Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Would you trust G4S with a van Gogh?

Who wants to trust G4S with this?
It’s amazing what constitutes ‘public services’. We might be used to thinking in terms of the likes of emptying the bins and education and health care, but many more things that we take for granted come under that label too.

And many of them are increasingly under threat.

But amid the ongoing, ideological rush to sell off anything and everything – even at a cut price, as the Royal Mail debacle showed – it’s easy to forget that our culture is a public service, and it’s also under threat.

Libraries have been facing cuts for years, with politicians revealing an utter lack of understanding about the service by suggesting that volunteers could run them.

When I was doing my ’O and ’A levels at girls grammar schools in the 1970s and into the ’80s, becoming a librarian was something that was considered a good career, requiring a proper degree.

When did that morph into, ‘oh, some local volunteer can do it’?

Now that’s not an attack on volunteers, but it begs – or should beg – the question of when and how running a library ceased to need the level of education, training and skills that it did previously.

Is the writing on the wall for quality of visitor experience?
Inevitably, such an approach doesn’t simply deskill, but in doing so, it reduces the actual service. And that illustrates how little the service is understood and valued in the first place.

Now, it seems, plans are well under way to privatise visitor services – including security – at London’s National Gallery.

The gallery – just one of many such institutions that helps draw millions of tourists to the capital every year – points out that funding from government is falling, and that it needs to increase retail and commercial activities, including opening for some groups outside normal hours.

Even accepting all that, it’s difficult to see how privatisation will help – all it does is involve a private company that needs to make a profit. And one of the first things to happen when that’s the case is that wages are hit.

Claims that terms and conditions will be protected are meaningless, as has been illustrated in Doncaster, where venture capital company-owned Care UK made the right noises before taking over a contract for the care of vulnerable people with learning disabilities – and then, when the ink was barely dry on the contract, decided to slash the pay of the people who do the actual work of caring, start employing any new staff on minimum wage and deskill the workforce by, among other things, ordering staff to stop dealing with medical or violent situations and call 999 instead.

In other words, the profit is privatised and the debt socialised.

Should gallery staff know about the exhibits?
And then, of course, there’s the issue of slashed pay leading to more people needing in-work benefits – so the taxpayer is forking out to subsidise the profits of the private company.

The deskilling of the Doncaster workforce will be replicated at the National Gallery, as the Ministry of Curiosity blog, an “insider’s guide to London’s museum-centric life” explains that a lower-paid workforce will mean, “for the gallery and public, a transient workforce with less knowledge and expertise”.

The blog also makes a very interesting link between the recent decision to allowphotography in the gallery and the plans for privatisation.

The nation's favourite painting – left to the nation by Turner
The idea of putting security for some of the world’s greatest art treasures in the hands of the likes of G4S should be enough to horrify any sentient being.

What could possibly go wrong?

After all, the likes of G4S, Serco and others have great form on all manner of things, from security itself, to proving incapable of organising a piss-up in a brewery (or the 2012 Olympics, as they were known), to overcharging and false charging for services provided (or not).

But in this case, the atmosphere has been sullied further by union reps being hit witha gagging clause by the gallery – even though named reps were quoted in the press during disputes at the gallery in 2010 and 2012, with no apparent problem.

Of course, this isn’t the only bit of the “family silver” that is being primed for sell-off – the country’s entire road network couldbe threatened too.

And the National Gallery it’s far from being an isolated case of how our culture is being dumbed-down, devalued and sold off.

In Manchester, for example, funding has been cut to the People’s History Museum – the only museum in the country dedicated to the history of ordinary, working people.
Profit fodder?

On a more general basis, moving further and further toward a low-wage economy is neither good nor sustainable for the economy, as shown by recent figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility, which revealed that, in spite of record levels of employment, tax revenues are down, and theneed for in-work benefits (including housing benefit) is up.

There may come a point when museums and galleries have to look at charging for entry – again.

But our history and our culture should not be seen as commodities, existing for the financial of the few, but unavailable to the many.

Plans to privatise huge numbers of jobs at the National Gallery are, at best, short sighted.

At their worst, its yet more evidence of an ideologically-based knowledge of the price of everything – and the value of nothing.

• 38 Degrees currently has two petitions running related to this topic:


  1. "Would you trust G4S with a van Gogh?" An absurd question. Ever been to the Guggenheim or the Getty? Private security. Even the NYSE uses private security. TSA (US airport screening) is hardly a recommendation for government involvement. The Supreme Court of Portugal has a rent a cop in front of it. Red herring if there ever was one. Having said that I have never understood why government is almost always more expensive providing services than private suppliers and does such an abysmal job?

    1. I won't comment on the situation in the US, other than to point out that, after 9/11, airport security was viewed as being troubled – not least because of low retention and similar problems linked to low pay.

      'Pay peanuts and you get monkeys,' is a well-known adage, with more than a grain of truth, as can be seen in the evangelical fervour of KPMG in promoting the living wage in recent years. Better pay improves retention, recruitment, sickness rates and productivity.

      Unfortunately, in most cases, privatisation proves 'cheaper' because wages are cut, along with staffing levels in many cases.

      On G4S, this is a company that had years to prepare for the 2012 Olympics, yet revealed at the last minute that it couldn't fill the jobs required – with many, many applications having gone unanswered or dealt with. Thus, soldiers – fresh back on leave from Afghanistan – had to be drafted in.

      G4S has also – and it's not alone in this – been found to have 'overcharged' for services rendered, or not, as is also the case.

      One wonders why the National Gallery would need to change a system that appears to have an entirely good record.