Mary Dejevsky: Wise cuts are a duty of government

A thorough audit of where taxpayers' money currently goes and where our pounds have bought the most should precede every new government's first budget
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The Independent Online

A recurrent motif of this election has been the accusation that the next government will have to make savage cuts to public spending. Never far behind has been the complaint, mostly from the media, that the parties are being dishonest about their plans. As a consequence, it is said, we will go to the polls tomorrow without the most basic facts that should inform our vote.

I wonder. Realistically, no candidate is going to go into an election, let alone one as hard-fought as this one, boasting how many programmes they will slash. And I doubt the voters ever seriously expected them to. They know full well that this is not how politics works. Even if one party had produced a balance sheet – and the Liberal Democrats made efforts in that direction – it does not take a genius to work out what happens next.

Once the next Chancellor has examined the books, the Prime Minister will call in the BBC, adopt the gravest of miens, and tell the country that the finances are worse than he had feared in his darkest dreams. He will say that he now has no choice but to return to the drawing board. Nothing will be sacred, everyone will feel the pain. That will be the cue for the real battles to begin, fought by our newly elected representatives, supposedly on our behalf.

In an ideal world, there would then be debates in Parliament about what our taxes should pay for and what the country can afford. But there won't be. The imminence of national bankruptcy will be cited as a reason for skipping the debate stage and proceeding anyway. That same sense of urgency, real or imagined, will be used to justify dispensing with an exercise that ought to precede every new government's first Budget: a thorough audit of where taxpayers' money currently goes and where in the recent past our pounds have bought the most.

Such exercises are not liked in the corridors of power: they threaten too much upset and challenge too many interests. They are treated as invitations to quibble about definitions and accounting. They may unearth buried skeletons. Paradoxically, were it not by now widely discredited, New Labour's obsession with targets and comparisons should have made such an audit simpler. Instead, it has given so-called "efficiency savings" a bad name.

Which is unfortunate, because there is real slack around. Take two quite different examples that have come to light just in the past week. Each, in its way, is an indictment of the way taxpayers' money is being spent. One is deadly serious; the other almost frivolous, but both illustrate the potential for public money to be infinitely better spent, if not actually saved – without pain or sacrifice of principle.

Last week, in her inaugural lecture at London University's Institute of Education, Professor Sonia Jackson laid bare the multiple failings of the care system. A long-standing critic of the way Britain's 60,000 "looked after children" are treated, Jackson cited figures that would shame any government, let alone one, such as New Labour, that set itself in an enlightened social tradition.

This is from the opening paragraph of her summary: "Children and young people who have been in care make up less than 1 per cent of the population, yet they account for half the inmates in young offenders' institutions and a quarter of adult prisoners... Two years after leaving care, 80 per cent of young people are unemployed; many experience homelessness. A high proportion suffer from poor physical and mental health and struggle with problems arising from misuse of alcohol and drugs."

Comparative figures for educational achievement show those in care steadily falling behind, to the point where only 14 per cent achieve five GSCEs and less than 10 per cent go on to higher education, compared with more than 40 per cent overall. Jackson notes disagreement among experts as to whether the poor outcomes reflect problems carried over from difficult backgrounds, or failures of the care system. But there seems to be no disagreement that education is a way out of deprivation and that the care system has done more to obstruct, than further, the education of children in care. All this failure costs £2bn a year. That is an exorbitant bill for such abject results. Can we not do better for that money? Really?

At the lighter end of the scale, it was revealed that David Miliband had spent £80,000 on a redesign of the Foreign Office logo – an enterprise and an expense his department vigorously defended. Hardly different to the naked eye from its predecessor, the new "brand" was described as "Empowering, Insightful, Principled, Persuasive, Strategic and Intelligent" – which, I suppose, is quite a lot of qualities for our £80k. It may also be true, as officials said, that the design will in time save money by obviating the need for embassies to design their own logos.

But how did it come about that individual embassies, and government departments, were ever free to commission their own "branding"? This is profligacy of the first order, which suggests weak leadership and a tolerance of empire- building. Today, every ministry has its own logo; the Department for Children, Schools and Families has a rainbow on its signboard that makes it look like a nursery; the Home Office, out of which a separate Justice Ministry was carved, boasts competing logos, in conflicting styles, on its various entrances. Why are government signboards and stationery not standardised? Here is a one-off saving of millions for a minimal outlay. And if the next government can resist the temptation to rename offices or create new ones, there are more savings to be had.

Beside the whole public spending bill, improving the care system and outlawing ministerial logo-pride might look marginal. But apply that sort of thinking across the board, and preserving "front-line" services might not be so hard. Efficiency, real efficiency, is part of accountable government; it should be central, whoever comes to power.

For further reading

Sonia Jackson, Education for Social Inclusion, IOE publications, University of London.