Can companies really care about the public sector?

PUBLISHED: 06:12 07 March 2018

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group may take over another publicly-run service in Norfolk. Picture: Denise Bradley

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group may take over another publicly-run service in Norfolk. Picture: Denise Bradley

Archant 2012

Can a company really run a public service, when it has to satisfy its bosses and shareholders first? Peter Farley is unconvinced.

Misreading a recent EDP headline, I thought it read, ‘Could Branson’s Virgin ruin children’s mental health.’ If that had been what it read, then for me the answer would have been: ‘Yes’!

How can I justify saying that? According to the dictionary, to ruin is: to cause great and usually irreparable damage or harm to; have a disastrous effect on. So what great and irreparable damage or harm could Virgin do? What disastrous effect could it have?

The answer? Virtual asset stripping!

Norfolk Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), as the name suggests, provides mental health services for children and young people in Norfolk. CAMHS’s greatest assets are their staff and the support they get from the local community in Norfolk and Waveney. If Virgin take over these services, they will no longer be local, in the true sense.

Staff presently employed in CAMHS, will become Virgin staff, and inevitably will no longer feel so connected and committed to their employers or to the local community. The loss of a sense of being a significant part of a grassroots ‘family’ and becoming an inconsequential cog in a huge nondescript commercial enterprise, will completely change the ethos, and thereby, the effectiveness of the service.

The resulting homogenisation will produce a bland, second-rate enterprise, to the detriment of the mental health of local children and young people. The only people to gain would be the shareholders of Virgin, through increased dividends, and the senior executives of the company, through bigger salaries.

Incidentally, the average pay for a Footsie company CEO in the UK, in 1988 was estimated at less than £500,000 a year. Thirty years later, it is estimated at just under £4 million - I make that a staggering increase of 800%! This means that, if in 1988 you had earned the average annual wage of £11,500, this year you would be on £92,000 per annum. Is that your experience?

This ruination of public services by privatisation is happening across the complete care field, as well as in education and the health service, and on a massive scale. Probably from childhood, I have thought that public services were run by the public (in the shape of local and national government) to serve the public – you and me! Was I naïve? Am I still immature in my thinking?

The reality is, public services are no longer run by the public for the public. Instead, they are run for private pockets, rather than the public purse.

Take education, for example, with ‘academisation’. Teachers no longer feel so connected and committed to their schools or to the local community; governing boards become decreasingly locally-focused and increasingly more concerned about growing the power and influence of the academy trust.

This disheartening process though, mirrors what has happened in the commercial world. Consider Colman’s. Founded in Norfolk by Jeremiah Colman in the early 19th century, Colman’s gained a reputation not only for producing the finest English mustard, but also for being a company that cared deeply about family values, and looked after their employees like their own.

This showed in Colman’s establishing a school for the children of all their employees, building company housing and paying sickness benefits for their staff. Now, after various mergers in the last eighty years, production of this iconic Norfolk brand will leave the county next year. All this, less than a decade after the name ‘Norwich Union’, founded by Thomas Bignold at the end of the 18th century, passed into history.

Norfolk Day will be a great way to celebrate all things Norfolk, to rejoice in everything we love about our county. But, in truth, has Norfolk had her day? Has she been ransacked and pillaged? Have we lost most of the ‘household silver’? Have the best of the ‘family jewels’ been stolen? Is this a cause for celebration?

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