THE dangerous shambles that our prisons system became under Chris Grayling as justice secretary should serve as a caution over his plans for railways in England.
Grayling introduced a system he called “benchmarking” by which publicly owned prisons had their operations costed as though in competition with the private sector, putting pressure on staff.
His stewardship of the prisons network was marked by large-scale resignation of experienced officers and their replacement by staff recruited on lower salaries.
Grayling’s concept of “efficiency” has resulted in staff levels cut to the bone — over 40 per cent reductions in some cases — with consequent increases in insecurity for both staff and prisoners as the prison population rises inexorably, doubling in 20 years and touching 90,000 inmates.
Recent illegal industrial action co-ordinated by the Prison Officers Association illustrates staff desperation in light of a daily disregard for workplace safety.
Transferring Grayling to the Department of Transport is like putting a pyromaniac in charge of a petrol station.
His religious-like faith in the supposed superiority of the private sector is uttered in persuasive tones, but he has nothing to justify his preference apart from ill-digested models from classical economic theory.
Public safety on our railways has to be the priority. It cannot be reduced to cost benefit analysis.
Prioritising safety contradicts the private-sector obsession with the bottom line, but it is the key demand of the travelling public and rail staff.
Grayling may believe that people have a short memory when it comes to rail tragedies, but it is just 16 years since Hatfield, when shortcomings in track repair by profits-driven Railtrack resulted in four deaths and dozens of injuries.
Public company Network Rail was set up two years later to replace Railtrack as a means of reassuring passengers and rail workers that safety would not be sacrificed to profit margins.
The Transport Secretary told Dennis Skinner that he is “an inveterate improver of services” rather than an inveterate privatiser, but the state in which he has left the prisons system gives the lie to this assertion.
The same goes for his claim that handing Network Rail responsibilities over to private train operating companies is “about forging partnership alliances between the two” rather than privatising the public company.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong in principle with a single entity running both infrastructure and train operations. It was how public corporation British Rail ran the entire network.
Splitting track and services was the recommended European Union privatisation model that the Tories under John Major imposed when they sold off our railways in 1993.
Grayling professes to have realised that, with responsibility split between an infrastructure company and a train operator, there is the capacity for disagreement and companies “waving contracts at each other.”
That is only the case when the rival companies are motivated by corporate profit rather than service to the public.
That judgement was uncontroversial in the labour movement following privatisation when the Labour Party pledged to renationalise our railways, only for the incoming Tony Blair-led government to renege on this commitment.
Fortunately, after years of New Labour’s “private is best” orthodoxy, current shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald is clear that our railways should be run “under public ownership in the public interest as an integrated national asset in public hands.”
Labour’s commitment to reversing rail privatisation, in line with the preference of two-thirds of the population, has to be a daily campaigning priority.