Friday, 2 July 2010
Disappointing and ill-informed attack
It is extremely disappointing to have a well-respected columnist such as Iain MacWhirter descend to the depths previously occupied by business-funded campaigns such as the Tax Dodgers Alliance, Reform, and the CBI, and attacking public sector workers.
In calling for public sector pay freezes, pension and job cuts in his recent column in the Herald (Weds 1 July 2010 - http://www.heraldscotland.com:80/comment/iain-macwhirter/there-are-far-better-targets-for-cuts-than-front-line-services-1.1038541), he lines himself directly behind the business (and ConDem) view of the economy that he has previously sought to distance himself from.
It is even more disappointing as more research would have at least challenged the myths that he is now repeating.
Myth 1) We have to cut public spending to balance the books.
The affordability of our public services as we come out of recession is a matter of political choice, not some economic inevitability. Effective progressive taxation of those in our society who can afford it, and of the businesses that largely caused the recession with their inexcusable gambling would take clear steps towards balancing the books - while ensuring that the payment for the recession was borne by those who caused or benefited from the crisis, not those who are already suffering because of it.
In addition the potential contribution to a reduction of the deficit, of a resumption of economic growth - of which there were some signs - is ignored by the Cleggameron (and by Iain). Maybe this is because their emergency attack on public spending is the most obvious way to ensure that private sector growth is stifled at birth, and that we re-enter the recession we are seeking to pull away from.
Myth 2) ‘Front-line’ services can somehow be saved by cutting ‘administration’.
The ‘back-room’ is essential to ensuring the ‘front-line’ can actually deliver. How many police officers will have to be withdrawn from ‘front-line’ policing to do the jobs of essential police support staff who have been sacrificed on the altar of fiscal responsibility? Why does Iain wish social workers to be in offices filling in forms previously done by redundant administrators rather than out dealing with families who need support?
Oh - while Iain didn’t mention it, can we also knock on the head ‘savings from shared services’? In fact any financial advantages that may accrue from such developments don’t come along for five or six years after they are started - and in the beginning they usually require increased spending as new systems, structures and buildings are bought, tried and implemented.
Iain has obviously not bothered, either, to research the level of administration in our NHS before repeating the attacks of the CBI et al. It is a little publicised fact that the NHS actually does rather well in international comparisons that involve measuring administration costs. Recently the Commonwealth Fund ranked the UK NHS no 1 for efficiency and 2 overall (the US health system came 7th).
Myth 3) Public sector pay and pensions are ‘gold-plated’ and unaffordable.
While not defending the pay levels of some senior executives and clinicians - and in particular not the alien ‘bonus culture’ introduced into the public sector by Cleggameron’s antecedent - Margaret Thatcher (and shamefully maintained by new Labour), two points should have been clear:
a) these levels and bonuses have largely been justified by politicians in order that they can ‘compete’ for senior staff with the private sector. It remains true that the level of pay for jobs of equivalent responsibility are still much higher in the private sector. And of course the bonus culture in our finance sector is alive and well, despite its past failures.
b) to judge public sector pay from the level of that of the best paid Chief Exec’s salary is to look through the wrong end of the microscope. Most public sector staff are not highly paid or pensioned. Even Cleggameron suggests a pay freeze should not affect the lowest paid, and the need for a ‘living wage’ campaign in (and outwith) our public services tells its own story. Most public sector workers get a pension of under £5,000 a year - hardly gold-plated. And the horror stories about the ‘black holes’ in such pension schemes are almost always based on the bizarre scenario that everyone will retire at once - something that even the ConDem plans for the public sector do not envisage.
Of course responsible public servants want to ensure that money is not wasted in delivering the essential services they do - that is why Local Government in Scotland reported £258 m of savings in 2008-9 and has reinvested them in the services we need.
Also it is true that particular areas of spending will be judged ‘wasteful’ or not, depending on one’s political viewpoint, and it might be profitable to start a debate on some of these. Can I start by throwing into the mix; scrapping Trident replacement, ID cards and abolishing PFI/PPP and the Scottish Futures Trust? Lets give the new government at least one cheer for one of those.
‘Nothing should be ruled out’ indeed, but it is a pity that Iain does rule out using public spending to support those suffering because of irresponsible financial speculation, and driving growth back into the economy. It is apparently inevitable that we remain in the failed economy of speculation where those who depend on public services, and those who deliver them have to suffer further so that bankers can maintain their bonuses.