What are your private sector horror stories?


9:00 am - March 21st 2011

by Owen Jones    


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Bloated. Inefficient. Wasteful. Pampered. Manned by the lazy and incompetent; administered by shameless fat cats with salaries that make the Prime Minister look like a pauper. All-expenses paid trips to exotic locations. Non-jobs like ‘Executive Officer to Protect Endangered Snakes’.

This is Britain’s public sector, if the relentless campaign of bile directed against it by the Conservative Party and their allies in the right-wing media is to be believed. In a political campaign with few parallels in modern times for either genius or audacity, this axis has transformed one of the greatest private sector disasters in human history into a crisis of public spending.

The Government’s propaganda offensive has had one simple aim: to soften public opinion up for the biggest programme of cuts (sorry, ‘savings‘) since the 1920s. Long gone are the days when David Cameron berated New Labour for its “knee-jerk attacks on public sector workers”, or – astonishingly – proudly declared:

Anyone working in the public services could easily have heard a pretty negative message from my Party: “there’s too many of you, you’re lazy and you’re inefficient.” This is far from how I see things.
But trashing the reputation of public services isn’t just about devastating cuts. It’s about opening the door for private firms to help themselves to whatever is left. Already, vultures are circling the expected carcasses. As the Government and its right-wing allies would have it, the private sector is more efficient, more competent and better value-for-money.

On Saturday, Polly Toynbee hinted at challenging this narrative: she referred to the frustrations she’s had with Homebase, and described witnessing a “fraught mother” being treated poorly by HSBC.

So I had an idea. Why not challenge the Government’s propaganda offensive by collecting together the many horror stories involving Britain’s private sector?

I’ll get the ball rolling. The biggy, of course, is the near-collapse of the world’s financial system, caused by the greed and incompetence of the banking industry. The consequences include a narrowly avoided (for now) Great Depression, millions of job losses and questionable prospects for economic growth for years to come. And, of course, it was the state that had to charge to the rescue. Take the United States: George ‘Lenin’ Bush was forced to undertake the biggest nationalisations in human history.

It’s going to take a few more headlines about a council-chief-executive-in-four-course-meal-at-taxpayers-expense to top that one.

Or, on a personal level, I had a weeks-long battle with Optical Express to order in the correct contact lenses. I won’t inflict the details on you – partly because reliving the trauma will end up with my keyboard as collateral damage – but needless to say, after having been their customer since the age of 10, I had no choice but to part company with them and order lenses online. Not that it was the workers’ fault – I’ve always thought there was a special place in Hell reserved for customers who yell at staff who are paid poor wages to administer a crap system devised by overpaid executives higher up the chain.

So – what are your private sector horror stories?

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About the author
Owen Jones is author of ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’, to be published by Verso in May 2011. He blogs here and tweets here.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Fight the cuts

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Reader comments


The difference is of course that if you don’t like HSBC or Optical Express, you just stop dealing with them. You take your business elsewhere.

If you have a problem with the NHS, an HMP or the immigration authorities, you can’t do that.

@2

The problem is that they’re all becoming much the same – the private sector firms are all in a race to the bottom to maximise shareholder dividends – whether that means outsourcing large chunks of the work to cheaper locations and/or replacing skilled workers with juniors who have to stick to process defined by management (many of whom don’t understand how the business operated beforehand). In the West especially, providing good customer service comes a very poor second to maximising shareholder returns – and of course maximising shareholder returns increases executive level rewards, so everyone’s happy…

Except for the poor sods like us on the shop floor, and of course, the customers.

Everyone who the right wing considers worthy is happy, anyway.

@1, sorry.

“Anyone working in the public services could easily have heard a pretty negative message from my Party: “there’s too many of you, you’re lazy and you’re inefficient.” This is far from how I see things.
But trashing the reputation of public services isn’t just about devastating cuts. It’s about opening the door for private firms to help themselves to whatever is left. Already, vultures are circling the expected carcasses. As the Government and its right-wing allies would have it, the private sector is more efficient, more competent and better value-for-money.”

Are you sure that that second paragraph was said by David Cameron? It doesn’t really sound like something he’d say.

The difference is of course that if you don’t like HSBC or Optical Express, you just stop dealing with them. You take your business elsewhere.

Not so easy when you’re dealing with a banking cartel…….

http://www.pagar.webs .com

“you just stop dealing with them”

Yeah, *just* like that. Doesn’t take any time or effort or resources whatsoever… “Let them eat cake”.

“she referred to the frustrations she’s had with Homebase”

Hahahaha – desperate stuff!

Banking is near enough a monopoly, and I must say the service from some of them is even worse than some adjuncts of the NHS. I would say the more useful distinction is not between publicly owned and privately owned but between monopoly and market. If anyone can offer the service on equal terms as the current providers, then it shouldn’t matter what ownership structure they have (public, private, co-op, charity) – they will provide a better service or fail to attract customers.

@4

Yes. David Cameron at National Consumer Council summit June 2006.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2006/jun/06/publicservices.conservatives

@cjcjc – that’s my boy – “move on, nothing to see here”

@2: “whether that means outsourcing large chunks of the work to cheaper locations”

The opening chapter or so of Marx’s Capital is taken up with his disquisition on the terrible fate that befell the previously well-paid hand-loom weavers during the industrial revolution as their work was taken over by machines.

Of course, it didn’t do to mention that with competition between textile manufacturers the consequence was cheaper clothing for proletarian markets, which brought better hygiene standards and longer life expectancy. At the start of the 19th century, average life expectancy in Britain was about 40 years. By the end, it was 50.

needless to say, after having been their customer since the age of 10, I had no choice but to part company with them and order lenses online

Well that’s rather the trick of the private sector isn’t it? You get bad service, you take your custom elsewhere. Rather harder to do with a monopoly provider.

@ 10:

“Yes. David Cameron at National Consumer Council summit June 2006.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2006/jun/06/publicservices.conservatives

I didn’t notice much in there about savage cuts, vultures circling carcasses or right-wing government allies, though.

Nationalise Homebase!

Homebase, every time!

Trying to resolve problems with your DELL computer that was so easy to but, but now it’s gone wrong nobody in Mumbai can help and the online stuff seems to apply to a completely different universe?

Trying to convince Virgin that your broadband really is crawling at dialup pace, just like many other people in your end-of-the-pipe village no matter what the ISP.

Not being able to contact BT in any way about the poor provision of infra-structure, leading to bandwidth problems as above.

Call centres, call centres, call centres…

Shorter cjcjc: “Bad customer service is fun-neeee”

@12

Apples/oranges comparison. Machined textiles gave a more consistent quality product which led to the benefits you mention. Outsourcing and replacing skill with process actively *harms* the quality of the product or service in most cases. Remember these processes are defined by people with MBAs who parachuted straight into senior management positions, not people who understand the business – another major distinction from the way things worked 50-100 years ago.

I forgot, perhaps the best one: Try buying a railway ticket. When you do, consider the public subsidy the private railways still receive.

20. Planeshift

“You can take your business elsewhere”

Rather sounds a bit like the traditional right wing response to criticisms of the state: “if you don’t like it, why don’t you move”

Standard crap bank story: Santander keep cutting my card off due to their automated fraud system picking up entirely normal transactions as “suspicious”. I tried to find out why, and what the criteria were, but apparently there aren’t any. So I just have to ring their premium rate phone line and spend half an hour sat in a queue to speak to a real person to get my card reinstated every time it happens. I’ve got £20,000 saved with them, they could at least make an effort to sort this out so that I can, you know, spend my money on food and so forth without having to ring them up every week or so.

@1 As other have hinted, the market dominance of a small number of large banks in the UK means that our choice is limited, and in practice service from all of them is just as poor. Election of public authorities is almost certainly a more effective way to ensure quality of services than appeals to “market competition” in a highly uncompetitive market. Also, agree with @7.

@8 It doesn’t matter how niche it is (though Homebase are one of the 100 largest companies in the UK, hardly “desperate stuff”), any and all examples still prove the underlying point that the private sector is not the perfect model that it is presented as by free-marketeers. These are the people that we are getting in to run our most vital services, services which for the most part work fairly well. The NHS is one of the most efficient health services in the world, as well as being one of the fairest. Generally, across the UK, almost 70 million people get their rubbish collected on a regular basis. No aspect is perfect, but to pretend that it would be otherwise under a private sector which has, over the past 15 years, done nothing but ruthlessly exploit the public sector in all its dealings with it is pure fantasy. (witness PFI, the ludicrous amounts spent on consultancy, National Express’ abdication of its contractual responsibilities regarding the East Coast Main Line.)

In the final analysis, private companies exist to make a profit. Given the same amount of funding to do the same job, they will use less of it to perform their function, or simply charge voters, now customers, more for the same services. Additionally, private sector tendering for contracts to provide services provide local monopolies, as has happened with our train system, and you as an individual will have no more choice as to who provides your services than you did under a public monopoly, except only under a public system do you have any means of retribution, by electing officials to ensure that workers do their jobs. In a system of “any willing provider” the only recourse that the government will have is to the courts, which is expensive and time consuming.

@2: “whether that means outsourcing large chunks of the work to cheaper locations”

The opening chapter or so of Marx’s Capital is taken up with his disquisition on the terrible fate that befell the previously well-paid hand-loom weavers during the industrial revolution as their work was taken over by machines.

FWIW I recommend The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy.

A lecture from the author here.

23. Torquil Macneil

I’m with cjcjc. Hands up everyone who thinks Homebase will offer better service when nationalised!

Private sector horror stories come no worse than the abomination that is rail travel in the UK. Grotesquely overpriced despite ever increasing government subsidies (including profit support for those who just aren’t making enough cash), a ticket structure that reads like Franz Kafka translated into Martian, trains that run later but have been redifined to make them appear on time for statistics and tons of work for fatcat lawyers. When Major began privatising rail the companies promised lower fares, better rolling stock and payment to the government to operate the franchises. Tie Sir Richard Bastard to the rails on the West Coast Main Line where he’ll probably die of old age before being run over by a Virgin train.

The giant problem caused by all big businesses are that they are now so big that they’ve discovered its more profitable to ignore the complaints of customers than to respond to them

25. Planeshift

On a more serious note, many people are rightly pointing out you can take your business elsewhere. For some goods this is fine and easy to do. For others (utilities, banks, etc) this is percieved to be a hassle and there are still many people who don’t switch and end up getting overcharged or a crap service. Plus to get the best deal you also end up getting tied into a long term contract – which many people on low incomes want to avoid. (See numerous consumer focus reports).

But by and large the point is that there is a corrective mechanism for bad service in the private sector- compeition. In the public sector you take it or leave it (or go private if you can afford it). This then leads to some concluding public sector =bad, private =good.

But you can have decent corrective mechanisms in the public sector too. At the senior end, elections mean governments and councillors can be voted out of office, at the lower end you can introduce complaints procedures and staff disiplinary, and you can also introduce competition between parts of the public sector by adopting market simulations in the delivery of services (parental choice for schools etc).

needless to say, after having been their customer since the age of 10, I had no choice but to part company with them and order lenses online

One of the reasons why some companies in some sectors (e.g. utilities) make so much money is ‘customer inertia’.

I find the idea of Polly Toynbee versus Homebase extremely funny.
Who doesn’t?
Wouldn’t they deliver to Tuscany?
Go Homebase!

Re the banks the obvious question to ask is why there is such a near monopoly?

There are bound to be various factors but a very significant one is the high regulatory barriers. By trying to ensure that no bank ever fails, (beyond even securing the deposits of people banking there), you encourage ever larger banks to spread that regulatory cost.

So while the current banking set up is a significant problem and several of the banks have behaved very badly, it is rather unreasonable to place all the blame on the private sector.

29. Torquil Macneil

It IS funny. The idea of seeing an upset customer in a hop and thinking ‘this would never happen if e shops were nationalised!’ I mean even Polly must have a vague memory of the USSR.

Do I detect some desparation from the trolls?

Toynbee may be ludicrous, but this thread isn’t.

Banks are private, but regulated by law.

Do you suggest we do away with laws?

I fail to see the point this post is making. “Private sector isn’t perfect 100% of the time!” Shock Horror!. It doesn’t follow that the public sector is as good or better.

This is Watchdog territory, not politics. Last I saw Anne Robinson isn’t a ranging leftie, so whats your point?

“Hands up everyone who thinks Homebase will offer better service when nationalised”

I don’t know.

But I do know if it *were* nationalised and it *did* turn out better, the True Believers in the Free Market Faith would still want it privatised because it was ‘crowding out competition’.

See also, the BBC.

33. Torquil Macneil

But I do know if it *were* nationalised and it *did* turn out better, the True Believers in the Free Market Faith would still want it privatised because it was ‘crowding out competition’.

Maybe. But be honest, how attractive do you find the idea of a supermarket run by your local council? I mean, come on …

“See also, the BBC.”

Eh?

Do you mean that we would have to pay a “DIY License Fee” to finance Homebase even if we preferred B&Q?!

35. Torquil Macneil

And the angry questions in the House over who should be appointed Homebase Director General, of why the Croydon branch has discontinued the popular Lilac Breeze range of lampshades!

LLoyds TSB gave me deliberatly confusing signals about cooling off periods for opening/closing accounts (that I subsequently change my mind about. When I did get an apology. They blamed me for being confused.

Npower: When they interupted my electricity supply and my house alarm failed to work, the customer services denied any responsibility and quote. “Now we are private, don’t think you can have an uninterupted supply of electricity cos you won’t”

37. Torquil Macneil

“Now we are private, don’t think you can have an uninterupted supply of electricity cos you won’t””

You think that is bad! I contacted the council recently to complain about some poorly managed roadworks and I was told: ‘this is the state sector and you are lucky that you are not driven into a gulag for opposing us as you surely will be once our communistic designs are finally realised!’

Amazing.

Yeah ‘cos we never had any power cuts before, did we?
No, sir.

And how very dare those engineers not work on live cables!

What’s the point?

The difference between public and private sector here is that if public sector organizations screw up, it’s a problem for everyone who uses them. And it’s a problem for everyone who finances them, and that means all of us, because we’re all forced, by power of law and violence, to pay taxes to support the public services.

If private sector organizations screw up, you are free not to use their services. Use your money for something else; either a competitor in same business, or just buy something else. You do not have to pay them.

Of course, everything is not black and white; some public services are voluntary to use, and some private services get some public funding one way or another, and yes I know bankers suck, but still, there is a fundamental difference.

“In a political campaign with few parallels in modern times for either genius or audacity, this axis has transformed one of the greatest private sector disasters in human history into a crisis of public spending.”

This about sums it up.

Private sector horror stories? How about the letting agents for our first rented home promising to check the boiler before we moved in, failing to do so, and so moving us and our baby into a house with a gas leak? That was a good one. But of course I could dredge up loads of more trivial ones – Dixons keeping me hanging on for four weeks for delivery of a computer that was actually discontinued, etc etc. The usual “we’ve got your money and we bet you can’t be bothered jumping through the hoops it’ll take to pursue a complaint/close your account/switch providers” stuff.

A statistic I thought was quite telling was this: around 12% of staff of the bloated, bureaucratic NHS are in management and admin. The average in a streamlined, efficient private organisation is around 15%.

41. Arthur Seaton

Here’s a private sector horror story – this country’s train compaines. Everything about them. A prime example of the waste, inefficiency, unaccountability and incompetence of the eprivate sector.

Shorter cjcjc & torquil: “heresy! burn the witch!”

@36 Re NPower: Firstly, did you get that in writing? If you did you now have them over a public relations disaster barrel and I’m sure they will be very cooperative in future. Secondly, your argument might be more persuasive if we had had a copper bottomed service when it was in the public sector. Power cuts were much more frequent when it was all in public sector hands.

@30 “Banks are private, but regulated by law.

Do you suggest we do away with laws?”

Straw man tastic! The point, which I can only assume you are deliberately avoiding, is that some laws and regulations have unintended consequences. If these unintended consequences are problematic then it is likely to be worth reviewing them to sort these issues out.

44. Witless pseudo- libertarian piss-streak

If you don’t like train companies – you can drive! Or walk!

45. Torquil Macneil

“Here’s a private sector horror story – this country’s train compaines. ”

I assume this is from someone too young to remember the glory days of British Rail.

British Rail, which cost 25% of what the current set-up does.

And, like the nationalised water / power utilities, massively underinvested in its own infrastructure for decades.

48. Torquil Macneil

British Rail which took two and a half hours in an un-air-conditioned ashtray to carry me on a journey that I did yesterday in 50 minutes with an internet connection and power supply, delivere to the sumptuous surroundings of St Pancras rather than some crumbling, damp and dreary little hole as per the good old days.I suppose it depends lot on your particular experiences or length of memory how you view this.

Yes, damn British Rail for not inventing Wi-Fi!

I’ve had the nightmare of dealing with HMRC – call centres, call centres, call centres.

I’ve had the nightmare of dealing with the NHS – fob off, fob off, fob off.

I’ve had the nightmare of dealing with my bank – call centres, call centres, call centres.

I’ve had the nightmare of dealing with private businesses – fob off, fob off, fob off.

Both sectors are now pretty much as bad as each other.

Both public and private sectors suck, and both – just like the political parties here – appear to be run by vermin!

This country seems like it’s up shit creek without a paddle.

51. Torquil Macneil

“Yes, damn British Rail for not inventing Wi-Fi!”

You can’t have it both ways, if the privatised rail companies are to be blamed for their inefficiencies they should be credited with their achievements. Some comparisons are very simple though. Remember trying to eat something on BR train? Trying to buy something other than a newspaper at the station?

52. Torquil Macneil

I’ve noticed that too, Mr X, everything just gets worse and worse. It starts with the pop music, which these days is little more than noise!

“they should be credited with their achievements”

So, Midland Mainline invented wireless internet?

You read it here first!

54. Torquil Macneil

You will notice Neil that the point I was making was about speed, comfort and cleanliness.

But if you want to see he difference very clearly illustrated in another way, pop down to Kings Cross. Look at the squalid building that BR vandalised that beautiful station with and compare with the beauty that the wicked private sector is currently erecting.

55. thomas jones

Judging by the comments below, it’s considered ‘right wing’ and thus somehow unarguably bad, to point out that you benefited from the capitalist system because you were able to change your provider. It may be right wing, but it also seems to be….well……right….

Is the point of this post – and the wankfest of a comment section – merely that anecdotal evidence is generally an unreliable method for judging hypotheses?

Anyway, my local Woolworths wouldn’t serve me yesterday. And they had a meager range of products.

“You will notice Neil that the point I was making was about speed, comfort and cleanliness.”

Why did you mention Wi-Fi, then?

Guys, you’re missing the bigger picture – public or private, the chief reason there is bad service is because from banks to council offices the staff are all British. The British just don’t do good service, it’s beneath them. Everybody knows that.

59. Torquil Macneil

Ben, I think the point is that Polly Toynbee is just very funny when she makes her pronouncements about us yokels ad our shopping habits from her Tuscan idyll.

I’m sorry about you problems with Woolies, by the way, I guess you will have to resign yourself to a life without Cadbury’s Selction Boxes, unless we can persuade the Ministry for Confectionery to take an interest.

60. Torquil Macneil

“Why did you mention Wi-Fi, then?”

Why not?

“Why not?”

Because Wi-Fi didn’t exist until after BR ceased to.

62. Torquil Macneil

Scooby,you can get the level of service you choose to pay for. Just about every complain ton here has been from someone who has opted for a cheaper product at the cost of reduced service provision. When I buy from Dell, that is my calculation. I know I can go to John Lewis and get great service, advice and a no quibble refund etc but I will pay 20% more for the computer. Same goes all over.

The difference with a nationalised system is that the state makes that calculation for you according to its own criteria and current political priorities. It will work out for some but won’t cater for others.

59

Oh, I didn’t want to buy anything. I was just looking for material.

64. Torquil Macneil

“Because Wi-Fi didn’t exist until after BR ceased to.”

I am not to mention things that were invented after the dismantling of British Rail?

“I am not to mention things that were invented after the dismantling of British Rail?”

If you’re going to berate BR for not providing them, er, yes.

66. Torquil Macneil

Neil, I was talking about sped, comfort and cleanliness. Three things that BR signally failed to provide. I could have mentioned edible sandwiches and (notoriously) pork pies too. The Wi-Fi is just the cherry on top. although I doubt anyone who remembers BR will have much confidence that they would ever have managed to get that arranged (it is a slightly bigger challenge than putting in an order for pies).

“Neil, I was talking about sped, comfort and cleanliness.”

And Wi-Fi. Anyone who wants to check can just scroll up, you realise?

Silly boy.

68. Torquil Macneil

If you say so Neil, if you say so.

69. Cheesy Monkey

Being a temp sure throws up some good ‘uns…

Like the time I was let go due to ‘poor performance’ after working at the same site for four months, which curiously was the day before I had a scheduled hernia operation.

Like the fact that the longest I can work at any site is 11 months, because if I work any longer, I’m entitled to the same at-work benefits as permanent staff, and that will not do for my corporate overlords.

Like that those of us on longer-term (i.e., up to 11 months) temporary contracts are often tempted to endure the length of the contract with promises of permanent employment… which never materialises.

Like that I have a half hour lunch break, which is not enough time to leave the office, buy lunch and return.

Like if I have a day off sick, I am required to get a sick note written and signed by the doctor (note: not from a nurse or reception staff) in order to claim statutory sick pay, even though a that-day appointment is unheard of at my doctors and that a sick note costs £12 if you’ve been off work for less than seven days. And then it’s up to the discretion of payroll to process this.

Like the time when most of us in the department were berated for our ‘disappointing’ utilisation levels (i.e., the time spent in any given day working on actual billable work) because we were nowhere near a certain ‘golden boy’ who had a (quite frankly) impossible 136% daily utilisation – this guy clocked out on shift end and had always toaken his lunch breaks.

I could be here all week…

BR was much cheaper to the user and tax payer.
BR’s ticket structure was much simpler.
The franchisees promised the government that ticket prices would be lower than under BR and that they would pay for the franchises NOT require subsidy from the state.
The infrastructure is still owned by the state in the form of Network Rail after the disaster of Railtrack.
Those franchises that have gone bankrupt and have had to be run by the state have run cheaper and more efficiently (and are going to be reprivatised because they expose the dogma as failure).
Masses of lawyers are employed to apportion blame for the failures.

BUT the trains have been painted pretty colours.

Continuously harping on about how you can ‘go elsewhere’ in the private sector misses the point entirely.

We have a government that is committed to the idea that the Private Sector is always more efficient and less beauracratic than the public sector. This thread is designed to make the point that it isn’t.

When you replace a public service (like the Railways or the Health Service) with a private sector alternative you can’t ‘go elsewhere.’ I am not free to choose a different train company if my train to work is late. You are reliant on the government to choose the best Private sector provider to do the job. The problem is that they don’t, they choose whoever donated the most to the Party or who is likely to give them a seat on the board of directors.

It is simply not true that public sector is better than private sector or vice versa, there are good and bad examples of both. The problem is that we cannot trust this government to privatise properley, and all their claims of how wonderful the private sector is will not change that.

72. Planeshift

“NPower: Firstly, did you get that in writing? If you did you now have them over a public relations disaster barrel and I’m sure they will be very cooperative in future. ”

A few years ago I did some market research on switching suppliers for a well known consumer organisation.One of the things we found about switching was an energy company would do the following to retain customers who had switched following a sales visit from a rival.

They would send a door to door team to the customer, knock on their door, and announce they were from a “fraud prevention team” investigating recent sales activity. They would tell the customer they had been defrauded and were at risk of being cut off, but not to worry as all they had to do was sign a sheet and they would still get their electricity in the future. Customer was then retained.

If this didn’t work, they would send another team who would use agressive sales tactics to retain them. If the salesman (and it was usually a man) didn’t get them to stay, he would say “Ok, your electricity card is the property of our company – so I am taking it away, and you’ll have to wait for the new company to deliver it for you”

Not suprisingly, for people on pre-pay meters (already being overcharged) this worked and explained why the company retained a local monopoly.

Their response to this was to threaten legal action if we published. Libel costs alone mean we were not going to threaten the future of the organisation.

So it’s naive to think that Robert has n-power over a PR barrel.

73. Cynical/Realist?

@cjcjc – have you stopped taking your medicines again?

74. Cynical/Realist?

In many industries that are privatised there are still monopolies – you still cannot often just ‘shop around’. Take the water, rail and welfare services – contracts are competitivly tendered, but they allocate (very often) local/regional monopoloies.

Do you think in a privatised healthcare system if you were unhappy with your local brain surgeon you’d just look up another on Yell?

Also, unlike the public sector there is then no way of controlling, as an example, salaries. A private sector company could have 100% of its revenues coming from the tax-payer, but there will never be any accountability about how many of their execs earn more than the Prime Minister (which is a red herring anyway as everyone knows in comparative terms MPs and the PM get a low salary when compared to the rates of pay in the private sector).

75. Torquil Macneil

“We have a government that is committed to the idea that the Private Sector is always more efficient and less beauracratic than the public sector. This thread is designed to make the point that it isn’t.”

You are too trusting. No government is anti-government. do not expect to see any withering away of the state any time soon. The hoo hah is just about which bits of the state are preferred, which special interests and constituencies are served.

76. Andrew Duffield

I’ve had scores of bad private sector experiences, and every time I’ve taken my custom elsewhere. It’s called free market competition and it’s brilliant.

77. Cheesy Monkey

You are too trusting. No government is anti-government. do not expect to see any withering away of the state any time soon. The hoo hah is just about which bits of the state are preferred, which special interests and constituencies are served.

Or, in translation:

“I’m a libertarian—hear me fart.”

I’ve always found that most public sector workers try to do a decent job. However, the differnce between the public and private sector is not just that people can take their custom elsewhere if they get bad service. The person can be sacked for not doing their job properly which gives them an incentive to do their job properly. When are public sector workers ever dismissed because they simply are not very good at their job? Sure, they are sacked for disciplinary offences, but when are they ever sacked for being crap at the job? When was the last teacher sacked for being not a very good teacher? Are useless police officers routinely joining the dole queues? Same with the NHS where people are sacked for disciplinary incidents but no one ever seems to be let go because they do not do a good job. Is it reasonable to assume that public sector employers interview so effectively that they only employ good workers? Just a normal distribution of crap workers and good workers across the population should see the public sector employ a fair share of crap workers. So why do they not sack them?

Don et al

I think you guys really need to have a chat with Sunny when you get back. This is totally ridiculous. There are nearly 80 responses to this thread and about three are private sector horror stories.

There’s nothing wrong with people of all different political viewpoints debating together, but pretty much every thread on LibCon is now derailed from the very start and just degenerates into a slanging match.

Can I suggest that you get stricter with modding off-topic comments?

80. Cheesy Monkey

I’ve had scores of bad private sector experiences, and every time I’ve taken my custom elsewhere. It’s called free market competition and it’s brilliant.

No, it’s called ‘being a consumer’, wanknads. My bad private sector experience is my current employer and most of my previous ones. If I ‘took my custom’ elsewhere, I’d be unemployed and claiming benefits. Just the sort of thing you armchair capitalists despise.

On British Rail: I seem to remember travelling to “the glory that is St.Pancras” on British Rail(ways) services throughout the 1960s. Yes, it looks lovely now it’s been cleaned up. So do a lot of other buildings. Yes, the British Railways catering was crap. So was a lot of other catering in the outside world in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

The public sector has had years of under-investment, either because there wasn’t the money (mainly under Labour) or it was deliberately allowed to wither through lack of funds (under the Tories; who then publicly rubbished it). Even then, the old BR managed to modernise the West Coast Main Line with 100mph speeds in the 1960s and 1970s, and introduce the High Speed Trains (HSTs) with regular 125mph services in the 1970s and 1980s. Many travellers prefer the remaining HSTs when they can get them in comparison to Virgin’s Pendolinos or Cross-Country’s Voyagers. Trains are faster now – but that’s because the technology has changed, not specifically because the provider is in the private sector. If you want to see fast, comfortable trains, go to Germany. Their ICEs (Inter-City express) trains would make VT’s Pendolinos shrivel up and die of shame. Regional trains are similar. And Deutsche Bahn is (still) a publicly-owned company, and even the privatised (regional) companies there are actually mainly owned by regional governments, the State railways and the investment banks (which are also partially State-owned).

The main problem with the private sector is competition – because any complaint about poor service IS met by the response that “well, you can always take your business elsewhere”. I have a saying – “Freedom of choice is the last refuge of the incompetant”. If the public secor performs badly, then there is scandal and outcry and perhaps a few token sackings and (eventually) someone grasps the nettle and makes chages that force improvements. If the private sector performs badly, then who cares, because “you are free to choose your service provider”. And so we get the situation we see today, when (surprise, surprise!) Ofgem announce that power companies are generally considered all to be as bad as each other, and competition is a sham because whichever supplier you choose, you get shafted.

Hey, I can see a pattern here (well several actually, but the trolling responses ad absurdium is of a lot less interest).

All the complaints, with the exception of Ms Toynbee’s against Homebase, seem to be against companies whose existence is garunteed by government – utilities, rail franchises, now banks.

So basically we are complaining about companies which have no real incentive to worry about customer loyalty or the like, because they have no fear from competition, because they are not truly offering a service to us. They pay the government for the right to exist and take money from us.

Now take the supermarkets, obvious villians of many pieces. How many complaints have mentioned them (I could complain my local Coop never has the stock I want on a Tuesday night, but that is because of their delivery structure and stock room size, and the manager has promised me he is trying to sort out the shortfall problem)? Because they are in a free market, with minimal government interference, they have an incentive to care about people and how those people feel about them – even as they are screwing you over for the last penny, they are trying to make you feel good about it, and will spend some of those pennies on service.

Now take the railways – if I want to get from here to my parents, I can only travel by one train company most of the way, and another the rest of the way (technically I could cut out the first by making three journeys on slower trains at greater cost, but still). This appears to be what is called a monopoly, because there is almost no competition on most routes. Interestingly, if I want to go to London, with four companies offering alternatives, price and service both get a lot better… I wonder what causes that.

So there are two lessons I would draw from this thread. The first is that if governement starts acting to allow companies to exist – effectively removing the element of market choice from people – then you will find that those private companies act like arms of government – even if there is a limited market, since there is no inducement to engage in serious risk taking if you can divide the market between you. If you want better railways or utilities or banks, then get government out of there – markets work, but they do not work for the consumer if government is skewing them to the producer interests.

And the second lesson is that Owen’s idea is rather silly, since it just points out that the state is more involved with the really unpopular private sectors than it is with others, which might make the other side’s argument for it. Ultimately, it is all very well to complain about capitalist oligopolies, but you have to realise that this is not what the government is proposing (albeit I remain uncertain as to whether this is what they are effecting).

No, it’s called ‘being a consumer’, wanknads. My bad private sector experience is my current employer and most of my previous ones. If I ‘took my custom’ elsewhere, I’d be unemployed and claiming benefits. Just the sort of thing you armchair capitalists despise.

I assume you are looking for a job other than temping then? Which is exactly what a free marketeer would suggest.

Anyway, please note consumption and employment are different things (and those in favour of a free market in consumption are not always those in favour of a free market in employment).

Incidentally, can you be an armchair capitalist? Surely to be a capitalist you have to actually invest money (at which point I suppose you could sit back in an armchair if you wish…)?

In fact Tesco etc are not especially profitable companies.

They earn a 6.8% return on assets, ie for every £1 they invest the make a profit of 6.8p.

Their net profit margin is 4.2%, ie for every £1 in sales they make (after everything inc tax) 4.2p.

85. Cheesy Monkey

I assume you are looking for a job other than temping then? Which is exactly what a free marketeer would suggest.

Of course. But I can’t just up sticks and leave, because there are very few permanent jobs in my direct line of work (or indeed in related fields) and haven’t been for over three years. ‘Take your custom elsewhere’ doesn’t really work in this instance, as I can’t just walk into another job, or relocate on a whim, or take a drastic cut in pay. In fact the concept of ‘take your custom elsewhere’ most often does not exist in the real world.

Robert,

And so we get the situation we see today, when (surprise, surprise!) Ofgem announce that power companies are generally considered all to be as bad as each other, and competition is a sham because whichever supplier you choose, you get shafted.

But if people don’t exercise their freedom of choice – customer inertia – companies lose an incentive to make an effort to keep them. It isn’t the be-all-and-end-all*, of course, but in the retail banking and utilities sectors it is said by the respective regulators to be an important issue.

(* some companies have made it difficult to switch, for example)

87. Cheesy Monkey

In fact Tesco etc are not especially profitable companies.

Of course they are—they’re a high-volume business (loads of small-profit sales) as opposed to a high-margin business (fewer sales, but of high-profit items). It’s why Tesco makes over £1bn a year – but to do that, it has to be everywhere.

Cheesy Monkey,

I tend to agree with the lack of options to take your business/labour elsewhere – but that is why I support free markets (because they make it much more likely that a new opportunity will arise to do so) rather than state intervention.

cjcjc,

Most retail operations have slim margins – normally a result of competition I believe. I suspect the banks (apart from when they get it wrong), utilities and train companies have much more noticeable margins for some reason…

I’ve had scores of bad private sector experiences, and every time I’ve taken my custom elsewhere. It’s called free market competition and it’s brilliant.

But not so brilliant that it prevents you having scores of bad experiences with the private sector.

In the spirit of the thread (sorry I went well of topic earlier):

I use First Great Western trains (who are by no means the worst train company) to get to and from work. The station I use is unmanned and has one ticket machine. Periodically (at least once a month) it stops working. When that happens you have to get a ticket on the train, but the ticket inspector rarely makes it more than half way through the first carriage which means you have to queue up at a single window at the final station to get a ticket, probably making you late for work.

On one occasion the ticket machine wasn’t working for over a week. Eventually I phoned up their helpline number and discovered that the reason it hadn’t been fixed was that nobody knew it was broken. I had mentioned it to ticket inspectors on the train at least twice.

The Privatised rail networks love to slap up posters warning about penalty fairs if we travel without a ticket, but they don’t seem to be up to the job of actually selling one.

91. Planeshift

@86 – which is why there is a crucial role for the regulator, and why we need legislation on price transparency and for that matter libel law reform so I can name the company concerned earlier.

92. Torquil Macneil

“and why we need legislation on price transparency and for that matter libel law reform so I can name the company concerned earlier.”

I don’t see what is stopping you naming the company right now, if you are not libelling them. I support reform but it isn’t for cases like this. If you have evidence, publish and be damned.

planeshift,

which is why there is a crucial role for the regulator, and why we need legislation on price transparency and for that matter libel law reform so I can name the company concerned earlier.

Two different things – the existence of a regulator purely indicates that government know there is a problem with the system and need a champion to protect the consumer, which would surely be better dealt with by changing the system to ensure there was no need for a regulator and that any problems could be dealt with in the normal way (i.e. through law, or at least civil action).

But legislation on price transparancy and libel reform would be excellent ideas – it makes it so much easier to have a free market if you actually have information. Wierdly, again it is the banks, utilities, train companies etc that are the worst for price transparency (and possibly the most litigous about libel, although I don’t know that for sure).

Utility returns are of course highly regulated.

E.ON’s ROA for example is 4.0%.

Their margins are slightly higher (7.6%) but of course they are more capital intensive than Tesco.

It’s the ROA wot counts – ie sales x margin / invested capital.

How much you have to invest in the first place to generate the sales to give you a return on that investment will determine the margin you need to make it worthwhile in the first place.

In contrast Apple’s ROA is 15.5%, net margin 14.4%.
Johnson and Johnson 16% and 20%.

cjcjc,

Please note Apple and Johnson and Johnson are both primarily manufacturers – returns (and risks) are traditionally higher in that field. Due to branding, both can also effectively live (in the short term) off monopolies – but this does not preclude competion. It is not really a compable with retail operations or whatever the hell you call the utilities and train companies.

Absolutely.

I was just trying to show that neither supermarkets nor utilities are highly profitable, relative to the amount of cash they need to invest in their businesses.

Competition holds down the returns of the former, regulation of the latter.

Hi Ellie,

“Can I suggest that you get stricter with modding off-topic comments?”

We’re on light touch moderation for this week, at Sunny’s request, but will review when he gets back. With hindsight, Team Libertarian Rapid Response were always likely to troll an article which criticises their beloved private sector, and they trolled your comic relief article – but I think most of the other articles in the last few days have stayed reasonably on topic in the comments? (after a while, any comments thread heads off in its own direction).

In my case I can not take my custom elsewhere. I was until recently a client of A4e and despite their repeated failure across at least five work programmes under Labour, they are still the biggest winners in the awarding of Welfare to Work contracts under the Coalition ‘Work Programme’ work programme.

For the free-market to work, assault would have to be legalised.

Mason,

Might I suggest if you had the choice of providers, you could have gone elsewhere? The problem there is a lack of market – government awards you as a contract, rather than giving you the resource to spend on any provider who you feel suits you.

Free markets do not allow you to be told who will provide for you – that is a result of incomplete and frankly crap part privitisation.

“Team Libertarian Rapid Response”

AKA trackback #3

“Do you think in a privatised healthcare system if you were unhappy with your local brain surgeon you’d just look up another on Yell?”

That is exactly what you can do at the moment if you go privately, so yes that is what could happen. In a world closer to the one proposed by the proposed reforms your fund holding GP could make that descision on your behalf based on getting the best results for those people in his practice, with you having the option of moving to a different GP (and so moving your money) if you had reason not to trust his judgement. That would be a system rather closer to the way that it works in France (the world’s best health system) which is insurance based with multiple competing providers than in the NHS monopoly (one of the worst systems in the developed world).

@100 – Yes, exactly. We need some kind of alarm which goes off when Tim Worstall links to one of Libcon’s posts, so we can get ready to repel trolls.

I think the original OP fell into the trap of responding to the other side’s agenda.

While it may be useful to have some good examples to throw at anyone who comes up with private=good,public=bad nonsense, there are bigger sticks to hit back with.

For a start, as has been suggested above by more thoughtful posters, the public sector is publicly accountable and transparent. How many freedom ‘n’ truth loving free marketeers out there feel it would be tolerable that essential services paid for thriough the public purse should be run secretively?

Another pet hate of mine are marketing wonks whose inane antics are ubiquitous in the private sector. The bollocks they come up with that’s supposed to attract me is repellant. Look at GuruTV by O2, which is supposed to help me use their services. What I actually want is services that work and people who can help me if they don’t. Instead I get a wanky YouTube video to make me angrier.

Several people have mentioned BR and the privatised railways.

The case I would like to put forward is the safety record of privatised railway contractors and maintenance teams. When BR was privatised, the job of track ownership was handed from the national interest to the private company, Railtrack. They then managed the programme of routine maintenance and outsourced track works to other private companies such as Jarvis. Subsequent train crashes at Hatfield and Potters Bar were found to be due to inadequate programme managemenet by Railtrack and inadequate track maintenance by these private companies. Both incidents resulted in the loss of life. Ultimately they lead to the effective re-nationalisation of the nation’s rail infrastructure.

(Arguably other incidents could be included in this assessment of private rail work. For example at Ladbroke Grove, a head-on collision occured following a train passing a signal at danger. It is thought that this occured because the driver had not been taught the complexities of the recently replanned signalling system at this point and that he could not see the signal in question. 8 other trains had passed this particular signal at danger in the preceding years and Railtrack had not taken any action to resolve this known problem.)

So, in my view, this loss of life demonstrates that the rail network should not have been privatised.

Cheers

Nick

@101 I’ve got a lovely bridge for sale if you’re interested.

I can’t help but feel that Team Libetarian Rapid Response seems an unlikely idea – who would organise it, and how would they decide what was important? You do realise libertarians are about as good at organising themselves as their left-wing equivalents, anarchists?

For a mainly capitalist-bashing thread like this, I would expect to see libertarians not opposing blindly, but actually doing what I was doing (albeit I do not think I am quite a libertarian) in advocating a free market without state intervention or monopolies of any sort (for the upteenth time round here, libertarians do not like capitalism unless it is in a free market – anything else restricts freedom).

Mind you, I bet Team Libertarian Rapid Response have really good kit…

Hmmm. Of course, having a bad experience with a railway company (say) doesn’t mean that you will always have a bad experience with that railway company, nor does that mean everybody else has had, or will always have, a bad experience. The worst is quite often taken for the norm. Same goes for public services; just because your great Annie died in Little Pillington hospital (before it closed) doesn’t mean everyone has lost a dearest in that hospital or any other one.

Saying you can take your business elsewhere is all well & good but what if it’s not a regular thing; going to an optician, yes, but shopping round for a mortgage isn’t something you do every day, and you could spend a whole heap of your lifetime sorting out the fallout from their crap services. There’s a difference.

So, my recent crap service? Bought a train ticket on the internet, opted for collect at station, collected one too few tickets. Tough luck on me, had to buy another one. Same thing happened to Simon Hoggart in the Guardian, he got his money back but that was because he’d mentioned it in his column and I’m not Simon Hoggart.

Cherub,

For a start, as has been suggested above by more thoughtful posters, the public sector is publicly accountable and transparent. How many freedom ‘n’ truth loving free marketeers out there feel it would be tolerable that essential services paid for thriough the public purse should be run secretively?

I’m in total agreement on this (other than the bit about the public sector being transparent – but I’d agree that should be as well).

Another pet hate of mine are marketing wonks whose inane antics are ubiquitous in the private sector. The bollocks they come up with that’s supposed to attract me is repellant. Look at GuruTV by O2, which is supposed to help me use their services. What I actually want is services that work and people who can help me if they don’t. Instead I get a wanky YouTube video to make me angrier.

Hmmm. Another company that works by buying the right to exist from government, and then seeking customers – a bit more of a free market than say water companies or railways, but again not really a free market. Isn’t it odd how you don’t seem to get the same level of inanity from those actually in free(r – lack of transparency is a problem) markets.

For a start, as has been suggested above by more thoughtful posters, the public sector is publicly accountable and transparent.

No, it isn’t. That’s why we have, among other things, a Freedom of Information Act, and an Information Commissioner’s Office to try to enforce it (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

That aside, one of the silly things about these threads is the degeneration into people shouting at each other from either end of the spectrum – actually, this was initiated in the OP – people taking absolute positions. But not all the private sector is good or bad and not all the public sector is good or bad. Is it beyond our wit to take the best and get rid of the worst? Are we able (and willing) to establish what is the best means of serving the ‘consumer’ what he wants or needs in particular circumstances?

110. Torquil Macneil

“With hindsight, Team Libertarian Rapid Response were always likely to troll an article which criticises their beloved private sector, and they trolled your comic relief article

It’s such a pity that the word ‘troll’ has lost its distinctive meaning and now just signifies ‘someone with whom I disagree’ or ‘opponent in argument’.

@ Ellie Mae

Can I suggest that you get stricter with modding off-topic comments?

Don’t worry, uncle Sunny won’t be gone for long.

Why not just tell us what topics you’d like to ban discussion of until he gets back.

ITYF ‘troll’ means ‘one who whines when their trolling bluff is called’.

113. Torquil Macneil

A fine piece of question begging by Neil.

Oh, sorry torquil, was I talking to you?

Logic lessons & condescension from the guy who thinks BR were rubbish for not providing wireless internet. Priceless.

He’s not a troll though, mmkay?

Get a room.

Neil – Torquil is not actually Trolling in that his arguments are germane to the post (you may not think them any good, but no definition of Troll I know requires intelligent or reasoned argument, or 95% of comments are trolling…).

And as to ‘was I talking to you’, can I assume you are thirteen? Otherwise you may want to reflect yes you were – you were posting to anyone who cared to read your comment…

You know, I miss Sally sometimes. The standard of inane opinionated commenting (on both sides…) seems a bit low nowadays.

Ooof, another touchy one…

I didn’t think Torquil’s postings were anything but trolling, as he and cjcjc were trying to deflect people from discussing private sector failures and ideas for opposing the ideologically-driven privatisation of our public services.

The pity is that they were not ignored.

Cherub,

To be fair you may be right – the problem is that the thread is really quite a silly idea, and far too easy to poke fun at.

If it’s so easy to poke fun at, how come the trolls did such an awful job?

That’s enough now from cjcjc and Torquil. Pls no more discussion of trolling, let’s stick to private sector horror stories.

Pagar

Way to prove my point there.

What many of the private sector fetishists miss is the fact that some private sector companies act in a virtual monopoly. Many people have pointed out that the banking industry is a de facto monopoly, not just because the few big players get to dictate terms, but the banking concept is pretty well ingrained in our lives. When I started work, I got a wage packet! Not a ‘wage slip’ but a full wage packet with my entire wage in pounds and pence in an envelope. You could, if you wanted, run your entire life in pure cash terms. You could pay bills etc at the company you had dealings with. Now you simply cannot reasonably run your life without a current account. So, unlike jaffa cakes or Homebase you cannot simply walk away. Your life is simply tied up in the banking industry. To switch bank accounts is just crazy hard. Unlike buying your tins of paint from B&Q, you have to switch your entire life around for a couple of weeks. Hence people end up with huge bank charges. If you could simply walk away from banking they would never drive people into hundreds of pounds worth of debt, because people would just switch to getting their wages via a pay packet, but of course your employer would never give you the option because the banks have got it all sewn up.

Insurance and especially car insurance is another nightmare. Again, once you have signed the contract, that is it, you are tied in to them. Once you cannot get through to the call centre and the call centre is treating you with utter contempt, then what? You cannot ‘take your business elsewhere once you need to make a claim, because your car is a wreckage/stolen and the small print does not allow you a company car for ‘this reason or that’. You are getting shoddy service and you have no recourse, because you simply cannot just cancel and walk away. Same with utilities. Okay, we would like to move off grid, but lets face it, we all need gas and/or electricity and the big suppliers all know that. They have a captive audience. Why can’t I get a single price for gas? If I buy a packet of wagon wheels, I know how many I get and the price I pay. I do not pay less for a wagon wheel after ten o’clock or at the weekend, nor does the first two cost this much the next this much and the final lot that much. Yet with my gas that is all out the window. Why has the ‘free market’ not sorted all that out for me? Is it possible that there is a de facto cartel where the big suppliers know they would simply have to compete on a race to the bottom if they spelled out their prices in a transparent way?

Private sector horror stories? Too many to mention, but from the top of my head? What about Thalimiade? Once your child was deformed via the flawed testing procedure, what was your ‘free market’ remedy? You could have tried another morning sickness pill, but that was unlikely to restore your child’s limbs was it? What if you where born with missing or incomplete limbs? Then what? The private sector had fucked you over, but unlike the guy who bought a dodgy shed from B&Q your life was in tatters and there was nothing you could do about it, via the ‘free market’.

Okay, another one. The Heralder Free Enterprise. Again someone decided that a good way of upping turnover was to leave port with the bow doors open, yet for some reason, once you where on the ship and the boat was sinking, you stopped being a valued customer and became, if you were lucky, a survivor in a boating tragedy. Your and you valued custom became worthless at that point because you cannot simply move to a new service halfway through the sinking can, you? Yet a bad business decision left you in a horrible place. Where was the ‘free market’ solution there?

Here’s a few examples of our consumer economy where the customer always comes first

Only masochists buy from Curry’s, PC World, Comet etc. Consumer legislation means nothing to these companies

BT: Think your wall socket’s faulty? It’ll cost you £130 if the engineer decides it isn’t

Tesco: The choice of goods for delivery grows ever smaller. This is deliberate policy by Tesco who use customer information to restrict the range of goods, trying to bounce customers into buying more profitable ranges. Numerous complaints about soon to expire items being delivered. Drivers now have a whole six minutes per delivery. This company takes one pound in every seven spent in British shops.

EDF: A couple of years ago the UK arm of this French energy companies raised UK prices by 40%, the French government only allowed them to raise their French prices by 5%.

A Major Flat Pack Furniture Retailer against whom I have an active complaint. A set of lights shorted out scorching the cabinet they were in. Response: we can’t do anything without the receipt.

Bank accounts that last a year before the interest rate is cut and a new account appears but the bank forgets to tell the customers of the account now paying 0.05% APR

I’ve lost track of complaints precedures that require hours of phone button pushing and listening to 80s power ballads that I hated the first time before finally speaking to someone in Hyderabad who insists his name is Gary and who has an excessive knowledge of football and soap operas despite an accent that wouldn’t be out of place in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and ambient background noise louder than a steel factory. That’s if I’m lucky, usually calls of complaint are mysteriously cut off just as I think I might get somewhere. Long ago, phones may have been engaged but eventually you did speak to someone who actually worked for the firm you had a problem with not some self-hating impoverished cubicle rat sticking to a corporate script

Big business is now so big it simply doesn’t give a damn about customer service. Disgruntled customers are of no interest as their complaints cost more to remedy than the business they lose from these people taking their business to one of their competitors offering equally bad service

Jim,

I think I’ve been pointing out the problem of state-licensed monopolies (normally slightly competing oligopolies to be fair) quite a lot – because that is the source of much that is wrong. Limited competion and artificial barriers to transferring your custom.

Although I wouldn’t say that about the insurance market – it is quite easy to change your insurance at the end of a year’s cover (I’ve done it four years in five – the fifth they gave me an improved offer which with the good service persauded me to stay for a year more). And if you get caught out by small print, you probably had the wrong insurance – which is your responsibility, since you tell the insurers what you want insuring!

The point about prices for gas is basically the price transparency issue – it should be easy to see what you are getting, but there sometimes seems to be attempts to make it hard (or to bamboozle you by offering complex packages). The reason the market has not fixed this is that it is not really a market – regulation and the stupid way the system was privitised are not exactly ideal.

As to your horror stories – Herald of Free Enterprise was indeed a bad thing. It was also illegal (a key point). And Thalidimide was approved by government before it could be sold. It was assumed to be safe on that basis.

So your examples are basically of government-sponsored industries (or industries where government determines safety), with one illegal act thrown in, and a rather strange complaint about the car insurance industry which suggests you need to realise that you do not need to take the automatic renewal (and to check that what you are driving is covered by your insurance).

Schmidt,

I notice these don’t seem to be your examples? Apart from the one where you can’t prove purchase because you didn’t have your proof of purchase…

These are ALL personal examples

Christ, you have a lot of bad luck.

Although my suspicion is that Comet/PC World is on the way out, probably due to poor service (I only buy things I can set up, and return under statutory rights if necessary, from them due to their ineptness).

By focussing on private sector consumer failures you’re missing a much larger point. The greater private sector myth is that every pound spent, every muscle stretched is in the cause of UK plc. No waste, no bureaucracy – the market makes sure that happens – waste money and you’re in danger of being mown down by a hungry competitor.

What tosh! Go to any big sporting event and count the hospitality bashes. Tell me every pound spent on champagne is multiplied in the bottom line. Or the PR departments and the corporate responsibility departments…every sinew devoted to selling more mobile phones? – preserving market position more like.

Unregulated companies in free markets naturally progress to bloated monopolies with their own bureaucracies – does no-on read Galbraith any more?

Jim,

Why can’t I get a single price for gas? If I buy a packet of wagon wheels, I know how many I get and the price I pay. I do not pay less for a wagon wheel after ten o’clock or at the weekend, nor does the first two cost this much the next this much and the final lot that much. Yet with my gas that is all out the window. Why has the ‘free market’ not sorted all that out for me?

Energy demand management.

And I think you mean oligopoly, not monopoly.

As a medical professional I see endless private sector balls up that are picked up by the NHS with little accountability and no choice to go elsewhere despite the customer having paid healthcare premiums for many years.

1. patient diagnosed with acute inflammatory demyelination by private neruologist. required further testing (CSF sampling, MRI scan) and expensive treatment (IVIG: costs >£1000/shot). Declined private investigations or treatment by private healthcare agency as they had failrf to report an episode of ‘back pain’ they had 30 years ago. Despite private conultant’s insistence (and medical common sense) this was absurd, inusance company declined to pay for required therapy.

Patient had to be picked up by NHS for expensive, several week course of treatment. How could this patient ‘shop around’ and take his custom elsewhere?? He *might* have been able to sue the private insurance company if he had the funds to, but this would have been a drawn out and expensive process – all the while he may have become more unwell and if he had not received prompt treatment could have progressive permanent weakess or worse still developed respiratory failure and died.

The private healthcare insurance model is to avoid payment if at all possible, especially if its not a straightforward surgical operation.

2. patient has routine private day case surgical operation, had a respiratory illness at the time. A few days post op at home develops severe pneumonia and sadly picked up by the NHS, had to be treated in intensive care and passes away sometime later of complications . Tragic and rare circumstances which could happen to any sort of patient, but the surgery might have been avoidable at that time. Still, the private sector did not manage or incurr the cost of this expensive and necessary treatment.

3. Patient has elective hip surgery under private care. Developd post-operative wound infection, consultant surgeon at private hospital declines to get involved, and passes on medical advice to patient via secretary. Various courses of antibiotics later -some of which interact with patient’s regular medications (but they have been told to take them by a SECRETARY, who has no knowledge of drug interactions), there is no improvement. Desperate, the patient then has to go and see their GP, and then be referred to an NHS hospital for further investigations and interventions – why? because the private hospital does not want to know about complications, and has no facility to review such cases on an ad hoc basis. Who picks up the bill? The NHS

Patient then needs private physiotherapy which is supposed to be included in their healthcare plan. Sees physio who spends an hour re-clerking the patient without the patient’s medical history or notes (even though its the same private hospital where the surgery was). Guess what? The patient’s physio budget is exhausted by this hour long interview and has no private rehabilitation as promised.

If you have already paid your premium how does one take their business elswhere?? If you move to a new insurer and policy then your medical problems become pre-existing with a huge hike in your premium or non-coverage for these conditions. If you don’t like your service you have to take it to court to complain and who has the time/money to do that when they are unwell and have paid premiums for years in good faith?

A whole year, innumerable phone calls and letters to Nat West to obtain a copy of an insurance policy so I could submit a claim.

Then there’s always the recent example of a bit of snow bringing private airports and railways grinding to a halt for over a week while the publicy run roads were cleared in a matter of days and less.

134. Sarah Merry

I switched to receiving my calls through another supplier while I carried on renting the line through BT – what I didn’t realise was that they were charging me additional line rental for family and friends (the reduced call tariff system) even though I was not getting my calls through them.

I tried contacting BT which was futile – the people at the call centre either did not understand or did not have the power to grant a refund – I really worry that this could be the experience of people with their public services if services are contracted out to these vast call centres to save money. I wrote an official letter of complaint and never even received a reply.

Which party started the mud slinging, lets see new labour called anyone who was not hard working and they still use the same words as work shy scroungers.

Who was it that stated 300, 000 public sector jobs would go then had to run around saying no no sorry we need people to carry on working at Job center plus unemployment is rising.

we love to blame Cameron for what has been going on, sadly it was new labour and a one eyed pirate that started it, ( Brown)

Watchman,

“Might I suggest if you had the choice of providers, you could have gone elsewhere? The problem there is a lack of market – government awards you as a contract, rather than giving you the resource to spend on any provider who you feel suits you.”

The problem is there was a market to begin with, the best player didn’t win, just the most profitable. The National Autistic Society success rate: 63% whilst dealing with Autistics, who have an even worse employment record than other disabled people. A4e whilst dealing with all sorts of people barely pipped 16% and only managed that by focusing on cases they believed could be found work quickly. A4e is for-profit, NAS isn’t.

The profit meant they could lobby and get their hooks into government. That is the goal of all supposedly ‘free’ markets.

Watchman @ 126

Hang on a minute, though. Proponents of free market philosophy suggest that the private sector does everything better than the public sector. The couple of examples I have given and about ten thousand others I could give where private firms have done botched jobs are examples of when private business have cut corners and failed to comply with the law. The Heralder free enterprise operators were acting illegally (and God knows how many times they performed that or similar illegal acts before being caught) where not doing so to help the ‘public’ as such, they were acting illegally to aid ‘the bottom line’. Every company is there exclusively for the bottom line. I am not saying that is an intrinsically a ‘bad’ thing, but let us not elevate these people to sainthood.

Two more obvious examples. Lung cancer and smoking. Despite repeated studies showing a link between the link between smoking and cancers the tobacco industry spent millions on PR to dispute the link and did so right up to the nineteen eighties. They did not dispute this for the good of their ‘customers’, they did this for the good of their shareholders. The other obvious example of this is the millions spent on PR on AGW denial. Again not for the good of the consumer, not the good of the public or even the market, but the bottom line.

For a company, any company, to act ‘illegally’, ‘amorally’ or even ‘immorally’ then to plead that the Government should have regulated them better when something goes tits up, sounds a bit like the son who has been convicted of murdering his parents then pleads for mercy because he is an orphan. The reason the banks went bad was not the fault of the ‘regulator’ but because the bank hire people and reward risk takers and don’t ask too many questions. The same goes for pharmaceutical industries, if they fail to test their products carefully enough, then that is not the fault of the Government, that is the fault of the industry.

I see the trolls are out in force defending the bullshit of choice. There is no choice between all the supermarkets and banks and insurance companies. They are all shit. And they all treat you like shit. They are only interested in screwing as much out of you as they can.

The private utilities has been one of the biggest frauds committed against the people. Sold off on the cheap to try to encourage ideological social engineering…….. share ownership. The profits have been paid out to the shareholders in huge dividends for 20 years and then they say “Oh we need more money to invest so we will now screw you of even more cash.” The Gas companies are experts in screwing the people out of cash. Like all utility companies There are a million tariffs to wade through. Gas, electric, mobile phone, broadband, train fares. Keep them as complicated as possible and keep the population as stupid as possible..

There is a reason conservatives hate libraries and education.

Christ, have all forgot about BP’s oil spill? Or the dozens of ships that have run aground? The countless product recalls from cars to dummy tits we see on an almost weakly basis? Areoplane Egines going on fire and/or falling of wings? Gerald Ratner, business models crahing and burning? People like Freddie Laker going bust? Woolworths going bust simply because they could not get credit.

We see ‘big business’ doing bad, stupid and in some cases downright evil things everyday. We have seen people going bust, losing houses etc just because someone up the ladder has fucked up.

What is the biggest fuck up capitalism ever made? Well we could go for hours on that from the companies that built Nazi death camps and/or supplied the gas, but for surely you could go no further than George W. Bush.

This man was a fuck up from day one. He was a fuckwitted moron with a famous father, who found himself at the top of many a business. Despite the fact that he was not the slightest bit talented, he was put in charge of venture after venture, each of which ended in a bigger failure than the last. Despite this, despite the jobs lost and the money pissed against the all, they still bankrolled him to be presiendent, even after knowing the man was an idiot.

140. Charlieman

When I moved house I arranged for the BT line at my new home to be enabled and changed to Mr Charlieman. The first bill arrived, addressed to Mrs Charlieman. I did not pay the bill because it was not addressed to me or any member of my household, and wrote to BT asking for a correctly addressed bill. This went on for 18 months, a total of twelve letters (two every three months) being sent by me.

Eventually, BT cut off my line. I contacted them to arrange for my line to be reconnected in order that I could phone my aged mother. To BT’s credit, reconnection was achieved in 30 minutes on a Saturday morning. The assistant who arranged for the reconnection could not explain why my twelve letters had been unanswered but offered to resolve my problem. I declined, explaining that the information had already been provided in writing to BT. If I had wished to sort out the problem over the phone, I would have telephoned; I had chosen to respond by mail to incorrect billing delivered by mail.

I tried Ofcom for assistance. By snail mail, of course. Ofcom referred me to a leaflet (“enclosed” but absent) and informed me that they could only intervene with written agreement from BT. In order to gain assistance from Ofcom, I required a letter and complaint number from the company that didn’t reply to my letters…

Finally, I decided to start paying Mrs Charlieman’s bills. And observed that Mrs Charlieman, having fallen out of the automatic billing system, had been sent duplicate rental bills. Doh.

Jim,

Proponents of free market philosophy suggest that the private sector does everything better than the public sector

That seems a cartoonish / binary view. ISTM market proponents say there is a place for the market and a place for the state – what we argue about are the places. Likewise I don’t know of anyone who says there shouldn’t be any regulation – such a position would seem irrational to me – but we argue about the nature and extent of regulation. People do bad things – that’s why we have laws.

Starting from an absolutist view seems counterproductive. You talk about the private sector / the market as if it is an unmitigated horror. Has no good been done by it? You mention thalidomide as if it outweighs every other drug. You Godwin about companies building death camps as if the state wasn’t the entity that funded them.

As for these:

“the dozens of ships that have run aground?” as if it wouldn’t happen in the public sector, and we won’t mention the thousands that don’t run aground

“The countless product recalls from cars to dummy tits we see on an almost weakly basis?” and the countless products that aren’t recalled, and as if the public sector is perfection

“Areoplane Egines going on fire and/or falling of wings?” again, let’s not mention the engines that don’t fall off or that this could never happen in the public sector

“Woolworths going bust simply because they could not get credit.” er no, not that simple at all.

As I say, a cartoonish view.

Ah forget it. Let’s all have a circle-jerk over Teh Evil Markets. At least we’ll be self-satisfied. I had a terrible time with a laptop manufacturer’s helpline late last year, blah blah blah

It strikes me that those such as Watchman @82, 83 arguing that the problems being cited are mostly in privatised, government-guaranteed monopolies and that free markets are still the solution have just argued themselves out of the debate.

The very nature of the public services does not lend itself to the kind of competition required for a free market to work. The customers are also unable to make the kind of choices necessary because they lack the knowledge and skills.

Of course, it would be sensible for public bodies to use private contractors when appropriate, we always did so when more sensible politicians were in office.

Always remember that capitalists HATE competition. But they can’t admit that publicly because they would look like morons. That is why they like mergers. If you can’t beat them take them over.

George W. Bush.

This man was a fuck up from day one. He was a fuckwitted moron with a famous father, who found himself at the top of many a business. Despite the fact that he was not the slightest bit talented, he was put in charge of venture after venture, each of which ended in a bigger failure than the last.

Read enough issues of Private Eye, mainly the sections “In the Back” and “In the City”, and you’ll very quickly come to realise its always the same faces in the same places, with even the board-level failures always managing to secure another board-level position. Nepotism makes the world go round.

UKL @ 141

No, do not get me wrong. I am not ‘bad mouthing’ capitalism. No-where have I said that free market capitalism has never done anything good. Nor am I saying that free market capitalism is intrinsically ‘evil’ either. Capitalism does good, bad, nice, nasty things, not necessarily in equal measure, though I would not care to speculate the various proportions. Lets just recognise that capitalism acts in mysterious ways sometimes?

What I would say is that capitalism and free markets are essentially ‘amoral’, though I think a reasonable case could be made for pushing that description to ‘immoral’, given that ‘immoral’ acts appear to attract the higher prices etc. Again let us not push it.

You can find good and bad examples regarding ‘public/private sector’ at work every day and if we are being honest, the bad stories make the headlines. However, when someone says the private sector can do anything the public sector does and they can do it better, then I would say that is not always the case. I see examples of the private sector making complete balls up of things and I can think of examples where privatisation has made things a lot worse for a lot of people.

I am not suggesting that ships would never run aground if they were in the public sector, I am saying it is wrong to only ever use the ‘best’ or worst’ case scenario as a benchmark. We are constantly being told that the private sector makes everything better, in every instance, but sometimes they make things worse. The examples I gave of the private sector failing are only that, examples. No-where do I suggest that these are indicative of a total failure of capitalism. Just like the ‘Baby P’ case. That should be looked at as a tragic event, but remember there are numerous cases where the social services do what it says on the tin. Exxon Valdise? Yeah, a pretty bad occurrence, but no reason to scrap capitalism…

…Well not just yet, anyway 🙂

Jim, fair enough – I apologise for my misunderstanding of your position.

147. DisgustedOfTunbridgeWells

It strikes me that those such as Watchman @82, 83 arguing that the problems being cited are mostly in privatised, government-guaranteed monopolies and that free markets are still the solution have just argued themselves out of the debate.

In some neo-classical textbook fantasy land you’d have a point.

@ Jim
Your initial complaints (124) seem to be about quasi-monopolies – if there is competition even otherwise similar industries behave differently, but more important is the feeling of accountability by staff. When I started my first job at 17, the vast majority were paid in cash (and banks were seeking to acquire new customers) so I was surprised to be asked by HR department (two nice middle-aged ladies) for the name of my bank: I gave them the name of my parents’ bank and walked there in my lunch break to ask if I could open an account – they didn’t quite pat me on the head; until the branch was closed (following a merger with another bank which had a larger branch less than a mile away) I received excellent service and still get decent service from the branch to which I got transferred. More recently we had problems with my wife’s car insurance (the insurer’s car repairer had made a mess and denied it in the face of overwhelming proof) and I wrote to the Actuary in charge of the UK insurance division – his PA personally investigated and sorted it out for us. On the other hand, the behaviour of public sector workers just leaves me depressed – a lot of the junior staff try hard to be helpful but most of the bureaucrats are positively unhelpful and nothing happens when I complain about demonstrable falsehoods.
Thalidomide was approved by the German government regulator and was only introduced into the UK after that. Distillers – which did not own the company manufacturing it under licence in the UK while it was being produced – have paid out tens of £ millions to compensate victims. Have a look at comparable public sector failures (pneumoconiosis for example).
No, we do NOT think that the private sector is a cure for all evils – we just look at the results of competitive and non-competitive environments and think. So if I need to go to Manchester I will use the M6 Toll rather than Virgin Rail.
We like private businesses that succeed because they provide better quality at the same or lower price, or far better quality at an acceptable premium. Tesco is fine for toilet paper but I’ll use the butcher who knows personally every farmer from whom he buys beef, mutton, pork, chickens, ducks, geese, eggs, …

My private sector horror story is that I have to work twice as hard in my private sector job, than I did in my public sector job.

My horror story is that the flexitime scam that operated in my local council job, doesn’t happen in my private sector job, because there’s no flexitime. (It was a great scam – people used to key in and out for other people so they’d accumulate extra hours without working them).

John77 @ 148

The problem here is that some people DO see the private sector as a panacea for all the World’s ills. Too many times on this blogg and else where on the Internet we here that ‘privatisation’ will cure everything from illiteracy to clinical outcomes. When pushed for an explanation, the stock response is a rather religious ‘the market will provide’ as if this sentence will somehow make everything go away.

There appears to be an assumption that being part of the ‘free market sector’ will suddenly make you more accountable, it is simply not true though is it? The large pharmaceuticals do not pay out to victims out of the good of their hearts, they pay out for fear of crippling lawsuits. You say that you got some good service when you wrote to the head actuary, well I would suggest that means that the system had broken down. Surely ‘writing to the actuary’ is not strictly part of the claims process? Why not have the head actuary deal with all the claims? Cleary, if he got involved, then something had went badly wrong. I wonder how he would have reacted if the claim were for a smaller amount and for people with less clout? Capitalism works well for people who have the wherewithal to deal with problems. On the other hand, people who lack the financial clout, get shafted at every turn. That is fine if it a tin of beans, but if your car is out of action and the insurer fails to budge and you do not have the ability to take people to court, then you are nothing against these great big granite edifices.

You were able to get what wanted out of the system what you required and good luck to you, but countless others have lost everything.

Just because you are in the private sector does not mean you will automatically do the ‘right’ thing, it means you will do the ‘cost effective thing, if they happen to overlap, then good, if not, then the free market hopes you go somewhere and die.

@147 DOTW “In some neo-classical textbook fantasy land you’d have a point.”

That would be HM Treasury, then.

Those on the right who love to trumpet “private sector efficiency” are generally rich enough never to have to deal with call centres.

153. sean4thedefence

Total straw man bullshit from the libertarian contingent. Nobody is going to be able to take their custom away away from the privatised hospital who isn’t rich enough to do that already and nobody at all will be able to call an alternative privatised policeman when the one who turns up to investigate the crime you have reported is a little bit shit. Privatisation has nothing to do with Homebase and everything to do with recycling public money away from the public sector and into the pockets of shareholders.

154. on my bike

I am working in the public sector, doing a public sector job but employed by a private company.
They pay me a lower rate while charging the state as much as a permanent worker.
They don’t give us sick pay, so us temps spread germs around the office.
They pretend that public holidays are something we choose to take and take them off our holiday allowance.
They pay us so little that we claim tax credit from another part of the state. Another subsidy.

If public sector workers are so bad, if you think folk don’t give a shit now, wait till we’re all temps.


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