The last few days have seen a graphic example of the perils of outsourcing. As the NHS is gradually auctioned off, one of the pieces up for grabs was the GP out-of-hours contracts. Serco got the job in Cornwall, and were recently slammed for providing a substandard service. Next came the 111 helpline. The bidders had to work on assumptions about call volumes and length, since they were going to be paid per call. NHS Direct, which won a lot of the contracts, has given one back shortly after starting it, and the rest before even starting. The assumptions were wrong, and they can't make them viable. For a minor player like NHS Direct, this is terminal. They can't exist while making big losses. But the major players can carry on regardless.
The journalist John Harris wrote a long article in the Guardian on Monday about Serco in particular and outsourcing in general. He's got all the main points, and writes clearly and passionately. But he misses one serious issue. Contracts handed out by one government run for a lot longer than the government itself. An incoming government in 2015 cannot cancel existing contracts except at immense cost. So our fragile notion of democracy is further undermined. We can get no further, because the politicians on all sides are not going to back away from outsourcing. More local councils are looking at hiving off many of their services. Government will flog off anything it can. There are vast amounts of money to be made, and that's all that matters.
There was a hilarious article in the Telegraph yesterday. Back in November 2011 the BBC's John Humphrys presented a radio programme called The Future of the Welfare State. It was a personal view, from his Welsh home town. But there were complaints that it was not based on evidence, and was politically biassed. The BBC Trust has just ruled that it failed to back the views presented with figures, and breached the rules on impartiality and accuracy. Cue outrage from Iain Duncan Smith, who obviously loved the original programme, and sees the Trust's verdict as typical left-wing bias. Ironically, he felt the same about Humphrys interview of him about the benefits cap recently; and he professes himself "staggered" about the way the BBC reported the High Court's judgement on the bedroom tax yesterday. Yes, IDS is ridiculous. But he's also very dangerous. The only acceptable stance, as far as he's concerned, is for the BBC to parrot the government's line uncritically. Yet another chip out of the structure of democracy.