Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, was given a stormy reception when he addressed the Annual Conference of UNISON, the UK’s largest public sector union. He was heckled when he said that the government planned to invest an additional 50bn pounds in public services over the next three years. He said: “In the real world virtually every public service engages private partners.” He made it clear that the issue is the quality and value of the services on offer and that the Government is not about to embark on the wholesale privatisation of essential public services.Adrian Dilworth, President of UNISON, stressed that they wanted to engage in proper debate with the Government about the future of public services, although the Conference will debate a series of motions that are hostile to plans for increasing the use of the private sector.
Opposition to extending private sector involvement has also come from Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union who said that he is not convinced that a partnership with the private sector would deliver efficient public services. John Monks, TUC General Secretary has warned of a bruising confrontation that would damage both the Labour government and the trade union movement. The National Association of School Masters/Union of Women Teachers, The Manufacturing and Science Union and the Transport and General Workers Union have also voiced their opposition.
In a move to reduce the heat of the argument Health Secretary Alan Millburn had already announced that when the private sector became involved, there would be transparency and consultations with NHS staff allowing unions more access to procurement details. There would also be improvement in the treatment of staff rights under TUPE and a fair deal for pensions to protect staff pension rights. The effect of this will be to protect the pay, conditions and pension rights of new recruits as well as protecting existing staff. It is believed that this model will be applied to all public services where private sector involvement is increased.
Protecting employee rights in this way will mean that contracting companies will no longer be able to reduce operating costs by negotiating new employee contracts.