I couldn’t get excited about David Cameron’s discovery of the government’s ‘secret plans’ to cut public spending. You only have to look at what the government has been doing, rather than what it has been saying, to realise that it is gearing up for spending cuts. The drastic reduction in the Civil Service redundancy payments from next January is a sure sign that large numbers of public servants are going to get the boot. Since the beginning of this year, word on the public sector street has been that government spending will fall off a cliff in April 2011 and that senior civil servants have been preparing for this scenario for months. The numbers in the Treasury papers don’t differ that much from the Tories’ ball-park figure of 10 per cent. The government’s 9.3% is, unsurprisingly, the same figure suggested by PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this year.
Another indication of the search for spending cuts to cut is the Treasury’s Operational Efficiency Programme. The results of the first survey will be published in the Pre-Budget Report in November. The PBR will almost certainly show that central government’s overheads in back-office services and IT are higher than those elsewhere in the public sector and a lot higher than those in the private sector. (If it doesn’t I will immediately write one of my “I was wrong” posts.) The only possible reason for publishing these figures is to make a case for streamlining these services and cutting heads. According to a number of press reports yesterday the PBR will contain plans for halving the UK’s deficit in four years.
Whatever the rhetoric, the only major difference between the main political parties seesm to be the timing of the inevitable cuts. The Tories say they will start cutting as soon as they get into power. Labour says it will hang fire until 2011 or 2012. In reality, even this is not much of a difference. By the time the Tories take power next year, as they almost certainly will, the 2010/11 budgets will already have been set. The protocols and procedures which have to be followed before civil servants can be made redundant currently take at least six months and in many cases longer. Of course, the Conservatives may decide to re-write these protocols but that will take time too. Even if the incoming government announces sweeping cuts as soon as it gets into power, it is unlikely that many public servants will be walking out of the door much before the middle of 2011. Which is the date the mandarins have been working to all along.
Whatever else you might say about senior civil servants, long-term scenario planning is something they are still very good at. The political parties might be groping towards a consensus on the scale and timing of the public spending cuts but the realists in the public sector got there months ago.