I was invited to a seminar in the House of Commons about a small part of the UK’s social security system, the Social Fund which provides grants and interest free loans exceptional needs that cannot be met from basic weekly benefit payments. The seminar was to follow up on a number of recent reports suggesting the need for reform, though this has been a debate for twenty years. The main thrust of the seminar was to suggest that there might be a role for private sector investment in delivering this form of social assistance. What it sounded like, to someone not well versed in high finance, was a Private Finance Initiative (or Public Private Partnership as New Labour call it) with the necessary profit to come from the poorest in society. Now this may be simplistic, but that was the impression I left with.
Perhaps what puzzled me most why was I was invited? Was I deemed likely to be sympathetic, as much of the audience appeared to be? Had they ever read my work on the Social Fund? Perhaps it is assumed that academics from a Management School will be simply sympathetic to the concept of private engagement in public services? Well, rest assured, there are debates to be had on this topic. But there are also good grounds for arguing that there are some aspects of public services that must be provided by public servants. Privatising services provided to those in crisis and turning it into a profit making enterprise is a step too far.
Some of the arguments for private investment are made in a pamphlet published by David Blunkett, the disgraced former minister, available at:
Watch this space for further developments.