Over 3 years ago, I wrote a blog post about public service values. Recent discussions that I’ve had prompted me to return to the subject but, this time, from a slightly different point of view.
My theme is the duty of care which people in public service, volunteers, politicians and paid staff alike owe to the people they serve. I shall show how this leads to this stark conclusion: anyone who advocates that the UK should leave the EU without a deal – and this includes the whole of UKIP and the B****t Party, plus some right-wing fanatics in the Tories – are not fit to be in public office.
Public Service Providers
But first, here are a few examples of the general principle of the duty of care.
Perhaps the most obvious examples are the people working for the NHS – a beacon of public service par excellence. When we put ourselves in the hands of medical professionals, often our lives literally depend on the care taken by NHS staff. It obviously applies when speaking of the care in diagnosis and in prescribing the right treatment. But all that glove wearing, hand-washing and ID-checking is part of it, too. (I lost count of the number of times I gave my date of birth to an NHS employee last year! And the extra checks before blood transfusions: well you know if you’ve been there.) Yes overworked, tired staff do make mistakes but the systems and training are, without a doubt, in place to minimise risks.
I’m currently reading a fascinating and highly readable book written by, and entitled, The Secret Barrister. The Secret Barrister obviously cares about the importance of a well-run, efficient and effective justice system. The book exposes how the effects of drastic budget cuts to our courts and legal aid have recklessly jeopardised the principles of just, effective lawkeeping as a key foundation that our democracy and freedoms rest upon. The part-privatisation of the probation service (just rescinded) by Failing Grayling when justice minister is a particularly good, by which I mean bad, example of what has gone wrong. At every stage of the process: police, CPS case preparation, court procedures, sentencing; a myriad of examples of the need for care is evident. Read the book: it explains things better than I can!
In a frenzy of dogma over rationality, all our utility services: water, gas, electricity, telecommunications were privatized during the Thatcher era. All of these (except possibly telecommunications) are natural monopolies and the mechanics of the market has ill served the public. In a 21st century developed country, all these are considered basic necessities. In the intervening 35 years or so, the inevitable has occurred. Each privatised company has played every trick in the book (complex tariffs to confuse, customer loyalty penalties) to rip off the consumer and maximise profit. Regulatory bodies have been either weak or suffered “regulatory capture”. A prime example is the exhortation by Ofgem for householders to switch suppliers to try to enforce the mechanisms of the market.
I simply want these basic services supplied to me by a monopoly supplier with a public service ethos who doesn’t try to rip me off if I don’t shop around every year or so. That’s most effectively done by renationalisation. In this sector, the most obvious example of the disadvantage of public services run for maximum profit is the lack of investment in renewal of ageing water supply pipes and sewers. I believe our water supply industry would be better prepared for climate change if it had stayed in public hands.
Much the same can be (and has been) said of our private railway companies. I’m convinced that train crashes and passenger deaths in the Railtrack period were, at least in part, as a result of privatisation. The basic duty of care had been overridden by the pursuit of profit for shareholders. For now, suffice it for me to add that 80% of the public agree that the railways should be renationalized.
Politics and Politicians
During a recent discussion, I said that I do believe that most politicians enter politics with a genuine desire to make our society better in some way. As our representatives – and not our delegates – we trust and expect politicians to look after the best interests of their constituents. This follows a general principle for all people in public life. And, once again, part of that is a duty of care. I’ve given examples from the NHS above. Broadly speaking, when we put our lives, our safety of ourselves and our loved ones in the hands of another, there’s a certain expectation. That is that the other party takes care to a higher degree than we take for ourselves. This expectation seems to be “hard-wired” into human relationships. Another good example would be in the whole safeguarding regime used in schools and in care institutions.
For politicians, an obvious example is that that spend wisely the money we hand over in taxes. By this I mean both that well-considered decisions are made on spending priorities (the focal point for party political debate) and that public services are run as efficiently and effectively as possible.
“No Deal” Exit from EU
Whether, and on what terms, to leave the EU seems to me to be the most significant political decision of the last 75 years, more than my lifetime. It will affect our children and grand-children’s lives for years to come. It affects us all in a variety of ways: the economy, our safety (anti-terrorism collaboration, for example), education (Erasmus, etc.) , family relationships and our ability to tackle issues where international collaboration is necessary (climate change, air pollution, species extinction). No satisfactory answers have been given to these issues by proponents of crashing out of the EU with no deal.
And yet, opinion polls show popularity for a party whose only policy is exactly this: crash out, regardless of the consequences. Reckless does not even begin to cover it. Those who are considering to vote for such a party should think on just one thing. Does this policy pass the most basic duty of those exercising public policy: that of a duty of care?
I think not.