Few words are ruder in polite society than “strike”. Hated by politicians. Deplored by the press. As for the party supposedly overrun by trade union barons, whoever can name an occasion when one of their leaders has publicly supported a strike will win a part-share of my immigration-control mug.
To such genteel ears, what I’m about to say will sound as sophisticated as breaking wind at a palace garden party. But some things demand directness – which is why I’d urge you to support the binmen, care workers, librarians and other council staff striking in Barnet right now.
Allow me to be blunter still, and say that this fight in an outer-London borough forms the frontline of one of the most important battles in Britain today. Because the men and women who normally serve kids’ meals, pick the rubbish off the streets and look after residents with mental-health needs are having to defend their services from a threat that may soon be coming to your local council: their jobs are about to be handed over to a private company.
The process is usually described as outsourcing – but that term does no justice to what’s happening in this leafy part of the capital. Councils of all stripes have been outsourcing for decades, which is why your local traffic warden is usually tramping the streets on behalf of a private firm. But that isn’t enough for Tory-run Barnet – it is on a mission to make itself disappear. It has begun a programme to farm out so many of its services that the local trade union calculates staff willshrink from 3,200 in September 2012 to just 332.
Everything from registering births to mowing the local cemeteries has either already been outsourced or is about to about be. And most of the key tasks have been given to the FTSE giant Capita. Not just for a few months or a couple of years, mind you: Capita will run these services for at least 10 years.
So an arm of Britain’s local government has in effect agreed to a friendly takeover by a £7bn multinational. Whoever Barnet residents vote for in local elections, they will always get Capita. Whenever they phone or email or visit, they will speak to a Capita employee. The FTSE giant will face no competition for the next decade; nor will it endure the same scrutiny as democratic government, as previously public information is veiled under “commercial sensitivity”.
This scale of outsourcing is new to Barnet, but has already given rise to some monstrous cock-ups. I’ve mentioned one here before: the loss of legal expertise meant that Barnet councillors were given the wrong reports to vote on last summer, prompting an independent inquiry that concluded: “There is no one who understands local government law in depth at Barnet.” And while the council claims the point of outsourcing is to save money, evidence of that is thin. One local blogger, who writes under the pen name Mr Reasonable, makes it his habit to go through the accounts and can’t identify any of the much-touted savings. He has offered to donate £250 to charity if the council can prove its claims, but so far there’s been no reply. I asked the local authority the same question this afternoon, but staff couldn’t come back to me in time. Meanwhile, the cost of interim and agency staff is ballooning from £12.5m two years ago to £15.5m.
If you want to see the world of outsourcing at its most illogical, spend a bit of time with detail-hunters like Mr Reasonable. He tells me about phoning his local library to see if a children’s book was in stock. The call was of course routed to a Capita call centre in Coventry, where staff spent ages unable to help before connecting him back to the librarians just down the road. By his calculations, for that wasted call Capita would charge Barnet £8.
Outsourcing is full of these invented costs, which is how the privateers make their billions. Mr Reasonable can tell you about how Barnet now pays £800 for a day’s training in how to take minutes, or £14,628 for just two months of occupational health assessments. In both cases these are services that would previously have been provided in-house for minimal cost. In the era of cost savings, however, they become very profitable indeed.
These examples would be comic, if they didn’t cost blameless taxpayers so much money. But for the staff on strike this week, outsourcing has been much more painful. They’ve seen their colleagues transferred to new employers and suffer pay cuts. And now they’re facing the prospect of more services leaving the council within months – everything from children’s centres to school dinners.
What you’re seeing in Barnet is not some one-off, but a test case. Forced to make deep cuts, many Tory authorities are using this crisis as the perfect opportunity to hollow out their services. That description certainly applies to Margaret Thatcher’s former constituency backyard of Barnet, which dreamed up its disappearing act even before the banking crash. Northamptonshire has announced plans to outsource 95% of staff. Bromley’s local authority is enmeshed in strikes over its plans to hand out most of its services.
The fact that these are all Tory councils is no surprise: it was Thatcher’s former lieutenant Nicholas Ridley who came up with the idea of the night-watchman local authority, where town hall staff only turned up once a year to sign contracts with the private companies delivering local services. But this trend is not only true blue: two former executives at Barnet have already moved on to top jobs at Labour-run councils of Haringey and Barking, presumably to work the same outsourcing magic there. In David Cameron’s first term, public sector outsourcingalmost doubled to £120bn. When he was re-elected, the National Outsourcing Association commented: “We expect to see a plethora of new outsourcing deals, both public and private, over the coming months.”
This makes what’s happening this week in Barnet, and the fight it’s part of, so vital. If the staff lose there, and the council does hive off all the services, then others will be encouraged to go further and faster in their outsourcing. The trade unions were wiped out in the private sector during the strikes of the 1980s; they could be destroyed in the public sector this decade.
If you support decent public services, you have to support those strikers in Barnet foregoing pay. And if you want to live in a country run as a democracy, with all its flaws and failings – rather than by big companies answerable to hardly anyone – their cause is yours.