Friday 13 January 2023

Competing in the madness stakes


There are two facts about nurses and doctors with which very few would disagree. The first is that it takes years and costs tens of thousands of pounds to train them, and the second is that there is a critical shortage of both, with large numbers of unfilled vacancies in the NHS. With that as context, try as I might, I really struggle to imagine the ministerial conversations which concluded that threatening to sack any nurse or doctor who refuses to provide a better service on strike days than the currently-resourced NHS is able to provide on non-strike days is such a brilliant idea that it should be made law. Of course, it wouldn’t be ministers doing the sacking, it would be their appointees on the health boards and trusts to whom that responsibility would be delegated but, again, I really can’t imagine the thought process that managers in such trusts would go through which would lead to them actually issuing any dismissal notices. Not only would it completely poison future industrial relations, it would make their job of meeting the myriad targets placed upon them by the various governments of the UK even harder than the current setting of ‘impossible’.

One of the two semi-rational reasons that I have been able to come up with is that the UK ministers seriously believe that the deterrent effect will be so great that striking workers will agree to meet whatever arbitrary service levels ministers will set such that employers will never ever want to use the power which the government is seeking to grant them. It’s certainly credible that ‘employers will never ever want to use the power’; most of them have more sense than that. But that reluctance to use the power bears little relationship to the question of whether the strikers comply with the arbitrary service levels or not, and has much more to do with the application of a little common sense. That leaves us with the idea of ‘deterrence’ as a guiding principle.

It's something on which the current government certainly has form. The whole policy of sending a tiny number of migrants to an African country with which they previously have no connection was all about deterrence as well. It was supposed to destroy the business model of people smugglers by convincing the migrants that the consequences of getting into a small boat were worse than simply staying put. To say that the evidence for this assertion is lacking would be a considerable understatement. The government clearly has no conception of the degree of desperation felt by people prepared to risk their own lives and those of their children by getting into a small boat and crossing the channel; the idea that a tiny risk of being sent to Rwanda would deter them tells us more about the mindset of the ministers than that of the migrants.

To the extent that deterrence works at all, it depends on a number of factors. Those taking the action that is supposed to be deterred have to be taking the decision on the basis of a careful risk analysis and weighing up the likelihood of negative consequences (rather than acting out of desperation), and they have to really believe that those consequences will certainly follow. In the case of NHS workers, they are as able as anyone else to understand that employers who sack them for striking would have to be even more insane than the ministers devising the policy.

That leaves the other semi-rational reason, which is that the government seriously believes that restricting the rights of working people is always, and in all circumstances, going to be a vote winner for the Tory party. Even Thatcher realised that wasn’t true and chose her battles carefully, but those who seek to emulate her clearly have only a partial understanding of history. Perhaps they’re too focussed on mathematics.

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