Let's cooperate for a public service users bill

Photo of Citizen Energy Berlin

This article by our Director Cat Hobbs was first published in Co-operative News.

What do good public services mean to you? Perhaps you’re a fan of the NHS and the way it’s delivered a comprehensive service, free at the point of use. Perhaps you’re pleased that the publicly run East Coast railway line has returned £600 million to the Treasury. Perhaps you’re impressed by the work of co-operative schools in Cornwall and the way they offer parents, staff, pupils and community groups a say in governance.

I can take a guess that you’re not going to mention G4S, Serco, Care UK, A4e or Atos as shining examples of good practice. Whatever good public services mean to you, you’re probably a fan of people coming before profit and public ownership – more broadly or more narrowly conceived. If so, you’re not alone.

Our recent polling found that 80 per cent of people think there should always be a public sector option and 60 per cent want public ownership to be the default. 80 per cent want a say in whether public services are privatised and 90 per cent want a right to recall private companies who do a bad job.

This is not surprising; our new report shows that public services are ‘Better in public hands’; better quality, lower cost, more accountable and shared by us all.

Despite this, the public realm is under attack from a government intent on privatising and outsourcing. Worse, they are trying to use co-operatives, mutuals, social enterprises and the third sector as a Trojan horse for their disingenuous open public services’ agenda, set out here: www.openpublicservices.cabinetoffice.gov.uk.

We believe the government wants to divide and rule by pitting the public sector against co-operatives and others — even though they have so much in common. How do we reclaim the agenda?

Firstly, we need to work together to make sure public service users have a voice. People need powers over the privatisation process, and powers to hold private companies to account.

We Own It is campaigning for a Public Service Users Bill. This would give all of us a say over whether services (for example, the Royal Mail) should be privatised, and would promote public ownership as the default. It would give us information about private company performance (no hiding behind ‘commercial confidentiality’) and a right to recall them when they do a bad job.

Co-operatives UK Secretary General Ed Mayo sits on our advisory group and has helped to shape the campaign. Let’s create a new and powerful alliance for public service users.

Secondly, we need to reclaim the agenda around social purpose. Public services need to be run by people who care about people, and – crucially – who are given the time they need to do a good job.

This social purpose is often found in the public sector, and it can also be found in democratically controlled and accountable co-operatives, mutuals, social enterprises and voluntary organisations. The Social Value Act made it easier for local authorities to outsource with social purpose in mind. A Public Service Users Bill would take this further, prioritising organisations with a social purpose over profit-making companies in the tendering process. 57 per cent of the public support this idea (and the high number of ‘don’t knows’ suggests the Bill could help encourage a conversation about it).

Co-operatives can also expand the public realm and promote social purpose where services have already been privatised. For example, in Berlin, Citizen Energy Berlin is bidding to take over the electricity grid from private company Vattenfall.

Finally, we have to make sure that promoting the social economy goes hand in hand with increasing user voice and strong support for the public sector.

Any organisation that delivers public services must be responsible to service users in a clear and concrete way. We believe that when co-operatives, mutuals, social enterprises and charities play a role in delivering public services, robust safeguards should be in place to protect the public interest. They must be accountable to service users, all profits must be reinvested in improving the service, there should be an asset lock to keep public money safe, and the service should revert to the public sector if the organisation fails. Public sector mutuals in particular mustn’t mean backdoor privatisation.

That’s why it’s great that Co-operatives UK and the TUC have teamed up to provide joint guidelines on what a good public sector mutual should look like.

We all use and pay for public services, and we should all have a say in how they are run. Private companies are very good at producing lots of things – from laptops to lattes. But they don’t have a social purpose and they shouldn’t be running vital services like railways, schools or police. Please join our campaign for a Public Service Users Bill.