Simon Carr:

The Sketch: Service cuts? You're joking – it's about 'smarter' savings

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He's got an attractive laugh, has Liam Byrne, but he used it too often. sounding like a desperate husband trying to make light of his infidelities.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury had come to talk about public spending in the fiscal crunch. How they're going to halve the deficit in four years. Except that as they're not making any cuts this year, they'll be halving the deficit in three years.

Leaving that to one side, the chairman Tony Wright, asked the central question of the new election: won't the act of taking £78bn out of public spending damage public services?

Improve them, was the minister's bold reply. Less money means better public services "in the round". That was the only qualification. "In the round", public services will be much better for being delivered for so much less money.

Dr Wright suggested the minister was being dishonest. It's simply impossible to take out such an enormous sum without reducing services. A false conclusion, said Mr Byrne – though his explanation was so sophisticated it eluded us all.

So, if health, police and education budgets are to be protected, won't some of the unprotected budgets be cut by 25 per cent? "You're into speculation, now," the minister said.

The big project wasn't so much consolidation, or efficiency gains, or productivity hikes (all of which are polite words for cuts). No, it's more about how the "smarter government" savings will be distributed. Not cutting payrolls, but distributing smart savings, possibly into the round.

Unemployment too will be lower than people think, with £10bn savings right there. Where would they be distributed? There'd be tough decisions about that. But, the chairman persisted, all those experts who'd given evidence to the committee had given an account of events "at odds with yours. Isn't that striking?"

The minister looked at the chairman and then said: "I don't think it is." Then there was a pause. Then another pause. The chairman sighed and moved on.

And amid all these gains, smarter ways, and clever cost-cutting there'll be the guarantees. Our children will have one-to-one lessons with a personal tutor, and if we have cancer we'll be seen in a week. And it is all going to cost £78bn less than when cancer appointments took months and only Etonians had personal tutors. No wonder the minister was laughing.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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