Labour will end the dogma of “public sector bad, private sector good” - Richard Burgon

Shadow Secretary of State for Justice Richard Burgon writes exclusively for the Red Robin

Just as the global financial crash a decade ago brought the failings of free-market fundamentalism into sharp focus, the collapse of Carillion must be a watershed moment for the outsourcing and privatisation of our public services.

So, I have been delighted over recent days to listen to the speeches of Richard Leonard, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell at the Scottish Labour conference. Together they could not have been clearer that the days of relying on the private sector to run our public services are numbered.

As Jeremy Corbyn told the conference in Dundee, Labour will create “a society that ends the scam of privateers sucking profit from our public services.”

As Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, I know all too well how Carillion undermined the very public services that it was responsible for upkeeping.

For example, the Conservative government doled out almost £100 million in just two years for Carillion to carry out maintenance works in some 50 prisons across the south of England alone. Not only did that contract fail to make the planned savings but it fell short in meeting even the most basic of standards. After the private sector took over maintenance works, key prison repairs such as fixing broken windows and doors were left undone and some prisoners even left without basics such as soap.

But the failure of Carillion is about far more than the failure of one company. It is about the failure of the idea that has held sway for too long: that of “private sector good; public sector bad”.

This dogma even extended to creating private prisons, including in Scotland. I believe that making profit from the incarceration of human beings is immoral.  I am proud that Labour has called time on the building of more private prisons.

One of the reasons I supported Richard Leonard’s candidacy to be Scottish Labour leader was the commitment to public ownership outlined in his manifesto. There he committed to a renaissance in public ownership that would be at the heart of the “fight for social and environmental progress.”

In his speech to Scottish Labour conference he outlined how this will become a core policy at the next Holyrood elections with Labour committing to signing no new private finance deals. This is the latest sign that across Britain, Labour is the party best placed to defend the role of the public sector.

The spread of the tentacles of the private sector into public services – be it through PFI or the SNP’s NPD schemes – has hived off millions in profits. That is always wrong, but it is even worse when the public sector is facing deep cuts because of the Tory’s ideologically driven austerity policies.

In his speech, Richard Leonard also committed to exploring how to bring back in-house existing private contracts and to creating alternative public-sector models. This will be something that can inform the wider debate on public ownership across Britain that Labour is now promoting, including in the justice sector. In my brief, for example, I am currently looking at alternatives to the failed Conservative government’s privatisation of probation in England and Wales and how best to bring this back under public ownership. I am excited about sharing ideas with colleagues in Scotland - and across Britain - about models for a new era of public ownership.

As John McDonnell told Scottish Labour, the free market fundamentalism of recent years cannot deliver the change we need. It is only Labour that will make the deep structural changes to the ownership of our economy that we need to build an economy that works for the many.

  • Richard Burgon is Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and the MP for Leeds East


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