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Wednesday, 11 September, 2002, 07:59 GMT 08:59 UK
Public sector fears

The battle over the privatisation is a slow war of attrition.

For one year, the main public sector union Unison has fought to keep health workers whose hospitals are privatised in the public sector.


The whole public sector is a tinderbox

Malcolm Wing
Unison
Now they have won an important victory, with agreement that workers in privately run hospitals will still be employed by the NHS.

It means that they retain their pensions and terms and conditions of service, as well as a degree of job security.

But it is only a small victory.

The government is determined to press ahead with its private finance initiative, which it believes will allow hospitals and schools to be built faster - and for less public cash upfront - than the existing system.

There are 63 privately run hospitals in the NHS pipeline already, with more being announced every month.

Unison's senior national secretary, Malcolm Wing, told BBC News Online that although the union was winning the intellectual argument, it had not yet convinced the government to change its mind.

And he admitted that, for most members of the general public, they don't care where the money comes from, as long as that new hospital or school gets built.

Complications

Explaining the private finance initiative is fiendishly complicated, as are the intricacies of public private partnerships and the like.

But union leaders like Mr Wing believe that it is vitally important for the future of the public services.

He believes that the government is mortgaging its future by giving private companies the right to run hospitals, schools and roads for periods of up to 30 years in return for a fixed yearly payment.

He say this will be much more expensive in the long run than the government building the hospital itself.

And he is worried that even if existing staff are employed on the same terms and conditions as before, new staff coming in may get a worse deal - storing up problems for the future.

Unison has also won some concessions in this area, with a code of conduct applying to workers in local government - including schools - which guarantees that new staff will be offered "broadly comparable" conditions and even some pension rights.

The government says that PFI is a vital part of its plans to expand and modernise the public sector, and that using the private sector can mean better value for money.

Far from rowing back its ambitions, it is planning to expand PFI to more infrastructure projects like roads and bridges.

And it wants to partly privatise council housing through the mass transfer of estates from local authorities to housing associations.

Fightback

At the TUC Congress, Unison has received backing from other public unions in its campaign to oppose such privatisation.

And Mr Wing is sceptical of Tony Blair's olive branch to the unions.

In his conference speech on Wednesday, Mr Blair offered them the chance of partnership on public sector reform on the basis of "no prejudices. no preconditions. One test only: what works for the customers."

Mr Wing says it was a clever speech, but Mr Blair was avoiding the issues.

It didn't reflect "the world we live in" where the government was not neutral, but positively promoting PFI because it saved money in the short-term.

Mr Wing said that the recent strikes by local government workers this summer - which led to a 3-year pay deal signed last month - had been far more widely supported than he expected.

He argued that it was an indication of just how fed up public sector workers were.

The whole sector was a "tinderbox" he told the BBC - and private finance could be the spark that ignites it.


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