PARLIAMENTARY recess couldn’t come quickly enough for the Tories, especially Chris “Failing” Grayling, as their privatisation chickens come home to roost.
Grayling’s performance as justice secretary, when he presided over the Transforming Rehabilitation privatisation agenda, and his subsequent shift as transport secretary have condemned the probation service and rail industry to a state of havoc.
Grayling’s Rail Minister Jo Johnson had to admit this week that South West Railway (SWR) would be able to claim back profits lost as a result the current strike action by RMT.
Johnson told Labour MPs Laura Smith and Kate Hoey that SWR had “exploited” a clause in its franchising agreement to bring this about.
But SWR didn’t negotiate its franchise single-handed. Sitting across the table were government representatives willing, if not eager, to insert that clause.
Guaranteeing private-sector profits during strike action has been a key government ploy, especially under Grayling, to gain the train-operating companies’ complicity for Tory plans to abolish a second safety-critical staff member, trading passenger safety in return for reduced operating costs.
Scottish and Welsh operators have done deals with RMT for all services to have a guard to complement driver duties, but the Westminster government has cajoled/strong-armed franchises in England to take an uncompromising stance.
David Gauke took up the reins at the Justice Ministry when Grayling switched to Transport, but the curse of Failing lives on.
Just as train-operating companies that have taken easy profits in the early years of franchises before handing back the keys when major contributions should be paid to the Exchequer, Gauke has agreed to pull the plug two years early on eight community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) at the heart of the government’s part-privatisation of the probation service.
And just as the rail regulator gives the seal of approval to every madcap privatisation proposal, chief probation inspector Glenys Stacey does likewise.
Stacey has flipped from criticism of privatised services in December to welcoming the government’s bailout of the CRCs and trotting out the usual toothless regulator’s platitudes about learning lessons which do not, of course, include the most valid — probation service privatisation has been disastrous and should be abandoned.
This bailout is costing £170 million, including £110m in fines owed by CRCs to the ministry for poor performance, but the current running total of the shambolic experiment is about half a billion pounds.
It seems a lifetime ago that a junior official in the Department for Transport could be sacked for suggesting that bad news be slipped out when everyone was obsessed with a huge event.
The Tories don’t bother with that now. They simply leave everything until MPs are in demob mood, packing their buckets and spades, before whispering: “Oh, by the way …”
The government knew the troubles the CRCs were in. Ministers knew that their pet project was falling apart at the seams.
It should have been subject to major parliamentary debate, with demands likely from across the House to end the part-privatisation debacle.
There is no effective parliamentary oversight of what went wrong, the next phase of government panic management or the minister’s decision to throw money to companies that have already proven incapable of running a piss-up in a brewery, let alone a probation service.
Staff and their unions in both probation and rail services, together with rail passenger organisations and justice-sector charities, understand the costs of privatisation and will doubtless welcome Labour’s firm pledges to end such disastrous ideological flights of fancy.
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