Tolling the knell of parting PFIs

Posted on January 22nd, by geoff in Caring Times, CT blog. 2 comments

By Caring Times editor GEOFF HODGSON

Ah Carillion! Thou misspelt corporate giant,

Brought down by noddies and ministers compliant.

A carillon’s a tower replete with bells

To signal celebration or solemnly sound the knells.

It doesn’t augur well when a company misspells its own name. Whether this was by accident or design, there’s no doubt that the collapse of Carrillion rang a lot of bells. The anti-private sector crowd has come out in force, decrying Private Finance Initiatives and the outsourcing of public infrastructure projects in general.

There is much to decry; but construction contractors going bust because they make silly bids which even sillier governments accept has been going on for centuries, – in case you’re interested, the company building the Manchester Ship Canal had to be bailed out in 1891, four years into the project. More recently, one of the first stories I wrote as a newly-hired journalist in the 1990s was about a hospital which lacked a roof because the bloke chosen to put the lid on had subsequently filed for bankruptcy. When will we ever learn?

Infrastructure aside, the decriers extend their condemnation to include the outsourcing of public services and there have been many disasters (privately-run prisons, the probation service, job centres, to name just a few). But there are some babies in with the bathwater, and social care is one of them.

One can only conjecture about what might have happened if the bulk of care homes had remained in local authority ownership and operation, but it’s a fair bet that we would not have seen the many advances that have been made over the past 20 years.

Care home design and quality of accommodation, dementia care, end of life care, staff development, professionalisation, overall quality of life and much more have all taken huge strides since service delivery was put in the hands of private operators. Certainly, there is still some way to go but I doubt we’d have come half as far had the initiative been left to public bodies.

Of course, government agencies have attempted to ‘manage the social care market’ but fortunately only with limited success; there are too many players, and a healthy private market, for government ineptitude to do any real damage – so far. And if government can be persuaded to pay a sensible price for social care provision, we might be able to avoid any future ‘Carillion moments’ in our sector.

  • The CT Blog is written in a personal capacity – comments and opinions expressed are not necessarily endorsed or supported by Caring Times.

2 responses to “Tolling the knell of parting PFIs”

  1. Bob Ferguson says:

    What would or would not have happened had the care home sector remained a publicly operated service is pure speculation. There is certainly no evidence to suggest there would have been wholesale regression from the current state of progress. True, the sector may have been scarred by the odd outbreak of incompetence from public officials, but at least we would have been spared the depredations of the robber barons.

    The eye-watering scale of their exploitation – some of which was highlighted in the CMA report – makes the imminent Green Paper an ideal opportunity to modify the Thatcher doctrine of exporting social care to the private sector. Not with a knee-jerk binge of nationalisation, but with a public/private enterprise, a relationship in which the former eliminates the worst excesses of the latter: for example, imposing a code of fit and proper conduct that operates on a moral as well as a quality plane, preventing firms from exporting profits to offshore tax havens even as they bleat plaintively about being denied sufficient tax-payer funding to make ends meet. You really couldn’t make it up!

    Lest the privateers believe they are immune from radical change, they may care to contemplate what a latter-day JC would bring to the party should he march his disciples into Downing Street. Even the current miserable bunch are making a fist of getting to grips with the greed of the public utilities, so it would not be unreasonable to expect a government of the political left to go a step or two faster and further.

    No doubt, private providers and their doom-saying apologists will warn that, at the first sniff of government intervention, they’ll be off, taking their capital with them. Don’t believe a word of it; there’s too much money to be made, legitimately, and they and the others that are queuing up for a share of the action know that full well. The tired old formulation of private, good, public bad – or the reverse – should have gone down with the Titanic. In the end, what matters – and what gets people wound up – is not whether providers are for- or not-for-profit; it’s their behaviour that counts. And too many of them leave much to be desired, something that only government can control and/or correct. So, it looks like it’s over to JC then. Personally speaking, I can’t wait.

  2. John Burton says:

    I can’t wait either, Bob. However, most politicians, even those who are human beings, have little idea how things actually work. So, they think up grand organisations to “drive change” and impose their good ideas, and then find that this simply doesn’t work. Having found it doesn’t work, they think the solution is to do more of it – to do the wrong thing righter.
    Social care so obviously needs to be run by a combination of the people who use it and the people who work in it, so that it’s in the ownership and control of a community. The well motivated owners of small homes are a good example: make a living and a modest profit from investing in a really beneficial enterprise that is used and appreciated by your residents, relatives and neighbourhood. There are hundreds of such homes.
    Similarly, a local authority or not for profit home can be just as good. But in both models, greed and grandiosity, power hunger and a sort of bureaucratic empire building destroy these good places, whether it’s by regulation, take over, or unfair competition. I could go on, but I won’t!

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