Martin Hannan: We need truth on privatisation

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Last week I chaired a public meeting organised by Unison to discuss the Alternative Business Models proposed by the city council, or privatisation as it should be known.

The council’s Liberal Democrat-SNP coalition didn’t turn up despite the former party confirming it would, and the council management also failed to appear due to illness.

As it happens, the SNP had a good excuse as it was off discussing its opposition to privatisation, which, at the time of writing, threatens to bring an end to the ruling coalition.

That would be good. As an SNP member, before next May’s elections I want as much distance as possible between the party and the utterly toxic Lie Demons, a party detested like no other because its leaders put the Tories back in power in Westminster.

Despite what its opponents claim, the SNP group has taken a principled stance on privatisation. It fully considered every issue and has decided that the in-house bid is better value than that of Enterprise Management Services Ltd.

All the delays and threats of legal action won’t change that view – Enterprise can scream all it likes, and even head for the courts. But this is still a democracy, and the vote is simply going against it.

Unlike its coalition partners, the SNP has not railroaded itself into supporting privatisation, and to be fair, it always said it would make its final decision when all the information was available to it.

What I heard at the public meeting appalled me. It was clear from council workers that those people at the council who were driving forward the privatisation of cleansing in particular were taking a blinkered view of the process and had made up their minds that the greater savings offered by the private contractors – actually not that much in overall terms and NOT guaranteed – justified sending public workers out the door.

How these things work is well known to anybody such as myself who has spent time working in local government. Officials and councillors get so caught up in the process that they become wedded to the project and are unable to step back and take an objective view.

That’s human nature – you are taken out of your humdrum council job and into a dynamic new force for change, so clearly you want to see it through.

The pressure to conform to the top management’s line is overwhelming, and suddenly instead of thinking, questioning beings, you get a bunch of cheerleaders who may also look at the private contractors’ flashy cars and smart suits and think “they must be better than us”.

It becomes a steamroller that attempts to squash all opposition, but in Edinburgh, thank goodness, the juggernaut has hit the buffers thanks to the SNP and Labour groups that must stick to their guns and ignore any attempts to bully them into agreeing to privatisation.

There will be those who will say £3 million has been wasted, but that’s not the case – spending that sum will still bring savings of £45m, so the exercise has been worthwhile.

The biggest clue as to why the privatisation project has failed is contained in the Audit Scotland report that you can read on the council website.

Decoding the report, the independent auditors think the council did not consult properly with its staff and all the stakeholders such as the trades unions and the public. Crucially, they said the councillors and management had insufficient information and expertise to tackle such a massive change. In turn, they concluded that there was “risk” that the council staff won’t go willingly into privatisation and that the promised savings won’t be delivered.

Here’s the rub. At the public meeting it emerged that there is no cap on what the private contractor can be paid in any one year. Sure, there are penalties if targets are not met, but if the contractor can show fault at the council – that shouldn’t be hard – it can hit us, the council taxpayers, for all sorts of extra cash.

So what does the woman who is supposed to be leading the council really think about privatisation? Every month Councillor Jenny Dawe provides us with a leader’s report. The latest such propaganda, dated October 27, has not one mention, not a word or syllable, about the two biggest issues in the history of the council, namely the trams and privatisation.

It is as if she lives in a Panglossian Edinburgh where everything is for the best in this best of all possible cities.

There was a huge hint by Cllr Dawe, however, of her real fears for the privatisation process. It was her motion at the council meeting that called on the chief executive to organise a public meeting with an independent chair, an explicit recognition that, as Audit Scotland and the unions have stated, the council has singularly failed to consult the taxpayers of Edinburgh.

If the Lib Dems really believe in openness they should agree to publish the full IPSOS-Mori poll on local people’s views of privatisation. Censoring that poll is utterly disgraceful and undemocratic, and clear proof that the privatisers knew they were losing the game.

The privatisation process was thus fatally flawed. It must end on November 24.