Letter: Privatisation to blame for public-sector corruption

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The Independent Online
Sir: The Public Accounts Committee's report on standards in the public sector ('The cancer of corruption', 28 January) shows that the net effect of the Government's programme of privatisation, contracting out and import of private- sector methods and managers has been the beginnings of the 'Italianisation' of the public services. The committee has revealed that although ministers boasted of cutting costs, all the while they were merely cutting corners.

After almost 15 years of constant ministerial attacks on civil servants and the Civil Service as being old fashioned, it now appears that those 'old-fashioned' ideas of accountability, integrity and probity are not so bad after all.

The public service ethos that the committee is so worried about has a material basis. It rests (or at least rested) on the fact that the Civil Service was a national career service. Although the pay for most civil servants has never been the biggest attraction, there existed a national career structure with national pay, personnel and grading systems. Mobility between parts of the country and departments as well as between jobs existed for those who wanted it. Departments had a training policy; recruitment and promotion were on merit; and a staff appraisal system existed that carried general support.

All of this has either disappeared or is about to disappear under wave after wave of government 'reform'. A large part of the service has been parcelled up into 92 executive agencies with the objective of privatising as much as possible. Performance pay has been introduced right across the service - despite a lack of evidence that such measures improve performance. The staff appraisal system has been devalued by changes and a simplistic linkage to pay, and the service as a whole is breaking up under the centrifugal forces unleashed by the government desire to 'devolve' and contract out.

Nothing Mr Major or others have said suggests that they have abandoned their 'long march through Whitehall' or their vision of an 'inescapable core' of a Civil Service reduced to a tenth (or less) of its present size, with civil servants acting as 'buyers' of services from the private sector. The likely result of this is all too predictable.

Under these changes accountability is reduced to a crude cash transaction, and the values of the public service (equity, citizenship, community, probity and democracy) will be jettisoned. The committee report points to a trend which, unless checked, will result in a return to the bad old days of corruption, nepotism and incompetence that made the 19th-century reforms of Northcote-Trevelyan so relevant in the first place.

Yours sincerely,

JOHN SHELDON

General Secretary

The National Union of Civil and Public Servants

London, SE1

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