Thursday, 3 November 2016

Private vs Public? Should Have Gone to Specsavers

Chauncey said something very illuminating at yesterday's PMQs. He was talking in his usual misrerabilist way about how awful things are with regard to benefits and sanctions on those who do not obey the rules - you might imagine that this is a very decent test of whether someone is properly looking for work when you think about it, after all if they cannot even follow the very lax rules of the DWP how good would they be at getting to work on time or of doing what they were asked to do? Anyway, as part of this discussion and after he confused the latest piece of sub Dickensian drivel from Ken Loach for a documentary, he opined that it is a terrible waste of money that all of that money was being wasted on Housing Benefit to private landlords.

Revealing huh? That is how lefties think. Yet it is an absurd characterisation of our system. It's true that we do spend an awful lot of money on Housing Benefit and that this is increasing to an enormous extent. But this is more a function, not of market failure but of regulatory failure. In simple terms, we are simply not building enough homes. Now you could argue that the money spent on Housing Benefit would be better spent on building new homes. But that isn't what Chauncey and co are arguing. They are just arguing that it is wasted money if it goes to the private sector. If it goes to the public rented sector - social housing - then that is fine and dandy.

It never occurs to Chauncey and co that private landlords might be fulfilling a role that the state cannot fill, that it is a useful social function. No. Private = bad. Public = good.

This is not to argue of course that there aren't very many rogue private landlords out there. Of course there are. But in our overcrowded little island, an island that Chauncey and co see no reason to place any impediments on being even more overcrowded, we need all of the investment in housing we can get. If that comes from private landlords as well as from additional public investment then that might help to solve a chronic shortage. What would certainly solve it is if there was less regulation preventing more homes being built, lower taxes including the abolition of George Osborne's idiotic attempt to rein in private landlords with his stamp duty increases and new income tax regime.

The public and private sectors are not polarised extremes that have to be chosen one way or the other. They both need to be involved in any successful economy. Take public transport. Lefties have leapt upon the failings at Southern Trains. The latest problems are happening this week as more strikes are being called by the ever militant RMT who are accusing the company of 'hoarding' profits and failing to invest.

The opposite is in fact true. The company has reported a loss in the current year and its attempts to invest in new and more efficient rolling stock have resulted in the union calling these strikes, leading to cancellations and misery for commuters. Why? Over who presses buttons in carriages. The unions are as ever claiming that this is them defending we consumers and our safety. In reality, much like as on the London Underground, they are simply defending their own very cushy working conditions. It seems that the only kind of unreasonable profits they don't mind defending are those that their own members make. Profit is a dirty word for unions, unless it is their members making it. Yet profit is a necessary part of any modern and vibrant economy. The profit a company makes is no different to what their members make for working for the railways. The companies are getting a return on their investment. Modernisation is the way to make our railways more responsive, more efficient, safer and more reliable. But how can we have that when the unions are so opposed to those things and to profit? Even nationalised industries need to make a profit in order to invest. When they don't make a profit we have the situation we had in the 60s and 70s when huge loss making nationalised industries needed to be bailed out by the taxpayer. Its why the country was nearly bankrupt.

Yet the likes of Chauncey want to renationalise our railways imagining that this would somehow result in an improvement. In reality it would create a monopoly and there is nothing that unions like better than state run monopolies. All the better to hold the rest of us to ransom with.

Or there is the Health Service. Privatisation is the accusation that is always levelled at the Tories, although Labour did more of it when in power than this Government has done. But what is wrong with private provision in the NHS? The chances are that you get the lions share of your health provision through a private company already. Before you get ready to march on Whitehall I should point out that most GPs are run as private practices run as partnerships. Or what about where you go to receive your prescribed medicines? The vast majority of pharmacies are privately run. Should they be nationalised? There is about as much economic rationale for doing so as there is for nationalising the railways after all.

Last week I had three encounters with health services. The first was with my local GPs surgery. I was able to get an appointment within a couple of days (same day appointments are available in urgent cases). I have lived in various places in recent years and been registered with four different surgeries. They were in very different areas with very different populations and needs. But all provided excellent services, always gave same day appointments when needed and were well run even if the administration sometimes left a little to be desired. I simply do not recognise the picture of the NHS that is often painted.

I also last week had to buy some new reading glasses. For this I used the excellent Specsavers. They gave me a free eye test - they paid for this, it wasn't a free NHS test as I am not entitled to one - did all of the tests I needed and then offered me two pairs of glasses for the price of one. They used all of the latest technology including measuring me for my glasses by using a specialist app on an iPad. They then made an appointment for me to pick up my new glasses a week later. When I turned up an hour earlier than scheduled there was no problem, they fitted me with my new glasses there and then and I was on my way within 10 minutes. Their service was friendly, professional and thoroughly efficient.

And then there was my brush with the one part of the NHS that let me down. Can you guess which part? Now to be fair I had an MRI at a local hospital and this went off without any hitch at all, the staff were very good, very efficient and all was done professionally. The problem was when I then had to arrange a follow up consultation at the specialist Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham. I  was sent there last year following the recurrence of a problem that has seen me taken to hospital and operated on three times in the last few years. The doctor I saw at the ROH, after consulting colleagues, ordered tests to be done on me. This was done back in August. I waited for weeks for an appointment to be made. I finally got one for early last month. But on the day of the appointment I received a phone call from the hospital cancelling my appointment. This was not because of doctors strikes or because of staff shortages but because they had sent me an appointment with the wrong doctor. I then spent days trying and failing to contact secretaries to rearrange this appointment, although quite why this was my responsibility is a mystery. They never answer the phone and don't respond to messages. Eventually someone got back to me and told me she was arranging an appointment on a Saturday for me. She told me I would receive a letter to this effect. Unfortunately when I checked the date she had given me she had given me the wrong one. When I called back to find out what was happening, not only did she not answer the phone as usual I could not even leave a message as her voicemail was full. Getting quite annoyed by now I called around and finally managed to speak to someone only to be told that she had not made an appointment for me, they had no record of her even putting me on the system as she had claimed she had done.

Suffice to say that I did eventually succeed in getting my appointment, a cancellation, later this month. It took me threatening to make an official complaint to accomplish this. But this, in my experience is the way that the NHS operates. It's administration is appalling. The health services, once you access them, are excellent.

It is this kind of bureaucratic nightmare that typifies the NHS. It is hopeless and unwieldy. How is it that we live in a world in which it is possible to have a washing machine delivered the next day or even the same day, when our supermarkets can source food from exotic locations all around the world all delivered fresh and yet the NHS cannot answer a phone or an email in a few days? The NHS is fine at doing things when in an emergency. Its individual units, when discrete from larger ones, often work well and efficiently. It is when part of a huge whole that they fail. Solution? Break it up. Contract it out. Privatise it.

Oh and stop expecting all of this to be done paid for just with taxes and when the consumer has no need to rein in demand. But that is the subject of another post for another day.

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