There was a flurry of tweets and comments this morning in relation to the media coverage of a survey commissioned by the Booktrust on the reading habits of 1,500 adults across England. The Guardian claimed that:
New research shows a stark and “worrying” cultural divide in the UK when it comes to reading, with half the country picking up a book at least once a week for pleasure, and 45% preferring television.
England ‘divided into readers and watchers’
The problem is, the much of the media coverage has been a little confusing. Take this section from The Guardian’s piece:
The England-wide survey of the reading habits of 1,500 adults by the University of Sheffield says that on average, the higher the socio-economic group that someone is in, the more often they read: 27% of DEs never read books themselves, compared with 13% of ABs, while 62% of ABs read daily or weekly, compared with 42% of DEs. Reading charity Booktrust, which commissioned the research, believes its findings should serve as a warning that “Britain’s divided reading culture is a barrier to social mobility”.
This is where I started to question the survey and its reporting. One minute the Guardian claims it reveals how often people read, the next it talks about books. It hardly needs spelling out, but reading does not necessarily equate to reading books.
According to the reporting of this survey’s results, I could read the Guardian (or the BBC) online every day without ever touching a book and yet I would not be considered a ‘reader’. Indeed, I would be considered a ‘watcher’ who would rather watch TV than read. But if I am reading the Guardian’s website on a daily basis, surely that makes me a ‘reader’? Likewise, if I read a magazine, a newspaper or content on any other website, that would also make me a ‘reader’. But according to the reporting of this survey, I am not a reader which seems a bit odd given that I regularly, well, read.
I would guess that, in reality, very few people do not read at all. Of course there are those who cannot read or experience difficulties trying to read, but even then I would imagine the proportion is relatively small. Drawing wide-ranging conclusions and drawing a class division based on the reading of books specifically (and I know people who read but don’t read books) is, in my view, a little simplistic to say the least.
This is not to say that I don’t think there is possibly a problem here that needs addressing. We should certainly be encouraging the reading of books in all their forms, particularly in encouraging children to learn to read. However, as Christopher Warren points out, the report also focuses on book purchasing and does not consider books borrowed from public libraries. This also rather skews the results as it makes the obvious point that those with money buy more books.
So, is there a class divide in reading? Maybe, maybe not. There’s currently no hard evidence to suggest that this is the case, and this survey certainly doesn’t address that particular point. It’s misleading to define reading solely as ‘reading a book’ and it is equally misleading to only draw conclusions based on book buying and not incorporate book borrowing. Despite the media headlines, there is very little to get too worked up about here, other than the media headlines themselves.
Note: Since writing this post, Ned has radically rewritten his post due to some people “misinterpreting” the original. Which is fair enough. It’s slightly annoying that now this post (and Rosie Hare’s excellent post – read it!) seems a bit odd (not least when I have quoted something that now no longer exists, which makes it look like I am fabricating elements of this post – I do have a copy of the original if anyone doubts me!), but I can’t control what other people do on their websites/blogs (nor would I want to!). It does raise some interesting ethical questions, but I can’t be bothered to pose them here to be quite frank. All I’ll add to the post below is that it emerged as a result of some discussion with a number of fellow professionals who raised more or less the same concerns. Indeed, I received a lot of supportive comments after publishing it. It’s not the kind of thing I normally like to get into on this blog as I’m not really interested in writing about issues that are somewhat inward looking professionally. But I thought there were some points that had a broader impact that was worth exploring. Anyway, I shall leave the post here as it is, regardless of the fact it now lacks context. I may, however, close the comments as it seems pointless to leave a thread open to a post that now appears devoid of context. That said, the crux of this post still holds true. I do think it would be a very worthwhile thing for new professionals, uni departments and professional bodies to have some discussion about the courses and whether there are opportunities to develop the programmes. So I guess on that level this post still has some relevance.
I read with interest Ned Potter’s post calling for new professionals to “create your own degree”. It’s fair to say, I think, that I agree with the question Ned poses, but I fundamentally disagree with the answer on a number of levels. Rather than write a comment on Ned’s post, and run the risk of being seen as just a contrary negative type, I thought I’d be better to outline my position in my own blog post (no-one wants blog post length comments on their site!). But first I’ll start with where I agree.
With the caveat that I have only experienced one course and have only heard the odd comment about other courses (so I’m not prepared to make any sweeping generalisations) it seems to me that possibly there is a need to rethink how the courses are structured in terms of content. In my experience, there wasn’t enough focus on social, political or ethical issues (aside from the Information Society module). But I also think there was too much focus on the ‘library’ aspect of the course rather than the ‘information’ part (it is called an MSc in Information and Library Studies after all – more on this later). Of course different people on different courses have different experiences, but if I could wave a magic wand, those are the elements I would boost up (as well as some of the new tech stuff of course). So yes, I agree that the question needs to be posed.
However, I think the framing of the ‘answer’ is particularly troubling in this current climate. In effect, it reinforces the idea that you don’t need a qualification to provide a library service, anyone can do it so long as they attend a few conferences and read a few books or articles. Place this in the context of public libraries, and you have quite possibly made Ed Vaizey’s argument for him. We don’t need professionally delivered library services because there is nothing a librarian can offer that Mr and Mrs Smith down the road can’t do. There are MOOCs they can do, articles they can read, they can pay to attend conferences. So seriously, what’s the point in qualified librarians having anything to do with the service? As someone who follows the issue of public libraries pretty closely, the logical conclusion of the “create your own degree” argument is troubling (it also smacks of a somewhat Conservative individual responsibility position).
I also have problems (and have had with some time) with the librarian/information professional thing. All librarians are information professionals, but not all information professionals are librarians. There are many many other jobs you can do with the qualification aside from ‘librarian’ (I had a list on this site which sadly bit the dust when I had the database fail). Ned says in his post:
They are, in any case, joining a profession which IS dying. It is shrinking and will continue to do so. When people ask me if they should become a librarian, I say no. I personally love it, but how can anyone, in all good conscience, recommend this profession in the current climate? It would be irresponsible to do so.
I don’t think the profession is dying. I think in many respects it’s expanding (there were no Freedom of Information officers before 2001 and Data Protection is becoming increasingly important). There may be fewer opportunities for ‘librarians’ but I would argue this is possibly not true for the information profession in general. So if someone asked me if they should become a librarian, I would not say no. I would say “think about what you can do with a LIS qualification other than a librarian, yet still utilising roughly the same skill set”. That, for me, would be the responsible position. Which brings me back to the design of the courses, it should be about taking a broader look at the profession, upping the ‘information’ aspect. That would then, I think, prepare people far better for a career in the information profession.
Finally, I have general social concerns regarding the belief that someone could spare the time (and expense) to construct their own course. I personally think this would lend itself particularly well to the middle classes, but less so to people of a working class background. You can, after all, get financial support for formal education whereas such support would not be available to attend expensive conferences. Indeed, who would have the funds to pay to attend a course, take a day off work, book accommodation etc etc? Not someone with limited funds. And certainly not if you were working in the private sector (I can well imagine what my boss back in my retail days would have said if I specified I needed a certain batch of days off to attend a conference – even if I could afford it). Cash poor are not necessarily time rich (in fact, I’d argue that they are not time rich at all).
So, I think I should throw down my own challenge. If you believe that someone who works full-time and has limited funds has the time to construct their own degree, I would argue that equally someone in a well-paid, professional post has the time to lobby for better degrees. If you, as an experienced qualified professional, believe the course is not up to scratch, I’d suggest the following:
Because if you think that someone has the time and money to construct their own degree, there is almost certainly no excuse for you not to do the four steps above. We either preach from a position of privilege or we act to bring about the changes that benefit us all. I know which I prefer.
Several years before the 2010 election, the publication of a book by perhaps one of the most influential journalists of the 21st century hinted at the economic will of our political leaders. It explored, drawing on historical record, how ‘massive collective shocks’ (natural disasters, wars, terrorist attacks etc) provided opportunities for those of a certain political outlook. Only last year, Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman (awarded for “his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity“) claimed that the book “really helps explain a lot about what’s going on in Europe in particular”. In short, Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine sets out almost exactly the ideology behind the austerity programme. A programme that is not about returning individual states to economic equilibrium, but about taking advantage of “economic distress” to push through unpopular ideological reforms, regardless of their economic and social impact.
What we are currently witnessing, through the drive to “austerity” and the overzealous pursuit of public sector cuts, is an ideological drive by those beholden to a destructive neoliberal economic philosophy. This is not about economic necessity, despite the oft-repeated rhetoric of Cameron, Osborne and Co. Indeed, we can see some similarities between the course of action being taken by our current Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition and previous examples of the pursuit of shock doctrine economics. The economic experiments conducted in late twentieth century Chile, for example, certainly provide a telling example in terms of where this neoliberal economic ideology may take us.
The experience of Chile in the latter half of the twentieth century tells us much about how some of those on the extremist fringes of the neoliberal right view the balance between the state and corporate interests. In short, the state needs to be scaled back and private control of public services and utilities needs to be expanded, regardless of the will of the people. To pursue these ideological goals was, evidently, near impossible so long as the people could exercise their democratic rights (why would the population support policies that weaken their influence?). Such actions were, therefore, needed to be built on the back of a tyrannical, oppressive dictatorship. An oppressive dictatorship that terrorised its people such that it prevented the emergence of any organised opposition and where, even if it does start to emerge, it is crushed at source.
The Chilean economic experiment had its roots in the murderous overthrow of Salvador Allende, the destruction of its democratic institutions and its replacement with a military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet. Allende’s crime? A programme of nationalisation of Chilean industries and a raft of reforms including: expansion of land redistribution (begun by his predecessor) and government administration of healthcare and education. What was to come following his overthrow was a very different Chile to that envisaged by Allende. One that was less democratic and one which significantly widened the divide between the richest and the poorest in Chilean society.
The shock of a coup against the democratically elected Chilean government provided the window of opportunity required for a number of University of Chicago educated neoclassical economists to seek to influence government economic policy. Receiving their education via an exchange programme with the Catholic University of Chile, students sat obligatory classes on basic economic theory by Milton Friedman, a keen advocate for free market economics. Friedman believed that markets, free from state interference, yielded better economic outcomes than those that resulted in state intervention. His economic thinking had a massive influence on these young Chilean students, who returned to Chile inspired by Friedman’s economic theories. These students became known as “The Chicago Boys”.
Upon their return, after Allende’s successful bid for the presidency, they were so alarmed by the policies enacted by Allende and his adherence to the notion that the state must play a key role to ensure economic prosperity, beliefs that were so alien to the teachings of Friedman et al, that they set about drawing up alternative economic proposals. Upon the conclusion of the coup against Allende, they presented a “189-page draft of diagnosis and proposals“, which they gave to the generals”. By 1975, two years after the coup, Pinochet moved to install a number of Chicago Boys to positions of power in the government. After their installation, the Chicago Boys set about introducing the economic policies inspired by the teachings of Friedman, removing the influence of the state from every aspect of Chilean life. Chief amongst their proposals were the moves to privatise both healthcare and higher education.
The economic experiments in Chile were observed closely by many in the West, keen to move towards a neoliberal economic model, shrinking the role of the state and embracing free markets. This was particularly true in the United Kingdom as the free-marketeers looked to smash the post-war economic orthodoxy founded on the political consensus around Keynesian economic principles (ie that optimal economic performance requires economic intervention by the state). The impact upon higher education was particularly devastating, and some of the consequences of the shift towards privatisation are only just starting to be realised.
Following the coup in 1973, and acting on the guidance of the ‘Chicago Boys’, Pinochet and his accomplices began to radically overhaul the education system. Chief amongst their reforms was the decision to move funding of higher education away from the state and towards the individual. As a result, university students were required to pay tuition fees, either directly or through taxes after graduation. Due to this drive to create a “classic non-interventionist state” under the influence of the Chicago Boy’s economic vision:
“The education system is the most market-driven on the planet with 90 per cent of university education and 35 per cent of secondary schools run by the private sector.”
Such was the depth by which the Chilean education system had been handed over to the market that, in a 2013 OECD report, Chile was found to have the lowest proportion of public expenditure on all four levels of education (pre-primary, primary, secondary and tertiary with 57.9% of education spend coming from public sources (see table B3.1 - PDF).
In terms of higher education, the state contributes approximately 22.1% of the cost of higher education (the UK spends 25.2%), whilst Denmark, Sweden and Norway all spend over 90% (see table B3.2b -PDF). As for Chilean society in general, the country has, according to the Gini index score (which rates the degree of income disparity) the worst score amongst OECD members (it is worth pointing out that the OECD itself does not advocate a system of free higher education). The education system as it has developed in Chile is clearly a reflection of the neoliberal agenda pushed by Milton Friedman via his foot soldiers, the Chicago Boys.
Whilst the reforms in Chile, pushed through by Pinochet under the guidance of the Chicago Boys, were watched with interest by liberal Western governments (not least by those who embraced Friedman’s economic theories) they were not wholly and immediately adopted by his Western admirers. Indeed, there was an understanding that such reforms could prove difficult in a democracy, even zealous advocates such as Margaret Thatcher understood there were limits as to what they could impose. Not least due to an awareness that the introduction of such reforms would run contrary to long-held democratic principles. In an exchange with Friedrich von Hayek, another of Thatcher’s ideological heroes, she flatly rejected his call to fully adopt Pinochet’s economic model, arguing that:
“…in Britain, with our democratic institutions and the need for a higher degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution. At times, the process may seem painfully slow.”
Despite a shared ideological zeal for the free market ideology preached by Friedman, it was clear that forcing such policies through, without the economic shock to smooth its path, would not be possible in a democratic society with liberal traditions. Some might argue that the necessary ‘shock’ to ensure the safe passage of such reforms came twenty years too late for Thatcher.
Although there was a reluctance to embrace the Chilean economic model in the late seventies/early eighties, there certainly seems to be parallels in this post-economic shock era with the neoliberal reforms enacted by Pinochet and the Chicago Boys. For example, due to the shifting of responsibility from the state to the individual, the majority of students in Chile rely on government-subsidised loans, which often results in substantial debt. In 2012 alone, more than 100,000 students defaulted on their loans owing an average of $5,400, about a quarter of the average annual income. Interestingly, and in a striking parallel, a year earlier in the UK the average student debt was £5,680. The average salary in 2011? £26,200. Debt was, therefore, just under a quarter of the average annual income in the UK. And yet there has been a substantial difference in the way these two societies have reacted to the same problem. Of course, the average debt in the UK is now significantly higher due to increased fees, which underlines the difference in student tolerance levels in the two countries.
In response to these reforms, the student protest movement in Chile has been gathering momentum for some time, with students no longer prepared to accept an enforced ideology that has been in place for many years, despite the recent shift towards a democratic system. The protests reached their peak in 2011 with the “Chilean Winter” protests led by various student leaders including Camila Vallejo, then president of Chile’s main students’ union. Chief amongst their demands: free and equal public education. Specifically, the students demanded (original text in South American Spanish):
The popular support behind the protests was such that it has begun to have a significant impact upon the democratic process in Chile. Michelle Bachelet, elected President towards the end of 2013, vowed to radically overhaul the Chilean economic system with free higher education for all being high on the agenda. Of course, this is deeply troubling for those who profit from the status quo and vehemently oppose a policy of free public higher education, a system common across Latin America. Indeed, so troubling do they find it that Forbes, a publication that is firmly in the free market camp, published an article headlined:
A somewhat interesting and alarmist (if unsurprising) take on the future prosperity of Chile composed by an Executive Director of a think tank that advocates for:
“…limited government, private property, entrepreneurship, private enterprise and a free market economy.”
It’s little surprise that a keen advocate for free markets and private enterprise in Chile is alarmed by the emergence of a leader that has supposedly (and it remains to be seen whether she will make good on her stated intentions) committed to reversing some of the negative impacts of such a system.
But the movement against the existing model is growing in Chile and momentum seems to be building for a rejection of the model that has held sway since the Chicago Boys first began to influence government policy in the early seventies. So much so that former leading figures in the student protest movement, (including Vallejo, Karol Cariola, Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric) won seats in Congress following the 2013 election. Whilst there is still a long way to go to reform higher education in Chile, there are signs that the protest movement is on the verge of a breakthrough, a wholesale rejection of neoliberal economic policies in regard to higher education. Interestingly, their rejection comes around the same time as the government in the UK are turning towards the Chilean model as an answer to a supposed funding shortage. The 2008 ‘shock’ providing the cover that Thatcher did not have at her disposal. Will it be another 40 years before we start to see a rejection of this model in the UK?
If there was any doubt about the extent to which the Chilean economic model influenced the West, one need only consult this article from 1993, three years after the dictatorship came to an end, published in Foreign Affairs (the journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations):
Chileans are bemused by the attention paid the robust economy bequeathed them by General Augusto Pinochet. Reformers as far afield as Europe and America have taken special note of his reform of health care, education and social security…If the Chile model holds, then, nations only learn the hard way – that is, by their own trials and experiences. Nonetheless, Chile’s revolutionary example – the withering away of the state – stands for those inspired to follow.
They certainly did take note. Over twenty years since the people of Chile rejected the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the so-called “Chile model” still influences those of a certain political mindset. In the 1980s the United Kingdom lacked the “shock” required to instigate many of the economic policies adopted in Chile. The global economic crisis in the early part of the twenty first century provided that “shock”, and it also provided the opportunity that many had been waiting for.
There are signs already of what the future might hold should the UK government continue to pursue a course of self-funded higher education. After years of rather timid student action, protests are becoming increasingly common as financial pressures begin to take their toll. If the Chilean experience is any indicator, such protests will grow, becoming more vociferous and influential before, potentially, challenging the orthodoxy and leading to a radical re-think by our political leaders. However, just because a policy creates a certain reaction in one country, does not mean it will be repeated in another. Conditions vary, environments vary, history and culture varies. It would be unwise to predict that the reaction in Chile will be replicated exactly here.
But if there is one thing we can be sure of, there will continue to be reactions. They may be small and sporadic, they might not lead to the kind of organised opposition witnessed in Chile and they might not have an impact that comes even close to that experienced in South America. But, as we continue to follow the path set out by the Chicago Boys in Chile during the 1970s, we may well find there is an increasing reaction against the continued marketisation of higher education.
Just a quick post to say that I had an article published on the Informed website yesterday on the digital divide. Specifically it looks at one aspect of the divide that is never really discussed – that between society and those excluded from it (ie prisoners). It’s an area that I admit I have often overlooked when writing about the topic, but it is an important area for discussion. Should prisoners have access to the internet? If so, to what extent? Or should prisoners be provided with no access to the internet whatsoever as they lost their rights when they were imprisoned?
I’m guessing you can probably work out that I fall in the “yes, they should have access” camp. But I have to concede I am not sure to what extent and what restrictions should be in place. I personally believe that it has the potential to help reduce re-offending rates and for that reason alone it should be investigated. Of course, the problem here is that much of our media would be up in arms at the very thought of internet provision in libraries. More proof that our prisons are luxurious ‘holiday camps’. Speaking as the son of a prison officer, I know that this is untrue but there will be many that believe it.
Anyway, do have a read over at Informed (and if you would like to contribute something to the site, please get in touch!). Feel free to add your comments over there or over here. I’ll be interested to hear your perspective.
Just a quick blog post regarding an article I spotted via my RSS reader this morning (who said RSS was dead??). I’ve sort of touched on this area before and it is one I am very much interested in from a library perspective – the idea of library services that abandon traditional hierarchies and adopt a flattened approach to service management and delivery.
The Next Big Thing You Missed: Companies That Work Better Without Bosses highlights the efforts of Zappos to flatten its hierarchical structures, creating a supposed egalitarian system. (Although, it is worth adding that Zappos is a subsidiary of Amazon and therefore not entirely hierarchy-free – still, it is an interesting concept worth exploring).
What do you think? Is it possible to create a ‘holacracy’ in libraries? Would it even be desirable? What would it even look like? I’d be interested to hear what people think.
A little while back I wrote a post pondering whether the internet has, in terms of the way we are governed, been an opportunity missed. For me, the arrival of the internet had the potential to revolutionise our political life. In democracies it offered the opportunity to more closely connect the governed with the governing and in totalitarian regimes it offered the opportunity to breakdown barriers and help to shape a society that is more open and democratic. Whilst the internet has helped facilitate communication between citizens, and led to a degree of change in the way we are governed, the changes have, as has been the case throughout history, benefited the powerful rather than the powerless.
The internet has, undoubtedly, led to a change in the way in which we communicate with each other. We share far more with complete strangers than we would ever have been comfortable with in the past. In many respects, this is relatively harmless. We choose to volunteer certain information about what we are reading, what we are eating, where we are going…harmless information of little interest to anyone.
But, as the NSA revelations have demonstrated, information has also been collected by the state, information that was not publicly published by citizens and instead obtained by tapping into cloud networks. As the Washington Post reported:
…the NSA’s acquisitions directorate sends millions of records every day from internal Yahoo and Google networks to data warehouses at the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md. In the preceding 30 days, the report said, field collectors had processed and sent back 181,280,466 new records — including “metadata,” which would indicate who sent or received e-mails and when, as well as content such as text, audio and video.
In short, communication between ourselves has changed, as has the amount of information on us available to the state, but the relationship between the governed and the governing has remained fundamentally unchanged.
Indeed, in some respects the NSA revelations might just be a high watermark in terms of informing the governed about the activities of the governing, or at least in terms of the balance between the information available to the governed and that available to the governing. Could it be that, despite the opportunity afforded us by new technology, we have already passed a point where there is a balance in the flow of information between the governing and the governed? Was there even really any balance at all? Will the future see the balance tip ever further in favour of the governing?
It would seem hard to believe that the revelations by Edward Snowden are going to repeated any time soon. Fine words will be said in public, but it seems unlikely that the reaction will be anything other than the tightening of internal procedures to ensure that another Snowden is not on the cards in the future. History suggests that the response will not be to increase transparency, but to tighten the grip on state information, ensuring nothing leaks out that might alarm the governed. Indeed, the fact that both Snowden and The Guardian are faced with calls to be prosecuted suggests that the governing are unlikely to suddenly open up and embrace transparent governance.
On a smaller scale, it is also the case in the UK that the right of the governed to know what the governing are doing is threatened with restriction. The UK has often been seen as one of the most secretive of the Western democracies, certainly more guarded of its internal operations than the United States (whose Freedom of Information Act preceded the UK’s by 35 years). Whilst the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act in 2001 offered hope that perhaps we were entering a new era of transparent governance, Tony Blair’s regret at introducing it underlines the extent to which it has been introduced with great reluctance and, consequently, there have been frequent and sustained attempts to undermine the legislation.
We see this partly in the way that the current government believes that publication of masses of data negates the need for freedom of information legislation, never mind that it is not solely pure data that the governed wish to obtain. It’s also the kind of information that the state wishes to conceal by using methods which, they believe, circumnavigate existing legislation. And now we understand that the recently replaced Justice Minister, Lord McNally, has indicated that the government is to consult on FoI restrictions. From the Campaign for Freedom of Information blog:
…the Justice Minister Lord McNally says the government is not committed to implementing all the proposals it has put forward but adds “It is however right that we should seek to ensure that the costs the FOIA imposes on public authorities are not excessive, especially in the current economic climate, and are proportionate to the many benefits that the FOIA brings.”
The minister says that the government’s aim “is not a widespread reduction in transparency but to focus on the small minority of requests which are disproportionately burdensome”. However, the proposals are not targeted at particularly burdensome requests but would restrict access by allusers, including those making occasional requests of modest scope.
The government is still considering the options, Lord McNally says, and will consult the public “in the near future” on those it decides take forward. It seems likely that further moves to restrict the Act are on the way.
So have we reached a point where the information we have access to on the governing is going to rapidly decline, whilst the information the state has on the governed will continue to steadily increase? I may be cynical, but I find it hard to believe that there will be any balance any time soon, and certainly not a shift in favour of the governed. Once the Snowden furore dies down it will be business as normal for the state and our ability to access information on the governing will be severely diminished whilst ours is expanded in ever more complex and secretive ways. The history of the actions of the governing provides no evidence that it will slow down or reverse the collection of data on the governed.
The mechanism available to us through the development of the internet provides us with an opportunity to create a truly open, transparent and democratic system of governance. A system that ensures that the individual is free from state deception and that gives the governed the right to full public disclosure on all matters pertaining to peace, security, ecology and finance. At present the balance is too heavily weighted in favour of information flowing upwards. And that is not to any of our benefits.
Earlier this month, after several years of threats from both the Tories and Labour, the Royal Mail was finally privatised by the Coalition. Despite strong profits and a secure future (primarily due to the rise in internet shopping), the Coalition saw fit, without the permission of the general public who owned the service, to sell it off to wealthy investors. Not only was a publicly owned service sold off without the permission of the public, it has done so at huge cost as a result to the substantial under-valuing of shares in Royal Mail.
With privatisation comes a new set of priorities for the service. No longer is it answerable to the general public, instead it is answerable only to investors whose prime interest is a return on their investment (not on ensuring a quality service). And because it has moved into the private sector and is no longer answerable to the general public, it is not within its interests to act in an open and transparent manner, as it would be forced to do if it were publicly owned. If it doesn’t have to answer to the public, there is no reason for the public to know what it is doing. Which, in my view, highlights a substantial and serious problem with existing Freedom of Information legislation in the current, rapidly changing, environment.
It took many years for the UK government to (reluctantly of course) ‘embrace’ the principles of Freedom of Information. The UK has historically been one of the more secretive of the Western democracies (compare the attitude of our government to transparent governance to that of the United States for example) and, so far as governments across the ages have been concerned, the notion that the governed have a right to know what the governing are doing in their name has long by considered absurd. Even after the legislation was introduced, the governing class were less than enthusiastic about embracing basic principles of an open democracy and transparent governance.
Despite his rhetoric and claims that his would be the most transparent of governments, David Cameron’s government has generally followed the trend of its predecessors. There has been talk of transparency, and some piecemeal attempts to match rhetoric with words, but generally the government has viewed transparency legislation as an obstacle rather than as a conduit for good government. Perhaps this is unsurprising from a leader of a party that is perhaps the most secretive about the source of its funding. This reluctance to fully embrace transparency has been reflected in the actions of a number of ministers (Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley being two obvious examples), but also in his apparent zeal for public sector services being sold off to the private sector where they are free from scrutiny.
Cameron may argue that ‘profit’ is not a dirty word. In many respects, I would argue, it is the dirtiest of words. Dirty because the profit motive obstructs transparency and makes services less accountable to those that rely on them. Put profit into the equation and suddenly the waters are muddied. True transparency simply is not possible to the extent that is possible before the introduction of the profit motive. We see this in the shift of public sector services to the private sector. Whereas public sector services are subject to legislation enforcing a degree of transparency (although admittedly this legislation could be much improved – it is nonetheless, better than nothing at all), the private sector is free from such scrutiny, hiding behind their supposed need to protect profits.
Privatisation is, therefore, not only a sop to your political donors, it is also prevents proper scrutiny of a service. The transfer of Royal Mail, for example, means that the way it is run is, effectively, no business of the people who use the service. It is only the business of investors. If you have no investment in the service, you have no right to know how that service is being delivered. The drive to privatisation is not only a drive to take services out of public ownership, it is a drive away from transparency and towards secrecy. With every privatisation of state owned services, comes a move towards an increasingly secretive (dare I say totalitarian?) society in which you do not have a right to know about the services you use. In effect, we face reaching a point where Freedom of Information legislation is almost an irrelevance as it can no longer be effectively applied and no information of real value can be obtained from its use.
The only way to prevent the governing from eradicating what transparency we currently have (aside from demanding a reversal of previously undertaken privatisations), is to extend and strengthen existing Freedom of Information legislation. If we are to be serious about creating a transparent society, then these powers must be strengthened. If a private sector company is contracted to provide a service on behalf of the public sector, then it must be subject to the same transparency as if it were provided by the public sector. Of course, private companies will complain that opening themselves up will leave them at a competitive disadvantage, but if they wish to provide public services then that is the price they must pay. The concern of the general populace is not the profit margin of a private contractor but that the service provider can be held to account by the citizens who are most affected by the service they are providing.
For all of these reasons, I will be writing to my MP calling on him to support the call to extend Freedom of Information powers in the early day motion (613) tabled on Wednesday. The motion declares that:
…this House praises the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for the transparency and openness it has brought to the public sector and the public right of access of information held by central and local government and its agencies; notes that public services delivered by private companies are currently beyond the scope of the 2000 Act; further notes that, as growing amounts of public services are privatised, ever decreasing amounts of public spend are subject to freedom of information; and supports calls to extend the legislation so that public services contracted out to the private and third sector are covered by freedom of information legislation.
Whilst it is a relatively recent piece of legislation, Freedom of Information is a vital principle if we are to believe that the way we are governed should be transparent and open to scrutiny. An information society should expect nothing less than open information on the way services are provided, whether it be by the public sector or the private sector. A truly democratic state should ensure that all of its citizens have the means to ensure they are fully informed about the ways in which they are governed. Privatisation is not only the enemy of transparency and accountability, it is also the enemy of democracy and freedom.