Andrew Bibby


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Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Public sector workers resist 'forced' mutualisation

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in PCS View, 2011

Liverpool-based Peter Simpson (his name has been changed at his request), together with his colleagues at MyCSP, has the responsible job of ensuring that the civil service pension scheme is administered properly. And yet, he may very soon find himself in the ironic position of no longer being eligible for a civil service pension himself.

MyCSP finds itself one of the next parts of the civil service to be eyed up by the government for privatisation. Except that this time privatisation has a new name: ‘mutual joint venture'. There is an honourable tradition behind the concept of a mutual, which goes back to the nineteenth century idea of collective endeavour. But unfortunately, that is not what the government means by the term. Indeed, the so-called ‘mutuals' it wants to set up break the central rule of mutuality – the principle that people must choose voluntarily to participate.

Just as you can't be coerced against your will into joining, let's say, a local gardening club or a Saturday football team, so you can't be made to be a member of a mutual – or at least not a genuine one.

But there's certainly been no attempt by the government to find out whether Peter and his colleagues want to cast themselves off from the civil service and sink or swim in the murky waters of a sort-of-mutual. It was left to PCS to ask the question – and when the union did approach MyCSP staff, the message back was an overwhelming one.

Not only did Peter and his colleagues not want to be in a mutual, they were prepared to take industrial action to try to stop it happening.

An uncertain future

For PCS research officer John Medhurst, nothing blows the gaff more convincingly on the idea that somehow staff will be empowered by leaving the civil service. “Privatisation hasn't gone away,” he says. “It's now being packaged under slogans such as localism, the big society and mutuality, but when you strip away the verbiage, it's just privatisation by another name. It's still a threat to the level of service provided to the public, and to the jobs and the terms and conditions of the people concerned.”

In fact, the government's current plans don't even pretend that the staff will be left in control. The term ‘mutual joint venture' means that a private sector company is being lined up to run it as a commercial concern. Senior management may be bought off with share options of some kind, but life lower down in a mutual joint venture will be a very different matter; the usual tale of redundancies and harsher working conditions. “At MyCSP, for example, it seems very likely that we could be looking at a 50% head count reduction,” he says.

The great public-sector sell off

It isn't only MyCSP which is being eyed up greedily by the private sector. As PCS's national executive heard at its September meeting, the public sector status of many civil service functions have been increasingly under threat since the coalition government came to power. For example, the Home Office's entire human resources function is up for privatisation. Many other departments are also thinking of contracting out remaining finance, IT and HR work.

The Land Registry's regional file stores have already been passed to TNT, and now the whole future of the Land Registry is potentially up for debate. The UK Hydrographic Office is undergoing a review with the likely result that it will be partly privatised. Some of VOSA's vehicle testing sites are closing, with privately owned garages now being commissioned to take over part of the testing role.

In Britain's prisons, the process of privatisation is already well advanced. Extraordinarily, the UK has the highest percentage of prisons run by private companies of any country in the world. At present, 15% of Her Majesty's prisons are run commercially for profit, compared with only 9% in the United States, normally considered gung-ho for private enterprise.

The UK percentage could increase still further, to above 20%, if a further series of contracts go private. PCS members in the affected prisons are campaigning and joint work with the Prison Officers' Association is proposed.

A storm is brewing

There's a new dark cloud looming. The government's Open Public Services white paper was made public in the middle of the holiday period, in July, and the token consultation period has already ended. From this month, the government will take forward ideas to implement what it calls ‘open public services'. What this means in a time of savage public spending cuts is
unfortunately all too obvious.

“All evidence indicates that the eventual outcome of the process will be a huge transfer of public functions to private sector commercial firms, who will offer neither choice nor localism. On the contrary they will provide public services on the cheap via private sector monopoly, while siphoning off profits to shareholders,” John Medhurst explains.

The problem with ‘opening' public services to private firms in this way is that generally the risk if anything goes wrong remains firmly in the public realm. It is the poor old taxpayer who has to pick up the pieces if a private firm finds can't make the profits it thought and walks away from a contract, or if it simply can't run the service to an adequate standard.

It is this concern that a crucial public service could fail which has already delayed the government's plans for MyCSP. “MyCSP administers civil service pensions which are claimed by one and a half million people, so it can't afford to fail,” John Medhurst points out.

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