Cable and Hammond fight on as Osborne swings his axe again

Six more departments agree to cuts but Defence, Business, Education, Work and Pensions and Transport are yet to settle.

George Osborne's unusual running commentary on the Spending Review continues. In addition to the seven departments previously named as agreeing to cuts of "up to" 10 per cent, the Treasury has announced that Osborne has reached settlements with the Home Office (with counter-terrorism policing protected), DEFRA, DCMS, the Scotland Office, the Wales Office and the Law Officers Department (incorporating the Crown Prosecution Service, the Treasury Solicitor's Department and the Serious Fraud Office), all of which will be cut by an average of 8 per cent. The seven to settle last month were Justice, Energy, Communities, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Office.

But while the majority of departments have now agreed to further cuts, the absence of some of the biggest spenders from the list (Education and the DWP, as well as Transport and Business) means that, with just 12 days to go, the Treasury still has less than a third (£3.6bn) of the £11.5bn of cuts sought by Osborne. 

Health, International Development and the schools section of the Education budget are all officially protected but the rest still face the Chancellor's axe. Although Theresa May, one of the ring-leaders of the famed National Union of Ministers (NUM) has settled, Vince Cable (Business) and Philip Hammond (Defence) are fighting on. After the head of the army Sir Peter Wall warned that further cuts could damage the force's "professional competence" and "become quite dangerous, quite quickly", the latter is under particular pressure to prevent significant reductions. But Alexander made it clear that he was in no mood to offer special treatment. "In a department where there are more horses than tanks there is room for efficiency savings," he told Sky News. As for Cable, he has previously warned that "further significant cuts will do enormous damage to the things that really do matter like science, skills, innovation and universities", a message that was echoed by the CBI in its Spending Review submission this week. It suggested that £700m of medical research funding currently paid for by the Business Department could be transferred to Health, a move that would break the spirit, if not the letter, of the NHS ring-fence. 

Alexander also signalled that while there would be no further welfare cuts (after £3.6bn were announced in last year's Autumn Statement), this did not mean the Department for Work and Pensions was protected. He pointed out that welfare spending is classified as "annually managed expenditure", rather than departmental spending, adding that "there are lots of areas where the DWP has the capacity to make savings". 

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond stands in front of a Rapier System ground-to-air missile launcher during a visit to RAF Waddington near Lincoln. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR