Education, education, education, or What Will Free Schools Cost?

DURING the 2010 General Election, I was fortunate enough to be Political editor of a daily newspaper. I put in a great deal of time and effort covering the campaign, but the rewards were massive: I got to meet and interview high-ranking politicians, past and present, including Edwina Currie, who told me that trying to get the Lib Dems to agree on anything was like ‘trying to herd bluebottles into a jam jar’ and Vince Cable, who accused the Conservatives of not having any real economic policies. Looking back, I guess I only wish that both statements were still true…

I genuinely enjoyed it. But in the course of the campaign, I was also able to interview all three party leaders. I interviewed David Cameron twice. The first time, he appeared to say that he would continue with every single ‘good’ policy of the Labour Party, including Building Schools for the Future, if his party was elected.

But back at the office I wondered: how can the Conservative Party possibly pledge to continue spending, if they were also determined to ‘pay off’ the nation’s debts? If, as they said, we were in the worst economic situation of any developed state, how could they deal with that at the same time as spending money to build schools? (of course, we weren’t, but that’s another story…)

So the second time I interviewed him, a week later, I offered him an ‘out’. What if, I asked, the financial situation was worse than he’d realised? Would he then have to consider dropping schemes such as BSF?

He actually tossed his head, and tutted. ‘Tchoh,’ he began. ‘I’ve already told you we support Building Schools for the Future.’

Now, I can understand that at this point (late April) Cameron had been campaigning hard for weeks. Not only that, it was fast becoming clear that the Tories were actually losing public support (luckily for them, neither the Labour Party nor the Lib Dems were able to take full advantage). So I can forgive his rudeness under pressure.

But the fact remains, the leader of the Opposition, now the UK’s Prime Minister, sat and lied to my face. This is bad enough, but my job meant I was then forced to return to the office and deliver that lie, on his behalf, to the readers of the newspaper for which I worked. I have had no public opportunity since then to apologise. But, genuinely, if you read that article and it altered your opinion of the Conservative Party one iota, I am truly sorry. I’ve shared the mitigating factors, but nonetheless, I apologise.

Because on July 5, seven weeks and five days after the coalition was formed, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced he was ending the Building Schools for the Future project.

I only mention it now, because while I am no longer Political editor of a daily newspaper (I went to Libya with a charity and am now enjoying the twin thrills of application form-filling and wondering when I’ll run out of cash), Michael Gove IS still Education Secretary, and in some people’s eyes has emerged as a possible front-runner in any future Conservative leadership challenge.

So, perhaps it’s worth taking a look at Michael Gove’s ‘achievements’ to date…

About a year ago, I was in conversation with a leading Lib Dem, to whom I explained that I thought Gove was a marionette puppet. Not unreasonably, the Lib Dem asked ‘Well then who do you think controls him?’ So I want to explain quickly that I don’t think he’s a metaphorical marionette, dancing, as it were, to the tune of a puppet master, I think he’s an actual marionette, which has somehow, Pinocchio-style, learned to speak and make a life for itself. And so do you. Admit it. Go here and tell me it isn’t true…

Anyway, it’s not the most important thing in the world, but remember, that man – or more accurately, that ‘man’ – currently controls your children’s education.

We’ll come back to BSF in a bit, because it ties in quite nicely with Mr Gove’s ‘alternative’, Free Schools, but first, here are some of the other proposals Mr Gove hopes will come to a school near you, soon…

O-Levels

Late last month, Michael Gove announced that he hoped to replace the current GCSE examinations system with a return to O-Levels.

The first students to take the new O-Levels would take the exams in 2016.

Inexplicably, this announcement led some political reporters to declare he was now seen in government circles as a ‘front runner’ to replace PM David Cameron as leader of his party – and, by the same token, as a possible Prime Minister of the UK.

Certainly, it was a bold statement by Mr Gove. But I might suggest that it was not so much a ‘policy’ statement, as an announcement that he has no new ideas at all, and instead simply intends to replace an actual policy, passed some 26 years ago, with another, which had been in place for many years before that.

Perhaps unthinking nostalgia is what wins the hearts and minds of the Conservative Party, but if all it takes to be considered a political innovator is to propose a quarter-of-a-century backwards step, it’s rather depressing.

Mr Gove’s argument is that GCSEs are ‘failing the nation’s youth’. That they are not teaching the right things, and are in fact too easy to pass, thus devaluing them as qualifications.

The problem with this as an argument is not so much that it’s unwinnable, but that it’s actually impossible to lose as well.

Because the thing is, no-one knows. I don’t know if GCSEs are easier than O-Levels, because I didn’t do O-Levels. Mr Gove doesn’t know if O-Levels are harder than GCSEs, because he didn’t do GCSEs.

The only way to make an unbiased, scientifically sound assessment of which is easier to pass, would be to make the same children follow both courses, at exactly the same time.

Now, there are some people (step forward The Daily Mail, a genuine leader in this, as in so many other fields of political debate), who attempt to ‘prove’ that GCSEs are easier by publishing a multiple choice question which its readers would find incredibly easy to answer.

The problem is, Mail readers are adults – or at least old enough to be regarded as such. It’s hardly remarkable that most of them can answer a question designed to test the knowledge of someone less than half their age. The fact someone aged 45 can answer a GCSE question has no more bearing on the standard or quality of modern education than does the fact that the same 45 year-old can read and pronounce correctly the word ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ and a four year-old cannot.

Should we, perhaps, criticise infant schools for teaching young people to read with such pathetically facile texts as ‘Spot Goes To Annoy The Neighbours By Digging A Hole Under Their Fence’? To be honest, I’m pretty unhappy nursery schools keep allowing their attendees to slack off with toy cars and Lego…

We’ve also got to remember that the past is always better than the present, to those who look back at it. It may be the case that some exceptionally gifted individuals could, at the age of 16, recite from memory Robert Browning’s A Lovers’ Quarrel translated into Latin, but I’m absolutely certain they’d be the exception in that. There is, I fear, a tendency to judge the academic systems of the past by their most gifted participents, and those of the present by the most average, at best, or the least gifted at worst.

Equally, the cultural environment in which most 16 year-olds have been brought up is different from that of 26 years ago – even more so than that of 56 or 106 years ago.

For example, I’d honestly like it if a child of mine came home able to translate poetry, from memory, into Latin. But I might be a little less delighted if it turned out they’d been taught that at the expense of knowing how to use a computer. And no-one left school at 16 in 1957 knowing how to operate computers. What may have been seen as vital knowledge – or indeed obvious – in the past is not guaranteed to remain so throughout human history.

The other favoured argument from those who claim GCSEs are ‘easy’ is that the grades achieved by young people prove it. ‘So many people are getting the top grades,’ they say. ‘Hardly anyone did when there were O-Levels. Therefore, O-Levels must be harder.’

Not only is this a spectacularly unfair argument, undermining the achievements of young people who have, after all, spent two years working to achieve these grades, it’s also almost completely illogical. In what other field would people claim so consistently and noisily that continued improvement means things are ‘easier’? (Actually, in sport, some people do, citing improved technology and equipment. But there is improved equipment in schools, too, and yet Usain Bolt’s achievements are not belittled in the way that every 16 year-old, every year, is made to feel ‘less’ than their forebears, despite spectacular performances in examinations. In athletics, it seems, improvements are welcomed).

Equally, it ignores the basic differences between O-Levels and GCSEs.

O-Levels, and their ‘sister’ examinations, the CSE, were abolished in 1986 (the first students sat the exams in 1988), by then Conservative Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph.

Remarkably, the NUT, hardly noted for its consistent support of either the Conservative Party or government announcements of changes to the education system, welcomed the move.

Then NUT general secretary Fred Jarvis said: This is one decision of Sir Keith’s which will be applauded throughout the teaching profession.’

In the context of 1980s UK politics, this was a remarkable moment. Teachers – particularly those in the NUT – had opposed virtually every measure the government had announced on education, often striking to make their point more strongly. And yet, when it came to the abolition of the O-Level, a Conservative Education Secretary won not just support, but (figurative) applause from teachers.

The reason was pretty simple. O-Levels and CSEs were agreed, by professionals, experts and government ministers, to be failing the nation’s young people.

There were two main reasons for this: First, the system was genuinely two-tier. That is, those youngsters considered academically capable enough took O-Level examinations, and if they passed gained an O-Level qualification. Those who were not considered as capable took CSEs.

As a result of this, employers and society in general looked on O-Levels as ‘better’ than CSEs, meaning a decision taken when a pupil was 12, 13, or 14 years old could close opportunities to them forever.

Not only that, reaching the top levels of achievement at CSE actually required the same level of knowledge required to gain an O-Level in the same subject, but regardless, those chosen to sit CSEs received a qualification regarded incorrectly as worth ‘less’ than an O-Level.

It’s true, of course, that GCSE pupils are also ‘streamed’. There are arguments to be had about whether and why this is a good idea (on the one hand, it enables teachers to allow more accomplished students to take on new, more complex topics within a subject, while not leaving some in the same class unable to benefit in lessons. On the other, it reduces the chances of some pupils to achieve a grade they are capable of reaching). But the major difference is that all students receive the same qualification at the end. So if, as is the case in some subjects, the ‘higher’ level paper enables you to achieve grades A*-G, and the lower grades B-G, and you get a B in either paper, you have a B grade at GCSE.

For all the imperfections in the system, you do at least have a situation in which people who demonstrate the same knowledge in their final examination receive the same grade in the same qualification.

And the last sentence hints at another ‘problem’ with O-Levels: grades were awarded ‘in competition’ rather than in terms of actual achievement in a subject. That is, only a set percentage of young people in any given school year could receive an A grade, another percentage a B, and so on.

This is important for three reasons. First, because it did not reward achievement as such (though of course achievement was a factor – you could not score one per cent in an exam and get an A), but was based on competition. So if your school year was of a low academic standard you actually stood more chance of getting an A than if you were part of a particularly gifted generation. By contrast, the GCSE system directly awards achievement: that is, if you score a certain mark, you get a particular grade, regardless of how many other people also get that mark.

It seems pretty sensible, really. If you view exams as a mark of accomplishment, and you reward someone a grade for their achievement, that grade should be a mark of what you know, which can be understood by anyone observing. A system in which achievement is marked with a grade which is achieved by comparison with other students immediately offers too little information. What standard was the examination year in question, and perhaps more to the point, would an employer even bother to find out, if faced with someone with all As at O-Level and another candidate with all Bs?

Secondly, if a system of examinations is set in order to ensure people achieve a certain level of education (in this case, Sir Keith Joseph said all students must achieve grades A-C in five subjects, including English and Maths) that can only sensibly be measured by a system in which grades correspond directly to marks, rather than one in which grades correspond both to marks and the marks achieved by other students, because year-on-year the latter system tells you less about actual levels reached by young people, and more about how each individual compares to others of exactly the same age.

Thirdly, relating to the argument of those who say GCSEs must be getting easier because more and more students are achieving high grades, compared to O-Levels in which roughly the same number achieved each grade each year, well the comparison is transparently false.

GCSEs relate to achievement – the grade given relates solely to what the student has shown they have learnt. This means it is possible for 100 per cent of students to get an A* in French, for example.

That doesn’t mean GCSEs are NOT getting easier, but to pretend you can compare a system like GCSEs with the O-Level system of rewarding grades in a competitive way, where it would never be possible for everyone to get the top grade, is simply to misunderstand the way the systems work.

Mr Gove did, however, offer one interesting point about GCSEs, and one with which it’s hard to disagree.

In the statement announcing the O-Level ‘policy’ to the House of Commons (only after it had been leaked to the ever-friendly Daily Mail, however…) He said: ‘We want to tackle the culture of competitive dumbing-down, by making sure that exam boards cannot compete with each other on the basis of how easy their exams are.

It seems Mr Gove fears that GCSEs have got easier because of the policy which allows separate exam boards to ‘compete for business’ with schools – each offering slightly different papers and marking services.

It’s undeniable that such a system, particularly in an era of ‘league tables’ of exam performance between schools, could tempt schools to opt for an ‘easier’ exam, and for exam boards, competing for business, to offer an ‘easier’ exam than their competitors.

I don’t know the extent to which this happens. But certainly, when the exam board competition was set up, teachers warned that this could be one result.

The thing is, that system is absolutely nothing to do with GCSEs themselves. It’s to do with the way in which the last Conservative government tried to introduce ‘more competition’ into the public education system.

Mr Gove has recognised this competition may be driving standards down, and should be congratulated for doing so. But all that needs to be done is to remove competition between exam boards, rather than throwing out an entire education system in favour of one which was consistently failing pupils 26 years ago.

 Bibles

I’m going to change the mood a little here, so I warn anyone in advance that if they don’t like the idea of someone being unkind to a marionette puppet (for example, this one), they should probably just skip to the next section, Free Schools, which will include exciting things about Building Schools for the Future, cash, creationism, and Conservative Party’s weird love of the USA.

Right, now they’ve gone, we’re on to bibles.

As far as I can see, there are three views it’s acceptable to hold on the bible. First, it’s the word of God, transcribed by humans, and as such every word must be treated as the only truth about the universe and how we should live in it. Second, it’s a series of (occasionally gruesome) fairy stories each of which contain guidance on how one should live, or third, it’s a book written by a seemingly pathologically paranoid and insecure desert tribe attempting to gloss over its own perceived inadequacies by claiming to be the chosen people of a being which is unlikely even to exist, let alone play favourites with one small section of the species it created.

Another time? Good.

But in the case of the King James Bible, there are three other factors to bear in mind: It’s beautifully written; it’s an excellent example of Early Modern English and it’s a great example of a sensitive and artistically handled translation.

It’s well worth young people learning about it and from it, even if not, perhaps, from all of the messages it contains.

So, Education Secretary Michael Gove clambered out of his little puppet box with a plan. To make sure schools had copies of the King James Bible.

At first glance, this looks like a lovely idea. Children across the country get to benefit from seeing and reading a genuine historical and cultural work of art.

Except Mr Gove didn’t order enough for every schoolchild in the country. He didn’t order enough for every classroom to have one copy. He didn’t even order enough so that every teacher could have a copy, maybe to read to youngsters in ‘quiet time’ between txtng lssns and Coke drinking, or whatever it is The Mail knows young people do at school these days.

In March this year, he gave one copy – that’s one copy – to each school.

Now, I don’t know whether Mr Gove thought headteachers were unaware of the existence of the bible. Or whether he wanted to help those headteachers bestow knowledge to their staff (‘I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this, Ms Harris. It’s called the bible. It’s really terribly good…’)

Perhaps he hoped teachers will use it as a ‘reward’ for good students: ‘Ptr. Gd msg. Rd Kg Jms Bbl as prz.’

In any case, it turns out that this has cost £370,000, though the bibles are at least being paid for by Conservative Party donors, rather than the taxpayer.

Finally, and interestingly, each bible contains the following message: ‘presented by the secretary of state for education’ on its spine. Its spine! Not in small letters on a frontispiece, like it would if you were just an average megalomaniac, handing out religious literature for no reason.

Mind you, Mr Gove convinced Conservative Party donors to use their money to pay for him to use one of the world’s widest-read religious books as a vanity project. Maybe he is a front-runner for next leader of the party…

Free Schools

Welcome back, anyone who left. Actually, I wasn’t too horrible to the marionette. Go back and check. A good time was had by all.

And so, we move to the final part of this overview of Michael Gove, who may be a marionette puppet (see what you think here) and his flagship education policy: Free Schools.

Now before we start, I guess it’s only fair to make something clear. After all, I’m criticising the ‘man’ in charge of Education, so I might as well lay my cards on the table.

I think the people of this country should, as taxpayers, pay for every single child in this country to receive a decent, free, education. Up to the age of 16 for all, and up to and including a first degree for anyone with the ability and inclination to do one.

It benefits those who cannot afford to send their children, or whose parents cannot afford to send them, to private or public school. Not just because it prepares them for the world of work (it does, but that should NEVER be considered the sole point of an education) but because it also means they will be able to do things which will bring them pleasure, such as reading books, writing, taking part in scientific, historical or cultural debates or projects – in short, because it helps them to live fulfilled, happy lives. As human beings, rather than as senseless automata.

It also benefits those who can afford to send their children to public or private schools, or whose parents can afford to send them, as it means they will be part of a well-educated society, whose members can help contribute to the wider economy, and, believe it or not, because they will be able to meet people with whom they’re able to have an informed conversation, regardless of social class or the amount of cash they happen to have lying about.

For the record, I think this education should include Mathematics, Science, History, Geography and three languages (one being English) from Primary school age. On the latter point, this CAN be done. In Italy, primary school-aged children learn three languages. In Tunisia, lessons are taught half the term in French and half the term in Arabic. I realise this is only two languages (though this is ALL lessons being taught in this way) but to be fair, one is French, with a Latin alphabet, and the other is written in Arabic script.

It should also include any other subjects children want to learn and/or show some aptitude for. Included in this, it must be recognised that some youngsters are less academically capable, or perhaps more to the point less inclined towards acadaemia than others. This is not a judgement call on intelligence, just a recognition that not everyone’s mind works in the same way. These youngsters should be able to learn trades if they wish to, including everything from cookery to carpentry. I will, if anyone cares, explain how the latter idea can be delivered at a later date.

I believe that the government, which is after all a handily-placed central body, and holds the purse-strings, should be able to set desired levels of achievement and certain laws on how teaching can happen. But these laws should extend only as far as general terms including teachers’ wages and an absolute, all-encompassing policy of non-violence towards children.

Further than that, I think teachers, and perhaps local groups should be able to say how they will use the cash given by the government and how they will teach these lessons. The former is important because local groups, so long as they are accountable directly to the public, should be better placed to say what is needed and how urgently, and the latter because it seems like madness for a government minister to say they know better how a teacher should teach an individual or class than the person who teaches them every day.

Anyway, you’ll remember that Mr Gove stood up on July 5 in the House of Commons and announced that Building Schools for the Future was ending (we’ll pass quickly over the fact that he wrongly announced several of these projects were ending midway through, and that others were continuing when in fact they were to be stopped, even though he was Education Secretary and this was the single most important thing happening for staff and pupils at schools up and down the country. Anyone can make one mistake of this kind. That’s ONE, Mr Osborne).

In the House, he accused Building Schools for the Future of being responsible for: massive overspends, tragic delays, botched construction projects and needless bureaucracy.’

In fairness, he had a point with the first three accusations. BSF was £10bn over budget (£55bn, rather than the original estimate of £45bn), by its second year (2006) work had started in only five of 72 local authorities who’d already signed up, and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, in its review of 124 schools rebuilt, found that 52 had ‘poor’ quality of building and design, with a further 16 rated ‘mediocre’.

On the other hand, it’s fair to point out that BSF was a spectacularly ambitious project. Announced by Tony Blair in 2004, its aim was to rebuild 1,750 secondary schools, structurally repair another 1,225 and refurbish the rest – including installing new ICT equipment – of the 525 remaining schools.

As with many New Labour schemes, however, it did have complications and problems built in. The main one came down to the fact that the government was not paying up front for the project, preferring instead to invite private firms to pay for the work, and then repaying them in instalments over many years.

It’s easy to see why this was attractive to New Labour – it was, in effect, a ‘buy now pay later’ deal. And it did deliver new schools and refurbish old ones. But repayment levels were always likely to be reset so the cost was always likely to be higher than early estimates. And the government had little control over the building process itself, as it was ‘project commissioner’ rather than ‘project leader’.

In terms of bureaucracy, it’s worth mentioning that a great deal of what Mr Gove criticised was the hiring of consultants as go-betweens for schools and local authorities, which had previously had little or no experience in dealing with architects.

The problem here was that, as Margaret Thatcher correctly claimed: ‘We won the argument… We convinced our opponents we were right.

Labour had been convinced that the market could – indeed should – be used in all activities which cost money, as such involvement should, in theory, save the taxpayer money and ensure that business expertise was used in all large infrastructure projects. What made the situation impossible was that Labour had only been half convinced by Conservative views: it believed in the market, but it also believed (rightly, in my view) that the government had a responsibility to its citizens to deliver state-level improvements, rather than relying on piecemeal ‘make do and mend’ schemes.

The results were as one might expect: improvements WERE made – BSF was the largest single school building and refurbishment project ever embarked upon in the UK – but by using business expertise, costs were higher than could otherwise have been the case. The use of consultants was necessary, if one accepted that business ‘knew best’. But the result was a tendency for ‘negotiations’ between schools and local authorities on the one hand, and consultants and architects on the other, to overrun, both in terms of cash and time.

So, there were problems with BSF, though whether these came from the idea of building new schools for UK children (which as we have seen the Conservative Party itself was in the last Election campaign at pains to say it supported) or the involvement of the private sector in what were massive public services contracts is at the very least a topic for more research.

Mr Gove announced his own ‘flagship policy’ on schools in 2010.

He said the UK would become the third developed state in the world to operate ‘Free Schools’ – new educational establishments set up by groups outside of the state sector (he named parents, teachers, charities and businesses as groups which could set up and run such schools, though as we shall see, religious groups have also taken part in the scheme).

The schools were designed to receive government funding, not from the local education authority as in the state school sector, but directly from the Department of Education. They can also receive ‘top-up’ cash from outside sources, including businesses (in this, they are similar to the Academies set up by the last Labour government, though academies have a 10 per cent ‘cap’ limiting the amount of outside funding they can receive).

In exchange, they are freed from having to teach the national curriculum, and can set their own hours of opening, holidays and teachers’ pay rates.

There are some advantages to such a scheme. First of all, the idea that parents can take an active role in their children’s education is, at a first glance, a measure of empowerment for those closely affected by the way in which schools operate. Secondly, it’s hard to argue that there is a ‘best’ period of the day in which children should learn (within reason: few to no people would seriously argue that youngsters learn trigonometry best at 4am), so why should such freedom not be exercised by schools, who after all provide education directly, every day, rather than being imposed upon by a government which does not?

But there are problems.

As with other ‘new’ policies of Mr Gove, the idea was not ‘new’. It was already in place in the USA and in Sweden.

In the USA, particularly in New York, the system is agreed to have had a positive affect: exam results have improved, and perhaps crucially, young people at the schools have been found to enjoy attending more than in non-Free Schools. But.

At this point, I think it’s worth making a quick point. I am genuinely bewildered by the way in which many politicians – most of them, but not all, members of the Conservative Party – insist on holding the USA as a state model to which we should aspire here.

I can understand that it saves money for governments, as a low-tax, low-interference system of governance means the government should spend little money on state infrastructure and services (we will gloss over what it does spend money on instead).

But the USA’s social systems are rated among the lowest in the developed world. Its health service is rated as worse on EVERY criterion, including cost and efficiency, than the NHS. By its own Census Bureau’s reckoning, 46.2m US citizens are living in poverty – 15.1 per cent of its population. In cash terms, this means that 15.1 per cent of the national population exists on £14,674.99 per year – for a family of four. Arguably, the ‘US poverty threshold’ has been set too low.

I apologise for quoting Bill Hicks, but: ‘When you find yourself jumping over the tenth guy lying in the street who, I don’t know, might be dead, doesn’t it ever occur to you the system isn’t working?

Now, I know a few Americans. They are charming, intelligent and in one or two cases spectacularly talented people. But I am sorry to have to say that American education is not exactly globally famous for its consistent high standards.

This may be unfair, but bear with me. For a start, the nation elected, as its president, a pretend cowboy. Twice. Then it elected his quieter, less charismatic pal, who had exactly the same policies. When it elected a relatively intelligent man, it attempted to have him impeached for having had sex with someone who wasn’t his wife (by contrast, John Major, former UK Prime Minister, was found to have had extra-marital sex while PM. He is now a Lord. I’m not sure what this says about our respective nations). And then it elected Dubya. Twice. Though I suppose it’s possible this was some kind of ‘equal opportunities for halfwits’ scheme. In which case, well done.

Genuinely, some of the world’s brightest and best-educated people have come from the USA. But it’s hardly the catch-all education system to which the rest of the world should turn in times of need. It’s a shame, because it’s hardly representative, but this is the kind of thing the USA system needs to address before we throw our system out of the window.

I suppose what I’m saying is that while Free Schools DO appear to have improved education in the United States, the starting-point was lower than it is here. Do we need a similar system when what we have in place is already at a higher standard?

Comparison with Sweden is perhaps a better starting-point for the UK. We generally finish below the Scandinavian state in studies on quality of life. They do appear to be doing something that we are not. Could it be its Free Schools?

In Sweden, the first Free Schools opened in 1990. There, too, they offered more direct participation from the community, new equipment and innovative teaching methods.

The problem is that on Wednesday September 7 2011, SNS, a highly-regarded – largely right-wing – business-funded Swedish political thinktank issued a report which claimed Free Schools, with its introduction of private operators into state education, had increased educational segregation, and was ‘unlikely’ to have increased educational standards.

It said that students who entered ‘gymnasium’ (sixth form) from Free Schools went on to achieve lower grades on average over the next three years than those who entered from municipal state schools.

In 2009, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s programme for student assessment showed Swedish students had dropped to 19th place out of 57 states for literacy, 24th in Maths and 28th in Science, from 9th, 17th and 16th respectively in the previous studies on each subject.

Dr Jonas Vlachos, associate professor of economics at Stockholm University, wrote the SNS report.

He said: ‘The empirical evidence showing that competition is good is not really credible, because they can’t distinguish between grade inflation and real gains.’

So, in a state where standards were high, the evidence for Free Schools improving education seems, at best, shaky.

In fairness to Mr Gove, there are other reasons why Free Schools may seem to be a good option.

One is that it seems the programme CAN deliver new schools, at a lower cost than BSF.

But the problem with this is twofold. First, the scheme doesn’t necessarily deliver ‘new schools’ in the sense that BSF did. That is, BSF aimed to build new schools to replace crumbling old ones, without necessarily adding to the overall number of schools. Its aim was to improve the learning environment for young people.

Free Schools CAN be entirely new builds, of course. But in most cases (there were 24 Free Schools opened in 2011, 53 will open this Autumn, and earlier this week Mr Gove approved 102 more to open in 2013) they are opening in already existing buildings, such as disused office buildings or closed libraries (the Conservative Party has helpfully increased the numbers of the latter by cutting local authority funding). Free Schools are increasing the number of schools in the UK, rather than focussing on improving those which already exist.

And do we need extra schools? The evidence appears to suggest we don’t. Most of the anecdotal evidence (for example, newspaper stories about parents being unable to get their youngsters into a particular school) seem to focus more on the divergent standards of schools in certain areas. They look at the fact that a parent CAN get their child into a secondary school near their home, but it is not the one they want their child to go to.

If this is the case, a more effective policy may well be to focus on improving standards at schools which are achieving less than others, rather than adding extra schools.

Factor in the fact that the UK’s under-18 population is actually falling, and although there MAY be certain city centre areas which would benefit from an extra school, just opening extra schools everywhere seems to miss the point of what new schools are needed for: not to increase PLACES, but to increase standards.

As an example, on June 28 this year, it was revealed that the Beccles Free School, which will open on the Suffolk border with Norfolk in September, had received just 37 applications to join. Is it in fact a waste of money to open new schools where there is clearly not a shortage of school spaces?

The second problem with the ‘money-saving’ argument is the WAY the money is saved. Much of the funding comes from private enterprise (including, it must be said, many companies which exist purely for the purpose of setting up such schools – if this is not similar to the expensive ‘needless bureaucracy’ which Mr Gove rightly attributed to BSF, it certainly looks like it).

In some cases, it also comes from religious groups, which hold what can be charitably described as ‘unusual’ views on what should be taught, and how.

Of the 102 schools Mr Gove earlier this week accepted should open in 2013, three are to be run by groups which believe in creationism – that despite all the scientific evidence accepted across the globe, God created the heavens, the Earth, and that he also created humans and every animal of the earth, sea and sky.

This is not the right place for a conversation about whether Darwinism is correct (though it is. And you can go here for an explanation of the term ‘theory’ which seems to me to be the only honest misunderstanding attached to evolution).

In Sunderland, Grindon Hall, currently a private school which will open as a Free School next year, says on its website it will ‘present creationism as science’ (the wording here is particularly important, as we shall see) and will ‘affirm the position that Christians believe God’s creation of the world is not just a theory, but a fact’ (in fairness, some of them DO believe this…).

Sevenoaks Christian School, approved to open in Kent, says it will teach in RE that ‘God made the world’.

The Exemplar-Newark Business Academy, in Nottinghamshire, will open in 2013, too. It is run by a group which had a previous attempt to open a school turned down because it said it would teach creationism as fact. It now says the school will teach creationism in RE.

Now there has been a great deal of criticism of Mr Gove’s decision to allow these schools to open, on the grounds that they intend to teach that fact is wrong and religious belief is truth. In the Education Secretary’s defence, it MUST be noted that it is illegal to teach creationism in Science lessons in the UK.

But to what extent is this a defence against bad teaching practice? Would you, as a parent, be happy if a school said it was to employ a wild tiger which could do Maths with the sentence ‘It’ll be fine as long as no-one loosens its chains’?

Equally, at what age, and to what extent, do children regard what they are taught in Science as truth and in other lessons as theory?

Chris Hay, Grindon School’s principal spoke to the Guardian about his school’s approach, and rightly pointed out that there is a ‘proper distinction’ between ‘what is taught in a Science lesson and what might be taught in assembly.’

So what is to stop a school such as Grindon from ‘teaching’ in Mr Hay’s words, creationism in assembly – and asking a Science teacher to do that ‘teaching’? Equally, are we to believe that children at any school would – or should – be taught to treat what their Science teacher tells them in a lesson as fact and what the school’s headteacher tells them in assembly as conjecture?

It is not just creationism. The Christian Family Schools Ltd, which runs Bethany School, Sheffield, an independent school, makes interesting use of the Book of Proverbs on its website: Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod, and deliver his soul from hell.’

It later adds the free-thinking declaration: ‘Corporal discipline is not child abuse; withholding it is!’

Christian Family Schools Ltd hopes to open a Free School for 1,000 students in Sheffield. So far, its applications have been unsuccessful.

Again, it has to be said that I do not believe Mr Gove wishes children to be beaten at school. He turned down the CFS application, and in any case corporal punishment in schools is illegal. It’s just that the view that the people hoping to open these schools are kind-hearted philanthropists is not always entirely true, and these groups are not answerable to anyone – it’s their money and they can do what they want with it. At least the government can be removed, these firms cannot.

The final large potential problem with Free Schools is their effect not only on the youngsters who attend them, but on those who go to other schools.

Mr Gove has pledged all Free Schools will receive the same funding per pupil as all state schools, which is reasonable in as far as it goes (though it does raise the question that if there are 179 new schools in the country and they receive exactly the same level of funding as the 3,500 state secondary schools, how can the DoE not exceed its planned spending targets for 2010-15?).

But the schools are allowed to take money from other sources, which state schools are not. And they have independent control over how much they pay teachers, which state schools do not.

Given that – with very few exceptions – these schools are not being opened because of a shortage of school places in their local area, it appears they must, therefore, be competing with other local schools for pupils.

One very simple way to do so would be to use higher wages for teachers to attract the ‘cream of the crop’ from other schools. For a Free School, this may enable standards to improve and the school to present itself as ‘better’ than the others in its area.

The problem is what happens to the young people who can’t get a place at a Free School? Given that in September 2013, there will be one Free School for every 19 state secondaries, that means that 95 per cent of children will be forced to attend a ‘worse’ school than the ‘best’ in the area. That is, by definition, a two-tier education system. Not only that, it is a two-tier education system which excludes a far higher percentage of the nation’s young people from the ‘top tier’ than any school system to have been in place since universal free education was introduced in the UK.

It’s easy to see the downside of this. From a purely ‘pragmatic’ (one could say cynical…) viewpoint, it is impossible for all of even just the very brightest children in an area to all get into its ‘best’ school. How much damage will it do to society if we are to consign generations of the brightest children to ‘substandard’ schools (and remember: they are ONLY substandard in this case because of the existence of Free Schools).

From a more human perspective, under what circumstances is it acceptable to set up a system which denies 95 per cent of the nation’s young people the opportunity to thrive?

The traditional Conservative argument comes into play – a little – here. The Party argues that rising standards at one school will force others to ‘raise their game’. That in order to compete, the state schools will have to raise standards.

We saw in the last post that roughly a quarter of a century on, the first series of privatisations of public services have failed, in every case, to improve standards. The argument that a second wave of ‘introducing competition’ should do so is built on sand at best.

But equally, well, how? The system has not been set up to increase teacher numbers, or standards of teacher training. It has not been set up to ‘allow’ state schools to compete with Free Schools. It has been developed to offer Free Schools the chance to take more money than state schools, and have fewer restrictions than those state schools.

Even if competition DID drive up standards (and it does not), state schools have the rate they are allowed to pay teachers set by law. Free Schools do not. The system has been developed to give them more money, and the chance to spend that to poach staff from other schools, using a financial bait with which the others cannot hope to compete.

It is possible, of course, that in 20 years’ time (at the rate such schools are currently opening), ALL schools will be Free Schools. But even if we set aside the very real worries about what Free Schools are actually capable of doing, in an ideal situation that still means we will have wasted 95 per cent of the potential of an entire generation of children. It’s virtually impossible the experiment will be worth such a cost.

The Free Schools scheme offers at least as much potential of driving DOWN educational standards within the Free Schools themselves as it does of driving them up. It CAN save money in building new schools compared to BSF (not really a massive achievement, but I suppose it’s something…), but not in the way the system currently operates.

It introduces new schools where the money would be better spent improving existing ones. It offers exciting new potential for your children to be taught superstition over science, and it is very likely to reduce educational standards for 95 per cent of children wherever a Free School opens, in the short-to-medium-term, and quite possibly in the long term.

Building Schools for the Future was a good policy, disastrously enacted. Free Schools is not a good policy, even though it may have been developed with the best of intentions.

So what can we do instead?

An Alternative

First, we have to accept that a universal, catch-all education system is, by its very nature, a good thing. All children should have the same opportunities to learn and achieve and should receive the same qualifications as one another, based on their effort and knowledge.

The government is very well placed to deliver the overall structure of such a system. It is elected, and accountable to the people. It can be replaced if it fails to deliver. Successive governments have made mistakes, but that does not mean the structure must be pulled down and entirely rebuilt. It is the correct place to set rules on what should be taught (with flexibility outside of core subjects, as outlined above) and rules on things like corporal punishment and pay rates for teachers (again, the latter should be agreed on a national basis to stop Regional Pay, which will pull teachers away from ‘low pay’ areas and towards places they can earn more. As such, no government would be allowed to introduce regional pay for teachers).

Outside of these areas, elected local bodies, which can and should include people with teaching experience, and parents, should be able to control finance for things like school building and certain school projects. These bodies would receive an amount of money each year, based on the number of pupils in their region and teachers required to teach them (the latter would be decided by the local groups, though negotiation between them and government would be used to finalise a figure). This amount would be agreed at the start of each new government’s term in power, and would increase with inflation year-on-year. Governments would not be allowed to give education less than this pre-agreed amount without prior agreement from all local groups.

Money for extra projects, including rebuilding, maintenance and refurbishment, would be negotiated between local groups and the government. Any extra money which is required can be provided by outside investment, but on the clear understanding that such money would be repaid at the rate it was borrowed, that the private donor would play no part in the negotiations over the work the money is used for (though it must be used for what the donor is handing it over for) and, most importantly, that the donor plays no part in influencing what is taught in a school, or how it is taught.

Teachers would decide how to teach their subjects – provided this is within the law on matters such as corporal punishment. They are in the classroom and know more about how their pupils respond than a government minister, or a local group, even one containing parents. They would, however, be judged on achievements year-on-year. This may be uncomfortable – and factors such as the area in which the school operates, and hardships suffered outside of school by pupils MUST be taken into account – but it is hard to understand how a government, which should have the interests of its people at heart, can judge how well or badly the system is performing without such information being analysed on a regular basis.

Mr Gove may well be a marionette (you can check here to make your mind up.) And he may well be a front-runner to take over his Party.

He also won’t read this. But he could deliver all of these things, and the system would work. At the very least, it doesn’t run the risk of wasting an entire generation of talent and intelligence…

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Whatever Happened to the Family Silver? or, How We Sold the State and Where It Got Us

BELIEVE it or not, I have a plan for these blogs.

And part of that plan was, this week, to write about Michael Gove – truly a pygmy among dwarves if ever there was one (and there was. It’s him) – and the future for education under his raptor-like gaze.

But a couple of things came up over the last week to change my mind.

First, in a remarkable move, Richard Flint, chief executive of private water firm Yorkshire Water claimed there were ‘too many’ water companies, making it ‘harder’ to supply homes with water.

Now, I am not a monster. My first thought, as I’m sure yours is, was ‘Oh, you poor, poor baby. Come here, let me hold you, stroke your hair and coo soft reassurance into your tiny, shell-like ears, kiss the tears from your golden cheeks and massage the stress from your furrowed brow.’

After I had sat down and wept salt tears at the sheer unfairness of it all, a second thought occurred to me. You see, I think I know what we can all do to free young Richard from his Gordian trial…

But we’ll come back to that.

The second was the announcement that 12 – that’s 12 – areas of the UK have such poor air quality that the EU is set to fine us several million pounds. (London, which is NOT one of the 12, as it has been given longer to reach the EU-set targets, has the worst air of any capital city in Europe, so it’s nice to know we still lead the world in one area).

The quality of air in the 12 regions is so bad – due mainly to car-use – it’s likely to cut life-expectancy, on average, by eight months.

Not only that, air quality causes health problems which cost the UK £20bn per year – more than double that estimated to be caused by obesity.

The coalition, never a government to take its eye off the main prize, asked if it could have ‘more time’ to meet the targets. Because it’s the fine  that’s important, not the impact on public health or the wider environmental damage this hints at. So, as ever, well done there.

Thing is, one way we could help sort that out is if we reduced bus and train fares. That way, people who need to travel could hop on a bus or a train, rather than in their car, cutting emissions at a stroke.

So, why don’t we just do that? Saves money, and saves us a fine, even cuts congestion in inner-city areas, and people live healthier, longer lives so they can work even longer before their two weeks’ of pension before they die. Bingo! Trebles all round!

But, sadly, no. Not bingo. No trebles, for anyone.

Because the bus companies and train firms are privately run. So the government (or local authorities) CAN’T cut their fares. And bus and train companies are RAISING their fares, because that will help make it more expensive to travel anywhere and encourage people to use their cars more. And it means we can get fined…

The Privatisation Experiment

So how, exactly, did we manage to stumble from a situation in which the government – and by extension we, as taxpayers – owned the means by which we travelled around the country we live in, the water which fell from the sky (and ran through our taps in our houses), and, for that matter, the electricity which lit lights to read by, and powered irons to iron with, cookers to cook with, and TVs to um, TV with, into one where we own none of them?

Starting in 1986 – and to all intents and purposes ending in 1994 – Thatcher’s Conservative Party privatised the previously publicly-owned railways, bus services, water, electricity and gas suppliers.

There is some debate as to why it did so.

On the one hand, the argument used by the government was that privatisation would offer ‘choice’ to the consumer (this clip: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6T2zUEiVQU4 offers an analysis of this idea).

It was argued that ‘choice’ would drive prices down and improve services, as companies driven by the need to make profits would continually improve and offer services for decreasing sums of money to attract more custom. The fact that after a certain point – that is, when a very small number of firms have ‘defeated’ the competition – there is no longer a requirement either to improve or to lower bills for the consumer was, strangely, absent from this line of arguing.

It also argued that ‘experts’ would be better placed than the government to run such services, and that government’s involvement in running them made them expensive and inefficient. Again, the elephant in the room – that it was experts who already provided these services, not MPs, and that MPs’ only role was to be directly answerable to the people for the delivery of such services – was also politely ignored, because EVERY idea is worthy of the same respect, even if it is founded on a basic misunderstanding of reality.

But it would be negligent of me not to include here the other possibility: privatisation is just a part of the wider monetarist economic ideology.

Monetarism teaches that the state – which is, so the argument goes, hopelessly bloated and inefficient – should be removed from all areas of public life. That the individual should use their own skill and judgement to make all of the decisions which affect them.

It also teaches that the free movement of money in society is of itself a good thing, and has the added benefit of producing economic growth as a consequence of its movement.

The problem is, because it teaches the state should not interfere with people’s lives, it follows that the state cannot inject cash into the economy ‘to get things moving’ as it were (ironically, Keynesianism, which Thatcher and others replaced with monetarism, allows exactly the state intervention which would inspire growth. A topic for another time).

In order to help money start moving freely, Thatcher tried (amongst other things) tax cuts, meaning in theory that people could spend more money on consumer goods, thus helping the private sector to grow.

But she had also found that her state-reducing policies had tripled unemployment, meaning the government had less tax revenue AND had to pay more in benefits than a ‘large’ state would do.

Suddenly, the state was in financial trouble. In response, she turned to the publicly-owned services. Their sale would give the state a cash injection, which could then be passed on through low taxes to people, who could then spend the money, etc., etc., etc. (There is of course another massive flaw in this argument, namely, if you sell off service provision to private firms, your tax cuts are not really giving money to people to spend on consumer goods. Rather, you are asking them to pay money into a new area of the private sector, ‘services’, which previously existed in the public sector).

Of course, each of these services also cost the government money to run. But in all honesty, this is such a transparently half-argued case that it can be answered in one sentence: If a private company can afford to deliver a service by charging for it, so can the state.

In any case, ‘choice’ was the one-word catchphrase, with the added benefit of the government receiving cash, services costing less for the consumer, tax falling for the taxpayer, and service provision being operated in a more efficient, less wasteful manner.

In exchange for these benefits, we gave up control over how transport services were run, how electricity was produced, how and when water was available and the knock-on effects, such as pollution, involved in each service.

Roughly a quarter of a century on, how’s that gone?

Gas

I’m starting with gas, because a) it’s the simplest, and b) it was one of the first services to be privatised, in 1986.

Now, to be perfectly honest, if the world had ended, as all kinds of visionary prophets (and people who believed in the Millenium Bug) predicted, in the year 2000, the privatisation of British Gas could have been judged an unmitigated success.

The problem is, for its first 14 years, this privatisation was not really a ‘privatisation’ in the classic sense of the word, at all.

In 1986, the government floated British Gas on the stock exchange. The sale of shares raised £9bn in today’s money. The new firm was split into two, Transco, which worked on extracting gas, and safety, and Centrica (which kept the name British Gas), which delivered it to the public.

By 2000, no faults in supply had developed, Transco had proved capable of dealing with ‘leaks’ and other scares, and, perhaps crucially, the average gas bill for consumers had dropped 32 per cent.

In fact, the only real complaint to be made about the privatised British Gas was its advert, in which someone sang ‘E-e-e-e-lectricity – that’s the beauty of gas’ which was a bit like if I opened a shop called Hats and Cheese and sang ‘Chee-ee-ee-chee-ee-ee-ee-eese, that’s the beauty of hats’. Even so, I admit this was a small price to pay.

But there was NO competition. So the cut in bills and sensible service provision was achieved despite the central argument of privatisation – that competition was necessary to cut bills and provide an efficient service – never having been tested.

Fortunately, in 2000, Labour stepped in and ‘completed’ the privatisation process. Today, as ‘over 18’ (as the gasguide.co.uk website helpfully puts it. Keep it vague, kids, keep it vague…) companies compete for your business, the average gas bill is 60 per cent higher (on top of inflation – as with all figures I use in this blog) in real terms than it had been in 1986.

So, 14 years of no competition, a 32 per cent drop in price for the consumer. Twelve of competition, driving prices down, and we’re 60 per cent worse off every time a gas company sends us a letter than we would have been if we’d just left it all alone.

As a footnote, gas charges rose a further 20 per cent in 2011. A victory for the private sector, n’est pas?

Buses

Before we look at buses, I’d like to make something clear: I think that inner-city bus and rail transport should be free. In fact, I think all public transport operating at peak times should be free.

This is not, I admit, my own idea (you have Myles Na Gopaleen to thank for that. Look him up. He’s good…). But basically, it comes down to this: We are told that employment and business are good. People have to travel to work, in order to do their jobs. The beneficiaries of such travel are the companies which employ people to make them money, and society as a whole, which gets to benefit from the resultant economic growth employment and production brings.

But across the country, people appear to be expected to spend a portion of their wage for the privilege of travelling to work, to earn money which, in part, is spent on travelling to and from work.

Now, I don’t really mind how free travel to and from work is achieved. But my suggestion would be this: Companies buy bus and rail passes (bikes for those who live close enough to ride each day) for their employees, which are valid for the entire journey to and from work, on the days on which each employee works.

Or: companies pay their employees not only for their scheduled work hours (let’s say 9-5) but also for the time it takes to travel to their place of work – but pays them EXACTLY the amount the train or bus fare to and from work would cost. This payment would be clearly marked as a separate payment on wage slips, and could be paid directly to bus/rail operators if employees wish.

People in both these scenarios can of course choose to drive instead if they wish, but in that case they voluntarily forego these payments. Instead, they are paid 9-5 as at present.

Or, the government could choose to renationalise bus and rail services, and accept that from 7am-9am, and then say 4.30pm-6.30pm each weekday, any local services are the realm of commuters, and are non-chargeable services (passes would have to be issued to firms which have night- and weekend-workers).

This would cost a little money (though, as we will see in the Rail section, that’s achieveable either by companies, or more easily if public transport is renationalised), but the advantages are obvious: fewer vehicles on the road, cutting congestion and pollution, and the payment of workers for the time they actually spend in a working day, as opposed to the time they spend at their desks.

All off-peak journeys would be charged for, as would all inter-city travel by bus or rail – employees have to be paid, vehicles and fuel bought, improvements made and maintenance carried out. Though again, these things become far easier if both bus and rail travel are re-nationalised.

The only thing which saves the privatised bus service from public wrath is, I would humbly suggest, the absolute failure of privatised rail.

The national bus service was broken up and sold off in 1986.

At first, the competition this generated caused the so-called ‘bus wars’ in which companies sent buses on the same routes, at the same times, to try to ‘win’ business.

This manufactured inefficiency eventually righted itself (oh, the glorious self-regulating market!) and today we have roughly nine companies providing services across the UK (though this in itself raises a question. If the UK is a big country, and there are nine companies running its bus services, how much competition can there actually be? The only way you could change company is by moving house. Bus users are as much a ‘captive audience’ as they ever were).

And how have they done? Well, since privatisation, bus use has fallen by 37 per cent (in fairness, it was already falling, but not at anything like the same speed), bus fares have increased by an average of 40 per cent and the number and frequency of services has plummeted. Next year, a 20 per cent increase in fares is planned.

Bus companies currently receive roughly £800m per year in subsidies, paid by the taxpayer – itself a curious version of a ‘private’ industry, though in many cases, as we will see, this money appears to be the difference between an abysmal service and no service at all.

Within bus companies themselves, the rate of pay for drivers has dropped 16.5 per cent, compared to an average wage increase across the UK of 19.4 per cent, while bus conductors are no longer employed in most places, an effective 50 per cent wage saving per bus right across the country (for a far better assessment of this last point, head for Will Hutton’s excellent The State We’re In).

So, bus companies are paying less to their employees, and charging far more for a massively reduced service (fuel costs have increased, undeniably, but bus companies receive a fuel tax rebate, so they spend less per litre of fuel than you, despite repeated announcements, many of which I covered as a reporter, that ‘fares must increase because of fuel duty increases’. No, they mustn’t. It’s an excuse to make more money, in the hope no-one will check…)

And what of the subsidies?

Well some are well-intentioned government attempts to improve fuel efficiency with newer vehicles – though these should surely be paid for by a private firm? Otherwise, the government might just as well take the companies back.

But it should be noted that every local authority across the country pays private companies to operate ‘subsidised services’. For those two words, read ‘any off-peak or weekend service outside of a very small area within a city centre’ and factor in the fact that the reason private companies refuse to run these services, for example routes to shops from remote country villages, is not because they will lose money by doing so, but because they won’t make high enough profits from them. Without subsidy, in effect, there simply wouldn’t be buses for anyone a private bus company deems to be insufficiently profitable. And this is why public services should not be owned by private companies.

Equally, the provision of free bus travel for pensioners is not paid for by private bus companies. It’s paid, in full, by the government. It may be unfair to call that a ‘subsidy’ per se, but it’s one of the best things about the modern bus service, and it’s paid for by you, not the people who make money from running bus companies.

The money these firms make, sadly, goes not on improvements, but on ever-increasing wages for private business owners – some of whom are, perhaps, shifting that cash out to Guernsey before it can be taxed at UK rates – and shareholders. We’ll come back to this when we talk about Rail.

Water

Any of you who know me, know that from December to March this year I lived and worked in Sirte, Libya. This isn’t the place to talk about what had happened there, but I would just like to mention one interesting thing I discovered when I was there: water is free for the citizens of Libya.

Now I’m not saying Ghaddafi was a good man, or we should emulate his regime. I’m just saying that in Libya, a country which is more than 90 per cent desert, you turn on the tap, clean drinking water comes out, and it’s free. No-one pays for it. I even saw people using hoses. To spray water at stuff, not as a kind of plastic ‘spider zoo’, like here.

Water, I’m pretty sure we can all agree, is a basic necessity for life on this planet. It’s also (and I’m sticking my neck out a bit here) good to be able to have a wash regularly.

And in all fairness, it’s not as if we’re short of it here. It falls from the sky (seemingly 97 per cent of the time) and no-one’s charged for that.

On the other hand, I freely concede that its transport and treatment costs money, as does employing staff to perform those tasks, make sure everything runs as it should, and improvements can be made.

The problem is, well, it falls from the sky. Every day. And yet we’ve had hosepipe bans in some cases from a remarkably wet April up to and including the wettest June on record. This isn’t really acceptable.

Water privatisation was pushed through in 1989.

Before this, water supply was run on a local basis, by local authorities. I’m not painting this as some kind of utopian vision of a golden past, but to be honest, the system seemed OK. You paid a water rate, and got water in exchange. If there were supply problems, you’d complain and if nothing was done, you could vote for someone else, so the system could be run properly. Like I say, it wasn’t perfect, but it worked

Today, we have 22 water companies. Ten provide water and sewerage, 12 just supply water (unless it’s not raining. Or it is).

They don’t receive subsidy from the UK government, though 13 of them do share £4.9m per year in EU Farm subsidy, for some reason.

But interestingly, when we sold them we wrote off £5bn of debts, and handed £1.6bn to them as a ‘going-away’ present. Even then, we couldn’t encourage enough people to buy the system, so we also reduced the cost by 22 per cent of the agreed market value. But hey, this was 1989. Crazy days. We did things different then…

It also goes without saying that the water companies took all the expert employees already working in the system, trained at taxpayers’ expense, and directly employed them. In fact, you can apply that in EVERY case we look at here. It’s not the world’s most important thing, but to be honest, this is what’s meant by ‘hidden cost’, so it’s worth remembering.

It’s becoming depressingly repetitive, but water bills under the new ‘competitive, price reducing’ regime had, er, increased by 44 per cent by 2012. Again, this is 44 per cent ON TOP OF the rate of inflation. They’ve gone up another 5.6 per cent this year. But that’s just consistency, which is so important.

And ‘subsidy’ is an interesting term. One of the few promises the Lib Dems have managed to deliver on in their ill-advised holiday in power is to get rebates for the customers of the highest-charging water company in the country.

South West Water charges its customers £517 per year for water and sewage services. In London, by contrast, the figure is £394. So the coalition has stepped up to the plate. Those customers, next year, will receive £50 each as compensation.

Only thing is, South West Water isn’t paying this money to the customers it has fleeced. The government is. The government is effectively fining South West Water for overcharging its customers, but then paying the fine on its behalf. SWW keeps the money it has unfairly stolen from its customers and the government pays for the wrongdoings of a private company. But hey, it’s 2012. Crazy days. We do things different now…

Which brings me back to Richard Flint. Now, on the same BBC News South East broadcast little Richard was talking on, a helpful chap from South West Water popped up, to explain to us ill-informed water users that the reason water supply is so difficult is because while it has rained a lot in some places, it has, simultaneously rained a bit less in other places.

So here’s the thing: Richard, you’re right. There are too many water companies. There are 21 too many. What we need to do is take all the water companies, which have proven expensive and inefficient, and roll them into one company, which can also deal effectively with problems such as slightly different levels of rainfall in different areas of the UK, by, for example, getting all the water in the country and distributing it so that everyone has enough water at all times.

This company could also set policies on issues such as the level of water we use, to help with the massive environmental problems associated with consumption of natural resources.

Now I know what you’re going to say: ‘But, but, but, who could possibly operate such a company?’ Richard, my dear fellow, I’m glad you asked. The government. It already exists, and already runs the whole country, as well as existing solely to serve its people, so it’s pretty well-placed to take this job on.

It’s also fully elected, so we can get rid of it if it’s useless, and replace it with a better one, and its accounts, unlike yours, would have to be completely transparent, so we could actually see what the money we spend is being used for. I’m so glad to have helped you out. Please close the door on your way out…

(I have to give some credit here where it’s due. On the same broadcast, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas said she recommended one water company for the whole country. I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word that I had already thought of it before I heard her say it).

Shareholders

We’ve still got trains and electricity to come – if anything even worse performers than gas, buses and water companies – so it’s worth a quick note on shareholders here.

See the problem is, every year every one of these private companies pays millions of pounds to its shareholders. And it’s dead money. Once you pay your bill, that portion of it which is handed to them is lost to whatever service you’re paying for.

Now it would be unfair to blame these companies for this. Because a curious quirk of UK company law is that a company’s first priority, legally, must be to its shareholders, ensuring they receive a payout on their investment.

This is fine if you run a chain of restaurants, or sell bits of nylon with a badge tacked on laughingly referred to as ‘sportswear’. But it’s no good if you provide a service, for two reasons.

First, because these are services. People can’t do without water, gas or electricity. And very few can do without transport. As a service provider, your priority when supplying something without which people will die must be to the people you serve, not to someone who happened to bung you a bit of cash 15-20 years ago. You have to make sure your service runs efficiently and is available at an affordable rate for all, as your sole priority.

Second, we just can’t afford to pay through the nose for a service, then pay subsidies to the companies which provide it, and then watch a significant proportion of those payments leach out of the service we are paying for. That money must be used to improve services, both for reasons of improving technology and because in many cases, there are serious environmental factors to be considered.

Like I say, this is not an accusation that these firms are evil. They have done a poor job, certainly not what they were brought in for, but asking them to restructure their priorities is tantamount to asking them to break the law.

We can’t, in all conscience, ask that. So take the companies back, run them as nationalised entities and as if by magic, the ‘dead money’ problem is gone.

The money can be used to improve, and change where change is needed.

Rail

Rail privatisation took place in 1994. The Labour Party said it would reverse it, but when it won the 1997 General Election, changed its mind and kept it in place instead.

On all counts, we can only conclude that rail privatisation has failed.

First, there has been a massive reduction in services, as ‘non-profitable’ lines have simply been dropped.

Ticket prices have shot up well above the rate of inflation, so that it now costs, as standard off-peak rate, £93.50 to travel return from Brighton to Liverpool. If there’s two of you, it’s cheaper by car. If there’s four, it might well be cheaper by taxi, and despite ‘targets’ which must be met for the rail companies to renew their franchises, 40 per cent of all long-distance services, 30 per cent of all services in operation across the UK, which ran in 2011-12 arrived late at their destination.

This is despite companies’ illegal practice of cancelling services mid-journey to meet their ‘punctuality’ targets.

There is an interesting point to be made about safety. It is widely held that post-privatisation, train travel has become less safe. Statistically, this is in fact not the case. There were, for example, more fatal crashes (12) in the eight years before privatisation than in the eight years after it (nine).

But what is interesting is to look at the causes of these crashes. In 11 of the 12 fatal accidents to have taken place in the eight years up to 1994, the cause was driver misjudgement of one kind or another.  In four out of the nine to have taken place since, the causes were maintenance issues. Of course, this makes little difference if you are one of the people affected by such a crash, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that these were accidents which could have been avoided if rail – and train – maintenance had been carried out properly.

The most famous example of this was the Hatfield rail crash of October 2000, when a section of rail disintegrated under a travelling passenger train. Not only could Railtrack, which at the time ‘owned’ the railways (the transit companies own stations and trains) not explain how such a damaged piece of track could have gone unnoticed, or been left unrepaired, it was also unable to say how many other sections of railway this might be true for. It was hard not to conclude that a drive to make profit had seen the company neglect its sole duty – ensuring the track and its signals and points were safe enough to carry trains.

It is not as if this was because Railtrack had received no assistance. It had been handed government subsidies of £10bn between 1995 and 2001. It paid 41 per cent of its profits to its shareholders in the same period. Labour acted, replacing Railtrack with Network Rail, a ‘non-dividend’ firm, in 2002.

Subsidies for rail companies are the most often voiced problem with the privatised rail service (and with justification, as we shall see) and have, in combination with the coalition, caused the most recent anger over fares. But before we come to them, it’s worth a quick note on the reasons why rail privatisation didn’t deliver – and couldn’t have delivered – any of the benefits the government promised.

Train users are an almost uniquely captive audience. It is possible for two water companies to compete directly with one another, delivering water to your house at a reduced rate. If bus companies wish to compete, they can run buses on the same routes as other companies (though built into this is that when one firm ‘wins’ it stands alone, with freedom to dictate fares and service provision as it wishes, as has in fact happened).

But the train franchises were split geographically, meaning one company controls all services on a particular route. The problem here is obvious immediately. If one firm controls all journeys between Reading and Manchester, for example, and that’s the journey I need to make, I can’t very well say ‘oh, well, the Glasgow to Aberdeen service is cheaper, I’ll go for that.’

As we have seen, competition between service providers does not and has not delivered the reduced prices and improved services it was promised to in any area, but that competition never even had a chance to exist in the rail privatisation.

As a result, rail in the UK is today not only Europe’s least reliable, it is also its most expensive. On average, the cost of a day return ticket in the UK costs 26p per kilometre, compared to 17p in Germany, the next most expensive country, and eight pence per km in France, the cheapest. For long-distance journeys, in the UK, the cost is 49p per km, while the next most expensive, Switzerland, works out at 39p per km. France, again cheapest, costs 15p per km.

And so, once again, to subsidies. First of all, it’s vital to reiterate that in a truly privatised system there would be no subsidies paid to private companies. I can only assume the reason we do so in these cases is that successive governments have realised that these are public services, not free enterprise, and have a vital part to play in the life of the nation. Which then raises the question of why they were ever privatised to begin with, but on such questions, sadly, the fate of nations is decided.

In 1989-90, the British government spent roughly £1bn on British Rail. In 1994-95, the first year after privatisation, it spent £2.2bn subsidising private rail operators. In the years since, the lowest subsidy has been £1.2bn, paid by the Labour government in 2000-01, and the highest, £6.3bn, paid by Labour in 2006-07.

The coalition paid £5bn in 2010-11 but decided in the face of public pressure and financial imperative to reduce this for 2011-12 to £3.96bn. They had every justification to do so. But once again, they chose a remarkable means by which to make the saving.

The government decided to cut the subsidy by allowing train companies to make above inflation rate increases in ticket prices. These were at one per cent higher than the 5.6 per cent rate this year, and will be three per cent above inflation for the next two years (though inflation is predicted to fall in these years).

On the one hand, this is an awful piece of policy-making, as it makes rail travel (and bus travel, as explained above) less attractive to potential users. People won’t travel by train if they have to pay more than they can afford to do so. In all honesty, in terms of the effects on the train companies, it’s not really an issue – they must stand or fall for themselves.

But in terms of the effects of removing mass public transport from the reach of people in the UK, there are three main concerns. One, people must travel. It is their right, but it is also vital for an economic system to operate. Two, the environmental effects of forcing more people into cars is potentially disastrous, and three, in purely pragmatic terms, it means we will be further than ever from meeting the air quality targets we must achieve, and therefore will continually be fined. Are we to count these fines as further subsidies for our privatised transport system?

But there is an upside. Because inadvertently, the coalition policy shows us something. It proves we can run a transport system, or a water system, or an electricity supply service, with little effort or financial cost. Because if the companies rely on subsidy, we are already paying it. And if more of their money comes from public use (in 2010, rail companies earned £7bn from ticket sales) the public will still use them, helping fund the very systems they use.

Indeed, if we drop prices a little (which can be done because we will not be paying hundreds of millions of pounds per year to shareholders), train use, and therefore customer revenue will increase.

Finally, of course, it means that money can be used by the government to carry out planned service provision to the UK public.

And the need for such policy has seldom been as vital as it is now, in electricity supply.

Electricity

No-one could truly argue that electricity is not vital to human existence. But its production is a matter of crisis, in the UK and across the world. Yet, at present, its supply here is controlled by companies which have shown little to no inclination, let alone inspiration, to help us overcome a looming disaster.

Electricity services were privatised in the UK in 1990. In common with all other privatisations, and in direct contravention of the promises made when the process was undertaken, bills for electricity have increased alarmingly – by 40 per cent to 2011-12, and a further 20 per cent increase will come into effect next year.

There are now 4.7m households in ‘fuel poverty’ (spending ten or more per cent of their income to heat their homes to an acceptable level, rated at 18-21 degrees), more than double the number in 2003.

The reasons for this are varied, but paucity of supply of resources (which IS a factor) is not the sole reason, as EdF, a French firm, and the UK’s largest single producer of electricity, actually provides the cheapest electricity in Europe. Sadly, it does so in France. Here in the UK, its prices are amongst Europe’s highest.

Ironically, EdF is a nationalised company, owned by the French government. But here in the UK, it operates as a private firm, paying its ‘shareholders’ (in this case the French government) a premium, taken from the subsidies it receives as well as the money it charges for electricity supply. This is not EdF’s fault. It is a logical result of a system in which we have sold off our means of electricity supply. In all honesty, I can see no reason why the French government should not benefit from our electricity bill payments, if we do not. And we do not.

In any case, the pressures on electricity production are at least three-fold. First, the UK is now a net fuel importer. We simply do not have enough coal, oil and gas within our own borders to produce the power we need. You may also have noted there are very few piles of uranium lying around, so any nuclear energy we produce happens on the basis of importing fuel. In an era of ‘austerity’, this is potentially disastrous.

Second, our consumption levels are, at the present rate of growth, either going to bankrupt the state (which has not yet occurred, despite what the coalition may like us to believe) or alternatively will see the lights, literally, go out. Indeed, the coalition is at present scrambling to prevent a worst-case scenario in which the ‘lights go out’ by 2020.

Thirdly, well, look. I’m not going to get into a tedious debate with anyone who doesn’t believe in man-made climate change. If you’re willing to ignore physical and observational evidence, and contradict the opinions of climatologists the world over, then fair enough. I’ll also assume you’re planning to float home from work tonight, as gravity is probably a ‘myth’ as well.

But climate change is a zero-sum game. Either it’s happening, and we risk the deaths of millions of people through floods, displacement and starvation, not to mention the potential end of humanity as a species by unbalancing the eco-system in which we live, so we take action to stop that happening and save the world, or, we take exactly the same action, it turns out we were wrong, but we have gained an inexhaustible supply of electricity.

Because non-renewable resources are exactly that: non-renewable. And they’re running out. So, if we don’t find an alternative, fast, we’re without electricity whether we’re up to our waists in seawater or not. If you don’t believe in climate change it’s your call. But one way or another, we need renewable energy, as there’s very little else left.

The problem is, our electricity system is far too chaotically run at present to make any serious headway or progress in any direction whatsoever.

To begin with, subsidies for electricity companies in the UK are, to be honest, a shocking mess. There are almost as many arguments about what constitutes a subsidy as there are actual subsidies paid.

In brief, the rates it seems fairest to set the figures as follows: production of electricity from fossil fuels receives roughly £3.63bn per year from the government (in ‘preferences’ as well as direct payments. We’ll come to this…). Renewables receive roughly £1bn-£1.6bn, depending on your source, while nuclear power, depending on your view, receives anywhere from £4bn to £104bn, though none of this comes from direct subsidy payments, as EU regulations mean it is illegal to pay cash directly to nuclear energy producers.

It’s worth remembering here that while the fossil fuel components of the energy industry were sold off at close to their actual market value, and the renewable industry was basically non-existent, the nuclear industry was revealed, in 1990, to be a shambles.

It took until 1996 to find a company even willing to take on nuclear power in the UK, because it was making huge losses year-on-year. In the end, we actually disposed of it for nothing. We handed it, wholesale, to British Energy for no money at all, despite the billions of pounds of public money which had been spent on manufacture of nuclear power stations, and on the training of people who were supposed to ‘make nuclear power work’. We lost every penny we had invested in the entire industry.

Within the industry, as has happened during almost all mass sell-offs, groups of experts split into small companies, selling their services to British Energy. They are not to be blamed. Their services were needed, and they got the best price for them. It’s debatable how beneficial this was to the nation as a whole, however.

It doesn’t end with us handing over an entire industry for nothing, though. Because in 2003, after just seven years in charge, British Energy had to be bailed out with £4bn. I genuinely hope there has never, anywhere in the world, been a worse privatisation.

Internationally, issues such as safety and waste have been improved, and it’s to be hoped any move towards nuclear fuel in the future will be more successful than our previous attempts.

But in terms of carbon, nuclear power generates seven times the amount of CO2 created by wind energy, while the waste from the nuclear process is poisonous to almost all forms of life on the planet, and still must be ‘stored’ as it remains impossible to dispose of it safely.

In any case, the two major ‘subsidies’(perhaps more accurately, ‘financial advantages’) the nuclear industry now receives work as follows: First, the industry has a ‘cap’ set on the amount of repayments it has to make in the event of an explosion or other disaster – effectively a ‘maximum’ insurance pay-out, of just £140m (soon to be increased to £948m) – meaning it pays less for ‘insurance’ than other energy producers.

Bear in mind that the estimated cost of the clean-up after the Fukushima Daiishi nuclear reactor was struck by earthquake in March 2011 is just over £162bn and the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 cost around £648m, and it’s pretty clear the industry is getting a cash ‘break’ from the UK government. As a side point, BP has so far paid out around £30bn in claims alone, following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The second ‘indirect subsidy’ comes in the form of what happens to nuclear power stations when they finish their useful lives. In most industries, the ‘decommissioning’ of buildings and material when such things are no longer useful, is the responsibility of the business owner. Cash must be set aside for such an eventuality.

But not in the case of the nuclear industry. The government, and by extension, we, as taxpayers, have pledged to pay for all decommissioning of nuclear power stations. And the cost? £100bn.

So nuclear power has a ‘gift’ of £100bn from the taxpayer, even though the system is run and operated by private companies, which use parts of their income to pay shareholders. Even if we forget the billions of pounds which were pumped in to nuclear energy in the early days, and that we gave the business away, then paid an extra £4bn to keep it afloat, this £100bn ‘gift’ is a financial support which, at current rates, it will take 70 years for our subsidy of the renewable fuel industry to match.

Added to that, the government’s ‘carbon floor’ charge appears to have been set specifically to benefit nuclear energy. As policies go, it is, on the face of it, a good piece of environmental thinking – effectively, any energy production which causes large CO2 emissions will be penalised through a charge.

Certainly, this is aimed at fossil fuel production, and is designed to ‘inspire’ lower emissions. But the floor happens to have been set at a level where the nuclear industry will not have to make such payments – even though nuclear energy production causes emissions at least seven times higher than production using renewable sources.

It is puzzling, if it is not specifically designed to favour nuclear energy production, why the floor has been set at a level at which treats renewable energy exactly the same as a method which is seven times worse for the environment.

Subsidies for fossil fuels are also the topic of furious debate. The industry receives £3.63bn per year, in large part because VAT charged on such fuel production is five per cent, rather than the 20 per cent rate paid by almost all other businesses for goods and services in the UK.

Of course, in part it is possible that this is designed to be of benefit to customers – an attempt to reduce fuel poverty, for example. Meanwhile, Tim Worstall, of the Adam Smith Institute, repeatedly uses his role as sometime columnist in both the Daily Telegraph and the Forbes website to argue that this is not a ‘subsidy’ at all, just a matter of taxation. It is a staunch defence of fossil fuel-based energy production.

But it falls on two very important points: first, this quarter-rate of VAT payments means it costs LESS to produce electricity from fossil fuels than through other means – and Mr Worstall himself argues that any VAT increase would be passed directly to customers rather than covered by the profits of the companies which produce electricity this way, meaning companies are already charging with profit, rather than service, in mind.

And second, to put it another way: your electricity bills have increased 40 per cent since privatisation, and will increase a further 20 per cent in the next 12 months. Electricity companies benefit from a tax break no other industry does. Is the VAT rate an agreement to keep costs down for the consumer, or is it perhaps a concession to allow profit-building and increased pay-outs to shareholders?

For renewable energy, the figure is £1bn-£1.6bn per year. This is no small amount, and is paid for directly by you, each time you pay your electricity bill. But it is between 25-33 per cent of what fossil fuel production receives, and is around one seventieth of the financial assistance received by the nuclear industry.

Bearing in mind the massive costs already laid out on setting up nuclear power (and energy produced using renewable fuels is still in its infancy – this is when it needs most money, to invest in efficient production), as well as the bail-out of 2003, the amount is tiny.

And yet renewable fuels offer us more advantages than either the production of energy from fossil fuels, or nuclear power. Even if you ignore or deny the possibility of man-made climate change and its consequences (and I believe it is foolish to do so) the economic benefits are clear – at the moment, we pay to import fuel from elsewhere in the world. We have reached peak oil, and gas and coal supplies are dwindling. Even uranium is a limited resource. These things will run out. The clue is in the ‘non-renewable’ bit of the name.

On the other hand, we have (a little) sunshine. And we have a great deal of wind. Water, it seems, is set to be our constant summer companion. These fuels will not run out any time soon. And they cost us nothing.

The economic imperative is clear, and the supply-side of the ‘supply and demand’ of fuels is fast approaching crisis point. Renewable resources are the ONLY sensible medium-to-long-term supply on which we can rely for energy production. Yet even though the lights are in danger of going out within ten years, we are sitting on our hands, as if in the hope ‘something else’ will happen.

And the reason, succinctly, is privatisation.

Early in June this year, the Guardian reported that the coalition’s response to EU-set targets to produce 20 per cent of our energy from renewable resources was to ask – behind the scenes – for those targets to be dropped. Its reason was that market forces meant this would cost too much money for UK companies, and it was unreasonable to ask these companies to spend more money on research and development.

Most of the debate around this topic centred on the irony that a government led by David Cameron, who promised his would be the ‘greenest government’ and Nick Clegg, whose party has traded for 15 or so years on being the ‘greenest’ of the three major parties in UK politics, should be asking for environmental policies to be dropped to make life easier for private businesses.

But we can look at this another way. Because this was a tacit recognition of the fact that since we sold electricity production 22 years ago, we have had effectively no say in how our energy is produced. We handed that over to a set of private companies, designed solely to make profit from the activities they undertake. (We will set aside for a moment the relatively small issue that it is intensely embarrassing for the leaders of the UK government to be reduced to messengers on behalf of big business, begging cap in hand for concessions to be granted to their ‘owners’).

So why don’t electricity companies just get down to it and start producing more energy from renewables? Basically, because they are private companies.

They must make money for their shareholders, or they are breaking the law. This has two major effects: First, they spend millions of pounds each year which could be used for research and development, on shareholder dividends, which is then lost to the industry forever. And second, the nature of making as much money as possible is by necessity short-term. The companies must make profits, year-on-year, for the benefit of their shareholders and to continue to operate in the market. Therefore, the necessity to invest exists only in so far as there is a short-term financial benefit. Anything which loses money in the short-term – even if it has a medium- or long-term benefit – must be given the lowest possible priority.

And as for wider global issues such as climate change? It’s a long time away, goes the argument, and there’s no financial imperative to act today, so, if we’re lucky, they’ll look at it tomorrow.

Being private companies, of course, the deal is that there is nothing the government can do to change the way that they act.

The final irony is that electricity production in the UK IS in a state of constant competition, as was the intention. We have already seen this has failed to produce lower bills for customers, but the experience of privatisation of services in the UK also directly contradicts the other main claim made by supporters of the private sector – that this is where innovation comes from.

In part, this is down to exactly the same financial imperatives – why do today what will cost money, when we can make money exactly the way things are?

But in part it is also because the ‘experts’ and innovators in the field of electricity production are now split between several competing companies. They do not work together to ‘develop’, they work in opposition, meaning the innovations which do arise are often piecemeal and deliver less benefit than if they were worked on by a wider group, and allowed to develop with input from many people, rather than just a few.

In any case, we are now at crisis point. The environment is in peril, and the very production of electricity, on which we all rely, is for other reasons under threat. Privatised electricity producers have proved unwilling and/or incapable of meeting the challenges we face. They should not be blamed for this, but it cannot continue.

Today, as never before, we need a central plan, a target (in this case the development of renewable fuel-based electricity) towards which everyone must work. And it can be done.

If we run electricity production centrally, we can set these targets. We can make them law. We can gather the experts to work as one, rather than in competition. We can remove the shareholders’ dividends from the equation, freeing more money for research and development, we can remove ‘subsidies’ because the companies will be ours, and it will just be our money, being used to develop a way to keep the lights on at minimal environmental (and financial) cost. It need not even cost very much, because the private producers have shown a company can operate – and make large profits – on the money they raise from bills and government subsidy. Without the necessity to make a profit, all that money can be put back into development and service provision. As it should be.

It must be done. And it can be done. So, who’s up for a challenge?

Who cares?

I very nearly didn’t write this post at all, because I am reading a book on the Spanish Civil War (entitled, imaginatively The Spanish Civil War) by Paul Preston.

It’s so shocking, in its deadpan description of the atrocities of the ‘rehearsal for WWII’ (not a direct quote) that I genuinely began to think ‘compared to this, what’s the point in talking about anything else?’

On the other hand, nothing in the entire course of human history stands alone, and today is a product of every day which preceded it. It’s also worth remembering that things being worse in some other place, or at some other time, is no reason to ignore what’s where you are.

After all, if my leg was on fire, I probably wouldn’t say to myself ‘that guy over there’s head’s ablaze, so rather than complaining I’ll just sit tight and count my blessings…’

So, after that insightful metaphor, I feel I have definitely justified what’s to follow. Any disagreements to the usual address, and I promise I’ll print them out and pin them to my bedroom wall, as usual.

(As a sideline, one thing I learned about the Spanish Civil War was that a popular fascist slogan read ‘Franco – Austerity’. So it’s comforting to know that the Conservatives and Lib Dems are both fully aware of and paying the appropriate respects to the world’s glorious political history…)

Mandate

So a couple of weeks ago, I got into a conversation about the Eurozone (bear with me). I complained that our glorious leader, man of the people ‘Dave’, had told the Greeks to form a government ‘as quickly as possible’.

I can only imagine that before this piece of political gold, the politicians of Greece were chillaxing in togas, eating moussaka and dashing plates to the ground, without a care for the future.

Alternatively, our PM was deliberately commenting on a crisis situation which could affect the entire global economy solely in order to justify his own decision to form a coalition government.

I fear that with just three years until the next General Election, Mr Cameron’s belief that any occasion, no matter how serious, should be used by him to justify his own actions is set to grow, however glaringly stupid the statement he makes to do so.

I am particularly looking forward to hearing him draw a comparison between a cease-fire in Somalia and his own choice to end the ‘years of bitter struggle between my party and that of the deputy Prime Minister, call me Nick’.

Anyway, I got away with this. So I also criticised his statement that the EU must ‘act fast’ to sort out its debt crisis.

In many ways, it’s hard to imagine why no-one had thought of this sooner. I guess it must be because everyone knows about the Germans’ notorious laid-back ‘why do today what can be left to next week?’ approach, and refused, through sheer cowardice, to take the bull by the horns and make the Germans just jolly well sit up and do something for once…

I added that the only thing which let down the new Churchill, undisputed leader of global insight, was that he had refused a package proposed to do exactly that, several weeks earlier.

This, apparently, was a step too far. My Lib Dem-supporting friend asked ‘what mandate did he have to support that deal?’

I magnanimously set aside the argument that it would have been impossible for the Conservatives to have gained a mandate from the people on the Eurozone crisis because they had spent the entire election campaign (not to mention the 25 sundrenched, pleasure-filled months since) telling everyone the UK’s financial position was far worse than everyone else’s (we will DEFINITELY be looking at this another time) and it was all ‘Gordon’s fault’.

Instead, I responded that I wasn’t sure Cameron had received a mandate to do anything at all.

After the police had left, the broken glass had been cleared away and the blood hidden with mats and cushions, I decided I should make sure I hadn’t just invented a definition of ‘mandate’ with which no-one in their right mind could possibly agree.

thefreedictionary.com, who I can only assume will be paying me handsomely for this plug, describes a mandate as: A command or an authorization given by a political electorate to its representative.’, a definition which I’m sure is as exciting to you as it is to me.

The Oxford English Dictionary, meanwhile, probably winking as it touches the rim of its Homburg, prefers the rakish: ‘Political authority given by electors to party in parliament.’

Now. The Conservatives received slightly more than one third of the votes cast in the last election. Which equates to very little more than one fifth of the total number of votes which could have been cast if everyone old enough to vote had done so (the Conservatives are by no means alone in being at fault for the damning indictment of the UK political system that led to two fifths of the electorate not bothering to vote during a global crisis, but they certainly share some of the blame).

It’s true that no political party has won a majority of the popular vote since Baldwin’s coalition of 1935 (the coalition had been formed in 1931, as a result of the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression), but the Conservatives failed to secure a high enough vote share to form a majority government (this has happened once before, in 1974, though Callaghan’s Labour government later that decade relied on a ‘Lib/Lab’ pact. When it fell apart, Labour was removed by losing a vote of no confidence by one vote).

Added to that, the Conservatives stood at the last election as the only major Right-wing party, with the Lib Dems and Labour regarded as Left-of-Centre. The latter parties took a total of 15.4m votes, against the 10.7m the Conservatives won. Despite the coalition, the fact is that after the population of the UK voted overwhelmingly in favour of Left-of-Centre policies, the nation has Right-wing politicians as PM, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and in 14 of the remaining 19 cabinet positions.

For the record, the cabinet contains 23 members. Eighteen are Conservatives, with five Lib Dem MPs making up the numbers. The Conservatives won 10.7m votes at the last election, the Lib Dems 6.8m.

Cameron undeniably has permission to govern, given to him by the Queen, but given the above, the idea that the Conservatives have a mandate from the people is stretching things beyond any kind of credibility.

On the other hand, he DOES lead the government. And it’s perfectly reasonable to say he can’t just sit on his hands for five years, waiting for another election.

So what should he do? Well, perhaps he could respond to emergencies, and assist the country to recover from the global recession. Or maybe he could stick, scrupulously, to his pre-election promises, and those made in the coalition agreement. That way, no-one could whinge that he has no mandate, because he would at least be able to point to the fact that his is the largest party in the House of Commons, and he’s doing what his voters requested, with the support of his partners in crime. Sorry, government. His partners in the government.

But Dave is a man of action. A man who likes to keep the nation guessing. A man who thinks what the UK needs in its hour of need is a towering colossus, who will dedicate himself to dismantling the state so his new, ‘improved’ version can start on the worst possible foot –with no cash, the unadulterated loathing of most of the people within it and the blank incomprehension of the rest of the world.

Logically, he chose to start with the NHS.

Health of nations

The NHS has a rather unusual place in the UK’s political system. Introduced in the last period of ‘austerity’ (the one caused by a world war in which more than 50m people died, as opposed to the one we’re in now, caused by the inability of a few expensively-dressed men to behave themselves with other people’s cash, combined with a government which perhaps feels put out it didn’t experience it the first time around. Austerity, by the way, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, breathing softly as it runs its finger, lightly, against your cheek, as ‘harsh, severely simple.’ Far be it from me to extend the description to its greatest fans) it has run for 64 years, providing life-saving treatment costing nothing at the point of delivery.

It’s the envy of the rest of the world – a genuinely trailblazing idea (at least in the capitalist world) – and one which has operated with spectacular success throughout its history.

As recently as 2010, an American report (it’s here: http://www.commonwealthfund.org/~/media/Files/Publications/Fund%20Report/2010/Jun/1400_Davis_Mirror_Mirror_on_the_wall_2010.pdf go, look at it!) analysed the health-care systems of seven nations; the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

The NHS was rated first in terms of ‘efficiency’ and second overall. The USA was last. (the Netherlands finished first. No, me neither.). Not only that, the NHS did this on the second lowest ‘spend per capita’, at $2,992. New Zealand spent less, at $2,454. But I’m pretty sure that’s where hobbits live, and they’re smaller than us, so…

Fortunately, though, we have Andrew Lansley as Health Secretary. He is a man who is certainly not just a chap in a suit who holds a position not because of his knowledge of health, but because he happens to be in government. In fact, he is a man who knows more than those who are paid to rate health services. He is more knowledgeable than health workers and specialists around the world. And he has made it his business to let YOU know that the NHS IS inefficient, no matter what so-called ‘experts’ with decades of ‘experience’, ‘learning’  and ‘knowledge’ say.

We are really very lucky to have someone as intelligent and dedicated as him. And we are even more lucky to have Dave and Nick, both of whom have backed him up with their OWN assertion that the NHS is ‘inefficient’.

If you can be bothered, type ‘Lansley, NHS, inefficient’ into Google. I must admit I was going to count the number of different speeches which came up, but I lost count twice. In any case, Lansley, Dave and Nick have been making speeches claiming – or mentioning in other speeches – that the NHS is ‘inefficient’ since early 2009. (in fairness, this is pretty good going on Mr Lansley’s behalf, as the rest of his party didn’t really start making any policy announcements until November that year. And Nick was pretty quiet about the NHS’ inefficiency until about, ooooh, June 2010. I’m really not sure why).

And up and down the country, people agree. Even those who say they support the NHS will come out with the phrase ‘…but it IS very inefficient…’ at some point.

Why?

Well, in part, it’s because of the efforts of Right-leaning newspapers – particularly the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Express.

Weirdly, their own criticisms of the NHS seem to have begun in the 1980s, just after Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of monetarism – a doctrine which claims that the ‘interference of the state in the lives of the people’ is the worst of all possible activities.

Now, to be fair, I CAN see areas in which state interference could be a bad thing. In a bar, for example, chatting to my mates about the football, I’d rather not have Vince Cable popping up to make sure I don’t say something silly about the Brazil side of 1970 as opposed to today’s Spain.

But as lovely as liberty is, I’m not sure I want it to extend to the freedom to die because I can’t afford to have a gaping wound taped up, or pay for a polio jab.

And of course, newspapers LIKE the odd story here and there about a hospital mix-up. It’s their job to hold politicians and service providers to account.

But in every case, there’s a reason why that’s news. Because it’s unusual.

To put it another way, the NHS employs more than 1.7m people. That includes cleaners (numbers cut because of successive – three – governments’ cuts in its budgets), cooks and other support staff, but it also includes thousands of GPs, surgeons, specialists, nurses and therapists.

It treats more than one million people every 36 hours. And in fact, roughly 98 per cent of people born in the UK have experienced at least one successful NHS treatment process and operation. Including you. (I’m assuming you HAVE been born. If not, well… I might stick around where you are for a bit. You know, see how things turn out…)

Compared to that, the maybe ten stories per year that actually turn out to be true AND down to NHS malpractice seem rather a small amount.

But anyway. I know nothing. Lansley’s your man.

Because it appears the NHS IS inefficient, despite all the so-called ‘evidence’ and ‘facts’ which prove the exact opposite.

And he’s driven a solution through Parliament.

There’s a lot that’s been thrown at the Health and Social Care Act, which was passed by the House of Commons by 328 votes to 246 on March 20 2012, and received royal assent from Dave’s fifth cousin, Queen Elizabeth II, seven days later.

One of the major accusations is that it will ‘privatise’ the NHS. I’d like to make it clear that that’s not my view. But it IS very close to the view of Kingsley Manning, director of Tribal Newchurch, a private healthcare ‘provider’, who said he ‘welcomed (the Act’s) denationalisation’ of the NHS.

In fairness to Kingsley, and the opponents of the Act, who include the Labour Party, some Lib Dems (not one of whom voted against it) and all the assorted halfwits you’d expect, like GPs, nurses, surgeons, midwives, you know, people who actually know what the NHS is and how it works, AND the 52 per cent of the public who opposed the Act in an ICM poll in February this year (just 33 per cent said it should become law, which I suppose explains why Dave felt he had national approval), it’s quite easy to see how someone could make that mistake.

See, what the Act actually says is that all hospitals can now raise 49 per cent of their income through private health care, through ‘renting out’ bed and hospital space to private healthcare companies, or, perhaps, by charging for treatments themselves. The cap at present is just below two per cent.

So it’s obviously not privatisation. Just a 25-fold increase in the amount of private health care provided in hospitals up and down the country.

So why would this be a good idea? Well, it’s pretty clear that hospitals can benefit financially from charging more people for healthcare (though this is NOT what the NHS exists to do). And the government fears, with some justification, that the overall cost of healthcare provision will increase massively in the next two decades, as the number of older people, who generally need more regular, and more intensive, health and fitness care, increases.

At its simplest, given that the NHS budget in 2010-11 was £106bn, this could effectively see the service benefit from an extra income of £51.94bn.

But there is, perhaps, a potential problem. See, when Labour introduced the idea that some hospitals could make money by charging for some treatments (with that two per cent cap), it was also involved in a massive building project, in which 157 new hospitals were built, or construction was begun, between 1997 and 2010 (this was, of course, performed under PFI contracts, a disastrously expensive idea. Ironically, one introduced by the previous Conservative government, and OPPOSED by Labour when they were in opposition. But they WERE at least built. The number built in the 18 years of Thatcher and Major was roughly 35). So if there was an impulse for hospitals to fill more beds with private patients (and there was) at least there WERE more beds to be filled.

Under this plan, up to 49 per cent of beds will be filled with private patients. And no new hospitals are planned. So where do the NHS patients get treated?

The debate about whether this is ‘privatisation’, sadly, is one it’s too easy for the government to bat back. It CAN deny it, with some justification, although whatever way you look at it, telling the NHS it can make almost half of its money from charging the population for treatment IS a massive step towards the FULL privatisation of the service. And it is no accident that 49 per cent was the figure chosen. After all, if the financing of ‘demographic change’ is the reason, why not say 60 or 75 per cent of NHS cash-raising can come from private care? One per cent less than half is a thin screen behind which the government can hide.

A far better argument is about WHY levels of privately-charged treatment are a bad thing, and it comes down to a very simple fact: if the NHS is as inefficient as the government wrongly claims, then where will people who can’t pay be treated? Why remove bed space, if your interest is ensuring the public can continue to benefit from free healthcare?

In the end, what is the point of a public healthcare service, which is free to use at the point of delivery (never forget that all of us, you and I included, pay for the NHS out of taxes. It is OURS. We pay for it and we are the ones who are supposed to benefit from it) if the only way to guarantee being treated is if you pay for it?

It is worth here revisiting the ‘mandate’ issue we started with. Because in the run-up to the election, Call Me Dave was pretty clear about his plans for the NHS, or more accurately, about what his government would NOT do.

Speaking to the Royal College of Nursing in 2009, for example, he said: ‘First, let me tell you what we are not going to do. There will be no more of those pointless re-organisations that aim for change, but instead bring chaos.’

As the election campaign, in which ‘Change’ was the Conservatives’ watchword, got underway, he promised: ‘No more top-down reorganisation of the NHS.’

And this promise was repeated in the May 2010 coalition agreement, the document which ensured, after an election in which his party failed to win enough seats to govern, that Cameron could lead a Tory government, the first in 13 years.

The promise reads, simply: ‘We will stop the top-down reorganisation of the NHS.’

Lansley’s bill came just two months later.

A second controversial section of the Act is its proposals for the commissioning of care.

The Conservative Party, and the Lib Dems, at least have some justification here in terms of delivering what they promised. Indeed, when I interviewed Nick Clegg in the 2010 election campaign, he repeated his belief that Primary Care Trusts should be abolished four times, perhaps fearing that otherwise I might focus more on his plan to abolish tuition fees.

Primary Care Trusts are seen by many as a layer of pointless bureaucracy and management in the NHS. Their role included commissioning healthcare in the region they operated, and they had responsibility for spending  roughly 80 per cent of the NHS annual budget.

They were pretty unpopular, among NHS staff, but particularly among the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Express’ ranks of editorial heroes, who claimed this was no more than the pointless introduction of managers to ‘meddle’ in the operations of public healthcare.

I have some sympathy with this view, but it would be remiss of me not to point out that a) the NHS does NEED managers. They are not ALL parasites, attempting to steal from you, the Great British Public, and b) there is a certain disjunct between the view that the NHS is terribly, hopelessly inefficient and that measures to reign in its ‘terrible inefficiency’ (Blair’s Labour Party was always a sucker for making policy based on the outlook of Lord Rothemere, Richard Desmond and good old Rupert Murdoch) were somehow an affront to the very foundations on which the NHS rests.

Either way, there were 152 PCTs, and they were pretty unpopular.

So, Lansley proposed to scrap them.

Astonishingly, he appeared to expect that this would win him unquestioning praise. But there WERE questions. Namely, who on Earth would commission services instead, particularly given his idea that 49 per cent of services should be allowed to be provided by non-NHS providers.

His plan was to replace them with Clinical Commissioning Groups. But surely these would just be the same as PCTs?

Not so, he countered. Because they would be run by GPs (in fact, they won’t JUST be run by GPs, but because of the way Lansley announced the idea, aiming to get as much popular support before revealing the rather murkier elements of the proposal we will return to that in a moment).

Lansley said that scrapping PCTs would save £5bn per year (not counting slightly more than £1bn to be paid out in redundancy deals for those who lose their jobs as a result), and that his plans would instead see GPs, who after all know their patients and so can judge best what treatments are most appropriate for them, commission services.

He said the proposal would: ‘Give patients and health staff more power.’

Savings of £5bn, the scrapping of an unpopular layer of management and more power to GPs and patients? It all sounds too good to be true.

And the problem is, it is.

First of all, GPs don’t want these new powers. The Royal College of General Practitioners joined the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives and the British Medical Association in outright opposition to the Act.

Some medical staff have had a slightly bad press in recent weeks, after their decision to strike over pensions. The Conservatives, hoping they had at last found an issue on which many thinking human beings could agree with them, seized upon this, pointing out that GPs are already very well paid, and why should they withhold services when we are, after all, ‘All in this together’?

But let’s not fool about. These are people who are often well paid, but they also work very very hard indeed, and without them focussing properly on their jobs – to make the rest of us better if we’re sick – we’d be in a much worse place.

And they pointed out, not unreasonably, that if they were to treat patients properly, they wouldn’t have time to chase ‘healthcare providers’ to ‘commission’ their services. It is just about possible, I’d suggest, that when Nye Bevan created the NHS, he considered that IT would provide healthcare services, thus removing the pointless ‘commissioning’ process altogether, but then what do I know?

But this is how £5bn is to be saved: sack the PCT employees and make other people – in this case the people on whom we rely for our health – do their jobs as well as their own.

In effect, then, Lansley was telling GPs ‘you will have the power – whether you want it or not!’

The second problem is that there were 152 PCTs, packed to the rafters with time-serving, money-leeching managers, brutally commissioning services as if it wasn’t tantamount to the biggest fraud ever committed against the UK population.

This number had to be slashed. Because it was wasteful. And probably evil.

Unfortunately, there are now 240 CCGs.

So, there are more commissioning bodies than before, and the GPs who run them fear they won’t have time to treat patients and commission care for them.

Not to worry, though. Because almost as if he’d anticipated this exact eventuality (not that he told anyone. Remember he said he would give ‘patients and health care staff more power’?) Lansley had also made it possible for company directors, including, of course, the directors of the very private health care providers who stood to benefit directly from the increase in the levels of private health care provision within NHS hospitals, to be part of these CCGs.

Even more helpfully, he also made it possible for CCGs to ‘outsource’ the commissioning of healthcare services, and the decisions as to which treatments should be provided by private firms, to, er, the private firms which would earn cash by providing them. Which, I’m sure you will agree, clears that little problem up with no potential ‘conflict of interest’ whatsoever.

Combined with the ‘autonomy clause’, which allows CCGs (or the firms which perform the role instead of them) to decide which services should be provided by the NHS, and which must be paid for, the claim that ‘patients’ are to receive more control looks difficult to justify.

Max Pemberton, a doctor who writes for the Telegraph, used his column in that revolutionary, anti-establishment publication to highlight his concerns about this process.

In an article which began with him saying he is not a supporter of the NHS for ‘ideological’ reasons, but because it does its job well, he said: Services such as mental health provision, facilities for pregnant women, preventive medicine, aftercare and services for children could be substantially reduced by this power to save money, generate revenue or redirect patients into the for-profit sector.’

There are many other concerns raised by, well, more or less everyone outside of Lansley and his closest friends, all of whom know more, but this is a very long piece by now, so we’ll take a brief look at just two of them.

First, the Act changes the law on healthcare provision as applied to the Secretary of State for Health, or ‘Andrew Lansley’ as he is also known.

Previously, the law stated that the Secretary of State, and other Ministers in the Department of Health have a ‘duty’ to ‘provide a national health service’. Under the Act, Mr Lansley’s duty is to ‘promote’ a national health service.

You may argue that there is very little difference between the two. In which case, one may ask why make the change at all? In an Act designed to ‘reduce inefficiency’ (though which has actually caused the number of NHS statutory organisations – those not directly involved in providing care and treatment to patients – from 163 to 521 ‘health and wellbeing committees’, ‘clinical networks’ ‘clinical senates’ etc) of the NHS, why add a change in the status of the Secretary of State for Health?

Provision of a national health service certainly suggests the Health Secretary must provide such a service. That it is his/her responsibility and any failures within it are his/her responsibility. Promotion sounds rather more like a duty to make sure a health service exists and that people are aware of it. If this isn’t a move towards privatisation, it certainly sounds like it.

Connected to this, the Act also removes responsibility for public health campaigns from the NHS.

One justification for this is that, for example, local authorities have responsibility for many things which impact on health, including housing. So, the argument goes, local authorities can set out ‘joined-up’ campaigns to improve public health.

But local authorities only cover small areas of the country. So, depending on where you live, different aspects of health may be focussed upon, rather than the ‘catch-all’ approach practised at present.

Just as importantly, where will the money come from for this? With their budgets slashed by the government, local authorities are already laying off hundreds of thousands of employees and are having to choose between shallow fripperies such as ‘children’s homes’ or ‘care for the elderly’. What would have to be dropped so Manchester City Council could tell Mancunians not to smoke?

Finally, a note on the Lib Dems.

At the party’s Spring Conference, the Bill was discussed. Much to party leaders’ dismay, delegates voted in favour of an emergency motion to ‘kill the bill’.

This meant that not only had the party’s voters never voted for the comprehensive alteration of the NHS, the party membership, at a Conference where policy is set, specifically voted against it.

Many Lib Dem MPs spoke out against the Act in the House, and the party’s response was perhaps the most outrageous in its history.

Senior Lib Dem MPs briefed their party members in the House that the party voting to drop the bill would be ‘a Labour win’. That’s ‘a Labour win’. Not ‘missing an important opportunity to improve the NHS’, or ‘blocking the provision of better healthcare for the population of England’. The party told its MPs to vote against the wishes of their voters, and against the democratically expressed wishes of their own party members, because otherwise it might appear that Labour had won.

A less understanding man than me might ask exactly what Nick Clegg had been talking about in April 2011, when he criticised ‘the old politics of tribalism backed by dinosaurs on all sides of the political spectrum.’

But I might instead simply suggest that the Lib Dems have lost the only thing which made them attractive to voters – the possibility to change the way politics is prosecuted by those within it.

And repeat doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre’s judgement on the briefings.

On March 20, when the final votes were to be cast, and the senior Lib Dems spread their ‘Labour win’ warning, he tweeted: ‘is this a FUCKING PLAYGROUND?’

Of course, some Lib Dem MPs abstained. None, however, voted against the Bill.

The future

As we know, the Health and Social Care Act became law, officially, on March 27 this year. Originally, it was hoped that the policies within it would be in full operation by April 2013, though in recent weeks, Call Me Dave has admitted this is ‘unlikely’.

So what, if anything, can be done?

The BMA’s Annual Representative Meeting voted on June 25 to campaign for the repeal of the Act, while other groups, including campaign group 38degrees, have set up petitions to show public opposition to the Act (38degrees’ petition currently has more than 600,000 signatures, while David Cameron has promised ‘any e-petition which gains more than 100,000 signatures will have its topic debated in Parliament’).

Meanwhile, Labour Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has pledged to repeal the Act ‘at the first opportunity’. It is unlikely his party will be alone in campaigning on the NHS at the next election.

Finally, on April 29 2009, David Cameron told the nation that if elected, he would ensure that politicians were accountable to the public. That if they went back on pre-election promises, or acted irresponsibly, the public would be able to call for a by-election to replace them. He repeated the promise several times, both before and after the election, and the idea was repeated often by Nick Clegg.

Perhaps now is the time to put that pledge to the test?