Choice. We like to think we have it, and in some areas of life, we do. You can head on down to H&M or Gap to buy your new jeans, grab a coffee in your favourite coffee shop and tap away on your laptop. Arguably, there is some choice there. There are other clothes shops, cafes and laptop producers.
Yet whole areas of your daily life are decided for you, without you even being asked, and without reference to the democratic system where you (at least in theory) get to input your views. This is what happens with privatised and outsourced public services.
It's your water bill, where you can't choose another provider. It's your energy bill, going up and up. It's your rail season ticket that costs you a bomb. The 'regulation' of these vital services doesn't seem to do anything to stop your bills - and their profits - rising above inflation year on year.
Look under the radar a little and you'll notice that - aside from these obvious examples of failed privatisations - there are all the services that your council may be outsourcing, on your behalf, without your permission. Your local bin service, job centre or care home.
You can choose your laptop, your blue jeans and your triple soya decaff latte. But when it comes to public services, there's no 'free market' that is listening to you, the consumer. You go to the nearest hospital, school or railway station. There really isn't a great deal of choice - how could there be? Instead, there's a black box bidding process between government and private providers, a secretive, pretend 'competition'. In this context, 'choice' doesn't really make sense. But why shouldn't you have a voice?
When we listen to the collective voice of the British public, to find out what people actually want, we find they want public ownership, accountability, transparency. The public rejects default privatisation by 10:1.
No wonder. Privatisation and outsourcing often increase the cost for you (directly as a service user or indirectly as a taxpayer), reduce the quality of service and make it difficult to hold providers to account. The companies taking the bulk of these public service outsourcing contracts (we paid them £4 billion in the last year) have been accused of a range of unpleasant things, from fraud to cruelty.
Last week, a cross-party group of MPs took a stand for your rights with a new Private Members' Bill in parliament. Led by Caroline Lucas and supported by MPs from Labour, Liberal Democrats and Plaid, they're calling for the Public Service Users Bill that We Own It has been campaigning for. What would this mean for you?
Firstly, it would give you a say over your public services. You would be consulted about your services and you'd have a say before any public service is privatised or outsourced (for example, you'd have been asked about Royal Mail).
Secondly, you'd have some powers to hold private companies running your services to account. They would be required to reveal their performance and financial data and respond to Freedom of Information requests, and you'd have a right to recall them when they do a bad job.
Finally, government (local or national) would have to thoroughly consider the public ownership option before contracting out. They would have to produce a realistic in-house bid from the public sector. And they'd have to prioritise handing contracts to organisations with a social purpose (the public sector, social enterprise, cooperatives, charities) rather than profit-focussed companies.
We need public services that keep getting better and public ownership is the best framework for that. Councils across the UK are taking services in-house because it helps them save money and provide a better service. The publicly run East Coast line is popular and cost-efficient, returning millions to the Treasury. Privatisation has failed and the evidence against outsourcing is getting stronger all the time.
Right now, water and energy companies have full license to rip you off without consequence. But we can at least tackle outsourcing contracts, where we can decide what to do with public money. This Bill would be a small step in the right direction.
Insisting that a railway line is the same kind of economic good as a cup of coffee is ideological nonsense - but why shouldn't you have a say over both? Subsidising companies like G4S, Serco and Atos while ignoring the people who use their services is old-fashioned and undemocratic. That's why we're asking for your help to put pressure on all parties to get behind our bill. As a consumer, a public service user, a taxpayer, a citizen...what do you think?
Photo used under Creative Commons licensing, thanks to antwerpenR.