The Spectator

Jobs for life

Taxpayers are carrying the burden of incompetent public servants

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To the parents of Victoria Climbié, the eight-year-old girl who died in 2000 after being battered by her great-aunt and great-aunt’s boyfriend in a seedy Haringey council flat, the disciplinary procedures employed by British local government must seem to take place in a parallel universe. On Wednesday morning, listeners to Radio Four’s Today programme were treated to the pained tones of Lisa Arthurworrey, the social worker who had been responsible for Victoria’s welfare and who is now to appeal against her sacking by Haringey borough council for gross misconduct. Ms Arthurworrey complains that although she made mistakes she was misled by doctors and let down by her managers, and that therefore she deserves to have her job back.

We do not wish to damn unnecessarily the career prospects of Ms Arthurworrey, who for all we know may have some very employable qualities. But it is surely obvious to anybody outside a public sector human resources department that it would be better if she did not return to the role of protecting Haringey’s children. By her own admission, Ms Arthurworrey failed to read properly a 19-page fax from paediatricians describing the extensive bruising of Victoria’s hands, cuts on her body from a razor blade and a ‘pungent smell’. She said on the programme that she was not worried — it was the police who were. On the basis of her one meeting with the great-aunt, she said, ‘I had perceived Kouaou as a caring person who was trying to do the best for the child.’ When she did eventually knock on the door of Victoria’s aunt’s flat, where the girl was by then tied up in a bin-liner, she assumed that because there was no reply the family must have gone to live in France.

If ever there was an open and shut case for dismissing an ineffective employee, this is surely it. But no, after four years of expensive inquiries and hearings, the pockets of Haringey’s council taxpayers must be raided again to pay the costs of Ms Arthurworrey’s appeal. It wouldn’t matter so much if this kind of farce were not being repeated daily throughout the public sector. Taxpayers are carrying the burden of masses of incompetent public servants because of the excessive cost and complications of getting rid of them.

Given the employment protection enjoyed by public sector workers, is it any wonder that the state’s payroll has grown by half a million since 1997 without any obvious improvement in public services? The first instinct of the management of a failing private company is to weed out the employees who are underperforming. For the managers of a failing government department, on the other hand, the only realistic option is to hire yet more employees in the hope that the new ones might help to carry the useless ones.

Far from reforming the elephantine employment practices of the public sector, the government is intent on spreading them to the private sector. From 1 October, when the Employment Act 2002 (Dispute Resolution) Regulations come into force, all private employers will be obliged to undergo the same ponderous disciplinary procedures as exist in local government. From that date all businesses — from a bank defrauded by one of its dealers to a greengrocer who catches his ‘boy’ with his fingers in the till — will be obliged to undergo a standard five-point procedure. They will have to begin with a formal discussion, to which the employee is entitled to bring along a colleague or trade union official, followed by a final written warning. If the situation does not improve, advises the DTI blurb, a company may then issue a written statement. That must be followed by a hearing, to which, again, the employee has the right to bring along a colleague or trade union official. After that the employee may demand an appeal, to be held by a more senior manager than the one who held the hearing. Finally, a business may show the employee the door — until, of course, the disgruntled wretch decides to take the case to an employment tribunal, at which point the process begins all over again.

The effect of the new regulations will be to attempt to turn private businesses into job clubs, run predominantly for the interests of their staff. The right of a business to decide with which staff it might operate most effectively does not come into the equation. Once you have a job, unless you commit such an offence that even the busybodies who man employment tribunals cannot stand up for you, you have a job for life.

The government is committing the country to a semi-feudal approach to employment, horribly out of step with the dynamics of a successful economy. Labour is no longer a socialist party, but it does refuse to believe that the benefits of the free market apply to the labour market. Yet they do. An effective company needs to hire and fire with ease, to expand and contract its workforce in accordance with economic conditions and to be free to upgrade its workforce just as it would upgrade its computer system. The new regulations, on the other hand, will force private industry to do the opposite: turn their workforces into armies of whingeing old retainers who cannot be sacked for fear they might become upset.