The Compassionate Society

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"The Compassionate Society"
Yes Minister episode
Episode no. Series 2
Episode 1
Written by Antony Jay
Jonathan Lynn
Produced by Peter Whitmore
Original air date 23 February 1981
Guest appearance(s)
Episode chronology
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List of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister episodes

"The Compassionate Society" is the eighth episode of the BBC comedy series Yes Minister and was first broadcast 23 February 1981. In this episode, the final "Yes Minister" is uttered by Bernard Woolley.


Jim Hacker is en route to work in his ministerial car. His driver, George, turns the radio on: Yesterday in Parliament is being broadcast. Hacker listens to himself being given a rough time in the House of Commons over his alleged streamlining of National Health Service bureaucracy. An MP is suggesting that the Minister has been making some creative adjustments to arrive at the reported savings. Hacker denies this and promises an independent inquiry. After the programme, George tells Hacker about St Edward's Hospital. He has heard from the Health Secretary's driver that this is a newly opened facility with 500 administrators and no patients.

At the DAA, Hacker is furious with his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby. He insists that Sir Humphrey should not have been "juggling with the figures". In reply, the mandarin states that all the Minister requested was a reduction in them — so they were reduced. He in turn chastises the Minister for conceding a full independent inquiry. Despondent, Hacker asks Sir Humphrey if there is any way that the inquiry could be rigged. He is told that this is possible, providing that the chairman is "sound", and he suggests for the position a retired civil servant who is hoping for a peerage. As Sir Humphrey leaves, the Minister's Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley arrives. First he has news for Hacker regarding some Cuban political refugees who have been refused entry to the United Kingdom. Hacker bluntly responds that the government simply cannot afford them. Bernard then reports on St Edward's Hospital. It was apparently constructed at a time of government cutbacks and consequently, once it had been fully staffed with administrators and ancillary workers, there was no money available for medical services. Hacker decides to take a look at it before the press do.

Meanwhile, Sir Humphrey meets for a drink with Sir Ian Whitchurch, Permanent Secretary at the DHSS. The latter expresses surprise at Hacker's concern over St Edward's: it is bound to have no patients because there aren't any nurses. He argues that one can't set up a hospital and start it running smoothly when there are patients around. He tells Sir Humphrey to inform his minister that this is the "run-in period". However, Sir Humphrey is concerned at the forthcoming independent inquiry and the Minister's likely course of action: he would want to close the place. Sir Ian believes that the unions wouldn't like that — and there is one trade unionist in particular, a militant called Billy Fraser, who could prove useful in that respect.

Back in Hacker's office, the Minister lays into Sir Humphrey over NHS bureaucracy, and reads him some of the more outlandish internal memos that have been brought to his attention. He also states that in the last decade, the number of administrators has grown by 40,000 while the quantity of beds has decreased by 60,000. This amounts to an increase in expenditure of £1.5 billion. The Permanent Secretary then launches into a vigorous defence of St Edward's Hospital and attempts to justify its existence. Hacker is exasperated and demands that Sir Humphrey sacks most of its staff and uses the savings to re-open wards in other hospitals.

Later, Sir Humphrey meets with Brian Baker, a despondent union leader who can see no justification for fighting Hacker's proposal, or ability to do so. Sir Humphrey offers him the unconditional support of the Civil Service (since the hospital employs administrative staff as well as medical staff) and arranges for Billy Fraser to be moved to St Edwards. Baker is revitalised, and agrees that with this support, industrial action is possible.

Hacker visits St Edward's Hospital and Billy Fraser is among the welcoming committee. After a brief tour, the Minister insists that 300 staff must go. Fraser protests and threatens a strike, but Hacker is unworried and tells him to go ahead.

Back at his office, the Minister is enjoying a drink with Bernard and is self-congratulatory over the outcome of his hospital visit. However, the TV news brings a shock: all of London's hospitals are to be subject to industrial action. Sir Humphrey then enters with even more bad news: the independent inquiry into the DAA is about to provide an unfavourable report. However, the inquiry's chairman is also involved with the Refugee Resettlement Committee and may reconsider if the Minister is prepared to look again at the case of the Cubans and admit 1,000 of them into the country. He quickly decides to house them in St Edward's Hospital and reinstate its workers, thus killing two birds with one stone.


Actor Role
Paul Eddington Jim Hacker
Nigel Hawthorne Sir Humphrey Appleby
Derek Fowlds Bernard Woolley
John Barron Sir Ian Whitchurch
Norman Bird Brian Baker
Rosemary Frankau Mrs Rogers
Stephen Tate Billy Fraser
Arthur Cox George
Lindy Alexander BBC Reporter
Robert Dougall BBC Newsreader

Real-world issues[edit]

Although it was written from the imaginations of Lynn and Jay, they later discovered that "there were six such hospitals (or very large empty wings of hospitals) exactly as we had described them in our episode, notably one in Cambridgeshire in which there was only one patient: the Matron (head of nursing staff) who had fallen over some scaffolding and broken her leg."[1] There was also a large new hospital at Derriford near Plymouth which lay unopened for a significant period.

Billy Fraser—the uncompromising Scottish trade unionist who calls the hospital out on strike—is a fictionalised depiction of Jamie Morris, who was the NUPE shop steward at the Westminster Hospital during the Winter of Discontent in early 1979.[2]


  1. ^ "Yes Minister Questions & Answers". Jonathan Lynn Official Website. Retrieved 6 September 2007. 
  2. ^ Andy Beckett, "When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies", Faber & Faber, 2009, p. 477.

External links[edit]

"The Compassionate Society" on IMDb