Mary Dejevsky: The skill is to cut costs, not jobs

The private sector has demonstrated that redeployment, shorter hours, voluntary departures and trimmed pay can help spread work around
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The Independent Online

Let me bring you the bad news, the really bad news. Unemployment in Britain could soon reach three million and more. Some 10,000 council jobs could be dispensed with in Scotland alone; and in England you could be talking a dozen times that. There could be many fewer police on the beat. There could be sharp rises in rail fares and bus fares, even as services are reduced. As for the roads, there could be eternal potholes and bridges collapsing for lack of maintenance.

And did I mention the care homes that could close; the meals on wheels that could be rationed; the respite care that could be scrapped; the primary classrooms that could be overcrowded (especially in poorer areas); the affordable housing that could well not be built; the university departments that could be shut; the scientific breakthroughs that might not happen; the feral youths who could prowl the streets because their out-of-school clubs have been abolished?

Oh yes, and Unison, the largest trade union representing employees in the public sector (not to be confused with Unite, the union in dispute with British Airways), says that the Government "won't know what hit them" if it cuts services, pay or pensions. So there could be a summer of discontent to boot, with the rubbish going uncollected and the dead unburied.

Now let me offer some better news. None of this needs to happen. These are all hypothetical scenarios. They represent threats articulated by particular vested interests designed to scare the Government into taking a minimalist approach to reducing the UK's ballooning deficit.

If you want to be nasty about it, these warnings – all voiced in the past two weeks – constitute a primitive form of intimidation. They are addressed not only to the Government, but to taxpayers such as you and me, so that we are scared into doing the lobbying of these interest groups for them. If you want to be kinder, you could describe the warnings more as begging letters – special pleading to be spared in the bloodbath the coalition Government is widely believed to be preparing in its emergency Budget.

Or you could be more relaxed about it and argue that these protests with menaces are no more than defensive tuning-up for the concert of – equally orchestrated – anguish we can expect next week. But it is a dangerous sort of tuning up, partly because it will panic the less resilient into the belief that the particular public service they depend on is for the chop, but also because it risks painting Unison and others into a corner, from which they will find it hard to emerge peacefully without losing face.

Not only does this make for a confrontational start to this Budget season, but it makes the business of ordering spending priorities – I will not descend into the language of "cuts" at this stage – more divisive and potentially more socially damaging all round than it needs to be. No one who has anything to do with public services, or some private ones for that matter, can be under any illusion that there is not much wastage in the system; that some public – ie taxpayers' – money is being spent unnecessarily. Consider how little howling has been heard from the quangos in the first crop to be culled.

You will have your own definition of unnecessary. But I recently overheard a couple of professors (from different, but equally august, universities) who almost boasted that a 5 per cent funding cut across the board could be weathered with no real damage. Consider how many police/social workers/teachers, willingly or unwillingly, are not engaged in the so-called "frontline" duties they were trained for. What do all those staff in the vast complexes that house the Home Office and other big ministries do all day?

Did you see the TV documentaries about the NHS, showing the tussle between managers and surgeons over unused operating theatres on Fridays? You may also have noticed that EU curbs on working hours are being blamed for a shortage of doctors in casualty departments out of hours. But that is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that the EU directive has exposed the dependence of casualty departments at night, weekends and holidays, on semi-trained doctors, because consultants have been allowed to work essentially office hours. Ditto, now, GPs, with the result that deputising services have to be paid for, one way or another, from the public purse. The use of expensive agency nurses – often moonlighters from other hospitals – reflects high NHS absenteeism and poor management.

There is slack in the system. To maintain otherwise is to lack awareness of reality. But it is equally lacking in awareness, and imagination, to insist that "cuts" – always "swingeing" or "savage" – will inevitably throw thousands out of work. In the past two years, the private sector has shown that redeployment, shorter hours, voluntary departures and trimmed pay can help spread work around and keep people from the dole. It can be cheaper and it is certainly more far-sighted for employers to keep people on the pay roll, but use them in a more rational way.

Especially, there should be no need for "frontline" anyone to be made redundant; there are too few of them as it is. When was the last time you saw a police officer on point duty alleviating a traffic jam? Or why, to take a more substantial example, do so many different agencies routinely assist one troubled family? Fewer social workers involved in one case might improve continuity, while making more workers available to visit more families.

There are "cuts" and "cuts". Judicious cuts might mean back-room people reassigned to the front-line: at once improving the balance sheet and the quality of those services. There could be "cuts" to the benefits bill – by recruiting to jobs that need doing (such as building and maintaining social housing). Benefits are a cost, too, and one that can entrench problems and generate more expense. There is no reason, except stultifying custom and practice, why the state's bottom line is thought to be improved only by shedding, rather than recruiting labour. It suits public service unions and Opposition politicians to scare people with their definition of "cuts". By this time next week we will know whether the coalition has understood that cost-cutting and people-cutting do not have to be the same thing.