The Great Cuts Myth Grips the Civil Service


cut the grass
Image by circulating via Flickr


The coalition has put through big tax increases, and is nevertheless continuing to run an enormous deficit. Spending is well up, as Vince Cable was boasting yesterday:

Actually the share of government in the economy is increasing, not intentionally, but because we are not getting growth but there is a modest increase in public spending.

Against this backdrop, the BBC has an utterly incredible article today about a speech by Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary. In it Mr Heywood, sorry Sir Jeremy, predicts that the “spending cuts” may continue until 2020.

The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, has said spending cuts could continue until 2020, according to sources at a well-known think-tank.

What cuts? Spending is up significantly. Last time I looked, it was up 5%.

The government has already announced the austerity programme would continue beyond the next election.

Would that be the elected numpties who are allegedly in charge, or the real government led by Sir Jeremy? Presumably the latter, if it is confidently promising something beyond the election.

Don’t you just love that phrase “austerity programme”? It seems the real austerity only applies to households and businesses, not to the government itself. For government, austerity means not getting a big spending increase every year.

On Tuesday, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude announced a package of reforms to the civil service, which included plans to make it easier to sack under-performing staff members.

Are you kidding? Even in the private sector, it is very hard to sack under-performing staff members – due to regulations imposed by the government itself. Civil servants are not going to be sacked any time soon.

Mr Maude said he wanted to see the civil service operate more like a business, with a tougher appraisal system, increased accountability and a more entrepreneurial culture.

The true extent of Mr Maude’s numptieness laid bare. Businesses with an entrepreneurial culture are always seeking to grow, to expand their operations, to increase their turnover. We absolutely do not need the civil service to pretend it is a business. It is not. It is an administrative cost imposed on the rest of society.

The planned changes come against a backdrop of deep cuts and job losses across Whitehall.

Oh really? Spending is well up, as I said. There have supposedly been job cuts – although the official figure for public sector employment is still 5.9 million. You have to go all the way back to 2003 to find a lower figure, apparently.

In any case, any old fool can cut headline public sector employment by moving activities into the private sector. You contract out a service, move the staff into the private company that takes over the service, and hey presto.

The Cabinet Office said: “Jeremy was simply saying that financial pressure would continue into the next parliament.”

No kid. What a shame the pressure isn’t being shared by the government.

Gus O’Donnell: Managing the Decline

Sir Gus O'Donnell visits Canada
Image by UK in Canada via Flickr

Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, has been pontificating about what makes people happy.

He took a break from spending his hard-earned salary of £239,999 to suggest that both children and adults wrongly believed that happiness comes from acquiring “material goods”. Studies have shown that doing things for others is far more satisfying.

He went on:

We need to teach children about wellbeing and that there is more to life than material goods. There are some real issues there. We would like to try and influence their ideas about what is going to make them better off. There are mistakes made, not just by children but by adults as well.

He speaks from miserable experience. He has chosen to go into that sad job in which he earns £239,999, when he could of course have been much happier as a school cleaner earning £12,000. His self-sacrifice is admirable. We all need a Cabinet Secretary to explain to us why poverty is fulfilling.

And he is of course right. Other studies have shown that it is not earning low incomes that makes you unhappy, but seeing others earning much more than you do.

For example, a school cleaner on £12,000 could be made unhappy by seeing a civil servant earning, say, £239,999. That school cleaner should understand that it is possible to be happy, even when some of your £12,000 goes to fund the civil servant’s £239,999. There is no need for jealousy. Shut up and get back to work.

The Telegraph says:

His comments came as a national study found that being healthy, maintaining good relationships with family and friends, and having an enjoyable job were the elements of life that mattered most to people.

Thus Sir Gus is in fact wrong that people believe that material goods deliver happiness. People understand very well that they can still be happy, even if they only earn a twentieth as much as he does.

Sir Gus is only following in a noble civil service tradition after all. For decades Britain’s mandarins have understood that their job is the management of Britain’s decline. If Britain is in decline, then clearly a lack of material prosperity will follow.

Rather than tackling and trying to reverse the decline, their response is to explain to people that lack of prosperity does not matter, that we can achieve happiness in other ways. We should not object to Sir Gus and his friends in the public sector gobbling nearly half our national income, because we can still be happy.

Especially, of course, if Sir Gus has armies of civil servants whose job it is to help us make “healthier lifestyle choices”. Especially when he has armies more working hard to ensure that as few houses as possible are built. Especially when, even if we all have huge mortgages as a result, he will happily rob savers so we can pay ultra-low mortgage rates. And especially when he has yet more staff sweating as they beaver away to save us all from climate change.

In fact, Sir Gus and his public sector are much more important than the shabby private sector that creates wealth. Wealth, and the private sector, cannot make you happy. Only the public sector knows what is important.

With them all working so hard for our benefit, who would begrudge him his £239,999? And who would not argue that he needs even more staff to realise his vision of a Britain that is poverty stricken yet blissfully happy?

The Prime Minister (salary: a mere £142,500) has been teaching us all about his “Big Society”. As our representative, this is his reposte to the likes of Sir Gus. No, Sir Gus does not need all those extra staff. Because of the Big Society, the little people will do all the hard work. This will mean that although Sir Gus will still earn £239,999, he won’t be recruiting additional people. The tax burden on the school cleaners of this world will be bearable.

It is lucky we have altruistic Mr Cameron on our side.

It all makes sense. The civil service will manage Britain’s decline, while the Big Society will protect the Fat Cats from the consequences. Lovely.

Enhanced by Zemanta

If We’re All in this Together, We Should All Take the Pain. And Now It’s the Government’s Turn

Parent Link Workers Leaflet Cover

When We Agreed to Pay Taxes, This Wasn’t Really What We Had in Mind

William Hague has been defending the government’s proposals on child benefit. And it appears that the government intends to go further on this – to remove benefit from parents of children over 16, who can currently receive the benefit if the children are in full-time education.

Here was Mr Hague’s defence of all this:

Is this going to cause some people some pain? Yes, it is, but what alternative is there for the United Kingdom to rescue itself?

This is tough but it is fair and higher rate taxpayers, better-off people, have to do their bit as well. Many, many people in the country will have to contribute to this process of reducing the deficit.

The government should really do its best to remember that withdrawing benefits from taxpayers is the same as increasing their taxes.

There are two kinds of government spending. One the one hand are “transfer payments” – benefits that are paid to individual people, who may or may not be taxpayers.

And then on the other hand is what you might call “true public spending”, money the government spends on things like providing services like education, healthcare and defence.

During the election campaign, the Conservatives made much of the idea that they wanted to cut the deficit largely by cutting spending, whereas Labour wanted to do it largely by increasing taxes. In fact the Conservatives have said that 80 percent of the deficit reduction should come from spending cuts.

So far, unfortunately, we’ve heard only about tax increases and cuts in benefits – which amount to more tax increases. We’ve heard very little about cutting “true government spending”.

Today we had some welcome signs that the government may be about to get to grips with public sector pensions, which at the moment are generally much more generous than those on offer in the private sector. And of course the spending review, due in a few weeks, may contain details of proper cuts in true government spending.

We shall see. However, I have to say that so far I see little sign of any realisation from the public sector that the world has changed. Only a couple of days ago our son’s school proudly provided a glossy County Council leaflet about “parent link workers”. Their role is apparently to:

  • be the school’s first point of contact for parents and carers
  • provide information, sign-posting (sic) and guidance to agencies who may be able to offer help to families
  • provide information and guidance to parents and carers about after-school and holiday activities
  • provide information about courses available to parents and carers, information evenings and activities within the school or local cluster of schools and in the community.

If you want more information, says the leaflet, you should contact the “Extended Services Development Officer – for Parents” at the County Council.

Apparently this is part of the government’s “Every Child Matters” agenda (sic) which is blundering merrily on even though its New Labour architects are supposedly no longer in power.

While the government considers serious cuts to real public services, and while they cut back on people’s benefits and increase their taxes, civil servants are still taking the piss like this.

While Ministers explain sadly that there is no “alternative … for the United Kingdom to rescue itself”, their civil servants are pouring billions down the drain in meaningless twaddle, pointless initiatives and senseless interference.

According to the Office for National Statistics, public sector employment during the Labour years rose from 5.1 million in 1997 to 6 million now.

Put public sector employment back where it was in 1997, and you would be employing 900,000 fewer people. At say £50k each per year (total cost of salary plus other employment costs), that comes to £45 billion per year. And are public services any better now than they were in 1997? No, they really are not, are they?

And I’ve got more news for those public sector managers: in the private sector, we become more efficient every year. Companies that merely succeed in not becoming less efficient quickly go bust.

So let’s see your increases in efficiency. Let’s have another 5 percent from you over the next five years in increased efficiency. (That would be more like the efficiency increases a typical business would need to make in a single year, so it shouldn’t be too hard.) And that’s another 500,000 public sector heads, or £25 billion.

And before you bleat too much, remember that a total headcount reduction of 1.4 million does not mean sacking 1.4 million people. Most of that could be done easily by “natural wastage” – i.e. not replacing people who leave through retirement or simply finding another job. (Note to Mr Osborne: let’s not have any “voluntary redundancy schemes” please, since they would be a licence for civil servants to show how much we’re all in this together by awarding each other generous payoffs.)

Ordinary people have had enough of watching the public sector spraying their tax money around, while telling them we all need to feel the pain. When opinion polls tell us the public don’t trust politicians, they are really telling us a much deeper truth: that people no longer trust government itself in this country.

David Cameron has said that we are all in this together.

OK, David, we’ve taken our share of the pain. Now it’s your turn. Now it’s your officials’ turn. Show us how much pain you, the government, are going to take yourselves instead of fobbing off onto the public.

You’ve had your £1 billion for child benefit paid “unnecessarily” to “rich” people. Now let’s have our £45 billion that your officials are wasting on staff they didn’t have in 1997. And anyone who thinks government was efficient even in 1997 wants their head examining. So let’s have that further £25 billion in 5 percent headcount efficiency savings as well.

That’s a cost cut of £70 billion – or two thirds of the cuts we need to make.

And let’s have all that before you even start talking about cutting our services.

Being “in this together” goes both ways. I agree to take my share of the pain – but only if the public sector wasters start taking the situation seriously themselves.

David, no more “parent link workers”. No more “5-a-day co-ordinators”, “outreach workers” or “community strategy officers”. Just government services delivered to the public efficiently and without fuss.

It’s all we’re asking for. And if you can’t deliver, we’ll all want our money back.