The Lowdown: Unison's Dave Prentis

Two union leaders, two million members and a mauling for ministers and managers
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The Independent Online

He wants to strengthen links with the Labour Party and thinks some of the Treasury's policies on privatisation actually make sense. Meet Dave Prentis, the unlikely member of the union awkward squad. Sometimes moderate, often thoughtful, on the face of it the general secretary of Unison is at odds with the louder members of the squad, which includes Aslef's Mick Rix and Andy Gilchrist, head of the Fire Brigades Union.

He wants to strengthen links with the Labour Party and thinks some of the Treasury's policies on privatisation actually make sense. Meet Dave Prentis, the unlikely member of the union awkward squad. Sometimes moderate, often thoughtful, on the face of it the general secretary of Unison is at odds with the louder members of the squad, which includes Aslef's Mick Rix and Andy Gilchrist, head of the Fire Brigades Union.

But Prentis is quietly pre- paring for what will be a blistering attack on two of the Government's biggest policies. At the Trades Union Con- gress, starting next week, Uni- son will table two motions: to resist further private sector involvement in public services via the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and to see off plans for foundation hospitals.

The campaign will carry on through the autumn to the Labour Party conference, where, says Prentis, "We will be putting in hard-line motions calling for a change of direction."

He believes that in 10 years the PFI will cost taxpayers more than traditional state funding of public services. "There will be an increasing amount of money going into the PFI schemes to pay back the private companies. So the future generations will bear the costs of what's happening at the moment with the PFI," he says

At last year's Labour conference, Unison, which represents 1.3 million public service workers, called for an independent review of the PFI to assess whether it was good value for money. The idea was rejected. The Treasury instead commissioned its own report, which recommended that it be extended into new areas, such as urban regeneration.

Prentis claims the Treasury has "rigged" the rules to flatter the PFI, which keeps borrowing off the Government's balance sheet.

"The Treasury has twisted the rules. For a PFI bid to succeed, there has to be a public sector comparator [measuring the cost of the PFI against state funding]. The comparator is rigged so the PFI always works. And a local authority will be given credits if it uses the PFI. The way in which the decisions are taken always leads to the PFI and not a public service bid."

He has plenty of examples of where the PFI has failed. He cites the recent debacle at the London Borough of Southwark, where consultancy WS Atkins "walked away from an education contract because it wasn't making enough money".

Proving that he's different from the rest of the awkward squad, Prentis musters some praise for the Treasury. "There are a number of things in the report that are helpful, such as its recommendation that the PFI should not be used for smaller schemes and its pledge to look at workforce issues," says the Yorkshireman.

The Government's proposals for foundation hospitals - where selected hospitals will be allowed to raise cash through the private sector - is Unison's second big issue. Prentis offers a stark vision of privately funded healthcare: "We believe that it will lead to the break-up of the National Health Service. [Foundation hospitals] will become a means by which private companies can make increasing profits from healthcare."

Prentis also fears that staff will lose out. In particular, Unison is concerned that the new system will create a "two-tier workforce" and could threaten national union pay bargaining for health staff.

Unison hopes to see off foundation hospitals before they become enshrined in law. Earlier this year, the union encouraged Labour MPs to vote for a rebel motion - put forward by David Hinchliffe, the Health Select Committee chairman, and Frank Dobson, the former Health Secretary - against the foundation hospitals Bill. It was narrowly defeated, but Unison hopes to have a second stab at killing the Bill when it returns to the Commons for a further reading.

Unison feels particularly cheated by the Government because there was no consultation with unions, health workers or the public before ministers announced the plans for foundation hospitals.

"This was a complete change of direction. It came without any Green Paper or White Paper," says Prentis. "There is a very big democratic deficit in the way in which policy is decided within the Labour Party."

Despite his tough talking, some on the left of the union believe that Unison should sever links with Labour altogether and become more combative. Prentis rejects this idea: "We actually want to improve the links so we can make a better contribution within the Labour Party. My view is that the union - as the biggest affiliate to the Labour Party - needs to be trusted and respected by the party and the Government."

This won't stop Unison attacking the Government, however. Asked if he considers himself a member of the union awkward squad, Prentis at first laughs off the question but then admits, "I do".

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