Private companies have been providing goods and services to (and on behalf of) the state for as long as the state has existed. After all, the NHS doesn't make its own MRI machines any more than the Home Office manufactures its own police cars.
True, there have been times in the not too distant past when the state took a more direct role in the provision of vehicles and telephone lines but nobody looks back on that period with much affection. When it comes to the delivery of state services today, you'd be hard pushed to find an example that doesn't include some level of collaboration or contact with a private business.
The fact is that the line between public and private will get even thinner in the coming years. Those in government and at the top of major outsourcing firms talk of a new paradigm of ever-closer partnership. This is based partly on the reality of austerity (and the need to cut the size of the state) but also on a more optimistic assessment of the role of technology and innovation in the provision of public services.
As part of this conversation there are now calls for private companies in receipt of public money to be held accountable under Freedom of Information laws. Some groups, such as left-wing campaigners 38 Degrees, are opposed to the role of private companies coming within 100 yards of sacred state services.
A more sensible voice in this area comes from the TaxPayers' Alliance, which also wants to see FoI laws extended so that they can continue to “follow the money” from taxpayer to end result.
A commission reviewing FoI laws is expected to report back by the end of this month and will recommend whether or not to extend the act to cover private companies.
Government sources stress that they're aware of the need to balance increasing calls for accountability with the risk of deterring private sector involvement.
If the law is reformed it should be in line with the TaxPayers' Alliance philosophy of ensuring value for money, rather than as a way of placating campaign groups who simply don't like the idea of private sector involvement in public service provision. After all, this is an idea they had better get used to.