COMMENT: Keep the private sector in perspective and steer clear of confrontation

The public-private partnerships policy shambles has been on lavish display at the TUC conference in Brighton all week. The PPP controversy dogged Labour's election campaign, and the confusion surrounding the government's precise intentions haunted health secretary Alan Milburn's summer conference appearances afterwards.

He, for one, would readily admit that the government's lack of clarity on the issue has played a part in arousing trade union ire and causing potential private sector partners to pause for thought.

Ministers' efforts since to spell out their plans have failed to convince either the public at large or public sector workers. The public are now deeply sceptical about the role of the private sector in running public services: witness Railtrack, they say. And the government's determination to press ahead regardless with unpopular privatisations, such as London Underground, apparently in the face of all the evidence, has aggravated their hostility. Meanwhile, staff remain stubbornly resistant to the idea of transferring to private sector employers - whatever government assurances are strewn in their path - mindful of the precedents of the 1980s and early 1990s, when already meagre terms and conditions were often relentlessly depleted by companies victorious in competitive tendering.

The pity of all this is that the private sector always has - and always will have - close relationships with the NHS. There can be little serious doubt that in some areas it could play a bigger and more fruitful role if permitted. Yet it will never transform the NHS; it offers no panacea to the service's deep-rooted problems. But is Mr Blair aware of that? In his urgent quest for public sector reform he seems conveniently to overlook this fact.

Keeping in perspective what the private sector can offer then begs the question: is it worth enduring public alienation and union confrontation to achieve? Signs are emerging that the private sector itself has doubts and may scale back its role in PPPs. The political heat may burn off the potential value in PPPs. Both sides need to cool it.