Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The C-word

Like the S-word before it (“sorry”), the soon-to-be-replaced-one-way-or-another incumbent of No. 10 is now having trouble with another alphabetic conundrum. How to present the withdrawal of funds to government departments as anything but a cutback, or “cut” for short.

Brown and his cronies have spent their way through nearly 13 years’ worth of tax receipts and have little to show for it, unless you consider 1.2m additional civil servants and more than 630 new quangos to be good things. Where is the new rail infrastructure promised by John Prescott in 1997? Where is the world class education (education, education) system? Where are the clean, queue-free hospitals? Where is the healthy economy, complete with built in lack of boom and bust?

What we do have is an army of civil servants – 6m at the last count, 6 times larger than the Chinese military – most of whom have good salaries and final salary pensions. All of this costs a lot of money (your tax) and when combined with the £175bn lobbed at the banks to stop them from going belly up, there is not a lot of money left for the important things in life, such as trains, schools and hospitals.

The electorate has also woken up to the unfettered lavishing of money on government departments for little return and is now expecting the next administration to take a red Bic to all the non-jobs, quangos and unelected peers (watch your back, Mandy). All of which has provoked Gordon Brown to reverse his nonsensical talk of “Tory cuts vs. Labour investment”. Today he will announce that “Labour will cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut low-priority budgets”. Wow, four uses of the c-word in one sentence. There is no greater joy in heaven than a sinner who repents.

There is no mention of course as to where this application of the c-word will come. I would put money on Labour’s interpretation of cutting costs as involving consultants, feasibility studies lasting 12 or more months, a large bill and the ultimate decision that in fact the department involved actually needs more staff, not less. All very “Yes, Minister” as anyone who has seen the episode The Economy Drive will attest.

There was an interesting article in The Times last week, where the newly elected, independent mayor of Doncaster remarked that he “wants to remove PC jobs but doesn’t know where they are in his council”. And that sums up the dilemma that will face the next government: where to find the waste? Well, here are a few ideas…

Firstly, remove all of the unelected peers with ministerial responsibility that have been appointed in the last 12 years by New Labour. If someone has to run a department, they should be an elected MP who is accountable to a constituency, not a sometime TV presenter or favoured crony. Next, rationalise the number of government departments and ministers reporting into No. 10. Why do we need a Treasury and a Secretary to the Treasury, both as separate departments? Why are there such large departments for devolved parliaments in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland?

The culling of departments should also be accompanied by a culling of quangos. There are now 1,100 of them costing £60bn annually. And no-one knows that they are doing. There is no supervision or accountability (as evidenced by the “quasi autonomous” and “non-governmental” nature of the moniker). However, they are not autonomous as they influence policy and taxation, and they are governmental as they are funded centrally by the government. What, for example, do the Zoos Forum and the British Potato Council contribute? It is also typical for the head of a quango to be a favoured acolyte of the PM or a close friend of a senior minister, thus providing yet more jobs for the boys and girls.

The last axe should fall on anyone not directly contributing to a public service. Doctors, nurses, teachers, soldiers, sailors etc should be spared (although they should all contribute more to their pensions). Staff directly supporting these professions (IT and HR) should be audited for waste, especially those spending £12bn on unused systems (step forward the NHS). But departments that are tangential to public service and provide no direct benefit to the public should be closed down. This would include the Highways Agency, "a:gender" (look at their website), the Charity Commission and Efficiency in Government (surely they should be prosecuted under the Trades Descriptions Act?), to name a few. There was even a Millennium Commission that was not wound up until the end of 2006, six years after the millennium dome fiasco.

And to think that all this talk of cuts was initiated by a slip of the tongue by Tory MP Andrew Lansley back in June. Back then he was vilified by Labour and given a fairly frosty reception by his own leader for daring to suggest that the civil service party might be over. Now it seems that his 10% cuts are the talk of the town. I also ranted about it at the time, suggesting that 10% should be a minimum target for cuts.

Although when I think of the c-word and Gordon Brown, it is a different word, and it includes the n-letter.

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