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banner Tuesday, 2 October, 2001, 16:35 GMT 17:35 UK
Mandate to deliver
The issue that before 11 September would without doubt have dominated Labour's conference was the focus of the Guardian's fringe meeting on "Labour's second term: the public sector and public services - are they the same thing?"

A good range of Labour opinion on the issue was fielded: cabinet minister without portfolio Charles Clarke, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, Education & Skills Minister Margaret Hodge and latter-day Labour rebel Roy Hattersley.

The ethos by which private enterprise lives and survives is inappropriate for public services

Roy Hattersley
Mr Clarke was first up, deploying the apparent frankness that has become his trademark.

"The mandate we received on 7 June, strong though it is, was very much a conditional one," he acknowledged.

Voters had shown they preferred investment in public services to tax cuts; but the key thing they wanted to see was quality delivery of those services.

Labour, said Mr Clarke, had to make sure that delivery came through. But "more resources are not enough of themselves": reform and changes to those services was an essential accompaniment.

"It is critically important," he said, "to actually transform the ability of the public services to deliver, because I believe if we don't do that then those services are doomed."

And seeking to answer one of Lord Hattersley's chief criticisms of New Labour, Mr Clarke insisted that this was a truly redistributive government: "There is no greater redistributionist approach than to deliver high quality public services for every individual in Britain."

'No mandate to privatise'

Unison's Dave Prentis was next. He agreed with Mr Clarke that at the June general election won a less than whole-hearted mandate. And "it did not get a mandate to privatise".

If there are private sector skills that can add value to the public services, why not use them?

Margaret Hodge
While he agreed with ministers when they said ideology should not be key to their approach to public services, "ideology does come into it a little bit".

"Private companies should not be making a profit from looking after the ill and the elderly," Mr Prentis insisted.

He stressed the public service ethos which motivated Unison's million-plus members. They worked, he said, for the patient, the pupil, the users of public services, "to do for them what is right, without thinking about the balance sheet".

'Odd truce'

Margaret Hodge acknowledged that an "odd truce" with regard to the government's plans for the public services was in place as a result of 11 September.

But she welcomed the lull in hostilities because it was, she believed, a "manufactured row".

Labour believed in the public services, and it was "completely crazy to believe that wholesale privatisation is on anybody's agenda".

"If there are private sector skills that can add value to the public services, why not use them?"

Instead of being at odds, the labour movement should unite around "modernising and reform of the public services".

There were indeed "tough things" that needed to be done, which had would most likely mean changes to working practices for those in the public services, so that they "put the user at the centre of the agenda".

'Comrades ...'

Roy Hattersley was having none of it. It is no secret that there is little love lost between Ms Hodge and the former deputy Labour leader.

He struck out on his own immediately by addressing the gathering as "comrades".

The peer then set about Ms Hodge's argument, rejecting the notion that the ruction in Labour's ranks was a manufactured one.

When it came to the public services, "how the provision can best be brought about and the role of the private secotr in doing that" was crucial.

The government's repeated insistences that it "believed in" public services simply "isn't sufficient" and was "no more than platitudes".

"It is the delivery of services that matters."

And the plain fact was that "the ethos by which private enterprise lives and survives is inappropriate for public services".

No argument, no definition, no policy

He was certainly not against privatisation in and of itself; when a member of the pre-Thatcher Labour governments, he had opposed certain nationalisations as simply wrong.

But it could be clearly seen that when, for example, private firms take over the job of cleaning hospitals, "they don't get cleaned".

Ever since the government first announced its intention to forge ahead with controversial changes to the public services and give private firms a bigger role, there had been a "tragic lack of argument, definition and in consequence, lack of policy".

The government had to make clear precisely where it believed the boundary public and private should be in health, education and penal systems.

Lord Hattersley finished by warning that once Afghanistan was out of the news - "which it will be" - public services would return as the key issue on which the voters would judge the government.

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