Dr Dan Poulter and the 100-hour weeks

Could the new health minister please clear up his statement about his hours as a junior doctor?

With all the excitement over Jeremy Hunt's acceptance of the Poisoned Health Chalice, and the related stories about his pro-homeopathy and anti-abortion stances, you may have missed the news that former junior doctor Dan Poulter MP was appointed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health.

Over the last couple of months I've been trying to get Dr Poulter, or "Dr Dan" as he prefers to be called, to clarify some statements he's made about the long hours he used to work as a junior doctor.

On Newsnight on Tuesday 19/06/2012 he said he "often used to do 100-hour weeks" (It's no longer on iPlayer but you can see the video here.

And he made a similar claim in a speech in the House Of Commons on 26/4/2012. I quote from Hansard:

"My hon. Friend said that we do not want to go back to the bad old days of 100-hour weeks. I worked those 100-hour weeks, and I am sure that the other medical doctors who are in Westminster Hall today did so, too. It was certainly not ideal to work 100-hour weeks; it was not good for patient care."

Now these comments have raised a few eyebrows in medical circles. Non-medics reading may wonder why; after all, everyone knows junior doctors work very long hours, right?

Well, kinda. As recently as the 1990s it was not uncommon for juniors to work very long continuous periods on call, and many older doctors can remember working a "one in two" rota (a regular working week, but staying up all night every second night, and working every second weekend continuously from Friday morning til Monday night - averaging 120 hour per week).

As Dr Dan says, "it was certainly not ideal", and that's why the BMA negotiated the New Deal for junior doctors, which was introduced around the time I qualified in 2000, and limited on call workers to 72 hours per week. Some hospitals didn't implement the terms of the New Deal until 2004, but were penalised by having to pay their doctors up to twice basic salary (that's how I managed to pay off my student loans). Hours were then limited further in 2004 with the introduction of the European Working Time Directive (EWTD) which specifies that no doctor should work more than 58 hours per week on average, and all workers were entitled to a period of 11 hours continuous rest a day. Many doctors are unhappy with the EWTD, as a lot of hospitals get around it with rotas containing weeks of up to 7 13-hour night shifts (91 hours per week for that week, but balanced out by random days off elsewhere). Having myself worked both the old "on-call" and new "shift" system, I can say that there are pros and cons to both, but the big pro is that new doctors no longer have to stay up all weekend without sleep.

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, Dr Dan only started work as a junior doctor in August 2006.

If Dr Dan was "often" doing 100-hour weeks in 2006-7, he (and, we must assume, his co-workers) would have been working in contravention of European employment law, and his hospital trust would be liable for fines of several thousand pounds for each breach.

This is where the raised medical eyebrows come in. The EWTD was enforced much more rigourously than the previous New Deal, because of the non-negotiable swingeing penalties threatened from Europe. As a result, I don't know of any 2006 graduate who's worked a 100-hour week, let alone on a regular basis. I'm not sure if it's even mathematically possible to squeeze 100 hours into the strict terms of the EWTD. The most I'm aware of is the 91-hour example above, but that would be an infrequent happening on a rota, maybe every 10-12 weeks; certainly nothing that could be described as "often". It's also worth noting that Dr Dan was elected as a councillor in Redhill on May 3rd 2007, and according to his website was Deputy Leader of Reigate and Banstead Council from 2008 until his election as an MP in 2010. When you factor in his hobbies, and the many good works he's undertaken in his spare time, I'm just struggling to see how the poor chap managed to fit it all in.

But, taking Dr Dan at his word, I felt it was important to find out where he was working, to avoid other junior doctors being exploited in the future. So, I emailed Dr Dan to see if he could shed some light on the matter. Unsurprisingly, I recieved a standardised reply: "Please note that there is a strict Parliamentary rule that MPs can only help their own constituents".

I'm not a constituent, but the Suffolk-based legal blogger @PME200 is. I understand he also contacted Dr Dan recently over his concerns that a local NHS trust may have been exploiting a junior doctor and breaching the law. It appears that Dr Dan point blank refused to confirm which trust employed him during the alleged 100-hour weeks. He effectively told his constiuent to mind his own business.

Why is Dr Dan so coy with the details of his 100-hour weeks? We can only assume that Dr Dan (unlike any junior doctor I've ever met or heard of) was genuinely "often" doing 100-hour weeks in 2006-10, but is so protective of his erstwhile employers he cannot bear the thought of revealing that they were serially breaking European Law.

Of course, there is an alternative explanation. It is possible that Dr Dan (like every other junior doctor I've ever met or heard of) actually WASN'T "often" doing 100-hour-weeks in 2006-10, but has chosen to pretend that he was, perhaps to try and carry some of that junior doctor kudos into his new role in one of the nation's least favourite professions.

If this was the case (and of course I'm not for one second suggesting that it is, merely enjoying a thought experiment while we await confirmation from Dr Dan of the names of the law-breaking hospital trusts concerned), would it really matter? After all, we accept that our politicians will somteimes give a different version of events to suit their own agenda.

Here's why I think it would matter:

1. Dr Dan isn't just an MP, he's a registered medical doctor like me, and society holds its doctors to a higher standard of probity than it holds its politicans. Specifically, the General Medical Council states in Good Medical Practice that:

"64. You must always be honest about your experience, qualifications and position, particularly when applying for posts."

If, (and again, I'm not saying this is the case, merely that it is one possible explanation of the facts we have while we await clarification from Dr Dan), if Dr Dan could be shown to have persistently and deliberately misrepresented his clinical experience in order to improve his standing as an MP, this would transcend politics and hurtle toward the realms of professional misconduct.

2. There's a thing called misleading Parliament. I'm not too familiar with this (hence the Wikipedia link), but apparently if you're making a speech in the House Of Commons, it's frowned upon if you start making shit up.

3. Whatever his many failings as Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley was an absolute master when it came to completely alienating the medical profession. At the last election most doctors I know voted for one of the two coalition parties. With the twin pitchforks of NHS privatisation and pension cuts, Lansley has completely destroyed that support. One can imagine that Dr Dan was elevated to his ministerial position with at least a partial hope that having a doctor in government might go some way to winning back medical hearts and minds. Now, a doctor who could do such a thing would have to show themselves to be of impeccable character. They certainly wouldn't gain any friends if they appeared to be claiming experience they didn't have, or posturing to try and appear older and more battle-hardened than their CV could account for. If a shadow were to fall over Dr Dan's credibility and probity as both an MP and a doctor, it is hard to see how his addition to the government would be beneficial.

Why am I blogging about this now? My exchange of emails with Dr Dan was a couple of months ago, and while he remained a back bencher it seemed somewhat churlish to push the issue. Though I strongly oppose his government's privatisation agenda, I have no beef with him personally, and in fact admire his stance on expenses and his statements in favour of plain packaging for tobacco.

But now that he is a Health Minister, I'd like to know that he can be trusted.

Dr Dan can clear up the situation now by answering three simple questions:

  1. Which Trust did you work for, for which consultant, and at which grade, duing the period when you "often used to do 100-hour weeks"?
  2. Can you provide a copy of the rota so we can ensure future generations of doctors aren't exploited in this way?
  3. What sanctions if any were taken against the employing Trusts for these breaches of employment law, and if none were taken, what steps will you take as Health Minister to amend this?

I hope Dr Dan comes up with the answers soon. I'd also be keen to hear from any medics who think they did work a 100-hour week rota as a junior doctor in 2006, particularly those who worked with Dr Dan himself! If Dr Dan doesn't respond, I suppose it might be possible for a journalist to apply under the Freedom Of Information act. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

This post first appeared on Pete Deveson's blog here. You can follow him on Twitter as @PeteDeveson

Update, 21/09/2012: You can read Dr Dan Poulter's response, and Pete Deveson's commentary on it, here.  

Dan Poulter appearing on BBC News.
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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?