Outlook: Register is a good start

The Antiques Roadshow collided with Whitehall yesterday and the result, accompanied by plenty of oohing and aahing, was the National Asset Register. This is a 550-page record of everything the Government owns, right down to the last shredding machine, forklift truck, Polaris submarine (one careful owner, end of Cold War forces sale) and Stubbs oil. Alastair Darling, the saturnine Chief Secretary to the Treasury, makes an unlikely Hugh Sculley. But even he could barely suppress the odd gasp of avaricious excitement as the booty was checked over

Exhibit One: The old clock that has sat around the Cabinet Office gathering dust for three centuries. Really, pounds 80,000? Well I never. And that's not all. There are 11,000 works of art buried away in Whitehall's books, not to mention regal thrones, 50 museums, 1,300 highland crofts, 1,000 answerphones (all at the DTI apparently), enough bloodstock to fill 10 stud farms, the odd Nelson's Column and the car park next to Ipswich football ground.

Total public spending is running at a shade over pounds 300bn a year. By a handy quirk of fate, the Government's assets are reckoned to be worth about the same. Just think how much more cash Gordon Brown would have to play with, and all of it perfectly legit, if we just sold off one or two bits and pieces from this remaining hoard of family silver.

There are, of course, limits on how much money Whitehall departments would be allowed to raise through sales of unwanted and underutilised assets and you have to wonder how much, if anything, a lot of it would fetch.

But the Register is a handy start at identifying privatisation candidates. More importantly, it marks the first step towards the introduction of conventional resource accounting across Whitehall from 1999 onwards. That will oblige the Government to do all those boring old things that form a part of commercial life, like producing cash flow statements and separating capital from current accounting. Any improvement in the transparency of the public accounts is obviously a good thing.

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