Deborah Orr: MPs get a taste of their own medicine

Politicians are now casualties of the decline in respect for public-sector workers

Friday 31 January 2014 04:37

It is self-evident that the Government's desire for alacrity in reforming MPs' expenses is a matter of political survival. The rush to a shake-up is entirely designed to neuter the slew of negative stories expected in July, when four years of claims are made public. Particular attention is being paid to the question of second homes, since that system has already been shown to be open to blatant manipulation.

It may not have made quite so much a contribution to the gaiety of the nation, but Jacqui Smith's unrepentant defence of her claim for a basin plug, not to mention her lucrative bunking-up at her sister's, is far more contemptible than her apology for the claim for her husband's adult movies.

Gordon Brown has declared that the message he wants to get across is that politicians are "there to serve the public, not to serve themselves". The odd thing is that he seems most keen to get this message across to the public, who already subscribe heavily to the idea that politicians are there to serve them, rather than the politicians, who sometimes behave as if they have forgotten this altogether.

Brown's problem is that the contempt for public service that has been fostered since the start of the Thatcher era appears to have been embraced with unquestioning enthusiasm by MPs themselves. The determination of many of them to avail themselves of any perk they can possibly access is underwritten by their belief that if they worked in the dynamic and efficient private sector, where "talent is properly rewarded", they would as a matter of course be earning much more money. They are hurt that this is not understood and appreciated, poor lambs.

Many MPs have persuaded themselves that public service is a kind of martyrdom, which automatically deprives them of the wonderful financial success they would otherwise certainly be enjoying. In a country where the average salary is £24,700 and the minimum wage, of which Labour is so proud, delivers a yearly salary of about £12,000 for a 40-hour week, many backbench MPs really seem to believe that £63,291 plus very generous expenses is some kind of pittance, impossible to live on unless one is relentless in the pursuit of related financial advantages. Attitudes among ministers, who build taxpayer-funded pergolas, or rent out their homes while living in grace-and-favour apartments, seem no more circumspect.

The 30-year-old mantra which decrees that working for the public sector is bad, while working for the private sector is good, has had many deeply damaging effects, of which this mythical idea that MPs are by definition making great financial and social sacrifices is just one. It has also nurtured, for sure, a general attitude whereby public sector workers are not respected as they should be. The general population is only too aware that the public sector is "there to serve the public" and makes no bones about reminding individuals at the sharp end that this is the case. Politicians themselves are not respected as they need to be in order to have legitimacy, and nor are other professionals, such as health or education workers.

This lack of respect is soul-destroying for many public-sector employees. On the wilder shores of this contempt lie tales of members of the public calling ambulances and requesting that they pick up fast food for them (which has really happened). In the mainstream, however, it compels teachers, for example, to stand before classes that contain pupils who have contempt for them, and are backed in their anti-social attitudes by parents who are equally hostile.

This declining respect, and the greater difficulty it causes for those at the front line, in itself has dictated that those in the upper echelons of public service seek out other more conventional measures of their worth. The sustained attack on the public sector that took place in the 1980s and 1990s has perversely encouraged a culture in which high salaries and perks are seen as necessary for very senior public sector appointments, because they are always, supposedly, competing with the decadent imprecations of the private sector. These very large salaries in turn promote the feeling that all public-sector workers are on a lucrative gravy train, and the lack of respect becomes yet more aggressive and self-righteous.

There is irony in the fact that politicians have been the most visible casualties of declining respect for public service. But it is not the sort of irony that could be described as "delicious". The disconnection so many people feel from the political process is tragic, and Brown's belated efforts to throw together a package of appeasement over expenses will add to that disenchantment rather than staunch it.

But the wider battle that has raged for decades now over the public sector is also self-defeating and perverse. Those who demand most vociferously the shrinking of the state, and who wail most theatrically over its recent expansion, appear to be deaf to the proposition that their own denigration of state employees is part of the problem. Nobody expects public sector workers to toil tirelessly for respect alone. But a general culture that is encouraged to believe that the public sector is there to be used and abused because "we pay your wages" is bound to be one that is more greatly beset by petty or meretricious demands on its resources.

Likewise, the demand for "results" to be displayed and proven, or targets to be met and advertised itself increases the need for expensive and intrusive bureaucracy. Denigration of the public sector actually makes it larger and more cumbersome, because it legitimises the idea that it has to be centrally controlled. The psychological effect on employees is demoralisation, and that in turn is damaging.

The Thatcherite approach to the public sector was to starve it of resources and autonomy so that consumers would turn to the private sector whenever they could. Labour, after its initial pledge to stick to Conservative spending plans, certainly did not continue with the former strategy.

Yet while it has invested in infrastructure and in salaries for some key workers, Labour has continued to treat the public sector as something that has to be centrally monitored, checked and tested constantly, something that must essentially be distrusted. At last, however, it has dawned on the political classes that they have fostered distrust of themselves as well, and that they are going to have to start taking some of the submitting to the regimes of testing and scrutiny that they so love to impose on others.

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