Posts Tagged ‘NAO’

Vox Political on the Part-Privatisation of Channel 4

May 10, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political has also put up a piece today about the government’s proposed partial privatisation of Channel 4 under John Whittingdale. The Torygraph has reported that the government has climbed down from privatising it fully, and instead are just looking for a ‘strategic partner’, like BT. They would also like the network to sell its offices in Westminster and move to somewhere like Birmingham. Its account should also be checked by the NAO, responsible for examining government expenditure, and they would like to change its non-profit status and see it pay a dividend to the Treasury. Mike points out that the network chiefs have taken this as stepping stone towards Channel 4’s full privatisation, and are deciding to reject it. Meanwhile, the Tories don’t want to privatise it fully, because they’ll get the same backlash from their proposals to sell off the Beeb. See Mike’s article at: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/05/10/only-part-privatisation-for-channel-4-as-tories-fear-another-bbc-style-backlash/

This is another barbarous government attack on public broadcasting in the UK. Channel 4 was set up in the 1980s to be a kind of alternative to the alternative BBC 2, and to cater for tastes and audiences that weren’t being met by the established channels. According to Quentin Letts in one of his books, Denis Thatcher thought this mean putting yachting on the sports’ coverage instead of footie, which shows the limited idea of ‘alternative’ held by Thatcher and her consort. Jeremy Isaacs, its controller, was proud of his outsider status as a Jew in the network, a status he shared with Melvin Bragg, a Northerner. He said that he wanted to put on the new, fledgling channel programmes on miner’s oral history, and performances of the great classics of Britain’s minority cultures, like the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. He also believed that people had ‘latent needs’ – there were things they wanted to see, which they didn’t yet know they did. He was widely ridiculed for his views. Private Eye gave a sneering review of the book, in which he laid out his plans and opinions, stating that all this guff about people’s ‘latent needs’ showed that he thought he knew more than they did about what people actually wanted. As for being an outsider, the Eye observed rather tartly that they were all outsiders like that now in broadcasting, swimming around endlessly repeating the same views to each other.

In fact, Isaacs was largely right. Quite often people discover that they actually enjoy different subjects and pursuits that they’re not used to, simply because they’ve never encountered them. The Daily Heil columnist, Quentin Letts, comments about the way the network has been dumbed down in one of his books, pointing out how good the networks cultural broadcasting was when it was first set up. The network was particularly good at covering the opera. I can remember they broadcast one such classical music event, which was broadcast throughout Europe, rather like the Eurovision song contest but with dinner suits, ball gowns, lutes and violins rather than pop spangle, Gothic chic, drums and electric guitars. The audiences for its opera broadcasts were below a million, but actually very good, and compared well with the other broadcasters.

As for its programmes aimed at the different ethnic minorities, I knew White lads, who used to watch the films on ‘All-India Goldies’ and the above TV adaptation of the Mahabharata. This last was also given approval by Clive James, one of the great TV critics. James noted it was slow-moving, but still considered it quality television.

The network has, like much of the rest of British broadcasting, been dumbed-down considerably since then. American imports have increased, and much of the content now looks very similar to what’s on the other terrestrial channels. The networks’ ratings have risen, but at the expense of its distinctive character and the obligation to broadcast material of cultural value, which may not be popular. Like opera, foreign language films and epics, art cinema and theatre.

Even with these changes, there’s still very much good television being produced by the network. From the beginning, Channel 4 aimed to have very good news coverage, and this has largely been fulfilled. There have been a number of times when I’ve felt that it’s actually been better than the Beeb’s. In the 1990s the Channel was the first, I believe, to screen a gay soap, Queer as Folk, created by Russell T. Davis, who went on to revive Dr Who. This has carried on with the series Banana, Cucumber, and Tofu. It also helped to bring archaeology to something like a mass audience with Time Team, now defunct. And if you look at what remains of the British film industry, you’ll find that quite often what little of it there is, is the product of either the Beeb or Channel 4 films.

And from the beginning the Right hated it with a passion. Well, it was bound to, if Denis Thatcher’s idea of alternative TV was golf and yachting, and Thatcher really wouldn’t have wanted to watch anything that validated the miners. And it was notorious for putting on explicitly sexual material late at night, as well as shows for sexual minorities, such as discussing lesbianism, when these weren’t anywhere near as acceptable as they are today. As a result, the Heil regularly used to fulminate against all this filth, and branded its controller, Michael Grade, Britain’s ‘pornographer in chief’.

And over the years, the various governments have been trying to privatise it. I think Maggie first tried it sometime in the 1980s. Then they did it again, a few years later, possibly under John Major. This surprised me, as after they privatised it the first time, I thought that was the end of it. Channel 4 had been sold off completely. It seems I was wrong. It seems these were just part privatisations. Now they want to do it again.

It struck me with the second privatisation of Channel 4 that this was an election tactic by the Tory party. Maggie had tried to create a popular, share-owning, capitalist democracy through encouraging the working class to buy shares in the privatised utilities. And for all her faults and the immense hatred she rightly engendered, Maggie was popular with certain sections of the working class. By the time the Tories wanted to privatise the Channel the second time, it struck me that they were floundering around, trying to find a popular policy. The magic had worn of the Thatcherite Revolution, Major was in trouble, and so they were trying to bring back some of the old triumphs of Thatcher’s reign, as they saw it. They needed something big and glamorous they could sell back to the voters. And so they decided to privatise Channel 4. Again.

They want to do the same now. But the fact that they’re looking for ‘a strategic partner’ tells you a lot about how things have changed in the intervening years. This is most definitely not about popular capitalism. Most of the shares held by working people were bought up long ago by the fat cats. In this area, the Thatcherite Revolution has failed, utterly, just as it has in so many others. This is all about selling more of Britain’s broadcasting industry to the Tory’s corporate backers. Much of ITV is owned by the Americans, if not all of it, and Channel 5 certainly is. What’s the odds that Channel 4 will stay British, if it too is privatised?

And so we can look forward to a further decline in public broadcasting in this country, as it more of it is bought by private, and probably foreign, media giants. Quality broadcasting, and the duty of public broadcasters to try and expand their audiences’ horizons by producing the new, the ground-breaking, alternative and unpopular, will suffer. All for the profit of the Tory party and their big business paymasters.

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From 2007: Suppressed Government Report into Failures of PFI

February 1, 2015

One of the first elements in the gradual privatisation of the NHS was the Private Finance Initiative. Under it, private companies were awarded contracts for the construction and maintenance of the hospitals they built partly through private finance. it was a way of keeping the cost of hospital construction and maintenance off the government books. The downside was that the costs, although hidden, were still massive, meaning that the public was saddled with exorbitant costs for many years, indeed decades to come. Furthermore, the financial risks were never spread evenly. If a private consortium ran into trouble and could no longer make a profit from the deal, it was left to the taxpayer to bail them out.

In their issue for the 21st June – 8th July 2007, Private Eye carried this story about a government report that had been suppressed after it severely criticised the Private Finance Initiative for its numerous and disastrously expenses failures.

The Hospital Report They Didn’t Want You To Read
PFI, the Untold Story

A damning report on hospitals built under the private finance initiative, prepared by the National Audit Office (NAO) but never published or show to Parliament, has been obtained by Private Eye under the Freedom of Information Act.

In 2005 the NAO announced that it was looking into the record of PFI hospitals, but a year ago mysteriously cancelled the study – without revealing that it had already written a hugely detailed 90-page report on the subject. The move came just weeks after Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt had announced a review of the £12bn worth of hospital PFI deals then in the pipeline, in the face of mounting evidence that PFI was unaffordable and unworkable with other Labour health reforms. The last thing she needed was a critical report on the record of the PFI hospitals already up and running.

The NAO insists it was not pressured into pulling the report, entitled The Operational Record of the First Wave of PFI Hospitals, though it refuses to disclose any details of its discussions with the Department of Health on the subject. It claims the “evidence collected was too mixed and not sufficiently conclusive to justify a report to parliament”. Really? Eye readers (and MPs) are invited to study the principal findings and judge for themselves.

The ‘Risk’ Factor

In all 17 hospitals whose costs were looked at, PFI was judged to be a few pounds cheaper when compared to how much it would have cost to build or refurbish the hospital under conventional procurement. But at 15 hospitals this was only after a spurious financial “risk factor” had been applied to the public sector alternative. The factor varied from 1 percent to 22 percent of the cost but was always just enough to make PFI look cheaper. The NAO overlooks the obvious fiddling and swallows the alleged “similarity of costs” without question.

Not So Grand Designs

A comparison of design quality found the PFI hospitals overall, slightly worse than non-PFI ones. On five out of six criteria they were below “minimum acceptable standard” and especially pisspoor architecturally. Although the non-PFI ones used for comparison were mostly 20 to 30 years older and much work has been done on improving hospital building standards in the meantime, this seems to have passed the PFI industry by.

Bed-Hopping Mad

Seventy percent of the PFI hospitals had fewer beds than the facilities they replaced, but all save one had higher rates of occupancy. Indeed, in 70 percent of cases the PFI bed occupancy rate was higher than the officially recommended maximum of 85 percent. Above this figure peak admissions are more difficult to handle, men and women can’t always be separated and infection control is compromised.

The cause of the problem, the NAO found, was that “greater efficiency designed to increase patient throughput … has not yet been fully achieved.” In other words, such is the expense of PFI that in order to produce a remotely affordable deal, unrealistic assumptions about needing fewer beds were made (with the help of financial consultants anxious to get the deal through and secure their success fees).

Three of the PFI hospitals have already had to build extra facilities as a result, putting millions more on the cost of their deals every year. Clinicians are understandably miffed: two thirds said that “affordability constraints” had led to “design compromise”, including at University Hospital Durham where floor area had to be reduced, leading to “shortage of space … and a lack of ventilation”.

Feeling the Heat

“One particular problem”, the auditors noted, “is summer overheating”. PFI hospitals fall well below minimum standards. “At one PFI hospital the contract manager had recently recorded temperatures of over 40 degrees C in the wards during the height of summer,” said the auditors. As the whole premise of PFI and the dodgy value for money calculations is the transfer of risk, solving this problem might be thought to be down to the PFI company. But no. When the auditors visited “it had not been agreed who would bear the cost”.

Cleaning Up

Among the most alarming findings was that “the cost of cleaning PFI hospitals is higher than in non-PFI hospitals and the quality of service is lower”. Not exactly surprising, but with clear evidence that poor hygiene standards increase the incidence of MRSA, C. difficile and other deadly super bugs – exactly the sort of finding Hewitt would not have wanted splashed across the papers last year.

The problem isn’t just cost-cutting by the PFI companies and the cleaning firms they employ: the report noted that “only a fifth of ward managers at PFI hospitals … had sufficient powers of direction over cleaners”. And in the bureaucratic nightmare of PFI, doing something about it isn’t easy either because improved standards “are not necessarily reflected in the service specification”, ie contract.

Making improvements is “likely to require the requesting of a service variation”. Great news for lawyers, not so comforting for patients.

Failure? Fine By Us

When things go wrong it’s invariably the hospital, not the PFI company, that suffers. Two thirds of hospital managers felt that they couldn’t impose sufficient financial penalties on the companies to motivate the PFI company to do its job.

And that’s if difficulties are reported in the first place. Many problems go unpunished as busy nurses have better things to do than hang on the phone to a remote help-desk. “They would often therefore either ignore the failure or deal with it themselves,” say the auditors, with the result that only 30 percent of trusts report “most” service failures. Even if they do, the PFI companies determine how much to fine themselves: “The data for calculating deductions is usually generated by the helpdesk and is therefore the responsibility of the PFI contractor.”

When whole areas of PFI hospitals become unavailable most trusts think the payments they can withhold aren’t enough to make the PFI company return the building to use quickly. In one case, a water leak shut an operating theatre for two days at a loss of 33 operations and a cost to the trust of £24,750. The PFI company was docked less than £5,000.

Red Tape, Red Faces

Anyone who thinks the public sector is tied up in red tape should look at what happens when a PFI hospital needs the private company it’s relying on to make any changes.

If it needs a new noticeboard, say, it can’t just ask a handyman to put one up. It has to get a quote for “supply and fit and life cycle maintenance” (£860 for five of them from one PFI company, since you ask). The NAO report leaves a large space for a “flow diagram of the process for making a minor change”. Unsurprisingly clinicians reported infuriating delays. And it’s not cheap: at Norfolk and Norwich 1,600 “minor “works” (putting up a shelf, changing a plug, etc) came in at £1.2m – £750 a throw. For any bigger change, like altering the use of a room, the process is more cumbersome still. And if it costs more than £5,000, the lawyers and even bankers have to be pulled in as their “risk profile” might be affected.

As a trust manager from Durham put it: “It is not a competitive market, the mark-up by the contractor and the [PFI company] increase the costs, and there is not the incentive for them to come up with affordable solutions.

And the Good News Is …

It’s not all bad news. On the odd incidental like “security” PFI hospitals were judged better. And the report repeats the Treasury’s favoured view of PFI: “The first wave of PFI hospitals were very largely delivered to time and budget.”
Yet again, however, this conclusion is based on the cost of the hospitals once the contract was signed, after which it can’t go up. If the prices when the deals were given the go-ahead were considered, a more appropriate comparison, the auditors would have seen increases of between 40 percent and 230 percent as huge price increases emerged during contract negotiations.

Despite the evidence of innumerable surveys, reviews, field visits to hospitals, independently commissioned technical evaluations, questionnaires and focus groups, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds, Parliament, apparently, doesn’t need to know about the bed shortages, substandard buildings, poor cleaning, labyrinthine bureaucracy and extra costs that come with PFI.

Patricia Hewitt’s own review of hospital PFI deals duly concluded that, subject to some trimming here and there, they could go ahead. Nobody was able to point to damning NAO findings that PFI is about as useful in a hospital as a surgeon with the shakes.

Before the last election, Osborne stated that he would end PFI once the Tories got in power. This is one of the promises that the Tory party has broken. Not only has not ended PFI, he actually increased it and authorised more projects. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, as PFI was originally a Tory idea, put forward by Peter Lilley as a way of opening up the NHS to private enterprise.

It needs to be closed down, and the Tories removed from office before they can privatise anymore of the NHS.