Conservatives unveil plan to cut 'government waste'

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Indy Politics

A future Conservative government would impose a Civil Service recruitment freeze on its first day in office, Michael Howard announced yesterday.

The clampdown forms part of a drive by the Tory leader to create the room to make a firm pledge to cut taxes in the party's manifesto at the next general election.

In an attempt to head off Labour's charge that the Conservatives would cut frontline services, Mr Howard plans to identify billions of pounds worth of government "waste".

Mr Howard promised to reverse a trend that has seen the Civil Service grow by 62,000 under Labour in the past four years. "We have more than half a million civil servants in the UK - that's seven times as many people as attended last year's FA Cup Final. For every thousand people in Britain, two will be doctors, three will be police officers and nine will be civil servants," he said.

The Tory leader said that to ensure that government interferes less, ministers and senior officials must be forced to find things that their departments should no longer do. He said: "They should set fewer targets, write fewer reports, generate fewer initiatives and circulate fewer circulars."

He launched the policy at a Westminster briefing against a backdrop of 511 cardboard cut-out, bowler-hatted, faceless bureaucrats, highlighting the average weekly rise last year in the number of staff working for the Civil Service.

Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, stressed that the recruitment freeze would affect only administrators and not other people employed by the state, such as doctors, teachers and nurses. He said numbers would be reduced through natural wastage rather than compulsory redundancies.

"This is not an attack on civil servants," Mr Letwin said. "One reason for doing this is to save money. But the main reason is to change the culture in Whitehall - to shift the emphasis away from identifying what else the Government could do and towards identifying what it should not do."

Mr Letwin said the recruitment freeze would be the "default position" of a Conservative government, although it would be applied flexibly. "If permanent secretaries say they need some new blood but can find other ways of reducing staffing levels, costs and functions, we will be delighted to consider what they propose."

The shadow Chancellor said the party that won the next election would face a choice between higher taxes, a slower rate of spending growth, or breaking the Treasury's golden rule. In the "black hole" scenario, his preference would be a reduction in the rate of public spending growth.

Douglas Alexander, the Cabinet Office minister, said: "Michael Howard's record on waste is a disgrace. He was an economics minister when the Tories wasted £1.5bn on the poll tax and £4bn on Black Wednesday. Another £3.5bn went on the cost of BSE. The Tories spent more on debt interest than schools."

Mr Alexander claimed the Tories' real agenda was to cut public spending to 35 per cent of gross domestic product, which would mean reducing the number of teachers, doctors, nurses and police officers.