An honest debate about public spending came a step closer yesterday when Gordon Brown sort of admitted that he might have to make some cuts. He’s still saying that front-line services won’t be affected, though, which is almost certainly rubbish. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are pretending that they can ring-fence health and education from any cuts. This suddenly seems to have become the new orthodoxy as both main parties move towards a position where everything else can be slashed and burned while these two sacred cows are protected.
As I said a couple of weeks ago, this doesn’t make sense. There is still a lot of fat in the NHS and in local authority education departments. Protecting nearly a third of public spending from hard scrutiny would miss an opportunity to save a lot of money. No less a person than the chief executive of the Audit Commission agrees. Speaking at the Local Government Association’s conference, Steve Bundred said:
Both political parties have pledged that whatever happens they will protect health and education. I think that’s a big mistake.
Health and education are the two services that have been most generously funded over the past decade but they are among the most inefficient services
It would seem perverse to assume that there is no scope for greater efficiencies in those services or that any scope would be limited to the back office.
We have seen that there are huge variations in unit costs between comparable bodies at the front line and those services should not be exempt from the demand for greater savings.
He’s right. While, as a general rule, local authorities and NHS trusts are nowhere near as fat and happy as central government departments, that doesn’t mean that there are not more savings to be made. Some councils and NHS trusts are models of efficiency. Others are, frankly, crap. Those parts of the NHS which sit outside the trusts, such as the Strategic Health Authorities and the various arms of the Department of Health, are also prime candidates for scrutiny.
If we’re going to have a review of public spending, which we clearly need, then everything must go into the pot. The moment you allow this kind of shroud-waving to close down the argument, you protect inefficiency in some places and are therefore forced to cut well-run services in others.
Both major parties are now saying they want an honest review of public spending priorities. Ring-fencing thirty percent of the public sector from such a review is not honest at all. The politicians are still too scared to say what must be said and do what must be done.
Eventually there will be a tough spending review and it will have to include health and education. Pretending otherwise is not just, as Steve Bundred says, a mistake. It’s downright dishonest too.