Not Another Bloody Makeover!

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What does modernisation of public services actually mean? More managers or more money?

The more you hear about what New Labour means by 'modernisation' of the public services, the more you realise the astonishing degree to which so much government thinking is still in thrall to a past era--of Thatcherism. This was probably most obvious in the first couple of weeks of the firefighters' strike when it was only too apparent that some of Blair's closest associates could hardly wait to get their knives into the FBU and tag leaders of the union as 'Scargillite' at every opportunity.

More telling, perhaps, is that this government envisages 'reform' of schools, hospitals and universities as well as the fire service coming through vigorous application of measures advocated by Tory zealots a good 20 years ago.

Public sector employees have heard it all too often before. In fact, they have had modernisation up to the eyeballs and it has rarely meant anything showing much of an improvement. On the contrary, just about everywhere you look, the problems of low pay, inadequate resources and stressed-out employees are endemic. In some places, like the railways, the power industry, telecoms and universities, things have quite clearly never been worse. And all of this after nearly 20 years of constant 'modernisation' and the introduction of an entire new bureaucracy of specialist managers and inspectors.

For people like Thatcher, the very existence of the public sector was always regarded as an affront to free enterprise--they overlook the fact that unbridled market capitalism had either made such a hash of the provision of basic utilities and services in the first place, or had found the cost of maintaining these services so prohibitive that they had ended up under state control almost by default.

One of the first examples of this was the creation of the first publicly-run fire brigade (the London Fire Brigade Establishment) which took place as long ago as 1832. The insurance companies who had previously shared the responsibility for putting out fires with local parishes called for more publicly-provided fire protection on the grounds that it was 'a costly service with little real financial return'.

What particularly stuck in Thatcher's ample craw about the public services was that they epitomised a way of going about things totally at odds with her own ideal of dynamic capitalism--which seemed to fall somewhere between 'Blackadder' and the 'Beverly Hillbillies'. In her (quite batty) mind, anything not privately owned must by definition also be a bastion of bureaucratic inertia, riddled with overmanning and outmoded working practices.

In fact, organisations like the NHS had managed to run fantastically effectively on scant resources before the Thatcher variant of modernisation started. From then on, though, modernisation has meant endless waiting lists and people being left in corridors on trolleys. It has meant trained and dedicated staff being cleared out because they were the ones on the highest rates of pay, to be replaced either by a neverending turnover of agency staff or by a newer intake on worse terms and conditions.

It is precisely because this has gone on for the past 20 years that most of the public sector is in such a dire state. It is generally worse off as the result of what Thatcher thought of as modernisation. And things have not improved significantly since Blair got in for a very simple reason.

At the heart of PFI, 'best value' and all the other fiscally-inspired claptrap public sector workers have been saddled with, is the Thatcherite assumption that public services can only improve by getting less people to do more while shovelling mountains of taxpayers' cash into the coffers of firms like Balfour Beatty, Jarvis, Bechtel and the rest--rather than paying decent wages and providing the right equipment.

Improvement of public services is not rocket science. In schools it means having enough books, buildings that don't leak, smaller class sizes, and teachers who get paid enough to pay the rent. Likewise, a serious modernisation of the fire service (which just about everybody except for the cabinet seems to think does a tremendous job, despite underfunding) would not mean drastic cuts in manning and asking firefighters to do extra shifts or more overtime.

As the major consultancy report commissioned by the FBU has shown quite conclusively, any rational approach would actually mean more firefighters being trained up, more fire stations being built in out of town areas and more new equipment being brought into service. Expecting Tony Blair to do a good job of modernisation is a bit like bringing in Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen--your maisonette ends up looking like a feudal nightmare, in technicolour, and all for just a bit over 500 quid.

No nurse, teacher or firefighter would have the slightest problem with 'modernisation' which meant extra beds, better equipment or improved staffing ratios. And, if New Labour had not been so timid and miserly during its first term of office, they could have done a lot to address exactly these kinds of problems.

But they didn't. And now Gordon Brown tells us that a great big hole has shown up in his sporran. At the same time, a queue has been forming outside the Treasury, led by the bosses of former nationalised industries whose fortunes have (quite predictably) nose-dived since they were put into private ownership. They all want (and most have been getting) quite colossal levels of state subsidy, on a scale which makes the firefighters' pay demands look like petty cash.

Up front is the ultra-modern Richard Bowker, formerly of Virgin Rail and now head of the Strategic Rail Authority, who says that the £35 billion they got for improving the railways over the next ten years has nearly run out already (after less than 12 months). Close behind is Adrian Montague, another ceaseless modernist as well as a former banker, Treasury mandarin and primary architect of rail privatisation. Having turned the railways into a pile of cack, you might expect Montague to be on the receiving end of the kind of vilification dished out to Andy Gilchrist. Instead, he has been asked to sort out British Energy, another privatisation disaster zone. Managing to announce this appointment, without any hint of irony, the 'Financial Times' said that 'the government's one-time PFI troubleshooter and former special transport adviser to John Prescott symbolises New Labour's attempts to import private sector skills into government'.