Helen Martin: Remedy needed in ERI shambles

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BACK in the 1990s, most of us were utterly perplexed by the very notion of private finance initiatives and public and private partnerships.

You didn’t need to be an economist or even particularly bright to figure out that private companies are in business for profit and expect a return on their investment. How would an NHS hospital or a state school, neither of which were expected to make money, yield that?

And where was the sense in handing control of a hospital or school to a builder or a facilities firm?

Even amid the “privatisation good, public sector bad” Thatcherite philosophy which believed state-run institutions were inherently inefficient, no-one could understand where the “profits” were going to come from under private ownership, or how paying top dollar rent for something the public would never own could be a smart move.

All these misgivings have proved correct as the very worst results of privatisation play out in the ERI.

Patients are ripped off paying extortionate amounts of money for watching TV, a service that was once free and remains so in many “old-fashioned” hospitals; or using a premium rate phone rather than the old payphone on wheels that used to be trundled to the bedside. At least we have mobiles now.

The food is notoriously bad. Visitor parking is cripplingly expensive. Infestations, lack of maintenance and downright negligent power cuts affect operations and patient care, and outbreaks of viruses and infections are frequent.

Now we discover that although we will have paid them more than £1.26 billion by 2028 and still won’t own as much as a chip of paint, the private company that built and runs the hospital is liable to pay a penalty of less than £30 when it is responsible for an operating theatre being out of action for four hours or more.

Oh yes, the man or woman in the street predicted disaster. What a pity the nincompoops in charge of commissioning hospitals and schools under this mad and ill-fated system couldn’t predict tomorrow’s date. What economic gobbledegook had they fallen for to think these hare-brained schemes would work and ignore the pleas for caution? And where are they now when we want to hold them responsible?

There’s no point in crying over a burst plasma bag, but what we all want to know is why the private end of this unhappy and doomed partnership seems to be so untouchable? Even allowing for the obvious fact that whoever was representing the public interest in the original contractual agreement seems to have been economically incapable of being sent to the shops for a packet of crisps and bringing home the correct change, surely there must be 
something that can be done to overturn or at least amend the terms?

The Government has the power to nationalise banks and cap bonuses. It can force cigarette manufacturers to use plain, sludge green packs. It can ban retailers from imposing excessive charges on credit and debit card transactions. It can stop businesses overcharging for 08 phone numbers. It can outlaw previously legal multiple discounts on alcohol purchases.

Is it really impossible for them to intervene to modify what now appears to be an exploitative and immoral contract – even if that’s not how it was intended – forged between clever private industry and unprepared, naïve public sector representatives and which is now haemorrhaging such meagre public funds as we have to care for the sick, provide sufficient beds and pay for medical staff?

Very little helps

FRESH & Easy doesn’t mean much here. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean much in America either, but it is, or was, the US arm of Tesco’s bid for global domination, a potential chain of 1000 convenience stores which began in 2007 and in the end totalled just 199 shops – all of which have now failed dismally.

Apart from a touch of Schadenfreude that the mighty, ubiquitous chain got chased out of town, the interesting aspect of the whole episode is just how different we are from our cousins across the pond.

People in the US don’t buy groceries online. They don’t even use self-service checkouts or pack their own shopping. They don’t like fresh foods slathered in plastic film wrap either. So the attempt to bring the British shopping experience Stateside went down like a rancid pudding supper. They expect service and they look for either budget price or high quality depending on their wallet. A dreary, middle-market DIY food shop ticks none of their boxes.

In truth, it doesn’t tick ours either – it’s just what many of us have become used to because the British are pushovers.

Tesco, or Fresh & Easy, may have retreated to Blighty, but if I was chief executive Philip Clarke I wouldn’t think the worst was over.

The trouble will really begin if and when the Americans hit back and set up superior US-style grocery shopping here to get a foothold in Europe.

Y’all have a nice day now.