  let her insurance lapse. That same month, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Seven years later, she is still paying off the credit card debts. Another uninsured friend was rushed to hospital for emergency intestinal  surgery. She will be paying her bill on an installment plan.  She counts herself lucky that the hospital has a relatively liberal policy about treating uninsured  patients…”

A recent study established that one in four of every  American declaring bankruptcy in 1999 cited illness or injury  as the main reason for his financial problems and that of  that group, roughly half were insured. In other words, paying extortionate sums to the insurance companies  doesn’t protect you from financial ruin if you happen to fall ill with something serious and expensive enough.

Even the rich in the US find healthcare beyond their means if the treatment is long and serious. The Superman actor, Christopher Reeve, one of the highest paid Hollywood actors, had exhausted his savings within two years of the terrible injury which left him paralysed. Private medicine will guarantee virtually any treatment – if you can afford to pay for it. That is the long and short of it. The NHS provides a remarkably wide range of healthcare free at the point of use. It mitigates strongly against “unfairness”.

The other great threat to the NHS is the media which is only too willing to feed the public with NHS “horror stories”. A good example occurred in the Sunday Telegraph recently. On 27 August 2006 their front page ran “Blunders by NHS kill thousands of patients a year”. Does anyone seriously imagine that any healthcare system in the advanced world does not suffer such casualties or that private medicine is generally more efficient or safer? Of course the NHS makes many mistakes and these add up to a sizeable bald global figure but when you are catering for a population of 60 million that is scarcely surprising.

The real question to ask is why is no public audit of the safety and efficiency of private medicine ever done? If it was it would make interesting reading because private medicine in Britain is notoriously prone to pushing any bungled private treatments back on the NHS without compensation. It also makes little investment in private sector facilities because it can rent NHS facilities for more complicated treatments, facilities which are purchased at well below any realistic cost. Private medicine also makes no contribution towards the cost of training medical staff. In short, private medicine in the UK lives off the back of the NHS and the taxpayer.

The Health Secretary should stop private medicine taking up scarce NHS resources. Even if private medical treatment using NHS resources was paid for in full, it does not follow that would be a good thing for the NHS because the money received may not adequately compensate for  the loss of the NHS facility during the time it is in private use. This is particularly the case where complex treatments, especially surgery, are concerned because the number of NHS facilities able to offer the treatment will be very limited. It is worth mentioning that a sizeable proportion of private medical treatments in the UK, especially the more demanding cases such as those of serious heart disease, involve the treatment of foreigners. It is morally indefensible toallow NHS resources to be hired to be used on a foreigner rather than used to treat a British citizen on the NHS. Where there is genuine spare capacity in the NHS, private medical providers should be charged a realistic price for it. In cases where private medical treatment goes wrong, the private medical provider should pay for the remedial NHS treatment.

The NHS consultants would doubtless froth and whine about reduced private work opportunities and it might be necessary to give their NHS pay a very large boost. But there are not that many of them and the cost would not be vast in the context of total NHS spending.

Apart from making private medicine pay its way, the NHS ideally needs to (1) not only stop further privatisation but to take back into its direct control that which has already been lost; (2) ensure that enough medical staff of all sorts are trained in this country and NHS posts reserved for them; (3) end the practice of money following patients; (4) fund NHS healthcare on the basis of an area’s population and demographic distribution; (5) retain and where necessary build new local hospitals; (6) restrict treatment to the hospital within a health authority area; (7) lay down a national schedule of treatments which must be offered throughout the NHS and (8) restrict NHS treatment other than emergency treatment to British citizens.

No 8 is necessary because a great part of the problem for the NHS in areas such as London is that it is being overwhelmed by the large number of foreigners who one way or the other either have a right to NHS treatment or who obtain it because NHS staff are unwilling to check whether some is entitled to NHS treatment. Of course, there are supposedly reciprocal arrangements for Britons to obtain health treatment abroad but the balance of advantage is all against Britain because the range and quality of provision in many of the countries which provide supposedly reciprocal treatment is inferior to that of the NHS. There are also potentially vastly more foreigners eligible for NHS treatment than Britons eligible for treatment abroad, for example,  400million non-British EU state citizens.

That is the ideal. How much of it could be achieved as things stand is debatable because our EU membership and other treaties severely restrict control over both our borders and what any British government may do. For example, while we remain in the EU we cannot stop any person legally resident in the EU from coming here (apart from special cases of crime or terrorism) and either working for the NHS or claiming NHS treatment.

The NHS goes to the heart of what should be public and what should be private. The prime distinction is between service and profit. Public provision is the provision of necessary services to everyone, which private provision never has nor can supply: private provision is simply the provision of services to those who can pay. This seems to have been lost sight of by successive governments.

Let the NHS become anything other than what it is, a national health service free at the point of use and you will never get it back. It was created in the extraordinary circumstances of the immediate post-war national solidarity when both the electors and the politicians were determined that Lloyd George’s boast of creating “A land fit for heroes” should not be mocked twice.

It is vital that the NHS survives because even with present life expectancies, there are going to be an awful lot of people who will need intensive medical support in their extreme old age. The cost of that will almost certainly exhaust the resources of even those who have made seemingly substantial private provision for their old age.

The NHS has many faults, but for most of the population, it is a better and more complete supplier of medicine than private medicine will ever be or could be.

38. The Post Office and Royal Mail

The treatment of the linked organisations of the Post Office and the Royal Mail epitomises the current state of public provision. The Post Office network has long been a source of social glue throughout Britain. It has provided not merely postal but a wide variety of public and quasi-public services acting as a conduit for such things as the payment of state benefits, applications for state issued licences, the payment of bills and the easy transfer of money. Recent governments have taken a significant amount of that work away from post office by such policies as encouraging the payment of benefits though bank accounts and the removal from post offices of applications for TV licences, which has made them less viable as self financing enterprises.

It might seem inevitable or efficient that benefit payments (including the state pension) should be made through bank accounts, but that ignores two things. First, it takes no account of the general utility of post offices, which utility could be judged to mean that the retention of benefit payments through the post office was justified because it helped maintain the post office network. Second, even today many people either do not have bank accounts or do not wish to have their benefits paid through a bank. The Daily Telegraph (25 10 2006) reported that two million pensioners rely on Post Office Card Accounts to draw their pensions and All Pay, one of the businesses which deal with Post Office over the counter bill payments, has stated that “Even though lots of people have some form of bank accounts, there are all sorts of reasons why people want to pay in cash….If post offices close, millions of people will be under served.”(Daily telegraph 21 10 2006).

Governments have been steadily closing main and sub post offices for the past twenty years but the pace of closure is increasing. The Blair Government is currently making noises which suggest that the current £150 million annual taxpayer subsidy may be curtailed or even dropped altogether. This would result in very large numbers of sub post offices and quite a few main post offices being closed. This would have a considerable effect on many local communities, particularly those in rural areas where often they are an essential part of a village because they will combine the function of sub-post office with that of village shop. Let the post office go and the shop will go. There is also a modern problem, namely, the increasing lack of outlets in rural areas and the poorer parts of towns and cities where someone can withdraw their money. Banks are rapidly deserting both, especially rural parts, and often the only place left where someone can withdraw cash is the local post office.

The fact that British governments over past fifteen years ago have been so casual in their maintenance of the post office network simply reflects the general political mentality of the modern British political elite which no longer sees politics as making pragmatic policies for the entire country but of dancing to an ideology (neo-liberalism) which reduces life to nothing more than economic relationships. This mentality means that the modern British politician does not ask when confronting an issue such as the maintenance of the post office network “what social benefit does this bring?” but “is it profitable.” The fact that we currently have a Labour government which has relatively little support in rural areas suggests that party politics may also play its part in ignoring the interests of the rural population.

This causal ignoring of the interests of some sections of the population can be seem more generally in the failure of Government to take into account the difficulties of those who through a lack of money, knowledge or intellect do not have access to the internet. This lack is increasingly making day-to-day living highly inconvenient as more and more organisations either insist on dealing with people through the internet or make it very difficult to do otherwise. Millions of people are in this position yet the government often seems oblivious to the fact that so many have not joined the digital age, a classic example being the decision to end the analogue TV signal in a few years. The idea that millions of OAPs will be able to negotiate the change from analogue to digital comfortably is fanciful  (there is also the likelihood that substantial numbers of people will not be able to get digital TV when the switch is made because even the engineers estimate that 2% of the country will not be able to receive the signal).

The Blair Government’s attitude towards the Royal Mail displays the profit-is-all mentality as well. They have not had the nerve to go for outright privatisation, but this may well come in the next few years – the Royal Mail chairman Alan Leighton, is currently lobbying for Royal Mail workers to be given a 20% share of the business. (Daily telegraph 14 10 2006). If the scheme goes through it would presumably make it much less likely that Royal Mail employees would resist outright privatisation as that would improve the market for their shares.

The hand of the EU is also to be found in Royal Mail. As mentioned before, the EU competition rules have forced Royal Mail to compete with private companies for much of their business and adopt inconvenient practices such as having to measure letters because Royal Mail can no longer do what it has done for a century and half, deliver letters under a certain weight no matter what their size.

39. Can we afford better public services?

The GDP of the UK is approximately £1.1 trillion (note trillion not billion – a trillion is a thousand thousand million). In the financial year 2006/7 the British government will spend approximately £500 billion. The size of the economy and the British budget alone suggests that there is considerable scope for economies and changed priorities.

 There are immediate substantial savings which could be made. The Treasury per capita funding of the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish is approximately £1,400 pa per head greater than the per capita funding of the English. If the Celts’ funding was reduced to the English level – note to not below the English level – that would save £14 billion.

Foreign Aid is scheduled to rise to above £6 billion pa in the next few years. After 40 years or so since decolonisation it is reasonable to ask why the British taxpayer is still funding supposedly independent states.

Britain’s present contribution to the EU is around £12 billion. About two thirds returns to Britain leaving a deficit of £4 billion. However, much of the £8 billion is only spent because we are within the EU, for example the agricultural support payments. It is not unreasonable to assume that at least half of the £8 billion would not need to be spent if we were not in the EU. Leaving the EU could plausibly represent a saving of £8 billion. Thus, those three areas alone – the over-funding of the Celtic Fringe, foreign Aid and the EU – could produce a saving of around £28 billion.

What departmental reductions could reasonably be made? Some departments are frankly difficult to justify at all in terms of any useful activity, for example, Trade and Industry, while others have large swathes of administration which exist only because of every modern government’s mania for trying to regulate everything, for example, the Department of the Environment. Such departments could be much reduced or lost altogether if a government was brave enough to make a bonfire of unnecessary regulations. It is also true that even in those public organisations which do a thoroughly necessary job, there is often genuine overmanning, ie, overmanning beyond that required to cope with all likely circumstances, to be found. For example, the heavylayers of bureaucracy inflicted on the NHS by “reforms” over the past twenty years could be substantially reduced if the “front end”financial controls advocated in section ? were introduced.

At the level of strategic decisions money could often be better spent. Take defence and large computer projects. Our armed forces are being shaped not to defend Britain but to engage in action abroad. A good example of this is the ordering of two giant aircraft carriers at a cost (with planes) estimated to be £13 billion, not far short of our present annual defence budget. Such carriers are also hideously expensive to run and require large numbers of ships to defend and supply them. They are also vulnerable to missile attack. By ordering them the whole defence budget has been distorted. Moreover, they have absolutely no military value in defending the UK for any defending aircraft can be launched from land. If our defence forces were restricted to the defence of the UK, our present defence spending would be sufficient at worst and at best might prove more than was necessary and could be cut.

Large scale government computer projects have been an unmitigated disaster, from passports to the ongoing farce that is the NHS computer system which is intended to link every GPs’ records with every hospital. Any large computer system changes the structure of how an organisation works. It means that the people have to work to the machines’ limitations rather than doing the job as best they can.

This means that vast amounts of resources of both money and manpower have to be devoted to training staff, maintaining the system and coping with thesystem when it fails. That alone should raise a question in any organisation as to whether any particular computerisation is wise or necessary. When an organisation is as large as the average government body, the questions looms very large indeed because the costs of such systems and their failures are vast.

Take the case of the NHS system mentioned above. The estimated upfront costs of this ran into several billions initially. That cost has already multiplied a few times and doubtless will continue rising. It is quite possible that if the system is ever completed more than £10 billion will have been spent – and that takes no account of the hidden costs of restructuring the organisation to accommodate the system. Even if it was a success the question has to be asked was it money well spent? Does it really add much to the smooth running of the NHS for hospital staff to be able to access GPs records immediately or GPs to be able to access hospital records? I would suggest it does not. If hospitals or GPs need such information they can get it rapidly by using email. Would not the œ10 billion or more have been better spent keeping wards and hospitals open?

The other problem with large-scale government computer systems is that they do not work properly or even at all. There is every indication from IT experts that this NHS system will not work as a national system and that all the taxpayer will get for his or her money are some remnants of the system which will work within limited areas such as a single hospital trust.

There is also a role for one-off hypothecated taxes, that is,  taxes earmarked for a definite purpose. Suppose £10 billion extra is needed to build and renovate hospitals. A government could impose a new tax to be collected once only to raise that amount. Most taxpayers would support such a tax if it was going to a cause of which they approved. It would also avoid the bane of the taxpayer that once a tax is imposed it normally remains indefinitely. As such a tax would be a one-off, it would not suffer the usual objections to hypothecated taxes, such as the fact that the amount raised could not be guaranteed to correspond with the amount needed for the designated purpose or that people would only support hypothecated taxes for popular causes if all taxes were hypothecated.

Finally, there a great deal of money to be saved by removing all the politically correct trappings from within public service. To give an idea of the scale of that expenditure consider the case of the Metropolitan Police. Last year they spent on “equality and diversity training” £187 million, one sixth of the force’s budget (London Evening Standard 27 10 2006). Apart from the money spent, there is also the loss of efficiency and morale created by the habit public servants have had to develop of constantly watching what they say and do.

40. Does social provision corrupt?

One of the favourite arguments against social provision is that it corrupts the receiver by making them dependent and ultimately damages society by significantly reducing initiative and making people selfish. The facts do not bear this out as a general proposition – there will always be some free riders in a welfare state. Today we have a society in which the self-help gospel is constantly preached, people work longer and longer hours and most mothers work at least part time. This has produced a society in which the birthrate has dropped well below replacement rate. During the period when state provision was most heartily endorsed as part of the national furniture (1945-1979) the birthrate was above replacement rate. The ability and willingness tobreed is surely the ultimate indicator of the health of a society.

But that is not to say all social provision is benign. It is one thing for a society to provide those things which most cannot be reasonably be expected to provide for themselves, but quite another to build dependency into the system. That is what has happened in Britain where more than half the population now draw some sort of public monetary support. Some of those benefits are part of the legitimate armoury of social provision, for example, child benefit, unemployment benefit, sickness benefit and old age pensions. Others are not.

The most pernicious of the current benefits is Working Families Tax Credit, which can be drawn by families with a household income of over £50,000. This is a scheme in a long line of similar ones dating back to the old Poor Law of 1601. It is the granting of state money to those in work. The best known Poor Law example was the Speenhamland System  of the 18th century which allowed outdoor relief to those (primarily agricultural labourers) whose wages fell below a certain level. The result was predictable. Where the scheme operated employers dropped the wages they paid to the level where the Parish (which administered the Poor Law) made up the wages through outdoor relief to those whose wages were lowered.

The Speenhamland System was a subsidy to employers. So is the Working Families Tax Credit. All it results in is employers paying lower  wages. That is not because they are all evil grasping men or women.  Lower wages are forced on all employers because there will always be a substantial number of employers who will take advantage of opportunity offered by any government subsidy to lower their wages. That means all employers must do so to compete.

Apart from the fact that it siphons off large amounts of taxpayers money, Working Families Tax Credit is a pernicious form of subsidy because it makes employers who employ many low wage workers dependent on its continuance, which obviously cannot be guaranteed. Either a  future British Government may decide to abolish it of their own free will or tax harmonisation within the EU may force them to do so.

If it is abolished, such companies will be left stranded because they will have to pay higher wages. Moreover, the subsidy they are receiving now will cause them to be less efficient than they would have been without it. On the other side of the employment coin, families receiving the benefit will also be left high and dry if it ends, for they will have altered their lives according to the income they have received.

This type of structural dependency has evil effects beyond the economic because it can distort the democratic process. If sufficient people become dependent on a benefit such as tax credits they may make it next to impossible for any party wishing to be elected to propose its abolition because to have such a policy will drive anyone in receipt of the benefit to another party which supports its continuance.

41. The future of public provision

The present outlook for public provision is dismal going on hopeless. The Blair Government, having aimlessly thrown vast amounts of extra money at direct
public services such as the NHS to no good effect, is attempting to cover its political blushes by funding much future public provision through private finance and private corporate involvement.

The policy is being introduced into every conceivable part of our public service from the running of prisons to the administration of NHS hospitals. This provokes remarkably little political debate despite the fact that it not only radically changes the relationship between the public and the service they are paying for, but has already proved to be more expensive than direct provision in many instances. Despite the ever more dismaying experience of railway privatisation, Blair’s Government in its second term permitted the part-privatisation of the Air Traffic Control system and careered on in mindless fashion with plans to part privatise the London Tube system and to introduce private finance into a multiplicity of public enterprises from roads to social housing. On the supply side of the public service coin, Labour increasingly stands aside from providing any new direct public provision, no matter how obvious the need in areas such as housing.

Despite David Cameron’s “Tories aren’t complete bastards, honest!” propaganda campaign, the Conservative Opposition are still immobilized in the morass of Thatcherism. Look behind Cameron’s “right on” language and it is clear that the party still instinctively feels the welfare state is bloated and views the direct state provision of goods or services as a recipe for waste and incompetence ay best and as ideologically unsound at worst. The Tory Party continues to advocate private provision wherever they dare and private finance in public projects for virtually everything else in those areas where they do not have the courage to go the whole hog and say that the individual should be left to fend for themselves. The distance between NuTory soft words and policy was nicely encapsulated by Cameron’s portrayal of himself at the 2006 Tory Party Conference as “the defender of the NHS”, while remaining quite content to allow ever more private business involvement in the NHS.

There is a further fly in the direct provision ointment. EU Competition rules are forcing Britain to destroy or greatly reduce in effectiveness some aspects of public provision, for example valuable and justified public monopolies such as Royal Mail (dying the death of a thousand competitive cuts – see section 38) and the 192 directory enquiries system (abolished).

The EU is also threatening public provision through attempts to restrict public spending, for example, Reuters reports (12 10 2006) that the European Commission (EC) is attempting to reduce public spending throughout the EU to prepare for the “pensions crisis” which is supposed to engulf the EU over the next half century.

The EC claims that unless something is done, public debt within the EU will treble to 200 per cent of GDP by 2050. This is reckless scaremongering because no one can meaningfully predict demographic trends that far into the future, let alone the immense economic changes that will happen over such a period. Sadly, that fact will have little bearing on whether the EC will be successful in their quest to cut public spending because that will be a political decision not a rational one. As cuts in public spending would fit neatly with the present “public service bad, private business good” ideology adopted by so many governments within the EU, there is a fair chance the EC will be at least partially successful.

If the EC is successful, any cuts in public spending would in theory bear heaviest on members of the Euro (and thus not Britain) because Euro members are legally committed to keeping their deficits within limits (pause for hollow laugh). However, past experience suggests that whether Britain is a member of the Euro or not, she will find the same rules imposed on her by EU hook or by EU crook to ensure “equality” throughout the EU. (It is worth noting that Britain is already morally committed to keeping within the Euro public spending deficit limits).

Mass immigration is also undermining public provision. It does this in two ways. First, immigrants compete for the social provision Britain offers because the British system allows many millions of foreigners who have not contributed anything to enjoy the full benefits of the considerable public provision available to a British citizen. Any person granted the right to reside permanently in Britain qualifies. That includes some 400 million EU nationals and anyone else legally resident within the EU. British citizens have reciprocal rights in other EU countries but these rights merely require each EU member state to grant the same social provision rights to Britons as they do their own citizens. The social provision in many of the EU states is, as a package, considerably inferior to that offered in Britain. It is also true that far more foreign EU nationals settle in Britain than Britons settle in the rest of the EU – Britain is particularly vulnerable to such immigration because English is the second language of choice for so many foreign EU nationals and the Blair Government, unlike almost all other EU states, made no attempt to stop immigrants from the EU new entrant states such as Polnd.

To the EU population legally entitled to settle may be added those granted asylum, the dependent foreign relatives of British citizens in Britain who are granted the right to join their relatives in Britain, the spouses of those who marry British citizens and those allowed to remain on compassionate grounds, foreign students from outside the EU and those granted work permits.

Finally, many of those who are here illegally manage to obtain access to British social provision by fraud. There is also the problem of “health tourism”, whereby foreigners come to Britain simply to obtain free treatment on the NHS – they are frequently successful because the NHS in practice rarely checks a patient’s immigration status.

All of this puts a tremendous extra burden on the British taxpayer and causes widespread resentment amongst the native population who naturally think that they should not be paying for foreigners or having to compete for the social provision which exists. The poorer members of society are particularly affected because they are the ones who most need social provision, especially in the areas of housing and healthcare – the poorer the area the more need for social housing and often the medical services available locally are meagre compared with more prosperous neighbourhoods. The success of the BNP in Dagenham at the local elections in May 2006 was due in part to the issue of social housing being perceived to be being swallowed up by recent immigrants.

The second way immigration weakens social provision is more subtle. If it is perceived by the native population that large amounts of money are being spent on foreigners, many, particularly those who are less in need of social provision, will begin to question its value at all. This is important because for social provision to be maintained in the long term it requires a general social acceptance. If the better off start to feel they should be paying less for that which they do not use (the better off actually get a very good deal out of the taxpayer – see section 4) there is the danger that necessary social provision will be significantly lessened.

What applies to first generation immigrants also applies to members of ethnic minorities who are born in a country. There are sufficient academic studies (for example, Welfare, Ethnicity and Altruism ed. Frank Salter) of how ethnicity affects the willingness to pay for public provision to tell a clear story: people generally are more willing to support public provision where the provision goes to their own ethnic group.

The public, which is generally in favour of the Welfare State and other public provision such as education, stands helpless, trapped by a stagnant political system which offers them no choice. The ordinary working man is alarmed and resentful to see whole swathes of British industry vanishing as his political leaders tell him this is “inevitable” as employers look abroad for cheap labour. He is nervous when he hears constant calls to introduce private money into public services. Yet he finds that whatever he thinks it does not matter because neither the Labour or the Conservative parties offers him a conduit for his political wishes for both parties disagree with him. Nor can he gain access to the media to express his dissatisfaction or engage in debate. In short, the ordinary elector is practically disenfranchised.

42. Why is the repudiation of public provision happening?

It is easy to see why the Tories are supporting private initiatives over public, but what about Labour? Why are they so determined to go against all their tradition? The answer lies in a mixture of ideological change, expediency and international treaties.

The Labour Party is engaged in an ideological war. New Labour believes it transformed itself into an electable entity in the 1990s by repudiating the Party’s past. Whether that is true is irrelevant for our purposes. (My own view, for what it is worth, is that the Tory Party simply came to the end of the political road and Blair came in by default). What matters is that the received opinion amongst those who control the party today is that the Blairite “re-modelling” was the cause of Labour returning to power.

Blair’s government has increased public spending considerably. The problem is that it has been done shamefacedly and without any clear sense of direction or commitment that neither those in the public services nor the public have any clear idea of what the Government wants or how it will achieve it. Money has been flung at public services and individuals haphazardly, in the manner of a man making a religious or charitable offering, the giving being the important act.

At the same time as direct public spending has increased, the Government has crashed on with introducing ever more private money and private business activity into public service. Those in the public service do not know whether they are coming or going and the public just see more and more money being spent apparently to no good purpose. The consequence is both a blurring of the lines between public and private and a general feeling, whether justified or not, amongst the public that the future is horribly uncertain for public provision, a feeling made more poignant by the absence of any meaningful political opposition to what is happening. The danger is that much public provision could fall by default in such circumstances with the public becoming defeatist about the power of the state to provide the basics where the individual cannot.

Old Labour was and is wholeheartedly pro-public service. New Labour has to a significant but one-sided degree donned the economic clothes of Thatcherism. They have not in practice retained the low tax, low spend part of Thatcherism, (although in truth that was often more observed in theory than practice during the Thatcher years). What they have accepted with the fervour of the religious convert is the Thatcherite commitment to introducing private enterprise into public matters, either directly or through sub-contacting. In particular they want the burdensome government responsibility for complex organisations such as the NHS to be placed either at one remove in so-called freestanding agencies or, even better, cast adrift entirely into fully fledged private business where the public will pay directly rather than through their taxes.

This is not done from noble or even purely ideological motives. It is largely grubby expediency, both at the national and international level. On the domestic front, if a service can be put entirely outside the public realm, the government loses a responsibility. It neither has to account to the public for the service nor raise the money to pay for it. The public pays directly and the one time public employees cease to be a charge on the public purse, both as employees and as future pensioners.

Of course, the provision of some services is so absolutely essential that the government cannot shuffle off all responsibility – such as health and welfare provision – but even there they distance themselves by placing responsibility with so-called freestanding units such as the Benefits Agency or by diluting direct public control through contracting out such jobs as cleaning, transport and food supply. The advantages for the Government are two. First, the government has the opportunity to muddy the waters by saying that the people providing a poor service, for example, hospital cleaners, are not government workers (thus giving the spurious impression that the government are not responsible). Second, overt long-term costs are reduced because no pension costs are incurred by the taxpayer. I say overt because often such savings are offset by increased benefit take-up by those made unemployed, take low paid jobs which qualify them for benefit or who require more state aid in old age because they have no adequate workplace pension.

Although Labour has accepted the distancing of government from direct provision of public services part of Thatcherism, it has not accepted the other half of the equation, that government control of private enterprise should be slackened as much as possible. Judged by their performance since 1997, Labour’s general economic tactic at present is to control business without owning it. This, ironically for a government supposedly of the left, is the classic economic tactic of fascism.

Those are the mundane, dirty causes of the trend towards a repudiation of public provision, but there is also the question of psychology. The most corrosive aspect of politics is ideology. (The only sane way of approaching politics is to ask what ends you wish to achieve and then seek the means to achieve them. The means are important in as much as they should not be immoral or their employment in some way to compromise the desired ends.)

By ideology I mean a political creed which purports to have the  answer to everything. Marxism does that with its attachment to the  inexorable march of the dialectic through history: Neo-Liberalism does it with its quasi-religious belief in the market. It is the latter which has captured modern British politics, at least at the level of those who control the major parties.

Neo-liberalism, like Marxism, has considerable emotional rewards for its disciples because it offers a complete explanation of and guide to action for its disciples. The need for hard thought is removed, all the disciple has to do is refer to set principles and interpret any situation in their light. It is the type of creed to appeal to the religious temperament such as Blair’s.

The Blair Government is reflecting a general trend in the First World. We are moving into an age of plutocracy, of a time when the rich use their power to advance their own interests without concern for the poor and the poor have no power to stop them.

Nor is it only the poor who are affected. The middle classes may ape the rich and parrot their ideology, but they are increasingly finding it more and more difficult to sustain the lifestyle which people in their position had previously taken for granted, such things as home ownership, private schools and even a university education having all become so expensive that even an income well above the average cannot meet them all.

There is nothing surprising in this behaviour. Elites as a group will always behave selfishly at best and be deliberately abusively at worst.There may be individuals within an elite who will have a genuine concern for the poor – Lord Shaftesbury in the 19th Century for example with his campaign against child labour – but their concern will be corralled both by the limitations of their social horizon and by self-interest. Often a humanitarian cause will be divorced from the general inhumanity of the conditions of the poor – Wilberforce’s anti-Slavery campaign is a classic example. Very rarely indeed do members of an elite give up t eir own material privilege – two examples are the philosopher Wittgenstein and the Victorian English missionary C.T. Studd who both gave away their inherited wealth. However, even they did not give it to the poor, but transferred it to other members of their family.

All human institutions become corrupted by elite self-interest. The German sociologist Robert Michels developed the notion of the iron law of oligarchy early in the last century. He intended it to explain why institutions and movements supposedly devoted to the promotion of the interests of the poor, for example Social Democratic parties and trade unions, invariably became corrupted into being vehicles primarily for the promotion of the interests of those who gained power within them. In fact, what he was describing was a general behaviour associated with any formal institution. They invariably become a vehicle primarily for the promotion of the interests of those who gain power within the institution. Its ostensible purpose will be pursued to a degree but only in so much as it does not clash with the interests of its controllers. If we accept that elites will always exist because human  society is inevitably hierarchical, the central political question becomes how far can the masses prevent thwart the naturally abusive tendencies of the elite? For most of history the masses have been generally very unsuccessful in this aim. Their only times of success have come within the context of the modern nation state.

43. The nation state – the only democratic platform

Democracy in the literal direct sense does not exist in the modern world, indeed for practical reasons cannot exist in a state of any size. What we have is what political scientists call elective oligarchy, a political system whereby the electorate is offered a choice ever few years between competing parts of a society’s elite.

That paints a dismal picture for the masses. However, even within an elective oligarchy, they can exercise considerable control given the right circumstances. What the masses can do and have done for most of the past century and a half in Britain is exert an ever increasing control over the elite through representative institutions. But they have only been able to do this because the representative institutions have operated within the context of the national state. Elites as groups have been forced to take heed of the masses because they relied upon their votes to be re-elected and the system worked by and large because the major political parties offered a meaningful alternative on the most of the great issues.

In the past thirty years our political circumstances have changed dramatically. Two things have happened. The freedom of action of the Government and Parliament has been greatly reduced and the political parties have become ideologically aligned.

Entanglement in the EU has resulted in a majority of British legislation ultimately originating not in Parliament but within the European Commission, while various treaties have removed whole swathes of political choice from the electorate, ranging from proper control over foreign policy and border control to the pursuit of a national economic policy. Most profoundly the European single market agreement and the GATT treaty arrangements and membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have left British parties with no choice of economic policy, or as things stand they have to support the notions of free markets and free trade. Any party wishing to offer protectionism and state intervention in the economy cannot do it unless they commit themselves to withdraw from the EU and WTO.

The consequence of the our membership of the EU and our other treaties is that our politicians in practice can offer very little difference in policy to the electorate. And, of course, our politicians find it convenient to use our EU membership and other treaty obligations to excuse themselves from responsibility for unpopular measures or as justification for forcing through vast amounts of detailed legislation which Parliament, let alone the electorate, is barely aware is being passed into law.

The position is worsened by the careerism of the modern politician. This has always existed to a degree, but what we have now is of a different order of magnitude. The really depressing thing about the House of Commons now is the sheer narrowness of experience of the members, many of whom have never had a career other than their political one. Hence, once on the political career bandwagon they cannot afford to get off. The current bandwagon is the internationalist one.

Internationalisation od economics and politics dissolves national sovereignty. The left may cheer this but they are discovering by the day just how restrictive international treaties and membership of supranational groups can be. As things stand, through our membership of the EU and the World Trade Organisation treaties, no British government could introduce new socialist measures because they cannot nationalise companies, protect their own commerce and industry or even ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent in Britain with British firms. As far as economics is concerned, a British government can have any economic system they like provided it is largely free trade, free enterprise.

The Right are suffering the same sickness with different symptoms. They find that they are no longer masters in their own house. They cannot meaningfully appeal to traditional national interests because treaties and EU membership make that impossible. Control of national borders has gone.

A reversion to nationalism need not be a party political matter in Britain, but the modern British left are unfortunately conditioned to believe that the national state is at best outmoded and at worst xenophobic, racist even. This ignores both the history of the mainstream British left and mistakes form for content.

The Labour Party for almost all of its existence has been strongly protectionist and hence de facto in favour ofthe nation state. Indeed, Blair in the late 1980s was still an economic nationalist. Moreover, for most of the time Labour has been consciously in favour of the nation state and of Britain’s independence – few could give the likes of Attlee and Bevin lessons in patriotism.

As for mistaking form for content, it is simply a matter of empirical fact that the nation state does not produce a uniform behaviour – take Switzerland and Iraq from the present day as examples of that. The idea that nation state equals aggressive, xenophobic, badly behaved warmonger is a literal nonsense. In particular, there is good empirical evidence that where there is significant democratic control within a nation state, this makes aggressive war much less likely than where a dictatorship exists.

It is also true that supranational bodies are not noticeably better behaved than nation states. Worse, they have a large element of the sham in them, being invariably dominated by the more powerful component states, for example, the UN being heavily manipulated by the USA and the EU broadly controlled by its major members. Supranational bodies are not simply vehicles for the normal process of power-mongering, but, in practice, that is their prime function. That they give a spurious appearance of international agreement and legitimacy adds to the ability of the dominating states within them to exercise control over weaker states by direct threats, the withholding of money and, most insidiously, the development of bureaucracies which carry forward the policies forced on the supranational bodies by the most powerful members. ( It is often said that the UN has no power. This is utterly mistaken. It may not have an army but there is a vast web of agencies which allow a great deal of control and influence to be exercised over states which seek their assistance. Some such as the IMF and World Bank control client countries from the outside, while others such as UNHCR permit direct internal interference on the ground.)

44. Conclusion

Nothing I have written is meant to suggest that private enterprise is not the best way of managing most human economic activity. Being in favour of public services and the welfare state does not mean being in favour of spending for spending’s sake. Nor does it mean recklessly advocating public provision regardless of the cost.

History shows that governments are poor at managing enterprises in comparison to private business where proper competition exists and universal provision of the basics of life are not at stake. Nor should the government provide directly where the provision of money to those in need will solve the problem. It would be grossly inefficient, for example, if a government decided to supply food directly to people in need rather than give them the money to buy the food and even more outlandish if the Government decided they had to produce the food as well as supply it.

But there are some items which are beyond the realistic reach of most people. The provision of healthcare, education and a liveable pension in old age are absolute necessities because few of the population can undertake the cost of providing for these for themselves and their children. It is also essential that decent housing is available for all and the state should intervene to ensure its provision.

As a matter of policy direct public provision should be restricted to areas of service where universal provision is required and where it cannot be supplied by private businesses because of the need to make a profit.

It is also unhappily true that bureaucracies have no natural size. If a government is willing and the tax revenues sufficient, there is no end to the expansion of administrate for administration’s sake. Strict limits need to be put on the number of administrators, the limits to be set by deciding in advance what is to be provided and how much it will cost.

Universal provision has the advantage of simplicity and of maintaining the dignity of recipients. That rich and poor are eligible for the same provision is neither here no there because any seeming redundancy in providing benefits to the better off can be adjusted through the tax system, that is,  the richer you are the more income tax you should pay. (The very rich and the self-employed to a degree can avoid income tax, but most cannot).

Mixing public and private, as with PFI, fatally blurs lines of responsibility. This means that when things go wrong no one is held responsible. Politicians point the figure of blame at public servants running “arms-length offices” such as the Benefits Agency or the private companies which have supplied the service, civil servants point at private companies or even, whisper it softly, politicians, and private businessmen blame politicians and civil servants. The taxpayer is left with the worst of all worlds, the ultimate responsibility for picking up the bill but no meaningful control over how it is spent.

Necessary and desirable as public provision is, it should be, like private charity, a safety net not an end in itself. Monetary benefits to those of working age should not be so generous as to dull or even remove the desire and need to work where the individual is capable of doing so. Take away the need for private effort and the economy will suffer.

Supporters of public provision should always keep firmly in mind the fact that the money from the provision comes from the profits of private business. Take too much from that and the less there is for reinvestment and the starting of new businesses. In high tax, high regulation economies there is a considerable disincentive effect on business generally with a marked tendency for domestic companies to move to countries with a more friendly tax and regulatory regime and for foreign companies not to invest. That in turn will reduce the amount of future profit and private employment and consequently lessen the tax available for public provision. It is important not to kill the goose which lays the golden egg. This should be obvious, but all too often the supporters of public provision seem incapable of making the link between public spending and the ultimate source of the taxes which fund it.

In short, public provision should be kept to the minimum of what is  necessary for an advanced, civilised and stable communityand that provision should be adequate but not lavish. What needs to be understood above all is that if public provision is lost, the large majority of the population will find not that it is choice between public services and private services. Rather they will find the choice is between much reduced services or no services at all.

What should be public and what should be private?

Robert Henderson

Since 1979 every British government has perpetually tinkered with the balance  between private or state provision. Despite the Thatcherite cry for small government the state has has spent  a very large slice of GDP t throughout that time, In 1979 the percentage was 42.75% and in 2010 45.45% The lowest in the period was 34.25%  in 1989 (http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/uk_20th_century_chart.html).  However, there have been considerable changes in how the money has been spent.  All the major  nationalised industries have been placed in private hands, Britain’s defence capability has been reduced dramatically;  great swathes of public provision has been either put out to private contract entirely or restructured through mixed public/private enterprises such as the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and council houses have been  sold off without any attempt to replace them ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing for the future.

Recent governments of any political colour have shown themselves to be firmly in the globalist camp and have allowed more or less unrestricted immigration which has both restricted employment opportunities for native Britons and reduced  wages.  This has added to the massive  unemployment, admitted and disguised, which was created by the structural unemployment resulting from the destruction of Britain’s heavy manufacturing and extractive industries in the 1980s. The immigrants have  also competed for houses and public services  such as education and healthcare.  All of these things mean that much more of public spending goes on the Welfare State and allied services than it did in 1980.

The globalist mania is still upon us with the belief in all major parties that the market is the panacea. This leads the present government to  continue with the idea that anything done by private enterprise is by definition superior to that which is provided by the state, the two great privatising pushes being to privatise the NHS by stealth and the Royal Mail by any means possible, with the first  tentative steps to sell off the country’s roads being taken in their wake. There is next to no serious discussion about what should be privately  and what should be publicly provided. This essay is an attempt to fill that gap by asking the question what should be provided by the state and what should be left to private business and not-for-profit organisations such as charities.

It is easy in principle to decide whether something should be left to private or public enterprise. Simply ask five questions:

(1) Is the service or product generally considered to be a necessity?

(2) Will profit compromise safety?

(3) Is the service obviously inappropriate to be left in private

hands, for example policing or defence?

(4) Can the service be provided by private enterprise without subsidy?

(5) Can free enterprise be reasonably expected to deliver the necessity universally?

If the answer to any of (1)(2)(3) is YES or the answer to either (4) or (5) NO, then it should in principle be provided either directly or indirectly by the state.

What should be provided directly by the state?

Certain things should be reserved to the state as a matter of absolute principle. They are defence, foreign policy, policing, justice, the implementation of judicial sentences and decisions and the administration of welfare. They should be reserved absolutely because either they involve the use of force or the threat of force, punishment or the distribution of taxpayers’ money in areas such as unemployment benefit.

For reasons which I shall shortly examine, the state should also directly control any essential service which is a natural monopoly. What counts as a natural monopoly? Railways and utilities such as water and energy are examples They are natural monopolies because it is simply not practical to have competing lines running to the same destinations or competing utility pipes and cables supplying the same area.

It is possible, as has happened in some of the British privatisations, to allow different companies to compete to supply services such as trains, energy and water, but that is at best an insufficient or incomplete competition and at worst a wholly bogus one because the actual lines of supply – the railway track and the pipes or cables – still have to be maintained and owned by some organisation, private or public. That means the infrastructure has to be either owned publicly or, if owned by a private company, the company must be rigorously controlled by the state, as is the case with the British telephone landline infrastructure which is owned by the privatised British Telecom.

British government interference with natural monopolies since privatisation has gone far beyond controlling the infrastructure. In the case of the railways, a considerable public subsidy has been paid and continues to be paid to the private operators. In every monopoly industry a regulator has been appointed to control both prices and, in theory at least, to force companies to do things such as provide a certain level of investment in new equipment and to be conscientious when it comes to maintenance and operation of the infrastructure. To pretend that these monopoly industries are private companies working in a free market is patently absurd. They are effectively public services contracted out to private contractors.

A few services only work as monopolies, the classic example being the universal letter post, that is, letters delivered to any part of a territory for the same price. This only works if it is a monopoly because if there is competition from private companies or municipal postal services they will take sufficient of the profitable trade in the towns and cities to make it impossible for the universal supplier, in this country the Royal Mail, to subsidise the loss making deliveries to parts of the country outside the main urban centres. No private company would ever provide universal coverage unless they had a monopoly.

Why should the state directly control essential monopolies? Firstly, because there is no opportunity for meaningful competition and consequently the state must step in to prevent abuse of the monopoly position. To do that, as we have seen, it has to interfere very strongly with the running of the monopolies. In practice, it can only efficiently do this if it directly controls the monopoly.

If the state subcontracts an essential monopoly to private business or allows private business to buy a monopoly two general problems arise. The first difficulty is that a private business may at any point fail as a business or simply refuse to continue with a contract if it is not making money for the business. If that happens the state is over a barrel because it does not have the resources to immediately take over the enterprise, nor is it probable that another private company would be able or willing to step in at a moment’s notice – the worst outcome would be the cessation of a vital industry. Nor, if a company failed, is it obvious how a Government would prevent its assets being sold by a liquidator. In principle when Railtrack failed – the company which after privatisation had the responsibility for maintaining the infrastructure of the British rail network – the shareholders owned the assets (the railway infrastructure including much highly profitable land) and the creditors had a legitimate charge on them.

Clearly no government could allow the railway or vital industries such as water, gas and electricity simply to go under, either at the national or regional level. Hence, any government will, when shove comes to push, have to pay through the nose (your taxpaying nose in fact) to maintain the threatened industry, whether that be through enhancing a contract to make it more profitable, granting more profitable contracts to a new private contractor or through the payment of outright subsidies. A government is in a similar bind if a company is doing a bad job: they cannot simply sack them because who is to take their place?

Natural monopolies also raise other problems if they are in private hands. There is insufficient public control over areas such as maintenance and strategic planning. Good British examples can be found in the privatised water and energy industries. In the case of water the privatised companies have failed to invest adequately to stop the considerable loss of water from cracked pipes. Nor has a single major reservoir been built in England since privatisation. These investment failures have occurred despite the water companies consistently making healthy profits. The Water Regulator huffs and puffs but achieves little because the water companies know he can do little. Indeed, he has to date not even fully used the powers he has despite issuing many warnings to the water companies. And the Government? Well, they could pass a new law giving them direct powers over the water industry but what then? If a water company simply refuses to do what is needed where does the Government go? Nowhere fast is the answer.

With energy it is the strategic planning which is emasculated. Successive British governments have allowed Britain to sleepwalk into a position where the country went rapidly from being self-sufficient in energy to becoming a net importer. This was entirely predictable as it was known long before it happened that North Sea oil and gas was going to decline substantially from the beginning of the century. Despite this no meaningful strategic planning has taken place since privatisation with governments until very recently childishly claiming that it was not for them to interfere in the actual provision of energy now the industry is privately owned (the Blair Government has just woken up to the strategic danger of being dependent on foreign supplies but even now -2006 – no definite decision has been made on future British energy policy). The upshot of this lack of planning has been rapidly rising energy prices since 2005.

If water and the energy utilities had remained in public ownership, the fact that politicians had ultimate responsibility for them would have ensured that maintenance and strategic planning was not neglected because no politician or government could afford to be blamed for a water crisis or soaring power prices. Government could also subsidise  prices, something it cannot do now even if it chose to because of EU  competition rules. . The same principle applies to most of the privatised industries – take away the political responsibility and the profit motive rules.

Certain things are simply too important to be left to private efforts. Natural monopolies such as the railways, water and gas are literally essential to the survival of an advanced state such as Britain. Because of that stark fact alone they need to be treated as something much more than a commodity which can be simply left to the market. They should to be seen for what they are, strategic assets, and placed firmly under national control.

There is a further general reason why essential monopolies should be in public hands – the need for general provision. Left to private enterprise, even with an unfettered monopoly only the profitable parts of an industry would be supplied. Roads and railways would only be maintained if the traffic warranted it. Gas, electricity, water and telecommunications would only be supplied where sufficient profit could be made. The problem is we do not want roads and railways only over profitable routes, or the utilities such as gas and water supplied only to urban areas. We want them over the entire country. Only public provision can truly satisfy that need. Of course, private companies can have a duty to provide a general provision placed on the them but what if none is willing to take it or they take on the responsibility but then fail to meet it? The government then has to decide to either subsidise the company directly or to loosen the contract conditions to which the company has agreed.

The final type of enterprise which the state should always take in hand are those which experience tells us are beyond the resources of private business. Private enterprise can never be trusted to handle Tunnel. Margaret Thatcher insisted that no British public money would be involved and that private enterprise would bear the entire cost. It soon became clear that this was a nonsense. The Tunnel itself was completed but the companies which built it were not so much bankrupt as on another planet called Debt. And this was despite the very serious amounts of money pumped into the enterprise by the French Government,  both directly and indirectly. The situation was rescued, if one can dignify what happened with the word, by the banks and other  creditors rescheduling debts so far into the future that they all but vanished and the French Government surreptitiously pushing in more money via the French banks. To this day, the Channel Tunnel is the whitest of white private enterprise elephants, with the latest ” debt restructuring” always just around the corner.

Direct provision also has a further benefit. While assets are publicly owned and employees directly paid by the state, it is politically much more difficult to reduce or abolish that part of public provision. If the provision is supplied by a private company their contract can simply not be renewed or cancelled. If the provision is directly supplied, the government has the ticklish problem of having to take responsibility for the redundancies, something which greatly raises the profile of the removal of the provision.

The best example of the dangers of losing direct provision is the gradual privatisation by stealth of the NHS. To suddenly privatise the entire NHS would be impossible, but salami slice it over ten or fifteen years by continually increasing the private sector involvement and the position is completely different. Then the politician can use excuses such as “So much of it is in private hands now that the rest might as well be,” “We can’t have such a comprehensive service because private companies can’t provide it” and “Costs have risen so much that we have to cut this or that”. The whole system will be such a confused mess of public and private that the public will not know what to think. Also, the privatisation by stealth may have surreptitiously changed the way the public view the NHS so they see it no longer as a national institution but merely as a provider of medical care through disparate means. That in itself would reduce the moral outrage needed for any successful public protest.

The railways – a classic public service

The railways in Britain are not simply a private enterprise. They are a necessity to maintain general economic activity. Take away the railways and a substantial part of those employed in London could not continue to work there because the roads will not take the extra traffic. The same applies, to a lesser degree, to other large cities and towns.

The railways also fulfill an important social functions in providing transport to those without cars, by reducing car use generally and moving much heavy goods traffic from the roads. Finally, railways have a strategic value in times of war or blockade.

Without massive public subsidy the railways could not be maintained. No national railway system in the First World operates without taxpayers’ subsidy. Parts of systems may be profitable but not the entire system. It is not that our railways would simply shrink if left entirely to private enterprise, most of the system would not run at all. Commuter traffic is running at near capacity in the South East of England and fares are already so high generally that the massive price hike needed to meet the full cost of rail travel would result in a vicious circle of decreased traffic and decreased revenue.

The cost of maintaining Britain’s railways is simply beyond the private sector. Profit can be made on some intercity routes but that is about it. Even with the massive subsidies given to private companies since privatisation – ironically substantially larger than the pre-privatisation subsidies in real terms – private companies have signally failed to invest adequately. Indeed, the companies have radically reduced staffing levels – which may well have contributed to some crashes – and have constantly failed to meet their timetables.

The farce of the company with responsibility for railway maintenance immediately after privatisation in Britain, Railtrack, is a cautionary tale in itself. It created a completely different culture from that under the nationalised railways. Instead of employing most of the labour directly, they engaged subcontractors to do most of the work. The army of skilled workers built up by the original private companies and inherited by the nationalised ritish Rail was dispersed in reckless fashion and, inevitably, control over standards of maintenance became much diluted as it always does with subcontracting.

To put the cherry on the Railtrack story, the financial resources of the company, even with public subsidies, proved hopelessly inadequate. In 2002 the plug was pulled and it went into administration to eventually re-emerge restructured as a not-for-profit company  Network Rail. But before the administration was done and dusted, the axpayer had to cough up a great deal of money to compensate  shareholders because the government was faced with legal  action by the shareholders alleging maladministration, an  action which looked as though it might not only succeed but in the  process wash some very dirty government linen in public over exactly why and how Railtrack went into administration.

Safety

There is a further consideration with public services – safety. It may be that the public will have greater confidence in, for example, a state run railway simply because it is state run. The public’s confidence might be completely unfounded but that would not matter: theconfidence itself is a valuable thing.

The experience of all privatisation has been to make money by enforcing massive job cuts. Of course there was overmanning during the nationalised industry days. The trouble is that the cuts made since privatisation have often gone beyond improving efficiency. They went to the limits of safety, and probably past it, in pursuit of profit. Maintenance staff were reduced and consequently maintenance was reduced. The facts which have emerged since the Watford train crash in 2000 shows beyond doubt that many of the people involved in rail track maintenance are inexperienced at best and completely raw at worst.

When the state does not take direct responsibility for a service which has inherent safety consideration, the danger is that governments will respond to any safety fears by imposing ever more onerous obligations on the private suppliers of the service. The private companies are also susceptible to being overly cautious after an accident has happened or a possible danger becomes the subject of public comment.

Train crashes in Britain have been thankfully rare under both nationalised and privatised regimes, but when they happened under the nationalised industry the government was able to keep the show on the road because the public had confidence that safety was not being compromised simply to save money. Since privatisation crashes

have been met with absurd caution by both the bodies responsible for the infrastructure and the Government, with the national rail network being reduced to a farce after cracks in some rails were found after the Watford crash mentioned above. For the better part of a year, rail travel became a misery as hundreds of emergency speed restrictions were introduced and rails were tested for cracks and a massive programme of ail replacement was begun. The consequence  was horrendous delays and vast numbers of cancelled trains. The effects are arguably still being felt in 2006.

Perhaps the classic industry to which the safety consideration applies is the production of nuclear energy. Despite this this Government is saying that if a new generation of nuclear power stations is built it must be with private money and run by private companies. A clear case of  ideology – private is best – driving common sense out of the window. (It should be added that Labour said the same when in office.)

Foreign ownership further complicates matters. When a massive explosion devastated a fuel storage and refinery complex in Hemel Hempstead in 2006 and further parts of the complex were thought to be in danger of exploding, it was impossible to get the necessary information quickly because the company which owned the complex was French and no one with  sufficient authority could be immediately contacted.

What should be provided indirectly by the state?

Just because something is a necessity does not mean that the state must or should provide it directly. In fact, the less direct provision the better, because in a free society government should only touch that which it needs to touch. For example, whereas there are not many possible suppliers of air traffic control systems or railways, there

are many possible suppliers of food. Government may safely leave food distribution to the private supplier and provide assistance where it is needed through payments to those in need. It should be noted that it is not the market or private enterprise which provides the general provision in cases such as food but the giving of taxpayers’ money to those who need it which provides the general provision.

Service is really the crucial criterion. Governments should become directly involved in industrial work very rarely – the exceptions are defence suppliers, utilities such as water, gas and electricity because of their status as natural monopolies and their immense importance. No nationalised industry making or extracting anything has ever been an economic success. Governments running manufacturers, farming or the extractive industries such as coal mining are neither necessary nor desirable, because private enterprise will always do the job adequately and more efficiently provided the economic circumstances are right,that is, vital industries are protected through tariffs, quotas or subsidies to the extent necessary to make them profitable.

But such vital industries are the Government’s business because they have both a strategic and a social and economic value. Consequently, governments do have is a responsibility to ensure that they are maintained.

Any country which cannot feed itself, produce all essential manufactured products and services, is not self-sufficient in energy and does not have substantial reserves of essential raw products such as iron ore, is constrained in what it may do both nationally and internationally and the greater the reliance of imports, the greater the constraint. Of course any advanced industrial state will not be completely self-sufficient, but it is possible for a country to have a large degree of self-sufficiency in the essentials especially food. With modern crop yields and modern animal husbandry, Britain could feed itself at a pinch if her market for food was protected to allow reasonable profits to be made by farmers using not merely the best or most convenient land, but the more marginal land as well.

Where a country is severely dependent on imports, as is the case with Britain, they are utterly at the mercy of international blackmail and events. Even the most powerful state in the world, the USA, is much restricted because of its reliance on imported oil. Such constraints have the most serious of consequences. Would George Bush  have invaded Iraq if the USA was not reliant on Middle East oil? I doubt it.

The free trade dream of buying where a product can be produced cheapest is based on the absurd premise that never again will international circumstances arise which will place any country at risk of war or blockade. There is also the question of what happens when raw materials run short and the scarce materials either remain in the countries of origin or go to the richest and most powerful countries with the rest left to go hang. Free trade is not merely a fantasy but a dangerous one in the long term.

There is also the economic and social case for protection. Cheap imports from countries which have labour costs many times below those of the mature industrial states, goods made cheap by state subsidies and plain old-fashioned “dumping” means that no company in the West is able to compete with the imports. The effect of allowing such imports is twofold: either the workers in the importing countries must take lower wages or, more probably, watch the obliteration of the domestic industry.

The same thing happens where mass immigration is permitted. If the immigration did not occur the wages for the type of jobs which immigrants take would be higher. That in turn would lessen or end the shortages of native workers willing to do them. For most jobs all that is needed to solve a shortage of labour is a wage sufficiently competitive with other employments to attract enough applicants. A good example in Britain are nurses: a shortage of native applicants a few years ago has been turned into a surplus now by a substantially increase in their pay.

The loss of jobs and suppression of wages through cheap imports, outsourcing, or large scale immigration has considerable social and economic effects. Those who lose their jobs either remain unemployed or take jobs which pay much less, are less secure and have lesser benefits. Those who remain in their jobs but whose pay is suppressed suffer similar difficulties. Both groups find their spending power is reduced. They pay less tax. If they are unemployed the Treasury is a net loser. New immigrants compete for scarce public goods such as free healthcare, education and social housing. Most particularly they compete most directly with the poorer native members of society who have most need of such social supports.

Poor pay, insecurity, unemployment and competition from mass immigration all place a severe strain on the social cohesion of a country.

Neither the Left or Right need recoil in horror at the idea of a judicious protectionism,a strong immigration policy and a commitment to public provision for those things which cannot be provided by private enterprise either efficiently or at all.  The Labour Party has been strongly protectionist throughout most of its history. The Tory Party was protectionist before the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and protectionist again between 1931 and the advent of Margaret Thatcher. For most of their history both parties have been in practice opposed to mass immigration. Both Labour and Tories have been comfortable with state provision in the past.  There is nothing but their ideological obsession with laissez faire economics and globalism to stand in the way of returning to a more balanced view of how the state should intervene.

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