Left Watch

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On Planet Polly all profit-making is bad. Conservatives must never make the mistake of thinking all government is bad.

By Tim Montgomerie
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Earlier this week Paul Goodman wrote about the failures of some private providers of residential care. He called for better regulation and suggested local control of care watchdogs.

Polly Toynbee offers less reasoned reflections about Southern Cross' financial difficulties and the Winterbourne View scandal in her Guardian column today. She relishes the opportunity to kick every part of the profit-making sector. "Public tolerance," she concludes, "for privatising services for the weak and sick may have been tested to destruction." Read it if you wish but, in summary, it's her predictable public equals good and private equals wicked shtick.

On Planet Polly people motivated by profit can't do good. She obviously doesn't use the profit-making supermarkets that have enabled low income households to enjoy a range and quality of food that would impress any king or queen from history. She can't be using any of the life saving and life enhancing drugs that have been delivered by profit-hungry drug companies (which the Left derides as Big Pharma). I'm sure she doesn't use the budget airlines on her trips to Tuscany that mean British families can afford to fly to the sun in a way that was impossible when every country's airline was an expensive nationalised carrier.

And, on the other side of the equation, Ms Toynbee should remember that the state is capable of ugly failure too. I think of the pensioners neglected on NHS wards. The council houses built so badly that they have become infested with crime and are decaying because of damp. The police who did nothing about the anti-social terror that drove the Pilkingtons to suicide. The children abused in local authority 'care'. The welfare bureaucracies that treat vulnerable people as numbers rather than individuals.


The state's greatest failure has been to often put the pay, conditions and security of the people who work in the welfare and public services ahead of the people those services are meant to support. I offer Polly Toynbee one fact about Britain's state-run education system that should shame her and every defender of the post-war years: "Only 18 UK teachers have been struck off for incompetence in the past 40 years". How many children have had inadequate educations because bad teachers have remained in the classroom because of the power of the NUT and the other public sector unions? Thankfully Michael Gove is beginning to address this problem.

A final thought: Conservatives must not make the mistake of being the opposite of Polly Toynbee. We must not be uncritical defenders of the private sector or unreasonable critics of the state. We must live in the real world where the public and private sectors are both capable of good and bad outcomes. The task of good government is to ensure all people have access to basic services and welfare and to encourage good incentive structures, smart regulation and punishment of wicked people.