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Reform of public services: TUC make their position clear


The TUC General Council has today agreed a statement on the future of public services, which is attached.

The statement welcomes the government’s commitment to improving public services, but says the General Council shares the widespread concern that it is in “danger of derailment in an increasingly bitter dispute over the role of the private sector”.

The statement says the TUC will campaign to “rebuild the public sector ethos and harness the enthusiasm and commitment of public service workers to the need for the improvement of services. The private sector must not become central to the programme of reform.” The statement commits the TUC to seeking “a grown up dialogue with the Government with the aim of establishing a clear understanding, sector by sector, on the way forward”. The TUC will now seek meetings with ministers to discuss issues on a departmental basis, with these discussions reported back to the regular meetings between the Prime Minister and the TUC.

Speaking today TUC General Secretary John Monks said, “The TUC now has a united position on public services. While we welcome the government’s commitment to improve public services, the statement spells out our concerns about private sector involvement. Our priority now is constructive engagement with the government on a department-by-department basis to discuss their plans in detail. We are optimistic that the government will respond positively to such discussions. This is where we will resolve the issues that concern our members as they continue to do their difficult and often undervalued public sector jobs.”

The full text of the statement follows, which the TUC advises may be subject to some minor drafting amendments but which do not change the sense of the document.

General Council Statement
The Future of Public Services: The Position of the General Council

1 The improvement of the nation’s public services must be the nation’s top priority for the next five years. On this, the General Council are completely at one with the Government. The public are rightly demanding rapid and measurable improvements especially in education, health and transport. Coupled with the state of the economy, public services will be the test by which the Government is primarily judged.

2 The Government’s acceptance of this priority marks the success of a 20 year old TUC campaign for better public services. There should be a mood of celebration about the achievement of this objective, and an upsurge of enthusiasm to support its delivery. But instead there is increasing concern – shared by the General Council – that the Government’s welcome commitment to invest in public services is in danger of derailment in an increasingly bitter dispute over the role of the private sector in this process. During the election campaign and since, this role has appeared to be magnified at the expense of continuing direct public service provision.

3 The General Council believe that there are very good reasons why public services are precisely that – public.

  • First, the market left to itself will not deliver equality of access to public goods that are seen as the hallmark of a civilized society – including health care, education, quality public transport and a high quality environment.
  • Second, it is a matter of democracy that citizens should be able to elect governments that raise taxes and are accountable for the delivery of public services. If the public are dissatisfied then they can remove those responsible at a subsequent election.
  • Third, in some cases, a judgment must be made that some services should not be subject to the profit motive since this might conflict with other objectives.
  • Finally, there are examples of public sector involvement where some services are procured from the private sector and can help to prevent the emergence of cartels that fix prices at the taxpayers’ expense.

The current position

4 Recent developments in Government policy in key sectors have prompted sharp concerns in the trade union movement and elsewhere.

5 In transport, the Government has decided to proceed with the deeply unpopular public/private partnership for London Underground, notwithstanding the transparent failures caused by the fragmentation of the mainline railway system caused by privatisation. A High Court action brought by the London Mayor started on 23 July.

6 In the schools system, there have been Ministerial indications that private sector involvement – already substantial in relation to ‘failing’ schools and local education authorities – may be increased even to the running of individual school departments. It has been reported that independent schools are considering forming companies to run state schools or take over local authority services. Consideration is being given to providing that majority control in the governance of schools could, in some circumstances, transfer to the private sector. The Education White Paper has now been deferred but these ideas are being debated within Government despite widespread opposition, shared by the General Council, to the involvement of the private sector or the voluntary sector such as to create “for profit” schools. Colleges too could be affected by similar ideas.

7 In the NHS, further PFI projects are planned, notwithstanding strong opposition and heavy public criticism of some early PFI hospitals (eg Durham, and Carlisle). These PFI projects concern new hospital building and new initiatives in primary care and imaging and laboratory equipment. Since the publication of the NHS Plan in July 2000 there have been many indications that private companies are also likely to run some of new surgery centres and the Prime Minister referred to this in his speech of July 16. While there is little objection to existing private hospitals being employed to clear waiting lists, the possibility of the public funding of new private, rather than public, hospitals opens the door to the private sector running major sections of the NHS.

8 There are similar concerns being raised by unions in the civil service, local government (where the fear is that the best value is becoming a vehicle for privatisation rather than for the spread of good practice) and in the administration of the justice system. All in all, there is a sense of heightened apprehension that the Government intends a progressive increase in the private delivery of public services.

The TUC Campaign

9 The TUC’s alternative is to rebuild the public services ethos and harness the enthusiasm and commitment of public service workers to the need for the improvement of services. The private sector must not become central to the programme of reform.

10 The Prime Minister’s speech on 16 July aimed to move the debate forward. It was unspecific in some areas and combative in others. As mentioned earlier, he referred to some new surgery centres being run by private sector “where they offer the best services” and he also referred to the role of the private sector in education. The examples of good practice in the speech tended to be drawn from private sector involvement in the public services. Nevertheless, more positively , the Prime Minister:

  • re-affirmed the new Government’s resolve to put investment in key public services before tax cuts.
  • outlined ambitious targets for improvements and modernisation in the health, education, transport, and criminal justice systems.
  • affirmed the critical importance of public services staff, and terms and conditions of employment which provide proper recognition for the work they do; and
  • affirmed that private sector involvement was an element but in ‘no way, shape or form the central element’ (quote from the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman)
  • offered a partnership to public servants in achieving reforms.

11 The speech outlined the public policy framework for public services reform, but left unanswered the key questions on the pace, scale and detail of reform in each area.

Next Steps

12 It is essential now for the TUC to campaign for better public services run by public servants and to establish a grown up dialogue with the Government with the aim of establishing a clear understanding, sector by sector, on the way forward. The TUC intends to facilitate meetings between the relevant groups of unions and Ministers and arrangements are being made now for these discussions. Reports will subsequently be made to the next regular meeting between the Prime Minister and a TUC team. Our aim is to breathe reality into the commitment to the partnership approach advocated by the Prime Minister. At the same time, it will be necessary to work closely with sympathetic Labour MPs, and there has already been one very well attended meeting of the Trade Union Group of Labour MPs where there was widespread support for the TUC’s stance. It will be important to take account of the differences between England and the approach of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

13 However, this dialogue will have only been worthwhile if both parties are willing to commit themselves to genuine partnership. There will be little value in the conversation with the Government if their minds are made up and there is no scope for changes in policy. At the same time, the TUC recognises that failure to deliver better services is not an option.

14 The TUC’s approach to this campaign will be based on the following principles:

  • A shared commitment to the delivery of the highest quality services.
  • The need for public services to promote equality without reference to social status or the ability to pay.
  • The need for high ethical standards and integrity.
  • The need for services to be politically accountable and transparent.
  • A continuation of direct service provision with genuine opportunities to match, and a level playing field with, the private sector.

15 Specifically, the General Council are determined to see:

  • A renaissance of the public service ethos.
  • Better public sector management brought about by establishing new academies and making greater use of existing centres of excellence (Too many public sectors managers have been managing cuts for 20 years or so. Now they must manage expansion successfully, spend the monies allocated in an efficient manner, and be given help to do so).
  • A new emphasis on high quality skills, training, and career development for all public servants.
  • Terms and conditions for public sector staff, which facilitate the retention and recruitment of quality staff.
  • Strengthened TUPE protections and a new Fair Wages Resolution. This will be absolutely crucial to the TUC, and the Government needs to respond urgently in this area. The recent agreement to pilot in three PFI hospitals a deal where private contractors would be required to manage seconded NHS staff is positive. It gives staff a greater sense of security than any previous arrangements involving private sector in the NHS. But it needs to be backed up by assurances that any private contractor cannot provide less favourable conditions of employment than the public sector to all staff.


16 This programme will necessitate a strengthening of the TUC’s capability to support unions sectorally. It will test the Government’s readiness to deliver a new partnership approach to change based on genuinely open dialogue, a willingness to share ideas on change at an early stage – not just presenting fait accomplis – and a real readiness to take account of TUC and trade union representations in final decision-making.

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