The Sketch: Why it doesn't serve to be so civil to the Teflon eels at the Treasury

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Really, something needs to be done about these Treasury officials. They're supposed to be civil servants, impartial, treasurers of the £600bn of public spending we're hosing out these days. But I have to say, far from being apolitical guardians of the public interest, they are as twisty and slippery as their ministerial masters.

Government statistics have been debauched, and so has the Civil Service that trades in them. David Ramsden, Chief Economic Obfuscator to the Treasury, was a prime specimen.

The committee asked him a series of interesting and useful questions. Such as... Had the mandarins been involved in analysing the savings that would ensue if Trident were delayed five years, or ID cards were abandoned? (John Mann.) Are the projections in the Budget "cautious" or "optimistic" or "best guess"? (Andrew Tyrie.) And most pertinently, from Peter Viggers, what effect would rising interest rates have on our vast new debt burden?

The answer to that last question will have enormous repercussions. Imagine 10 per cent interest rates on £1.4trn of public debt.

Under Viggers' mild questioning it transpired they had left this out of the Red Book. All their assumptions are that gilt yields are going down. The Treasury will not admit publicly that they have modelled the effect of higher interest rates on our public debt. What a dereliction of the public interest!

These people ought to be in the stocks at Parliament Square.

You know that they're acting politically because we can't understand what the hell they're saying. Had they been neutral civil servants they could have answered questions in half a dozen words. But off Ramsden went "putting things in context", defending, eliding, obscuring, and repeating the political doubletalk: "We've been clear that," and "It was right that we," and defending the Government on purely political points like the level of benefits.

Jim Cousins was left with an answer that he confessed he hadn't understood and had no hope of understanding in the future.

How thoroughly debauched the Civil Service has become.

If there is a criticism of the pugnacious and irascible chair John McFall it is that he could be more pugnacious and irascible. "When you give answers, we don't want a rough draft of The Brothers Karamazov. We don't want the context. We know the context. If we need 50 cubic feet of hot air we'll ask a minister in. Just answer the question at postcard length before I get irascible on you!"

George Osborne gave a plug in Treasury questions to his big idea, an independent Office of Budget Assumptions. Yes, yes, we could have one of them. Or our Chancellors could try telling the truth. But then shadow Chancellors would have to do it too, and such virtue isn't in the Tory strategy yet.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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