Cuts in jobs and services – confusing process with outcome

July 5, 2010

My view remains that most of the cuts to public spending proposed by the coalition and its Labour predecessors are avoidable, unnecessary and/or undeliverable as things stand; they result from political choice.

It seems odd, therefore, to take issue with press coverage critical of the Government, but sometimes it has to be done.

It particularly hurts to say it, but I think Philip Hammond, Tory Secretary of State for Transport, was correct in what he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show:-

“…telling departments to budget for 40 per cent cuts was a way of making sure that the real target of 25 per cent on average was reached. I don’t expect any departments will see a 40 per cent cut but some departments may see cuts a bit higher than 25 per cent, some departments may then see cuts a bit lower than 25 per cent.”

Responses elsewhere to news that civil servants have been told by the Treasury to draw up proposals for cuts of 40% to their departmental budgets were predictable.

There was widespread horror at the likely impact that cuts of this magnitude might produce, particularly on the poorest and most vulnerable who, as a matter of deliberate policy will suffer most from so-called austerity, despite the persistence of the “we’re all in it together” meme.

“Cuts on that scale would exceed anything ever done by a democracy” wrote commentator Andy McSmith in the Independent.

There were accusations of spinning; deliberate leaking of the 40% cuts exercise aimed at colouring expectations with the hope of prompting a welcome relief when actual proposals emerge to meet the budgets’ requirement of 25%. The successfully softened-up “Ah well, it might have been worse” approach was well summed up by Nicholas Watt in the Guardian:-

“Outline the worst case scenario, goes the thinking, so that voters will be grateful when George Osborne eventually shows some mercy.”

Such alleged sleight of hand was variously referred to as a scare story by LibDem MP, Bob Russell and the oldest trick in the political book by Tory MP John Redwood.

Most of this stuff, however, is tosh.

If 25% cuts in most departmental budgets are required, it makes sense to ask top civil service managers to prepare proposals for cuts of 40% for 2 reasons.

The first is Hammond’s explanation; that scope to go below and above the 25% cuts requirement is straightforward common sense if one wants to maintain flexibility, prioritise between and across departments and avoid rigid top slicing.

The second is to provide options for decisions on priorities within departmental budgets. Should ministers or the Treasury really be expected to adopt the first plans for 25% cuts that emerge from senior civil servants and departments? Not if they have any political nous, they shouldn’t.

Moreover, any Treasury suggestion that proposals be worked up for the 40% figure were bound to leak out. Any attempt to keep it secret, disguise or deny it would rebound badly on the LibCon coalition, so being up front from the outset also makes sense.

It’s the presentation by commentators of the Treasury instruction as an indication of possible intent rather than a sensible approach to produce the widest range of options for decision, which gives grounds for the accusations of softening-up the public.

Commentators presenting process as possible outcome at best, or at worst, mistaking process for outcome, help no-one, least of all anyone worried about the impact of cuts on their future lives and those seeking to ensure the LibCons pay a price at the polls for their political choices.

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