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AS BRITISH capitalism moved into its neoliberal phase, the state moved from being a provider of public services into being a purchaser of services drawn from the private sector. We have now reached the end phase of this process.
In the first phase, the state acted like a customer of services drawn from a market of providers. Now, however, the state is tending to stand back so that entire public services are handed out, often to friends and colleagues of government ministers.
Even as the current parliament enters its final year, the government continues dissolving the British state’s traditional structures and replacing them with private providers.
There has been much discussion about the outsourcing of key services through privatisation, but less has been made of offshoring the British state. This involves handing over state services to overseas providers. Whole swathes of services upon which we depend are provided in this way.
The Railways Act 1993 sought to exclude the possibility that the British state should run the railways. This was driven by an ideological hostility to public ownership.
Much of the British railway system eventually did fall into public ownership, but the public stake which owned these operators were often foreign states. Foreign state-owned enterprises of the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, and Hong Kong have all run rail franchises in Britain.
Look at the water industry. We Own It recently reported that in the case of Yorkshire Water, “over half is owned by Hong Kong investment firms and over a third is owned by the Singapore government. The remainder is owned by an Australian pension scheme.”
When it comes to our energy suppliers, it is the same. A moment’s search on the internet shows so many energy providers now owned by foreign companies, often state-owned.
We could go on into non-state sectors of our economy. Steel, for example, car manufacture, and even (especially) the print media.
But the scale of privatisation of the NHS reached a different order with the recent decision to hand out the data contract. This month, NHS England awarded a £330 million contract to Palantir, which takes offshoring to a new level. The company is a secretive data analytics firm with links to the US government’s intelligence and defence departments.
Palantir will create and manage the new NHS federated data platform (FDP), which will bring patient datasets together in one place. NHS patients will not be able to opt out of their data being included.
What do we know about Palantir? It has been, and no doubt still is, close to the deep state in the US. It is a US tech giant based in Silicon Valley founded in 2003 by the Trump-supporting billionaire, Peter Thiel. Some of Palantir’s initial funding came from the CIA — the US’s foreign intelligence service. Today, Palantir has multiple contracts with the US military, law enforcement and federal government departments.
Thiel is reputedly one of the richest people in the US. He is the 10th highest political donor in the country. He supported Donald Trump’s successful run for the presidency in 2016 and subsequently took a role as part of his transition team for the White House.
He has bankrolled several hard-right candidates in what appears to be a co-ordinated effort to remould the Republican Party in Trump’s image and in line with his own “economic libertarian, national conservative” political views.
His wealth is not the main reason to be deeply suspicious about Thiel. He has a fundamental objection to the NHS, whose data he will now be handling. He has said publicly that the NHS makes people sick and should be privatised.
There is a mystery about how Palantir became the recipient of the multimillion-pound contract. The government says it has run 36 FDP pilots at trusts around the country to see how the system may work, but these pilots were run on the same platform as the Covid datastore, Palantir’s own “Foundry” platform.
The Health Service Journal found that out of the 36 NHS trusts where pilots were run by Palantir, only four said it had provided benefits. Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital Trust said Palantir’s product “didn’t meet our needs” and Milton Keynes Hospital Trust stopped their pilot after staff had to enter data manually.
Isaac Levido runs the lobbying firm Fleetwood Strategy, which represents Palantir. Levido also worked with the government on Covid messaging during the pandemic, at a time when Palantir was first awarded an NHS contract. Levido has been described as Rishi Sunak’s “chief strategy guru.”
There are serious questions to be asked about this process and also whether it is right for a company like Palantir to even be invited to tender. Hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being siphoned out of the country and the NHS to Silicon Valley and personal data about all kinds of health matters is being handled by a company linked to the US state — all without the consent of the patients, whose personal medical data is now in foreign hands.
I sought to raise some of these questions in Parliament. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my questions to the Conservative minister met with a blank wall.
Of course, we live in a globalised economy, and international economic co-operation in many areas is indeed a positive thing. But handing over to global capitalism key functions exercised by the British state and paid for by the taxpayer would not be the first choice for most working people in our country.
Confidence in our political structures and in democracy itself is visibly eroding. This process is very dangerous. The process of handing over vital services in this way fundamentally destroys their accountability to the people’s representatives in Parliament.
How long will it be before people finally conclude that if MPs can’t get answers on matters of importance in the Commons, then the Commons no longer serves a useful function?
Jon Trickett is MP for Hemsworth.
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