Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader, is calling on the Coalition to ‘rethink’ its use of private contractors after the G4S security company warned it might be short staffed for next Friday’s Olympics opening.
At the same time, 5,500 immigration officials plan to strike on Thursday as thousands queue (127,000 expected) at Heathrow’s passport control. Is Mr Miliband calling on the Coalition to ‘rethink’ its use of public services? If not, why not?
The difference between his attitude in the two cases is revealing. There’s a sense that Britain’s public sector, with its millions of employees who have run so much in the UK since 1945, has a natural right, a monopoly which it should continue to enjoy, unquestioned, however badly it performs, however untrustworthy it turns out to be. The shortcomings of a single private company are thought to be enough to put private provision into question. Repeated failures by the public services are, indeed, the cause of hand-wringing and apology, but the question they obviously pose is always avoided: why not replace them by choosing from private providers.
If G4S has let us down, we can avoid using it in future (and if it lets down too many customers, it will go out of business). When HMRC or the Customs and Excise or the National Health Service let down the country, what remedy is there? Even when they are fined, it is the taxpayers who have to cough up. Government should now be bold. Public money should be used to pay the most competitive providers for the best service.