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Entries in public services (3)

Wednesday
Mar112009

Britain for sale

Living in Britain as something of an outsider (sort of: I'm Irish but of a lot of English descent), I perhaps get more wound up than most by the anti-Johnny-Foreigner attitude that is expressed by the British media.

Now don't get me wrong - there is plenty of antipathy towards foreigners in Ireland - but the levels of hysteria expressed by the British press about immigration and the hatred directed towards all things to do with the European Union are in another league. And you see this hatred expressed by individuals too, with people I know joining Facebook groups such as "I was born in the UK so why the fuck do I have less rights than immigrants" or "This is our country and if you don't like it fuck off". No doubt the constant barrage of foreigner-bashing headlines in the media inspires the negative attitudes and the Facebook group names (and incidentally, I find it interesting that the more right-wing the group, the more the work 'fuck' appears in it).

The impression that the press gives is one of Britain being a perfect country with a perfect identity that is somehow sullied by these bad people from abroad interfering with it. But the problem with this (aside from the obvious) is that the British press also seem to hate their own state, and the idea of their own government 'interfering' either.

As such, most British newspapers have campaigned for decades for the Government to keep out of owning or running British public services - and successfully too. Railways, electricity, gas, airports, airlines, ferries, telecommunications and even water have been taken out public ownership and placed in the hands of wealthy private owners.

The irony of all this, is that the new private owners in question often tend to be...yes, you guessed it, foreigners. The French provide a hell of a lot of UK electricity. A Spanish company runs most of the big airports. American healthcare companies are cherry-picking bits of the NHS. If Mandelson gets his way, we might have a Dutch company delivering mail. God knows who's running the railways (the train operating companies certainly don't).

Remember British Rail? Sealink? British Gas? British Telecom? You, the Brits, used to own and run them. You don't any more. They are all in the hands of various rich people, many of them from abroad. The nationality of these private owners doesn't bother me; what frustrates me is the fact that public services have been placed in the "care" of private owners at all.

When a public service is privatised what typically happens is this: a middle man gets put into the mix (interestingly, something that successful companies always try to avoid). The service often remains bankrolled or underwritten by you and me, the taxpayer, but the middle man (Johnny Foreigner or Paddy Englishman, I don't care) has to make a profit. In order to facilitate this profit, invariably one (or all) of the following things needs to happen:

  • more tax has to be spent on giving our middle man his profit
  • the Government has to reduce the level of access to the public service because it now costs more
  • the middle man has to reduce the cost of the service by cutting corners or staff pay (both detrimental to the quality of the service)
  • the taxpayer, in addition to paying for the service through tax, has to provide a top-up payment to facilitate the profit (that's why UK rail fares are extortionate!)
The counter-argument to the above is that the private sector adds 'rigour' and competition. It's apparently meant to be more efficient than the public sector. Well, private sector 'rigour' and 'efficiency' don't seem all that appealing in the light of the credit crunch - if the private sector can't even get private finance right, how on earth is it meant to cope with public services?

As for competition, it doesn't (and can't) exist for many of the public services that have been privatised. Privatisation hasn't provided me with a range of choices when it comes to things like water, buses or trains. I'm stuck with what's provided - the middle man for my area. (I'm currently using Russian gas and French electricity and I have to get a bus owned by a company that operates transport in Germany and Denmark. Again, not that I mind the nationalities - it's the nature of the ownership that worries me).

Whatever the debate about efficiency, there is still the issue of accountability to think about. "Public service" means just that: serving the public, not making some guy rich. Should a health service be run to make somebody a profit, or should it serve the interests of everybody? Should an environmentally-friendly train journey cost two to three times as much as travelling by car, just so First Great Western can stay in business? Should something as fundamental to life as water be controlled by a company, or should it belong to all of us?

As for rich foreigners, it's hardly surprising that the press has no problem with them owning British public services. After all, they've got a little thing for owning British newspapers too. Isn't that right, Mr Murdoch? Mr Black? Mr Lebedev?

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Friday
Nov072008

The luxury of daft ideas

I read an article in today's Irish Times by a guy called Turlough O'Sullivan. He's the director general of Ibec, the Irish employers' representative body. In the article, he complains that "Ireland simply cannot afford the luxury of public service" and calls for cutbacks and dramatically reduced headcount in them (in the light of the current recession).

This got me thinking about the quality of Ireland's public services. Or lack thereof.

Let's be clear about this: Irish public services, by comparison with those of most other European countries - including some much poorer ones - are pretty awful. Let's take some examples. There is no free healthcare. Going to see a GP will cost you 50-60 Euros. Seeing an ear consultant (and I speak from experience here) can involve a waiting list of one year. Dental care is inordinately expensive (so much so that in the light of the economic downturn, people are starting to view it as self-indulgent - and I have that information from a dentist). There is still no train to Dublin airport (and rail travel between regional towns/cities doesn't really exist). A letter posted from outside Ireland will take about 5 days to be delivered, after it has arrived in Ireland. There is no underground in Dublin, and the two tram lines there don't even connect. Buses are infrequent and the capital still doesn't have an integrated ticketing system.

I know I sound like one of those annoying people who's lived outside the country for too long, and maybe I've become said irritating type, but whenever I come back to the country I really am shocked at how poor the public services are. The contrast with Ireland's nearest neighbour, the UK - a country not renowned for the quality of its public services - is unbelievable. British public services start looking incredibly good once you've come back and tried to use the Irish ones.

Which brings me back to Turlough O'Sullivan. He is clearly having a laugh when he uses the word luxury in conjunction with Irish public services. There is absolutely nothing luxurious about them.

There is an obvious counter-argument to his recommendations of cutbacks: investing in quality public services, its staff and associated infrastructure can create jobs, and thus spending, and thus economic growth. Not to mention an improvement in the quality of life.

But I think the real reason why O'Sullivan likes the idea of cuts in our public services (and for the people who run them) is because people like him don't use them. I would suspect that he can afford a very nice health insurance package, generally travels by car instead of public transport and pays extra to courier mail when he needs quick and reliable delivery of it. These kind of people are not best-placed to make sweeping pronouncements on services that they don't use, and which other people rely on.

Ultimately if Ireland wants to be the modern country that its political and business leaders have been waxing lyrical about for quite a while now, it needs proper, sustained investment in its public services. What it definitely can't afford is cutbacks - or the luxury of daft ideas.

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Tuesday
Oct072008

There goes the economy...

Right, so it looks like the global economy's about to go down the loo. The UK government is nationalising a load of banks. The US government has effectively brought Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae back into public ownership (very oddly-named institutions by the way - remind me of a Rod Stewart song). All over the world, governments are doing the same, stepping in to protect citizens' savings and trying to keep national economies afloat.

Nationalisation has been, for the past 25-30 years or so, a filthy word. Common - but not good - sense has prevailed that public equals bad and inefficient; and that private equals good. This is daft, as anyone who has ever got an overpriced, overcrowded train in England can testify, but it has nonetheless led to all manner of privatisations, or marketisations of things that were formerly publicly-owned.

All over the world, governments have handed over things as vital to everyday life as hospitals, transport systems, water and education to the 'care' of big business. This is true particularly of the UK, where there are hardly any publicly-owned public services left. The ones that are still state-owned, like the Tube or the NHS, have been forced to involve private sector organisations heavily in their operations, leading to things like the billion-pound Metronet fiasco and filthy hospitals. We've also seen dodgy educational establishments being set up that allow rich individuals to invest a certain amount and, wait for it, set the curriculum.

But now it seems that the rules are being rewritten: it seems as though there's a bank nationalisation every day of the week now. Why? Because, with banking, the private sector has failed massively - to the point where governments have no option but to do what governments are elected to do: a bit of governing. The private sector might have been able to get away with running public services badly and expensively for years, but it's harder for the government to sit idly by and be all laissez-faire when people's houses and savings are on the line.

But what's really important about the banks' failure is this: the private sector is meant to be good with private finance. If it can't even get that right, why on earth should it have anything to do with things as fundamental as drinking water, education and healthcare?

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