Bernard Ingham: Even the mandarins are militant in this disgraceful strike

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NOBODY will ever know how many so-called public servants will today undermine our ravaged economy. Unions and Government will make their own claims and we should take whatever either says with a pinch of salt.

But what we do know is that, as usual, the strike does not have the backing of the majority of the public employees involved. Indeed, the best any union can claim is that around 44 per cent of its members voted to strike.

Believe it or not, this is the First Division Association, which represents the top brass of the Civil Service – the men and women who advise Ministers and were once credited with running Britain with Rolls-Royce efficiency. At least a majority – 54 per cent – of them bothered to vote and 81 per cent were in favour of abandoning Ministers and the nation for the day.

When this often self-regarding elite votes to strike there must be something wrong. Can it simply be explained by the fact that the Government, in these impecunious days, is expecting them to pay more towards lesser pensions and to work longer before retirement?

I doubt it. These people like us to think they have among the best minds in the country. If so, they are intelligent enough to know that the current public sector pensions scheme is unsustainable.

I know it is not quite the same thing, but in my 11 years in No 10 I scarcely got a pay increase that was not “staged” – i.e. delayed – but in those militant days nobody went on strike. And you can usually count on trouble – whether in the form of public sector strikes or riots – when the Tories are in power or, more accurately today, in office.

It may well be that our top civil servants have had enough of politicians who are incapable of sticking with an agreed policy.

They had 13 years of that as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown responded to every waft of the media wind. Perhaps the only consistent thing about the current coalition is its endless headline-chasing initiatives we mostly cannot afford.

They may also be fed up with the way that special advisers, some with very queer notions, are brought in by the politicians almost at will. Undoubtedly, civil servants are second guessed at every turn, if no longer entirely sidelined.

But whatever the explanation, the mandarins are doing themselves no good. They are in danger of politicising themselves and undermining whatever trust Ministers have in their guiding them through Harold Macmillan’s “events”.

Which brings me to the real problem with today’s strike. Let us leave aside the damage it does to what is left of border control, the care of the elderly and the wages and output of parents who have to cope with closed schools. Instead, ask yourself why it is bound to fail.

The obvious answer is that, as a departing Labour Minister so accurately said 18 months ago, there is nothing left in the kitty. Another is that those striking – and especially the higher paid – are defending discrimination in their favour at the expense of the majority in the private sector who are less well pensioned while creating the wealth to pay public servants their pensions as well as their own. That is insupportable.

But the most fundamental reason is that public servants are no longer doing a good job. This is hard on those who are still driven by an old-fashioned concept of public service. It is nonetheless true.

Let me just quote five examples exposed this month: the UK Border Agency has lost 124,000 asylum seekers, equivalent to a town the size of Cambridge; the Equality Commission says the elderly are being abused and neglected by the very people who are supposed to be looking after them; £2bn remains uncollected in fines and confiscation orders – double the figure four years ago; 20 per cent of trainee teachers cannot do simple maths or pass basic spelling and grammar tests; and the endless shambles of Ministry of Defence procurement.

This is not to mention the extent to which pay and pensions are out of control certainly at the top end of the public sector. The ex-head of the Local Government Association accurately stated that some would regard his £300,000 pay package as “peanuts”.

Unfortunately, the taxpayer is not paying peanuts for the worse than monkey service he is getting, That is why today’s strike is a disgrace. It merely satisfies the need for the robber barons to be seen to strike against a Tory-led government.