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Unions debate partial privatisations
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Monday, 11 June, 2001, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
Union challenge for Labour
Hospital ward
The government wants more private sector involvement in the NHS
Britain's trade unions have warned Prime Minister Tony Blair to be careful about how much private sector involvement he plans for the public services like education and the NHS.

There is a catalogue of private sector companies who have gone into the public sector thinking they can make a quick buck and who have failed miserably

Dave Prentis, Unison
The most of the unions maintained a self-imposed purdah in the run-up to the election but now that the Labour Party has secured a historic second term, they coming out of the woodwork.

During the election the prime minister pledged to further the partial privatisation known as private finance initiatives (PFIs) or public-private partnerships (PPPs) in schools, hospitals, and transport.

They (the government) cannot do that alone. They have got to have support, they have got to have money, they have got to have financial backing (from the private sector)

Ken Jackson, AEEU
In its manifesto, the Labour party was vague on the actual implementation of partial privatisations, and strong on the rhetoric concerning the benefits the private sector can bring to public services.

But the unions and many Labour MPs were dismayed by this with some claiming is a raw declaration of "public bad, private good". .

Union tensions

Since the election, many unions have opened fire on the government with a raft of demands, including the use of partial privatisation.

Sir Ken Jackson, general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), who has a reputation as Labour's favourite union leader, appears to be alone in supporting the government's stance.

Bill Morris, general secretary, T&G union
Morris: The mantra 'public bad, private good' must be dispelled
Private sector involvement was essential if the improvements promised during the election campaign were to be delivered, Sir Ken said on the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme ahead of the AEEU's annual conference on Monday.

"They (the government) cannot do that alone. They have got to have support, they have got to have money, they have got to have financial backing," he said.

Sir Ken has also called for a more "civilised" way to resolve industrial disputes through a "no-strike" deal with mandatory arbitration as part of Labour's restructuring of the public services.

The AEEU, unlike the three biggest public sector unions - Unison, Transport and General Workers Union and GMB - has very few members who are employed in the public services.

Union resistance

Other unions are not so conciliatory.

Dave Prentis, the general secretary of public service union Unison, said he strongly disagrees with Sir Ken's assertion that the private sector can do a better job than the existing public services.

"There is a catalogue of private sector companies who have gone into the public sector thinking they can make a quick buck and who have failed miserably," Mr Prentis told the union's political conference on Monday.

The central problem was decades of under investment, not public sector intransigence, he added.

Protesting Unison nurses
Unison opposes private sector involvement in public services
Unison, the country's biggest union with 1.5 million public sector workers, is expected to unveil militant plans to oppose the government at its annual conference on 17 June.

The public sector union is also strongly opposed to the UK joining the euro because of the curbs that membership would place on public spending.

Unison's stand on partial privatisation is shared by many other unions including the other major public sector union, the Communication Workers Union (CWU), the Transport and General workers union (T&G), the GMB and the rail union ASLEF.

"I reject the notion that efficient public services can only be provided in partnership with the private sector," said Bill Morris general secretary of the T&G.

"The mantra 'public bad, private good' must be dispelled," he added.

Government listening

The deputy prime minister John Prescott said on Sunday the government would listen to unions' concerns but would not allow them to block plans to increase private sector involvement in public services.

"Public-private finance has been an important initiative. It is the best use of public and private sector financing within a number of areas.

That message was echoed by the new Transport Minister John Spellar who said what mattered in public services was what worked - not whether it was delivered by private or public sector.

"We don't say that the private sector can only deliver this or that certain services should only be carried out by the public sector," he said at the AEEU's annual conference.

Tony Blair is expected to issue a rally call for the unions to support the euro campaign at the Trades Union Congress annual conference in September.

But there are signs that union opposition to Labour's euro campaign could be growing.

T&G head Bill Morris warned that investment in the public services could be jeopardised by a "headlong rush" to join the single currency.

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See also:

25 May 01 | Mike Baker
Is this school privatisation?
16 May 01 | Vote2001
Reforming public services
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Unions ready for Blair battle
29 May 01 | Vote2001
Labour 'threat' to free NHS
25 May 01 | Vote2001
Union pressure on Labour
17 Apr 01 | UK Politics
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