After his stunning victory over PFI contractors last week, the Unison general secretary has emerged as the PFI’s most effective opponent. But, he tells Tom Broughton, that doesn’t make him a ‘wrecker’ …
It’s 2.30 in the afternoon of Friday 15 March and the boss of the country’s largest trade union has just returned to his King’s Cross office to give an interview to Building magazine after pulling off the biggest triumph of his career. Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, has finally persuaded Alan Milburn to retain ancillary hospital staff within the NHS for all new PFI hospitals. This is a decisive victory in the long war the union has fought with PFI contractors over who is in charge of catering, cleaning, portering, security and laundry staff. Two days later, The Sunday Times concluded bleakly that “the unions are winning the argument” on public services.

So Prentis has good reason to be upbeat. Unison, he says repeatedly, is no longer on the defensive. Good for Unison, but uncertainty over the status of ancillary staff has so far delayed 41 PFI health schemes. If contractors can now expect significantly less profit from future hospitals, won’t that mean that they will be less inclined to bid for them? Doesn’t that make Prentis one of the “wreckers” that Tony Blair seems so worried about?

Prentis’ manner is warm and friendly – usually. “Of course at Unison we want to see the provision of world-class public services in this country,” he says, raising his voice. “It’s just that we don’t believe PPPs are the most efficient way to do it. We share common ground with construction companies, because we believe they should be spearheading the rebuilding of public services in this country, but we believe they should be doing it through a traditional public sector procurement route.”

What’s wrong with the PFI
Prentis has been taking his case against the PFI around Whitehall. Hospitals and schools, he says, should not be purchased by means of “expensive 30-40 year mortgages”. And Whitehall has, by and large, ignored him: while it may concede ground, the government is determined to press on with the private provision of public services.

Isn’t part of the reason for this cool reception that an essentially pragmatic administration has no time for ideologically motivated objections? Prentis’ answer to this is that the ideological part of his case is uncontroversial. The PFI goes against the spirit of public service because it should be not-for-profit. “The records of private companies such as Railtrack demonstrate the conflicts companies have between delivering profit to shareholders and providing public services,” he says.

Then there is the economic argument. PFI projects, he says, do not give value for money and they go wrong. He cites work done by universities and the Institute of Public Policy Research to back up his case – but does not expand on details. What he does say is that public sector clients have been “coerced” into accepting the scheme, believing that the PFI route offered “their only chance to receive investment”.

Prentis’ real gut objection to the PFI, however, is not about the ethos of public service or economic statistics – it about private companies making excessive profits. He says that Balfour Beatty and Amec have just announced profit margins of 18% on PFI deals, and he claims that the returns companies get are not justified by the risk they take on, as this disappears once the project has been built.

That level of profit, he says, indicates that public service reforms are not being carried out efficiently. “Private companies have got to be prepared not to make as much profit from PFI projects,” he says bluntly. In fact, it would be much cheaper to ask the taxpayer to pay the real bill now. “We may not have another chance to implement public service reform, so it must work this time around; it must be carried out efficiently.”

Private companies have got to be prepared not to make as much profit from PFI projects

A ‘bloody good negotiator’
These opinions may bring Prentis into disrepute among those contractors who have built their whole business strategy around the PFI – but is he really as red as he’s painted? A fellow trade union leader says Prentis was regarded as a fairly unassuming character when he was elected general secretary of Unison on February 2000 after a 30-year climb up the labour movement’s career ladder. Most observers thought he would be the sort of guy who would look out for the membership, but probably wouldn’t cause too much fuss.

But that perception of Prentis has changed; he is now seen as a “bloody good negotiator”, and one who is prepared to do whatever needs doing to get his way. Milburn’s decision was partly the outcome of a strike by 600 Unison members at the Dudley Group of Hospitals against their transferral to a PFI contractor, coupled with Prentis’ threat to bring all 1.3 million members out on strike at the end of last year.

“Since he took over the campaign against the public services, Dave Prentis has become living proof that trade union militancy is still alive,” says Prentis’ fellow trade union leader. “The problem is that the government sees him as a union leader that is too far removed for the overall good of the government, country and Labour Party.”

The struggle continues
It may come as something of a surprise that Prentis goes out of his way to stress his sympathy and admiration for the private sector. He admires it because he believes firms genuinely want to provide better service:

“I was talking to one senior director of a construction company who was insistent that facilities management contractors must provide a service over and above what has been delivered previously in the public sector.”

The sympathy comes because the private sector has received a rough ride from Labour from the beginning. “Construction companies do not like having their business scrutinised on the front pages of the newspapers,” he says, referring to the kicking the PFI has received in the media. “Perhaps it was a mistake not talking to them earlier,” he adds.

Personal effects

What football team do you support?
Leeds United.
What’s your favourite TV programme?
BBC News 24; I’m an absolute news junkie.
What car do you drive?
A British car, a union-owned Rover 75
What are your hobbies?
The union – it’s not a job but a way of life.