Steve Richards: Time to explode the myth that the private sector is always better

Ministers still prefer the deceptive swagger of the incompetent entrepreneur

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The deeply embedded assumption that a slick, efficient, agile, selfless private sector delivers high-quality services for the public is being challenged once more in darkly comic circumstances. Those inadvertent egalitarians from the security firm G4S have failed to recruit enough security officers so it seems anyone will be able to wander in to watch the 100 metres final. Or at least that would have been the case if the public sector had not come to the rescue in the form of the army.

What an emblematic story of changing times. From the late 1970s until 2008, the fashionable orthodoxy insisted that the public sector alone was the problem. Advocates of the orthodoxy took a knock or two when the banking crisis cast light on parts of the pampered, sheltered and partially corrupt financial sector. Now we get a glimpse of incompetence and greed in another part of the private sector. As light is shed wider and deeper, we keep our fingers crossed that the public sector can rescue the Olympics from chaos.

The pattern is familiar but has been obscured until the arrival of this accessibly vivid example, an Olympic Games staged in a city paranoid about security without many security officers. For decades, private companies were hired on lucrative contracts for projects that the state could never allow to fail. If the companies delivered what was required, they earned a fortune. If they failed, the taxpayer found the money to meet the losses and those responsible for the cock-up often moved on to new highly paid jobs.

The lesson should have been learnt when Labour's disastrous Public Private Partnership for the London Underground collapsed, as this was another highly accessible example of lawyers, accountants and private companies making a fortune and failing to deliver. The Underground could never close, so all involved knew that in the event of failure, the Government or the Mayor of London would be forced to intervene. Boris Johnson described the arrangement at the time as "a colossal waste of money".

He was right, but that has not stopped his colleagues in Government looking to contract out to the private sector at every available opportunity. Andrew Lansley had hoped to make the NHS a great new playground for companies seeking an easy profit. He still might do so. Expect Michael Gove's so-called free schools to become profit-making enterprises if the Conservatives win the next election, and perhaps the academies, too. Maybe there will be a G4S-sponsored school.

G4S already runs prisons and some of the police operations that are being increasingly contracted out to private companies. The welfare-to-work contract secured by another company, much hailed by gullible ministers when the deal was announced as an example of efficiency and effectiveness, is already under critical scrutiny.

A fortnight ago, I argued that we are living through a slow British revolution partly as a result of the financial crisis and the exposure of reckless, unaccountable leadership from the City. The era of light regulation that allowed some bankers without much obvious talent to make a fortune is over. Now, slowly, the assumption held from Thatcher to Blair to Cameron that the delivery of public services should lie with the private sector is being overturned, too.

As is always the case in British revolutions, the change is being driven by startling events and not by political leadership. The Coalition still burns with an ideological zeal formed in the 1980s, the Conservative wing at one with Orange Book Liberal Democrats in their indiscriminate hunger for a smaller state and their undying faith in the private sector.

At the top of both parties, there are crusading advocates of an outdated vision that places too much faith in the likes of G4S and not enough in the potential dependability of a more efficient and accountable public sector.

This is not to argue that the public sector is perfect. Parts of it are complacently inefficient and paralysed by a sense of undeserved entitlement. The Coalition deserves some credit for seeking to increase transparency and accountability in an often over-managed and wasteful sector. In the case of the Olympics debacle and other equivalent deals, part of the culpability lies with government departments that negotiate on behalf of the taxpayer.

Last week, The Independent revealed that there had been no penalty clause in the G4S contract. On Tuesday, its unimpressive chief executive told the Home Affairs Committee that the company still expected to collect £57m for its contribution to the Olympic Games, an expectation that brings to mind once more that damning, ubiquitous phrase from the old Britain: "rewards for failure".

Who draws up these contracts? Which ministers sign them off? Why is their instinct always to outsource when there is now a mountain of evidence that failure follows?

Instead of focusing on the arduously unglamorous task of making the public sector more efficient and adaptable, ministers, like their New Labour predecessors, prefer still the deceptive swagger of the incompetent entrepreneur. The gullibility is more extraordinary now we finally get to know more about these supposed geniuses. Senior bankers earning millions stutter hesitantly when questioned by unthreatening MPs on select committees, incapable of articulating a case. Nick Buckles from G4S was so thrown by the Home Affairs Committee that he lapsed into a debate about whether the few security guards he had managed to hire spoke "fluent English", claiming not to know what such a term might mean. One of the great revelations since Britain's slow revolution began in 2008 is how many unimpressive mediocrities had risen in the unquestioning, unaccountable darkness that, until recently, acted as a protective layer for parts of the private sector.

But in the end look who is ultimately held to account. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, was called to the Commons twice this week to answer questions about what went wrong. She will be back in September. A government can outsource but it will still be held responsible, quite rightly, for the delivery of public services.

So political survival should motivate ministers in future to draw up much tighter deals with companies and to focus more on improving the public sector rather than expensively by-passing it. The voters have had enough of these abuses and yet, trapped by the past, some ministers show an ideological inclination to be abused for a little longer.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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