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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Professionals. Not.

Every synapse is screaming at me this morning that Simon Jenkins, a mind that normally delivers a succinct and cogent analysis with which I mostly agree, is wrong, horribly wrong, in his Guardian piece. It wasn't immediately apparent why, but here's a start. 

The 'professions' used to be a fairly limited set of occupations that severely restricted entry and thereby enhanced income for their members. To preserve and sustain this arrangement, it was necessary for each individual member to share in a caucus of knowledge and to take personal liability in upholding professional standards; the professions were self-regulating and government largely left them alone. They were directly descended from the mediaeval guilds, institutions that competed with the power of the Church. The modern professions likewise were (I say were) institutions that competed with the successor to the Church, the State. Of course, in the twentieth century numerous occupational groups saw the advantages of becoming a 'profession' and there was a scramble to obtain Royal Charters from everyone from tyre-fitters to IT consultants. 

At the same time, the State encroached on the preserve of the professions to regulate themselves; first by interfering in their rights to determine entry based on criteria designed to benefit the professional body and imposing instead a duty to determine entry based on criteria of equality of outcome defined by the State, and secondly by the introduction by the State of rules, regulations and codes of practice that superseded the internal caucus of knowledge. This was coupled with a change from the rights of professions to exercise disciplinary control over their peers to the State - through the civil courts - to do so, thereby cutting one of the major strengths of the system. The only profession that has so far maintained this ancient right is that of the barrister. In reaction, the professions eschewed individual and personal liability and either formed groups of LLPs or became employed by a private or public corporation that would instead be the prime object of legal action. 

None of which has improved the service enjoyed by the 'laity' nor the cost of the service by one iota; it has been a record of sustained assault by the State against institutions that competed with the central State for authority. They have bureaucratised the professions. As the State, rather than the profession, now regulates competition, and therefore earnings, it is the State that the professions must now lobby for their gold. The 'professional associations' are no longer anything of the sort; they are now Trade Unions in all but name.  

Jenkins scores some direct hits - Shaw's quote "all professions are conspiracies against the laity" can equally be rendered as "all professions are conspiracies against the State" - and "Generals, admirals and air vice-marshals – party to the biggest fraud on the taxpayer of modern times (the defence budget)" is a gem, but in attacking the BMA (a Trade Union), the Law Society (a Trade Union), the RCGP, RCP, RCS, RCA and the rest (all Trade Unions) he's actually attacking the travesties that the State has created. 

Here's an example. Thirty years ago, a civil engineer took personal professional liability for his design. There was no government manual, no State code, no British Standard for a composite design (BSs in those days confined themselves to standards of constituent materials). Now a monkey with a mouse can do the job just by looking up the standard construction detail in the BS. And even if the monkey picks the wrong table, s/he is protected because they're a member of a Limited Liability Partnership, but as long as they stick to the standard detail in the BS and refrain from exercising any individual skill or judgement, they're safe. We've turned professionals into clerks.

Jenkins also quotes the Milly Dowler trial as good reason to abolish juries, forgetting the dictum that hard cases make bad law. The preservation of juries he ascribes to the intransigence of the embedded legal 'profession' rather than the preference of the British people to be tried by their peers rather than by the State for serious offences. 

Why my synapses were snapping is that Jenkins sees all this as reason to strengthen the State through the power of the mandarins rather than sweep away the rubbish in a tsunami of re-empowerment. He's wrong, grievously wrong. And I'm very disappointed. 


Blue Eyes said...

There is a distinction between a professional body which maintains standards and provides clients with a "seal of approval" and a closed shop. Many UK professions are now effectively white collar trade unions and the professions and the country is worse off for them.

In my profession membership of the trade union is pretty well compulsory and the organisation stinks. In fact I am battling with them right now!

hatfield girl said...

Blue, It's years since I've seen the words 'closed shop'. You'll be introducing 'skilled men's differentials' next.

The reanimated forms of zombie 'trade unions' which are nothing more than career vehicles for part of the political elites is quite as offensive as the zombie Labour party denying and betraying everything that movement once stood for.

Though it's a pleasure to read that Raedwald has synapses that respond without conscious thought to unfounded, specious political argument; I've been so rebuked for political synaptic response (that used to be called feeling.)

Anonymous said...

I resigned from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland purely on the basis of total ineptitude and lack of professional in auditing the banks that lead to our destruction.

Budgie said...

The idea that a man or woman can just get up and do something, without needing to be organised by the state, seems to have completely disappeared from the ken of the chatterati.

Anonymous said...

So all that professional training and all that going without at the beginning is just a cunning plot! Who'ed a guessed it.
Unless you are talking poppycock.

Greg Tingey said...

It's worse than you think ....
I have an M.Sc. in Engineering.
I CANNOT (am not allowed to) work as an "electrician" - because I don't have that "qualification" .....

Anonymous said...

Anonymous has it quite right.

Years ago, Arthur Anderson disintegrated because of the outright frauds committed during the Enron affair and believe me there was quite a weight of regulation in place even then.

So, now it has at least quadrupled and all it has served to do is make the firms of auditors invulnerable.

The audit report says "in our opinion these accounts show a true and fair view", but opinion has nothing to do with it.

The State sets the regulator (in this case the FSA) and the regulatee (in this case the banks) a set of boxes that need to be ticked to ensure compliance.

The auditors regulatory body specifies the boxes they tick.

Everyone sits round making sure everyone else's boxes are ticked properly and it's job done.

The banks are bust but the auditors can't be at fault because they have their 5 mile long list of boxes to be ticked and, lo! They all are!

It's neither better nor worse in identifying dud accounts or dud businesses or dud auditors compared to 40 years ago, but the costs - borne ultimately by the shareholder, or the consumer or the taxpayer - must run into trillions of pounds worldwide.