November 2018 - Quarterly Dinner

Date: 15 Nov 2018

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Deliberating the complex subject of whether private firms should be trusted to provide a public service, Sir Rupert Soames, OBE, delivered his view to Milton Keynes business leaders with a self-assurance which confirmed his inheritance of the public service gene from his eminent grandfather, Sir Winston Churchill.

As guest speaker at MKBLP’s quarterly dinner, Sir Rupert Soames, in his position as CEO of Serco Group Plc, was aptly equipped to weigh into the often controversial debate - should private companies be trusted to provide Public Services?

Sir Rupert was introduced by Chair of MKBLP, Dr Philip Smith MBE. Drawing on the comparison of the demise of Carillion and the success of Serco, Philip questioned the ethical complexities of contracts and the issues surrounding outsourcing.

Ever since the Thatcher era, which ushered in a de-nationalisation policy, the view that private was good and public was bad has taken root. “We have taken this dispensation for granted, but what we don’t see when private companies start providing Government services is how difficult being in Government actually is.” During this opening response, Sir Rupert stressed the overiding importance of Government, and the huge impact the delivery of public service has on the lives of Britons, from regulation on monopolies and banking, to hospitals and pensions.

Providing an argument for both sides of the private versus public debate, Sir Rupert draws the line at private companies operating within the judicial process or the army, “these are employees of the state.” However, he humorously painted the analogy of a privatised individual running alongside the army offering a cup of coffee!

“The profit motive of private companies is incompatible with public sector ethos. But, what matters is the outcome. We need to understand that profit is a fee, a fee which allows us to re-invest.”

Squashing the view that private companies are unaccountable in the same way as civil servants, Sir Rupert, who admits he is regularly called upon by the home affairs committee, opposed the monopolies in the country, both public and private, which, in his view “are always bad, as they are non-contestable.”

Serco runs five prisons within the UK, including the immigration removal centre Yarlswood in Bedfordshire, and Sir Rupert questioned how malevolent society actually wants prisons to be? With 33,000 recorded prison assaults, including 325 deaths, in a 12 month period, he dispelled the myth that prisoners have in fact a ‘cushy’ time in prison.

Sir Rupert argued the point that yes, prison does need to be unpleasant, a deterrent, but as a huge proportion of prisoners currently incarcerated are illiterate, and with just 70 lifers in UK prison today, the focus should be on reform to make them better people on release. Quoting an extract which graces the front page of The Prison Officers Training Manual, a legacy of his Grandfather’s Home Office administration; “When prisoners are in their cells the punishment is lack of freedom and not to be scared to death.”

Contesting the annual £30,000 spend per prisoner, he reasoned that Government spending of scarce public resources should be constrained. How much do we want to spend on someone who has broken the law? “It’s how we strike the balance on spending on the lawless as opposed to those who abide by the law.”

According to Sir Rupert, responding to a question on the role of the 3rd sector, when the public, private and the 3rd sector work well alongside each other it is: “fantastically powerful. The private sector insulates the 3rd sector from the nightmare of Government and can provide the infrastructure needed.”

His response to a question on Brexit was to encourage people to focus less on the decision, and more on the fact that it has to be implemented, “we have to suck it up and get on with it.”

A sentiment which appears to underpin the very ethos of Sir Rupert Soames, and his belief in the public, private and third sector wheels, which make the UK turn.