Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 18/06/03

No, Prime Minister

I sometimes wonder what it is with Tony Blair. Is he really Dr. David Owen's final curse on British politics? Is he Margaret Thatcher in trousers? Is he a fifth columnist for the Daily Telegraph?

One of the key attitudes of Blair and his governments over the last six years has been the constant denigration of workers in the public sector. Time after time, whenever they need to look good to Middle England (where most of the party's marginal constituencies reside), they resort to portraying public sector workers as being inefficient, bureaucratic dinosaurs; or, alternatively, as Trotskyite wreckers out to consolidate their power at the expense of better service for The Consumer. The level of flak flying around has been higher than at any time under the previous Conservative administration.

(I should at this point declare an interest: I am a public sector employee. I work in an office belonging to one of the main departments of State, a department which has seen huge changes in the twelve and a half years I have been in it).

On Tuesday, in a lecture (the appropriate word, given his usual tone of address to those who, at least in theory, are on his side) to the Fabian Society, Mr. Blair was at it again. He stressed, for the umpteenth time, his commitment to 'reform' of the public sector and how he will not let anybody in that sector stand in the way.

His use of the word 'reform' may be the significant point. This appears to have replaced the standard Blairite watchword of 'modernisation' to describe his intentions. Of all the buzzwords and cant terms to have gained currency in the past two decades, 'reform' has been one of the most frequently used, and one whose literal meaning is most regularly spun out of existence to be replaced by the Humpty-Dumptyist sense we have all come to know and love.

(Humpty Dumpty, you may recall from your reading of Lewis Carroll, said that when he used a word it meant whatever he wished it to mean, not what it actually meant).

Those of us whose memory of events predates last week will recall the way in which the word 'reform' was used by late-model Thatcherism and its successors. 'Reform' of the health service meant the creation of the wretched 'internal market' whereby money which should have gone into patient care was instead used to import a vast cadre of middle-management, accountants and PR-folk (many of whom are still there despite the 'market model' having been abandoned, at least in name); 'reform' of local government meant the replacement of democratically-elected control with power by cabals of hand-picked quangocrats, answerable to no-one but the ministers who appointed them; 'reform' of public transport led to the disappearance of bus services in many rural areas (leading to the 'people carrier' blight of today), and reached its baleful zenith in the lethal disaster of the privatisation of the railway system.

It seems that, with Mr. Blair, the word still means much the same as it did to the ideologues of the marketeer right of the 80s and 90s. Just look at his policies: 'reform' of education means the creation of schools which will be run by a collection of ideologically-motivated cliques (including the obligatory groups of religious nutters who believe that Creationism is scientifically on a par with evolution); 'reform' of the health service (yes, another one) will entail the creation of 'foundation hospitals' which will be able, through a series of legal fiddles and preferential treatment, to draw the best talent and facilities to them, thus inevitably impoverishing the rest.

'Reform' also, invariably, increases or institutes the heavy involvement of private companies in the running of public services in a form of 'privatisation by stealth'. Corporations are invited to take over the running and control of large sections of the public sector, again under preferential conditions.

Consider the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) if you want to see where this will lead. Under PFI, companies are awarded contracts for building, say, a new hospital or school. They will then effectively own that building for the period of the contract (which can be as long as 50 years). The contracts, however, are so designed as to preclude (except in the most unusual circumstances) their being terminated without the taxpayer having to dig deep to pay compensation to the corporation involved, however incompetent, venal or corrupt it may have been. Those companies fortunate enough to be favoured by the government with these contracts are on a certain winner for the next two generations, despite a number of studies which have already concluded that PFI is almost always more expensive to the taxpayer than the usual way of doing things.

So why do it that way? Well, it seems that it helps with the accounting. If you can move items of public expenditure to another part of the balance sheet (or even remove them from it altogether) you can claim that you are keeping under control (or even bringing down) public expenditure. This will play well with Essex Man, Worcester Woman, or whichever stereotype of middle-class England you want to impress. You know, the ones who think that they should have first-class public services without having to pay accordingly. But there is always a price to pay, and that price will now be paid in damn-nigh unbreakable contributions to the profits of dozens of private corporations for the next 50 years or so. A false economy is no economy at all.

The Prime Minister wants to 'reform' (or is that still 'modernise'?) the public sector, as he clearly sees it as under-productive. Perhaps I can advise him of a better way, based on the experience of my colleagues in recent years:

  1. Stop insulting us. It's a simple thing Tony, you could start right now, and it wouldn't cost you anything. I know that the vast majority of public servants have worked, and continue to work, very hard to implement your government's policies at ground-level, and they deserve more respect than you have shown them. Morale is lower than I can ever recall it being, and being told that we still aren't working hard enough, and that if we resist even the most idiotic of your policies then we are 'wreckers' and 'vandals' isn't going to help.
  2. Listen to us when we're talking to you. Are you really trying to tell us that you know better than we do what needs to be done? On the rare occasions when we are consulted, our comments and suggestions seem to be routinely ignored in favour of the latest wisdom coming out of your favourite focus groups, or companies of 'consultants' engaged at great expense.

    (Oh, and by the way, the best management does not come out of those who have an MBA or who have swallowed the latest Californian-style management-guru-speak wholesale. It comes from people with experience and understanding of the jobs that their teams actually do).
  3. Stop changing things around every few months, and stop implementing new policies and systems before they have been properly tested. My department has suffered particularly badly in recent months as a result of a new system which was rushed in before it was (or we were) ready, simply because it was politically expedient to do so. This comes hot on the heels of a set of reorganisations which were dictated entirely from the top (again with no consultation until it was too late to make a difference), and have led to further disruption, confusion and waste.
  4. Reward us accordingly. Salaries in the lower levels of the civil service consistently run 20 - 30% below the equivalent jobs in the private sector. Thousands of public sector workers qualify for Tax Credits because their pay is so low. Those who do not qualify for Tax Credits (me, for instance - no kids, no registrable disability), are particularly hard hit. Public services will lose their best talent if this is not corrected soon.

    (And to those of you who would say to that, "Well, why don't you go and work in the private sector, then, if you're so pissed off about it?", I reply that many already have gone and more will inevitably follow. Do you want good public services? Well, in this market-orientated world, you'll only get what you're willing to pay for. There are many of us who are committed to working for the public benefit, and it is spectacularly ungrateful of the public to wish to take advantage of that commitment by under-valuing us).

We face a crisis in the public sector. The public needs to be told the truth about how that state of affairs has come about and what steps really need to be taken. Blaming those who are doing their very best under increasingly difficult and stressful circumstances does everyone a disservice.