Brendan Barber’s last speech as General Secretary to the annual TUC Congress in Brighton made a salient point about what politicians can learn about the private sector from the G4S debacle. Ministers may well dismiss the majority of Barber’s comments about cuts and labour market reform without poring through the transcript, but there was one attack that he made that will ring true for those on the right as well as the trade union officials sitting in the conference hall. Using the Olympics as his grand theme, Barber said:
‘Private is always better than public, they argue. Not true, as we saw all too clearly when it came to Olympic security.’
‘Congress, it’s right to celebrate the Olympics, but it’s even more important to learn from them. For the central lessons of this summer – that private isn’t always best and the market doesn’t always deliver – surely need to shape future policy.’
Boris Johnson made the most effective Olympics analogy earlier this summer, when he used Usain Bolt to explain why competition was a good thing for standards. Barber and his colleagues are right to be suspicious of the set up that led to G4S securing and then fluffing the Games security contract: there wasn’t any competition to make the firm put in a Bolt-esque performance. Had they been in competition with the military and other big security firms rather than running what is effectively a monopoly in the private sector, they might have proven themselves, or at least might not have won that contract in the first place.
Private isn’t better than public if it behaves in the same way as a state monopoly does, without regard to competitors snapping at its heels. Tories surveying the fiasco as it unfolded remarked that it showed that strong scrutiny and proper competition for contracts are essential. Philip Hammond acknowledged as much in an interview in August, when he said he had reconsidered his view of the private sector following the G4S debacle. It must be one of the first times that Barber finds himself in agreement with someone of the defence secretary’s persuasion.Tags: Brendan Barber, Competition, Trade Unions, TUC, UK politics