Companies to bid for more public services

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ON the eve of a 24-hour strike today by civil servants in protest at privatisation, the Government yesterday opened up a whole range of potentially sensitive public services to private sector bids.

Passports, 'head hunting' for the Civil Service and jobs on British armed forces bases are to be offered up to bids from private companies under plans announced by William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Security at defence bases will be excluded from market testing, but a range of critical government tasks, including the issuing of passports, could be offered to the private sector if in-house bids fail.

Unions representing 300,000 civil servants predict that today's strike, backed by 60 per cent of union members who voted, will disrupt customs posts, prisons, tax and benefit offices. Six unions are staging the walkout to highlight job losses and a worsening of pay and conditions under the Government's 'market testing' programme.

Under instructions from the Government, Whitehall departments produced long lists of tasks that could be handed to the private sector. They include fast stream recruitment by the Cabinet Office, VAT registration, fisheries research vessels, security at the Department of Environment, typing at the Home Office and more prisoner escort duties - in spite of the controversy over escapes from the custody of Group 4.

Mr Waldegrave, the Cabinet minister responsible for efficiency in the public services, told MPs the Government planned to extend the market testing programme to a wide range of jobs carried out by Whitehall departments, in spite of union claims that the savings were bogus.

John Sheldon, general secretary of NUCPS, the union covering Whitehall middle managers, described the statement as provocative. 'It comes on the eve of the biggest civil service protest in a decade and will boost union membership and ensure a bigger turnout on the picket lines in defence of jobs and quality services.'

Mr Waldegrave denied allegations by the civil service union, the CPSA, that market testing had cost pounds 30m-40m in consultants' fees and other costs. He said it had saved pounds 100m in the first 18 months.

There were few areas of Whitehall where market testing could not be tried, he said, including some elements of advice to ministers, such as accountancy checks on spending.