Graeme Whitfield column: Public and private sectors can work well together

The Journal's business editor on how neither the private nor the public sector has a monopoly on good practice

Graeme Whitfield
Graeme Whitfield

When the Daily Mail launched its attack on Ed Miliband’s late father in 2013, there was general agreement that the article was fairly unpleasant.

And then there was Jeremy Hunt, whose reponse was to point out that “Ralph Miliband was no friend of the free market and I have never heard Ed Miliband say he supports it.”

From that I think we can deduce two things: 1) that some people will say anything if it hurts a political opponent and 2) that Jeremy Hunt presumably is a fan of the free market.

Fast forward two years and consider these words from Mr Hunt, on the subject of agencies supplying doctors and nurses to the NHS: “Expensive staffing agencies are quite simply ripping off the NHS. It’s outrageous that taxpayers are being taken for a ride by companies charging up to £3,500 a shift for a doctor.”

Now I happen to think Mr Hunt is right on this, but his words do raise the question about just when he recanted his belief in the free market. Agencies are charging exorbitant amounts because they can get away with it and the question needs to be asked about how market forces have not forced the price down. The Government is now talking about legislating to curb over-payments, which it would seem to be an admission that the free market has not managed to provide a solution to this problem.

When Ed Miliband made a similar point about rising power bills and the need to intervene in the energy market, he was widely dismissed as Red Ed, the dangerous socialist who would stop honest companies running their own affairs.

I’m not saying Mr Hunt is a dangerous socialist but his apparent realisation on the limits of the market raises some interesting questions.

There are some people who believe on ideological grounds that private businesses should play no part in public services like the NHS. There are others on the opposite side of the political spectrum who say that the state should do no more than defend the country and let private businesses do the rest.

The truth, rather mundanely, lies somewhere inbetween. The private sector can both help and learn from the public sector, and vice versa. Whenever people say ‘private sector good, public sector bad’ (or the other way round), they are generally wrong.

I’ve worked all my life in the private sector and often hear people sneer at the public services. The fact that they often moan about the uselessness of the companies they work for never seems to strike them as in any way ironic.

And I know from my involvement with The Journal’s Let’s Grow Fund that the partnership between public and private is often where much of the good that happens in society takes place.

Over the last few years we’ve given out £30m in public money that has helped private companies either create or safeguard 3,500 jobs.

We’ve still got another £30m to give out, by the way, so do get in touch if you’d like some – but please acknowledge the role the public realm has played in its success.

Graeme Whitfield is business editor of The Journal

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