The numbers quoted by government ministers are becoming increasingly reliable - you can pretty much rely on them to be spurious. The bureau of meaningless statistics pumped out another set of dubious figures on Friday. Local authorities have taken on an extra 180,000 workers since 1997, we were told, and 750,000 council workers are in non frontline roles, or ‘non-jobs’, as the Telegraph called them.
As usual, the claims began to fall apart almost as soon as they were made and by teatime on Friday, thanks to the diligence of Ruth Keeling and others, local government minister Bob Neill’s case was holed below the waterline. As it turned out, the figures he quoted included police officers and teachers, both of which have increased their numbers in response to public demand.
Furthermore, the total increase in local government employment amounts to 6.5 percent since 1997. The increase in population over a similar period was around 6 percent. Having 6 percent more people and around 6 percent more local government officers, teachers and police officers sounds logical, especially when you take into account the social change over the last thirteen years. Since 1997, large numbers of people with relatively poor English language abilities have migrated to Britain, increasing demands on the police, schools and councils. The country has more old people, which also adds to the pressure on local authorities. There have been two extremely expensive, disruptive and counterproductive social services reorganisations, resulting from child abuse outcries, which have stretched the system to breaking point. Perhaps we should be surprised that local government employment has only risen by 6.5 percent over the last thirteen years.
Added to this is the inexorable rise in public expectations. The tendency for media storms to lead, a few months later, to increased public sector headcount was something I first noticed when I worked in local government in the 1990s. Almost as quickly as we cut staff through greater efficiency and re-organisation, we acquired new staff to do new jobs. Whenever a newspaper demanded that something must be done it was often up to the council to do it. Headlines translated directly into new local government jobs.
Crime ridden cities? More police officers. Huge class sizes? More teachers. Filthy dog mess fouling our pavements? More council dog wardens. Abandoned cars littering our streets? More council enforcement officers. Paedos in play parks? More council park patrols. Children murdered by their carers? Complete reorganisation of social services. Again!
It struck me as ironic that the papers making the fuss that led to the creation of more council jobs were the same ones calling for tax and spending cuts. In fact, these attacks on local government also bump up its costs. Why are councils now employing so many PR staff? To defend themselves against the bloody stupid stories that appear almost daily in the press, that’s why!
Up to a point, this is to be expected from tabloid newspapers. They are in business to make money. They stir up trouble so that they can sell more copies. If their scare stories lead to more council staff being employed, so much the better. They can then huff and puff about high-spending councils too.
But for the government to start creating these stories is downright irresponsible. Every time the government slings mud at local authorities it just makes their job more difficult and chips away at their resources.
I understand the reason behind these attacks. The government is trying to shore up its big deception that spending cuts will not fall on frontline services. One way of doing this is to attack the local authorities that are making the cuts in the hope that ‘profligate’ councils will take the blame.
It’s all rubbish, of course. There is no way that cuts of this magnitude will not translate into cuts to frontline services. As I said a couple of weeks ago week, even a council that managed private sector levels of efficiency improvement would struggle to achieve the average cut of 14 percent over four years and would not have a hope of meeting the targets set for authorities like Manchester.
There is something almost infantile about stories like this. Trotting out the sort of sloppy arguments and meaningless figures that would get them laughed out of any management meeting, in the public or private sectors, just makes government ministers look stupid. We’ve come to expect hysterical drivel from tabloid journalists out to create mischief. We don’t expect it from those entrusted with the serious job of governing the country.