Recent protests over the Junior Doctor Contract and yet more controversy surrounding teacher’s pay has once again called into question the suitability of our elected secretaries of state. As any A-Level Government and Politics student knows, backbenchers can be promoted to secretary of state for a variety of reasons. While an individual can be promoted because they were previously a junior minister in the department, more often than not other factors have an influence, including loyalty to the party/leader, and political image (gender, ethnicity etc.). This is important because it sheds light on why certain high-ranking politicians boast roles they may not be suited for.
Take Jeremy Hunt, the current Health Secretary. His past endeavours include his two businesses: a management consultancy firm and an educational publishing business. Hunt was a member of the shadow cabinet, and held a government cabinet position, before being elevated to Health Secretary. Arguably, then, Jeremy Hunt has some suitable qualifications to be the current Secretary of State for Health. Similarly, Nicky Morgan (current Education Secretary), was previously a solicitor and has worked heavily with the Treasury. Again, based on the standards of our political system, it seems as though Morgan has sufficient experience within government to be a secretary of state.
However, when we consider these two ministers, we notice that there is one significant area of expertise they both lack: actual experience of their respective fields. Jeremy Hunt must have set foot in a hospital for the birth of his three children, but he has never worked in one as a doctor or a nurse. While Nicky Morgan has certainly been educated (a degree in Law from Oxford), she has never herself been a teacher. How can ministers effectively legislate for their designated sectors when they have little practical knowledge of their day-to-day workings? Indeed, it seems absurdly ironic that not a single MP in Morgan’s Department of Education (when the team was appointed) had been educated at a state school.
Yet, the superficial irony of this lack of expertise is inextricably linked to quite profound consequences. It’s becoming more difficult to recruit and retain teachers, and hospitals are notoriously understaffed. This is partly due to the relentless pace of change set by departments, and the unfair expectations generated by out-of-touch ministers. How will we be able to encourage new graduates to undertake PGCEs or to train to become nurses when the government constantly seeks to undermine these professions?
Perhaps we should follow the Bank of England’s example and ask those who actually know and care about the sectors to decide upon policies. This way, the future of public services would no longer be subject to an endless game of political football. Take the Diploma Scheme pushed by the last Labour government. This proposal took hundreds of hours and millions of pounds to develop, yet was scrapped instantly by the Conservatives. The Diploma Scheme was a complete waste of time and money, purely because it could be cut after a change in government. Expertise is vital to the creation of good policies. It’s about time we started to recognise the value of expertise in politics.