John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for July, 2013

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Serco: the company that is running Britain

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

From prisons to rail franchises and even London’s Boris bikes, Serco is a giant global corporation that has hoovered up outsourced government contracts. Now the NHS is firmly in its sights. But it stands accused of mismanagement, lying and even charging for non-existent work

In May this year, a huge company listed on the London Stock Exchange found itself in the midst of controversy about a prison it runs for the government – Thameside, a newly built jail next to Belmarsh, in south-east London. A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate found that 60% of its inmates were locked up all day, and there were only “vague plans to restore the prison to normality”. The prison campaign group the Howard League for Penal Reform talked about conditions that were “truly alarming”.

Two months later, the same company was the subject of a high- profile report published by the House Of Commons public accounts committee, prompted by the work of Guardian journalist Felicity Lawrence. This time, attention was focused on how it was managing out-of-hours GP services in Cornwall, and massive failings that had first surfaced two years before. Again, the verdict was damning: data had been falsified, national standards had not been met, there was a culture of “lying and cheating”, and the service offered to the public was simply “not good enough”.

Three weeks ago, there came grimmer news. Thanks to its contracts for tagging offenders, the company was now the focus of panic at the Ministry of Justice, where it had been discovered that it was one of two contractors that had somehow overcharged the government for its services, possibly by as much as £50m; there were suggestions that one in six of the tags that the state had paid for did not actually exist. How this happened is still unclear, but justice secretary Chris Grayling has said the allegations represent something “wholly indefensible and unacceptable”.

The firm that links these three stories together is Serco. Its range of activities, here and abroad, is truly mind-boggling, taking in no end of things that were once done by the state, but are now outsourced to private companies. Amazingly, its contracts with government are subject to what’s known as “commercial confidentiality” and as a private firm it’s not open to Freedom of Information requests, so looking into the details of what it does is fraught with difficulty.

But the basic facts are plain enough. As well as five British prisons and the tags attached to over 8,000 English and Welsh offenders, Serco sees to two immigration removal centres, at Colnbrook near Heathrow, and Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire. You’ll also see its logo on the Docklands Light Railway and Woolwich ferry, and is a partner in both Liverpool’s Merseyrail network, and the Northern Rail franchise, which sees to trains that run in a huge area between the North Midlands and English-Scottish border.

Serco runs school inspections in parts of England, speed cameras all over the UK, and the National Nuclear Laboratory, based at the Sellafield site in Cumbria. It also holds the contracts for the management of the UK’s ballistic missile early warning system on the Yorkshire moors, the running of the Manchester Aquatics Centre, and London’s “Boris bikes”.

As evidenced by the story of how it handled out-of-hours care in Cornwall, it is also an increasingly big player in a health service that is being privatised at speed, in the face of surprisingly little public opposition: among its array of NHS contracts is a new role seeing to “community health services” in Suffolk, which involves 1,030 employees. The company is also set to bid for an even bigger healthcare contract in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough: the NHS’s single-biggest privatisation – or, if you prefer, “outsourcing” – to date, which could be worth over £1bn.

But even this is only a fraction of the story. Among their scores of roles across the planet, Serco is responsible for air traffic control in the United Arab Emirates, parking-meter services in Chicago, driving tests in Ontario, and an immigration detention centre on Christmas Island, run on behalf of those well-known friends of overseas visitors the Australian government.

In the US, the company has just been awarded a controversial $1.25bn contract by that country’s Department of Health. All told, its operations suggest some real-life version of the fantastical mega-corporations that have long been invented by fiction writers; a more benign version of the Tyrell Corporation from Blade Runner, say, or one of those creations from James Bond movies whose name always seems to end with the word “industries”.

The strangest thing, though, is the gap between Serco’s size and how little the public knows about it. Not for nothing does so much coverage of its work include the sentence “the biggest company you’ve never heard of”.

I first heard Serco’s name about eight years ago, when I was just starting to understand the amazing growth of what are now called “public service companies”. Once I started looking, their logos were everywhere, suggesting a shadow state that has since grown ever-bigger. Their names seemed anonymously stylised, in keeping with the sense that they seemed both omnipresent, and barely known: Interserve, Sodexo, Capita, the Compass Group.

Serco is among the biggest of them all. At the last count, its annual pre-tax profits were up 27%, at £302m. In 2012 alone, its British workforce grew by 10,000, to 53,000 people (tellingly, as many as 90% of them are said to be former civil servant employees). In terms of employees, that makes it more than twice as large as the BBC, and around 20% bigger than Philip Green’s Arcadia group. A very significant player, in other words, and one that has come a long way since its foundation 1929, when it was a branch of the American RCA corporation called RCA Services Ltd, involved in the then booming UK cinema industry. It was renamed Serco in 1987, after a management buy-out, and floated on the stock exchange the following year. In the 25 subsequent years, during which the UK has grown ever-fouder of outsourcing and privatisation, Serco has grown at an amazing rate.

The current chief executive of the global Serco Group is 49-year-old Chris Hyman, born in Durban, South Africa. His annual remuneration is around £700,000, plus bonuses; in 2011, the value of his total package rose 18%, to £1.86m (the company’s finance director had to slum it at £948,295).

In 2010, Hyman was given a CBE for services to business and charity; he is also an enthusiastic fan of motor racing and an evangelical Christian. Four years ago, he was asked about his company’s very low profile, and he said this: “We had a dilemma – what do we do with the Serco name. We are proud of it. We thought we needed billboards at airports and places like that, to be seen with Tiger Woods on. But we worked out very quickly that is not what we are meant to do. We are meant to be known by the 5,000 not the five billion. The people who serve the people need to choose who supplies the service. We are delighted when the public knows who we are, but really, we need to be known by the people who make decisions.”

When Serco made its bid to run NHS community-health services in Suffolk – district nursing, physiotherapy, OT, end-of-life palliative care, wheelchair services – it reckoned it could do it for £140m over three years – £16m less than the existing NHS “provider” had managed, which would eventually allow for their standard profit margin of around 6% a year. When it started to become clear that Serco was the frontrunner, there was some opposition, but perhaps not nearly enough. “Suffolk isn’t the most politically active part of the country,” says one local insider. “And the staff were very lackadaisical. It was: ‘NHS Suffolk wouldn’t made a bad decision.’ So it was hard to get a campaign going.”

Serco was officially awarded the contract in October 2012, which meant that hundreds of staff would leave the NHS, and become company employees. Within weeks, the company proposed a huge reorganisation, which involved getting rid of one in six jobs. This has since come down to one in seven, two thirds of which will apparently go via natural wastage. In terms of their pay and conditions, the hundreds of people who have been transferred from the NHS to Serco are protected by provisions laid down by the last government, but it is already becoming clear that many new staff are on inferior contracts: as one local source puts it, “they’ve got less annual leave, less sick pay … it’s significantly worse.”

Meanwhile, other people are reportedly quitting their jobs, and the service given to patients is said to be getting worse. “In my team alone, we’re 50% down on staffing hours compared with last year,” says one former NHS worker, who provides home-care to patients who are largely elderly. Thanks to poor morale, she says that the team in which she works has lost around a third of its staff, and she is also having to see to administrative tasks that were previously carried out by someone else: in addition, she claims, support for a new IT regime is “farcical”.

“We’ve still got the same number of patients,” she says, “so the workload has massively increased.” As a result, she and her colleagues are having to cut people out of their previous entitlement to treatment at home. “That completely goes against our ethics,” she says, “but that’s what we’re having to do.”

The NHS is a relatively new area of controversy for Serco, but concerns about their practices run across many other areas. Right now, the controversy over alleged overcharging, focused on both Serco and its fellow tagging- contractor G4S, seems to have only just begun. When the news was made public, 8% was wiped off Serco’s share price. The Cabinet Office has announced a review “into government-held G4S and Serco contracts to ensure that contracts are well-managed and in good order”, which will report in the autumn. Work for the British government accounts for 40% of Serco’s revenues; to quote from the Daily Telegraph. “Without Serco, Britain would struggle to go to war”. That gives you some idea of how deeply its work penetrates the state, and how unthinkable any kind of corporate crisis would be.

Margaret Hodge, the former Labour minister who now chairs the public accounts committee, clearly thinks that all these stories point to huge issues. She talks about “the inability of government to contract-out in a way that protects the taxpayer’s interest.” The Cornwall out-of-hours story, she tells me, was reducible to “an absurd situation where you had a company seemingly lying about what it was doing, but there was nothing in the contract that could allow you to terminate it – indeed, they still appeared to be eligible for their bonus payments. It’s quite extraordinary.”

There are even bigger issues at stake, though. “There’s also the inability of the public sector to monitor effectively,” she says. “The Cornwall story came to light because of a Guardian journalist and a whole load of whistleblowers. Which is nuts: a crazy way for the public sector holding to account the private sector when it’s delivering public services.” Even her committee, she says, cannot break through a great wall of commercial confidentiality, and look at what the companies delivering pubic services are up to – not just in terms of their bids for public services and contracts with government, but such vital matters as their costs, and the profits they make from particular jobs.

Does she feel any guilt about the fact that companies such as Serco made their decisive breakthrough into public services when Labour was in power? There’s a murmur of agreement. “I think we were as bad at managing this diversity of providers,” she says. “But one of the things that gets me with this government is that they should have learned from our mistakes. What is becoming really clear to me … is that the Sercos, the A4s, the G4Ss, the Capitas – they’re good at winning contracts, but too often, they’re bad at running services.”

And what of the incredible range of what Serco actually does, from school inspections to Boris bikes? “Interestingly, we are looking at this. The National Audit Office is doing work around the development of quasi-monopoly private providers, which is the world we’re moving into. We don’t really understand the size of their empires. We’ve got to start getting hold of this. It’s a new phenomenon.”

Once I’d spoken to Hodge, I got hold of one of Serco’s “media relations team”, and arranged to send him a few questions. On the subject of the out-of-hours GP fiasco in Cornwall, he quoted a response from the doctor in charge of their set-up. “It’s really important that the local people in Cornwall do not lose confidence in this essential urgent care service,” he said. “It is a valued part of the local NHS and we are proud of our professional team who provide it.” A wider statement said the company had taken “swift and decisive action to put the situation right and apologised to the people of Cornwall”, and made “a goodwill gesture to repay the bonus made [sic] to us in 2012, which we were under no obligation to do.” All told, I was assured, their service “delivers a high standard against the national quality requirements”.

On the allegations about what has happened since Serco took over community healthcare in Suffolk, and the claim that any new starters aside from clinical staff are on inferior terms and conditions, the same spokesperson said that such employees are “offered contracts in line with Serco standard terms and conditions which are market comparable”. He denied that anyone had been cut out of treatment at home, said that the company had “recently realigned our clinical teams across Suffolk according to the needs of the areas in which they deliver care” and claimed that new IT systems are being implemented “slowly and carefully”.

The controversy surrounding Thameside prison, they said, had been followed by “a series of initiatives” including a “gangs strategy”, and measures to help prisoners with mental-health issues. Some people were now allowed to be outside their cells “during the core part of the day”, and in August, Serco anticipated that this would be extended.

As for the ongoing story about overcharging for their tagging contract with the Ministry of Justice, Serco said this: “We are working with our customer, the Ministry of Justice [on] this matter so there is very little we can add at this stage.” I was also directed to a statement from Chris Hyman, which said the company “will not tolerate poor practice and behaviour and wherever it is found we will put it right”, and reminded that justice secretary Chris Grayling has said he so far has “no information to confirm dishonesty had taken place” on the part of either Serco or G4S.

There was one last question, concerning the amazing spread of what Serco sees to, from parking meters, through nuclear early warning systems, to an expanding share of the NHS. Is there any limit to the fields they work in?

“We operate in a range of markets and geographies,” went its answer, “which means we are well placed to bring a wide range of experiences and knowledge to help customers with the challenges that they face.”

That’ll be a no, then.

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The UK’s diversity was lauded during the Olympics. But no longer | John Harris

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

There’s a glaring gap between the cant we heard at last summer’s Games and where Britain has subsequently arrived

Nostalgia for something that happened only a year ago must surely represent our accelerated culture reaching warp speed. But here we are: this week marks the first anniversary of the London Olympics, and the magic of that event and the subsequent Paralympics are once again being celebrated. “Will anything ever feel this good again?” read a wonderfully understated headline in Saturday’s Telegraph. To which the answer is: perhaps not, but 120,000 tickets for this weekend’s Anniversary Games sold out in 75 minutes, which suggests that even the idea of a brief rerun – to be staged at the Olympic Park, featuring Mo Farah and Usain Bolt, and sponsored by Sainsbury’s – is a dependable winner.

One matter, though, seems much more uncertain. What happened to all that talk of a diverse Britain reborn, and a nation that had conclusively mastered the art of welcoming outsiders?

The archives are full of this stuff. Eddie Izzard claiming that thanks to the Games, people newly understood “what modern multicultural Britain is all about, and that obviously it is working”; the outgoing chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission Trevor Phillips citing “a profound sea-change in British attitudes to social diversity”. In the wake of successes for Greg Rutherford, Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah, one of the most celebrated tweets during the Olympic fortnight read thus: “A ginger, a mixed-race woman and a one-time Somali refugee walk into a pub – and everyone buys them a drink.”

Indeed, the day before the Olympics began, David Cameron puffed out his chest and claimed that “there is no more diverse, more open, more tolerant city in the world than this one”. Strange that in the year since, he and his ministers have charged in the opposite direction, and their policies tend to suggest not the wonders of metropolitan openness and tolerance, but some mad checklist drawn up by Daily Express headline writers.

From the top, then. The government now wants to compel landlords to check prospective tenants’ immigration status under pain of heavy fines, which will surely make people suspicious of anyone from outside the UK, and push thousands of people into the grimmest corners of the housing market. At one stage there were proposals to make schools run similar checks on migrant children. And we will soon start charging people from outside the EU for non-emergency healthcare, thus propelling them towards already-overburdened A&E departments. Clever, that.

There are plans for “bonds” – the exact charge to be levied remains unclear – to be imposed on visitors from such countries as India, Pakistan and Nigeria. No week must be allowed to go by without at least one minister insisting that newly arrived migrants must quickly learn to speak English, even as councils are forced to drastically reduce the requisite tuition. Catastrophic cuts to legal aid and an increasingly punitive benefits system speak for themselves. Meanwhile, by way of nasty mood music, the innocuous word “tourist” has been reinvented, to be used in pejorative new compound words: health-tourist, benefit-tourist, education-tourist.

There are two reasons for this. First, much of this is less about the practicalities of policy than how well such proposals might play with the kind of voters whose supposed views are currently being channelled by Lynton Crosby. In any case, if you increasingly feel the overall aim of government is to make immigrants’ lives as difficult as possible, you’re not mistaken. It is.

Ten days ago, the former Lib Dem education minster Sarah Teather broke cover, and talked not only about initial Tory intentions to restrict the bringing-in of non-European spouses to people earning £40,000 a year or more, but a new subcommittee of government called the Inter Ministerial Group on Migrants’ Access to Benefits and Public Services. No cabinet ministers attends its meetings, but it apparently includes such figures as the Lib Dem education minister David Laws and the Tory immigration minister Mark Harper, and its fingerprints are all over many of the proposals above.

In March, leaked emails suggested that the group considered banning the children of illegal immigrants from British schools, before civil servants from the Department for Education pointed out that such a move would contravene the UN charter on the rights of the child; it has also worked on beefing up the link between housing and so-called local links. As Teather revealed, it was not only set up at the “explicit insistence” of Cameron, but originally called the Hostile Environment Working Group, a title that starkly announced its intentions for “unwanted” immigrants. So, back to the PM’s words from last summer: “There is no more diverse, more open, more tolerant city in the world than this one.” Really?

It would be dishonest to discuss all this without a mention of the general public. Perhaps things are just as Cameron, Laws, Harper et al evidently think. Given that the summer of the Olympics and Paralympics was eventually followed by the Ukip spring, maybe many of the same people who came together to cheer on Team GB also support creating a system that encourages people to think the worst of anyone from outside the UK. It is increasingly leaving vulnerable people drowning in impenetrable paperwork, and threatening even people given leave to remain with destitution.

There again, no one – least of all any front-rank Labour politician – has yet been bold enough to explain that there’s a glaring gap between the cant we heard last summer, and where Britain has subsequently arrived. Put another way, if you want the same kind of society that delivers not just wondrous sporting events but no end of vital businesses and services, the Hostile Environment route really isn’t the greatest way to go. That’s the utilitarian argument – it’d also be nice to think that someone might also come along and remind us of our common humanity.

Mo Farah will be running in the 3,000m this weekend, and perhaps commentators will once again go through his uncertain backstory. No one seems sure how and when he came to the UK. He may have come to join his father, who had claimed asylum; other accounts have him arriving with his mother and a younger brother. Some say he stopped here en route to his grandmother in Holland, and decided to stay. The details are uncertain because that’s what labyrinthine immigration systems and complex journeys across continents do to people. But here’s a question: had ministers put up the kind of hateful machinery that is now being assembled at speed, how exactly do you think he would have got on?

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Renewal: ‘The Tories should position themselves as the new workers’ party’ – video

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

John Harris discusses the Conservatives’ pitch to working-class voters with Eric Pickles, David Skelton and Phillip Blond

John Harris
Elliot Smith

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Renewal group aims to broaden Tory appeal

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

At launch events, group sets sights on becoming ‘new workers’ party’ and tries to dismiss relevance of leaders’ backgrounds

Eric Pickles is orating in the upstairs function room of the Old Star, an unremarkable pub near St James’s Park tube station. The walls are smattered with populist Tory election posters from such glorious years as 1959, 1979 and 1992. Aside from Pickles himself, there are no high-ranking Tories in attendance. But the secretary of state for communities and local government is at pains – perhaps literally, given the stifling heat – to underline the significance of the occasion. “You should be proud to have been here,” he tells his audience, “because this is the place where the Tory revival started.”

This is the first of two launch events for Renewal, a new Conservative ginger group dedicated to what its first publication calls “broadening Tory appeal”. Its founder is 35-year-old David Skelton, until recently deputy director of the Tory thinktank Policy Exchange, as well as a Tory parliamentary candidate in 2010 and a comprehensive-educated native of the north-eastern former steel town of Consett where, he acknowledges, “Conservatism hasn’t done terribly well in the past few elections”.

Using slightly Lenin-ish vocabulary, he says that if the Tories are to win a majority in 2015 they need to set their sights on being nothing less than “the new workers’ party”. He talks about the importance of black and ethnic minority voters, being nice to trade unionists and public sector workers, boosting the minimum wage and building new council houses. Not for nothing, perhaps, did a few early copies of Access All Areas, Renewal’s inaugural collection of essays, come back from the printers with a cover in what Skelton calls Soviet red instead of the intended Tory blue.

A lot of what Renewal has been founded to explore seems to be about the Conservatives’ general mindset as much as policy specifics. Skelton and his allies – most notably the Essex MP Robert Halfon, who advocates what he calls white-van Conservatism – seem to be pushing for a less ideological kind of Tory politics, more contrite about the legacy of the Thatcher years and newly open to such hitherto non-U ideas as an active industrial policy.

In that sense, for all that Skelton seems to agree with the prevailing Tory wisdom on immigration, Europe and so-called welfare, he is staking out a very different position from that of his party’s true ideological believers. Last year a handful of new Conservative MPs published a short book titled Britannia Unchained, which set out a future of 60-hour working weeks and thoroughly deregulated labour markets, as well as claiming that British workers were “among the most idle in the world”. Renewal’s tone is much more emollient, pragmatic, and keen to push beyond what remains of Thatcherism.

“It’s not so much about a different economic philosophy,” says Skelton, “as what’s necessary to tackle the needs of the time – cost of living problems, the shortage of housing and the need to be the party of job creation in some parts of the country.” Here, you begin to suspect, lie the battle lines for a debate that will erupt sooner or later, about the Tories’ past, present and future.

Composing himself in one of the Old Star’s quieter corners, Pickles – “proud to be working class,” he tells me – dispenses his thoughts a few minutes before his speech. “It’s really important that the Conservative party’s attraction, membership, involvement … goes beyond London and the south-east,” he says.

Does that mean they need fewer people like George Osborne and David Cameron and more front-rank figures like him? This is batted away with a boilerplate sentence about people’s background mattering much less than “where they’re going”. So, another question: how urgent is Renewal’s agenda? “It’s urgent and important. Because the Conservative party is lesser if its views aren’t heard deep in the country.”

Can the Tories become a new workers’ party? “Of course we can. That’s where our roots were. We were the first party to understand the enfranchisement of the working class and the artisans. We had a strong tradition of Conservative clubs. So sure, we can do it again.”

Less than 24 hours later Renewal hosts another launch event, in parliament’s Jubilee Room, where grand aristocratic portraits stare down at the audience of around 50. The speeches and subsequent conversation highlight a lot of the tensions that buzz around what Renewal seems to want to do.

The north-eastern Tory MP Guy Opperman think the current Tory message is “right, but we’re just not getting it across”, whereas, constantly referring back to his constituents in Harlow, Robert Halfon questions the freshly announced sell-off of Royal Mail, makes slightly sceptical noises about academies and free schools and talks about his party’s “huge mistake” in opposing the minimum wage.

Laura Sandys, who represents the Kent seat of South Thanet, thunders about markets fixed against consumers, and the power of big business – an obvious enough argument, but one that sits rather awkwardly with her party’s tendency to collude with exactly the interests she rails against. There is real angst about the Tories’ reputation for being the party of the rich, but also – as happened at the Old Star – bizarre-sounding claims that this has nothing to do with the backgrounds of the current leadership.

By the event’s end, Skelton seems to think this new initiative has got off to admirable start. For all its unlikeliness, plenty of Tories seem to like the idea of becoming the workers’ party. “They do,” he nods, before cracking an ever-so-slightly triumphal smile. “And Conservatives like the idea of winning majorities.”

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The Royal Mail sell-off plan is daylight robbery of our postal service | John Harris

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

This mess of a privatisation shows a Thatcherite Tory party hellbent on destroying a national institution

Come trade unionists, lefties inside and outside the Labour party, disillusioned Lib Dems, Ukippers, and any Tories still fond of the idea that there are some things – the “family silver”, as old-school Conservative mythology would have it – that perhaps should not be handed to the private market. This wretched government is now selling off Royal Mail, with the aid of a syndicate of banks headed by those well-known guarantors of the public interest, Goldman Sachs and UBS. The financiers will take home around £30m; over time, the rest of us will likely end up with a threadbare postal service, and the feeling that we were robbed, in broad daylight.

Towards the end of Labour’s time in office, the then business secretary Peter Mandelson floated the “progressive” sell-off of Royal Mail, and soon proposed its part-sale to a private partner, only to be faced with huge opposition within what remained of the Labour movement, and a shortage of any credible bidders. While the Tories advocated a complete sell-off, the Lib Dems revived the part-privatisation idea in their 2010 election manifesto, saying that, given the chance, they would sell off 49% of the service, and split the rest between the state and Royal Mail’s employees. A mention of all this was included in the coalition agreement of May 2010, and on Wednesday Vince Cable will come forward with firm plans. Strangely, they seem very different from what his party originally proposed: in the wake of a recent doubling in its profits to £403m, the whole of Royal Mail is expected to be floated on the stock exchange, with only 10% of shares set aside for its workers. There is talk of a “tell Sid”-type pitch to the public: further proof, perhaps, that we are largely being ruled by people who seem to think that modern government should amount to a school play about the Thatcher years.

All this was set in train by the Postal Services Act of 2011. Then, as now, there was a surprising lack of noisy opposition to what the government was up to. The Communication Workers’ Union did what it could, and has continued to put its muscle behind a campaign called Save Our Royal Mail. But perhaps the constant chipping away of the postal service – the halving of deliveries in 2004, the accelerated closure and outsourcing of post offices – created the impression of something long degraded and ultimately doomed. This, needless to say, is not true: buoyed by booming use of parcel post, the organisation recently announced that its annual profits had doubled, to £403m. Its internal workings have been modernised, and the government has soaked up the deficit that opened up in the course of a mad 13-year pensions holiday that began in 1990. Yes, there are claims that a need for more investment can only be met via privatisation, but this is baloney: as the CWU has endlessly pointed out, Network Rail is effectively a public body, and it has borrowed amounts on the private markets far in excess of what Royal Mail requires.

By way of cold comfort, there is an “inter-business agreement” between Royal Mail and the newly separate Post Office that will keep the two tied together until 2022 – but after that, who knows? The government is keen to assure us that it would take fresh legislation to move away from the Royal Mail’s universal service obligation – essentially, the guarantee that post will be collected and delivered six days a week, wherever you are. But again, won’t any private set-up soon tire of all that and put pressure on ministers to legislate for a much looser, profit-friendly arrangement? Overall, it’s very instructive to read about privatisation and liberalisation of the post in such European countries as the Netherlands: there, the story is of a downgraded and demoralised workforce, and four different post companies (branded orange, blue, yellow, along with the “half-orange” firm founded by the owners of the orange one, seemingly to drive down wages and conditions) competing to nobody’s great benefit, including their own.

Anxiety about all this, thankfully, is by no means confined to the usual suspects. The central role in all this played by the EU directives has incurred the wrath of some Conservatives, and plenty of Ukip activists. And consider the line on privatisation so far taken by the Tory Bow group, whose views have been stirringly voiced by its chairman, one Ben Harris-Quinney. Privatisation, he says, “is likely to be deeply unpopular with the British public”. And there’s more: “Prices will rise at a time we can least afford it, an amenity that many communities consider crucial will be removed and a sell-off will also impact on the significant heritage of Royal Mail.” He predicts “a poisonous legacy for the government now, and a poisonous legacy for the Conservative party going forward”.

Underneath those words – it’s there in the use of “heritage” – is an argument that is as much cultural as economic. There are, surely, some parts of our socioeconomic patchwork that embody an enduring sense of the country we are, and certainties that should be kept well away from the hurly-burly of international capital. The Lib Dems seem to have no clearer sense of that than of anything else. But the spectacle of the Conservative party setting Royal Mail – the Royal Mail! – off down such an uncertain path screams huge truths about what Margaret Thatcher destroyed in their politics, and they have never rediscovered. This sell-off may not be attracting much attention, but within it, there lies something remarkable: conclusive proof that, however much the Tories still bang on about patriotism, on close inspection, their claims to it disintegrate, like a tattered flag.

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