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At the end of last year, justice secretary Chris Grayling made the right decision about G4S and Serco, removing their electronic criminal tagging contracts after allegations of fraud. But does he need to do more to show he’s getting tough with outsourcing failures? We believe he does. We Own It is a new organisation which is campaigning for a Public Service Users Bill to put more power where it belongs – in the hands of the people who use public services. Here are five reasons why you, as a Conservative, might want to support the campaign:

1) You believe in markets
The public services market is not a real market. A railway line isn’t the same kind of economic good as a cup of coffee. If you want to travel from A to B by rail, there’s only one way you can go, there’s not much choice. Instead, there’s an occasional bidding process between government and companies which aims to approximate competition.

However, the individual who uses the service – you – are not involved in this process and you have very little say. It’s the same with other public services, especially because most of them are local, so ‘shopping around’ would mean a lot of travelling. You, the service user, are not really able to feedback to the market how you feel about the service provided. There are regulators, but can they really work effectively when consumers have so little power?

So if it’s not a real market, what do we do about that? We give public service users a voice in the process, so that their needs and wants are listened to. That’s what our Bill would do. If it was passed, you would be asked what you want from your services and whether you want them outsourced or privatised (66% of Conservative voters support this). You’d be able to look at bids from different providers and say what you think.

2) You believe in giving power to individuals and communities
This Bill would give power back to individuals and communities. It promotes the ‘public ownership’ option in its broadest sense, enabling mutuals, cooperatives, social enterprises and charities to run public services where that’s appropriate. Many of these organisations, in addition to the public sector, are well placed to give time and care to meeting people’s basic needs. Our Bill would strengthen the Social Value Act introduced by Conservative MP Chris White, calling on commissioners to account for social value generated in provision of public services. In the 21st century, public services should be about people, not profit, with staff, service users and communities working together and building on existing knowledge to keep making them better. Fewer shady backhand deals, more Big Society.

3) You believe in transparency
Atos, Capita, G4S and Serco (the four biggest outsourcing companies) cost us £4 billion last year, yet we, the public, have very little information about them. Despite the current government’s focus on open data, outsourced contracts are hidden from the public eye, cloaked in ‘commercial confidentiality’. That secretiveness might sound reasonable but it leaves the people most affected by the contracting process stumbling around in the dark. 48% of people simply assume that private companies running public services are subject to Freedom of Information requests, but they’re not. The Institute for Government’s recent report on public service markets revealed a lack of transparency and manipulation of contracts by suppliers.

As we have seen, the public services market is not a normal ‘market’, which means the free flow of information is even more important. Outsourcing companies are subsidised by the public purse; why not make it a condition of this that they have to be open with their data? 87% of Conservative voters believe that private companies running public services should be as transparent about their performance and financial data as the public sector has to be. Our Bill would make that happen.

4) You believe in consumer rights
Do you believe that consumers should have some rights? Not only the right to have a say over what happens to services and how to make them better, but also the right to recall providers when they’re doing a bad job? Our Bill would introduce a ‘right to recall’: the government would be required to end private company contracts early when outsourcers are found to be doing a poor job of running public services, following public complaints. 90% of Conservative voters support this.

Ordinary people across the UK are being hit by high water bills, energy costs and rail fares (rising above inflation in Conservative heartlands). Conservative MP Robert Halfon is fighting a campaign to defend consumers from being ripped off by energy companies. Where assets have already been privatised, it’s harder to tackle this problem, but we can take action where contracts are agreed by government. Which? recently reported that only 30% of people trust the rail industry to act in their best interests. Isn’t it time that government stepped in to defend consumers?

5) You believe in saving money
Talking of saving consumers money, what about prudence for the public purse? In public hands, the East Coast line has returned £800 million in profit back to the Treasury. Local authorities across the country are bringing services in-house to cut costs and improve efficiency. Our Bill would require commissioning authorities to look at the public ownership option first and explain the decision to outsource, before putting together a realistic in-house bid. 87% of Conservative voters believe that when a public service is put out to tender, there should always be an in-house bid to see if the service could be provided publicly at better value.

Do you believe in real markets? Giving individuals the power? Transparency? Consumer rights? Saving money? If so, do you think the Conservatives should commit to introducing the Public Service Users Bill? We’d like to hear what you think. Let’s work together to stand up for the people who use public services.


Cat Hobbs is the Director of We Own It.

Follow Cat on Twitter.

Views held by contributors are not necessarily those of Bright Blue, as good as they often are.

If you are interested in contributing please e-mail blog@brightblue.org.uk or tweet @jonathanalgar.