Adding to its failures on the railways and the Forensic Science Service, the failings of the privatised Probation Service have emerged. The Tories privatise things for ideological reasons. If we propose renationalisation for ideological reasons the electorate will not care. The electorate may not care too much about who robs them but they do care that they are being robbed. What we need to do is to take the view of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice”. Clearly the mice are running all over the railways, the Forensic Science Service and the Probation Service. We in the Labour Party should be offering renationalisation not for ideological reasons but to give a cheaper, better train service, a Forensic Science Service that can be trusted and a probation service that does not rely on supervising criminals by waiting for them to ring up.
It is difficult to understand exactly why the railways were privatised in the first place. It can only have been to fit with some neo-liberal political philosophy. Both the French and the German railways were nationalised by 1938.
It is not surprising that the privatised railway has led to the highest train fares in Europe. In order to run one privatised train there is a train operating company, an infrastructure company (initially Railtrack now Network Rail) and probably a rolling stock leasing company. This one train is supporting the cost of three chairmen, three chief executives, three boards of directors as well as the apparatus for invoicing and paying bills between the three companies. This system adds enormously to the overheads. A particular annoyance of this system is that it is difficult to assign blame when things go wrong. When there was a power failure on the French state railway near Marseilles the head of the French state railway was making public apologies on television. In the British system the different parties just argue. The privatised railway has played its part in promoting rail nationalisation as the French, German and Dutch state railways have been receiving profits which they have obtained from British travellers by operating trains in the UK.
Curiously this sort of system where the company operating the trains was separate from the company owning the track has been tried before. The Stockton and Darlington railway tried it for its first six months but gave it up as impractical. So the system brought in by the Tories was not untried; it had been tried and failed before. Initial Tory claims were that privatisation would lead to lower fares and subsidies. Neither of these things have happened.
Privatisation of the Forensic Science Service has dispersed an internationally respected centre of expertise. The reason for privatisation was that the service was losing money. The vast majority of the Forensic Science Service’s business was with other parts of the public sector so this loss was a financial transaction between different parts of the public sector.
What has forensic science privatisation achieved? Well in one case a man was held on remand for five months for a rape which he could not have committed. It turns out that a plastic tray had been re-used causing his DNA to appear to be in the sample from the rape victim. Plastic trays should never be re-used in these circumstances, no doubt this was an economy measure. More recently nearly 500 drug tests are being reviewed. This has already led to some cases being abandoned. It could have led to convictions of the innocent and acquittals of the guilty. If mistakes continue in forensic science, juries will cease to believe the results with dire consequences for the administration of justice. Unfortunately the Tories do not seem to understand that something cheap that does not work has no value.
The probation service privatisation was officially intended to save money. Only those prisoners judged to be the most serious risk to the public would be handled by professional probation officers. Other prisoners, some 70%, are dealt with by community rehabilitation companies. The number of offenders on probation charged with murder, manslaughter, rape and other serious violent or sexual crimes has risen by more than 25% since privatisation.
What should we do about these failed privatisations? Clearly the organisations must be put back into working order. The Probation Service and the Forensic Science service could be re-established. While it would be possible to re-nationalise the railways by spending large sums of money there is an alternative, to allow the existing franchises to expire or for the train operating company to break or withdraw from their contract. This would not only return the railways to public ownership it would re-unify the track and the trains.
Bill Edwards was the Labour PPC for Bury St Edmunds