Tuesday 14 April 2009

People Like Us never get the sack

Yippee! Despite the desperate state of the economy, and the likelihood that nutters are plotting to blow us all to kingdom come, the mood of the nation rose perceptibly last week when a couple of well-fed blokes in important jobs “did the honourable thing” and resigned.

It is hard to suppress a chuckle about the careless copper who had to fall on his sword because he had “lost the confidence of the Home Secretary”; a woman whose bath plug to porn films expenses saga has surely lost her the confidence of absolutely everyone. Except, apparently, Gordon Brown.

However, can I suggest that our jolly mood may cloud over a touch when the terms for the departure of anti-terrorist supremo Bob Quick and top Downing Street spin doctor Damian McBride become known?

The key will be in that word “resign”. We are straight into the world of “mutual consent” and “compromise agreements”, which can lead, to take one extreme example, to someone walking away with a pension of £700,000 a year despite all but destroying one of Britain’s largest banks.

You might have thought that would be enough to get a fellow sacked, but when did that last happen to anyone in the elite now running this country?

I have a friend who married a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police. Towards the end of an otherwise exemplary career, he was convicted of a criminal offence. Not only did he lose his job, but they confiscated his pension, too. The whole family was punished by the need to sell their home and change their children’s schools. What are the chances of one of the people who run the show facing similar hardship?

A huge gulf has developed in this country between us ordinary mugs (OMs) and the small elite who band together as People Like Us (PLUs). Bad things do not happen to PLUs. Come the creation of unitary councils, surplus PLU chief executives pocket hundreds of thousands in compensation. But you can be sure that when economies are required among the OMs who empty the bins or mend the roads, there will sadly only be enough in the coffers to pay the statutory minimum for redundancy.

In the same way, I regularly read reports of OMs receiving surprisingly stiff prison sentences for fraud, involving sums far smaller than those claimed by the PLUs in Parliament for what seem decidedly questionable expenses.

Every political party tells us that it is in favour of social mobility, and of widening the range of opportunities for OMs to become PLUs. Yet the game is played on a board amply provided with ladders and signally bereft of snakes. Once you attain PLU status, you are made for life. Boardroom cronies in the private sector have hugely inflated each other’s salaries through remuneration committees set up in the name of “good corporate governance”, while senior pay in the public sector has had to be ratcheted up to match, to ensure that it retains its share of “top talent”.

What seem to most of us to be vast salaries (because they are) are just the starting point; if you actually want a PLU to get out of bed and do some work, he or she needs to be “incentivised” with bonuses, share options and the rest. And if they fail, they expect to be cushioned through a long and comfortable retirement.

I am anything but a socialist, and like to think that I am not naturally vindictive, but I still long to see the occasional failed police commissioner, banker, spin doctor or even MP reduced to scraping a living like one of us OMs, rather than quietly enjoying a vast pension, securing lucrative publishing deals for their side of the story or attempting to recover our sympathy on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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