By Peter Hadden
THE ASSEMBLY is currently budget plans for the next three years. The proposals outlined by the new Finance Minister, the SDLP's Sean Farren, are for a greater use of private finance through so-called "Public Private Partnerships" (PPP) and Private Finance Initiatives (PFI). The plans allow for a possible deficit of nearly £5 billion, a huge hole that has been left mainly for private companies to fill.
There is cross party support, at least among the main Assembly parties, for the selling off of more and more parts of the public sector to the private sector. Francie Molloy, Sinn Fein Chairman of the Finance Committee, commented on the £5 billion black hole: "The Government has promoted the use of the private sector to improve hospitals, schools and other services.
The Committee found that public-private partnerships can help but should be approached with caution..." The truth is that privatisation does not help. It leads to worse services and costs the public more. Recent experience across the public sector in Northern Ireland bears this out. PFI has been extensively introduced in the building of FE Colleges, such as the new Millfield College in Belfast.
Across the FE sector there is now a major crisis with some colleges facing bankruptcy and possible closure. Lisburn Tech is bankrupt. Derry Tech last year handed over part of its buildings to a private consortium, NorthWin, a group based mainly around the Cement Roadstone Company. The Tech is now £1.5 million in debt, classes are threatened and workers employed by NorthWin are facing cuts in pay and conditions. Social Security Staff have for years being resisting the attempt to privatise their computer software system under the EISIS project.
This means handing the system of managing benefits to a private company, EDS, with immediate job losses and perhaps 2,000 jobs going in the longer term. Opposition from NIPSA members has so far failed to stop this scheme, but there is now the possibility that the incompetence and inefficiency of the private contractors may mean that the programme will have to be scrapped. Test runs of their new system have shown that it just doesn't work and they have been given one last chance to get it right. PFI and other private finance schemes will mean an erosion of public services.
Meanwhile the state is locked into deals to pay these companies for 25 or 35 years. According to one estimate the government in Britain will have to pay £415 million to cover existing PFI deals. This could mean increased taxes, cuts in other services or more charges - just so the profiteers get their money. The privatisation madness must be stopped. We need properly funded public services that are democratically run - and we need to build a political party here that will fight for this.
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