Our overpaid and overrated public servants
20 April 2010
It is truly bizarre that as the economy spirals ever deeper into the red, one group of highly privileged men and women become increasingly wealthy from the public purse – and no one seems to give a damn. MPs may be vilified, bankers may be pariahs, but the fact that senior civil servants can see their already large wages galloping ahead of inflation is treated as if it were an immutable law of nature.
To get the best managers, we are told again and again, the market rate needs to be paid. As a result, the same faintly obscene process of overpayment can be found in every area of public life. In the National Health Service, the drones and the middle managers may be suffering from the squeeze, but those at the top who manage them are doing very nicely.
It was revealed this week that NHS chief executives’ salaries have doubled in the past decade, so that 25 of them now earn more than the Prime Minister’s salary of £192,400. In 2007-8, senior salaries were increased by a distinctly healthy 6.4 per cent. What has been the reaction to the current financial crisis? An even larger increase. This year the rise will be 6.9 per cent.
Embarrassed by a similar trend in the police force, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, Sir Norman Bettison, daringly suggested that his current salary and bonuses – £213,000 – is rather too much. Across at the BBC, those on the accelerating gravy train are doing even better under the command of Mark (£834,000) Thompson.
Paying senior civil servants as if they worked in the private sector has become part of the way Britain governs itself. In councils, according to a survey by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the number of staff earning more than £100,000 has risen by 14 per cent over the past year to 1,250. Those at the top can expect to earn up to £365,000.
The unquestioned acceptance of a market-led, bonus-rich, capitalist culture at the heart of public life is in its way more harmful than the avarice of bankers or the chiselling of MPs. Those who work in private business and finance are playing a game of high risk; the same can hardly be said for the cosseted senior technocrats whose wages are paid by the taxpayer.
Systematic over-rewarding of senior management is the ugly bastard child of Thatcherism and Blairism. Recruiting the managing director of a successful company in the hope that, like an expensive footballer bought on the transfer market, he would transform the whole team was an idea which brought together Tory privatisation and New Labour’s belief in competitiveness and league tables.
Have these highly-paid men and women, and their belief in the market, actually made public life more efficient and effective? Certainly, the idea of leadership has been eroded – if the boss is motivated by money, why should staff be expected to be public spirited? Sir Norman spelt out the obvious this week, saying that good management in the state sector involves an ability to “secure long-term public value and a vision for their staff, not some mercenary performance manager peddling a short-term fix”.
Perhaps this is more a moral problem than a financial one. Allowing the law of the market (better known as greed) to be the prevailing management force in education, health, policing, government and broadcasting ends by contaminating public life itself.
Even feminists can kiss and tell
If ever the Literary Review considers adding a non-fiction category to its Bad Sex Awards, there will be hot competition among literary memoirists of a certain age. Those famous personalities who had a busy personal life in the late 1960s and 1970s seem peculiarly eager as they grow old to share their erotic memories with a wider public. Not so long ago, Christopher Hitchens claimed to have slept with a couple of future Tory ministers while at Oxford. Now Germaine Greer has written a heartfelt account of an affair with Federico Fellini in 1975. It was a hot day in Rome when she was invited to the Cinecittà Studios – so hot that when she arrived “my flimsy dress was stuck to my otherwise naked body”.
Fellini, you may not be entirely surprised to learn, was captivated. He asked Greer to work on the film and, when he came to dinner with her, “there was never any question of his sleeping anywhere but in the big bed with me”. He had brought his brown pyjamas with cream piping, disliked sleeping with the windows open and called his wife every two hours or so. In the middle of the night, a bat flying around the room scared him. “Fellini was a many-sided genius,” Greer concludes. “I do not hope to meet his like again.”
Here are rich pickings for historians. Cinéastes will be fascinated by the great director’s brown pyjamas with cream piping and his bat phobia. In Women’s Studies faculties, the fact that a great feminist hero went to work on a film while not wearing any underwear will be earnestly discussed, as perhaps will her lack of sisterly solidarity towards Mrs Fellini.
Young readers will particularly enjoy these ancient kiss-and-tell accounts, rather as a previous generation listened to war stories.
Strange goings-on down on the wind farm
There has always been something faintly mysterious about the Ministry of Defence’s attitude to wind farms. One moment, it was arguing the 400ft turbines posed such a problem for military radar that it was obliged to object to several developments in England and Scotland. The next, objections were withdrawn.
Had some great technological advance taken place or – rather more likely, some might say – had pressure been applied by central government? The news that Lord Chilcot, chairman of the Iraq war inquiry, has successfully lobbied the MoD on behalf of Northern British Windpower, a firm in which he is a director, has helped to clarify the way these things work.
After the ministry objected to an enormous and potentially profitable Scottish development, three of its officials were invited to meet Chilcot and two of his senior colleagues. With His Lordship providing what was described as “a fresh perspective”, the MoD later withdrew its objections subject to North British Windpower providing a technical solution to the radar problem. Working in its own quiet way, the Establishment can be rather effective.
Independent, Wednesday, 14 April 2010