Values conflict will rip marriage apart

Yvonne Roberts says allowing private
contractors to cut costs at staff’s expense will affect standards
of care.

The fretful marriage between private
contractors and the public sector turned more volatile last week.
For several months now, Tony Blair’s ministers have promised to
protect employees in the public sector, in particular, their
pensions, against the consequences of contracting out.

At last September’s TUC conference, secretary
of state for trade and industry Patricia Hewitt offered some
protection of rights when workers were transferred to the private
sector. “We won’t allow our public servants to be short-changed,”
she said.

But her offer was met with silence; the unions
have lost trust in government guarantees. Indeed, last week Blair
implied that to make private sector contractors comply in the way
suggested by Hewitt will “seriously limit” their flexibility and by
implication prevent them from cutting costs.

On Thursday, he presented his glossy pamphlet
laying out how he hopes to bring public services up to a world
class standard, “…to achieve our central aim of spreading
prosperity and opportunity,” he said. But on the same day unions
read of a leaked Cabinet Office paper, which shows civil servants
debating what protection to give established public sector workers
and new private contractor recruits. The paper suggests that
contractors should “consult” but not negotiate with unions.

A second leaked document last week, from the
Office of Government Commerce, confirmed this to be true. It said
that “efficiency savings” come from lowering pay rates among blue
collar workers and making cuts in staff.

In the business of social care, it is well
known to all – except it seems Tony Blair – that the private sector
offers vastly improved salaries to those at the top end of the
ladder while drastically depressing the incomes and benefits of
those at the bottom. How else is it possible to cut costs and
preserve profits?

It is plain that the Prime Minister has not
grasped the crippling contradiction at the core of his endeavour to
modernise and reform public services. At the heart of much of the
public sector is a commitment to caring. In order to recruit and
retain staff – eight out of 10 local authorities face problems –
the value of caring has to improve hugely. Even Mr Blair must be
aware that no matter how modernised the infrastructure becomes,
without sufficient high quality staff at all levels with which to
deliver – his project is doomed.

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