Thursday, 4 August 2011

Private Owners, Public Interests

I live in the North, in a town built on coal. Colliery towers stand like mute memorials; under a tree around the corner from where I live there's an unobtrusive little plaque telling you the tree was planted in memory of those who died in a terrible mining accident on that site a hundred years ago. And everywhere you walk you see the cracks, snaking under the concrete: subsidence. The ground shifts imperceptibly beneath your feet wherever you are - even temperate countries like Britain get minor earth tremors every now and again - but having big voids miles beneath the real estate amplifies that, and you wind up with cracks in the pavement, cracks in the road, and cracks in your walls which - left too long - undermine your house price - and then, eventually, your house itself.

A friend of mine had cracks in the walls of her house, and decided to do something about it. She got onto her insurance company, who engaged a firm of structural engineers, who surveyed the house with a view to eventually starting work. Said company sent out some serious men who planted devices in the ground which bleeped and flashed and took readings and reported back to their base and, after two years of all this, a schedule of works was sent out explaining how, after a summer of scaffolding and noise and disruption, the subsidence would be fixed. All she had to do was phone the company.

The schedule of works arrived on Friday. My friend called the company first thing on Monday. And then she had to phone the other company: the one that, in the course of the past week, had taken over the original company - a fact no-one had bothered to reveal to my friend - and who had also managed to lose all the data about her house. Data gathered, carefully and painstakingly, over two years of hard work.

The efficiency of the private sector: we hear so much about it, especially since our New Tory Overlords seized power last May. But sadly, as my friend's experience, and those of many others, reveal, this 'efficiency' is a myth.

I was reminded of my friend's experience this morning, reading the news that the rushed closure of the Forensic Science Service means contracts to examine DNA, store biological evidence and clean up crime scenes are being handed over to other companies without police forces having time to do due diligence. This on its own is bad enough, and yet another example of how the Tories' free-marketeering zeal is being applied without any consideration for how  their Hayekian fantasies will actually play out in the real world. But buried in the report is something more unsettling: the reason why the service has to be sold off is because it's at risk of going into administration. Hang on, you might well ask. How can a government department go into administration? Isn't that something that only happens to companies?

Indeed. But the thing is the FSS is a company. It turns out that until 2005 the FFS was, as you might imagine, a government department, but for some reason the Blair administration decided to reconstitute it as a government-owned company - the Home Office's only government-owned company, as the Wikipedia page points out.

To me this is, frankly, astonishing. Forensic science is crucial to policework and the administration of justice. People are convicted and sent to prison on the basis of DNA swabs which are matched to evidence from murders thirty years ago. Isn't that something you want to be centrally administered, subject to all the checks and balances of government oversight? Don't you want that to stick around? Don't you want to avoid the risk of that collapsing and having its work turned over to a bunch of cowboy outfits?

But saying something like that, of course, reveals you to be an unreconstructed big government socialist. A heretic who lacks faith in the innate goodness and omniscience of The Market. Why should we leave something like forensic science in the hands of the government? Shouldn't departments like that have to compete on the market with all the other companies? Exactly! So let's blue-sky this thing! Let's blaze a trail! Let's run this thing not as a department, but as a company! Let's show those old civil service fuddy-duddies the market can work!

And let's watch the whole thing fall apart around our ears, like a subsidence-damaged semi. Some things are too important to be left to the market. My friend's house will probably survive the cack-handedness of the private sector outfit losing her data. But what about the biometric data that might be lost if one of these private forensic forms cocks it up? What happens when someone winds up convicted of murder or rape because some lab assistant working unpaid overtime for the 21st night in a row has mislabelled a sample?

Because outside of Ayn Rand fantasies, this is what happens in the private sector as it really is. Corners are cut. Regulatory frameworks are avoided, circumvented, or simpy ignored. Unspoken contracts of working beyond the agreed hours and 'going the extra mile' exist uneasily alongside 'official' contracts to which employers pay lip-service. There is a mission statement that speaks in glowing terms of how the company will satisfy all objectives while neglecting none; but there is a budget, and a bottom line, and bonuses to pay, and shareholders to satisfy: and dissonance sets in. The centre cannot hold. Cracks begin to form, and things fall through them. As a society we have to decide what things we can allow to fall through: and, especially at a time when people are seriously discussing bringing back the death penalty, it ought to be clear that justice should not be one of those things.

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