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War on the professions

Surgeon holding scalpel and forceps
Scandals have hit the medical profession in recent years

BBC Radio 4's Analysis: War on the professions will be broadcast on Thursday, 24th April 2008 at 20:30 and repeated on Sunday 27th April at 21.30 BST

When we deal with lawyers, doctors, or other professions, are we enjoying a guarantee of truly "professional" service, based on ancient tradition and proud independence from outside interference?

Or are we at the mercy of a highly effective closed shop, more interested in protecting its own members' interests than in serving society and consumers in the best way possible?

The independent professions - including law, medicine and architecture - have been an influential part of the UK workforce for many centuries.

They enjoy a powerful and unique position, which is now under sustained attack, and in this week's Analysis Alison Wolf explores how, and why.

Who polices the professions?

Pressure has been growing for some time to open up the professions more, to break their historically tight control over who can become a professional.

Jonathan Sumption QC
Jonathan Sumption QC is one of the UK's most eminent barristers

Government wants access to legal services to be much more widely available and cheaper. It also wants more flexibility in, say, the medical world, so that nurses can do some jobs historically done by doctors.

The professions warn that this risks reducing quality and lowering standards for everyone.

The question of who polices the professions is also bitterly contested. They have long been largely self-governing, seen as a guarantee of protection from government interference and a way to uphold the highest standards.

But government has begun to regulate more and more directly, through powerful new bodies - for example the new Legal Services Board, the Architects Registration Board, the Postgraduate Medical Education & Training Board, PMETB.

The changes have been quite rapid and far-reaching, but are little understood by the general public.

Consumers demand more influence

Professionals complain that regulation ends their independence, imposes costly burdens, and can sometimes result in chaos, such as the junior doctors' training scheme.

Others insist the professions can no longer be trusted to regulate themselves as public deference has declined following scandals such as the murders by Harold Shipman and child deaths in Bristol.

In general, consumers and citizens now demand more influence and say when receiving or purchasing services.

In this edition of Analysis Alison Wolf reports from the front line in the "war on the professions", asking top professionals how far their world must change.

Interviewees:

  • Sunand Prasad President Royal Institute of British Architects
  • Roy Lilley health commentator and former NHS manager
  • Bernard Ribeiro President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England
  • Professor Peter Rubin chair of PMETB
  • Steve Brooker senior policy analyst, National Consumer Council
  • Jonathan Sumption QC barrister
  • David Hunt solicitor and member of the House of Lords
  • Sir Samuel Brittan economic commentator
  • Sir John Tooke Chair of the Medical Schools Council
  • Presenter: Alison Wolf
    Producer: Chris Bowlby
    Editor: Hugh Levinson

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