Water Privatisation

Exploring the effects of the privatisation of the water industry in England brought about by the Water Act 1989, academic Dieter Helm concludes that “it might not matter very much who owns the water companies, and renationalisation might not make much difference”. Helm summarises the main reasons for privatisation advanced by the Thatcher Government, that it would: lead to greater efficiency and more effective management; free companies from “labour bias and politically driven investments”; and allow companies to borrow to invest, free of overall public spending constraints. In contrast, he says that opponents of privatisation suggest that it substitutes “private greed” for the “public interest” and that short-term competition in the utility sector should be prevented rather than encouraged. Reviewing the last 30 years, Helm reports a lack of evidence in many areas—such as cost efficiency, the effects of higher managerial pay and investment performance—to assess whether privatisation has improved performance in practice. He notes, however, that the sector has been the subject of many takeovers, the effect of which has been to “extract short-term value” from the companies; “in effect, mortgaging the assets”. Surveying other countries, Helm notes a range of ownership but argues that none “has emerged as obviously superior to the others”. Nevertheless, he criticises the current English system because it is “expecting companies to maximise profits and then castigating them for doing so”. In addition, he believes it is ill-equipped to face future issues such as enhancing the environment. Overall, Helm concludes that what matters is how water companies are controlled, regulated and incentivised—not their ownership structure.

Links Between Work and Health

This report by healthcare charity the Health Foundation proposes that the focus of UK policy should move from reducing unemployment to improving the quality of work. The foundation cites research showing that unemployment poses a range of risks for health and wellbeing, and therefore welcomes the current high employment rate. However, it argues that low-quality work is also a key risk to health. It defines low-quality work more widely than job insecurity and low pay, putting forward autonomy, job satisfaction and “job wellbeing” as three additional factors. Thus, the foundation argues that low-quality work is more common than might be assumed. For example, it states that in 2016/17, only 27 percent of UK employees reported no negative aspect to their job on these five criteria. Those in low-quality work were, it says, more likely to be: young; members of black and minority ethnic groups; and from Wales, Northern Ireland, the North East or the West Midlands. Linking to health, the foundation states that less than good health is twice as common for those with two or more negative job aspects than for those with none. Quoting another study, it suggested that “low-quality work might actually be worse for health than unemployment”. It also found that the duration of employment in low-quality work was a factor in health outcomes. Concluding, the foundation called on the Government to create a strategy for the quality, as well as quantity, of employment, particularly in the context of leaving the EU and the employment bill announced in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech.