Speech at Bowness, Windermere

17th February, 1968

The Ministry of Labour has a Manpower Research Unit. Put like that, the thing sounds harmless, sensible, even meritorious. What, one might ask, is wrong with research into manpower? Very proper, surely, very necessary. According to the official account, the Unit was ‘set up to study future manpower requirements and the future distribution of manpower between industries’. Already one begins to feel a certain unease. On what assumptions are the ‘future requirements of manpower’ to be based? What is to be done if there turns out to be too much or too little on the assumptions made about a future year? Moreover, how can one know the future distribution of manpower between industries, when new developments and unforeseen demands are coming into existence all the time? Or is it intended to fit future developments and demands to the distribution of manpower forecast by the Ministry of Labour? Some of these questions may be answered if we look at how the Research Unit goes about its work; for it has just decided to survey, for the purpose of future manpower planning, the whole of the hotel and catering industry, and I happen to have come into possession of a copy of one of the questionnaires which it is proposed to use.

The object of the questionnaire, stated at the outset, is, I should mention, ‘to compare the numbers employed in the various occupations in 1967/68 with a realistic estimate of the numbers likely to be required in 1972/73’. I turn at once to question No. 13, which starts with the words ‘Do any of your staff ...?’ and lists 42 occupations or activities. I will not trouble you with all 42, but here is a selection: ‘Prepare powdered soups? Prepare tinned vegetables? Prepare frozen or dehydrated vegetables? Fillet fish?’ Here I should perhaps notice that there is also a separate question lower down: ‘Do any of your staff fillet Dover sole in front of customer?’ However, I continue: ‘Prepare basic stocks? Make Bechamel? Prepare mayonnaise? Prepare Sole Bonne Femme? Prepare Pommes Anna? Eye potatoes by hand? Put tablecloths on tables? Make puff pastry? Prepare dishes with the lamp?’ I must skip the rest, but cannot miss a final gem of civil servantese: ‘Engage in control to eliminate dishonesty?’

Personally, I like the one about the Bechamel sauce the best. There seem to be two possibilities. One is that a coefficient exists known to the Ministry of Labour, which enables one to deduce the manpower required in 1973 to make all kinds of sauces, once one has the key figure, which is the Bechamel manpower in 1968. Alternatively it may be that in the brave new world of 1973 the only sauce we shall be allowed is Bechamel sauce, which, though nice, will become monotonous.

However, I move on to the heavier parts of the questionnaire. After having ‘indicated the present duties of occupational groups employed in his hotel’, such as ‘doorman’, ‘baggage porter’ and ‘pageboy’, the examinee finds himself asked if he is ‘likely to introduce by 1973’ convection ovens, micro-wave ovens, dishwashers, pan-handlers and what are called ‘portion-controlled foods’, and ‘prefillings’. This little exercise in clairvoyance is intended to limber him up and get his prophetic powers working properly for the climax which comes, I feel, at question No. 29: ‘Do you expect your future low season (February 1973) employment figures to bear the same relationship to the high season (August 1972) figures as February 1968 did to August 1967?’ The question continues ‘If the answer is yes’ – actually they have made a mistake here, they mean no – ‘please indicate the occupations likely to be affected and the direction of the change.’

I want you to try to imagine the number of people engaged in this hair-raising piece of paperwork alone: the graduate staff at the Ministry devising these ludicrous questions, the junior staff typing, duplicating and posting them, then the staff co-ordinating the replies, sending reminders, making visits to clarify some point of doubt about the Bechamel or the filleted Dover sole, and finally putting it all through computers, on the good old principle ‘garbage in, garbage out’. Then I want you to realize that this, though the first excursion of the Manpower Research Unit into a service industry, has been going on in a whole range of industries already and will spread to others in due course; how can one forecast future manpower requirements without covering all the employments? Each is being or will be bombarded with silly questions, to which only silly answers can be given.

I want you further to bear in mind that the Manpower Research Unit of the Ministry of Labour is itself only a tiny, obscure corner, in the great planning, enquiring, researching, questionnaire-pushing activities which are going on from one end of the government machine to the other. You must multiply the activities of the Manpower Research Unit very many fold to get any idea of the total quantity of futile effort being expended by public servants. But that is only half the picture.

You also have to remember all the labour and effort by management and their staffs which is being devoted to coping with this sort of nonsense, instead of doing their proper work. You might suppose that industrialists would long ere now have risen in their wrath and told the Ministry where to put its questionnaires. No doubt individually they would like to do so; but nowadays they are nearly all in one or more of their appropriate trade associations, whose alleged function is to look after their interests; and the bureaucracy of the trade associations, loyally co-operating and interacting with the bureaucracy of the state, will have committed them to fill up the forms before they know anything about it.

And so the merry game goes on, of choking and drowning Britain in a mass of paper planning. One is hard put to it to know whether to laugh or cry. It is not accident; it is the automatic and inevitable result of a policy which supposes that it is the function of government to plan the size and distribution between industries of the labour force in 1973. All the myriad, diverse, unforeseeable activities of the whole economy have to be surveyed and predicted, until the simple act of putting a tablecloth on a table or making a portion of Bechamel sauce becomes a government statistic, and no one can move or act or breathe without the agency of government. It is lunacy, yes: but it is a lunacy towards which we are heading by general connivance and with the speed of an express train.