Genius. Sheer genius. How they must have patted themselves on the back at the acronym for the UK government’s scientific advisory committee. SAGE! Now doesn’t that have a really comforting ring about it? Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies just doesn’t cut it as that same witty mix of purpose and virtue.
(I’m absolutely sure they didn’t know it’s also the chosen acronym of a group devoted to saving prostitutes from global exploitation.)
Anyway SAGE swam back into the news cycle this last week for two reasons which just may be inter connected. The first was the refusal to confirm who the membership comprised. Seems reasonable to know who’s punting advice to those taking the decisions currently redrawing the map of our lives. You wouldn’t want to think – to take a random example – that Donald John Trump was the advisor for disinfection.
The second, arguably more sinister (actually strike out that arguably) reason was the news broken by The Guardian that in attendance was the PM’s very own prince of darkness Dominic Cummings, and a another data crunching bloke from the Leave campaign. Cue flustered ministers saying they were only there to listen and ask useful questions. Aye right.
Two things here: first, having the boss’s anointed one present might not be the best guarantor of full and frank discussion. Secondly, the devolved ministers were only granted the same right of inquiry if they sent in written queries in advance. Can’t have these fringe jocks, taffs and paddies getting ideas above their station.
Yet there’s another point here, and I make it without coming over all Govian and dissing the experts whose lifetime experience in their fields is often invaluable. When some form of real life emerges again from this twilight zone I believe we have to re-think how we build in expertise to all our public services.
Like many folk of my vintage, I’ve done my stint on assorted advisory bodies. Some have been more broadly representative than others, but the predominant flavour was white, male, middle class and professional. (Though the male, pale, and stale jibe does less than justice to many public servants who take their role seriously and make the required commitment.)
Yet there is much more diversity needed, and it’s not just a question of ethnicity, gender and geography. Let me give you an example which is all too current. The already creaking apparatus for dispersing Universal Credit – one of the most mean spirited and hamfisted “reforms” enacted by the Tory government – is now under ever greater strain as some sectors shed jobs.
For the first time some relatively comfortable earners will find out just how threadbare are the entitlements to what we used to call social security. Not only will the sums involved not begin to look at average family outgoings – even stripping out rents or mortgage – but the conditions attached are draconian.
Don’t even think of being late for – or, heaven forfend, missing – an appointment or you’ll find even that small safety net whipped away. Being “sanctioned”, bureaucracy speak for being left without an economic leg to stand on, is, unsurprisingly, the main reason for people having to utilise food banks for the first time.
Many people who unthinkingly bought into the “idle scroungers” meme so enthusiastically embraced by the more rancid right wing press, will find out very swiftly both that the working poor are over represented at these food banks, and that anyone going from a half decent wage to sudden unemployment could be left floundering in a sea of debt and distress.
The Scottish Government has taken over some social security streams, mainly involving disabled and carers’ allowances, but universal credit, pensions and child benefit still reside in Westminster. And it is UC, embracing all the old jobseeker “benefits” and bedevilled by endless glitches and delays, that is a main driver of contemporary poverty.
My argument is that it is these recipients of benefits, the folk at the very sharpest end, whose experiences and very real expertise in the impact of policy decisions on real people who need to be given a voice. Who need to be an ongoing part of the advisory process. In short the end users are often better equipped to talk about how things work – or don’t – than some of the people whose academic and theoretical knowledge is rarely overlaid with personal experience.
Admittedly it is more common for the people designing health care policy to be drawn from the ranks of practitioners, but too often at UK level that knowledge is negated by government ministers with more of an eye on the treasury than the ICU ward. Not to mention the havoc wrought by former ministerial ideologues whose dismantling of the English NHS is at the root of all manner of the procurement and testing problems they’re facing now.
And then you get ministers like the tragically over promoted Priti Patel who has highly personal knowledge of the benefits of migration – thanks to immigrant parents - but decides, for whatever perverse reason, to outflank the racists rather than embrace the evidence of multi cultural bonus.
And how could we forget the “back to the fifties” mantra of Michael Gove when he was at Education. After all there’s nothing more useful in an age of coding, computers, and calculators than reciting your nine times table. And surely nothing more geopolitically informative in this complex world than an intimate knowledge of the Wars of the Roses. To be fair, Gove had the benefit of a very special, special advisor. One who managed to antagonise the entire educational sector in England and had to be let go. His name was Dominic Cummings.
Post Covid, in a world which has found out in the most devastating ways, just who actually matters in the greater scheme of human things, and who is all mouth and no trousers, it will be time for a fundamental re-think. Not just paying people adequately who do proper and vital jobs – that’s way long overdue.
But recognising that embedded in every advisory body - embedded not occasionally consulted online – should be at least one member of the public with a knowledge of and a real stake in the policies under discussion. The public aren’t as daft as some politicians care to believe. And some politician aren’t a quarter as smart as they think they are. How many of the current UK cabinet would you trust to change a light bulb? (Or be confident they knew what one was?)
First published in The National on 27.4.20