Earlier this year I wrote about the planned changes to mental health provision for students at the University of Essex. The details were murky but the outline was clear enough: yet more cuts and outsourcing. Though seemingly unwilling to give staff and students a clear explanation of what was going to happen, the university was at pains to emphasise one point: that this was to be an ‘expansion’ of counselling provision for students – a 30 per cent expansion, no less.
Next Thursday, staff at UK universities will begin a wave of strike action in defence of our pensions. Fourteen days of strikes will roll across 61 of the ‘pre-92’ universities; the other seven are being reballoted by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) as they didn’t meet the 50 per cent turnout threshold imposed by the 2016 Trade Union Act. On days not covered by the strike, we will work to contract.
When the Ministry of Defence sold its armed forces housing in 1996, it already looked a bad deal: 57,000 houses were sold for £30,000 each, well under half the average house price at the time. Overnight, the sale created Britain’s biggest private landlord and gave it a blue chip tenant – the MoD. Yet the company that won the contract, Annington, had just been set up and had no experience of management on such a scale.
Until very recently, most of us hadn’t heard of Carillion. Not having heard of a particular company wouldn’t usually be surprising or unsettling. But this is more like not having heard of the people who have been making alterations to your house, building your neighbour’s and – in an odd display of versatility – delivering lunches to your children. Because it turns out that Carillion is – or was, until its sudden but entirely predictable liquidation on Monday – pretty much everywhere. As a result, several projects, including the building of two hospitals, a high-speed railway and a bypass in Aberdeen, now hang in the balance, along with the jobs of around 20,000 UK workers.
It was announced this week that Toby Young will serve on the board of the newly formed Office for Students (OfS), the body that is to help regulate the higher education 'market' in England. Critics have been quick to point out Young's unsuitability for the post. A prominent champion of free schools, Young has little to no experience of the university sector. He does, however, have a record of sneering at the kind of 'ghastly inclusivity' that leads to wheelchair ramps in schools. Ideal, then. But Young's unsuitability for the post is beside the point.
Today is the last day for sending first-class post if you want it to arrive before Christmas. You’re lucky there’s anyone to deliver it. In October, the Communication Workers Union held a ballot which came out overwhelmingly in support of strike action – 89.1 per cent in favour on a turnout of 73.7 per cent – but the Royal Mail got a High Court injunction to stop the strike.
The Tory donor and businessman Sir Theodore Agnew has been made a life peer and appointed to replace his friend John Nash as the parliamentary under secretary for the school system. The job includes oversight of the nearly 7000 schools which have academy status.
São Paulo is for sale. João Doria, mayor since 1 January, is planning to auction off South America's biggest city piece by piece: not only the racecourse, football stadium and carnival centre, but lighting, transport, health services and even the public funeral system. The glitzy promotional video is full of glass towers and night shots of glittering avenues; there’s no sign of the heaving lanes of traffic that blast and fume among concrete towers as far as the eye can see. There are few green or public spaces in São Paulo; the biggest, Ibirapuera Park, is now up for sale.
Prisoners are less likely to reoffend if they’re able to talk to their families while they’re incarcerated. Citing this fact, the American Federal Communications Commission (FCC) two years ago capped the price of a call from a prison pay phone. Prisons had been offering exclusive contracts to a few phone companies, and were getting away with price gouging because only prisoners and poor families were burdened, while the phone companies and state governments made a killing. The price of a 15-minute call from any Maryland prison soared to $5.15, secured through nearly $5 million in yearly kickbacks to the state. Some prisons tried to raise even more money by replacing in-person visits with digital conferencing. Fifteen-minute video sessions in Knox County, Tennessee were costing $5.99; the state took a little less than half.
According to the most recent census, English is not the main language of 4.2 million people in England and Wales (7.7 per cent of the population); 726,000 people cannot speak it well and 138,000 speak no English at all. Many of us non-native speakers will at some point have to deal with the justice system, in one capacity or another (my first exposure was as a juror). The right to be tried in a language you understand is guaranteed under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
On 17 October 2000, four people were killed and 70 injured in the Hatfield rail crash. A high speed train derailed because of metal fatigue in a section of track that had been tagged for replacement months earlier. Railtrack, the company which had managed the permanent way since British Rail was privatised in 1994, never recovered. In 2001 it went bankrupt, more than £3 billion in debt. In October 2002, responsibility for maintaining railway infrastructure was essentially renationalised with the formation of Network Rail.
George Osborne announced in the budget that all remaining local authority schools in England must become academies by 2022. The Education and Adoption Act 2016 will compel councils and school governors to co-operate in the forced academisation of eligible schools; remove any requirement for consultation with parents, governors or local authorities; and allow the education secretary to control the make-up of the ‘interim executive boards’ that oversee a school’s conversion into an academy. An amendment tabled by Labour peers, requiring that parents and others be consulted on academy conversions, was defeated by Conservative MPs.
There are many reasons why China’s involvement in building nuclear power stations in Britain is wrong, yet those who oppose it, or question it, have struggled to articulate their unease without sounding racist, paranoid or Little-English, or getting bogged down in arcane financial minutiae. One obstacle to exposing the British government’s error is language. In the case of China and the nukes, politicians, journalists and finance professionals are complicit in misleading usage of the words investment and tax. George Osborne, a master of such lexical abuse, maintains that Britain needs Chinese investment, and that the planned Chinese-French reactors won’t cost the British taxpayer a penny. Both propositions are false.
In the early 1960s, the British state, having decided people could go to hell in their own way, legalised both suicide and off-course betting. Newly legal high-street bookies like my father, poshed up into ‘turf accountants’, still had to do their business behind frosted glass, lest passers-by be corrupted by glimpses of the depravities within. In a school-gate encounter with my mother, a fellow parent, Mr Crapp – a pillar of the local chartered accountants’ guild and man of God – voiced his surprise that she had the brass to show herself in public, given her husband’s job. My doubts about moralism surfaced around this time. Later, the parallel realisation dawned that bankers, mortgage lenders, insurers, even Mr Crapp – the plaster saints of market society – had feet of clay.
Last week the government ‘delivered’ on its plan to privatise the successful East Coast main line. Stagecoach and Virgin now co-own it. My first experience of the new regime came while buying a ticket for my daughter, when I saw that the old East Coast booking site has been cosmetically Virginised. I was charged £6.45 for ‘special delivery next day’. Five days later, the travel time booked for had come and gone. Two messages of complaint, no reply, and Virgin still has my cash safely trousered.
‘People of the same trade seldom meet together,’ Adam Smith said, ‘but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.’ Smith was wiser to the wheezes of the marketplace than many of his latterday disciples. But even he might have found it hard to credit that democratic governments could conspire to bind themselves to accepting private supply of essential services.
After Tony Abbott decided to give a knighthood to Prince Philip last month, the right-wing Melbourne shock-jock Andrew Bolt laid into the prime minister: ‘This is just such a pathetically stupid – gosh, I didn’t mean to be that strong because I actually like Tony Abbott very much – but this is just such a very, very, very stupid decision, so damaging that it could be fatal.’ Rupert Murdoch agreed that there had been a failure of leadership: ‘Tough to write, but if he won’t replace top aide Peta Credlin she must do her patriotic duty and resign,’ he tweeted. Abbott has narrowly survived a vote on whether or not to open up his position to challengers, but his troubles are far from over. His collapsing poll numbers and waning credibility are for once about substance, not style. Leadership may be a lightning rod for discontent, but the underlying cause is the government’s inability to convince the public of the merits of its neoliberal economic agenda.
When the business secretary Vince Cable announced the sale of Royal Mail shares last autumn, his Labour counterpart Chuka Umunna, rather than focusing on the principle of a publicly owned postal service, complained that taxpayers were being ripped off. Royal Mail shares soared by 38 per cent in 24 hours. A parliamentary select committee said the group had been undervalued by £1 billion, in part because ministers had failed to account for the expanding parcels trade. They also appeared to have forgotten the company owned three major development sites in inner London, including Mount Pleasant, where several Christmases ago I sorted parcels – mainly Amazon deliveries.
Wey Education PLC is proposing ‘one of the most significant and exciting innovations within state education for a generation’. This is the Wey ecademy, ‘England’s first state online school’. According to the ‘trading update’ in the company’s latest report on results, the ‘virtual’ school will be able to offer a wider curriculum than any traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ school, and will offer full access to all applicants irrespective of their background, postcode, social situation, beliefs or previous experience within education. The virtual school, an interesting feature of American public education, may soon arrive in England – subject to approval by the DfE.
New College Doncaster, a sixth form free school that hopes to open in 2016, told potential pupils on its website: ‘if you are predicted to achieve more than 5 A grades in your GCSEs, we will offer you the opportunity to receive £500 and a place in our Excellence Academy to support your post-16 education.’ The cash, to be paid on enrolment, would come from public funds. There isn't a pressing need for a new sixth-form college in Doncaster, and a free school needs signatures from 1000 parents before it can open. Poaching good pupils with cash is an easy way to boost support, and there's nothing to stop the school spending money this way. Still, it’s come in for criticism: the editor of Academies Week said it was ‘at best questionable, but at worst it’s an uncosted bribe’. The announcement (along with everything else) has since been removed from the New College Doncaster website, which is ‘currently undergoing maintenance’.
David Cameron has signed a piece of paper with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang, opening the way for the company that makes the nuclear weapons for the world's biggest Communist state to build and run nuclear power stations in Britain. The deal is morally wrong, a betrayal of the British people, and a damaging blow to democratic principles. Nuclear power in Britain can only be built with the help of large subsidies from citizens. In the past, these subsidies came through general taxation. Since electricity was privatised by Cameron's predecessors, the tax to subsidise new nuclear will be a private tax, hidden in our electricity bills, the collectors of which will be the electricity firms themselves.
At the centre of Monday night’s Panorama programme on fraud in the NHS was an interview with Jim Gee, an expert on the financial cost of healthcare fraud. Gee showed the presenter a newly published report, of which he was the first author, and talked about its findings. He turned to a key page and the camera picked out a bar chart as the two discussed some of the figures it contained. The report was also given wide coverage in the print media this week. Stories were run in all the broadsheets and across the tabloids with many local papers picking up the story and giving it a local spin. The figure, highlighted in Panorama, that most journalists seized on was the estimate that fraud was costing the NHS around £7 billion a year, enough – the Express pointed out – to pay for 250,000 nurses.
‘We have come to assess you,’ the crowd in Triton Square chanted, outside Atos’s London headquarters. The French IT company is under contract to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to carry out Work Capability Assessments on everyone applying for Employment and Support Allowance. A ‘disability analyst’ asks a ‘claimant’ a series of questions and enters the answers into a computer: if you score fewer than 15 points you are considered fit for work. There have been more than 1.2 million appeals against Atos’s assessments, 38 per cent of which have been successful. Atos’s blunders include the cases of Linda Wootton, who had a heart and lung transplant and died nine days after her allowance was withdrawn, and Mark Evans, a brain-damaged amputee who lost most of his benefits. Protests were held yesterday outside the company’s offices across Britain. The slogans in Triton Square included ‘Atos don't give a toss’ and ‘Atos £500m contract killer’: that’s the estimated cost of the appeals; the company's government contracts are worth a total of £3.1 billion.
Something that hasn’t been mentioned much in the post-privatisation analysis is the amount of money the Royal Mail stands to make out of its immense property holdings. One building alone in the company’s portfolio of disused offices in London – the mail centre in Nine Elms Lane – has been valued at half a billion pounds. That’s one-sixth of what the government sold the whole company for.
On 4 December, the University of London was granted an injunction from the High Court that prohibits ‘persons unknown (including students of the University of London) from ‘entering or remaining upon the campus and buildings of University of London for the purpose of occupational protest action’ for the next six months. Many such injunctions have been granted to universities across the country over the past four years, with increasing frequency and ever wider restrictions on student protest. In this case, the University of London argued that the occupation of Senate House threatened the liberty and freedom of senior university personnel, and presented a risk of damage to property, despite assurances from the occupiers that staff were free to come and go from the building and no such damage would occur. The eventual eviction of the occupiers was rough and violent. On 5 December, 35 students were arrested and several of them detained overnight. Some were assaulted by the police.
As well as tripling fees and changing the repayment structure of student loans in 2010, the government has been looking into ways of ridding itself of loans that predate 2012, currently worth around £40 billion. They asked Rothschild to produce a report on the possibility of selling off the loan book to private investors. The report was delivered in November 2011, but only made public in June this year after a Freedom of Information request and a botched attempt at redaction.
On Tuesday afternoon, an open-top double-decker bus took a tour of London’s justice hotspots. It passed the Houses of Parliament, the Royal Courts of Justice and the Old Bailey, but the most significant sight may have been a small G4S van parked on the Strand. As the bus went by, the passengers – most of them probation officers – chanted: ‘G4S, what a mess!’ At noon, thousands of probation officers in England and Wales had gone on strike for 24 hours. They were protesting against the Ministry of Justice’s ‘transforming rehabilitation’ programme. By 2015, the national probation service will no longer exist in its current form, and most cases will be handled by the private sector.
One of my neighbours came over to say hello the day the Royal Mail was privatised. ‘I expect you’re looking forward to getting your hands on all that money you’ve just made,’ he said. The shares allocated to me as a member of staff had gone up by almost 40 per cent in a day. The government had brought forward the date of the IPO in order to beat a strike ballot by the Communication Workers' Union. Most of us, like most people, were against the privatisation. It felt like my neighbour was congratulating me on taking a bribe.
Ed Miliband's promise to freeze household energy prices, even if it doesn't happen, is a meaningful step towards a better understanding of what has truly happened to democracy in Britain in the last thirty years. The Labour initiative exposes a weakness in the hitherto unchallenged power of the mainly overseas investment agents who have taken over – or, in the case of the Royal Mail, are about to take over – formerly not-for-profit British providers of essential services.
In the last year our delivery office has moved from working on bikes to working in vans. There are two of us to a van, doing two rounds between us. We’ve also been given new trolleys so we can carry more weight, new bags to fit onto the new trolleys, and new tracking devices to show customers exactly where their post is. They also, coincidentally, show the Royal Mail exactly where its employees are.
When Tony Blair announced radical changes to his mentor Lord Irvine’s job as Lord High Chancellor without warning in 2003, he provoked the wall-paper connoisseur and would-be Cardinal Wolsey into resigning. The horse-trading that followed gave us the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which stripped the Lord Chancellor of his judicial role, set up the Supreme Court as the final Court of Appeal for the UK, and a new Department of Constitutional Affairs, with an elected MP to be secretary of state instead of a peer. It changed its name to the Ministry of Justice in 2007, and has mushroomed.
The formation of the Council for the Defence of British Universities is a welcome response to their present and future plight, and both Howard Hotson and Keith Thomas have made powerful defences in the LRB of the indispensable moral and intellectual values which the universities represent. A problem, however, is that the people who now determine the universities’ funding seem largely impervious to these defences. They hold the view that such values somehow come at the expense of the universities’ place in the real world: in other words they conflict with the universities’ ability to make money for themselves and for the economy. They take their stand on the ‘common-sense’ argument that the universities must justify their existence to the tax-payer and they must do so now. The criterion, they argue, by which we measure such justification is the contribution the universities do or do not make to the economy and to business; and, above all, to the market. This argument, if expressed properly, is not unfair. It is entirely reasonable to expect the universities to play their part in the country’s economic well-being and to wonder how that part might best be played. We should, therefore, be prepared to meet those who today make funding policy on their own ground. What we find, alas, is that the ‘evidence’ they employ is rarely evidence at all. On the contrary, it is often ideological assertion and wishful thinking.
NHS doctors are planning to take industrial action on 21 June over pension reforms that would see them working until they're 68 and paying twice as much in contributions as other public sector staff on a similar pay-grade, for the same eventual pension.
The majority of GPs, consultants, junior doctors, staff, associate specialists and specialty doctors as well as public health and community health doctors who voted in last month’s ballot said they were even prepared to go on strike, but the British Medical Association has ruled that out: ‘doctors will ensure that patient safety is protected’ on the day by continuing to supply urgent and emergency care, only postponing non-urgent cases.
‘There are some of my colleagues in the coalition who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit,’ Michael Gove told the Leveson Inquiry last week. ‘I have an open mind. I believe that it may be the case that we can augment the quality of state education by extending the range of people involved in its provision.’ In Southwark, we’ve got used to seeing local schools be taken over by the Harris Federation, the chain set up by the Carpetright mogul Baron Harris of Peckham, responsible at the moment for 13 academies and with a couple of free schools on the way.
The privatisations are joining up. First it was gas. Then telecoms, oil, electricity, public housing, water, the railways, the airports. There are moves afoot to obliterate the concept of the council house; NHS hospitals are to be privately run, built and managed; now David Cameron wants to get private companies and foreign governments to 'invest' in Britain's roads. What does it all mean? The episodic character of privatisation – one sector being sold, then a pause, then another – has hidden a meta-privatisation that's passed the halfway point. The essential public good that Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and now Cameron sell is not power stations, or trains, or hospitals. It's the public itself. It's us.
Whatever the outcome of the A4e affair, it is a symptom of virtually everything that has gone wrong with British political life since 1979 – and especially of the worst thing, the privatisation of the state and its functions. The decision to hand over so many of the state’s responsibilities – and not only in Britain – to the private sector or voluntary associations or charities has had several terrible consequences. First there is the loss of expertise. The state has built up historically a huge fund of knowledge and experience which is simply not available to voluntary associations, however enthusiastic they are. The result is notorious wherever the Big Society is found. The contracted bodies do the easy bits while passing back the difficult and more important bits, like finding jobs for the unqualified unemployed, back to the state. It is exactly the same as with the PFI projects: the profits are privatised while the risks remain with the taxpayer. That is why the history of the welfare state is the history of the decline of private welfare. It was, among other things, never up to the job.
Last week George Osborne announced that the government intends to cut back on Public Finance Initiative public procurement. PFI contracting, introduced by the Major government in the 1990s, grew apace under the Neo-Labs. Its attractions were obvious enough. Ministers responsible for public procurement in education, defence and health tend to find themselves under pressure to spend money in ways that deliver visible, short-term results, which has impeded capital investment in public infrastructure. PFI promised capital funding off the public balance sheet, with lots of new schools and hospitals to be paid for later. There was also the idea, which now looks ever more quaint, that for-profit businesses would bring market rigour to public works.
The company secretary of the Russell Group, Glynne Stanfield, has told Times Higher Education that 'universities could be in private hands in six months':
Mr Stanfield said private equity firms or "trade buyers" (established private higher education providers) could buy out a university in its entirety and thus gain its degree-awarding powers...
A private equity firm or trade buyer could buy a stake in a university, providing the institution with working capital in return for using its degree-awarding powers overseas, for example.
The Health and Social Care Bill was passed in the House of Commons yesterday by 316 votes to 251. Before the vote, during Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron said: We now see the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing all supporting our health reforms. He may see it, but that doesn't mean it's true. On Monday, the deputy chairman of the General Practitioners Committee said: The BMA is very clear – the majority of doctors have serious concerns with the Health Bill. We want to improve the NHS, but a wholesale review of the current plan is needed, which is why we are calling for it to be withdrawn.
The Royal Mail is instituting a massive restructuring of the service. Rounds are being altered, delivery methods changed, new technology introduced, bikes scrapped, hours extended, delivery offices closed, all in the name of something they call ‘modernisation’. In practice it means that people are getting their post later in the day; there is an increasing casualisation of the work force as staff are moved around more and the traditional relationship between a postal worker and his round is being broken; office closures mean that people have to travel further to pick up undelivered packages; the move from bikes to walking with trolleys and the huge increase in the workload means that postal workers are left aching and exhausted after a day’s work; extensive use of vans means more pollution. You have to wonder why they’re doing it.
It’s been a bad few weeks at our delivery office. First of all Vince Cable announced that the Royal Mail was going to be privatised. Then, at one of our weekly ‘Work Time Listening and Learning’ meetings, the line manager announced that our delivery office is going to close. We are going to have to move to the main sorting office in the next town, seven or eight miles away. He couldn’t say when this was going to happen. All he could say was that ‘plans are underway’.
It appears that the Royal Mail is to be sold off. According to the Daily Mail, it will be transformed into a ‘John Lewis-style trust’ by the autumn. John Lewis is a chain of department stores whose employees are also partners. The employees own shares, but these are held in trust, so cannot be sold off when the employee leaves the company. John Lewis employees earn a dividend in addition to their wages and are allowed some say in the running of the company. The idea is that a similar scheme will give postal workers an incentive to help improve the Royal Mail’s performance. Except that the government has said that its intention is to ensure the Royal Mail 'benefits from private sector capital and disciplines’. The private sector will only inject capital on the expectation of returns. So it won’t be a ‘John Lewis-style partnership’. Part of it will be part-owned by postal workers, but staff will be subject to ‘private sector discipline’, meaning attempts to cut costs in order to maximise profit.
We were recently asked to deliver an insulting letter. Insulting to us as postal workers, that is, not to our customers. It was an advertising circular from Clifford James (established 1970), announcing their January sale. The insult was a statement on the front of the bright red envelope. The letter was an item of downstream access mail relayed through a private mail company called Secured Mail (I'd never heard of them before), and underneath the frank there was a label, 'Beat the POST!', across an image of a speeding van. And underneath: 'Our products are delivered by private courier NOT ROYAL MAIL.' The capital letters are all their own.
I've been trying to buy tickets for the overnight car ferry from Naples to the Aeolian island of Lipari. It's harder than you'd think. You can buy tickets for the hydrofoil easily enough online, but you can't put the car on one of them (and without the car, there's no easy way up the mountain to where I'm staying). The sporadic car ferry service is operated by Siremar (Sicilia Regionale Marittima), a division of Tirrenia di Navigazione, which is owned by the state. You can go through most of the booking process online, but it comes to an abrupt end just before the point at which you'd do the actual booking. So I rang them up (it's a premium line: 18 cents per minute). They told me their computer was down, and that anyway even though I could book over the phone, to pay I'd have to go to a travel agent. I could find a list of authorised agents on the website.
I paid my electricity bill today, and spent some time trying to work out how much of my bill goes to the French government to defray the costs of running that large, complex and hexagonal country. I don't live in France. I live in London and, like millions of other Britons, buy my electricity from EDF, aka Electricité de France, which snapped up three of England's privatised electricity minnows in 2002. Privatisation, a policy supposed to liberate us from the burden of allegedly inefficient state-owned industries, has led to more than five million households and businesses in this country buying electricity and gas from a state-owned industry in that country.