Public benefit services should only to be run as not-for-profit

This was the second piece performed in the Swindon Festival of Literature Think Slam, 2014.

At the Think Slam two years ago, someone gave an interesting three minuter about how the welfare state should not be run by social enterprise.

I’m here to say that it should and so should other public benefit services.

In the last two years we’ve seen the NHS been virtually put up for sale and bought by the French. Schools have been run by businesses.

Public transport either slashed to extinction or priced beyond the ordinary wage. Letting agencies charge extortionate prices to renters before they even move into accommodation.

Fuel prices rise far higher than inflation whilst gas and electricity companies willfully ignore their legal obligations to help homes become more fuel efficient and heating oil is left out of the equation altogether.

Communications are left to companies with lip service to customer service. And banks…don’t get me started on banks.

Once upon a time, such companies were publically owned. And I’m not here to say we should go back to that, I’m a realist and also a entreprenure. Having working in both local government and arts organisations run by local government, I have seen stodgy working practices focussed on doing a job rather than creating a service that makes a difference to people’s lives.

Running public benefit services (such as the ones I’ve just moaned about) in an entrepreneurial way allows people with the skills to do it well, to run a business they feel passionate about, and make a living from it.

But this is where it gets sticky.

Entrepreures may create a business to, say, run a railway, but what’s to stop them further on down the line (excuse the pun) selling up to someone who only cares about profits?

Or floating it on the stock exchange to investors, who don’t even know what they’ve invested in, who only care about their financial return? Before you know it, that wonderful service has been stripped back to maximise return – profits have been placed above people, and the company has become simply a commodity.

This happened with The Body Shop as reported by co-founder, George Roddick; as soon as it floated on the stock market he lost control of his company. It became owned by faceless, ever changing shareholders, focused on profit, not the ethics of The Body Shop.

Now this may be purely an inconvenience for services like our phones or even public transport. But what about our health service? Our schools? Our home heating? Then it becomes a matter of life and death or the future of the next generation.

This is where a not-for-profit format comes in. Whether this is the new Community Interest Company, or the 150 year old Industrial and Provident Society set-up, or finally legislating the co-operative principles, this safeguards the original values of the public benefit company.

It means that the service that it was set up to do will always come before profits. Instead of profits, the public benefit company will be legally obliged to invest into its staff and the company to ensure that the public service will be as good as it can be.

Therefore we need to enshrine in law that crucial services should only be run by non-profits.

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