Sunday 1 November 2009

Why recession cuts are turning into 1980s re-run

Will Hutton and I are in a mind meld. He has obviously been pondering away, as I have over the past few weeks, why we seem to have entered the strange parallel world of an 1980s television series where it is taken as an immutable fact that everything about the public sector is rubbish, old, creaky, takes too long, doesn't work and is inefficient.
But the private sector --- that's banks, electric companies, the people who run your internet connections, deliver your new table, run your railways -- are so efficient that we needn't bother them with rules, commitments to service or high expectations.
This idea has been taking an iron grip on public consciousness all summer - as talk of slash, slash, slashing public sector jobs and wages went ballistic, with no apparent backlash.
And it keeps coming out of the strangest places. Last week a bunch of railway companies said with a distinct lack of irony that they could run the railways so much better if the government didn't keep interfering and making them do footling things like running trains on Sundays. If only they would leave them free to cut down the number of ticket machines at stations, and other such innovations, they would bring in a kind of train service we had not yet dreamed of. Yes, I thought, one where the ticket prices were so high no one could afford them, services had been cut to one train every other Sunday, and staff had disappeared to be replaced by machines that had for one reason or another stopped taking credit cards.
Now I take four different train-based trips per day, so I see myself as pretty experienced in this arena, and my experience as a customer-consumer in this department leads me to suspect that the train companies are not the super shiny purveyors of private sector excellence that some people might have us believe.
I know this because every Monday at rush hour when queues to buy tickets run down the road, Connex SouthEast chooses to empty one of its ticket machines of cash - thereby putting it out of use. And yet when you ask the two members of staff why they couldn't do this in the middle of the day when there are few customers, they just shrug their shoulders and raise their eyes to the heavens, indicating theirs is not to reason why.
And I am not alone in my lack of belief in the super efficiency of the private sector. My friend told me his relationship with his electric company is keeping him awake at night, and driving him over the edge of madness, because he is unable to speak to someone who can actually fix the problem with his electrical supply.
And let's not even get started on private companies that have high rate phone numbers so you have to pay to phone them up and tell them there is something wrong with their service and then keep you on hold for hours, so by the time you get through to an actual human being you are at screaming point.
So Will and I know --- as I suspect most people in Britain do -- that service and efficiency in the British private sector is not to be held up as an example to us all.
So why is it that in the recent months the idea of cutting jobs in the public sector, or pay, or pensions, has been taken to be an unquestionable public good? That's jobs for people who do things such as work as nurses in A&E, or pick up the rubbish or recycling, put out fires, or run our libraries.
Libraries seem to be running pretty efficiently in my experience. You go in, you hardly ever have to queue, you get a book out for free for a few weeks, then take it back.
The other day Liam Fox was on the radio being pushed by James Naughtie on what cost cutting initiatives the Conservative Party was going to make, and he finally came up with cutting the number of civil servants at the Ministry of Defence.
He obviously felt that this was a safe corner to be in, and it wasn't going to upset anyone or create any bad headlines. And strangely enough it didn't.
The underlying message here is that civil servants are strange nobody-type-figures who obviously don't do much of value apart from pushing a few bits of paper around their desks. And still no one sticks their head up and says: "Do you know what vital things civil servants do for society" because we can't be bothered to fight it.
The overwhelming simplicity of public sector "bad", private sector "good" seems to gone wild ever since the banking crisis last year (that's the banking crisis in the private sector by the way, in case you weren't watching).
Undoubtedly there are inefficiences down at the local town hall that we could rant about as well, but the pushers of the "public sector bad" idea would rather have us believe that those are the only kind out there. And so, as the team of the BBC Saturday night staple That's Life used to say -- whyohwhy -- can't we get the private sector in to sort out this fine mess that they got us into.
Because they did, didn't they?


Unknown said...

The text book idea that private enterprise = competition = efficiency is pretty laughable isn't it? The worst of it, though, is when Councils and other public bodies feel they have to compete by adopting shagged out rhetoric cast-off by private enterprise. 'Business process re-engineering' to quote an example. It is, pitifully, even worse in some voluntary organisations who have let the word 'community' become code for 'second-rate'. As in 'community enterprise' (a business that can't even break even).
Paul G Slatter

Newmania said...

The text book idea that private enterprise = competition = efficiency is pretty laughable isn't it?

Oh indeed if the 2oth century teaches us anything it is the superiority of the planned economy .

Anonymous said...


The thought occurs that there is a middle ground between a planned economy and total privatisation.

On the original article - the funny thing is that virtually everyone recognises the failings of private companies when it comes to a range of issues - customer service, overcharging, and so on. It's a perennial whinge subject. But those same people don't seem to connect that to the debate on cuts.

The mistake was in caving in to the "we must reduce the deficit now" argument. Once that happened, any cut in spending is automatically seen as good.