The public sector has a lot to learn

Getting the hell on with it.

Last week the chancellor, George Osborne, trumpeted agreements with seven government departments on their budgets for the next comprehensive spending review (CSR), which is due to be announced next month.

The CSR will lay out spending for the five years after 2015. In keeping with his commitment to “Plan A”, Osborne is looking for a further £11bn of cuts in government budgets. With health, education and overseas development protected, there will be tough decisions to be made elsewhere. Reaching an agreement with seven departments is a promising start, but these were all relatively low-spending departments with smaller budgets. The agreed savings were reported at £2.5bn. So the really tough decisions still lie ahead.

How these discussion are progressing was signalled by an interview given by defence secretary Philip Hammond on the Today programme. He explained that frank discussions (which can be read to mean arguments) between the Treasury and the MoD have had to be mediated by the Cabinet Office, which has launched an independent review of the department’s spending plans.

The MoD is an interesting case in point. It was severely affected by the last round of cuts with all three armed forces still reeling from the strategic defence review that was as much about cutting costs as it was about better military decision-making. What makes the MoD especially interesting is that it is one of the better organised ministries. Hammond has deployed former experience in business to set the department up in a businesslike fashion.

It is one of the few departments with a board that functions in the way a FTSE 100 board might. Indeed, a scan of the departmental pages of the gov.uk website reveals that of the 24 cabinet departments, only a handful have this kind of properly functioning board. Perhaps strangely, the department for Business Innovation and Skills isn’t one.

A good look at the structure of government in this country, especially compared to other countries, suggests we have too many departments and way too many ministers. The 24 ministries compares to an international average of 15 or 16. The UK’s 120 ministers compares very badly with 78 in India, 66 in Canada and 68 in South Africa.

Even more unusual is the fact that devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland hasn’t seen a decrease in UK ministers, but rather an increase, so that the actual UK total (including ministers in the devolved regions is closer to 200).

With all these jobs to protect, it’s no surprise that getting all these departments to agree they can afford substantial cuts is a tough job for the Treasury.  

One way to bring all this under control and make the process much simpler is highlighted in a new report published this week by ICAEW. In A CFO at the Cabinet Table? Strengthening UK government finances for the future, Sumita Shah highlights the potential advantages of having someone in the position to take on a “group finance” role across government. While each individual financial team is making a case for their department, the political tug of war between the Treasury and all the other members of cabinet will continue.

As to the tougher question of what long-term impact the focus on public sector cuts is having on the private, new research (also produced by ICAEW) found that 31 per cent of businesses reported their turnover has been negatively affected by UK public sector cuts, this is up from 21 per cent two years ago when the same question was last asked.

Not surprisingly the vast majority of those affected by these cuts have looked elsewhere for business, with 72 per cent of those negatively affected by the public sector cuts looking for new customers outside the public sector. However almost half (49 per cent) have had to cut permanent staff and 41 per cent have reduced their contract or temporary staff.

So the message seems to be clear. The private sector, while fearing the worst, is doing its best to get on with life in the age of austerity. It would help enormously if it was obvious that the public sector (and in particular central government) was doing the same thing by simplifying and rationalising government systems and structures.

Some of the money freed up might be wisely invested by putting in place a strong central government finance function, starting with the appointment of a cabinet CFO.

Treasury. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition