Wednesday, 24 March 2010


Last night's File on Four programme raised an important point about accountability when public services are privatised. The ERSA declined to take part in the programme. The producers had clearly intended to use the experiences of clients of ND and FND but in the end didn't. This may have been, as a comment suggests, because the providers would not engage with this; or it may have been simply that the programme was trying to cover a great deal of ground, and this was the segment most easily dropped. But private companies have the luxury of being able to do what governments can't do; they can refuse to enter into debate.
It was Thatcher's government which discovered the benefits of creating "arms-length" agencies, starting with the Benefits Agency. It enabled ministers to distance themselves, to say, "Not me, gov," when anything went wrong. Privatisation compounds that lack of accountability. In the sphere of welfare-to-work Jim Knight, or whichever minister is in office, can be wheeled out to face questions, whether in Parliament or in the media, but can always claim that the figures are not available or waffle meaninglessly. Ofsted can produce poor inspection reports; parliamentary committees can take evidence from the companies' spokespeople and produce critical reports; but the companies are unaffected.
Obviously A4e is one of those companies which (unlike, for instance, Serco) thinks that publicity is a good thing - but on its own terms. "Benefit Busters" no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time. Emma Harrison can be turned into a media personality. A4e can use that, and its claim to be the largest welfare-to-work provider in the UK (is that still true?) to procure business abroad. But at the same time the system protects it from too much scrutiny of its practices, and protects the government from real accountability. No wonder the politicians don't want to change the system.

1 comment:

  1. The government is far more reponsible than providers for the sad state of affairs as regards accontability. And partipants are scared to complain because they think if they do they risk having their benefit suspeneded.


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