This outsourcing giant is trying to kick out refugees: it’s time to kick out the outsourcers

Outsourced public services should be run by locally and democratically owned social enterprises and co-operatives, not giants like Serco. Duncan Thorp writes.

Another day another corporate omnishambles.

In the latest instalment of the Carry On Outsourcing franchise, UK Home Office contractor Serco has been trying to evict asylum seekers in Glasgow and change the locks on their homes.

The news comes hot on the heels of the collapse of another private outsourcing giant, Carillion.

It is yet more evidence of the cold corporate takeover of our public services, that bizarre approach of placing profits and targets before human beings. In turn it raises big questions about political influence, the rigged economy and the old way of doing business.

A quote from Serco chief executive, Rupert Soames, neatly sums up the approach:

“We are giving financial and welfare support to vulnerable people for many months, and in some cases more than a year, after their asylum claims have been refused. This is currently costing Serco over a million pounds a year.”

There you go. End of story. And here lies the key issue. Serco may not be doing anything wrong in a legal sense – they are simply doing their job. They have a clear responsibility to their shareholders, their profits and their contract with the UK Government. That’s it. At no point do they have to care about the lives of the human beings affected. The problem is not Serco the problem is the corporate model itself.

Since the Carillion collapse the UK Government has done nothing to address the failed experiment of corporate outsourcing of public services. Unfortunately, any ‘progressive’ solutions seem to involve simply turning back the clock to top-down, inefficient state ownership, where ordinary people have no voice.

However, there are many alternatives in this simplistic, binary debate. Innovative and flexible social enterprises can fill the gap, rejecting both corporate greed and the dead hand of government. These are independent businesses that operate with a specific social purpose. They don’t have shareholders but they do seek sustainability by making money, with profits directed to their mission.

Locally and democratically owned social enterprises and co-operatives already deliver public services across the UK. The Wise Group in Glasgow in employability and justice, HCT Group delivering bus services in south east England, the Low Moss Prison Support Pathway, City Health Care Partnership in the north – it already happens and it works.

Public services run by big business ends up as corporate welfare, a kind of socialism for the rich.

It’s the same issue whether we’re talking about public service profiteers, bank bailouts, subsidies for train companies or government aid for weapons makers – the business model is broken.

This isn’t about demonising the private sector. There are many brilliant and ethical businesses and many business people who are driving positive social change. In fact we need far more entrepreneurs. Unfortunately their efforts are drowned out by the likes of Carillion, G4S, Atos, Capita, Serco and other wealth extractors.

Corporate law reform sounds boring but it underpins our entire society. Every campaign, every charity, every cause you hold close to your heart, is negatively affected by corporate law. Under the law a corporation is classed as a person and is required to maximise profits. It has no choice.

When I hear about the latest drama involving anti-social enterprises it always reminds me of a particular episode of Star Trek: Voyager. A character shares his thoughts about some cybernetic beings that are forced to assimilate everything in their path: “The Borg Collective is like a force of nature. You don’t feel anger toward a storm on the horizon.”

It’s easy to get angry but our response should be practical and constructive. We must lobby hard for democratic public services and strong business ethics. And we must build the positive alternative of social enterprise in every local community.

Duncan Thorp is the policy and communications manager for Social Enterprise Scotland

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