Privatisations on parade

Passport Office threat could be going nowhere

The Conservatives are in favour of the privatisation of national companies, industries and service providers, while Labour is against it. That’s the way it has always been, though in 1999 New Labour under Tony Blair began the process that subsequently led to the transition of the NHS from a public sector provider to one that included the private sector. But New Labour’s justification for the move, on the grounds of choice and competition, was hugely unpopular within the mainstream Labour Party.

The rationale behind selling off publicly owned companies is that they will perform with increased efficiency in private hands, as well as to raise billions for government coffers. Whether or not the reality matches the rationale is open to interpretation. To give one example, rail users currently facing soaring ticket prices, overcrowded trains and cancelled services might argue that the privatisation of British Rail has not exactly been an unmitigated success. The NHS has long been considered a Tory target for privatisation, if not openly then by stealth.

Many claim this is the reason why the underfunded service is failing, and why overstretched and under-appreciated doctors, nurses and non-clinical staff feel ready to walk away from jobs they love. Way back in 1995, Boris Johnson wrote in The Spectator magazine that free healthcare should only be for “those who are genuinely sick, and for the elderly,” adding that if people have to pay for NHS services “they will value them more.” There is little concrete evidence that the Prime Minister’s attitude has changed, but what probably saves the NHS from wholesale sell-off is that despite all the problems, the public has a genuine affection and regard for the NHS and most want the service and its staff to be supported and to succeed.

Other companies and industries may not fare so well. Despite overwhelming support from all sides for Channel 4 to remain in the public sector, the government introduced a bill in the Queen’s Speech for its sell-off. And the latest publicly owned organisations to come under the privatisation microscope are the Passport Office and the DVLA. The Passport Office, reporting directly to the Home Office, is struggling to cope with a large backlog of new applications after the pandemic and Brexit.

At a cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister is understood to have threatened privatisation if the service does not start delivering better value for money. And Johnson is said to have issued the same warning to the DVLA. At this stage though, these are threats rather than promises, with unions unimpressed. Garry Graham, Deputy Secretary of Prospect Union, said, “The PM and his Cabinet need to stop attacking public servants and agencies to distract from problems in Downing Street. After more than a decade of damaging spending cuts, it’s no surprise that services suffer.” And a spokesperson for the Public and Commercial Services Union said the threat of privatisation was “absurd” when the problems are mainly down to the increased “casualisation of the workforce.”

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