Leading article: A taste of cuts to come, but still no substance

The Government has yet to reveal what spending it would protect

Related Topics

If this week's pre-Budget report constitutes the main course, yesterday's speech by Gordon Brown to the Royal Society might be regarded as an appetiser. It certainly came with a juicy headline figure. The Prime Minister claimed to have identified £3bn of efficiency savings, over and above the waste-cutting measures outlined in April's budget.

The main thrust of the address was that technology can make the public services more efficient and less bureaucratic. Mr Brown spoke of requiring police forces to publish online crime maps and schools to post performance reports on the internet. He argued that if all doctors' surgeries send patients appointment reminders by text message some £600m a year could be saved by reducing missed visits.

There are indeed many potential benefits to be gained from harnessing technology in the public services. The publication of information online should, in theory, enable the public to compare relative performance and put pressure on service providers – be they schools, police forces, or hospitals – to improve. But the problem is that such technological innovations are not proven money-savers. Another eye-catching suggestion in the speech was Mr Brown's idea that overpaid public sector workers should, in future, be "named and shamed". Transparency is a wonderful thing and our public sector would certainly benefit from more of it. But it is unclear how, in itself, greater openness would bring down the bills.

The proposal to move more civil servants outside London has merit. Regional economic growth in Britain has been deeply unbalanced, with the South-East particularly favoured. The Government should be counteracting, not reinforcing, that trend. Yet the idea that creating employment outside the capital – welcome though that would be – would save substantial sums of money again seems over-optimistic.

In fairness, some of the pledges were more solid. Mr Brown promised that government spending on consultants would be cut by half. There is little to regret about that. What is the point of a public sector management that constantly out-sources its responsibilities to expensive private-sector consultants? The proposals from Mr Brown for a pay review for senior civil servants should also yield genuine savings if acted upon. And the announcement at the weekend from Alistair Darling that parts of the expensive NHS IT system will be put on hold is another encouraging sign.

Yet it is misleading for politicians – of any stripe – to imply that the present deficit can be substantially reduced through relatively painless efficiency savings. Fiscal consolidation will mean cuts not just in how the Government spends money, but in what it spends it on. This means that entire programmes will need to be delayed or abandoned.

The British economy is still in a fragile state. If state spending is cut too hastily there is a risk of plunging Britain back into recession. Yet the deficit does need to come down over the medium-term. That consolidation needs to happen in such a way that programmes that are important to the country's long-term economic development prospects are protected.

We still await details on what this government regards as its spending priorities for Britain's future. In that respect, the appetiser was something of a disappointment. The main course will need to be considerably more convincing.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own